HOW WE MAKE B&C AXES
Have you ever wondered what goes into making our heirloom B&C axes?
It has been a long, strange trip from our garage to a fully equipped shop in South Portland on the banks of the Fore River. Through the past years we have continually tweaked our axe making process to make it more efficient, green and safe. What has never been lost is our adherence to methods that you would find in an axe shop in Oakland, Maine in the 1930’s (albeit with newer equipment). In short, we take tool steel, apply heat, pressure and skill and make an axe that Field & Stream Magazine calls one of the four best in the world.
Read on to learn how we’re keeping the tradition of axe making in Maine alive.
In the 1900s, hundreds of axe patterns were used across America. But in Maine, a unique pattern was developed: the Maine wedge. This pattern has a thick poll that tapers into a “V” shape at the bit setting it apart from many other axe patterns.
Our own Allagash Cruiser is patterned after a Maine wedge axe that we borrowed from the collection of the Patten (Maine) Lumbermen’s Museum. We have come full circle and are proud that our axe now hangs on the wall at the museum along with those from Maine makers of the past.
Maine handle maker, Tanner Wilcox, designed the handles for our axes in a traditional New England style - thin and whippy with a modified knob end. It is a handle that would be recognizable to Maine loggers in the early 1900’s. Our handles are made from hickory and turned by an Amish community in Ohio as there is no hickory to speak of in Maine.
For the Allagash Cruiser, we start with a 2.5-inch diameter by 2.5-inch long billet of medium carbon tool steel, which weighs approximately 3.5 pounds.
Our experienced axe makers place the steel billet in a gas forge that reaches a temperature of nearly 1900 degrees. This heating process softens the steel, which will then be shaped by our hydraulic press, power hammer, and hammer and anvil.
Multiple dies are used to square the steel billet into a rectangle, punch the eye with a slitter die, then use a series of drifts to finalize the eye. After the billet has been squared and punched it is rough forged to make the bit of the axe. At the end of this rough forging process, we have transformed a round piece of steel to an “axe-y” shape that only needs to be ground to reach its final profile.
Grinding the axe to final shape starts with an aluminum pattern and a sharpie. Grind to the line! We use a 6” x 79” high speed belt grinder that hogs off material. Sparks fly. Grinding is still done the old fashioned way – by hand.
The initial grind shapes the axe to near its final dimensions and a preliminary edge is put on the bit. We also remove the scale from forging. (However, we leave the scale on the top half of the axe as we like the nice contrast with the shiny bit.)
After punching the eye, rough forging and grinding, we have lost about a pound of steel.
After rough grinding, we stamp our logo on the axe head. We also tip our hats to long-gone Maine craftsmen, such as those at Oakland, Maine's Emerson & Stevens, by stamping the initials of the axe maker and the year the axe was manufactured.
A successful heat treatment will harden the steel, but not make it so brittle that it will chip.
Heat treatment starts with heating the axe heads to up to 1525 degrees in the tempering oven. When we reach the necessary temperature, we quickly quench the axe head in salt water from Casco Bay, drawn right outside our front door. (For good luck, we add a drop of single malt scotch to the quenching bucket too.)
By heating and immediately cooling the steel, we’ve changed its crystalline structure, making the steel even stronger. To ensure that the axe head isn’t too brittle, we draw back the temper.
Tempering means we’ll gradually warm the axe head to about 450 degrees, then slowly let it cool. This process will give the entire axe a Rockwell hardness of 56 to 58. We harden the entire axe to allow the poll to be used for other purposes, like driving in wedges or tent stakes. The eye, on the other hand, is softened a bit so it can absorb shock when being used.
More on the chemistry of the heat treating and tempering process can be found in our blog post here.
FINAL GRIND & SHARPENING
After heat treatment, the axe head goes back to the grinder to give it approximately a 22-degree angle at the bit, similar to that found on traditional Maine wedge pattern axes. We then finish the axe by using a leather strop to make it wicked sharp.
Hafting is the process of attaching the handle to the axe head. At Brant & Cochran, we haft in the traditional way – with a shave horse and hand tools. Starting with an Amish-turned hickory handle of our own design, we shape it to fit the eye using rasps, draw knives, spoke shaves, razor knives, and sandpaper.
Once the handle fits into the eye, we pound a black walnut wedge in the kerf cut of the handle to ensure it’s snug. We do not use a secondary metal wedge as this splits the handle wood and can introduce weakness to the haft.
Once the axe is fully assembled, the handle is rubbed with two coats of boiled linseed oil over two days to condition it. After the last coat has soaked in, we rub the handle with our unique paste wax which is made of beeswax, raw linseed oil, and a drop of single malt scotch.
A light coat of paste wax made of camellia oil and beeswax is applied to the axe head to curb rusting. Finally, we mask the axe with a custom Maine-made leather sheath to protect both the axe and you!
Both the axe head and handle wax can be purchased as part of our axe care kit.