Collecting Axes and Antique Hatchets

Collection of antique hatchets and vintage axes shows varied use of simple but essential farm tools.

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David estimates this claw hammer to date to the 1700s, and believes it was either European-made or produced in the U.S. by European immigrants. “I’ve been told that the shape of the head and the lack of a taper in the handle where it meets the head indicate that it’s probably handmade,” he says.

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Hatchets and axes have, technically speaking, nothing to do with farming. And yet they've long been indispensable tools on the farm. As with any tool, variations have been developed to tackle different jobs. From a basic tool of survival to specialized application, antique hatchets and axes have staying power and enduring appeal.

About 10 years ago, David Johnson, Falconer, N.Y., began finding choice pieces at swap meets and flea markets. Soon he had the foundation of a collection. "As a boy growing up, I always had a knife and a hatchet," he recalls. "I grew up with those things; it was just a part of life."

The distinction between a hatchet and an axe is simple. A hatchet is essentially a small, short-handled axe. "You can use a hatchet with just one hand," David says. "Only rarely does a hatchet weigh more than 1.5 pounds. But an axe takes two hands to use, and it'll weigh 2.5 to 5 pounds or more."

David collects what he likes. "That's the trick to collecting," he says. "If you buy it just because it's collectible, it's not fun. And it's got to be fun." His favorites are pieces made for specific purposes. His collection includes shingle hatchets, lathe hatchets, crating hatchets, a trapper's axe, cruiser's axe and even an ice axe. Each had very specific applications.

The shingle hatchet, for instance, features a cutting edge sharp on one side only and gauge holes at half-inch intervals. "The workman would put a pin in the hole, bring it to the bottom of a shingle and lay the next row of shingles on the top of the head," David explains. "That gave the overlap. Otherwise you'd have to lay a string to get the rows straight, and these guys were paid by the square foot. Using this hatchet, they could split a shingle, drive nails (they held the nails in their mouths) and use the gauge, all with one tool."

Lathe hatchets are closely related to shingle hatchets. Designed to cut and split lathe strips for construction work and drive nails, the lathe hatchet was used in the era before plaster board became commonplace.

A very early piece in David's collection was used just to split shingles. Perhaps 200 years old, the froe was driven into the end of a piece of wood, tipped one way or the other and a shingle would be split off. It's a classic example of what David calls "the physics of wood."

"Wood inherently splits from the thick end to the thin end," he explains. "If you split a shingle off, then you'd turn the log over and split it the same way, and you'd have the same angle, the same taper. I've tried it: It goes from about a half inch down to nothing. If you watch a shingle mill, it's the same thing. The block tips over with every cut so the shingles are always tapered the same way."

His trapper's axe - a Hudson Bay made by Norlund - was an essential tool for early settlers and woodsmen. "It's the one tool the trapper had to have for survival," David explains. "It could be used as a weapon, to kill game, build a shelter or butcher meat. It was more important back then to have a good axe than a knife or a gun. With a gun, if you run out of powder or the powder gets wet, you're out of business. But the axe is a multipurpose tool."

His ice axe is a remnant of a once-thriving industry in the northeast and a novelty in David's collection. "I bought it because I'll get at least that much conversation out of it," he says, grinning. "It wasn't used to cut ice, but to separate blocks of ice in the icehouse. They put sawdust between the blocks but it was still hard to break the blocks apart and keep them intact. The ice axe was thin and slid right in between the blocks."

The piece David believes to be a barn axe may have been used to build barns. He speculates that a spike on one end might have been used to drive pins in mortise and tenon construction. His broadaxe, related to the medieval-era weapon, was used to hew beams from logs. It features a removable handle that could be switched depending on whether the user was left- or right-handed.

Antique hatchets and axes don't represent mainstream collectibles, but David says he's not the only person collecting them. "It's getting harder and harder to find good stuff," he says. FC

For more information: David Johnson, 409 N. Work St., Falconer, NY 14733.