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The American Axe

Axes from Eric Sloane's American Barns and Covered Bridges

There may be no other tool as well-known, cherished, and critical to the livelihood of the early American family as the axe. Chainsaws didn’t become a common tool until the 1960’s, so it is fairly recent that the axe has become a rather antiquated tool. However, as the turn back to natural living and homesteading increases, the axe is being reclaimed as the serious tool it really is. Folks like Yellowood Design Studio have made a business out of axe restoration, adding a modern touch to an ancient tool.

Regardless of whether you are getting an axe for splitting the occasional firewood, or if you are a serious Jack Pine Savage, it is a manly trait to know this time-honored tool. Understanding the axe’s purpose in design and history is guaranteed to make you swing it better and hone your appreciation when you come across a vintage specimen.

A Brief History on the American Axe

Like most things American, the axe did not originate on our continent. The axe, in some form or fashion, is about as old as the iron age, and older still if you consider stone axes. What I mean by the American axe is the style of axe that has been specialized to the American forest. When settlers first came to the New World they brought with them the European style axes of their homeland. These axes had long heads and were suited to the small trees of their forest and performing small tasks such as shingling and splitting firewood. Unfortunately these were inadequate to handle the size of the trees in our virgin forest.

As time went on and those long axe blades (bits) were sharpened and ground down, the settlers realized a shorter profile made a better felling axe as it had less wobble with a felling stroke. Local blacksmiths began to take orders for axes specialized to their environment and use. After a century of expansion, some axe manufactures boasted over 300 patterns of axe heads.

Common Axe Patterns (Click for larger)
Axe Patterns Woodsmanship Bernard S. Mason

Axe Patterns from the book Woodsmanship by Bernard S. Mason. Illustrations by Frederic H. Kock

Abe Lincoln the “Rail Candidate”

lincoln-axe splitting log

Abraham Lincoln was known as the “Rail Candidate” for his days splitting fence rails from logs.

In a day and age when hard work was known to build character, proficiency with an axe was proof of time well served on the character refining end of a log. The axe culture was so pervasive and respected that Abraham Lincoln ran as the “ Rail Candidate“, a reference to his days splitting logs into fence rails. After the Civil War ended he would visit the camps of soldiers, many of them wounded, and demonstrate his chopping abilities. As one veteran remembers:

“After this handshaking, and before leaving, he picked up and ax in front of the steward’s quarters and made the chips fly for about a minute, until he had to stop, fearful of chipping some of the boys, who were catching them on the fly.”

It is also reported that he would demonstrate his strength by holding an axe at arm’s length for a minute, something the soldiers were unable to repeat.

The Parts of an Axe

There is more to an axe than we might realize at first glance. Each element of the axe was customized based on individual preferences and type of work.

Axe Anatomy

(Click for Larger)

Choosing the Right Axe

When choosing an axe, bigger is not always better. It’s best to fit to function.

Single-bit vs. Double-bit

In the “ Parts of an Axe” illustration above, the single-bit axe is certainly more common than the double-bit. A single-bit, also known as a “ pole-axe” has a weighted end forming a wedge which aids in chopping and splitting. The blunt end would be used to drive wedges when splitting large logs.

Although a relatively simple concept, the double-bit axe was developed in 1850 by William Mann in Pennsylvania, making it a true American axe. It quickly gained popularity by northern lumberjacks because of its balanced handling and versatility. One edge is razor-sharp while the other is ground a little more dull. The dull end is used for limbing and working around roots and dirt.

What size axe should you get?

Once you have decided on a style of axe you next need to decide what size. It’s a good idea to have a few axes around the house for various uses so it’s fine if you can’t decide on a particular one. In most cases you are looking at the weight of the head and the length of the handle. These are broken down into 2 different categories to make it easy: a full-sized axe or a 3/4 (three-quarter) axe.

Axe Sizes

Full-size and 3/4 axes. Original illustration by Frederic H. Kock in Bernard S. Mason’s book Woodsmanship. Annotations added. (Click for Larger)

Three-quarter vs. Full-Sized

For most situations a 3/4 axe will suffice. The smaller axe works well for felling, as the lighter weight is less tiring during the swing. Only for serious splitting is the larger, full-sized axe really needed.

Resources for Axe Related Goodness

There is far more to the axe than can be related in an article. If this is an exciting topic for you rest assured there is plenty of information to keep your old-school, homesteading, jack pine-self happy for days.

Woodsmanship by Bernard S. Mason

Many illustrations and probably the best all around book on axes I have found. Unfortunately it’s out of print but there is an online version!

An Ax to Grid: A Practical Ax Manual

Written by Bernie Weisgerber, an axe enthusiast and historic preservation specialist for the USDA Forest Service. Bernie also has an accompanying video here or download here.

American Barns and Covered Bridges by Eric Sloane

Everything by Eric Sloane is amazing. If you like Americana, you’ll love anything he has written. This book has some wonderful illustrations of various types of axes.

Abraham Lincoln and His Ax: Reality Behind the Legend

A great short read on Abraham Lincoln and his axe.

 

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