The Axe: Man’s Timeless Tool

The axe is probably the most basic of all hand tools. If you were a caveman, all you needed was a piece of chipped stone tied to a stick with a couple of sinews wrapped around it and it was amazing what you could accomplish. With the discovery of copper and bronze the old reliable axe became much sharper and even more indispensable. Otzi, the 5300 year old frozen mummy from Italy was carrying an axe made of copper when he was found in his final resting place. For many centuries thereafter, iron was the metal of choice for making an axe. The only problem: iron was brittle and had a tendency to chip and rust. With the discovery of steel, an axe could be forged with a razor sharp edge that was lightweight and easy to carry.

In colonial America most of the axes were of European design: straight handle fixed to the back of a long narrow blade. Leave it to the Yankees to improve on a design that was thousands of years old. With the advent of western expansion and lumberjacking, the American axe was developed. It featured a curved handle and a head counter balanced on the side opposite of the blade. The weight balance made it much more effective for cutting trees and easier to swing. This was your basic Paul Bunyon model. Shortly thereafter came the double bit axe with blades on both sides of the head. It was even easier to swing because there was virtually no wind resistance, but a little harder to control. The lumberjack axe became indispensable to the frontiersmen who were clearing away the forest to homestead. Henry David Thoreau talks about the axe in his book Walden’s Pond:

“The owner of the axe, as he released his grip on it
said it was the apple of his eye.
But I returned it sharper than I received it.”

The lumberjacks kept one side of their double bit axes razor sharp for cutting into the wood. The other side they kept dull in case they encountered a piece of wood with a knot in it. That way it would take a lot longer for the sharp side to get dull.

Alas, with the advent of power tools and chainsaws the manufacturing of axes in America has all but disappeared. Most all of the ones that you buy in the hardware store are made in China. Still, if you have a fireplace and chop wood, or if you are handy around the house, an axe is a valuable addition to your toolbox. There is literally, an axe for every occasion. Here are a few:

If you get your firewood delivered already split and neatly stacked in your backyard and just need to chop down a few of the bigger pieces, then a single or double bit curved handled axe will do the job. If, on the other hand, you split a lot of the wood yourself, you might want to invest in a wood splitting maul. This wedge-shaped combination axe and sledgehammer can be pretty heavy to lift, but it will usually split the wood in one or two tries. If you’re into camping or woodworking then you need a carving axe. These small axes with short handles have a sharp blade and are good for short accurate strokes. They are used for chipping and carving. (The Dutch actually used these to make those nifty wooden shoes) If you have a small area of brush to clear then you might want a weed axe. T

his machete/axe combination will slice through tough weeds, no problem. If you’re demolishing part of a room, then you need a fireman’s axe. The fireman’s axe has a standard blade on one side and a plier tool on the other for pulling boards, etc. These tools were a mainstay on the old wooden ships. The crew would use them to punch holes in the deck and pry up the timbers if there was a fire down below. When metal hulls were introduced, a lot of these axes were donated to land locked fire departments. If you like to work in the garden, then get a trenching axe, also known as a Pulaski axe. These tools have a standard axe head on one end and a pick axe on the other. They are ideal for breaking up hard soil in the garden and cutting through roots and small tree limbs.

Regardless of the task at hand, there is an axe that will do the job. And you can get one for a lot less than a power tool. A good quality hand axe can usually be purchased for about $25.00-$50.00.

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