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.

April 25, 2013

Review: Barco "Cruiser" Ax

Post written by Ashley Vido; now a
contributor to the blog along with Peter.  

Earlier this year we ordered a two-pack of double bit "cruiser" axes from the Barco company in Pennsylvania; one for a fellow ax user in Nova Scotia, the other for us to test out and review. 

First of all, let me say that I consider this ax to be very unique. I'll elaborate on that, but for now, some of my first impressions:

Barco's website description of their axes sounds very impressive. They don't say too much on the specific product descriptions, but the implication is that these are US made:

"These are the finest quality US made axes available. The Kelly Perfect® features a full polished head with deep bevels to reduce binding of the head in the wood, painted a distinctive blue, while the Kelly Woodslasher® line is painted red with polished edge."

However, I am not convinced, and though I would like to think that this company would not deliberately mislead their customers, at this point I am doubtful about the origins of this cruiser ax.

The most obvious thing to cause my suspicion that these "Forged with pride in the USA" axes are imported, was that the heads are not stamped with any name or trademark, or even weight. The heads do have a faint
"BARCO / WEAR SAFETY GOGGLES USA / 08 1" printed on one face.
(Oh, thanks for reminding me, where did I leave those safety goggles that I always wear when using an ax...?)  As soon as the red paint is removed, the only mention of USA is gone with it. If one of the last remaining ax manufacturers in the US was proud of their product, don't you think they would be sure to leave a prominent trademark, one that will speak to the quality of their axes in years to come?

Back to the actual ax (whatever the origin), the "2 1/2 lb. Kelly Woodslasher Michigan double bit cruisers" from Barco.

Taking a closer look at the one we kept, it seemed worthwhile to document how the edges had been ground. Or over-ground, I should say. The edge had been unevenly ground, too much taken off at the top and bottom corners, with one corner nearly burned and a big burr left on the edge. 

Peter spent half an hour thinning down one of the faces to the kind of edge we keep on our felling axes, which is thinner than the standard these days, but nearly on par with how the old fellas in these parts liked their axes. He didn't file right up to the corners, but the top right one already looks like it's had too much metal removed.

I should add that we hadn't done anything to the handle by this point; I could already tell that, at 20mm, it was thicker than I would like to use (though admittedly thinner than most conventional ax handles these days), but Peter suggested that I try it out as is.

So, I ran off into the woods to give it a test run, felled a small green fir tree and then quickly hewed a short piece of the trunk. 

The thick handle bothered me, and I felt like it should have been longer for the weight of the head, but overall, I was pretty pleased with the little cruiser by that point. Impressed with how clean a hewing job it did, I was already thinking about the review I'd be giving it; if not glowing, at least pretty positive. Well, that was before I went to limb the few small branches…

About three-quarters of the way along the length of this little tree, something felt wrong. There was a fair bit of swearing involved when I looked at the ax; the edge had gotten both chipped off and bent over -- "rolled" is the proper term, I think. So I went back over the length of the tree and located the largest limbs, which were all smaller than 1/2 an inch in diameter.

This is where I started feeling that I was in possession of a pretty unique little ax; I've never before heard of this happening. I am by no means knowledgeable when it comes to steel quality and forged tools in general, but I was under the impression that edge tools can sometimes be too hard, causing the steel to chip, or too soft, causing it to buckle or bend over. Never seen both at once though…

Here's a closer look at the edge. Unique, all right! ;)

I had taken another ax along that day, a 2 3/4 lb. Swedish military surplus single bit on a 27" handle, with the edge filed down the way we like them. So before heading back home, I felled and limbed another fir with that one. The edge remained intact…

Then for good measure I chopped down and limbed a third tree using only a kukri knife, a new one that a good friend had kindly sent for us to test out. The edge on this kukri was thinner than others I'd seen, but when put through the same treatment as the cruiser, it passed the test with flying colours, no damage whatsoever.

Thus I suspect that it can't have been only those 'tough' branches that were to blame… 

Back on topic, now:  At Peter's suggestion I took the cruiser out again, this time using the opposite face (I took the burr off and smoothed the transition between the micro-bevel and the rest of the face but did no actual re-shaping this time). I managed to take down a small green beech with a great deal of effort, and the edge had virtually no penetration ability, unsurprisingly.

The next day Peter removed the damaged edge on the first face, this time leaving a thicker profile on it. By this time I had gotten tired of using that handle the way it had come from the factory, so I took a rasp to it and pretty much just removed the lacquer, then smoothed it down with a piece of glass. Never got too close to the head though…

I happened to think of taking photos of the labels on either side of the handle before removing them. 

Good thing too, this one had a very important message, as I was soon to find out.

Not as thin as I'd like, but it sure felt better after being slightly flattened, with the lacquer removed.

Then I headed off into to the woods and picked a medium-sized poplar to test it out on.

I was nearly done notching it, when I took another swing and the handle came back empty, with the head lying in the snow at the base of the tree. I just stared in disbelief. No, I never hit the handle; that fine American hickory just couldn't take the combination of the soft green poplar wood and the girl swinging it. (Weren't these cruisers supposed to be used by grown men?)

The "wear safety goggles" is still faintly visible; now I understand... Shouldn't they have added "wear steel toe boots"?

I'd be interested in hearing some opinions on this one; have you ever seen such a porous-looking hickory?

Another thing we realized once the handle broke was that the wood was amazingly light, not even close to the weight of normal hickory. If we take Barco's word that the handle was USA hickory, not some strange Chinese wood that looks like an Aero bar on the inside, then our tentative conclusions are that this wood had dry rot.

Okay, but we didn't give up on this ax yet; Peter knocked the remaining broken handle out of the eye, and quickly fitted it with a thin (18mm) 30" maple handle. This time I tried splitting some firewood with the still original (thick) face. This ax does not have a great splitting profile, but it worked fine with the "flicking" technique I use.

Then, with that lovely new maple handle, I headed off to see what damage I could do next. Taking along the Swedish military surplus ax again, I did some comparisons of the chopping efficiency. Not a real fair comparison, but the Swedish ax's extra weight and the Barco's (now) longer handle balanced out a little bit. 
I took down a pair of dying poplars, trying to make an unbiased comparison of the effort expended, then did the same with two larger firs. (One more strike against this "USA" cruiser: the steel has such poor edge retention in comparison to all of the other axes I've been using. I could hardly believe how fast it dulled even while bucking poplar with no knots.)

The Swedish ax won, hands down. I chopped the trees down in approximately 1/3 less time, and as I limbed their respective firs, the Swedish ax left much "cleaner" cuts, while the cruiser tore the bark surrounding the limbs more.

I wasn't happy with the edge on the cruiser (the one that had been thinned, damaged, repaired and left thicker) so in the spirit of second chances, Peter filed it down again, though not quite as thin as the first time. Again, I chopped down a couple firs, then carefully limbed them. Whew, no damage! Then I took down a tiny little fir to use as a pushing pole for the larger trees, and started limbing the 1/4 " diameter branches. Whoops, there goes another piece of the edge! A few good cuss-words, and I headed home, since I hadn't taken a back-up ax along that time.

That was the end of my using this ax for the time being. During the time that I was testing the Barco cruiser, I'd also done some chopping with several other axes of adequately thin edge profiles, none of which ever suffered torn edges and broken handles. I might add that the maple handle is still intact, after being put through tougher treatment than the hickory one lasted long enough to endure...

So, would I recommend this ax to anyone based on my experiences? Com'on, now, do I really have to answer that one? ;)

Addendum by Peter Vido:

There were two features of the Barco Cruiser that glared at me immediately upon the first visual examination. I told Ashley that I would comment on these in some sort of 'addendum' to her review and that she could leave that aspect undiscussed, which, for the most part, she did. 

Now, however belated, here are my observations:

It occurred to me that 'our' Cruiser was likely among a batch of early Monday, or end of the shift on Friday, ax heads. Either that, or its edge was ground by a person new to the job -- to whom no one adequately explained that the corners of the bit (all of them) ought to be 'babied'… 

Furthermore, the loose-handedness of the grinder accounts for only a portion of what I perceive as a notable flaw with both upper corners.  Namely, I believe that the original designer of this ax pattern meant it to have slightly more steel in the upper corner. (If he didn't, I think he should have.) :)     

Yes, the 'Michigan' is among the North American ax patterns with more (if not the MOST) rounded corners. My intent here is not to debate the respective virtues of round versus more sharply pronounced corners, but to point out that -- in view of the 'inevitable' shape-shifting many ax faces will undergo during the subsequent use -- it is unperceptive on part of the makers to NOT provide the ax users with some grace in this regard. 

[It is indeed rare to find an old (while also much used) ax with an even face -- meaning one that still somewhat resembles the edge lines of the initial model. Most have far more steel missing from the upper half of the bit than the lower. This is 'natural' because the upper half receives way more nicks than its lower counterpart. When these damages are filed/ground off, the ax owners often do not re-shape the rest of the face so as to maintain the original line. The reason is simple -- it takes a lot of time to make up for even less than a 1/16" nick.]

Anyway, I have a suspicion that when BARCO made their 'moulds' for these heads to be shaped in, an error had occurred and that little extra bit of steel has no room within the mold to be accommodated. Just a speculation…

The conclusion? 
Well, I'd like this 'Cruiser's overall shape better if the upper corners extended at least 1/4" further forward and then gradually blended with the rest of the line towards the centre of the bit.  The corner could still retain the classical 'Michigan' shape, of course.

In addition, perhaps I ought to explain what exactly was the edge geometry I imposed on this Barco Cruiser -- the one it could not gracefully tolerate (but many of our other axes can…). 

A little background:
During the early stages of my ax sharpening search, the local old timers were rather vague with advice. They plainly did not think of head/edge shaping in terms of specific angles; if I showed them one of my axes, they felt the bit between their thumb and first finger and (usually) declared it too thick here or there… Only one of them, Arnold Hanscomb, was explicit: he laid a file between the edge and the centre of the ax's eye and said but one word: "FLAT! " He fixed my gaze and repeated "Flat… then you will have an ax that cuts." ALL our axes back then failed that parameter, most of them miserably. Though I later tried to meet his specs, I too failed, mostly because it took a lot of time along with many good files to properly convert the worn and abused old axes we had collected, which had the cheeks too thick to allow for the file (or other straight edge) to lay 'flat' -- that is to contact at once the eye and (almost) the edge. 

Some years later I came across Dudley Cook's Keeping Warm with an Ax (now published as The Ax Book) and grasped a few additional details which the old Arnold did not mention, but understood himself, I believe.
Cook, by the way, was far more explicit with regard to ax sharpening than anyone else whose written advice I've come across to date. The angles he offered for the respective parts of the head geometry are, I believe, very sound.  Arnold's suggestion of a 'flat' line between the edge and eye more or less corresponds to Cook's 10 degrees. BUT, that holds true to within 1/16" (for felling ax) to 1/8 " (for swamping/limbing) of the very edge -- where the combined angle is gradually increased to approximately 30 degrees in order to provide the needed crumble resistance. Well, 30 degrees or so means lifting the file (or stone) so that it aims about finger thickness above the face. This applies, more or less to majority of North American axes, the thickness of which at the centre of the eye ranges from 1" to 1-1/8". 

However, there is a seemingly tiny difference over exactly what distance that increase in angles takes place. Tiny in measure but significant in performance. Cook's 1/16" is pushing many axes' limits, I think, and I did not thin the Barco 'cruiser' quite that much. But close. If one is to test an ax, I reckon the thing better be tested…unless "cool" looks is more important than hot work. In this case I conclude that if the cruising men wish to look cool, Barco may serve them well. But to make an honest living actually chopping trees..?

You see, after that initial edge failure, my dressing it to a far more 'safe' (but rather useless) profile and then making it somewhat more useful again (albeit with a more forgiving angle), it failed second time. By then the micro bevel was at least 35 degrees and arrived to that increase over a strong 1/4" -- and that ain't good, period.