Mankind has been using axes since the early stone age, approximately 2.5 million years ago, and has been refining the design ever since. Originally hand axes were used - roughly chipped, oval pieces of stone mainly for digging and butchering animals and not until much later was a handle attached.
Two types of handled axe began to develop – one was a solid piece of hewn stone fixed by cordage, sinew or resin to a smooth piece of wood, the other had a shaft-hole drilled through which the handle could be fitted more easily. These later, more complex axes were the pre-curser to the Bronze age axe and were used for much more complex functions such as boat building, warfare and ceremony up until around 2000 BC.
As technology progressed stone gave way to bronze and to begin with these were often simple copies of early stone designs. Bronze is cast into moulds, making it easier to manufacture and mass produce – it is also a far superior material for cutting and has the ability to be decorated, adding value and significance to the owner. The use of casting for axes lasted roughly up until 500BC when the practice was superseded by new techniques and the new material - Iron !
The properties of iron allowed much greater possibilities when I came to both the design and function of the axe, and heralded a new era of production and innovation. For 2500 years smiths have been refining the techniques of forging axe heads, searching for that perfect combination between form and function.
Whether it be for battle, for felling or for building the axe has probably had more impact on civilisation than any other tool and it continues today to help craftsmen, foresters and homeowners alike.
There are two primary ways to forge a steel axe – laminate or mono-steel – and both have their advantages and disadvantages.
Forging a laminate is, in a way, the more traditional approach and involves welding two separate pieces together, a larger piece of iron with a smaller piece of high carbon steel for the cutting edge. But this is a much more advanced technique …..
Carbon steel was highly valued in pre christian and medieval times being both extremely hard to produce and generally imported from the far East (Damascus), this sometimes taking years for traders to travel to and back. So to use the minimal amount of this prized material was the aim for the smith and therefore they developed the technique of inserting a ‘wedge’ of steel into the edge of the iron body of the axe. So the main bulk of the axe was forged to shape, using a softer, cheaper material and then a piece welded in to make a cutting edge that could be hardened and sharpened. This technique is still widely used, however more to show respect to the old ways and a smiths technical ability than to preserve high cost material (although many would argue a laminate axe has better properties than a mono-steel axe).
The second, more common, simpler way to forge an axe head is by using a single, larger, piece of carbon steel (something like the size of a pack of butter for a 2lb axe). Modern steel production has allowed what was once a high value material to become easily affordable and also enabled a wide range of different alloys to be added to offer more choice. My preferred steel is EN9 (1060) with a .6-.7% carbon content – it’s relatively basic to forge, forgiving in the heat treatment and holds a great edge whilst being easily sharpenable. All axes will eventually go blunt over time so I use a steel that can be re-sharpened at home by anyone with a sharpening stone and a little patience. Using a steel with a lower carbon content also gives the axe a bit more ‘spring’ being less brittle and therefore less likely to chip. The disadvantage of this way is that the harder steel is much harder work ! With more resistance in the material and a narrower heat range (the temperature where it is malleable being between 850-1000 degrees) it makes for a tough business.
So how do you forge an axe head ? Here are the basic processes in order:
1 - Heat the steel to between 950-1000 degrees before punching a hole to start the eye forming process.
2 – Eye and cheeks are forged out further (and it is this stage that can determine the style of axe).
3 – The bit and the edge are now forged out to the correct pattern.
4 – Refinement and alignment of the whole piece is followed by stamping the smith’s touch mark
(ensuring the quality and showing the maker).
5 – Heat treating (hardening and tempering).
6 – Grinding the edge and sharpening.
7 – Handle and sheath fitting. This is sometimes underrated as a process but often determines the difference
between a good axe and a great axe – and is a skill in itself.
The oldest axe I have in my collection is a Bronze ceremonial axe from Persia c. 500 BC. This was given to my mother by my dad many years ago and she passed it to me when I began blacksmithing (around 30 years ago). I have always had a fascination with metals and can clearly remember looking and holding this axe as a kid - something so old and mysterious ! So I suspect my obsession started fairly young.
The next defining event happened in France, 1998 when I found a very large felling axe in the woods – just the head lying at the base of a tree !! I’ll never know how long it had been there but I was immediately interested in how it had been made (forge welded edge and eye). It’s important as it really started me collecting axes and on the journey to find out how they were made.
I didn’t actually make my first axe until 2014 when I travelled to Gränsfors Bruks – the world famous axe factory and school in Sweden. In fact I didn’t really start forging axes seriously until about 2017 as my first attempts were so demoralising that I came to the conclusion that making knives was much easier !!
But through perseverance, and the expert tuition and guidance of Fredrik Thelin (Swedish master and Gränfors teacher), I was finally able to forge something to be proud of and of a high enough quality to sell. I was hooked and have been dedicating more and more time to this aspect of my business since.
Collecting axes sort of just came with the territory ! It’s difficult to compete with the axe collection at Gränsfors (where the museum holds well over 2000) but my small collection is growing (as is the obsession!). Currently sitting at around 60’ish complete axes and heads I am always on the hunt for something new – my most recent additions being two traditional Finnish forest axes from the 1960’s (supplied by Finnish Vintage Axes). I tend to look for more unusual pieces – the stars of the collection currently being a 1943 barrel makers axe from Bordeaux, a 7lb sided broad axe from the US and a one-off laminate bearded axe by F Thelin. Of course I have many more run of the mill axes but each one adds to my understanding of how axes are forged, what they are used for and what makes for the perfect axe.