Into the Gorge…

usfsrrgindianstaircaseme_zpsollsd2op

Howdy folks! I meant to post sooner, but as there’s no internet access at my housing, I have to walk or cycle into town to get wifi. I guess this is a good thing, in that I am spared much of the chaos and political flame-wars of the internet, but it also means that my ability to keep up my posts will be rather limited.

I am very excited to be working in the beautiful Red River Gorge, with 3 other backcountry ranger interns to share the workload. On our first field work day, our supervisor took us to Indian Staircase, which is an unofficial, user-created trail. The views made the precarious climb well worth it:

usfsrrgindianstaircase1_zps1xdvkboq

The next day, we trekked Auxiere Ridge, which is a very popular designated trail route, with a spur trail to Double Arch.

usfsrrgauxiereridge1_zpsw19wqons

usfsrrgauxiereridge_zps2hx9n6of

We made good distance that day, hiking approximately 11 miles. Auxiere Ridge is one of the trails that receives a lot of use, and was the site of a fairly recent wildfire caused by negligent visitors. Part of our job as backcountry rangers is to provide navigational assistance to visitors, educate them about Leave No Trace principles using the Authority of the Resource, and to naturalise illegal campsites.

Bordering the Red River Gorge is the adjacent Clifty Wilderness, of some 13,000 acres. It is the home of rich conifer woodlands dominated by Canada Hemlock and Eastern White Pine.

USFSRRGCliftyW

usfsrrgrockbridgepinusstrobus_zpsafrxwruf

Many of these trees are gigantic, reaching over 100 ft in height and probably over 200 years old.

Fortunately for me, I have made solid friendship with Charlie, who is a crosscut and chainsaw evaluator in the Cumberland Ranger District, and I will be receiving my crosscut certification in time. Right now I am looking forward to going out with his wilderness trail crew on April 8th.

“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” ~ John Muir

usfsrrgcloudsplitter1_zpsblc1pdwc

New Job at Daniel Boone National Forest

Well folks, I am pleased to announce that I will be heading down to Kentucky for a Forest Service job next month. I will be a lead backcountry ranger intern working in the Red River Gorge Geological Area. A portion of the Gorge is designated as the Clifty Wilderness, with some 12,600 acres of rugged terrain. More information about Red River Gorge can be found on the USFS website.

At the start of the new year, I began hunting around for jobs on the SCA website, Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, and USAJobs. A lot of opportunities pop up in January and February, and they tend to come and go rather quickly as positions get filled. It pays to check daily, which is how I found out about this job on the SCA website.

My working period will extend through 3 seasons, from mid-March to the end of November, about 37 weeks. Here’s the position description:

Serve as the long term backcountry ranger intern during the 2017 field season working with other SCA interns and volunteers in the Red River Gorge (RRG).  This position works the entire season from spring through fall.  Patrolling backcountry areas of the RRG you will make visitor contacts, providing one-on-one education to visitors on topics such as Leave No Trace principles, wilderness values, and basic rules and regulations of the area. You will help rehabilitate areas of the RRG impacted by heavy recreational use, remove fire rings from campsites, block visitor created trails, install signs and remove trash, monitor visitor use through the use of road and trail counters as well as personal observations.

I will also have the opportunity to attend USFS public meetings that involve determining how Red River Gorge will be managed in the future.

I am pretty excited about this one : ). I’ve have never been to the Gorge, but after seeing some trip report videos posted by blogger That Hiking Guy, it seems like a fantastic place. I’ll post an update when I’m down in Kentucky and settled-in.

Cathedral Pines Preserve

Over 300 years ago, long before the American Revolution and French and Indian War, back in the early days of the colonies, the first settlers must have looked upon the vast forests of spire-like trees with awe…and some trepidation. Many explorers and naturalists were delighted to find an assortment of tree varieties which bore striking similarities to European species…American Ash, Chestnut, Mountain Ash, White Oak, and American Beech, to name a few. And how large these trees must have been, for the indigenous peoples had only stone and fire to fell timber with, until they began trading with European explorers (as early as the mid 1500s in Canada).

Aside from trade, the timber market formed the backbone of the economy in the northeast, as the forests seemed like an endless resource to the colonists. One tree in particular was instrumental in the events leading to the start of the American Revolution – and that was the Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus. Virgin pines grew to impressive sizes, similar to their western cousins, Pinus monticola, across the Rocky Mountains. On what is now Dartmouth College in new Hampshire stood an Eastern White Pine that was judged to be 240 ft tall. An early Connecticut settler, Ezra Styles, measured one that had a circumference of 15 ft (about 4ft 9 inches diameter). On the stump of another, he counted 400 annual growth rings.

Pines were important as “mast wood” for shipbuilding. Compared to Riga Fir, which supplied mast wood for the Royal Navy (imported from the Baltic), the wood of Eastern White Pine was not only lighter, but also stronger. It was Captain George Weymouth of England’s Royal Navy who saw the potential in Eastern White Pine forests after exploring the coast and estuaries of what is now Maine in the early 1600s. Before long, pines were exported to England in specially designed ships which could carry timbers 100 ft or more in length.

In 1691, the demand for white pine was high enough that the Crown imposed a claim to all trees over 2 ft diameter that were located within 3 miles of any river or the sea. These trees were notched with a brand known as the “King’s Broad Arrow”. This didn’t sit right with many colonists and loggers, as it significantly encroached on their profit, and negatively affected the local economies. In retaliation, some Yankees would cut the branded trees down at night, or simply beat-up the Royal “mast agents”, whose job it was to enforce the Crown’s policy. A few brave colonists even dressed up as Natives before chopping the pines, years before the Boston Tea Party. Retribution from the British was swift – sawmills were burned and loggers driven from their homes in reprisal for their actions. In short time, the King’s Broad Arrow became as hated as the tax on tea and the Stamp and Currency Acts.

Once the American Revolution began, numerous Patriot flags were embroidered with images of the Eastern White Pine, including the Massachusetts’ Navy flag, Washington’s Cruisers standard, the New England naval ensign, and the Continental flag (which was flown at the battle of Bunker Hill in June of 1775), as well as many other variants. The noble pine had become a symbol for not just New England patriotism, but also American independence.

Unfortunately for the pines, the conclusion of the Revolution didn’t end mass harvesting. By 1850, most of the virgin growth in New England had been cut, and loggers were spreading ever westward to find more. When the regrowth of Eastern White Pines reached maturity, these were also chopped down in a second great harvest between 1875 to 1925. But not all of those pines fell to the relentless swings of the woodsman’s axe. In Connecticut, there exists a grove of second-growth Eastern White Pine and Eastern Hemlock. And today, I had the chance to walk among giants.

cathedralpines_zpsrqcdoqcd

cathedralpines1_zpsjzcc4re7

Cathedral Pines is probably one of Connecticut’s best-kept secrets. It is a small 42 acre preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy, but if I’m not mistaken, it is also the largest stand of second-growth trees in New England.  This is a place I longed to visit after reading about it in the book New England Wilds (authored by Ogden Tanner and the editors of Time-Life books).

Today I turned 24, though my age is just a short chapter in the lifetime of these trees. Many are 200 years old or more, stretching skywards at heights of 125 ft. Standing among them is like visiting grand  parents…they have many stories to tell.

cathedralpines3_zpss5pokmnp

cathedralpines2_zps8kljuzds

They are still standing thanks to J.F.R. Calhoun, a nearby dairy farmer who had grown up playing in these very woods. In 1883, he purchased the 42 acres to save the pines from being cut down by loggers. The property remained in the family until his descendants gave it to the Nature Conservancy in 1967. Tornadoes have damaged the site 1989, but there is still much to see. This massive Eastern White Pine (below) is among the oldest with a DBH of approximately 4 ft.

cathedralpinesme_zpshyrcteu6

And up on the crest of the hill, one can see the distinctive folds of the Housatonic Highlands, which merge into the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

cathedralpinesme2_zpsxpo6lzr9

The forest is always changing. Trees fall, decompose into the ground, and become nutrition for new growth. Despite all the changes (you could call it “terra-forming”) we have made to the landscape, even after miles upon miles of clear-cut, the trees always return and continue to be our companions. The house you are living in, the warmth of a hearth fire, the welcoming shade on a summer day, and the air you breathe are all things we owe to the existence of trees.

Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world” ~ John Muir

 

Winter Trekking Through a Snowstorm

Recently, the Northeastern US received a surprise visit from Old Man Winter. Weather forecasters predicted snowfall accumulations of 8-15 inches across Connecticut ahead of the first major winter storm of the season. Just to point out how random New England weather can be, temperatures in some parts of the state reached an incredibly mild 60 F/15 C under clear skies on the 8th, the day before the storm.

I have been waiting since December for enough snow to fall to go snowshoeing, so I decided to head down to Ridgefield, Connecticut, to trek across a section of the Ive’s Trail. The snow began to fall sometime around 04:00 in the morning, and driving there was tedious and slow.

For this trip, I brought my winter kit load-out (for overnights to 3 day trips), which I’ve managed to bring down to a base weight of approximately 18 lbs/8.16 kg. I could squeeze everything into the LK-35 (except the snowshoes), but having an extra 10 litres with the Mantis Dragonfly pack makes life a lot easier. I’m still evolving the winter kit, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Eventually, I’d like to pair a lightweight tent stove with my tipi shelter as a hot-tent setup.

20179febblizzardhike1_zpswi0rpozw

The plan was to start at the southern end of Bennett’s Pond, and hike as far as I could go through the storm. This would be a challenge due to the weather conditions and steep terrain, and the going would only get tougher as the snow levels grew higher.

The wind was picking up all around Bennett’s Pond, minimizing visibility. In some places, even though I was right next to the shore, I couldn’t quite see the opposite side.

20179febblizzardhike4_zps4tuo2fb4

I continued on until I reached the foot of Pine Mtn, the tallest ridge in southwestern Connecticut at 997 ft (304 m). Checking my map, I had the option to take a side trail straight up the western side of the ridge, but I opted to maintain my course, going the longer way around. At this point, the snow was powdery and close to 8 inches deep, and trying to climb the steep side would take a lot of energy.

Even going the longer way took some determination, but at length, I made it to the top of Pine Mtn. Here’s the view from the bluff facing southwest.

20179febblizzardhike5_zpsotwkhjqy

Not much to see, is there? lol

The wind was roaring across Pine Mtn from the north, scooping up great waves of snow. With temperatures down to 23 F by noon, the wind chill factor reached near 0 F.

As the elevation began to flatten out, I strapped on the snowshoes. The reason why I didn’t put them on earlier is because of the effects of drifting snow across uneven terrain. High wind displaces the snow, moving it from exposed surfaces, and creating pockets of deep accumulation in places that are more sheltered. Some parts of the trail were barely covered, while other areas were much deeper.

20179febblizzardhike7_zpseetjocdh

At around 13:00, I found a relatively-sheltered location off-trail near the summit. I put up my tipi to rest and get out of the wind for a bit.

20179febblizzardhike6_zpso05wvez5

The shelter can be deployed with 4 or 5 stakes, and the steep angles on all sides make it ideal at shedding snow. However….with only one small vent, condensation will build up inside and freeze. I’d like to add maybe 3 more vents to the top.

By 14:30, I was back on the trail, heading east into Wooster Mtn State Park. At one point I had to negotiate 100 ft climb onto a rocky ledge, which went straight up at a very steep angle. I probably spent 15 minutes struggling to reach the top, sliding in the snow. Thankfully, it was mostly downhill from there.

At around 15:30, the snowfall ceased, but the winds did not. By 16:00, I reached the trail cross-over at Route 7. I decided to leave it at that. I had travelled 6 miles, but the effort felt like I put in 12. Hiking/snowshoeing in conditions like this can be a double-edged sword. Most of the time, you’re alone and the probably the only one out on the trail….and you are therefore also the only one packing down the trail ;). Still, this was a great workout to test my endurance. It was fantastic to see what this area looks like under a cloak of snow :).

20179febblizzardhike2_zpsul8gpopf

New Life For An Old Double Bit

Back in December, after scanning ebay for quality, inexpensive axe heads, I landed a great deal with a gentleman from Idaho. He was selling an unmarked Michigan pattern double-bit for $20.80 with free shipping. Aside from some minor pitting and surface rust, a few chips on one of the blades, and some dings from a hammer, the head appeared to be in tip-top condition. I couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this, so I bought it.

There are many misconceptions out there regarding vintage axes, and as stated in my recent post Rambling About Vintage Axes, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Just because there’s no visible brand name or logo, it does not mean that the axe is “cheap”. Years of corrosion or abuse can easily wear away at a manufacturer’s embossed logo or name. An intact maker’s stamp matters more to collectors than to those of us who simply want quality users.

axedb2_zpsxkhyvuiv

With this particular axe head, I was pleasantly surprised to see how little wear there was on both bits. I could even see the original factory bevel grinding marks. It weighs 3.5 lbs exactly, and has convexed cheeks with ridges in the eye. The above photo is the result after a 30-hour vinegar immersion followed by a light sanding. You might be able to make out the quench lines of the temper, which extend slightly over 2 inches behind the cutting edges.

The edge bevel profile on both sides was exceptional. Sometimes you’ll come across old axes that have been rounded significantly along the edge, which is the result of continuous damage to the toe and heel. Such profiles make the axe inefficient at chopping, since there is less contact between the edge and the wood being cut. This can be difficult to correct, and can take several hours to re-profile with hand work. A slight curve along the edge, as shown in the photo above, is ideal.

axedb3_zpswg72eb74

That said, I had some file work to do in order to remove the few chips in one of the blades. I’ve “upgraded” to Bahco files, which seem to be much better quality than the newer Craftsmans (made in Mexico) that I was using before.

I sharpened both cutting edges on a foam pad with wet-and-dry sandpaper, starting at 220 grit, and finishing at 1200. This process probably took no more than an hour because the bevels were in such good condition. After stropping, both edges were wickedly, hair-popping sharp.

axedb4_zpspv2slqwr

Some double-bit axes have a narrower bit profile on one side, with a wider angle on the opposite. This design was meant to be versatile, with the narrower bit for chopping, and the wider bit to be used for splitting or when chopping near the ground. This axe does not have that characteristic, so I sharpened one edge at a fine 25 degree angle, and the other closer to 30 degrees.

I didn’t have enough leather for a “full-face” sheath, so I opted for a simpler design.

axedb5_zpsqikk09yl

Both parts are connected on the opposite side with a section of old stretchy-fabric belt. The leather was originally white, so I stained it with some saddle brown leather dye followed by a few coats of raw linseed oil for a richer colour. I finished with a light coat of beeswax to help seal the leather from moisture.

It took me a little while to acquire a decent handle, but the owner of a local small-business hardware store in my area was kind enough to order one for me. The hickory was mostly heartwood, which I prefer, with a thin streak of sapwood running down partway from the top. Conventional advice it to consider heartwood as a defect because of its “weaker” structure, but I have not found any truth in that claim. I am also starting to doubt that growth-ring orientation makes any difference to the quality of a handle. Furthermore, US Forest Service axe specifications 5100-9D under section 3.2.2 make no mention of growth ring orientation or heartwood as “defects”.

I spent 3 days shaping the handle at leisure, using a spokeshave and four-in-hand rasp. It came rather thick, but this allowed me to customise the fit for my hands. This is an important step to take and cannot be rushed, so that the helve is comfortable to hold for long periods of use. After determining the most comfortable fit, I smoothed the handle with 100 grit sandpaper.

Because this axe’s eye has ridges, I had to carefully gouge out 6 notches in the eye wood for the head to seat firmly and securely on the handle. Fitting the head took some time, as is most often the case – patience and good tools are your best assets.

Here she is after hanging, ready for a coat of raw linseed oil and a wax finish.

axedb7_zpsmhlnauzd

For those who might be wondering, the round, steel wedge came from the good folks at Beaver Tooth Handle Company. It is their “medium” size, which I purchased in a set of 5. I like the practicality of these round wedges, because they spread the wood equally in all directions.

Last week, I took the newly refurbished axe out with me for some trail work. This fallen limb came down from a Black Oak about 2 years ago. The diameter was roughly 9 inches.

axedb8_zpsd0jqnkjj

axedb9_zps9rsgs0uo

I am very pleased with how this axe turned out, and it will be a faithful companion in my future endeavours in conservation and wilderness management. 🙂

Refurbishing An Old Crosscut Saw: Part 1

Originally, I planned on doing this in one article, but realistically, it would be a lengthy read – I think it is better to upload this project in a 2 or 3 part series. This is a learning process for me, and up until I worked with the Forest Service to help manage wilderness areas, I had never before used a crosscut saw.

usfsmtnftrailworkjb2_zps48cyi9a1

Big John the Badass under-bucking a fallen Black Oak with a Disston in the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness. Notice the axe technique used to help guide the saw.

My supervisor was (and still is) a crosscut instructor, but due to our working schedules, we didn’t have much time to dedicate to crosscut use or restorations. Luckily for me, I was able to catch a few tips from Dolly Chapman (you may know her from the 1990s USFS documentary Hand Tools For Trailwork) during my short time time at the Wilderness Skills Institute in Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. At the time, she was teaching a crosscut restoration course.

Unlike developed recreation and semi-primitive recreation areas, wilderness areas designated by Congress require specific management practices. Under most situations, chainsaws are not allowed for trail work (motorized and mechanized equipment is prohibited), and it is impractical anyway, because carrying a bucking crosscut saw and a full-sized axe or two for 8 miles into the backcountry is much easier to manage than one or two chainsaws, plus adequate fuel and bar oil. The US Forest Service is the primary federal agency that continues to offer crosscut saw courses and certifications.

Thanks to Big John, one day in the middle of summer I was given a few hours to work on a couple crosscut saws that the Potosi-Fredricktown Ranger District had recently acquired.

usfscrosscutsawrestoration_zpszuutcttg

Here I was using a pumice stone and water to remove the surface rust from this tuttle-tooth pattern bucking saw. The advantage to using pumice is that it leaves much of the patina intact, and won’t remove the acid etchings of a manufacturer’s brand. The disadvantages with pumice are that it is slow to work on a saw that has a lot of surface rust, and the pumice itself can wear away quickly.

Inspired with the way these saws turned out, I started scouring the local antique shops in Potosi for old crosscuts. Later in September, I found my prize, a 5.5 ft bucking saw with the original handles. The price tag was marked $150, which is rather high, but after inspecting everything, I bought it. The handles were in very good condition, and though the saw blade was covered in surface rust, the teeth and rakers were still intact, retaining their original set as an added bonus. Another interesting characteristic I noticed in the store was that it had a crescent taper, which is a good indicator of a high-quality saw. After showing the saw to Big John, he gave it the thumbs up :).

Two weeks later on one of my days-off, I started working on the handles. The metal parts were tricky to remove. I needed the help of an adjustable wrench and WD-40 in order to twist off the wingnuts, and all the metal bits were rusty. I couldn’t get the threaded rod and pin mechanisms to come off, so I just removed the wingnuts and clamps. They were immersed in vinegar for 24 hours, followed by some vigourous brushing with a file card, and then a sanding to bring out a little shine. They aren’t anywhere near sparkling, but they sure look better than before, and I like the rustic look the patina gives.

usfscrosscutsawrestoration1_zpssnq79h2d

The two wooden handles were extremely dry and cracked in places, and much of the wood was discoloured from years of dust and dirt. I sanded them down, and then started applying multiple thick coats of linseed oil. I’m not sure exactly what kind of wood the handles are made out of. Regardless, the remnants of the dirt and dust trapped in the pores of the wood gave the handles a very lovely, rich walnut-colour when I applied linseed oil. I sealed the wood with a beeswax finish. They feel very comfortable in the hand and appear to be the “Triumph”-style made by the Henry Disston & Sons company.

Later on, I managed to take off the thread rod and pin mechanisms with an old file, using the tang as a punch to knock out the pins. I used a lot of WD-40 to help loosen the rust. After removal, they were soaked in vinegar for a day, and then scoured with a wire brush and 100 grit sandpaper. With those final bits off, I could begin the rust removal process on the saw blade, starting with a double-sided, medium and fine grit waterstone (more abrasive than pumice).

Before:

usfscrosscutsawrestorationblade_zpstyoms2dl

…and after:

usfscrosscutsawrestorationblade2_zpsp2bukcez

It took about 2 hours to clean-up both sides with the stone followed by fine-grade steel wool. I lightly passed the stone across the teeth to confirm that they were still in set. The waterstone left most of the patina untouched, though I could not see any acid etching left by the manufacturer. You don’t need a mirror polish on crosscut saws – in fact, going to that length is often discouraged because you can take off a lot of metal from the blade, making it prone to warping and breaking. If the surfaces on both sides of the blade are smooth, it’s good enough for functionality. With all the metal parts cleaned, I rubbed on some WD-40 to prevent rust buildup from moisture. I do not recommend using linseed oil (raw or boiled) on any kind of saw blade, because it will harden, forming a slightly rough surface, which will cause friction in the cut and can lead to binding issues.

Due to my work schedule, I was unable to make any more progress with the saw, though before I left Missouri, I purchased a 6×9 canvas drop cloth to use as an improvised sheath. Fire-hose also works well as a durable, lighter-weight sheath, though a drop cloth allows the entire blade to be protected.

usfscrosscutsawrestoration3_zpsiefgvzbh

Today, I took out the saw for a trial run on some seasoned Norway Maple from a tree that was felled on our property. The teeth have not yet been sharpened – this was just a test to see if the rakers are set at the correct height, as I currently don’t have a raker gauge.

usfscrosscutsawrestoration4-5_zps9eszvvos

From what I could determine, the rakers appear to be near the correct height. The saw cut nice and smooth, considering that the teeth have not yet been sharpened. The rakers probably need some fine-tuning, but so far I am quite impressed.

That’s it for now. Until I can make myself a suitable saw vice, I’m not going to attempt to fiddle around with the teeth and rakers. I have been using the US Forest Service Saws that Sing Guide for research, but any additional insight or advice from sawyers is welcome :).

Rambling About Vintage Axes

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

This post has been “in the works” for awhile, mainly to address the frustration some people have expressed in buying old axes. I hope that the suggestions and tips mentioned here will be useful to others as they have been useful to me. I will also put the spotlight on some common misconceptions about vintage axes in the hopes that others will be better educated.

Over 100 years ago at the turn of the century, during what many call the “Golden Age” of axe manufacturing, the majority of mass-produced axes were made to meet the demands of the logging industry. Over the course of the next 40 years – especially in the 1920s, as classic camping (then called “auto-camping”) became a popular pass-time –  the axe market evolved to produce more household and outdoor/camping-related axes, as evidenced in early catalogs of companies such as Marbles, Collins, and Stanley.

By the 1960s, the development of portable, one-man chainsaws took hold and effectively replaced the loggers’ felling axes and crosscut saws. As a result, axe production decreased. Companies either merged with each other or were bought by larger, more successful manufacturers.*1 In 1960, the True Temper Co., formerly American Fork and Hoe Co (which had previously bought Kelly Axe and Tool Co in 1930), was purchased by Ludlum Corp. 27 years later, Ludlum sold the True Temper/Kelly axe manufacturing divisions to Barco Industries, which remains in business.*2 The Mann Edge Tool Co absorbed Collins in 1966, with Stanley Works purchasing four Collins factories located outside the US.*3 Mann Edge started producing a line of “sportsman’s axes” under the Norlund brand in 1968, though by the 1980s, despite a favourable reputation for offering high-end tools, demand lessened significantly. Norlund’s production all-but ceased in 1986, and 17 years later, Mann Edge Tool Co (and Collins subsidiary) was sold to Truper Herramientas in Mexico.

References:

*1 – YesterYearsTools American Fork and Hoe Co. (Tom Lamond) and YesterYearsTools Barco Ind. (Tom Lamond)

*2 – YesterYearsTools The Collins Co Pt 1. (Tom Lamond)

*3 – YesterYearsTools Norlund Co. (Tom Lamond) and YesterYearsTools Mann Edge Tool Co. (Tom Lamond)

But since the late 1990s, and especially in more recent years, axe production in the US and Europe seems to have been jump-started by the growing interest in homesteading, woodcraft, and bushcraft, promoted on TV shows and the Internet. Companies like the infamous Gränsfors Bruks (popularised by Ray Mears), Wetterlings, Husqvarna, and later Council Tool, began producing large quantities of portable “bushcraft” axes marketed directly to outdoor enthusiasts. With the Internet’s evolution of social networking sites, like-minded people could share their ideas with a world-wide audience. Some individuals started encouraging the practice of restoring old axes as a practical method of recycling (that also preserves history), allowing others to “make their own” axe for a lesser price. And indeed, for the past 6 years or so, refurbishing vintage axes has become quite a popular trend. Currently, on social media sites such as youtube, searching ‘axe restoration’ will yield you over 48,000 results.

Lots of people now collect a variety of old axes (particularly certain brands, the most recent popular one being Norlund), whilst others acquire a few to be dedicated “users”. Due to the increased value from demand, sellers at flea markets, on ebay, and even in antique stores are listing vintage axes at higher prices than a few years ago. Some disgruntled individuals have openly stated in frustration that it is “impossible” to find cheap old axes nowadays, and many blame certain youtubers and forums.

In reality, this trend is not the fault of any one individual or group of individuals. Social media is a very powerful force in our modern world, allowing content to be viewed and shared across the globe, wherever one can access the internet. With that in mind, it only makes sense that many thousands of people wanted to find old, serviceable axes, and fix them up as their own DIY project. For many people, restoring axes, as well as other old tools, has become a hobby – and as previously stated, there are numerous collectors who seek specific brands and lines of axes. With a surge in demand, sellers realized that their rusty piece of steel may be worth much more than a few dollars. Prices for certain axes might seem ridiculous, but you have to take into account the fact that some people are willing to pay that price. So yes, the days of finding a 3.5 lb True Temper axe head in good condition for $12 on ebay are pretty much gone. If that’s all you’re willing to spend, then yes, your options are going to be extremely limited.

But in the $15-$30 price-range, you can still find a serviceable axe. Ebay can be very competitive, especially when old axes are auctioned, and what starts out as $9 axe can quickly become a bidding war with the winning offer of $45 or even $70. My first bit of advice is to establish an amount that you are willing to spend up to. The $15-$30 price range is about ideal, considering the extra cost for the helve, compared to affordable options from Council Tool. Personally, I stay away from axe auctions on ebay because they are almost always too competitive. Buy-it-now listings are fewer, but much more promising. To refine your search, you can use the “advanced settings” function next to the search bar by typing in the $15-$30 limit (or whatever your price range is) and clicking the check-box for “buy-it-now”. You may not find what you’re looking for at first, so make sure to check each day.

That was how I picked up this beautiful 3.5 lb Michigan pattern double bit on ebay for $20.80.

axedb2_zpsxkhyvuiv

Aside from a little surface rust, some minor pitting, and a few chips in one of the edges, it was in near mint condition. It still had the factory grind, with over 2 inches depth of temper in both blades. I will be posting a restoration article on this axe in the near future, so stay tuned :).

Another tip is to let all your friends know that you are looking for old axes. Talk about it with your acquaintances. Hey, you might get something for free. Last year, after responding to an advertisement in the local newspaper, I was talking with the seller, and the subject of axes was brought up in the conversation. I ended up with a bonus….a Chopper 1 splitting axe (or maul?…).

imgp7226_zps8uu3xszc

Earlier that same year, I was gifted with a 3.5 lb  True Temper Kelly Works Flint Edge Michigan pattern single-bit from a friend, who bought it for less than $25 on ebay.

axettkwfe3_zpsvgqrafyb

I posted the restoration of this axe here, though I later ended up re-working the edge (the profile was too rounded), and more recently, I rehung the axe on a shorter 31 inch handle made of heartwood.

Sometimes you’ll find decent axes at yard sales, in flea markets, or second-hand stores. You might have to haggle, but don’t be afraid to walk away if the seller remains fixated on a high price. With some perseverance and a bit of luck, you will find what you’re looking for. Don’t give up.

Axe Myths: Don’t judge a book (or an axe) by its cover

This brings us to the subject of common misconceptions regarding vintage axes. Earlier in this post, I put up a photo of my latest project, the Michigan double-bit that I acquired from ebay. It is unmarked – there is no visible factory stamp or logo to be seen. Some people scoff at the idea of buying an axe such as this because of the rather silly notion that it might be made in China, Taiwan, or Mexico, or any other off-shore country where they believe cheap steel is made. They want to see “USA”, “Made in the USA”, “Germany”, “Sweden”, or better yet, a well-known manufacturer’s name like “Collins”, “Kelly Works”, “True Temper”, “Gränsfors Bruk”, “Norlund”, etc., because if the axe doesn’t have these markings, you could be buying “a piece of junk”. I beg to differ – years of corrosion from neglect can wear away the manufacturer’s stamp in the metal. Sometimes all that’s left is a stamp of the head weight. The fact remains that the majority of old axes out on the market were made in the US. From the mid 1800s to just before WWII, more axes were produced in the US than any other tool.

Nevertheless, many sellers will offer an unmarked axe at a more affordable price because there’s often no way to tell exactly which company made it. On ebay, such axes will be listed in the “buy it now” category at a lower price due to the lower market value. An exception (as of current) are Hudson Bay axes, which are still exceedingly popular, and therefore have a higher market value.

Some things I look for in unmarked axes are convexed cheeks, phantom bevels, and-or ridges in the eye. If the axe has one or all three features, chances are very likely that it was American made. Specific patterns like Connecticuts, Jerseys, and Michigans are also indicative of a US-made axe.

The second axe myth I want to shine the spotlight on the generalization that old axes were “hand forged”. This notion has been around for awhile, but it is only partly true. From colonial settlement in North America up until the introduction of power hammers (i.e. drop forging), the majority of axes that were mass-produced were forged from mechanical trip hammers, many of which were water powered. Some trip hammer forges remained in use into the 20th century.

“Hand forging” refers to forging metal using only human power, i.e. a hand hammer. Forging axes in this manner was common on a small-scale in early North American history. *1 Drop forging is the method of using a high energy transfer of force via a power hammer. It how axes were made for the past 100 years. With trip hammers and power hammers, axes could be manufactured on a large scale requiring far less time and human effort compared to hand forging. That said, there are some smiths today who do make axes and tomahawks by hand forging on a small-scale. But since this article is about vintage axes, I won’t digress any further.

Reference: *1 – Library of Manufacturing: Drop Forging Hammers

It should be noted that older Gränsfors and Wetterlings axes were often stamped “drop forged”. Just because an axe looks old, has cool forging marks in the metal or an uneven surface, does not mean that it was forged by hand. So when you see an ebay listing for an old axe head with a title description like this, “Vintage Kelly Axe Mfg Co.: Hand Forged Jersey Pattern Axe”, or “Vintage Gränsfors Bruks Felling Axe Hand Forged In Sweden”, don’t believe it. And if you find a seller at a flea market or in an antique shop who is asking a high price for the “hand forged” axe that you’re eyeing, be prepared to walk away and look elsewhere.