Continuing the topic of axe handles from our last blog post we are going to look at the different types of axe handle patterns, handle length, the preferred wood to make the wedge put into the kerf, and finally tackle the vexing question of whether to add a secondary metal wedge when hafting.
At the most basic level there are straight axe handles and curved axe handles. In his Ax Book, Dudley Cook relates that during the Colonial period there were only straight axe handles. Around 1840, curved handles for single bit axes started to appear. The curved handle may have come to prominence because people simply liked how they looked. Whatever the reason curved single bit axe handles are now the standard. There is quite a bit of debate over the efficiency of using a single bit axe with a curved handle. Dudley Cook argues in the Ax Book, using detailed drawings and mathematical formulae, that a curved handle is less accurate for serious chopping. Others view this as baloney.
Double bit axes almost always have a straight handle. The exception is the long out of date curved Adirondack double bit handle. Used predominantly in the Adirondack region of New York the curved double bit handle is a bit of a mystery. One thing is sure though – it certainly adds a graceful touch to a menacing looking double bit axe!
The other two differentiating characteristics of axe handles are the knob ends and the shape of the barrel of the handle.
The knob ends are either a sharp angled “fawn’s foot,” a more rounded version of a fawn’s foot referred to as a scroll end or a “swell end “reminiscent of a small knob on a baseball bat. Whatever the style the knob end allows the hand to slide down the handle without slipping off. Finally, the barrels of most handles are an oval shape. Occasionally you will see double bit handles that have been shaped into an octagonal pattern.
The length of the handle depends on the size of the axe head and the type of chopping you are going to do. Single bit axe handles range from 20” – 42.” A common size for large trees of Pacific NW was 42”. Smaller trees found in the Northeast were cut with axes handled at around 32" with 36” being more standard size in the rest of the country. Double bit axes can come in sizes from 28” to 42” with the more standard sizes being 34” and 36.” Below are the different length handles offered by the Ober Company of Chagrin Falls, Ohio in 1894:
When buying replacement axe handles you will see a cut into the end of the handle where the axe head is to be fixed. This kerf cut is to insert the wooden wedge which expands the handle material against the eye of the axe head ensuring a tight fit.
The wood used in axe wedges is also a matter of debate. Some prefer hardwood wedges like oak as they are easier to put into the kerf cut; others like soft wood wedges like poplar or pine that absorb moisture and theoretically keep the handle tighter.
When looking at an axe you may notice a metal wedge (or two) put diagonally across the wooden wedge. The need for this is argued back and forth by axe enthusiasts.
One school of thought (Dudley Cook in his Ax Book adheres to this view) is that the metal wedge is a necessity. Bernie Weisgerber in his manual published by the U.S. Forest Service An Ax To Grind argues vehemently against a secondary wedge: “The metal wedges tend to split the grain on the hickory handle. I can’t see any reason why you would want to do that to a properly hung ax.” [We here at B&C agree with Bernie and don’t add a secondary metal wedge when hafting our axes].
We hope that these posts have provided some ammunition for arguing with your friends about the various aspects of axe handles from the wood used to their shape and how to wedge them. I mean what’s better than arguing about axes!