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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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…and after:

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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.

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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.

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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 :).