One of the oldest tools known to humankind, the axe has been in use since the Stone Age.
They have changed and evolved over the years, every successive generation of axe makers and wielders improving on what came before. Now, at least in the forestry industry, axes have been replaced almost entirely by chainsaws and other mechanized tools. But for many outdoor enthusiasts, hatchets and axes are still in high demand. Many people still use axes for a variety of jobs on their property – firefighters, homeowners who prefer to chop their firewood or kindling by hand, and even contestants in lumberjack competitions.
The History of the Axe
The axe has come a long way from its humble beginnings. The earliest, hand-held axes have been dated to 1.6 million years ago; they were little more than roughly chipped pear-shaped stones that would have been used for a variety of tasks from digging up food to butchering animals.
Much later, axes would be given wooden handles. The earliest were generally made of flint, slate or greenstone and were lashed to their handle with rough leather strapping. The designs improved throughout the Stone Age and those created after the last Ice Age resemble the modern axe quite a bit. Later stone axes were crafted with a hole so that the shaft could pass through the axe head.
Beginning in the Bronze Age, roughly 5,000 years ago, stone tools were replaced with ones made of cast bronze. These were either socketed – with the handle fixed into a socket at the butt end of the axe head – or had shaft holes. As the art of metalworking improved, so did the axe, becoming larger, stronger, and more durable. In addition to tools for butchering, farming and forestry, axes were also used in battle throughout the Late Stone Age and into the Bronze Age and Medieval Era.
The Modern Axe
While many early examples of axes were used a religious or status symbols, the modern axe is definitely a working tool and specialized versions were created for different tasks.
Early Europeans settlers in the Americans impressed the Native inhabitants, who still used stone tools, with their axes made of metal. Many Europeans wore small steel axes at their belts for trading with the indigenous peoples; these small axes came to be known as tomahawks.
Around the same time, shepherds and miners used specially designed axes; the ice pick, a small axe used for cutting steps into icy slopes was used by shepherds in the Alps.
With the advent of industrialism, axes stopped being hand-made at small forges and were instead manufactured on a grand scale – all to keep up with the demand on the forestry industry.
The Felling Axe
What would come to be known as the American axe was actually introduced to the New World by settlers from England, France, and Spain. The 17th-century model was crafted of two pieces of iron that were hammer welded down the center of the poll surface. American blacksmiths modified the design, forging the poll side longer to make a lap weld giving more welding surface and producing a better-balanced axe with more weight behind the handle.
The North American also discovered that grinding down the blade produced an axe with better balance and geometry that wobbled less during the swing. And so, as of the late 18th century, American axes were made with shorter and wider blades, becoming almost square.
Qualities of the Best Axes
Axes still come in many forms, each with its specialised uses, but are usually comprised of the axe head and the handle, or helve. 21st-century axes generally have steel heads and wooden handles – hickory is popular in North America and ash in Europe and Asia – though some have plastic or fibreglass handles.
A cutting axe typically has a shallow wedge angle and a splitting axe has a deeper angle, so for felling trees, the ideal blade will be made of high-carbon steel and have a shallow angle.
Single-Bit vs Double-Bit
Some users prefer a single-bit axe – the traditional style with a single honed edge and weighted poll – while others swear by the double-bitted axe. A double-bitted axe offers a more balanced swing and more accuracy as both ends of the head are of equal length and weight, though it doesn’t cut as quickly as the single-bitted axe.
The double-bitted axe can also be customised for various tasks such as filing one side for cutting hard woods and the other for cutting hard wood or even limbing or cutting roots.
While a heavier axe head provides more swing force, experts recommend starting with a 3-lb head and using no more than a 5-lb axe head. Lighter heads allow for a more accurate swing but an experienced chopper can achieve good speed and accuracy with a heavier head.
The standard handle length for a felling axe is 36” (measured from the top edge of the axe to the knob at the bottom of the handle). This is probably too long for the many users – even a 6’-tall chopper should require no more than a 31” handle. Unless you plan on bucking or splitting firewood, even the 28”-long handle of the “boy’s axe” is ideal for the average user. For more info on shorter handles axes for hunting and bushcraft see this article.
Many axes found at big-box hardware stores have plastic handles. It’s best to choose an axe with a wooden handle, preferably hickory or ash. The wood grain should be parallel to the bit of the axe as a handle with a perpendicular grain may be weaker and snap on contact. Handles with many narrow and tight growth rings are also much stronger than those with only a few broadly-spaced rings.
Curve and Alignment
A double-bitted axe will always have a straight handle; however, a curved handle is preferred for use with a single-bitted axe as the swing is more ergonomic and natural.
You should also consider how well the axe head was mounted to the handle. With the proper alignment, when the axe is placed bit-down on a flat surface, both the middle of the bit and the end of the handle should be the only things touching the surface. When viewed from the top of the axe, the bit should be at the centre of the knob at the bottom of the handle.
There is a lot to consider when choosing a felling axe – though many will come down to your personal preference, if you invest in a high-quality tool, it will last a lifetime!