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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂