“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” — Abe Lincoln
In this article, learn where to buy an axe far better than the kind sold by your local hardware store.
In old America, chopping into your foot with an axe was one of the most common injuries of frontier life. That was back when the most common way to die was when a tree fell on you. If you don’t know a damn thing about axes and need a place to start, you are like many of the people on the old wagon trains. Most were from crowded European or American cities and knew very little about life on the frontier, so they bought basic tools and books on how to use them. They then went to work. This is the way it happens, you read and you learn and then you do things and solve the problems. If you want to know how I got started, and need an overview of axes and their purposes, check out my Green Guide to Chopping, Hewing and Racing Axes.
If you want to really excel with an axe, you need a really good axe, not the sort you buy at the rack in your usual hardware store. Those are cheap crap axes, ground improperly, and off the shelf make more bounce than cut. Many of the axe companies which caught my attention when I was looking for a racing axe in 2011 do not make racing axes but they do make work axes of exceptional quality. Buy from one of them and you’ll get your money’s worth.
Gransfors Bruks years ago made specialty axes that were so expensive I just looked past them. I recall a price for one of their broad axes that was around $850 but I couldn’t swear to it. Maybe it was a misunderstanding of the exchange rate that priced it that high in my mind, but in any case I couldn’t afford it. Instead, I traded a disc plow blade for my broad axe twenty years ago and my budget still hasn’t expanded to allow that much expenditure on a specialty blade. The broad axe I traded the plow blade for still works just fine.
Gransfors Bruks did some serious adjusting to their manufacturing system in the interim, returning to hand manufacturing, fair wages and practical cost cutting. The company discovered a demand for good hand tools still exists and realized that if they skipped the fancy stuff like paint and just let their people do good work they could cut costs by half. That broad axe is now temptingly at the upper margin of my tool budget, except I already have one. Gransfors Bruks axes may be one of the best deals in hand tools today.
The second interesting axe company also makes more machetes and more types of machetes than any other company in the world. Based in El Salvador, Condor Tool & Knifecompany doesn’t make pricey products but there are some unique features which are worth a second look. For one thing, Condor’s axes use the first new solution to the problem of securing the handle that actually seems as good as the old double wedge solution. In a Condor axe the steel wedge is part of the axe head. Drive the handle into the eye of the axe and that’s that — no more steel handle wedges that fly away into the underbrush three hours away from a replacement. I’m sure that’s not a perfect solution but it seems like a reasonable try.
This isn’t the only Condor innovation. Since modern Damascus-type steel became more available there’s been a lot of speculation over just how good it is. When it was rare, not many working people had a chance to critique it. One of the genuine advantages users find is less friction. The ripples in the metal cut down on how much steel actually contacts wood, in the case of an axe, and that means a deeper cut for the same expenditure of sweat. Instead of switching to Damascus steel, Condor came up with an etching system which creates that rippled pattern on the regular high carbon steel axe head. I find it hard to argue with that logic. If you want a good axe for a very reasonable price, Condor deserves your attention.
I recommend Tuatahi Racing Axes and Saws if you’re looking for the best possible tool or competition axe, and don’t be afraid of the price because if you convert New Zealand money to American it’s not that bad. Racing axes are one of those high quality low demand items that people don’t build unless they really care, so sources come and go. I’m not even putting an Amazon ad in this for competition axes because it will only lead readers to screwball things. Council Tool does offer some high quality axes on Amazon, including the 4 lb American Felling Axe, which would be my current recommendation for serious work and does come close to racing axe quality.
The Bailey’s Competition work axe, designed with the help of Dave Bolstad, will certainly impress you if you’ve never used a competition-quality axe before. Once offered both on Amazon and on the Bailey’s website, this axe may still be sometimes available on Ebay. This axe is intended for real work but also qualifies as a good lumberjack training tool, and some people do use it in competitive events. An average chopping axe in this country has a head weight of around 3 1/2 pounds. For small trees that’s ok, but you can wear yourself out on a large tree without doing a whole lot of damage to it. With the Bailey you get a powerful working weight of over five pounds. That might seem like more work to swing, but when the head strikes it does some serious cutting. That’s a very satisfying feeling, but it’s hard to go back to a regular axe afterwards. Bailey’s still offers a number of choices in feller’s axes that you won’t find in ordinary hardware stores and you can find them at Falling and Logging Axes on Bailey’s website. At this update they offer two with a head weight of five pounds.
For top quality in a lighter American axe design, check out the Gransfors Bruks American Felling Axe. The 3 1/2 pound head fits the pack frame a little easier if you’re hiking a long trail to a hunting or fishing camp and it’s plenty of axe for most of the work you’ll need to do there. Gransfors Bruks doesn’t stamp out axes, this one and all the others made at that company is the work of one highly-skilled smith who handled the entire process of forging and finishing the axe. It’s stamped with a maker’s mark and you can trace that to the fellow who produced it, through the company website.
Also selling through Amazon as well as their own website, Harry J. Epstein Co. of Missouri carries some of my favorite actual high carbon steel knives as well as a selection of good working axes. I bought one of my favorites from this company but I don’t see it listed now. Epstein sometimes finds good military surplus products and the Russian Army Axe I got from them was one of those temporary offers. Russian Spetznaz know their stuff. It’s light, thin, tempered hard, and for my own purposes is one of the best I have now.