Sunday, 17 March 2013

Axe Wisdom

For this post I would like to share my limited wisdom of rehelving axes in the hope that I may be of use... After all, a fool learns by his own mistakes and a wise-man learns by others... This isn't intended as a tutorial and some prior knowledge of axes is assumed, maybe one day I'll get around to a tutorial.

This was the first axe head that I made a handle for, it was a labour of love, made in the kitchen of my student house, clamped to the work surface and shaped with a spoke shave, the wood was seasoned ash that I saved from the firewood pile. The head had had a rough life (chopping wood on a concrete path I suspect) and required serious regrinding, which I did by hand with some motor oil and an old oil stone. The wedge was oak with a second metal wedge placed parallel to the first. Before it was fitted finally, the head and wedges were smeared with a fiberglass based epoxy filler to make sure they didn't budge. This is pretty much how I rehandle all of my tools, but I have learnt a few lessens along the way...

1- Handle cross section - make sure its well rounded, oval even. Rectangular sections with rounded corners are no good - blisters. Also don't let the handle section closest to the head develop a point (on the blade side) I did this as I thought it was a nice transition into the shape of the eye. It makes controlled axe carving and throttling the axe (as needed for hedge laying) nigh on impossible. Its far better to have a shoulder at the transition point and retain the function of the tool. Its also worth considering if you want the butt end of the helve to flare, as I forgot to do here as it can aid grip during full swings.

2- Head wear - if its heavily worn either cut your losses or get an electric water stone or similar to bring the edge back to a sensible profile. Make sure you bring the angle of the blade back to a narrow cutting edge or the heavy shoulders will mean its no use for anything but splitting. Beware using an electric grinder as its easy to cook the steel and ruin your temper. Also note that if you have to pull the edge back a long way it might be beyond the temper line and you may run into a section of soft steel regardless.

3 - Dry timber - dry the helve out thoroughly for several days in the warmest spot in a normal house - its surprising the difference in moisture content between house and shed stored wood. If like me, you keep your axes in the house and there is a little residual moisture in the helve, you will find your newly fitted head may be a little loose by the next time you come to use it as it dries and shrinks!

4 - Handle length - the head is 2.5lb Eagle Edge Kent pattern axe. It would originally have been fitted to a handle about 12-18" long. When I did this axe I only really new about Gransfors axes, so I worked out the dimensions relative to the 2.5lb forest axe. I feel this head is far too light for this length helve in the situations I wanted it for (mainly carving and hedgelaying), this is my personal requirement  but perhaps the originals were short handled for a reason?

My second and third axes suffered a slightly different problem, as by this point I had learnt from and used the first axe a little, noticed its flaws and decided it was no good... Its still walking a fine line between getting recycled or just being hidden from sight.

5a - Building up bulk - this helve I found at a bootfair for a few quid and thought it might be useful for this 4lb topping axe. Topping axes inherently have enormous eyes and I thought a good solution could be to build up bulk with layers of laminate glued in place then shaped down. The layers were fine sawing of ash which were glued and held in place with a piece of bicycle inner tube, wrapped around as tightly as possible and finished with a squeezy clamp.

The cartoon below shows the layers which were added (red) the wedge (black) and a fore-wedge (yellow) this was placed as the eye was so big that the head just wasn't going to fit, so I planed the front down to a nice flat surface and fitted the wedge to slide down snugly. Some might argue that it looks a bit of a mess, but I think it was worth the effort as the axe is a dream to use and the head is very sound after several trials in the field! 

 5b - Replacing lost bulk - this is my little spoon carving axe, I made the whole helve from a piece of seasoned ash that I milled out on the old man's bandsaw and shaped with drawknife and spokeshave. During the fitting process I got a little carried away with the spokeshave and ended up with the head slightly too small at the back. Reluctant to restart after all the hardwork, I decided to recreate the lost bulk by removing the back section as a taper and replacing it with a suitable section of ash. This was then reshaped correctly and the head fitted properly. I still haven't fitted a steel wedge here as I was too scared of splitting the shaft but I have carved hundreds of spoons with this axe and there isn't even a sign of slipping. Testament to the strength of the fiberglass epoxy I suspect... 

More axe related posts to follow, hopefully a little less technical/dry with some nice pictures...

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