Axe Handles and Helves

The Cruiser was originally developed for use by the timber cruisers of the Pacific Coast who needed a first-class, efficient ax, yet one light enought to be carried while cruising afoot.

Bernard S. Mason, Woodsmanship, 1945

from American Barns and Covered Bridges, by Eric Sloane

Terry Kelly of (check out his website!) asked me if I would discuss why axe handles for single bit axes went from being straight to the curved fawn foot that we see most often today.

Single bit axes changed with regions and the kind of trees that the axe men encountered as they moved across the North American continent. Some trees needed a wider bit, others a narrower bit and blacksmiths made these adjustments at the request of the "choppers". Note the different regional styles of axe heads in Sloane's drawing. In 1969, the Mann Axe Company had over 70 patterns that they could make.

Some men liked a straighter handle, some made a handle with a curve in it. It all depended on who was swinging the axe, be it for felling or log house work. From my years of handling an axe I know that that curve in the handle and swell at the end make it easy to hold onto the axe!

In The Woodwright's Companion, Roy Underhill claims that "the S curve tends to direct the axe as you swing." Dudley Cook in his The Ax Book claims that the curved axe handle can throw your swing off by 5 degrees or more and then goes on to state that our brains compensate for those 5 degrees or so and allows us to be accurate with our swing anyway. Here's something to think about, axe and historic preservation guru Bernie Weisgerber, An Axe to Grind, likes a straight handle on his Kelly Jersey pattern axe.

There once was a time when every axe man made his own handle to fit his swing, his height and his axe. Today you just go to the local hardware store and grab what ever they have.

On the left is my Collins "Boy" or "Youth" axe that my father bought for me in 1972 when I was ten years old. Note the curved handle with the fawn foot swell. Compare it to the double-bitted cruising axe on the right. That axe was made by the Warren Axe and Tool Company of Warren, PA. Since you can use either bit on a double bit you need a straight handle.

The axe on the right is a Jersey Pattern made by Stanley, it probably dates from the late 1970's, early 1980's, and you can see that I have shortened the handle. I shortened the handle to make the axe fit my height and to make it balance better. I got it to do log work. One of these days I need to see if McGuckins Hardware in Boulder can order me a proper 29 inch long handle with a swelled end from OP Link Handle Company.

Some titles to read about axes, in no particular order:

The Woodwright's Companion, Roy Underhill
The Ax Book, Dudley Cook
An Axe to Grind, Bernie Weisgerber
American Axes, Henry Kauffman

Enjoy this video about Gransfors Bruks axes!


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