The Oldest Cutting Edge
IT’S A WARM, SOFT MAY afternoon in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and on a plank laid across two sawhorses outside his workshop in Chocorua, Geoff Burke, master boatbuilder and connoisseur of edge tools, is lining up his collection of axes for me the way a proud parent might line up his kids for a family portrait. On the far left is the smallest, though not necessarily the youngest, of the crew: a trail ax, really a 1¼-pound hatchet head on a twenty-four-mch handle. On the far right is a huge I lenderson and Townsend hroadax, its fifteen-inch hit (cutting edge) dwarfing all the others. In between these two extremes lie other variations of head and handle: the graceful, symmetrical wings of two double-bitted axes; a 2-pound poll ax (just one bit) that Burke carries on his canoe trips; a classic 2¼-pound Rixford made in northern Vermont. Like family members, each of these axes has its own history, its own place in Burke’s life.
“I dreamt about that broadax,” he says. “I dreamt about finding it in a junk store, and then a week later I actually found it in a junk store. A good man with a broadax could hew timbers to a tolerance of a sixteenth of an inch over sixteen feet. His finished work was so smooth that people these days can’t believe it was done by eye and hand.”
Burke turns to a double-bitted head that still has its original paint and that he has not yet “hung”—that is, attached a handle to. “I picked this up from leftover stock after the Spiller Axe and Tool Company closed in Oakland, Maine,” he says, hefting it. “A double-bitted ax just flies through the air. Its balance is perfect. Using one is like driving a sports car instead of a pickup truck.”
Then he reaches for a 3½-pound poll ax and taps the bit with his fingernail, drawing a clear, bell-like tone from it. “Good carbon steel,” he says. “The soft stuff manufacturers are using in drop-forged axes today won’t give you a tone like that. I used this ax hour after hour, day in and day out, when I was homesteading in Alaska. Whap, whap, whap, all day long. That’s how you make an ax your own. Get out into the bush, where an ax is the first thing you need and the last thing you’d ever want to be without, and it becomes part of you, an extension of your eye and hand.”
Burke’s axes are clearly extensions of his eye and hand, highly personalized tools, some with handles he has carved along the simpler, straighter lines of the old woodsman’s handles, which provided better balance than the more curvaceous handles sold in hardware stores today. Not only are the hand-carved handles straighter, but they are also slimmer, and skinny handles yield two great benefits: First, they are sweet to use; they just plain feel good in the hands. Second, the flex in them absorbs the shock of the blows.
“The old-timers used to slim their handles down enough to make them whippy,” Burke says. “Each handle would be custom-fit to the ax head and to each man’s size, strength, and style.”
Personal, too, are the perfectly shaped and honed bits. The cutting edges on Burke’s axes are nearly straight, curving in only slightly at the ends. The pronounced curve designed into some axes and visited upon others by careless filing is an inefficient shape. The center of a strongly curved bit will drive deep into the wood, leaving a half-moon-shaped cut instead of a straight one. Where an axman with a straight bit might need only a dozen strokes to make a clean notch, the man with the rounded bit might need twice as many to clean out the scalloped cuts his bit would leave.
And, of course, Burke’s axes are sharp, ferociously, terrifyingly sharp; but terrifying, I would add, only to the untrained and uninitiated, for no true traditional axman would have an ax that was not razor sharp. The old-time woodsman was after maximum efficiency: felling and limbing as many trees as possible with as few strokes and as minimal an expenditure of energy as possible. The straightedged, razor-sharp bit and the whippy handle to spare the bones and joints were what the woodsman wanted in an ax; in himself, he needed the skill to handle that potentially lethal tool safely and to keep it in good working condition.
THE OLD-TIME AXMAN—WHO COULD FELL and buck two cords of wood a day, who could build log bunkhouses and cookshacks and hovels for his horses, who could build tables and chairs and benches and even the kitchen sink with an ax—has gone the way of the wood-and-canvas canoe and the split-bamboo fly rod. With him have gone the beautifully crafted tools he used. If names like Kelly, Collins, and Plumb—large manufacturers of axes still in business today—are hardly household words, it is no wonder that many defunct smaller firms are now known and revered only by old-ax aficionados. What the Canadian ax collector and historian Allan Klenman calls the Great Ax Age lasted from about 1850 to 1960. Then, in the span of just a few years, when ever-lighter and more efficient chain saws finally drove hand logging tools out of the woods, hundreds of companies either folded or gave up ax-making. According to Lawrence Lyford of Brentwood, New Hampshire, a ninth-generation woodsman and Allan Klenman’s counterpart in New England, the little Kennebec Valley town of Oakland, Maine, hosted fifteen ax manufacturers in the course of its history, among them the superb Spiller Axe and Tool and Emerson and Stevens companies. By 1965 it had none. Now there are only seven ax makers left in the entire United States.
By cleaning up old rusted heads that he buys for a few dollars and hanging them with appropriate handles, Lyford has built a collection of 225 classic axes by all the great manufacturers. “Somebody breaks a handle on his old ax,” Lyford explains, “so he puts it in a corner of the barn. He’s in a bind—he goes to the hardware store and buys a new ax for twenty-eight dollars. Well, he’s throwing away the wrong ax.”
All you need to do to get a sense of what’s being lost is to take an ax off the rack of your local hardware store and set it next to one of Lyford’s axes. The new store ax will typically have a rounded, bulgy poll (blunt end of the head) vaguely reminiscent of the fenders on a 1958 Buick. The cheeks (sides of the head) will be too thick. The bit will be too curved and too flared. Worst of all, because the head is long-bitted and the handle not fitted to the head’s balance point, the ax will be heavy in the bit and want to dive into the ground when you swing it horizontally in felling a tree. The lines of an old-time ax are, by contrast, crisp and clean. The bit is relatively short. The poll is square, the top edge of the head nearly straight. The bottom edge has some noticeable flare to it, but not the loopy curve of the more recent ax. The overall effect is one of compactness and concentration, of a rectangle teased out of angularity just enough to be gracefully functional. Looking at the old ax, you can practically see it gathering lines of force together at its edge the way a magnifying glass draws light rays together into a tiny, burning point of light. The old ax focuses the user’s energy; the new, poorly designed one dissipates it.
The beauty and efficiency of the old ax reside not only in its shape, of course, but also in the stuff it is made of. In the modern drop-forging process a blow from a huge press shapes red-hot metal blanks into ax heads. Because the present-day manufacturer can rightly assume that his customers are unskilled, he uses a compromise steel hard enough to take an edge yet soft enough to nick but not shatter if bounced off a rock. The relative softness of the steel also eases filing and resharpening if an accident does occur. But a harder, high-carbon steel—the kind that rings when you rap it with your fingernail—will take a finer edge and hold it longer. So the best old-time ax was not stamped out of a single piece of common-denominator steel. Instead it combined a bit of highcarbon steel with a softer, shock-absorbing body of iron or low-carbon steel. In a process called forge welding, the body was heated white hot and the bit cherry red. Using a heavy hand hammer or a trip hammer, the smith pounded the two together, roughed out the resulting ax head, and ground it into its final form on huge grindstones.
When the chain saw made these fine old tools obsolete, it also made the ability to use them obsolete. Who today, apart from the specialized speed choppers of logging contests, has anything approaching the skills of the old-time axman? Who still uses an ax not as sports equipment, like a golf club or a tennis racket, but as an everyday working tool? Those few men and women who spend much of their working lives in snow country far from gasoline pumps and have no room in their dunnage for the bulk and weight of chain saws and gas cans. For them the simple, dependable ax weighing no more than four or five pounds and powered by human muscle is the major tool for survival and comfort.
Garrett and Alexandra Conover, who own and operate the North Woods Ways guiding service in Maine and who served an apprenticeship with Mick Fahey, perhaps the most knowledgeable and skilled Maine guide of the pre-chain-saw, pre-outboardmotor era, are members of this select company.
“Mick had a three-pound ax,” Garrett recalls, “that was so sharp you could cut your eyeballs just looking at it, and the handle was so supple that only an artist could handle it properly. Anyone used to hacking away at stump roots in his back yard with a hardware-store ax would probably either chip the bit or bust the handle on an ax like that in no time.”
The Conovers have become artists with axes. When they pull into a winter camp, the first items off their toboggans are their trail axes. In a matter of minutes Alexandra is stripping some small dead spruce trees to use for tent pickets, her ax skimming down the stems and the hard steel of her bit sounding a ringing note as it nips off each branch. In the meantime Garrett has wandered out in back of the campsite and found some larger, porcupine-killed spruce for firewood. The sound his ax makes slicing into the wood is not a dull “thock” but a sharp “snick.”
“The sound a really sharp ax makes,” Geoff Burke says, “is the sound of biting into a hard apple.”
It doesn’t take Garrett too many of those bites to fell a wood supply for the night. His ax describes easy arcs; a huge chip flies out with each blow. And because Garrett, like any good axman, is ambidextrous, he takes four or five strokes right-handed, shifts his feet only slightly, and takes four or five more left-handed. The tree whumps down into the snow. In the time it takes the unpracticed chopper to fell and limb one tree, Garrett has done three. Where the amateur gnaws at a tree like a drunken beaver, Garrett leaves stumps cut as cleanly as if they had been sliced with a scalpel.
Back in camp a sport saws the trees into stove-length billets and tosses them over to where Alexandra is splitting them. One clean, precisely aimed blow, and each stick pops in half. If it’s still too big, two more blows quarter it. Because she knows exactly where her ax will land and exactly what it will do when it does, she can stand close enough to her work for maximum power and control. Inexperienced choppers, understandably worried about their feet, will stand too far back from their work. This stance forces them to lean forward and reach out with their arms. Off balance and hunched over, they can’t swing the ax with either power or accuracy. Alexandra does not grunt, flail, or sweat. The strokes of her ax seem to start at the soles of her feet, gather strength and focus through the arc of her back and arms, and end in the crisp little explosion of split wood. Once again, the right tool in the right hands equals maximum output with minimum energy expenditure.
That’s important, because in the subarctic cold of Labrador or Quebec, where you may well be making camp at thirty or forty below zero after a full day of hauling toboggans across windswept lakes, you want to get the tents and stoves set up and the fires burning as quickly as possible. For the old-time logger the fewer strokes and the less effort it took him to fell and limb a tree, the more trees he could fell in a day and the more money he could make. For a modern-day guide leading parties on winter trips in sub-zero weather, calories and body heat are precious. In an emergency situation a sharp ax could mean salvation from frostbite, hypothermia, or even death.
And, of course, an ax can do far more than make firewood and tent poles. With an ax the wilderness traveler can repair snowshoes, toboggans, and canoes; build an emergency shelter or a log home; make a splint or a backboard for an injured companion; and hew a new paddle to replace a lost or broken one. Along with these life-sustaining functions, an ax can provide extra little frills. A fir blown down in a storm can be hewn into a luxurious camp bench and, with a sharp enough ax, planed as smooth as any carpenter’s tool could make it.
If you wonder where the axmen of yore survive, the place to look is on the canoe and toboggan trails of northern Maine and Minnesota and of Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Labrador. The keepers of the old skills are out there. They’re guides and boatbuilders and foresters, a mixed lot who have had the good fortune to come upon some fine old axes and, more important, someone to teach them how to use those tools. If, in your rambles, you should ever run into someone whose ax slicing into a tree says “snick” and reminds you of the sound of biting into a hard apple, you’ve probably just met a curator of the classic American ax and a practitioner of the old-time woodsman’s skills.