Saw shop tech: Choosing an axe to restore.

Vern Burke, SwiftWater Edge Tool Works

Skowhegan, ME

I’ve been extolling the virtues of vintage axes here on the blog as well as how to pick the right type, pattern, and size of axe for the job. I this post, I’m going to discuss how to pick a vintage axe worthy of the effort of restoring.

So, you’re walking around your local flea market, perusing the tables with an eagle eye, searching for that perfect axe. How do you avoid getting stuck with a dog? Vintage axes are probably one of the most abused tools I handle here at the shop. People leave them out in the weather, beat on the heads in a wide variety of ways never intended, and do other generally unspeakable things to them. Here’s how you tell which ones to leave on the table.

First, don’t get hung up on age. I have an early 1900s Kelly Rockaway pattern poll axe and a 1922 Sager “Chemical Axe” double bit felling axe in stock, both of which are excellent axes. Very old axes can be excellent, much more recent axes can be lousy.

If you can get an axe with a good solid handle or one that just needs to be rewedged, that’s great but don’t get too hung up on handle condition if the head is good. I find 90% of the axes that come to me here need handles replaced but the quality and condition of the heads make it more than worth doing,

The first trouble spot with the axe head is rust. Surface rust is no problem, minor pitting is no problem. Major deep pitting, especially if it weakens the eye, is a red flag to avoid the head no matter how low the price is on it.

The second trouble spot is the bit. If the edge has major damage in the way of large chips or cracking, pass it up. For laminated axes (a tool steel bit is forge welded to the softer head), if the bit shows any sign of delaminating from the head, pass it up. If the bit has been mis-sharpened out of shape, consider how much effort will be needed to get it back into shape and how much steel will be left afterwards. If you have to grind the bit short to get it back into shape, pass it up.

The next trouble spot is the eye. Walk away from any head that has a distorted, warped, or cracked eye. This type of damage is NOT repairable and creates a serious safety hazard for the axe.

Finally, for single bit poll axes, there’s the condition of the poll (the back of the head). This is THE most abused part of any axe by far, mainly due to people pounding steel splitting wedges with them. A small amount of mushrooming and distortion of the poll is fine and doesn’t require any rework. If the poll is mushroomed bad enough that overhanging metal is cracked, then the mushrooming needs to be ground off the head since it can break off and create a flying hazard. If there are chunks missing from the poll or the abuse has been bad enough to distort the eye, pass it up.

Keep these rules in mind and you won’t get stuck with an axe that’s a hazard instead of a useful tool.

Visit me at any of the following locations:

Elm Plaza, Waterville, ME (Mondays)
Tractor Supply, Skowhegan, ME (Tuesday and Wednesday)
Arundel Flea Market, Rt 1 & Log Cabin Rd, Arundel, ME (Fridays)
298 W Front St, Skowhegan, ME (all other days)

If you’re looking for a special tool, please drop me an
email and let me know and I’ll restore one just for you!

SwiftWater Edge Tool Works provides mobile sharpening services across Maine and mail in services around the world for handsaws, carbide blades, planer knives, hand planes, chain saws, knives, scissors, hair clippers, router bits, and almost any blade!


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