Choosing An Axe

By British Red

 

 

These few notes are intended to help the newcomer to picking out an axe that is suitable for their purposes. They aren’t a complete guide to axemanship or intended to be such, just more of a “bluffers guide” to selecting an axe suitable for your purpose.

Parts of the Axe

Before we get into anything involved, its probably helpful to define the terms we will use.




A: Heel of Head
B: Bit
C: Toe of Head
D: Cheek or Ramp
E: Poll
F: Neck
G: Belly
H: Shoulder
I: Toe of Haft
J: Heel of Haft
K: Eye
L: Wooden Wedge
M: Metal Wedge

Right there are several things we should consider in selecting an axe. The most important of all of these though is purpose

Purpose

Axes serve three major purposes, cutting, splitting and shaping.

Profile

Lets understand first how to differentiate between a cutting axe and a splitting axe. In effect, this is determined by the “profile” of the axe

Lets look at a cutting profile first



See how thin this is? This is to penetrate “across grain”. The thinness means that it presents the maximum force on a low surface area (think razor blade) and “severs” what it cuts across. Its great for cutting as a result. It is less good at splitting as, when cutting into a log, it will tend to slide in between the fibres of the wood with minimal interruption, This is like shaving a feather stick and is unlikely to cause a split to “run” through the log.

So what does a splitting profile look like?

See how wide the angle is? Imagine this slammed end on into a log! It has a wedge like action and forces the log apart. It expends all its energy in this way causing a deep split that forces the grain apart. It is optimized for this task though. If used to cut “across grain”, it will not penetrate deeply as it will be trying to sever far more fibres that a narrower profile “cutting” bit has to. It will therefore stop in a more shallow cut.




Bit Shape

So we understand that a wider profile helps to split, a narrower to cut. So what about a shaping axe? Well, this is more in the shape of the bit than the profile. Lets look at the bit shape of an axe that will cut or split



See how pronounced the curve of the bit is? This means that only a small part makes contact with the wood at a time and so, like a knife point, it aids wood penetration (with or across the grain)

A shaping axe bit looks like this



See how flat it is? This is to give an even cut rather than a deep cut. There are varieties on this theme. The broad axe has a completely flat bit and ramp on one (or rarely both) sides. This allows the axe to be laid on a flat section and chop out a very flat section of wood. According to the side that is flattened you get a right or left handed broad axe.

For general woods purposes, a rounded bit is more versatile.

Having considered the head shape, perhaps we should think about type of head. Here we have two main considerations – single or double bit

Single bit

The single bit axe is more common and offers some advantages. Its design is optimized to put all the torque (rotational power caused by swinging around a pivot point- the shoulder) behind the one bit it possesses. The poll is hardened in some axes (notably Wetterlings) and can therefore be used for hammering. A single bit axe can also be batoned and, when combined with hard wood wedges, even a small hatchet can split an entire hardwood tree when in the hands of a skilled user.



Double bit

A double bit axe offer different advantages. It is generally symmetrical around a centre line. This offer a balance not found in a single bit axe. Whilst it can’t be batoned. The two blades are often ground differently to offer splitting and cutting profiled offering a large degree of versatility in a single tool. When applied to a hatchet sized axe this is known as a Nessmuk grind after the famous author of that name.




Haft Length

Axes come in a bewildering variety of lengths. Clearly each length can be combined with any of the head types above, but, ignoring the shaping part, each length is generally used for a specific purpose. A few choices are shown below.

Pocket (12" 1 lb weight)

Pocket axes are often underrated. A small pocket axe (12” long) will split a short 6” log one handed and can be pressed to much harder use when battoned. The model illustrated is the “Marbles pocket safety axe”. It has the advantage of an integrated metal cover that cover the bit and also folds away into the handle. It easily fits into a coat pocket and is perfect for a light wander through the woods when you don’t want to be too encumbered.



If you doubt what can be achieved with a small hatchet, checkout this picture of a Vaughan mini hatchet punching above its weight!



(Picture courtesy of master axeman Old Jimbo)


Hatchet (18" 1 1/2 lb)

Possibly the most versatile and best loved all round bushcraft axe. The best length for one handed use. The model illustrated is the Wetterlings Large Hunters axe, but I would also consider a Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe or Roselli Large All-round in this category (the Roselli has a more splitting oriented profile)




Limbing (24" 2lb)

A limbing axe evolved for a specific purpose – standing on one side of a tree trunk and cutting the limbs for the other. It is usually a cutting profiled axe. The unusual (not quite one handed, not quite two) length makes for a very versatile compromise axe for general use – light enough for one handed use – long enough for two handed




Felling / working (36" 3 - 4 lb)

This of course is the “full size axe”. My personal favourite in this area is a double bit working axe. Beautifully balanced, with a broader profiled bit for working near the ground on limbs and where the bit might be damaged and a narrower one for power of cut.



That said, there is certainly a place for the every day felling axe. This one is a simple, grp handled 3lb felling axe that I’m happy to lend, use and do tough tasks with.




Maul / splitting ( up to 8lb 40")

This of course is the heavy artillery of the axe world! A huge pointed sledge hammer designed to split wood rounds and never used for cutting. A specialized tool that is devastatingly effective when used with wedges and wood grenades (we can cover that separately if anyone is interested)







Haft materials
A simple choice here – wood, metal or grp. There are advantages to each

Wood.

Simple, acts well as a shock absorber and can be replaced if damaged. More easily damaged than the other two materials though

GRP
Glass reinforced plastic. More robust than wood although subject to damage by chemicals if left in sheds etc. As light as wood but cannot be replaced

Metal.
Too heavy for a large axe but popular is some hatchets (especially Estwing). Heavy for the size and cannot be replaced if bent (possible but unlikely). Avoid hollow metal hafts found on cheap axes and go for a solid bar if this is your preference.[/size]

Selecting an axe

Size is important!

There is much talked about axe selection that is nonsense. One piece of advice I do like for an all round camping axe is to match the axe to your arm. Grasp the head of the axe, bit forward and try to tuck the axe into your armpit. The toe of the haft should sit comfortably inside your armpit. This particular technique in an adult male will usually result in a limbing axe selection – don’t be worried to select something smaller if that is your taste and need.


Head alignment

The alignment of the head with the haft will do more than anything to improve cutting efficiency. This varies even with the same model in the best make. Ask to see the whole stock before you buy. Hold the head in your hand and sight down the bit. It should perfectly align along the haft and point to the toe of the haft…like this



Balance

Rest the axe across your hand with the shoulder to the neck hanging just off your finger and thumb. The axe should balance perfectly level from the head to the haft toe being level. Neither the poll nor the bit should touch your hand. An axe with this sort of balance is a joy to use



Haft grain

A could quality haft should have the grain running straight from the haft toe to the neck and the haft shoulder to the haft heel. A small “wander” is okay, trees are rarely straight but a diagonal grain should be avoided as the haft is likely to split





I hope this is useful – far be it from me to tell anyone what axe to buy – this write up was more intended to help illustrate how to make a choice for those that haven’t spent quite so much time playing with toys as I have.

 

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