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.

June 12, 2016

Husqvarna Hatchet Review

(Guest post by Steven Edholm)

“Examining, feeling and handling this tool has resulted in a lot of expletives, brow furrowing and head shaking.”

This will be the review I would have liked to have seen before buying this hatchet, but which as far as I can see does not exist.  There is a popular resurgence in collecting and using axes and hatchets, so at this point the majority of reviews on the internet are still by fairly inexperienced users.  As a result, there is not a whole lot of substantial well considered information to go on when researching this tool for purchase.  When doing my own research, I found nothing at all like what this review will be, very critical with many points considered.  This hatchet gets a lot of good reviews.  It has over 280 reviews on amazon at an average of almost 4.5 stars.  No one on amazon, or anywhere else, seems to have the gripes I have with it, but I am more inclined to trust my experience than the majority opinion.  It is not my intent to disrespect anyone else’s opinion or experience just for the sake of it.  I just think this design is lame and I feel it’s my duty to say so plainly with no punches pulled.

The Husqvarana 13” hatchet, 15 inch total length and a whopping 2.19 pounds with handle.  I could recommend this hatchet at this price point if virtually everything about it were different.

I’m a huge hatchet fan.  I’m frequently shocked that some people I know, who very well ought to own a decent one, don’t own even a crappy one.  To be fair, some of them own large chopping type blades of some kind which serve similar purposes, but many don’t.  A good one handed chopping tool is indispensable to conducting a lifestyle that is very engaged with local resources, and to crafting and making stuff from raw wood without using power tools.  A good basic woodworking toolkit to me is a hatchet, a knife, a saw and a rasp, possibly even in that order.  When it comes to reducing a chunk of wood to the rough shape you want to make something, hatchets are fast and can be surprisingly accurate in experienced hands.  I have been on the lookout for many years for a quality affordable new hatchet that I can recommend to people.  The subject of today’s review is not that tool.

I use hatchets for carving, splitting, limbing, chopping and have packed them around a fair amount.  This experience extends about 30 years.  I’ve owned and tried quite a few of them, though I wouldn’t say that I’m a collector, and just chopped my way through a lot of wood, filing, restoring, breaking handles, re-handling, making mistakes.  I do not spend much time reading about hatchets and axes on forums or anywhere else unless I’m looking for something to buy or review.  The use of hatchets is an extension of my interests and lifestyle and my opinions are for the most part born of, experience, or at least tempered by it.  I expect certain things from the tool and it has to perform in my context not limiting me unnecessarily with it’s design or build quality. 

While I have strong opinions about what I am familiar with, my perspective, as in all things, is limited, so there is much I don’t know and I like to think that I’m fully open to input, so I encourage the expression of dissenting opinions.

Finally, I just want to say that the options generally given to us by the market are never set up the way I prefer them.  So, I’m not just comparing this so much to other products (almost all of which I am personally unfamiliar with) but to something that is probably not even available on the market.  Okay, enough disclaiming, lets get started!

This tool can do a lot of work.  It is not the worst tool ever and any stone age human would justifiably shit exclamation marks if they got ahold of it.  But it is very far from ideal from my perspective and when it comes to tools, details matter.  With a different design, all the resources used to produce thousands of these could be put into manufacturing a much more versatile and user friendly heirloom quality tool.

After reading many reviews and forum threads, and looking at specs and pictures, I finally just bought the damn thing figuring I could sell it if I didn’t like it.  I guessed that it was going to be too heavy, but I thought I might be able to modify it into something closer to what I need.  I bought this primarily for review.  So, I dropped about 40.00 total on amazon and it was in the mail.

On opening the package I immediately wanted my 40.00 back, and just became more disappointed from there.  I’m going to discuss all of the relevant points in series.

The only extent to which I’ve tested the edge at this point is to do some filing, which can detect soft and hard spots.  I don’t feel the need to test it thoroughly because of other shortcomings.  Judged by filing, the temper seems even, but it is hard to tell a lot and thats all I can say.  The head is asymmetrical.  It is not a problem with hafting, it’s a problem of workmanship.  The edge is out of alignment with the rest of the head in not just one, but two planes.  I can’t fix this with filing or grinding.  It has to be reheated and fixed by hammering and then the head has to be re-tempered.  I’ve done a fair bit of blacksmithing and it really looks like it just wasn’t finished out carefully.  A few more hammer taps should have at least aligned the blade with the rest of the head.  This is not protracted hard work, its quick detail work, but at this price point, I doubt they even have time for such details.  This is a common problem, especially in these modern forged axes.  If the work can’t be carried out well, “hand forged” becomes a liability rather than an asset.
Edge alignment is a common problem,  but seemingly much more in the new abundance of forged axes.  If possible, buy these type axes in person so you can examine them, or at least get a dealer to grade out the best head and handle for you and make sure it’s returnable.
It is not sharp in any sense and needs major edge work.  That’s fine.  That is something I expect from a $40.00 forged hatchet because it is time saved in the factory which keeps the price low.  When I look at any axe to buy, I’m not thinking that much about the handle, which is almost a consumable item.  It is likely going to be replaced at some point with long use, and often sooner than later by a novice, because we tend to be hard on handles when we start out.  I mean it is certainly nice to get a good handle, but it can be replaced.  It is the head that most of us can’t make or modify beyond what we can do with grinders and files, and that is the investment you are really making.  The head I bought was a poor investment.

This is a heavy hatchet.  The head is between a small axe head and a hatchet.  Hefting it with one hand for any extended time may be something of a chore for a lot of people.  If you choke up on it, meaning move your hand up the handle closer to the head, it is easier, but there are also design issues with that, which we will get to presently.

Portability of a hatchet basically comes down mostly to size and weight.  This one is portable in terms of length, but it is quite heavy.  I would actually consider packing a tool this heavy around under some circumstances, just not a short handled hatchet.  My Gransfors forest axe is only .4 pounds heavier and it’s a tool that can do some serious work.  The Husqvarna can do a minimal amount of work, FOR IT’S WEIGHT.  When comparing the two, this tool is a joke.  Yes, a short tool is also more portable.  But, if you are making a tool to be transported by human power, just sticking more weight on the end of it is not a very good solution to the fact that it’s form has certain limits.  This tool is probably not really designed with packing in mind.  I hope not anyway. If the handle was truly long enough to use with two hands, a person would be able to do a lot more work, but then it wouldn’t be a hatchet anymore.  The other reason that one might put a short handle on a heavy tool is for hewing and carving type work.  This tool however seems in no way specially designed for that type of work.  If anything, the overall form and thick handle make it very unsuited to such uses.
.4 pounds of difference between a tool that is very capable at many types of work and one that is not nearly so capable of heavy work.  If axes are thought of in terms of portability (one of the main reasons for short handles) it makes sense for a very short axe (hatchet) to be also light enough to carry.  That has to do with a sort of ratio of how heavy the tool is to how much work it can do.  In this case, the excessive weight is not taken advantage of by the short handle.  To be fair, some ounces of wood could be removed from the handle to lighten it up.
The handle length to weight ratio on this hatchet is odd to me.  The handle is shorter than my coveted baby Swedish hatchet which weighs 17.5 oz in total.  The Husqvarna is 2.19 lb in total.  But my hatchet handles tend to be long relative to the norm.  I have a long standing suspicion that the head size to handle length ratio in hatchets and axes is typically determined more by what looks balanced rather than according to practical considerations.  I think the handle on my little hatchet is just right, but it looks kind of funny from the sort of natural aesthetic standpoint that gives us things like the golden mean or rule of thirds.  This Husqvarna hatchet actually errs in the other direction, with the handle, if anything, appearing oddly short and stubby relative to the head size.

If the handle on a given head is longer you have more leverage, which means that your effort is more or less amplified.  With a longer handle the Husqvarna could be a much more useful tool.  Then again, since it is so heavy, it could only be hefted near the end of a long handle with one hand for a shorter period of time in comparison to a lighter tool on the same long handle.  In one way, the handle length may make sense if you are forced by a short handle to use this heavy tool with one hand.  So the one point I can give this tool, regarding the handle length and shape, is that it is probably designed around the sweet spot for this hatchet if it is to gripped in one spot and swung over and over.  But, given the shape of the handle, which we will address next, it is somewhat to very awkward to use when gripped outside of that area, making it something of a one trick pony.  So, this handle length might make sense in that one way given the heavy size of the head, but I’d still be inclined to put a long handle on it because the head is just pretty large.  I wouldn’t be inclined to put a boys axe sized handle on it, but something long enough to use with two hands, though pretty well suited to using with one hand too.  Something similar to a lot of bushcraft axe designs.

In regards to the handle shape, at this point I feel near 100% sold on straight handles for hatchets.  I use my hatchets for a very wide variety of tasks and am constantly sliding my hand up and down the handle to grab it exactly where I want to.  If I want more control I choke way up on it.  If I need more power for chopping I’m holding it at the end.  If I’m becoming fatigued I choke up on it a little bit.  I can shift easily to any spot.  Curved handles are limiting, and for what benefit?  I’ve yet to determine that there is any tangible and meaningful benefit to an S-curved handle on a hatchet.  But there are un-benefits to be sure. When I pick up a curved handled hatchet it typically feels inhibiting and awkward, though some are better or worse.  Again and foremost, they are less ergonomic when shifting your grip up and down the handle.  That is a major consideration to me since I do that constantly.  They are also more prone to breakage.  To be fair, this concern is minor if the grain of the handle is properly aligned and of quality wood, but it is still true and relevant enough to mention.  The curves on this tool are strong and packed into a short distance.  The bottom line is that it just feels really awkward, except when grasped where it is designed to be grasped.  To me, the way I use hatchets, this is basically a design flaw and limits its potential as the multipurpose tool I think it should be.

The handle is also absurdly thick, which in turn makes it heavy.  It seems like a much better club than a handle.   Hickory is dense.  It has one of the highest fuel values among North American woods.  Just looking at it, I’d say 1/3rd or more of the bulk of the handle should be removed straight away and maybe up to half.  So, one third to one half the weight to the handle is just unnecessary excess.  I’ve seen this on other Swedish axes and hatchets as well, all of them actually, at least all of the newer forged ones.  Why?  I shave my handles down until they work right.  They should have some give to them in order to absorb handle shock.  I have probably never acquired a hatchet or axe handle that I didn't shave down at least some.  I would guess that they are targeting a market of inexperienced users who are likely to be rough and break a delicate handle pretty fast.  I’ve seen a youtube video of a guy breaking the handle on his brand new hand forged Swedish hatchet right out of the box by gross misuse, and it was thick as hell like all of them.  But I don’t think just increasing thickness and eye size is a good solution and I’ll address that further presently.  Suffice to say that to my way of thinking, this handle is an abomination in terms of the clunky thudding feel of it and were I to keep it (which I wouldn’t), I would remove a LOT of wood until it had a reasonable amount of spring to it, because now it offers no appreciable shock absorption.

A random selection of axes and hatchets sorted roughly by size.  I’m not saying that any of these are perfect, just showing the difference in thickness.  The Husqvarna is by far the most clunky of the lot and considerably more so than even the double bitted 3.5 lb axe pictured, which could stand some shaving down.  The next thickest is the Gransfors forest axe, except where I thinned it out near the head quickly years ago just to make it useable at all, though it is still in need of a proper reworking.  The trend toward thick handles seems more pronounced in these Swedish axes for some reason.  The Husqvarna is the thickest axe handle on the property.  It is frankly a waste of hickory.

Finally, the swell at the top of the handle where it enters the eye comes down too far.  It can’t be grasped at all comfortably up close to the head.  That can be reshaped by carving and rasping, but only so far, because the eye is freakin’ HUGE!  To my way of thinking, it is not an eye fit for a hatchet.  it is an axe eye.  Drastic wood removal would be required to get the handle the shape that I need for it in to function comfortably.  So, that means scooping the back out more to get the top of the handle shaved down to a reasonable thickness for grasping up close to the head.  The huge eye pretty much kills any interest I may have had in modifying this tool into a useable hatchet.

Showing relative widths of some handles.  Note how bulky the handle of the Husqvara is near the eye.  All of the others are easily grasped near the eye.  The potential for shaving it down is limited by the axe sized eye.

Showing relative eye sizes of some hatchets, with the Husqvarna topping all.  That could be seen as a good thing if we plan on remaining the ham-fisted oafs that industrial society is turning us into, but no thanks.  Note the smallest eye has the oldest handle, over 20 years old.  There is more than one way not to break handles, and increasing handle thickness is not the best way, possibly the worst.  Again, this is assuming a versatile, portable hatchet.  Some argument could maybe be made for this design as beater hatchet, but I’m not really sure that is a totally defensible position.

A few good points on the handle:  It is hafted pretty solidly, the wood is far from the worst grade of hickory and it’s not varnished which is good.  Actually, the grain alignment is reasonable too.  In competent hands it would be very unlikely to break due to grain alignment.  There is heartwood in the handle, but that is not always a deal killer as some would have us believe and, again, in competent hands it would probably be just fine.  It is not the top grade handle you find on more expensive hand forged Swedish axes, but the wood is perfectly adequate.  The thickness can be fixed, but the length and shape I find unacceptable for my personal use, so this handle is basically a total loss to me unless I want to take it off and club fish with it.

Examining, feeling and handling this tool has resulted in a lot of expletives, brow furrowing and head shaking.  What this tool is, is an axchet or maybe an axshit!  It is stuck between two proven concepts and seeming more like it was tossed together from disparate ideas.  It is a light axe head, with an axe eye stuck on a too short handle that is just a squashed axe handle, yet far too thick for even a full sized axe.  I frankly don’t like curved handles on a hatchet at all.  Even if I did, I still think this one is too drastically curved in too short of a space and just feels awkward to handle and shift my hand around on.  You can’t choke all the way up on it comfortably, not even close, and options for modifying it to be able to do so are limited by the large eye.  The edge is out of alignment in two planes, not from hafting, but from slack workmanship.  I didn’t really test the steel, but I would still hope and guess that is one place where this tool is going to score well.  But again who knows.  I’m not going to find out, because I’m not going to keep it.  I would consider putting a short axe handle on it which could be used with either two hands or one, but the poor workmanship on the head is a deal killer when I could use a symmetrical drop forged head that I can get for cheap or free, or already have lying about.  So, I’m probably going to sell it, but that is an ethical dilemma since I strongly un-recommend that anyone buy it!  Maybe I should just eat that 40.00 and give it to my mom to use for splitting kindling, because at least it's heavy enough to be good for that.  

I have used this hatchet a little bit.  I use it as a wedge to split logs for making handles and such, for which it is just adequate.  It’s an expensive wedge though!  I’ve also used it to peel bark on the metal tailgate of my truck because I’m not concerned in the least about damaging the edge.  Even for that light use it feels awkward and very stiff since the handle has no appreciable flex on a tool this size.  Basically this is a beater hatchet.  Having a beater hatchet around is fine and all, but making and selling a hand forged one doesn’t make sense to me.

I think this tool is probably designed for inexperienced users.  The huge eye and chunky handle have no doubt been chosen to offset inexperienced use.  In my video review on youtube I said it represented the dumbing down of axes more than any other tool I’ve seen.  Well, I should qualify that somewhat, because there is so much absurdity in the hatchet market right now that I might do myself harm from all the head shaking, eye rolling and face palming if I were to spend too much time on amazon looking at the latest collection of abominations.  I think I said that because this is sold in a line of traditional axes.  The line includes a carpenter’s axe and a multi-use light axe with 26 inch handle, both of which look much more promising.  This is nothing approaching any traditional hatchet I’ve seen and even if it was it was still a bad design for a multi-use tool.  I think this dumbing down for the lowest common denominator (or what Peter Vido calls the devolution of axe handles) is the wrong approach for many of the people who are buying this hatchet.  My prized pet hatchet, a very small Swedish head, has a very small eye.  The handle is probably around 23 years old and was lost in a field for an entire year.  Yet, here it is yet, battered, having chopped through enormous amounts of wood, the tiny eye crammed with 4 metal wedges to keep it on!, still unbroken.  I broke handles learning not to break this one, but that is just the process we have to go through.  Increasing the eye and handle size until the actual functionality of the tool becomes compromised is not a good solution!  Learning the limits of handles and how to replace and repair is part of the deal when it comes to owning and using hatchets.  The various “fool proof” options that have been devised for the increasingly unskilled market all come with an unacceptable cost so far as I’ve seen.
One of the first things I would think to grab in a house fire is this super light Swedish hatchet that has been with me for probably 25 years or more.  This crusty, old and somewhat crude Black Locust handle inserted in the tiny eye is probably around 23 years old, and remains unbroken.  I would guess that I’ve worn nearly 1/4 inch of steel off the edge by sharpening since hafting it to this handle, so it has seen a whole lot of use in that time.  To my way of thinking, the answer to the problem of handle breakage in hatchets is not to try to idiot proof them.  I broke a lot of handles to get where I am today, but that is one of the very reasonable prices I paid for proficiency and knowledge.  And that is as it should be.

I think most of the people that are buying the Husqvarna hatchet are earnestly interested in obtaining a quality hatchet for bushcraft, lifestyle or woodworking use.  But this hatchet is not designed well for any of that.  It’s designed like something you’d have laying around to split kindling, tossed in a chainsaw tray, or under your pickup seat, to drive a wedge here and there (or use as a wedge itself), or to knock off the occasional limb.  Do we need a 40.00 forged hatchet for that stuff?  It doesn’t seem very modifiable as a hatchet and besides that, the modifications would be major enough to prompt the question “why bother?”  Reducing the head weight by removing steel, (which I considered even before I purchased it), is pretty much nixed by the enormous eye.  Perhaps it’s too much to expect an heirloom forged tool for 40.00 that is consistent in quality, but it could at least be designed well in the first place.

Here is what I’d like to see.  I’d like to see Husqvarna stop producing this design or at least add a more sensible and versatile model, even if it is more expensive.  It doesn’t make any sense to me.  It seems much better to design a hatchet that is a real hatchet, designed for versatile one handed use, not an overbuilt clunker like this.  New users that are serious need to get a real hatchet with a normal sized eye and maybe break the handle a couple of times while learning its limits and how to put on and make new handles, not something that has limited potential because it is designed for the lowest common denominator.  I’m not sure I could design the very best hatchet head pattern, or handle for that matter, but designing one better than this doesn’t seem difficult.  Just making the eye smaller and reducing the weight would be a great start.

So, what is a new earnest user to do in the meantime to acquire an affordable new hatchet that is designed and manufactured well?  I can only throw so much money at the problem reviewing one crappy tool after another, or ordering hatchets which I already know have handles that are too short.  For most mass manufactured brands, I’d also have to test the steel and manufacturing quality on multiple samples to get an idea of consistency.  A better option in many ways is to buy used.  There are a lot of quality hatchet heads bouncing around out there.  Some are ruined by burning the handles out in a fire, or by being ground too fast on electric grinders.  Some were not even manufactured well in the first place.  But very many of them are not only okay, but quite excellent.  Yes, a hand forged Swedish steel hatchet is neat I guess, but it is not in any way necessary and it will not do the work for you or perform significantly better just because someone tapped it with a hammer a few times, quite possibly the contrary.  Looking good should fall second to functionality.  I get the aesthetic thing, believe me, I fall for it too, but it is a dangerous trap!  Later, once ready, I would not discourage anyone from investing in a high quality hand forged Swedish hatchet if you can find a decent model, although the handles I’ve seen are much too short and thick, so I would lose them and put on a longer straight one.  I only have direct experience with one Gransfors Bruks hatchet, which I liked well enough, but I bought just the head and put on my own handle on it.  I have yet to use or examine an older, used Swedish axe head that didn’t seem worth owning.  Buying a clean looking one on ebay is probably a pretty good gamble and you can do that and spend less overall than buying the Husqvarna.  Add a 16 or 17 inch straight handle and you could have an amazing tool.  There are plenty of good American brands too, and others.  Try first to find one from a friend or in a junk store.  There are still a lot of them lying about that can be had for cheap or free.

Acquiring a hatchet and learning to use it, maintain it and replace or make handles is a journey.  It’s been a long but rewarding journey for me so far, and it’s far from over.  I have all sorts of questions remaining and new ones come up occasionally.  It’s a journey worth taking.  Much versatile work can be done with this simple tool, but the tool and the knowledge to use, maintain, and repair it come as a package.  We can’t just plunk down some cash and be on our way, and even the best designed hatchet will perform poorly in inexperienced hands.  It certainly would help to have an option in the market that was plug and play and the rest can be learned from there, but I’m not sure that there is, and people may not be able to afford it anyway, as much as it may be worth the cost if the tool is put to use over many years.  It is quite likely that if you hunt around a bit and find a free or cheap head, you can put together a very satisfactory hatchet for as little as no money at all, while learning a lot in the process.  If the project does not go as planned, it is only a waste of time if you don’t learn something and go forward with that new knowledge.

If you made it this far, thank you for your attention and I would be pleased to hear your comments or new hatchet recommendations.

Link to my video review of this hatchet:  https://youtu.be/dK6Ad0uoVqw

Bio:  Steven Edholm.  I have been pursuing various practical arts from primitive to more modern for most of my life in an attempt to regain some of the freedom we have lost as modern living has made us less able to provide for our own needs.  I think about, experiment with, practice, write about and make videos about such things mostly at www.SkillCult.com and  www.youtube.com/skillcult


May 30, 2013

Subsistence Firewood by Hand

Homestead of Igor Vateha in Slovakia

A friend living in Slovakia (the country of my birth and childhood) recently sent us a video in which he processes firewood, using strictly hand tools. It demonstrates his personal twist to what was once traditional in many regions of Europe, but uncommon in North America.

Before you view the actual video, I feel compelled to insert a bit of a profile on the man himself:

Among the people I've come to know well enough to form a solid view of, Igor Vateha is one of the 'pearls'. Glaringly unassuming and humble, the somewhat 'realistic' of the Daniel Quinn fans would likely consider similarly-living individuals as 'leavers'. From what I observe, the majority of them, for the most part, dream and TALK about how good it would be to leave the 'takers' path… while -- within the context of possibilities available to him -- Igor simply does it.

Along with his wife Katka and three children, they maintain a small homestead where electricity or engine-driven gadgets are not needed. When he occasionally visits the nearest village he rides a horse. There isn't a day, he once told me, that he is without an ax in his hands.

What you see him demonstrate, he does on a daily basis. Before the winter sets in, their shed is supplied with 1m to 1.5m long dry logs (mostly dead trees to begin with) from which he prepares enough fuel for their two masonry stoves. The heater takes 50cm pieces and the cookstove 30cm. After years of experimenting with firewood processing variations, the method demonstrated in the video is what he has settled on.

To North Americans it may seem odd. One reason is that the considerations of how one man, with hand tools only, takes care of his family's firewood needs are several generations in the past. Before the age of chainsaws, the standard  was a gasoline engine-powered circular saw for the bucking of logs into stove length billets. Before then horse-powered drag saws did the same. But suppose that one man has none of these aids. Yes, large round logs can be bucked up into stove-length pieces with a one-man crosscut or a frame/'swede' saw, and only then split by hand -- the way we do it in North America. Well, Igor has tried that too, but thinks that what he demonstrates is a less energy-expanding method. I think he has a point.

Now, a bit of food for thought: do you, dear folks, imagine that chainsaws will hum forever? I do not. As for Igor, he simply does what a man of his convictions does --- walks his unassuming talk…

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.

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