Creative Outlets: The Axe

     Since the pandemic, I’ve been trying to get into the woods more. This led me to reconnect with some of the old outdoorsman skills that I hadn’t had a chance to use since childhood. And that led me to… UK based bushcraft videos on Youtube…. which led to – you know what, the details of this particular rabbit-hole aren’t important. 

     What is important, is that now I needed an axe.

     And of course, I couldn’t just buy one. Where’s the fun in that? So the obvious answer was to start digging through barns and scrap-heaps until I found what I wanted.

     My Dad and I pulled this old axe head out of the attic of my parent’s barn. It was filthy and had a lot of surface rust, but there was plenty of blade left to work with, making it a great candidate for restoration.

     This thing was “barn dirty” and just covered in this clinging dust that seems to eventually adhere to anything stored there. But it’s nothing that can’t be fixed with aggressive use of sandpaper.

     There were no markings on the head, so I couldn’t track down anything about its age or origins. Judging by the mottling effect on the metal, it was likely case hardened – the cutting edge of the bit is incredibly hard and just filing out the nicks was laborious.

     After oiling, the effects of the case-hardening were even more obvious, and gave the head a unique look. The next step before choosing a handle was to weigh the head and measure the eye to see what size and type would be appropriate. This turned out to be a 2-1/4 lb head, indicating a “Boy’s Axe” or “House Axe” for which a shorter handle is appropriate.

     I picked up a 19 inch “House Axe” handle for this project. House axes were general purpose axes meant to be used by anyone in the household, regardless of physical size. House axes also have shorter handles than the so-called “Boy’s” axes, because the owner would often need to use them indoors for splitting wood for the basement furnace or kitchen woodstove, and there wasn’t room to swing a long handle.

     My plan for this project was a nice compact pack axe, so the stubby handle works perfectly.

     The handle I chose was straight-grained American Hickory, and came with a lacquered finish. The finished was tackier than I wanted, so I decided to sand that off.

     After sanding and whiskering the handle, I was ready to mount the head. Here you can see the penciled guidelines to make sure the head goes on level.

With the head seated, I glued both the kerf and wedge, and drove the wedge into place.

While the glue was still wet, I cut the excess wood off flush with the head and drove a small metal wedge perpendicular to the kerf to further secure it.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Still a little under-dressed, though.

But we can fix that.

     The first thing I wanted to add was a thick leather collar to protect the neck of the handle from overstrike. I had some cowhide leather scraps on hand (doesn’t everybody?) and quickly had the proper shape cut out and punched for lacing.

     I decided to secure the collar with a synthetic sinew instead of lacing. I think it’s a cleaner look.

     As with storytelling, you can’t go wrong with a few tasteful embellishments. For the collar I added a simple chi-rho design, and to the grip I added a series of parallel lines. What do lines and ancient Roman Christian symbols have to do with axes? Well, nothing – but geometric lines are much easier to burn in with a cheap soldering iron.

It was getting dark by the time I finished.

     I plan to keep the axe sharp enough to perform a lot of the same tasks as my knife, so I definitely needed a good sheath. Back to the ever-present (and sadly, dwindling) pile of leather scraps.

     Simple and effective design, although I did end up adding a steel thread and bonding agent to the bit-side stitching to prevent the blade from cutting through in the event of a blow to the face of the sheath.

     I also added a lanyard hole to the end of the handle. This gives me more options for storage or securing to my pack.

     A few light coatings of mineral oil dressed the handle up nicely.

Sharpening time.

     The axe took an edge beautifully – so much so that I sliced my thumb while checking the burr.

     So far, I’ve only taken the axe into woods a couple times, but I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out. Most of the use it’s seen has been cutting wood for the “viking-inspired” primitive shelter I’ve been building with the Adventure Girls at an undisclosed location in the Appalachians.

     But that’s a story for another post…

Until next time!

               J.R. White


PS – You can check out the Kuksa wooden cup that I carved in a previous post here.

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