Welcome... and Warning:
Because I seem to have “an ax to grind” with many folks (some fellow ax nuts, some nuts in other ways), perhaps I ought to apologize beforehand for any ego-harm some of my comments (plus unintended prejudices and bias) in the discussions below may cause.
Rest assured, however, that my intent here is to elevate the potential usefulness of an ax – one of the tools which, as the future unfolds, I believe we will be glad that we know how to apply seriously and efficiently.
At the same time I wholeheartedly welcome constructive criticism, of course.

May 22, 2011

Notes on Ax Head Geometry -- part 2 of the article "In Search of an Ax for 'The World Made by Hand'"

Left photo: 
Keen Kutter with high-centerline "convex-sided" geometry. 

Right photo: 
Gransfors Bruks with "flat-sided" geometry.

photos courtesy of  killa_concept

After  several thousand years of ax-making and use, the principles of most efficient shape for each purpose-specific ax could have been settled at some point, and the various manufacturers would now be making, for instance, felling axes which resemble that basic “ideal”. 

There is, however, nothing approaching consensus on this issue -- axes made for presumably the same task come with faces that are long and short, wide and narrow, plus they all can be variously thick. Each design has roots in the cultural tradition of some region of the world, where for a long time it satisfied the local population. (Though in many instances their users never tried any other principally different design – sometimes for generations.)

Imagine that something of an international ax-testing symposium was held where experienced regional representatives were given an opportunity to work (for extended periods, not a few swings) with samples of every tradition. This would take many days. In the evenings the representatives would be supplied with their favoured drinks (to help them transcend the typical bias regarding their traditional “best”) and discuss the revelations taking place during the days of ax-work. Finally a council would be held to decide which axes should be taken aboard “the next Ark”, for the children of our children to sustain their livelihood by.

If such an event indeed took place, I believe that many time-honoured designs – in both heads and handles – would hit the dustbin of history. Yes, I’m dreaming; humanity has yet to learn to function as an extended Family, and that imaginary event is unlikely to happen anytime soon...

Instead, as the cruel blade of corporate capitalism plows the globe, many  hand-tool designs (some well worth keeping) have already hit the dust... and more are waiting under the guillotine. What remains are not necessarily only the best, selected with wisdom, but those which for a variety of reasons out-competed the rest. Tradition no doubt plays some role, but all too often the “winners” are put in place as the result of manipulative market forces rather than a fair trial in the field. Economy of production, low wholesale price, and financial profit to the dealers (not makers) comprise the decisive bottom line...

Yet we still have a selection worthy of reconsidering, and a few slim chances of “saving” the best of those from disappearing. There may even be a chance to resurrect some of the old relics. For instance, The Council Tool company – one of the last remaining ax-makers in America -- has recently embarked on a venture to produce “world-class premium axes” and now offers a 4 lb American felling ax in that line. (Although -- on behalf of all those 21st century citizens for whom the lumberjack’s classic of the past may be too much to swing -- I hope they will add some lighter weight equivalent.)

 Now to the intended topic: In the context of this discussion, “geometry” may be just a fancy substitute term designating the overall FORM, or SHAPE (of the head of an ax). Perhaps I should have chosen a different title, but I do want to address how the angles created during the “birth” of an ax affect its function – and geometry is about angles.

An ax is a tool with a rather more complex geometry than meets the uninitiated eye, where curved lines of different angles blend into each other. Those angles are not easily measured, and in practice they rarely were...

In fairness to the multitude of past and present ax makers, I wish to emphasize at the start that I appreciate all axes. The ones I evaluate critically are simply those I like less than some others – and I will attempt to substantiate my prejudices. It may also seem that this essay is at once an “American Ax Promo” as well as “an attack” on the Gransfors products, but that is not quite how I intend it to come across. I selected the Gransfors as the reference “to pick on” because among the contemporary quality axes they are so well-known. Besides, many of their enthusiasts can (and no doubt will) come to the rescue of their image.

Selecting tools on the basis of the maker’s reputation has become a less dependable guide than it used to be. In many instances, the quality of the same brands has gone through changes, often not for the better. A new Collins ax – to use an example of a well-known old name still on the market today – is a far cry from one made 50 years ago. This is not to say that all new tools are less good than they once were; advancements in metallurgy have partially off-set the universal “need for economizing”. Good axes are still being made, while truly good pitchforks, for instance, are completely extinct...

Considering all of this, I prefer many tools, including axes, that were made decades ago -- even if I can only find them in used condition. Because such purchases usually take place at flea markets, auctions, etc., I have an opportunity to inspect the design of the tool in question. (Steel quality and edge retention can also be tested, but this article focuses on design.)

The factors that influence the outcome of my initial (visual) judgment of an ax are:

 (a)  the size/weight of the face relative to the size of the poll -- which determines the potential BALANCE of an ax

(b)  the outline of the face when viewed from the side -- which affects the VERSATILITY, or conversely, the specialization of a model

(c)  the thickness profile of its fore-section -- which also affects the VERSATILITY (discussed below)

The balance issue appears to have received plenty of attention on the ax forums, though (in the sections that I managed to read) I have not yet found a comprehensive explanation of the pertinent points such that newcomers on the ax-scene would likely grasp the principles easily and quickly. There are plenty of poorly balanced axes on the market -- some of them otherwise very well made, others less so -- which people keep purchasing on the basis of “reputation”, because they don’t have anything else of substance to go by.

Among the well-known old trademarks readily available in North America, the larger felling models from Ox-Head (with head weights over 2 lbs) are clearly exemplars of unbalanced axes. So is (or was?) the Hudson Bay pattern – at least when it was still made in USA. The version now outsourced (by Snow & Neally) appears in catalogues to have a larger poll, which might be a compensation -- as far as balance alone is concerned. (However -- in line with the pattern’s tradition -- the face remains too long... well, too long for my liking.) The more recent creation by American Tomahawk (Cold Steel) -- the China-made “Trail Boss” -- is another example of poorly balanced design, one based more on “coolness” than practicality. It may do for some re-enactments games... though I would reject it for both a trail or homestead because it fails on all three counts (a, b, c) listed above.

The sideways profile has been discussed on the ax forums, albeit sparingly. It presents a less straightforward “mixture of concepts”, and as such lends itself to more room in terms of personal likes or dislikes. What I mean is that it's hard to imagine anyone with actual preference for a decidedly unbalanced ax head. But a face which is very narrow, or conversely, one that is extremely wide can rightly be chosen as best for a specific task.

To avoid getting into muddy waters (by trying to suggest some “ideal” shape of the head), let me just say that I endorse the notions on this issue presented by Dudley Cook in his Ax Book.

The aspect of ax geometry that, to my knowledge, has remained mostly un-discussed is the thickness profile of the fore-section -- which is why the following segment focuses on it.

As previously stated, an ax is a tool with a rather more complex geometry than meets the uninitiated eye, where curved lines of different angles blend into each other. Those angles are not easily measured, and in practice they rarely were. (Ask an old-timer what angle he sharpened his ax – and he will likely give you a blank stare. Put the same question to one of the fussy people among the contemporary tool users -- who will know the exact bevel angles of his chisels -- and he will probably bumble for an answer. Don’t blame him, though, it's not an easy thing to explain.)

However, all ax-makers no doubt agree that if an ax is to effectively penetrate into the material to be cut, its wedge-like profile should not be excessively thick. Yet to define “excessive” and how this general principle translates into functionality of axes is somewhat more complicated, because other factors (such as the tool’s minimum required strength, its necessary wedging action, etc.) enter the equation...

Representing the variations of models still produced today, there seem to be two (rather contradictory) schools of thought regarding both the overall thickness of an ax’s working end, and exactly how it should be shaped initially -- under the hammer in the factory.

The European tradition took the notion of “the thinner [the face] the better” to the extreme. Thus, the Lee Valley Tools catalogue description for the 2½ lb German-made Ox-Head can state that “two inches back of the face the blade is still only ¼ inch thick... (which) gives excellent penetration by minimizing wedging action”. Hmm... in theory Leonard Lee (the author of that well-meant ad) was correct. But did the Americans and the Japanese have some other objectives in mind? Or did they not dare make this tool typically subjected to such stress quite as thin? In any event, the American and Japanese ax faces are notably thicker, in many instances twice as thick.

To categorically state that if one of these schools of thought is right, the other must be wrong, would be silly. However, I am also not willing to simply swallow the worn maxim of “different strokes for different folks”, and leave it at that.

A little background related to the theme at hand :

Between 1975 and 1977 – as a greenhorn in the field -- I bought five new axes. Three of them were brands made in Sweden (the small “Sandvik” previously discussed was one of them), and two were the “Iltis/Ox-Head” brand from Germany. I was not looking specifically for imports; these were simply the axes then readily available in Eastern Canada’s stores. My objective was to have a somewhat diverse group of head weights and handle lengths which those five examples provided. What I did not yet know was that such level of diversity was only a small beginning of my (still ongoing) ax-related education...

Sometime thereafter I learned that a rather large variety of axes was still easily found at local garage sales, flea-markets and antique stores, sometimes at pitifully low prices ($2 to $20). Thus followed three decades of mostly used additions, many of them beaten-up and rusty, with an occasional one in very good condition. Beside some Banko/Sater and several more Ox-Heads, the bulk of them were made in USA or Canada. I brought a few more back from Europe, both used and new.

About two years ago, we bought the Wetterlings “Camp/Small Forest Ax”, and a year later their “Large Forest Ax” (2 lb head on 26 inch handle). It was out of curiosity rather than a need for still more axes. You see, while every ax-nut I know has a Gransfors (or several of them), nobody around these parts had a Wetterlings – another “hand-forged" Swedish product, but at half the price (back then) -- for me to look at. Meanwhile, more old relics continue finding their way into our hands, as gifts from generous friends or as irresistible bargains stumbled upon here and there...

Oddly enough, there still is not a Gransfors Bruks product among the now fairly sizable heap... Yet, for perhaps 30 years -- during which time they steadily grew in popularity -- I knew of these Swedish axes, initially through the catalogue of the Smith & Hawkens company (which may have introduced them to North America). Eventually Lee Valley Tools (which probably sold more of them to date than any other retailer on this continent) added them to their product line and, as an old customer, I have since read their up-beat description many times.

Considering how partial I am to anything “hand-made”, the Gransfors axes could win my heart just with their “story of origin”... as they probably did for thousands of owners worldwide. But by the time I first held one (belonging to a friend) in my hands to closely inspect its head geometry, I was already convinced that the profile principles of North American axes were very sound... and they were noticeably different from the Gransfors.

Quite likely, if I found a used Gransfors for the price that good quality old axes typically bring on the street, I’d be tempted to get it just the same. But to spend the required chunk of cash on a new Gransfors is not for me... Nor would I advise it to an ax-less friend who has no extra money to pay for a famous name, or who needs an ax which is somewhat multi-purpose. What appear to be the most popular of the Gransfors models – the two versions of “forest” ax -- are both, in my view, less versatile in application than other less known and less costly alternatives, including some new axes and many of the remaining relics from the heyday of the North American ax industry.

Before explaining what I mean by “less versatile”, it may be helpful to briefly review how the first axes brought from Europe gradually evolved into this continent’s prevalent design. The two principle features that istinguish the contemporary North American ax from the initial imports are the increase in the weight of the poll and the decrease in the length of the bit. This has been discussed by numerous authors and documented in drawings and photographs of museum collections. But there is an additional feature or “touch”, actually two touches, which I never found specifically mentioned in writing. The first is the "high-centerline" convex-ness of the face in the to-and-fro direction (meaning parallel to the edge direction, or perpendicular to the eye-to-bit direction). I see this feature in every single specimen of old North American felling/all-purpose ax head that we’ve collected. The Swedish-made axes sold on this continent in the past also had this feature, and some (the Wetterlings, Husqvarna, Agdor, and perhaps others) still do.

The second touch is the relative thickness of the face between the edge and the eye, which, in a way, makes the "high centerline" convex-ness I’m talking about possible, or let’s just say “realistically useful”. An alternative way to put this: if the “mid-blade hollow” of an ax is as thin as it is on the regular Ox-Head or the Gransfors “Forest” models, shaping it so as to incorporate the "high centerline" convex-ness may be a bit futile, because such an ax will remain less efficient for splitting much of anything, nor excel at serious felling -- the tasks the North American everyman’s ax versions were, after decades of changes/evolution, eventually designed for.

In any event, it appears that while most of Europe, including the UK and perhaps parts of Scandinavia, stubbornly adhered to the somewhat medieval tradition in ax design, at least some Swedish companies were more creative. (I speculate that they may have been influenced by the developments in American ax design, because for more than a century some North American companies sub-contracted to have a portion of their axes made to their specifications in Sweden.)

Well, the Gransfors Bruks axes seem to have never “graduated” or departed from the initial European tradition, or they later broke away from what I think of (perhaps wrongly) as the “Swedish/American style” regarding the face geometry, and thereby lost my full endorsement.

This is not to imply that Gransfors axes are “bad” -- and to prevent an attack by an army of their sharp-edged owners, I hasten to state a positive thing or two about this widely beloved baby:

Regarding the most obvious of the fundamental design features, the regular product line from Gransfors is better than anything I have seen (which, admittedly, is but a fraction of the total) made in continental Europe or the British Isles. Namely -- in relation to the fore-section’s weight -- the poll is more or less of adequate size, and the distance from center of eye to the bit  is about “the right length” (meaning not excessively long). The company is obviously using better steel than is commonly chosen for much of the global ax production these days, or else they would not dare to heat treat their edges to such high RC hardness. (Depending on circumstances, however, an excessively hard edge can be both blessing or a curse...but more on this in a future article.)

If only there was more of that good material in a certain area of its face, I’d think of the Gransfors “Large Forest” model as a fine option for extended “walkabouts”. But the material is not there, and the face is flat – a duo of features typically found together. Consequently, if I wanted an “all purpose” light ax, I would choose another one instead.

The photos below are an attempt to show the difference between the two schools of thought on head geometry:

In group “A” (above) are two old American felling axes, along with the very model of Plumb’s Scout hatchet that Peter McLaren supposedly threw 42 feet to split a woodchip, plus our little Sandvik.  Now, if a straight edge is laid across the fore-section of their heads (parallel to the ax’s edge) it will be noted that the center is higher than the top and bottom of the face. In some models the difference is very substantial, in others less so, but it is always there.

Group “B” are European axes -- Rinaldi from Italy, Ox-Head from Germany and the Gransfors forest ax. They all lack the “high centerline” feature. (This specific example from Gransfors actually has a slight hollow on one side of its face...)

“So what?”, some of you may now ask; “Is this a big deal?” To me it is a big deal; just exactly how big depends on the intended use for the ax in question...

In the discussion below I will refer to the two head styles as “flat-sided” and “convex-sided” (terms I just invented). A flat-sided ax is fine for limbing small to mid-sized limbs, cutting saplings the size severed in about one to three strokes, for dressing timber (i.e. carpentry work), and making kindling out of small dimension round stock or scraps of boards. In other words, for all tasks where the ax is not sunk so deep into material that will then exert significant side-pressure upon its face.

For felling and bucking larger than, say, 4” diameter trees, and for serious splitting of firewood, a flat-sided ax is, in my view, inferior to one which is convex-sided. (Assuming, of course, other parameters like head weight, overall thickness and width of face, as well as state of sharpness being equal.)

Why is this so? Well, a suitable chopping ax should not only sink into wood with relative ease, but also release itself from the cut sort of “automatically”. By this I mean that just a slight tug will bring it back to starting position without disturbing the “chi” of chopping. (I am not talking of splitting right now, though the principle is the same). The “high centerline" convex-ness of a fuller-faced ax helps in this regard because the wood has less surface to “grab onto/squeeze/hold” than if the sunk portion of the ax face is flat.

I noticed this years ago (and before I read much ax-related “how to”) when I first began using the double-bitted Ox-Head to fell green poplar trees. In spite of a very positive initial expectation for this famous “ringing” ax, I eventually concluded that a plain old American model was easier to use. In any event, I could cut more wood in a mornings-worth of chopping with the latter, regardless of whether it was a Plumb, Collins, Walters, Campbell, etc., or for that matter the Swedish axes made for the North American market in the past. The Wetterlings would fit into that category as well, because its (“full”) face is convex-sided. I might add that our impressive-looking Ox-Head double-bit has been collecting dust for many years...

That said, for the kind of weekend adventures during which no sizable trees need to be cut nor volumes of firewood split (in order to keep your butt adequately warm on a relatively cold night without the aid of state-of-the-art camping gear), the Gransfors “forest” model is a fine enough ax. However, if my livelihood in a northern climate was dependent on only one ax, I would give decided preference to a Wetterlings (of appropriate head weight) or any of the older North American models. I emphasize “older” because at some point in the insidious phenomena of globalization, many once-reputable ax manufacturers (Collins, Snow & Neally, etc.) transformed themselves into mere distributors and began to out-source their ax production to Mexico, Brazil or somewhere in the “East”.

It has been a gradual process, and it would take a committed, knowledgeable detective to ferret out the pertinent information as to when each make/brand underwent what changes, and how much of what had previously earned them the deserved reputation still remains. If, as the result of this investigation, a comprehensive directory was made readily available to aspiring ax-users, we’d be a needed step further along the path of being adequately informed.

As it is – and it bears repeating -- choices are often based on the assumption that the store owners have (as they commonly claim) customers’ satisfaction in mind, or (in case of mail-order purchases) on catalogue descriptions alone. Those assumptions are sometimes wrong -- many store clerks haven’t a clue about the axes they sell, nor do many of those writing catalogues -- and the unsuspecting buyers frequently end up with less than they hoped for. In addition they may not come to realize it for years...

Steel quality aside for now, many of the contemporary reproductions (still sporting labels with the famous old names) no longer have the efficient shape of a classic American ax. Many now have what I call “flat faces”, and make neither good wood-splitting nor tree-felling tools. What on  this continent was once referred to as a "swamping ax” could normally be used for a whole range of jobs with appreciably better results. I believe that some version of it is the tool to be acquired by a serious homesteader as his/her first or only ax.

Provided a new owner understands the principles of ax-head shaping, many of the worn old leftovers can be re-conditioned and most of the readily available “utility” versions somewhat improved. In both case it involves a considerable amount of hand filing or careful electric grinding. Unfortunately, the otherwise finely-forged Gransfors “forest ax”, or for that matter the “felling” models of Ox-Head do not provide that opportunity, because (as already mentioned) they are missing material in certain critical places.

Paradoxically, we may be witnessing an example where the attainment of one goal seems to have brought about a shortcoming of another. You see, it is the trademark of skillful workmanship to forge an ax very thin and yet strong enough to withstand years of repeated beating. In this respect the European ax makers have done very well indeed; in relation to their surface area the faces are often extremely thin. At least some of them are also remarkably tough. (See the photos below as an example.)

When I found this ax head (above) in a used tool shop many years ago, I bought it for $2 as a kind of souvenir, and with the notion that one day I’ll learn how to reshape and then re-temper axes in my forge...

I have seen many examples of abuse, but this one is unique. Namely, an average ax of good quality -- if that thin in the face -- would likely break before it bent this much. There was no sign that it may have gone through a fire (like a burning building). Its mangled edge was somewhat mushroomed over most of its length ( I had back then filed away the sideways-protruding metal), and there were couple of small chips but  no cracks.

Interestingly, the poll showed hardly any signs of being beaten upon with anything harder than it (i.e. a sledge hammer). I suspect that this ax may have been used to chop ice on a road and driven (frantically, or stupidly) against rocks or concrete.

In any case, if I didn’t know its maker I’d think that it was some cheaply-made and uncommonly soft version of an ax. But we’ve used the Ox-Heads enough to know first hand that metallurgically speaking they are first class axes, neither soft nor exceedingly hard. (I never read how hard exactly, but guess them to be approximately 50- 52 RC.) So if anything, this bent-up ax head can rightly be considered a piece of advertising for the Ox-Head company.

But the goal of wood chopping is the least energy expended for the volume of wood in one’s firebox. Wood begins its journey into that box as a standing tree which must first be felled. Here the extremely thin cheeks just “don’t cut the cake”. Well, for cutting a cake they would be OK; in green wood they stick, and they also do not “throw a chip” as well as a “cheekier” ax can do it. Same goes for cutting sizable limbs or bucking the trunk into pieces. To split the billets into stove-sized pieces is, of course, a job for an even cheekier ax . If,
however, a splitting ax is not owned, then an old ax made in Canada or USA should be up to the task -- especially if the user learns how to not drive the ax straight through the block, but instead give it a sideways twist just as it enters the wood...

To sum up the above thin-versus-thick discussion -- for many of the tasks expected of an average ax, an extremely thin face may be a case of “too much of a good thing”.

Interestingly, the Champion model from Ox-Head (currently sold in the USA) is a radical departure from their traditional felling and general purpose models. I haven’t seen it in real life, but from the photo it appears that (although the poll remains starving/crying for more heft) this famous company finally borrowed a page from an old American ax-makers’ guide on head geometry...

The relatively recent "American Felling Axe” (3 lb) model from Gransfors may also be a move in that direction. (Again, I have so far only seen it in the two-dimensional electronic form.) If this indeed is the case, that ax as delivered to a new customer can probably be thought of as the old “swamping” version, fit more or less for some splitting as well as felling, limbing etc.  Whichever of these tasks the owner has more use for, he/she can, by means of a good file, shape-shift the ax head in either direction.

To be continued... some day, perhaps.


  1. Great article and a great, balanced analysis. My only criticism would be too lay off the parenthesis a bit... if possible.

  2. LAWRENCEMay 24, 2011

    Peter,your right on the mark about high centre lines.A flat face is not much value when serious chopping and felling is to be done and will stick all day long.A high centre line just forward of the middle of the face really helps move the chips and release the axe . LAWRENCE

  3. Thanks once again for helping me to understand one of my most important tools on the homestead.

    Do you have any plans to post to your other blog? The blogname alone makes it sound interesting and useful.

    I'm sitting here on a Saturday afternoon/evening reading scytheconnection articles as I get ready for my first hay-making attempt, thanks once more for offering a helping hand to us newcomers...

  4. I have just discovere your blog and am now following. Best and most informative of all the blogs I am following.

  5. Mr Vido is THE scythe person of the Americas (at least). His writing on axes is no less valuable. His consideration of peak oil is sound. Thank you Mr Vido!

    Please write more on axes, scythes, etc!

  6. Great article. Thoroughly enjoyed the in-depth treatment of this.

  7. Very informative, I love going to bed a little bit more learned than when I woke up! I've recently become a student of the edge and am happy to have found others like yourself lighting the way. To that end, I'm refining my wood splitting tools. I've been using a crapy, walmart True Temper 8lb maul to giter done. I ground the bit for a better (I think) edge profile and it works okay, but still by no means easy on tough Eucalyptus. The steel's not great though and often rolls under the stress. Just recently I got a Stihl splitting ax to experiment with and two vintage heads on ebay, Keen Kutter and Plumb (which I still need to haft). So what 8lb maul (and/or ax) would you recommend for splitting?

    1. A response to your question is given in the
      1/30/12 post titled "Splitting Mauls".

  8. Hi Peter, Thanks for that. I just bought at auction two heads, a True Test (USA) and a Sandvik 4lb. I was trying to learn why they have such a different shape.. and now I know.

    The Kelly True Tests are a common old axe here in NZ and are often Canadian made "Dandenong" model which I presume relates to Australia. The European axes are much less common until recently when the high price models started appearing as an alternative to the Chinese versions which are so cheap.
    I agree with your sub theme of homesteading/survival and the axe as a vital tool. Which is why I collect old axe heads whenever I see them. I figure I can always make a handle.. but I will never be able to make an axe with the quality steel found in the old Kellys and Plumbs.

  9. What! th' vidos have a blog? you guys better watch out or you'll find yourselves in th' middle of a super highway wonderin where that dirt road went.
    But seriously, you continue to inspire me... ~rico

  10. Thank you for your blog posts.
    I do still have one burning question though. I've come across many people online commenting that the Fiskars splitting axes (~4lb head weight for the x25,x27, though the SS model is heavier) are far superior to other splitting tools due to being much lighter and yet with the splitting power of an 8lb maul.
    If you have had the opportunity to use and examine a Fiscars splitting axe (x25, x27 or SS/SuperSplitter models), then my question for you is what features of it's head geometry or overall design give it its' reputably superior splitting power?
    I haven't yet found one locally in my country to examine or use yet, but from pictures I've seen, it doesn't seem to use a convex head, which based on your article would surprise me given it's reputation among many people as the superior splitting tool of our time. It does have a non-stick coating of some kind, and perhaps that substitutes.

  11. Does anyone know of any name brands sold today that resemble the old axes for geometry? It would be nice to find a modern axe that performs like the old ones do.

    1. plenty of old ones are still out there, many servicable with a little sharpening and maybe a new handle

    2. 'fraid there are a million shapes in axe history, in profile and in cross section.

  12. AnonymousJune 08, 2013

    Over 30 years ago, I left the ranch and all the tools of the ranch, including two long-handled axes I'd used for hundreds of hours. One was a nice, single bitted felling axe and the other was a very nice double-bitted axe that was very difficult to sharpen. What you say about fore-aft convex shape of the blade is very important for "throwing" chips and for splitting especially hard wood. That concentration of wedging force above the centerline of the bit makes a very, very big difference. Thanks for your informed article.

  13. Hi, I have seen two posts about Fiskers. I think before you buy try them out. I made a bit of a mistake getting one. X27. First of all I use Wetterlings from the 70's and needed a splitting axe in a rush as I had wood coming in from all over the place. Being a bit of a purist I had a bit of reservation about getting one. First of all I use the pendulum swing method of using an axe to split wood or chop into large trunks and consider my aim as accurate. With the Fiskers it is all over the place. New axe keep trying 3 months on still no luck. The axe wobbles on its way down. so side glance over/under shot are very common due to its small cutting face. So when you are at full power and you get a glance shot and the axe goes anyplace at very high speed. The adds on You Tube always show very large rounds of wood so you cannot miss. The only good thing I can say about this axe is that the head will not come off and the orange end has a rubberised coating and a hook on it. So when I saw Ashley splitting (with a twist) with an old axe I got the Wetterlings 4.5 pound felling axe out. My hits are spot on at speed and has an all round better feel. So I think the Fiskers maybe ok for some jobs but there is no substitute for hickory and a good feeling axe. Thanks for this blog site have enjoyed the read and information and please keep it up. Regards Duncan U.K.

    1. I disliked the fiskars I tried. Very forward balance and awkward feeling.

  14. AnonymousMay 14, 2014

    Very interesting research. I will say that my Gransfors axes are not flat, they are convex.

    I think where this research falls short is that you did not once mention the difference between softwood and hardwood felling, perhaps the most significant difference between degrees of convex axes. The heavily convex edge is certainly preferred for hardwoods, as we see in the Keen Kutter, which comes from a Missouri-based forge.

    This is a significant consideration, how many American axes are sharply convex due to the prevalence of hardwood in their region? Certainly the Scandinavian axes are developed primarily for softwood use, and it makes sense for anyone living in Boreal forest regions to prefer a less convex face. One can be presumed to be cutting more softwood. I suspect if you cut more hardwood then you would prefer the southern US axes.

    Of note as well is not the degree of convex necessarily but its position and balance. A convex face is not so good if it is in the centre, it should be at the two-thirds mark. Kreps sums this up well in Woodcraft:

    "One of these rules, and the most important, is to have the blade or bit thinnest on the "inside corner," which is the end of the blade nearest to the user. The hasty conclusion would be that if this corner were thinnest, the opposite side of the blade should be thickest. This is wrong. The thickest part of the blade should be two-thirds of the way across from the inside corner..."

    Given this I would say the Gransfors axes I have are correct (the Gransfors you have pictured is likely concave slightly because the forest axe is a limbing axe, not a general purpose axe), as are the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick axes I have, a cruiser and felling axe.

    But this is a very good writing nonetheless. It is a tradeoff dependent on the type of wood you will be cutting most. I suspect the Hultafors general purpose axe is the best all-around axe for boreal and Acadian forests. That will be my next axe.

    1. First of all, the current Gransfors offerings are not traditional Swedish designs-- they are based off of Maine made axes from the golden era of manufacturing in that state. They are a "bit" changed if you'll pardon the pun-- if they make them the same way they wouldn't have sex appeal with the arm chair axeperts. Almost nonexistent mid blame hollow, and a short, wedge shape bit is a "splitting axe" according to most peoples criteria. Gransfors elongated the bit to some extent, added a lot of hollow on the smaller ones, and omitted the high centerline.

      An axe like the smaller Gransfors are really not well suited to soft wood/Coniferous trees in my opinion. The old Maine axes, which were used by lumberman to cut Pines, Spruces, etc. innumerable, were the opposite of these Gransfors "forest axes". No hollow behind the edge (or almost none) with an almost continual angle from the edge to the upper face/beginning of the eye walls, and a slight high centerline on the bit.

      The Gransfors hollow behind the bevel allows for over penetration, and that is a bad combination when you take into account the lack of high centerline. A wedge or 3/4 wedge doesn't have a tremendously curvaceous high centerline (like the keen cutter pictured) because it doesn't need one-- the wedge shaped, short bit doesn't have the tendency to sink so deep as to need one, compared to a more "American" pattern axes with a long bit with the mid blade hollow from edge to poll.

      Prolific penetration is probably less of an issue with hard wood, as a general rule, so a thinner bit (albeit still with a high centerline to result in a point contact in the axes kerf) would probably be more advantageous in that capacity. Bear in mind that chopping wood is not just severing wood fibers with the cutting action, the axe also needs to push apart as well as cut in the right ratio in order to make "cutting" (which, again, is not "just cutting") wood efficient.

  15. Sorry, but the Gransfors axes are certainly European in design. You are discussing the single American Felling Axe design which was only recently created by Gransfors and is a cross between American patterns with some European influence remaining. This is clear in the shortened bit (American influence) and the relatively flat profile (European influence).

    An axe gets stuck due to both the hardness of the wood and the profile of the blade. The hard wood will bind as it is cut and essentially trap a flat, thin, and long head within the tension. This is my understanding of what the author here is saying as well, the Scandinavian axes never had such influence from American hardwoods. The American axe developed precisely because of the extreme forests, old wood and hard wood.

    Respectfully, I think you have it backwards, the thin blade and deep penetration is undesirable in hardwood axes because they bind too much as the greater force of the hardwood traps the thin and flat edge of European axes. The thick and high-centreline profile of American axes limits the friction introduced on the axe head by the tree's attempt at rebinding.

    If this is correct then you would see something of a middle path for Maine axes, not as high of a centreline and not as severe a transition from bevel to bit. We see this on Southern US axes quite a bit where the wood can be extremely hard. My understanding is that you need this shape to force out the wood and not bind the axe, wider chips for hardwood and deeper chips for softwood. Hence the change in geometry from longer and thinner to wider and thicker.

    Gransfors being specifically for softwood makes it a poor choice if one is cutting primarily hardwood in a cold climate. New Brunswick has quite a lot of hardwood as it is a transitional area between boreal and eastern woodlands. I think this is where the author lives, in an acadian forest where hardwood is nearly as common as softwood.

    I have some Nova Scotia and New Brunswick axes that I can post up to compare the shape to the Gransfors axes.

  16. What other traits make them European? By your logic, a Mexican made Collin's axe is also "clearly" European because it has flat cheeks. A concession in manufacturer (or a product of ignorace regarding how an axe should be shaped) isn't the same thing as being intentional based on cultural traditions. My point is this-- a flat faced axe doesn't necessarily mean it's European in design or heritage.

    Aside from that trait, the smaller axes from GB like the small and large forest axe, as well as the hatchets, are just scaled down Rockaway pattern axes. I recall seeing a John King/Katco axe years back which was pretty much the same shape, and I suspect it was something along those lines that they were based off of.

    Here is a link to an older Marbles axe with the same sort of shape--


    You need to understand that in harder woods, deep penetration is less of a factor. Outside of extremely green, softer hardwoods (like Poplar, Soft Maple, White Birch) a given axe won't sink as deep in a harder piece of wood. A slightly thinner bit is a way to make up for that. Your assumption is that an axe will somehow sink just as deep if swung, say, into a well cured/dry Beech, Oak, or Hard Maple. That's not the reality of chopping-- more often than not cured wood resists penetration and the separation of fibers much more than green wood.

    If an axe penetrates a third again the depth extra in soft wood, that is going to more than offset the fact that the soft wood is less rigid than hardwood in way of pinching the axe.

    On the other hand, a thin axe swung into a green, rapid growing conifer like Fir or Pine, will penetrate deeply because the fibers separate easily and the wood is less rigid. This is more or less a fact-- swing an axe into a dry log of Ash, Beech, or even a very cured/dry and old conifer, and compare it to swinging the same axe into something green (anything, but especially conifers, or fast growing deciduous trees like poplar). I cut firewood by hand with crosscut saws and axes, so I know-- wood is easier to saw green than cured. And an ax bites deeper as well; whether it's "easier" depends on the axes shape.

    The other problem here is that Scandinavian axes specifically are quite thick in their profile. Not, come to think of it, unlike a Maine wedge pattern axe.

    See the new Roselli axes, as well as these two posts for pictures illustrating this;



    The logging industry in Maine was for lumber, not including much hardwood. Birch, which is now worth more than Pine in some areas, were cut and filled in gullies and divets which Pine logs were hauled out over. Yet the quintessential Maine axe is almost synonymous with a wedge pattern to the point where the two patterns are nearly used interchangeably, or in tandem as in a "Maine wedge".

    Axes of the more typical American pattern were made and utilized further south. A Kelly, Collins, or Plumb axe, unless it were specifically made in the wedge pattern, is going to have a thinner, more hollowed bit. IF your theory were correct, the Maine pattern axes wouldn't resemble the wedge shape that they do (even other patterns retain a more continuous/less hollow shape when made by the Maine companies), and the wedge patterns would have been forged in the Carolinas, New Jersey, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The areas where the Maine companies probably sourced a good chunk of their hickory from to hang their axes intended to cut the lumber that made Maine famous in the logging world (Pine).

  17. Also-- at any rate, I would like to see the pictures of axes on their own merit.

  18. Unfortunately you have this quite backwards and are misinterpreting what I am saying. You are also associating Finnish and Swedish axes when Finnish and Russian axes are made in a completely different manner. The thicker Russian and Finnish axe cannot be made as thin as Swedish axes precisely because of the way they are constructed. Finland is not really Scandinavian, and their axes have more in common with Russia than Sweden.

    As well, saws are a completely different issue. You need a different pattern for green and dry wood to prevent binding.

    Here is the Gransfors Forest Axe next to a Walter's Black Diamond forest axe and a Blenkhorn Camp Axe:



    In both cases the Gransfors is significantly longer and thinner in the bit than the Canadian axes. In fact, the Gransfors forest axe is only a half inch or so shorter than the Gransfors American Felling Axe. A 1.75 lb axe compared to a 3.5 lb axe.

    The gransfors axes are certainly not scaled down rockaway patterns because they retain a long, narrow, and thin European bit.

    A useful image to consider:


    It seems strange to me that you are saying that with hardwood the thin bit is not as much of a consideration, and yet you are saying that American hardwood axes were thinner. The combined shape of Maine and Maritime Canadian axes is due to the mixed forests. Here the axes retained more of the European pattern because of the prevalence of softwood, and the bit is thicker than European axes, given a wedge shape due to the need to function in both types of wood. Once south of the boreal and New England/Acadian forests the more hardwood there is and the harder it is as well, hence the shortened bits and thicker bits. Just look at the shift from New Brunswick to Connecticut, you go from softwood being the dominant trees to hardwood.

    Now look at a Connecticut pattern where maple and oak are the dominant trees rather than softwoods. It is thick, it is relatively short for its overall size, and it is extremely wide. The width may also be due to hardwood's tendency to grow quite thick to its height and softwood relatively thin.

    Here is an image showing how deceptive grinds can be:

    Really this axe is thicker than a Scandinavian/Swedish axe, but the convexing through the width of the bit causes the axe to appear thinner at the heel or toe.


  19. A common misconception is that since softwood axes are more convexed at the edge they are thicker, but convexing allows for strengthening of the thinner bit and edge. The European axes are thinner overall with a more convexed edge. The American axes are thicker overall with a straight/chisel-type grind with minor convexing.

    The problem with any axe is binding in wood. A thinner bit allows the axe to cut deeper, and given the different forces involved one can cut deeper into a softwood before binding occurs. In hardwoods you would not want to cut deeper into the wood because you would only cause more binding. Hence the increase in convexity, edge and bit width, head weight, and handle length. In Maine, 32" handles were common due to smaller trees, and in other areas 36" to 42", for both hardwood and softwood. Maine had smaller trees, and more softwoods, hence the similarity to European axes.

    Again, compare the Canadian, Maine, New England, and Connecticut patterns, what do you see? You see a progression to a shorter and wider bit. All things being equal an axe cannot be both shorter and thinner without destroying the angle of the grind. And an axe cannot be narrow and have the convexity along the width of the axe for a high centreline (keep in mind that the centreline is something of a misnomer, as it is the centre in terms of force, in the upper third of the axe). The shorter and wider bits of American axes developed due to the larger trees and the hardness of the hardwoods. They needed to be convexed along the width to compensate, or rather compromise, for the lack of convexity in length.

    In short, softwood axes prevented binding with a thinner bit through convexing at the edge (length). And hardwood axes prevented binding through convexing the bit (width). Binding has to do with the point of contact. The softwood/Scandi axe is thin and flat along the cheeks, and convexing the edge allows the point of contact to be minimal. The hardwood/American axe has a relatively flat grind (less convexed due to it having a shorter bit) so there had to be a way to prevent binding. The high centreline allows for the reduction in point of contact where the wedge shape would otherwise increase the point of contact. The softwood axe reduces contact at the edge where it convexes to the flats, and the hardwood axe reduces contact along the bit.

    In this thread you can see the more complex geometry involved in limiting the point of contact when a chisel-type grind is used for hardwoods.

    This is a very similar problem to scandi, convex, and rhomboid grinds in knives. A thinner blade can have a scandi grind and reduce contact effectively. A thicker blade requires convexing, hollowing, or a rhomboid grind.

    Much of this axe genealogy is also due to larger trees. Longer handles meant inaccuracy with a long bit. I never said the flatness of the axe made it European, rather the thinness, flat cheeks, and length of the bit. The American axe was forced by necessity to shift away from this thinness, flatness, and length. And this different shape allowed for the axe to cut greater width from a tree rather than depth. It's a tradeoff, and the wider and shorter axes compensated for not being able to cut as deeply while needing to cut much larger and harder trees efficiently.

    Convexity does not imply a thinner blade, the harder wood demands a shorter bit and an increased angle of the bit. Softwood and hardwood axes are just convexed in different ways. Generally the softwood axe is thinner, and the hardwood axe is thicker, heavier, and wider to compensate for lessened cutting depth.

  20. Also found this letter from a competitive axe user interesting:

    "The first inch or so of the axe back from the edge creates the displacement force (and durability for a work axe). Racing axes run 14 degree angle for good pine...felling axes could start at 18 degrees and up to 28 degrees for a limbing axe. But the angle isn't the only thing...the length of the chisel plays a big role too. Take a pencil and draw an 18 degree angle on paper. At one inch from the apex it measures .3" gap, (distance between the lines) at 2 inches= .6" at 3 inches =.9" so that is how much volume of wood needs to be displaced at each interval of depth of penetration. So, if we stop the wedge shape at one inch from the edge (.3" displaced area) then relieve it somewhat with some hollowing out or change of wedge angle we can overcome some friction and displacement force to allow more penetration. Most good hardwood axes have a thick chisel wedge (18 degrees +) but narrow chisel (half inch or less) then hollowed out a bit. If the axe goes in deep enough the "bust" or swelling of the axe back closer to the eye will once again displace the chip with more force this time to blow out the chip. "


    Basically, all things being equal, the hardwood axe has a steeper bevel, a 'thick chisel wedge', but a shorter chisel or convexing. And the softwood axe has a thin chisel wedge and longer chisel or convexing.

    His experience is with racing axes, but he suggests that it is the convexing which causes the axe to bind. I would have to suspect that this means too convex of a high-centreline could also cause binding (apart from limiting penetration).

    He also suggests that much of preventing a stuck axe comes down to skill, how deep you can cut, how accurately, and how much of the edge hits the tree causing it to bust or at least spring back from becoming unstuck. A very slight angle difference would mean the force of the axe is focused on a smaller area causing it to stick.

    As well, this article on grinding suggests that the proper convex is close to flat, like the Gransfors:

    This would again suggest that the Gransfors cuts too deep due to its shallow and longer chisel/convex rather than lacking an extreme high-centreline (which can limit cutting ability anyway.

    Mors Kochanski, the most knowledgeable bushcrafter in regards to axes and a former competitive axeman, suggests that an axe has to walk a fine line of sharpness - if it is too sharp it will bind. This could be another 'problem' with the Gransfors, it comes too sharp.

    One could fix the geometry on the Gransfors by changing the grind. Shortening the convex bevel and making it a little steeper would make the axe suitable for hardwood. This would involve a fair bit of work considering that one would also have to hollow out the long convex shape on the previous softwood grind.

    But this tells us something. If we follow Cook's guidelines from The Ax Book then we have to say that the longer blade results in more shallow angles overall. To transfer from 30* at the edge down to 15* at the bevel, 5* at the hollow, then back up to 10* at the eye, is going to be less severe on an 8" axe than a 6.5" axe.

    Similarly, the transition will be more severe on an axe with a bevel at .5" than at .75". And this is what we have to ask, is the hardwood axe thinner at the the edge, along the bit, or not at all? Tradition tells us that hardwood axes are thicker and with more convexing, primarily for strength reasons, so either the hardwood axe is as thin or thinner than a softwood axe with much steeper angles, is the same thickness or slightly thicker with only slightly steeper angles, or is much thicker with the same angles.


  21. Reasons of durability suggest that it is one of the two latter options; along with the greater potential for binding in hardwood demanding a shorter convex area to the bevel.

    Much of the internet discussion surrounding axe geometry is pure speculation taken from competition axes. None of the people involved have a fraction of the knowledge of someone like Dudley Cook, and as far as I can tell there is no discussion of the different angles for hardwood and softwood blades. He does, however, mention that it is the mid-blade hollow which prevents binding. This would indicate that a shortened bevel for the hardwood axe is due to that wood's propensity to bind within a shorter area. Hardwood is tighter grained and has much more spring, so this only makes sense in terms of the physics involved.

    It should also be mentioned that the high-centreline is something of a misnomer as it is used here in the blog. Cook also mentions how most new axes are too thick in the middle of the bit and along the edge (although this may be due to him being from Maine where a thinner axe is more useful). Really the high-centreline has to do with the wobble of the axe as the physical centre of the axe when rounding is not in the geometric centre, it is somewhere in the third towards the toe of the axe. This can be seen here:

    An important question would be then, given the shorter and wider blades of hardwood axes, how much of this bulge in the high-centreline occurs only due to the necessity of offsetting that length, width, and thickness? With a heavier axe that is proportionately shorter, thicker, and wider it would have to have a more pronounced bulge to make the axe aerodynamic in its physical rounding.

    Here we can see why the European axes with their bearded shape are also more flat. This is precisely because the Hudson Bay pattern or the Euro/Rockaway pattern of the Gransfors axes have less weight around the eye and poll due to their overall geometry. There is less to compensate for with a bearded axe since much of the mass is already in the top-third of the axe. As the eye and poll is dropped down to create a heavier American axe the top-third mass must be compensated for to prevent wobble, hence the very apparent bulge.

    Still very interesting research, but I suspect that two aspects of axe geometry have been confused in their true purpose.

  22. Very interesting review and research about the shape, use and reasoning. My question is what sort of shape then would be for a throwing axe then? Would a Flat-sided axe be preferred? How would a tomahawk fit in?