Evolution of the Axe

Author Photo
By Sam Moore | Apr 3, 2018

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A mid-20th century, single-bitted axe.
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Mato-tope, or Four Bears, a Mandan chief who lived in what is now North Dakota during the early 19th century is pictured holding a ceremonial tomahawk made of iron.
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This heavy iron axe head, likely from the 17th or 18th century, was probably used to fell trees and was found in East Sussex, England. The American axe evolved from this heavy, awkward design into a wider, flatter and better balanced tool that could be swung straight and that cut deeply and cleanly.
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An 1895 photo of two men chopping at a large tree to prepare it for felling with a two-man cross-cut saw.
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An 1885 drawing illustrating the different styles of axes. A through E show the stages of making an axe by the folding and welding method: A is the formed but unfolded billet; B is after heating and folding; C is after the open ends are welded together and the eye opened out; D is the steel bit insert; and E is after the bit end is split and the steel bit is inserted ready for welding into a finished tool, except for sharpening and polishing. M, N and Q illustrate a hand hatchet, a lath hatchet and a brush-hook, respectively.
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A continuation of the drawing at left. F is the 3- to 7-pound Kentucky axe; G the Georgia long-bit axe, same weight; H is the New Jersey 3- to 5-1/2-pound axe; I, Michigan wide-bit axe, same weight; J, the Western 3- to 6-pound axe; K, the Yankee heavy-head axe, same weight; and L is a heavy Spanish axe with an 8-inch cut. O is a miner’s pick-axe and P is a mattock, while R represents a cooper’s axe; S, a Dutch side-axe; T, a broad-axe; and U, a coachmaker’s axe.

In past columns, I’ve written a little about some of the hand tools that were once essential on farms and ranches throughout the country. One of these is the axe, a tool that few folks know how to use in these days of chainsaws and central heating. I count myself among these unskilled ones as, although I’ve used an axe fairly often, I never learned to hit exactly where I wanted.

The history of the axe goes way back; the tool was, according to Greek mythology, invented by Daedalus (the father of Icarus, who famously fell to his death when he flew too close to the sun with his wax-and-feather wings). Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote in his circa A.D. 79 book, Naturalis Historia, that Daedalus had invented carpentry “and with it the saw, axe, plumb-line, drill, glue, and isinglass.”

The first axes were chipped from a chunk of hard stone that was initially held in the hand and was probably used for many purposes. Eventually someone learned to fasten the stone to a wooden handle with thongs or by drilling a hole in the stone, giving him more leverage to strike a harder blow, as well as a longer reach.

As the Stone Age gave way to the Bronze and Iron Ages, axes were made from these materials and became more useful as they could be made with a sharper edge. During these periods, the axe became a common weapon for close combat, with battleaxes being used well into the Middle Ages, when their popularity declined as better swords were developed.

The Native American version

In this country, the first explorers found that the Native Americans used a hatchet-like device made of a flint head fastened securely to a short wooden handle. It came to be known as the tomahawk and was used for a weapon, as well as all sorts of chopping and cutting tasks. The Native Americans quickly recognized the advantages of the iron axes of the settlers and so-called “trade axes” became a favorite item of barter between the two groups.

Until the 19th century, axes were mostly made by local blacksmiths and the design of them was determined by the desires of the purchaser and the skill of the smith. Different shapes were preferred in different parts of the country, based partly on the type of timber to be cut, but mostly on the user’s preference or prejudice. There were the Michigan wide-bit axe, the Kentucky axe, the Georgia long-bit axe, and the Yankee heavy-head axe, among others.

Manufacturing axes

During the 1820s and ’30s, factories were established to make axes using modern machinery. The following account of the process appeared in the Oct. 22, 1859, issue of Scientific American.

The article first described the tool: “The axe is simply a cutting tool, and there is no appearance of complication about it. One could describe it as a wedge-shaped lump of iron with a steel cutting-edge and a hole for a handle. But that is a very rough idea of an axe and a ‘chopper’ would sneer at the description. It is true that many choppers think of and cherish their axes as though these were their children and some can be found who swear by their axes, and take them regularly to bed. This will not appear so absurd when we learn that the axe has been made half-human by the gift of a ‘head,’ an ‘eye,’ ‘cheeks,’ in one stage of its manufacture, ‘lips,’ a ‘throat,’ and a sharp, tongue-like member called a ‘bit.’”

The quality of steel used to make axes was critical and in 1859 most was imported from Europe with “Swedes Iron” being popular, although “cast steel” from Sheffield, England was considered the best. The Scientific American article goes on to describe the factory.

“The forging-shop has usually the solid ground for floor and when everything is in full blast, it affords a tolerable idea of the infernal regions. To a stranger, the roaring flames, the half-naked men, straining every muscle and perspiring in torrents, the dark recesses of the space now lit up by a sudden glare and suddenly relapsing into their original gloom, the sparks and streams of fire flying angrily in every direction, the horrid and infernal din, the clangor of tools, and the great hammers falling with tireless, thundering energy, present together a spectacle that seems hardly earthly. No one could easily forget his first experience of such a scene.

“In the forging part of the manufacture, two workmen are employed at each forge; the foreman, who directs, using a small hammer, called a ‘hand-hammer,’ and the ‘helper’ or ‘striker,’ who tends the fire and wields a large, two-handed sledge, weighing from 12 to 15 pounds. They stand on opposite sides of the anvil. The ‘fire’ consists of a cast-iron oblong box, three or four feet in length, lined with fire-bricks, and capped over with a cast-iron lid (also lined with bricks), the blast for the fire coming up from an air-chest beneath, into which it is driven by a fan-bellows, worked by machinery. Several of these fires are distributed around the forging-room, occupying positions as are convenient in respect to light, etc. The foreman has ranged at hand several pairs of tongs, proportioned in size and capacity to those portions of iron or steel which they are intended to seize.

“The Hercules of the axe-factory, the great and never-tiring wonder-worker, is the trip-hammer. This formidable engine consists of a head of iron weighing from 30 to 60 pounds, fitted to one end of a horizontal beam, which is also suspended towards the other end in a framework of solid timber, and, by means of machinery, made to play up and down, rapidly or slowly, at the will of the workmen. The head (or hammer) strikes upon an anvil beneath, both anvil and hammer being grooved to admit the insertion of pieces of hardened steel, called ‘swedges,’ so fashioned on their inner surfaces that when they are driven forcibly together, the lump of heated iron or steel between them must take a determinate shape. Several sets or pairs of these swedges are used in the manufacture of axes.

“A very useful little tool, used in cutting, is called the ‘hardy,’ a wedge-shaped piece of hardened steel, fitted to stand upon the anvil, with its cutting-edge uppermost. Variously shaped ‘cold chisels’ are also used for the same purpose, and are furnished with handles, that they may be held by the foreman and struck by the helper. They are tempered for cutting iron or steel, either hot or cold, from which latter use they take their name. In fashioning the eye of an axe, various ‘eye-pins,’ of hardened steel, are used. They are driven through the eye, and keep it in shape while the ‘cheeks’ are being hammered to the proper shape and thinness. These are the principal tools used in the forging of axes. A number of others are occasionally employed.”

And that’s the way it was done a century and a half ago. Sounds primitive now but it was state of the art in its day. Sadly, like many other items, most axes sold today are made in another country, although there are still a handful of American firms making high-quality axes. Next month’s column will be about one of the large axe manufacturing companies, the Collins Axe Works of Connecticut. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email atletstalkrustyiron@att.net.

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