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An Ax to Grind: A Practical Ax Manual

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Brief History of the Ax, continued

American Felling Ax

During the period in which the trade ax was being introduced to the North American Indians, the felling ax was brought to America by settlers from England, France, and Spain.

The 17th-century felling ax was made of two pieces of iron that were hammer welded down the center of the poll surface. Later axes had a thin poll with a flat surface. When North American blacksmiths began making the felling axes, they forged the poll side of the pattern longer in order to make a lap weld, which gave more welding surface. This produced a heavier poll with more weight behind the handle, providing better balance. In essence, this design is the modern ax that we use today (Kauffman 1994) (Figure 12).

Photo of the Winchester ax and hatchet.
Figure 12--Winchester ax and hatchet, Michigan
pattern, typical of the American felling ax.

An edge tool maker's advertisement in the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser on July 7, 1789, shows that the American felling ax was fully developed then. The illustration closely resembles the Kentucky pattern made by the Douglas Ax Company and illustrated in its 1863 catalog. The Jersey pattern, my personal favorite, is very similar to the model of 1789. It is still available. In the mid-19th century, some of the American axes were still made of both iron and steel. An iron poll and a high-carbon-steel single-bit ax appears in an advertisement in the October 29, 1859, issue of Scientific American (Kauffman 1994).

The addition of the poll by an unknown North American blacksmith is what makes the American felling ax unique. Late 18th-century iron axes often had steel insert cutting edges. Earlier European axes with their long blades were awkward to use. When North Americans ground down the blades after sharpening them many times, they discovered that they could use them to cut more accurately. These axes had better balance and geometry. The blade wobbled less during the swing. After this discovery, American axes were made with shorter, wider blades.

In the late 18th century, some axes became almost square. These axes are often referred to as the American ax (Figure 13). Introduction of he Bessemer process for making steel in the late 19th century made steel affordable. The entire ax blade could be made of steel. Polished steel axes reduce the friction between the blade and the log. The ax blade can be made even thinner, allowing size and weight to be reduced while maintaining cutting efficiency. Making the entire ax wider with a heavier poll gave it more balance than the narrow, long-bladed English or European ax with little or no poll (Kauffman 1994).

Photos of the True Temper Kelly Perfect with a Jersey head.
Figure 13--My favorite American felling ax, a True
Temper Kelly Perfect with a Jersey head and 32-inch
straight hickory handle.

The head of a full-size single-bit ax or poll ax weighed 3 to 6 pounds. The handle was 30 to 36 inches long.

The single-bit felling ax, or American ax, became the international standard for quality axes.

Double-Bit Ax

The first double-bit ax was probably made by William Mann in Pennsylvania at about 1850. The Mann Edge Tool Company is one of the few American companies still in the business of making axes. By 1860 the double-bit ax was very common in the Northeast. The double-bit was not widely popular until the last quarter of the 19th century when it came into its own in the Pacific Northwest (Figure 14).

Photo of double-bit patterns from Collins.
Figure 14--Three double-bit patterns
available from Collins in 1921.

The double-bit ax weighed from about 2½ to 5 pounds and had a handle that was 26 to 42 inches long (Figure 15).

Photos of three representative double-bit patterns.
Figure 15--Three representative double-bit patterns:
Bluegrass Western pattern double-bit ax(top left);
True Temper Kelly Perfect Michigan pattern double-bit
ax (top right); and a 2½-pound reversible cruiser
ax, sometimes used for ax throwing (bottom).

Which is better, a single-bit or double-bit ax? No other question is likely to raise as much controversy among ax enthusiasts as this one. Although the single-bit or poll ax was developed first and has remained popular, the double-bit developed a strong following because of its balanced feel and versatility. Typically, one blade was sharpened to a finely honed, narrow "felling edge," while the second blade was ground slightly blunter, and used for knots, cutting near the ground, or in other instances where a finely sharpened blade was more likely to be damaged.

The double-bit ax remains a popular utility ax in the Western United States, especially among agencies like the USDA Forest Service. The single-bit ax also remains popular. All of the competition axes are single-bit axes. In my opinion, a single-bit ax is a more efficient cutting tool; the double-bit is more versatile.

Broad Ax

Other special-purpose axes helped develop America. The hewing ax (also called broad ax or side ax) was used to square timber or flatten the sides of logs. It was used primarily for log buildings and timber framing, either in house or barn construction. Hewn timber was also used for railroad ties and trestle bridges.

The goose-wing broad axes (Figure 16) brought to America by German settlers were the earliest hewing axes commonly used in this country. These axes were first used in Bucks County, PA. An earlier pattern of hewing ax known as the medieval goose-wing ax occasionally shows up (Figure 17). Goose-wing broad axes were made in both left- and right-handed models. The goose-wing handle was offset to the left or right by fitting it into a bent metal tube forged to the bit. Later hewing axes, known as American broad axes, had a handle that allowed the head to be taken off and reversed for use by right-handers or left-handers.

Photo of an 18th-century Germanic goose-wing hewing ax.
Figure 16--An 18th-century Germanic goose-wing
hewing ax. There are maker's marks hammered
into the blade.

Photo of a medieval goose-wing ax.
Figure 17--A medieval goose-wing ax that
differs from the Germanic goose-wing axes
brought into the United States by early settlers.

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