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An Ax to Grind: A Practical Ax Manual

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Brief History of the Ax, continued

Adzes

The adz is another hewing or dressing tool (Figure 27a, Figure 27b, Figure 27c, and Figure 27d). It has a head that gives it the appearance of a hoe, but it is tempered and sharpened to cut wood. The adz is primarily used for dressing or planing timber that has been hewn by a broad ax. An adz is used for the final dressing in some of our finer hand-built structures.

Photo of a Collins lipped shipwright's adz.
Figure 27a--Collins lipped shipwright's adz.


Photo of a Plumb railroad adz.
Figure 27b--Plumb railroad adz.


Photo of a modern carving ax or adz.
Figure 27c--Modern carving ax or adz.


Photo of a Douglas carpenter's adz.
Figure 27d--Douglas carpenter's adz.

Decline of the American Ax

Some of the leading American ax companies have included: Collins Company, Mann Edge Tool, Kelly Axe or True Temper Kelly, Plumb Axes, and American Axe and Tool Company. When factory production first began, axes were produced by individual blacksmiths hired to make a complete ax. Gradually an assembly line was introduced. Improved steels and more efficient forging processes took most of the hand labor out of ax manufacture. The manufacturing process and materials evolved from individual blacksmiths hammering out axes one at a time to the giant drop hammers used today to stamp out fully formed ax heads.

During the 19th century, axes provided the best technology to meet the needs of the burgeoning forest products industry. Manufacturers produced hundreds of patterns for both general utility and specialized uses.

The use of American axes and their quality were probably at their peak during the period from 1850 to 1950 (Figure 28). Beginning about 1870, ax production began to drop due to the increased use of the crosscut saw as a felling tool. The ax continued to play an important role for swamping and limbing trees, but its role was diminished.

Photo of a Kelly broad ax.
Figure 28--During the heyday of American axes,
companies went to great lengths to promote their
axes, like this Kelly "Best Ax Made" broad ax.

The introduction of the power saw was the death knell of the ax and the crosscut saw. By the late 1950's and early 1960's, lightweight, efficient chain saws had taken over almost all of the work that previously had been accomplished with an ax--felling, bucking, and limbing.

If you search the Internet for ax, axe, or axes, you will probably find more sites related to guitars (referred to as "ax") than you will to those dealing with cold, hard steel. But if you focus on work in the woods rather than on the Internet, you will see that the ax still occupies an important place as a woodworking tool.

A Swedish company, Gränsfors Bruks AB, still manufactures hand-forged axes (Figure 29). Gabriel Brånby of Gränsfors Bruks provides a good summary of the modern role of the ax (Gränsfors Bruks 1997):

Photo of a hand-forged broad ax.
Figure 29--Modern hand-forged broad ax made by
the Swedish Company, Gränsfors Bruks AB.

In a certain way we are back at the time before the entry of the booming forest industry. There are no axe-using forest workers any longer. The millions of cubic feet of pulpwood and timber that today arrive at the forest industries have never been grazed by an axe. The chain saws, harvesters and logging machines have taken over completely. Today most axes are used in small-scale activity by people like homeowners, firewood cutters, campers, hunters, joiners, woodworkers, log builders.

Thousands of new axes are sold every year, mostly for the activities Brånby describes. Some historic axes are sold or traded by collectors (Figure 30). In the Forest Service, axes still play a critical role in designated wilderness areas where mechanized or motorized equipment is prohibited by law. In these areas, axes, adzes, and crosscut saws are needed for clearing trails, cutting firewood, managing forest fires, and maintaining or restoring administrative buildings.

Photo of a blacksmith-made trade hatchet.
Figure 30--This modern blacksmith-made trade hatchet
might be just the right gift for your sweetheart
on Valentine's Day.

Outside wilderness, axes and adzes are used for historic building restoration and as lightweight, convenient, affordable alternatives to chain saws. To at least a few recreational wood cutters and craftsmen, the rhythmic sound and motion of chopping are more appealing than the whine and exhaust of a chain saw.

This look at the history of the ax and its evolution in North America is not complete. Four excellent references for more detailed study are: Henry J. Kauffman's American Axes (1994); Charles A. Heavrin's The Ax and Man (1997); Alan Klenman's Ax Makers of North America, and Henry Mercer's Ancient Carpenter's Tools (1960). Full citations for these sources are in Selected References.


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Updated: 04/14/2014
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