Skip to main content

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!


Popular posts from this blog

How to Make a Traditional Froe Mallet

What holds the Holy of the Holies, what did Brahma become? Wood. Why will aspen always tremble? For the nails driven into the cross. What makes the color of wood? The soil it tastes. Cradle, fiddle, coffin, bed: wood is a column of earth made ambitious by light, and made of beauty by the rain.

Kim R. Stafford, Having Everything Right, 1986.

Rive, verb, to split
Shake, noun, a split in a piece wood. (Heart shake, ring shake)
Shake, verb, (Middle English), to split.

I know I should have been in the studio working on my back log of guitars, but the day was so nice and warm with a tall blue canopy, I couldn't stay inside. I decided that I needed to make a proper froe mallet. This style of mallet is traditional to northeastern California, primarily Tehama (where I'm from), Butte, Shasta and Plumas counties where making shingles by hand from sugar pines was an industry. I don't know if it was used in any other region along the Pacific Rim, other parts of the United States or even o…

The Guitar's Scale Length, Your Hand Size and a Chart

I will cite the case of a marvelous concert player, a Japanese lady who is barely 5 ft. tall and with hands that are real miniatures. She plays a 664 mm 10 string guitar and demanded that I build this guitar with an action 1 mm higher than normal, which she handles with incredible ease. This is serious study!

Jose Ramirez III, Things About the Guitar, 1990

Here is the hand size and scale length that I found on the forum at

Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 250+ 664mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 230 to 250 656mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 210 to 230 650mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 190 to 210 640mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 170 to 190 630mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of below 170 615mm scale length

Here is my flexible imperial/metric ruler.

Here is my hand properly placed on the flexible imperial/metric ruler.

Today my reach from little finger to thumb is 240mm. I should more or less be playing a…

Basic Hand Tool Kit for Making a Classical Guitar, Revised

Ours is really a simple craft.

James Krenov, The Impractical Cabinetmaker, 1979

So, you want to build a guitar.

Since the original post, Basic Hand Tool Kit for Guitar Making, click here to see it, is the most popular post on this blog, I thought I would revisit it and adjust it to what I am using now to make a classical guitar.

The first thing I recommend doing is to buy or borrow copies of the following books:

Guitar Making: Tradition and Technology, by William Cumpiano and Jonathan Natelson
Making Master Guitars, by Roy Courtnall
The Guitar Maker's Workshop, by Rik Middleton

These are required reading before you begin making a guitar.

Also required reading are these books by Roy Underhill:

The Woodwright's Shop
The Woodwright's Companion
The Woodwright's Workbench
The Woodwright's Apprentice

Why these books by Mr. Underhill? You will learn valuable wood working techniques if you make any of his projects. The dovetail joints used to join a drawer together are far mor…