Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Inexpensive Woodcarving Axe

In just a few centuries we went from a species that contemplated the intrinsic value of every item it possessed to a group that obsesses over the acquisition of every item it can acquire. Our ancestors—whether they sailed from Europe or Africa, crossed the Bering Strait, or island hopped across the South Pacific—carried only what was absolutely essential and made everything else as needed on the spot. Gobs of goods were considered more a burden than a luxury. Today, however, we purchase and acquire repeating the process over and again as if looking for a fix that constantly eludes us. Take note of the commercialism of bushcraft (an obvious oxymoron) and remember that in its purest form bushcraft is about simplicity, knowledge and self-reliance. Admittedly, I’ve been as guilty of worshiping the purchase monster as the next guy.

Which in a roundabout way brings me to woodcarving axes: I admire the Bushcrafters on YouTube, “Hobbexp” in particular, who make a point of using the most inexpensive knives, axes and camping items available. Check out his tea pot by-the-way. They’re not fixated on buying but instead dedicated to learning and making what they need. Hobbexp does not use, to my knowledge, a handcrafted, “top of the line” axe. Instead he uses a practical “hardware store” purchased axe that low-and-behold gets the job done with absolute precision.

I don’t use axes much except when woodcarving, and in that sense I use small axes with heads weighing from 1.0 to 1.5 pounds. When it comes to woodcarving I’ve found that the slightly heavier small axe outperforms the lighter axes. The reasons are simple. Woodcarving with an axe is not a matter of chopping so much as it is an exercise in sculpturing. The experienced axe woodcarver seldom uses much more than the first inch of blade using a choked grip and does not slam the head against the wood but instead drops or shaves the head onto the wood. From there the keen convex grind (almost a Scandi grind) honed to a razor sharp edge performs the miniscule cuts that ultimately create a bowl, spoon, selfbow…the list goes on and on.

So the most important part of a good woodcarving axe is located from blade edge to about one or two inches back towards the axe’s “cheeks.” This is where dimensions play a critical role. If the edge is too robust or wide in thickness then the blade will constantly bounce off the wood thus wasting a lot of energy and ultimately producing inferior results. On the contrary, the finely tapered axe edge coupled with sufficient axe head weight allows the carver to tune each cut and thus produce superior workmanship.

But you don’t need a $200 axe or even a $100 axe to achieve those results. All you need is a little patience, a fundamental knowledge of metallurgy and a few simple tools. You can turn a ten or twenty dollar axe into a fine woodcarving axe.

Here is the result of about thirty minutes of regrinding on an inexpensive axe from the Sears Craftsman line. Note the fine taper in the last two inches toward the blade edge and adequate transition into the cheeks.

The little Craftsman’s axe is made by Vaughan in the USA and cost me, with sales tax, about $20.00. Admittedly, this axe took more work than other inexpensive axes I’ve re-profiled. I used a 4.5 inch angle grinder for some of the work reshaping the cheeks but most of the actual blade area work was performed with a steel file. Of course, when using a power tool it’s important to keep the steel cool by constantly pouring water over it. The final result is that this little inexpensive axe works and I’ve experienced no troubles of any kind. I should also note that I purchased the axe at a Sears store and examined several before I selected the one I wanted. My I suggest you do the same.

Here’s a primo little axe with a nice 1.5 pound axe head weight distributed by Northern Tool and Equipment. I purchased this axe about a year ago at the San Antonio, Texas store. It cost me $10.00. The head required only minimal work on the last quarter inch just posterior to the blade edge. With that slight modification it created a top quality woodcarving axe. While the Craftsman pictured above has a 1.25 pound head the Northern Tool small axe’s quarter pound more head weight makes it, in my opinion, superior for dedicated woodcarving tasks. Remember, I’m not interested in chopping but in sculpturing.

Northern Tool and Equipment small axe.

Not every inexpensive axe can be modified for woodcarving. The Truper 1.25 pound small axe pictured above should, in my view, be avoided. The dimensions are in a word, crude. The slope from blade edge to cheeks is poorly conceived and though I gave it a try I finally relegated this small axe to “pickup tool box” carry where it will suffice for whacking fire wood and similar tasks.

 The Truper small axe head shown from above. Even after a lot of work the profile was still unsatisfactory. This little axe cost more than the Northern Tool small axe so why bother? One of my sons will tote this axe in his pickup and give it the respect it deserves which is minimal. When it finally craters we’ll use it as a wedge for splitting logs.

This is the most expensive of my inexpensive small axes and it’s made by Fiskars. I purchased it at Walmart for about $30.00 with sales tax. You’ll note the axe head looks die cast and I’ve been told it is some sort of metal powder process. I’m not sure. Either way, I’ve got mixed feelings about this axe. Surprisingly, despite its seemingly wrong grind (a sort of straight V-pattern) it works okay for some woodcarving applications. I own two Fiskar’s small axes, one an older model and this newer model. I’ve made dozens of selfbows with the first Fiskar’s axe. My only complaint is that the steel is exasperatingly soft. In other words, it bends easily and when used against super hardwoods it fails. For that reason I’ve not used the Fiskar’s axe much recently. I guess this purchase can be blamed on the purchase monster.

The Fiskars small axe.

 Too much of a good thing. This is not an inexpensive axe. This Roselli small axe would probably make a good all-around camp splitting axe, and some have suggested it makes an adequate skinning tool. Perhaps, but it falls short of the ideal, in my view, for woodcarving. Said plainly, the axe tends to bounce a lot.

I included the expensive Roselli small axe to show you the other end of the spectrum when it comes to bevel contour. Yes, it’s a fat one. And yes, it looks kind of neat. And no, it does not make an ideal woodcarving axe. My opinion, others may disagree.

One more note: Steel type and hardness play important factors in determining the suitability of any woodcarving axe. Ideally, the steel must be tempered to a point that will allow it to withstand repeated impacts but not so low that it will be too soft to hold a sufficient edge. Surprisingly, that is not necessarily something confined to how much the axe costs. Remember as well, that when considering the price of an axe you must also consider the cost of the labor that produced it. It would not be unfair to say that a $75.00 axe produced in one country often equals a $10.00 axe produced in another country. Quality in a world market then becomes associated not so much with cost but with….well, quality. That’s a concept some find hard to digest. I’ve seen $100 axes that were not as good as $10.00 axes. The moral of that story is to gauge quality on qualitative terms and not simply using quantitative criteria. In other words, prices can be fooling. Let the buyer beware.  


  1. Thanks for a great comparison! I'll have to keep my eye out for that Northern Tool axe. I just received my dream carving axe custom made from an English blacksmith, but finding usable tools at the other extreme of the price range is awesome.

    1. I've been having computer issues so it's taking me awhile to get back. I've made a habit of checking out the axes at the various hardware store and also at flea markets.