The Axe – A Shop Essential?
Most woodworkers don’t know much about axes. Unless you’re a timber framer or someone interested in historic carpentry, the likelihood is that you’ve never used an axe, other than the occasional camping trip or splitting kindling for the fireplace. Yet the axe, in any one of its numerous styles, was an essential part of the carpenter’s, cabinet maker’s, joiner’s and cooper’s tool kits well into the twentieth century. In parts of the world where traditional log building is carried on as everyday business, the axe is still favored and widely used. All one needs to do is look at paintings and photographs of the woodworking trades, prior to WWII, and it’s ever-so-likely that an axe will turn up.
To trades such as coopering, the axe was used constantly. Here’s a photo of a cooper at Williamsburg, trimming a stave. Surprisingly, this picture could have been taken in many places around the world up until the 1950’s when “dry” coopering gave way to cardboard packaging for the shipment of fragile goods and plastics replaced traditional treenware.. The only difference would have been changes in clothing fashion.
Even the famous Dominy Workshop has its chopping block. However, this block is being used with a block knife, a tool like the cooper’s side axe, used for trimming stock to width.
In the field, carpenters used broad hatchets and shingling hatchets to quickly reduce rough work to size and broadaxes to hew beams. This process is foreign to most folks today. It is a finishing operation that requires significantly more skill than strength.
In most shops, lighter axes, both double bevel and broad, would be used for squaring up stock, especially preparing stock for turning or shaving. Anyone who has seen Peter Follansbee at work in his Plimouth Plantation shop, will immediately see the versatility of the axe.
My friend, Roald Renmælmo, uses axes frequently in his work. He and his associates at the University of Gothenburg, study historic carpentry methods and tools of Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Their work is highlighted in two blogs: hyvelbenk.wordpress.com and skottbenk.wordpress.com. If you’re interested in traditional carpentry, historic tools and methods, you need to spend some time with these two blogs, fascinating stuff. Roald shared some photos of himself using an axe in the shop.
Note that in the above photo, Roald is working with a right hand grip. In the next few photos, he is using a left hand grip. It really helps to be able to work on both sides of the piece without having to change the direction of the work (any woodcarver will tell you that developing this ability is critical). Notice Roald’s grip, relaxed but in control. I’m not sure if he’s a golfer, but his grip is right out of the golfing textbooks, it reminds me of the old admonition to think of the club (axe, in this case) as a bird, you want to hold it tightly enough so it can’t escape, but not so tight that it dies from asphyxiation. Oh, by the way, if you’re using a single bevel axe, you’ll have to stay on one side.
Study the chalk line. It should be clear that, in the right hands and with practice, the axe can be used to do very precise work.
Just a word of warning. To be most effective, the axe (like all sheering tools) must be razor sharp. A razor sharp axe is a truly dangerous thing. Never use an axe while being distracted by anything else. Injuries to fingers, hands, legs and feet, while not common, can be devastating. The first rule while using an axe is protect the axeman. And always be sure that you are aware of everything in your immediate environment that could cause injury to you or those around you.
Hopefully, I’ve cautioned you strongly enough that you’ll be careful but not so much that you’ll be afraid to use an axe. Using this tool connects you with the very essence of woodworking and with all of the craftsmen who have used axes down through the centuries. Happy chopping.