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The Axe Man

I review axes. I walk into hardware stores and, if I see anything new, I’ll ask the shopkeeper if I can take it outside and give it a test run. For my blog. I can usually talk them into it. I mean, these tools are built to last a lifetime, they should be able to withstand my splitting a few logs in the carpark. I carry some logs in the boot of my car, and a base to split them on. You get funny looks, swinging an axe in a car park.

Just this afternoon I stopped at one of those new home depot places outside the town. One of those warehouses that doesn’t know if it’s a hardware store or a furniture shop or what. You have to wade through fifteen aisles of plastic sieves and decorative lawn lamps before you find the tools. But they actually had the Redmond maul, which is something I’ve been looking to try for a while.

Really nice piece of work, is the Redmond maul. Good straight ash handle, very finely shaped steel. No synthetic shit. I’m not against fibreglass handles, but you can’t beat the grain under you palm. Steel’s another question altogether. Strong, but God you feel it up your arm.

Image courtesy of Eric Tastad. Click for source.Most people wouldn’t know a splitting maul if it were presented to them. All those films you see, with the recluse splitting firewood outside his log cabin, they’re always using a felling axe for it. Picture your classic axe—that’s a felling axe. Designed to hack into the base of a trunk, cutting through the grain. A maul’s what you should really be using for splitting, but no one does. It’s immeasurably better. It looks like a sledgehammer only one end is flattened into an axe shape. Weighs a tonne. Does most of the work for you.

I split a few logs while the young guy from the DIY section watched me. He asked for a go, he’d never used a maul before. Works in a hardware store and he’s never swung an axe. I let him, of course. Gave him a little instruction. He’s probably never swung a hammer or sawn through a beam either, but those aren’t my business.

I’ve only broken one axe while testing it. A Thurlington hickory handle that cracked down its full length after one or two swings. These things happen on occasion. Can’t really blame the axe maker, except to say maybe that they should be testing each handle a bit more rigourously. It was a bad run of grain. The shop owner didn’t ask me to pay for it, of course. Axes should last. Plus it was only the haft. Doesn’t put an end the the axe. The head should last for many handles.

My blog is very popular. I call it a blog but I mostly post videos now. Readers don’t want to read anymore. They want to be viewers now. In the opening credits to my videos I sing “The Tax Man” by The Beatles only I’ve changed the words to be “The Axe Man.”

Nobody expects a skinny, nerdy-looking database administrator to blog about axes, but there are two things to explain regarding this. The first is that only skinny, nerdy-looking database administrators blog about anything, and the second is that those burly woodsmen you think would be axe experts don’t actually use axes anymore. Nobody uses axes anymore.

The classicist names five Simple Machines. These are: the wedge, the lever, the screw, the pulley, and the wheel and axle. Every tool you use is just a combination of one or more of these.

The axe is the combination of those two most simple of the Simple Machines: the lever and the wedge. Its simplified form, the handaxe, predates every other human invention. We have been using them for over a million years. It is the most basic application of force you can imagine, beyond the club, the stick. The pure essence of a tool.

Axes have changed little in their fundamentals since the addition of the lever. A stick with a wedge of stone attached to the end. We conquered the earth with this. Hunted the land, tamed the forests, slaughtered one another. And now we have outgrown them, as no other fundamental tool has been outgrown. A few decades technology has seen the beginning of the end of axes.

There have been other casualties, it’s true. The scythe went overnight. The sword, a relatively recent addition to our toolboxes, withered quietly in the twentieth century. As the sword fell to the gun, so too the axe has fallen to the chainsaw.

What woodsman in a hurry would use an axe to fell a tree, or to split firewood, when a chainsaw is available to do it more quickly and more neatly? What family man would use an axe to chop his firewood, when a cheap electric jigsaw is available for the same money as a well-crafted splitter?

There exist exceptions, of course. The fireman. You still can’t beat an axe for the dual purpose of breaking down a door and clearing out the glass from window frames. Specialised modifications such as the climbing pickaxe will always have a use, I suppose, while people climb where they shouldn’t.

But by and large axes are a niche, an antiquated affectation preserved by unmuscled men in the wrong kind of plaid shirt. Me, in other words. Nothing drove this home more than the New Yorker who sent me one of his “hand-crafted” axes for review. He’d painted some pretty colours on the handle of a standard American felling axe, and was making his living selling them to young office workers. I presume they hung them from their walls, or clipped them into hand-made Austrian leather slings and hung them in the closet in anticipation of some fantasy forest retreat.

There is nothing wrong with this, I must add. These are the young men who read my blog. Axes belong in the same realm as the japanese swords you can find decorating nerds’ apartments. The only difference is that we can as yet buy axes from those tool makers who still produce them for a market that has stopped buying. In twenty years the sellers will have shifted to entirely ornamental pieces. Buy now, is what I think I’m saying. Or maybe never buy again.

I have an axe collection. It’s smaller than you’d think. There are collectors out there who focus on weapon axes. Battle axes, pole axes, throwing axes. I am not interested in weapons; my collection is chiefly made up of woodworking axes. I like the Austrian, German and British smiths. These make up the majority of my reviews, although it’s increasingly common to find American imports here too.

My oldest axe is my grandfather’s. It’s not the oldest axe I own, but it’s the axe I’ve had longest. My father broke firewood with it for many years. It has no manufacturer’s mark. I remember a Traveller with a wispy beard who’d come twice a year to sharpen the tools in our garage. Axes, chisels, the blades of the lawnmower. I watched him run the axe head against a grinding stone in the back of his van, then strop it with a length of leather to finish the edge.

The haft cracked twice in my memory, and rotted once when we left it in a flowerbed for the winter. Each time my dad bought a new handle and replaced it. Traditionally we use ash hafts. The Americans use hickory, which is tougher but probably a little harder on the arms. Hickory was unknown here before the discovery of the New World. A whole new continent, a whole new material. Now even the Europeans are using imported hickory, but I’m still partial to ash.

My other axes range from broadaxes to felling axes to hatchets. I am drawn to antiquity and craftsmanship. They are boring to describe. You need see them, to hold them. To swing them.

I am sad about the end of the working axe. I am even sad about their growing popularity as interior design pieces and fashion accessories, despite that growth maintaining the popularity of my videos. An axe is like a border collie. It seems unfair to own one if you don’t have land to use it on. I am guilty about my wall of axes, which sits to the left of my computer in the study. They were made to be used.

Have you ever felled a tree with an axe? It has a purity to it. A frightening purity. Felling with a chainsaw is a messy slaughter. A mechanical reduction that is too quick and too casual to allow an appreciation of the enormity of the act.

My friend, who has forests on his farmland, alerts me when they need to take down a tree. If I am available, I get first go. Otherwise he proceeds with modern methods. I have cut down half a dozen of his trees. I bring my own axe, one from my collection.

For one who loves trees, to fell with an axe is a primary and haunting experience. It takes time. It is violent. It resonates—through your hand and through the forest. Twock. Twock. Twock. Each impact a tiny widening of the wound you are inflicting. Death by a thousand cuts. Your arms ache and your brow sweats. The trunk shudders. And when the tree comes down, after the birds have fled, there is a silence. An end of something wonderful. It is not romantic, not in the way you imagine it is. It is something you have to take responsibility for.

Written by Pierce Gleeson
Posted on the 16 Feb, 2012