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 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


  1. Wonderful post Peter. I think most folks feel they need Hickory because they don't treat an axe as it ought to be treated. Overreaching blows, improper hanging, and any number of other mistakes. Hickory allows for a lot more sloppy techniques before it gives up.

  2. I am trying NOT to use ash nor maple or hickory. I want Canyon live oak...local to my area of California, or Pacific yew also local. But all you find anywhere is hickory. Even custom makers only use hickory. I do have a white oak handle coming for a #5 Jersey axe head I have.

    1. Me too, also from California. I have my eye on a recently downed Canyon Live Oak. I got some Black Locust logs I might use, but I already know it is nearly if not equal to hickory, so it won't teach me anything new. My last handles were Bay Laurel and Tan Oak. I just want to try everything and see what I can get away with locally.

  3. I was the designated fencepost holder at an early age. We used 2 sticks - one was 2' long w/a Y shape branch on the end. We used it to 'push' against the post, another one was 3' long, and it was more of an L shape (cut off a sapling just below a branch, trim the branch to 6", then cut the remaining 'top' of the tree about 2.5-3' long). Used the Y stick to push, the L stick on the far side of the post and pulled towards you. Held the post in place well, and your hands were far away from the post maul.
    One thing about hickory - so far as the handle makers care, it's all the same wood whether it's heart wood, sap wood, branch or bole. That's not how it should be. You want sap wood from the bole (tree body), per the way I was taught. Hold it up to check for 'plumb' visually against another plumb surface (a doorway or wall), then check the end of the handle to see which way the tree's growth rings go. Pick a straight handle w/rings that are 'long' instead of short/cutting across the axe handle. This one is hard for me to describe, but you don't want the growth rings going at 90 degrees 'across the handle' on the short axis if you can help it. You want the grain rings to run across the long axis.

    If you find a good handle that's got a bend in it so it won't 'hang true' when compared to a wall/door, you can steam it (piece of stovepipe over a teakettle, wood suspended in the pipe, steam for 20 minutes or so) and then place the handle - still hot - into a 'jig' that will bend and hold it straight as it dries from the steam.

    We always sanded off the varnish the handles come with, and treated the wood w/BLO - Boiled linseed oil. The boiled part of this is important. Plain linseed oil takes forever to dry. My grandfather would try axe and adze handles in every store that he entered that carried 'em, and would buy good handles, oil 'em up and hang them from a staple in the end grain, out in an unheated shed until needed.

    If you have busted hickory handles - we'd cut the axe handles into 6" hunks and put them on the BBQ grill. Busted sledge handles because 'short spear' handles for me. "That's the guy with the assagai"

  4. Hello. I have just found this site and been reading the various posts. I wonder if anyone can help me with this question: several years ago I read an article on-line that compared old-time axes and users with modern ones. The article covered many of the things in these blogs, mainly that the old axes had thinner, springier handles and better heads in terms of steel/forging practice/heat treatment. I have been looking for that article again but can't find it. It wasn't this blog, it was an actual article from some magazine or publication that was put on-line. Does anyone reading this know which article I am talking about? If so can you point me toward it? Thanks

  5. Woodsman Spirit here. Yes, the hafts were slimmer and more flexible and in my experience a lot of the old axe heads are better quality. Also I agree with previous commentators that Hickory should not be universally perceived as the bes wood to fashion a haft. In my experience I have had a lot of issues with Hickory splitting down the grain. I have used Ash and Birch a lot and these are good materials, I also have one old axe with a Mohogany haft. Most old Finnish axes were hafted with Birch. English Elm works well as does Oak which was popular with the larger Elwell Axes (up to 7lbs).