Restoring the Family Axe: Part 1

Over recent years, there has been a growing fascination with vintage axes. Many folks have refurbished these rustic tools to their former glory days as a way of saving money instead of purchasing a high-end axe, or simply for the fun of it. Call it “Buschraft recycling”, “historical preservation”, or what-have-you,  the efforts are almost always rewarding.

In the beginning of January, I was very excited to receive the family axe, passed-down to my possession.

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It’s a 3.5 pound Connecticut pattern felling axe. I sawed-off the helve because the wood towards the eye shrank significantly, partly due to the fact that it was coated with lacquer. The handle was also not proportional to the axe head (by my standards) being a bit too short at about 76 cm/30 inches.

Upon closer inspection, I noticed 6 ridges in the eye, 3 on each side…presumably this helps give a tighter fit to the helve. There was some rust pitting on the bit, but it seems to be minor and shouldn’t effect the structural integrity. If anything, it makes the axe look a bit antiquish. There also doesn’t appear to be a maker’s mark anywhere on the head – no numbers, symbols, letters…nothing. Sometimes, the manufacturer’s brand may be hidden under a layer of rust. But if you don’t see a mark after you clean up the rust, don’t worry – apparently, it is not uncommon to find an unmarked axe head every now and then, yet this does not mean that the axe is “poor quality”. Also keep in mind that corrosion and wear can obscure a mark beyond legibility.

To get the last bit of handle out, I first made a few holes at the top of the eye using a hand drill and improvised a drift out of a piece of Black Cherry. After a lot of pounding with the drift, I didn’t seem to be making much progress. The wood was stuck in the eye and not budging. After some thought, I figured I could remove that obstinate chunk by hammering it out from the other end. So I took out my coping saw and removed the protruding wood from the bottom. I made another drift as the other one was quite beaten up, and starting pounding from the lower end of the eye to the top. That did the trick ;).

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Now that the wood is out, the next stage is to remove that rust in a vinegar soak.

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I let it soak for about 24 hours, and as you can see, most of the rust is gone. I used the steel wool to scrub off the rest. The darkened metal on the bit is the tempered steel.

Now we move on to the sharpening process…it will take a lot of work with this axe because the edge needs to be re-profiled. There is also some damage at the toe that I’ll need to take care of.

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I’ll be using a single-cut mill bastard file. I don’t have access to power tools like a belt sander, so this will take a long time. The key here is patience and consistency – luckily I’m one of those folks with a good degree of perseverance, and often I’ll be so focused on the task that I don’t notice the hours slipping by. ***As a safety note, I strongly recommend wearing work gloves…it’s just too easy to slip and cut yourself.***

The first part of the process is to remove the thickness of the bit just behind the edge. This is a necessary step because it allows you to thin out an overly thick bit to improve chopping efficiency. This axe appears to have phantom bevels…the toe and heel ends of the bit are slightly thinner than the middle part. Therefore, I’ll need to remove most of the metal from the centre of the bit to keep things even. The finished edge will have a slight crescent shape.

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I have no idea what this tool is called, but it came in handy for measuring the thickness of the edge as I filed. I also kept my Gränsfors on hand as an edge guide to compare to. I’m aiming not for a 24 degree bevel angle, but slightly above that to 26 or 27 degrees, to better suit the edge for chopping hardwoods.

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After truing the damaged toe and thinning the bit on both sides, I changed my filing angle to thin the portion just before the edge and then transitioned this to sharpen the edge itself.

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After almost 5 hours of filing, we are ready to move on to the stones. Both of these are Arkansas stones, one is soft (medium grit), the other is hard (fine grit). Instead of sharpening the axe on the stone, I like to hold the stone and sharpen the axe, using circular motions, starting just at the back of the edge bevel and transitioning to the edge itself.

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Time for the strop :). This is one I made from a large Birch Polypore (aka “Razor-strop” fungus). I like to wipe the slurry from the stones onto the surface of the strop because it helps polish the edge, a bit like honing compound.

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The edge is now hair-popping sharp, good enough for me :). Notice the slight crescent shape of the bevel – the thicker the centre of the bit, the more pronounced the crescent shape should be. With this axe, I also had to file back the bevel by the toe in order to compensate for the damage.  Newer axes tend not to have phantom bevels, and therefore the edge bevel does not need to be crescent shaped because the bit thickness is even.

Now all that’s left to do is make a sheath, hang the axe, and give it a test run in the forest :D. Instead of purchasing a handle, I think I’ll try making one from scratch…we’ll see how it goes. Part 2 to follow when the axe is finished ;).

Winter Orienteering

So far this season has been rather mild, with daily highs averaging 7 C/45 F and nighttime temperatures hovering around 0 C/32 F. There were even a few days in December when temps rose to 15 C/60 F.  We also haven’t seen any substantial snowfall since November, unfortunately. I’ve been keeping track of snowfall accumulations, and as of now, the total for the season is right around 18 cm/7 inches. According to NOAA, in my part of the state, the expected norm is 91 cm/36 inches accumulation based on a 30 year average. Things don’t look promising, but a few decent snowstorms before spring would sure be nice.

Temperatures finally lowered earlier this week due to an ‘Alberta Clipper’ (thank you, Canadians! :D), and with it came strong winds. The thermometer read -8 C/18 F with a wind chill factor of -18 C/0 F. It gave me the perfect opportunity to test my Suunto MC-2D in these cold conditions. The forest was coated with a light dusting from the day before, and flurries were starting to fall.

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Here is one of the orienteering markers. The bare landscape makes it relatively easy to spot these, though there were a few locations where the markers were missing, presumably the tree they were attached to fell, or they were blown off from years of weathering.

This one, as you can see, needs replacing and was barely hanging on.

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Notice the stone walls in the background. The way these walls were positioned as depicted on my map leads me to believe that this was once someone’s property. No house or building foundation remains.

Besides these orienteering markers, I was also on the lookout for cairns – there were two marked on the map.

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Bearing 176 degrees to the first cairn…

For effective navigation, it is important to always look at the terrain features depicted on the map and to pay attention to these in the 3D world. For example, it is usually not possible to travel in straight lines across long distances following a compass bearing, especially since the terrain here in the northeast is very hilly. It pays to look carefully at the elevation/contour lines so that you can choose a route of the least difficulty. The closer the lines are to each other, the steeper the terrain – likewise, widely spaced lines indicate a gentle slope or possibly flat locations.

Also, be on the lookout for natural barriers such as lakes, rivers, or marshy areas that might impede your travel. However, these terrain features can be used to your advantage as handrails or backstops. Handrails can be roads, trails, stone walls, streams, or some other elongated object that you can follow or keep within sight to get to your destination or next point. These features can also serve as backstops – if you approach these landmarks, you know you’ve gone too far and need to double-back. Of course, it is important to have an up-to-date topographical map when using these techniques. But be aware that the presence of beaver can change rivers or streams into lakes or ponds that may not be indicated on the map.

On my way to the western edge of the stone wall layout towards the closer of the two cairns, I passed a small woodland pond.

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It appears to be fed by water runoff from the surrounding hills. The map showed another pond of slightly larger size nearby with a brook running from it that crosses the western wall. The cairn would be right by the brook and next to the wall.

Using both of these features as backstops, I found the first cairn.

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Here it is on the right. The stone wall is behind me.

The second cairn was about half a mile away at the southern foot of a hill. As I made my way over, the snow started picking up, and so did the wind, biting my face with invisible, icy fingers.

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I admit I was excited, but when I reached the second cairn, the snow petered away and the sun came out…what a tease, Nature :P.

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Not much is left, just a few large stones from the base of the cairn. 50 yards away lay the trail that would take me back out of the woodland.

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Here I am, getting blasted by wind gusts.

I’m really pleased with the Suunto – it worked just as it should, no frozen needle that I experienced with the Silva Ranger CL. I know more and more people are turning to GPS devices, but I personally prefer a topo map, a decent compass, and the knowledge of how to navigate using these tools. GPSs are not infallible, and they will suffer in cold weather. They also don’t show all the terrain features that a topo map will, and these details are very handy when bushwhacking.

But each to their own – no matter what tools you use to navigate with, it is important that you know how to use them effectively. Remember: don’t work against the terrain, work with it ;).

Investigating Some Ruins

Part of the fun of hiking is the chance to check-out building remains, ghost towns, and abandoned structures one may encounter. The northeast has quite a long and intricate history, and every stone wall, old house, and dilapidated barn is a piece of this elaborate puzzle. There is often a lot more to discover than what meets the eye, and sometimes the key is right at your feet ;). A detailed topographical map is ideal when scouting for these locations.

The first spot I wanted to check-out was about 100 hundred yards off the Ives’ Trail, but there was some trail work to do. A 60 ft/18 meter tall Chestnut Oak came down, blocking the path and proving to be quite the barricade. A new path was made to go around the obstacle, but this meant some awkward crawling under the upper branches that were in the way. Now to put the Gränsfors and bucksaw to work :).

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I cut off the two upward branches with my bucksaw and used the axe to remove the lower branch with two “v” notches. I then moved the logs out of the way so that they would line the edges of the new path. The other end of the tree showed the unmistakeable evidence of Oak Borer beetles…the heartwood was completely eaten away, nothing but sawdust left. However, the wood in the upper branches was still in good shape, no noticeable decay to be seen, and it even smelled a bit fresh. My Gränsfors sailed through it, notice the large chips it made :D.

Now that that’s sorted, onward we go! Half a mile further, and I reached my turn-off, a section with dense Mountain Laurel undergrowth. The thicket gradually transitioned into a clearing, and there before me lay the remains of a building foundation.

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Only one corner was visible. I have no clue what structure this once was, but I doubt it is older than the 1900s, considering that the foundation was made of concrete. There were two shovel heads left behind, presumably by treasure hunters, and an old glass bottle. For whatever reason, I got a weird, uncomfortable feeling in the back of my head after a few minutes, so I turned around and moved on to my second location a mile and a half away.

Just up the trail, I came across two doe Whitetails browsing for mosses.

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This one wasn’t shy and posed for a photo…the other (behind the tree on left) was a bit timid.

As I neared the second site, I noticed several boulders with these drill marks showing.

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Apparently, this is the old-fashioned way stones used to be cut for masonry – one man would hold the drill bit while another pounds on the top with a sledge hammer, turning it after every blow. A series of these holes is made no more than 2 inches/5 cm from each other, and then metal wedges are hammered in to break apart the rock into the desired shape. As far as I know, this technique is not used anymore in masonry, except for historical reproductions by specialists.

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And here we are at what I think was once a spring-house. Portions of two walls remain (bottom left and middle in photo), both constructed out of local field stones and mortar. As you can see, the walls were built into the large boulder (itself acting as a back wall)…this would keep the interior cool in all seasons. There is also a nearby stream just off to the right, which would provide the means to maintain refrigeration. Inside, you would see a channel of flowing water where products such as milk were kept from spoiling in the days before electricity. Of course, I’m just theorising…for all I know, it could’ve been nothing more than a simple root cellar.

This whole region is full of fragments of our past, and we treasure our past dearly and seek to preserve what pieces we can. It would definitely be interesting to find out more about these bits of local history :).