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.

March 27, 2013

Axemanship Course in Montana

"For a skill so paramount to the future, and with precious few experts (and fewer still teachers), this is not an opportunity to be unconcerned with. Amidst the twilight, the time to learn this skill, and others more broadly, is already nearly past. Intensive training is a remedy for laxity, and a god send at that."   --Eric C.

For the past couple of years we have been privileged to associate (albeit via phone and letters only) with an Australian outback-born Lawrence Dowsett, whose father handed him a sharp ax -- not to play 'cowboys and Indians' with, but to help take care of the family's firewood needs -- when he was 5 years old!

Now a horse-riding ranch hand in Wyoming, he is an accomplished farrier, saddle maker and, well... I'd best quote his (evidently appreciative) wife: "Peter, there is NOTHING Lawrence can't do!"

Lawrence initially contacted us with interest in scythes, although most of our conversations since then have revolved around axes, and it is obvious that he is one of the contemporary 'gems' on the subject. Looking now back over the 40 years of my own ax-using journey, I'm quite certain that had I had the opportunity to attend Lawrence's course at the beginning, much fumbling and stumbling would have been spared...

Last year Lawrence began to teach the rangers working in parks (where chainsaws are officially a taboo) how to use and maintain crosscut saws and axes, a skill they sorely lacked. I am glad to hear that this service is also available to the general public.

We recently heard, from Lawrence himself, that he will be teaching axemanship classes at the Ninemile Ranger Station in Montana. The first one will be held from April 29th to May 3rd, the second will on May 6th to the 10th. If there is enough interest, more classes may be scheduled later. 

In Lawrence's own words:

"First all participants will be given a good quality vintage double bit axe of near new condition as well as a new double sided carborundum sharpening stone and files. Handles of good quality will also be provided. At the end of the class (which is one week) l also give a gift to each student for their participation, a good quality arkansas stone. Also students may bring a couple of their own axes to work on if they wish to do so, and l will have them in the field every day to teach chopping, techniques and related matters. The axes, handles, stones and files are the student's property at the end of the class."

Links for more information:

Anyone interested in attending these classes can contact Ninemile Ranger Station, 406-626-5201

March 21, 2013

"Weak" handles, revisited

Here's a guest post from our friend and fellow "challenger of the status quo" Eric C. from Maine, followed by commentary from Peter.

Handle made by Eric C., described below.

Getting a grip -- handle overkill  
by Eric C.

I think the purism that people still cling to regarding traits of the ideal axe handle is probably contributing to the general supply of shite handles. Hickory is probably way overcut as a result, probably compromising its quality to some extent. I don't know anything about trees from a scientific standpoint, but I know that you don't need to use sawn and then lathe turned (or even riven and hand carved) hickory handles for every axe of every weight. The shrinking abundance will continue to decline until we figure out how to redefine abundance further down the line. 

I have heard that White Oak was once the preferred handle material (from an axe historian specializing in the late 1700s until around 1900).  It was cut for ships and tool handles, presumably, and this was when population and consumption was way lower. In the absence of oil-driven machines, which is an inevitability, the supply of hickory and ash will probably drop like a brick.  Not taken into account is the startling decrease in the quality of hickory handle stock.The handle pictured here was made out of a stave of Birch around 3 inches in diameter at the large end. There are two knots in it, and the piece wasn't large enough to completely fill the eye, with about a 6mm or 8mm gap on the poll side which I filled with a shim. I don't believe Birch to be as strong as maple or ash, but I still thinned this one down to 3/4 of an inch, and in one place down to 5/8 of an inch.

Since it wouldn't have given me enough material to work with by splitting it in half, I worked with it in the round as a single stave, to try and get one handle out of. The smaller end became the knob, and I just hewed the handle off to one side. Since I hewed the knob out of the small end with the circumferential grain, where there is way less stress and risk of breakage, I was able to get grain parallel to direction of force on the upper half or two thirds of the handle. How strong does a 24" handle need to be for an axe that weighs less than two pounds? I have no reservations about using this axe for jobs within its realistic limitations.

Material of this size is usually burned, left to rot in the woods, or maybe turned into spoons or something by the slightly less wasteful but still somewhat resourceful spoon-carving hippy. Not that there is anything wrong with those things, but when said man goes to fell a hickory to make a couple handles for 2.5 pound axes when he could have used a Birch branch and produced a handle more than durable enough to be used in context with the weight of the head and job at hand, the context changes.

The inspiration for that axe was the Vido's little Sandvik axe mentioned here
 (giving credit where it's due), with a Birch handle of the same grain pattern and size, and the same size head. They still use that axe extensively, and it's been through more than mine probably ever will. It also has 5 knots compared to the measly 2 knots in mine (wish it had more, was disappointed).

An abundance of material is still here, but not an abundance of prerequisite skills and the time to nurse them into a deeper sense of what will work and what won't.

Commentary from Peter Vido:

Thanks for sharing your status quo-challenging thoughts. You and I seem to be on the same page regarding ax handles -- their basic shape, thickness and what material they be made of. The notion that an ax needs a handle from the strongest/most break-resistant wood (regardless of distance it is obtained) I also consider to be both myth and a trap. For centuries axes have been swung on locally sourced handles, and many of the coldest regions (Siberia, a large part of Scandinavia and the Canadian 'North') have no species of adequately thick dimensions stronger than white birch.
To address the hickory obsession: It may well be the Northern Hemisphere's finest ax-handle wood; however, the pertinent question (at this shaky point in history) is: do we all need it? On several levels, a strong case can be made for a definite "NO".

Nevertheless, on the whole we've reached this stage (of our sleepy journey) where hickory can pose as the cat's meow of ax handle wood to the point that some of the prestigious European ax makers (Gransfors Bruks, for instance) now find it profitable to import hickory from USA, stick it into their fine ax heads and ship a portion back across the ocean for sale to American ax lovers.  Plus, the European populace is now also being trained to purchase axes outfitted with this famous wood. I consider that preposterous; instead of inspiring young people to appreciate the gifts of creation laying at their feet, and helping them learn how to best use them, we let the beast of Globalization pursue its insidious agenda…

What many folks today do not seem to understand is that in order to fully fulfill its function, an ax does not need to be wielded with brute force; what's actually required is a type of force that's different from what most inexperienced ax users perceive.

In brief, a moment before the bit hits the target, the direct force behind it is greatly reduced, and the weight of the head (along with the already generated velocity) is left to pursue the task. That is how the old-timers could "chop all day and love it". And their very slim handles (mostly sugar maple or white ash, along with some hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana, also called "ironwood") lasted for years.

Contacting with full force right through the stroke is one way to break handles -- even many of those made of the so-called 'perfectly aligned' hickory.  Besides, a hickory handle is in itself no guarantee against breakage, especially nowadays. For instance, here is a firsthand true story: 

Back in 1979, an old man gave me a 20-pound head for a fence post pounding maul. Being slightly more naive than I am now, I fitted it with a store-bought hickory handle. Shortly afterwards a friend asked to borrow it, and the next day he broke that handle. As a respectful borrower, before bringing it back he bought another new hickory handle and replaced the broken one. Not very many fence posts later the handle snapped again, right under the head -- which flew off and narrowly missed my wife Faye who was steadying the post for me. No, I did not overreach; those boughten hickory handles apparently could not take that 20 pounds of steel (with an admittedly small eye in the maul).

My brother Alex walked into the nearby woods, came back shortly with a hornbeam sapling and replaced the broken hickory with it.

That was the summer of 1980.  Now, 32 years and I don't know how many hundreds of posts later, that very same handle is still intact. It never took a season off work, and although I have meant to replace it long ago -- just as a precaution to not endanger Faye, who still steadies the posts -- it functions as it always did, driving posts until the ground freezes solid in late autumn. 

So there you have it:  One example of local wood versus imported hickory...

End grain of maul handle