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Axe handles, size is important.

Many years ago I had a 2.1/2lb axe which I made a handle for. My reasoning was that a bigger thicker handle was necessary for a better grip and comfortable working. A few years later I had a few times when I could not even pick up a pencil, let alone grip anything. The pain in my hand and wrist was terrible, especially at 3am in the morning.
An 8th generation hurdle maker at The Royal Show told me why. My handle was too big and the axe was also too heavy for what I was using it for.
Since making handles of the right size I have never had the same issues with my hand. I think that a lot of axe handles made today are too large and the wrong profile. Big beefy men may be able to use them but the rest of us will struggle and can damage ourselves through gripping the wrong size handle or loosing control because it is too big. What about woman and children and men who have small hands.

I measured some older axes with original handles, and then some of the modern made ones from respected makers. Personally I have no issues with reshaping handles and in some cases it is unfortunately necessary to make and axe fit for purpose.

Top axe 4 lb Elwell 36mm x 22mm and flairs width wise out to 27mm at the end
2.5 lb Elwell 20mm up to 23mm x 34mm
Small Whitehouse 20mm x 30mm
The bottom axe is a handle I made and conforms to the above measurements.

Top 2 axes are the GB wildlife hatchet.
Original handle as shipped 21- 23mm to 33 – 40mm
My modified handle
GB Carving axe 27mm x 38mm
Husqvarna 26 – 36 x 46 – 56mm
Not pictured here but I took measurements of a students Hans Karlsson sloyd axe 25mm x 35 – 40 
The GB carving axe is just a bit too big for me, and for people with smaller hands it is way too big.
Wildlife hatchet is fine at its smallest measurements but as you hold it near the head it becomes bigger and more difficult to hold. The profile changes to more of a point than rounded which hurts the fingers. I have just carved this off mainly from the underside of the handle but a bit off the top as well.
The Husqvarna, well IMHO this axe is designed for grunts hacking away blindly at bits of tree. I find it unbalanced and difficult to hold. Impossible to hold when choking it up. Was the reasoning for this handle that it would be employed by people who did not care for there tools and the bigger thicker handle would take longer to break.
Why is the Hans Karlson handle so large, it also looks too big for the head. The handle gets huge near the head, when choking it up.
I have been using axes most of my life, and I know we all prefer different size handles with different profiles. I would welcome feedback on handle size especially from experienced users from around the world.
My ideal handle size is about 20mm x 30/34mm, what is yours?
2.1/2 llb Elwell axe with original handle. Perfect fit for my hand
 Modified wildlife hatchet. I find that if my fingers just tickle my palm then this is a comfortable fit.
 Orignal wildlife hatchet. Too big and the bottom of the handle tapers to a point which bites into the fingers. This is a great axe for people starting out green woodwork as it is light. Choking up is a very necessary technique and this axe needs modifying for this to be safe and comfortable. It seems that this handle was designed for chopping branches and trees with no thought given to its other possible uses.
Husqvarna, very tiring and painful for my hand.

Making the handle too small is a problem as well. The fingers will press into the palm. I carved a GB carving axe handle, taking too much off. I solved this by wrapping and gluing suede leather around the handle. I rather like this very positive grip the leather gives.

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Modified axe the answer

 Sherwood modified it so that he could take out raised bumps or bows out of the middle of cleft wood. The centre or the domed part of the axe is going to hit the wood first and so it can be used very precisely and will not cut the outer edges of the wood. Mainly used along the grain. Other axes do work but with a rounded blade this axe will only cut on a small section or arc of the blade.

If you have ever used an”Oxhead” adze you will have noticed that it not really a tool fit for purpose. This adze has a dome just like Sherwoods axe but in this case it only offers disadvantages. Often sold as a chair makers adze for bottoming chair seats and it is for this purpose I bought it. I sold it on years ago as it did not work. 

The bevel is huge and being on the inside it needs a lot of work to make it more acute. The obtuse bevel can be sharpened razor sharp but the problem is, as the tool slices through the wood, that this huge bevel will slow it down. A simple analogy is try pushing you fist through sand on the beech and then pushing your hand with your fingers tips first. The obtuse bevel will mean you will have to put a lot more effort, or energy, into the tool.
The sweep, that is the curve on the underside is steep and so will only take out small bites of wood, not what you want for chair seats where a shallow sweep is best.
The worst bit is that the edge is domed. WTF, who designed this tool, not someone who ever used an adze for chair bottoming. The shaving that can be taken out is small and you will be there for hours trying to hollow out a seat.

Now there well may be people who have found the perfect use of this tool, please let me know. For me and my uses this tool does not work and please do not waste your money on it.

Trevor, a student of mine, has just bought a second hand Gransfor Bruks two handed adze. I like it and would consider buying it for bowl work and chair bottoming. The sweep is less steep than the hand adze but still not quite flat enough for chair work. It works nicely and on a bowl it will waste the wood with little effort, whereas with the hand adze you will be still bashing away with an achey arm. I am still not sure about the GB hand adze, something not quite right about it. If you have one do grind the bevel further back, I have found this helps.

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A modified axe

Been rather busy of late, but I thought I would share this great axe which has been modified by a friend of mine, Sherwood Keogh who splits a lot of wood and makes a lot of fencing, gates and lath.
Any guesses as to why it has been modified in such a way?  The answer in a few days.

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Why we do not leave an axe in the axe block

One thing that I always teach my students is that you never leave an axe on or in your axe block.

An axe can easily be knocked out and fall. A potential source of injury and a damaged axe. The axe belongs on the floor under the block or in its mask or holder, or may be on a large surface.

Have a look at these photos and you will see that bits of wood have stuck to the axe. If there is any moisture in the wood this can start rusting as well. These bits of wood are really stuck and do take effort to remove. The other problem with this, is that the could stop the edge biting into the wood. The skipping axe is another potential injury, very small, but lets keep the odds in our favour.

You will see that the axe in the above picture has its whole edge in the wood. I have been told by many different people about injuries caused by the tip only being in the block. The hand or a digit can get caught between the block and the inclined axe edge. Go on set your axe in a block and see what happens if you reach, for say, a knife on the block, not looking properly. The digit will get trapped and badly cut. Really not nice. Now who would set an axe in a tree trunk at 6 foot above ground? You know, to keep it safe. Do you want this falling on your head or shoulder? Again I heard of someone doing this and then stringing up a hammock on the same branch, caught his hand between axe edge and tree.

What stories do you have about your axes? How do you keep them safe? Finally what are the most stupid things you have seen or heard? Do let me know, and post a comment. When I first started teaching at camps and festivals once or twice people would chop the axe into the ground “to keep it safe”. The horror, the speechlessness, the time then spent grinding out the damage.

Personally I prefer cross grain blocks rather than end grain block. The axe does not get stuck in a cross grain block. More importantly it is harder to chop your axe into, so you are not able to store your axe this way.

On another note my friend barn and talented spoon carver has posted a video on axe blocks, well worth a watch.

My Axe Blocks from barn carder on Vimeo.

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Axe mask

If you do not work leather then making an axe mask may be a bit of a challenge. Why not make one from wood instead and practise you morticing skills as well.

They work really well and most of my axes have wooden masks. The band is inner tube from car or lorry wheels. and these can be easily picked up free from anywhere that changes tyres. Maybe not the most beautiful of items, and I am sure that some of you will come up with more elegant solutions.
Morticing by hand is easy and it does not need to take very long.
So send examples to me that you have made and I will post them up here.
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Quality tools – cheap axe

I love my Gransfor Bruks carving axe, as I love my Whitehouse and Gilpin kentish pattern axes. These are known as top quality tools by anyone in the know, and sometimes they can cost an arm and a leg. Gransfor Bruks has been doing outstanding business for some years now. I have seen people selling the axes at markets to passers by, and at £50 minimum each. That is something I thought that I would never see.

I am a great believer in using and renovating old tools that others throw away, and have written articles for magazines describing the processes involved. If you are starting out on your greenwood or bushcraft journey and can not afford a GB axe, or have not yet learnt the techniques of making, fitting and sharpening old tools then there is another option.

The old adage of buy the most expensive tool you can afford is still generally true, but to make my point about renovtion, I went out and bought the cheapest axe I could find. How much? £3.25 for a “Rolson Quality tools”.

It was the gold colour that drew me in, a gold coloured axe, cool. Five minutes on the grinder, or you could easily use a file as the metal in axes is quite soft. Then onto the bench stones where I got the original angle of 60+ degrees down to 32 degrees and slightly sided. Siding means that the bevels on each side of the axe are not even, and being right handed, I need the left hand bevel to be longer and flatter and the right needs a more obtuse bevel. This is so I can use the axe in a more upright or vertical position, just what I like for green wood working.
The handle was a nightmare, far to big for my hand. I often hold the axe up near the head for greater control, so out came the knife and I whittled the handle down.

Above is the end result: it is sharp and can slice a sheet of newspaper easily. It worked a treat on green wood. On seasoned fast-grown ash I struck a problem as the edge rolled or bent over slightly, so out came the diamond stone and I resharpened it. The same happened again, cheap axes, I was thinking good for splitting wood only. This time I resharpened again and took the bevel to just over 35 degrees and I have had no problems with it since, and have hacked through a fair bit of wood with it.
I like the shape of the head and the toe is perfect for getting into the wood, especially when doing spoons. I still do not particularly like the handle, and would like to replace it with one I have made. The steel feels just a bit softer than my other named brand axes, but since getting the edge geometry right, this is not much of an issue.
The thing is, that if I sanded the handle smooth and removed all paint etc, blacken the head, and asked you to use it, would you be able to tell this was a cheap £3.25 axe?
This would not be my first choice when selecting an axe to use in my workshop, but then again I do have over 20 to choose from. With a little modification it works and works well. When I first got my GB wildlife axe I still had to grind the edge to the geometry I needed for the work I do.