Edge tools are among the earliest tool forms, with surviving primitive axes dated to 8000 B.C.. Early axes were made by “wrapping” the red hot iron around a form, yielding the eye of the axe. The steel bit, introduced in the 18th century, was laid into the fold at the front and hammered into an edge. The side opposite the bit was later extended into a poll, for better balance and to provide a hammering surface.
The handles took on a variety of shapes, some indicative or origin, others relating to function. The length of the handle had more to do with the arc of the swing that was required. Felling axes took a full swing and therefore needed the longest handles. Early axes have their handles fitted through the eye from the top down and the handles remain in place by locking into the taper of the eye, so they can be removed for sharpening.
Later axes, however, have their handles fit through the eye from the bottom up, and have a wedge driven in from the top. This permanently locks the handle to the axe and was much preferred by American woodsmen. Many axes found today had been discarded because the handle was split or broken off. In most cases they can be bought at a fraction of their value and, with another handle, can be restored to their original condition. Most axe collectors have a stock of older flea-market handles that they use for this restoration. Like plane blades, axe handles might have been replaced two or three times throughout the life of the tool. As long as the handle is “proper,” meaning, the right shape and length for its function, it won’t detract that much from its value.
Pricing of antique axes runs the entire gamut from a few dollars to several hundred. Examples of well-made axes would include the Plumb, White, Kelly, Miller and numerous others. Beyond these were axes of sometimes lesser quality, but built to a price, and sold by the thousands. Exceptional examples might include handmade axes, possibly from the local blacksmith, or from a factory that specialized in the handmade article, regardless of price.
There are several types of axes out there such as:
SINGLE BIT FELLING AXE:
This axe is considered the workhorse of the axe family. It is a simple design, varying from a 2 ½ lb. head used by campers to the 4 ½ to 7 lb. head used for forest work. There are heads used in lumbermen’s competition that are up to 12lbs.. With the advent of the two-man crosscut saw, and later the power chain saw, tree no longer are taken down by axes. The axe is more a utility tool for clearing branches off the downed tree, and splitting firewood.
DOUBLE BIT FELLING AXE:
Double bit axes always have straight handles, unlike any other modern axe. Almost all axe handles are hickory. Hickory has both strength and spring, and was found very early to be the best for axe handles. Starting in the late 1800’s a number of axe manufactures adopted intricate logos that were embossed or etched on the head of the axe. Almost 200 different styles have been identified to date and these have also become an interesting collectible.
The broad axe is not as common as the felling axe, and is a lot larger. It’s purpose was to square up logs into beams. It used a much shorter swing that the felling axe, therefore required a much shorter handle. The identifying feature of many of these axes is the chisel edge, that allowed the back side of the axe to be dead flat. Because of that, it posed a problem of clearance for the hands. To keep the hands from being scraped, the handle was canted or swayed away from the flat plane of the axe. This is the feature that should always be looked for when buying a broad axe. If the edge is chisel-sharpened, then the handle should be swayed. As with the felling axe, the broad axe heads have a variety of patterns, mostly a result of geographical preference.
The goose wing axe is one of the most artistic looking tools out there, and it takes it’s name from its resemblance to the wing of a goose in flight. It functions exactly as the chisel-edged broad axe, except that the American version has the handle socket more heavily bent or canted up from the plane of the blade. These axes are large and difficult to forge. Many show cracks and repairs and an original handle is rare. Signed pieces, particularly by American makers, mostly Pennsylvania Dutch, are considerably more valuable. Also of importance is the difference in value between American and European axes, the American ones being worth considerably more. A few well-known 19th century American makers whose names appear imprinted on axes are Stohler, Stahler, Sener, Rohrbach, Addams, and L.& I.J. White.
SHIPWRIGHT’S OR MAST AXE:
This axe is used for shaping ships’ masts and timbers, and is usually ground on both sides. It varies in length base on local usage. The double pointed ears or lugs are common with this axe.
This axe has a lighter handle socket, well canted and carries a very short handle. Although the general differentiation between an axe and a hatchet is that an axe is used with two hands and a hatchet with one, the cooper’s axe is one of the exceptions to the rule. It was used mostly for shaping barrel staves, and was almost always used with one hand while the other held the stave.
This is an asymmetrical axe used for shaping coach parts in almost a paring manner. The heads vary in size, some styles taking on a “bearded” effect, hence the nickname “bearded axe.” These axes are almost exclusively of European origin.
Back in the day, ice was harvested in the winter from ponds and lakes and stored in ice-housed for summer use. This was an important winter cash crop for many farmers. There was a whole family of tools developed to serve this industry, among them was the ice axe. Again, local patterns create a variety of styles.
These are sought-after collectibles, because many of the older ones have the fire company’s monogram on the head. All have rear pikes used for clearing openings or creating ventilation.
The blade on these axes are long and narrow to accommodate the size of the mortise hole it was designed to cut, most often for post and beam construction or for post and rail. Some have double bits, one bit sized for the length and the other for the width of the hole.
Trade axes were originally brought over by the French and Spanish and later by the English and were traded to the Indians who held them in very high regard. They were poll-less and small enough to be carried at the belt and used with one hand. The larger variety were known as squaw axes and were used by the women for chopping wood.
TURF or BOG AXE:
Used for cutting turf and peat, these axes are not heavy enough to cut wood.
Hatchets are small axes used with one hand.