Monday, September 29, 2014

Axe Restoration/Refurbishing Projects

The finished product, sharp and ready to work.
I took a chance on this one for no other reason than I liked the pattern. The problem is that I don't really know what it is and if anyone reading has a clue, feel free to leave a comment. I do know that it possibly had blue paint once upon a time because a streak of blue came through on the handle as it passed through the eye while I was working on it. I know that it weighs 3lbs (2lbs 14oz on the scale), appears to have a "3" marked on the pole and nothing else. I liked it because it is a somewhat compact head while still coming in at 3lbs and with the extra weight concentrated around the eye, it has a little extra splitting potential for its weight without having thick cheeks.

This axe was pretty clean when I got it, so I gave it a quick vinegar bath to have a look at the tempering line and finding that it had plenty of edge life it was time to hang it. I started with a 28 inch House Handle, thinned it to my liking and took an inch off the swell. I certainly like a large swell, and all too often the handles available today are already lacking in that department. This one was no different. The swell on this one had some length, but didn't really have any extra girth toward the bottom, so what I removed was really just a misshapen growth which didn't improve function. Beyond that there wasn't much work to do. I personally like variation when I put an axe together and I love seeing new (and OLD) and different handle designs. Luckily, over-sized handles aren't hard to come by - though as I mentioned the swells rarely are - and they can be customized a little bit here and there.

rescue vintage axe head custom axe
Here it is next to another one that I got at the same time in the condition I got them.

After its vinegar bath - there are almost two hardening lines maybe?

no metal wedge hanging an axe
The wedge being driven - note that the handle is spreading to the point that it is wider than the eye itself, creating a good lock. Also, you can faintly make out what I believe is a "3" laying on its side stamped into the poll.

This image shows that there are about 8 growth rings per inch. Apparently there is a sweet spot, but like many other handle rules passed down throughout history, I don't believe they have a lot of merit. I say that in this case because the sweet spot is somewhere between 10 and 18 (or something like that) with as few as 5 being acceptable. At the same time, those light colored speckled bands you see in this picture are supposed to be thin while the darker bands are stronger wood and therefore thicker. Picture twice as many bands, making each one half as thick and doubling the number of light speckled bands which are supposedly weaker. Yeah, if you're thinking that sounds contradictory, so do I. An axe handle at the time of this writing is no more than $10 and I can do a basic, no frills, serviceable hang in about 30 minutes. 

hickory handle sources

bushcraft axe camping axe hiking axe survival axe
It just so happened that I got a Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe in trade that day. The SFA has a nice feeling handle, but in the case of a larger axe, where the user's hand slides from top to bottom as it's swung, a little thinner stick works a little nicer. Supposedly it will have better shock absorbing capabilities but I have to wonder if that's not just more of the same smoke as growth rings per inch.

camp axe
The Gransfors thicker handle has a purpose in my mind. For one thing, I just don't get hung up on these details. I can pick up 10 different axes and use them just fine. How do I know this? By having 10 different axes. The girth of the SFA really comes in for one handed use and I found that it has particular advantages in that respect.

One last shot of the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe with my very handy new chopper.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Handmade Axe Handle

It was bound to happen sooner or later and somehow the handle, in certain ways, has become more important than the axe head itself in my eyes. I guess I already know what the axe will do and what its limitations are, so the new unknown is what the handle can be. I have done quite a bit of research on handles, their strengths and weaknesses, and found that a lot of the "required features" of handles are less important than we're led to believe. I suppose we could go into the intricate details of handle selection and the various qualities of wood, and some people like to obsess like with any topic of interest, but there are two points that I keep coming back to which I think nullify all the academia. One; handles are consumable and two; perhaps the long established criteria for handle selection, regardless of scientific foundation or lack thereof, can serve to increase the likelihood of long service from your handle. In other words, why not try to get the best you can? The reason I say the handle has become more important in certain ways rather than all ways, is that I don't think it is vitally important to have that perfect handle, but I definitely want a nice one. Part of being nice is feeling right, fitting right, and looking right. The handle is the portion of the tool the hand interacts with and because I enjoy the process of fitting them, quality matters.

My little hewing hatchet only needed a short handle for the kind of work it is meant to do, so it seemed a good opportunity to begin learning. I chose an unlikely wood specifically because it was unlikely. It is made from Redbud, a short living, often twisted tree that most likely wouldn't yield a straight board any longer than my handle. They grow very fast, as you can tell from the very wide growth rings. Getting a suitable piece was actually pretty difficult but we managed to saw out a small section and I began whittling at it with an axe. With a rough shape finished I set it aside to dry for a few weeks. It had come from the stump that had been left high after the dying tree had been taken down, but it was very wet - shavings felt damp to the touch. I doubt it is dry even now, but I don't have the sort of patience needed to let it fully cure. Worst case scenario is that the handle shrinks and loosens in which case I will pull it, and simply rehang it. Loose tool heads are not difficult to remedy and rehanging them on the same handle is the best option in my opinion when the handle itself isn't damaged.

In the end it ended up being an awfully attractive piece of wood and certainly unusual. It's already helped with some minor carving which will be seen in the pictures. Thanks for reading!

hand carved axe handle
Kelley How Thomson Hickory Hewing Hatchet made by Plum
Everything came out nice and straight.
Another shot of the alignment. It all came together smoothly.
custom axe handle
I made sure the wood bulged pretty good from the top in hopes of keeping it tight as it dries.
edc knife budget every day carry blades
I tell you what, this hammer is actually great for driving wedges.

 Another thing worth noting is that Boker Plus Titan seen in the last picture. I used it in a number of different ways on this project; as a fine scalpel, push cutting with both hands, a mini draw knife, you name it, and it was really excellent. I highly recommend it. I have an overview of it elsewhere on the blog.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Thrunite T10 Review

When I think of the perfect light to carry every day in my pocket, there is a clear formula that works for me and I'm reluctant to deviate from it. So when I see a light like the Thrunite T10, I am pretty excited to get one.

The pocket clip on the T10 is placed so that the light fits down in the pocket. I'm not looking for concealment, I just don't want the portion of the light protruding from the pocket to jab me when I sit or bend, and I don't want it wearing at my belt or pants. I have a Nitecore MT1A and the pocket clip is a good example of wrong. Bezel up makes no sense to me for one thing, but in the bezel down configuration so much light sticks out of the pocket that it wears at my pants and even my belt depending on how high a particular pair of pant's pockets are. Carrying hard objects against soft fabric every day is going to cause wear but what bothers me even more is getting a jab from my EDC tools when I sit down or bend. No such issues from the T10.

solarforce z2
Pocket wear happens.
Stainless switches on the T10.
Next, it has a tail switch. Multiple buttons and twisting and programming, it all just makes my brain hurt. All I want to do is take the light out of my pocket and turn it on, usually one handed. I have a feeling these other lights are technologically sophisticated and that has a certain appeal. I would bet the users are expecting a single light to do all things, or they just don't really use the light very often. I'm not suggesting modes aren't useful, in fact I think they are necessary, but I want to change modes with one hand, preferably the same way I turned the light on. The T10 has 3 modes, spaced the way I like them. The low is very low, the medium is a good combination of useful light and run time, and the high makes enough light for just about any day-to-day situations. It is a reverse clicky, and does have memory.

The T10 comes in aluminum, stainless and titanium with corresponding price points, starting at $30. With a compact form factor, the right features for its class and a few extra goodies like a diffuser, it's a very good value. From all indications, including some serious torture testing on youtube, Thrunite is making quality products. With that said, we had some issues. Firstly the customer service wasn't spectacular. I ordered both an aluminum and a stainless T10 but received a Thrunite Saber 2014 in the mail. This caused some head scratching, but I got in touch with them. They never did tell me why I got the Saber or indicate that they wanted it back, but my stainless was back ordered. I guess they didn't feel it was important to let me know that it was back ordered unless I asked. In the end it took something like 15 business days to get the entire order after switching to a cool white T10S that was in stock. Next we had the pocket clip on the aluminum version bend out of shape after hooking on something. I've only ever had a pocket clip get bent on a Gerber knife. I got in the car, and when I got out, the clip was mangled. I have no idea how. The Thrunite T10 clip is nice but does seem to be made from thin stock and doesn't have that spring steel feel to it. It was easy to put back into shape and it could have been a situation where any clip would have bent. Another crew member was testing it at the time and we don't know what exactly it caught on. Regardless, that T10 stopped working anyway. It would flicker and switch modes on its own, and fail to come on altogether at other times. Thrunite quickly replaced it, but wanted a video of the problem, which felt like some annoying hoop jumping. However, it was a relatively easy way to show them that it was jacked and they made it right.

budget flashlights edc
Left to right; T10, Z2, L10C, and L10.
Despite the problems, I feel comfortable recommending the T10. However, there are two functionally similar lights out there that arguably fall short only of the Thrunite's classy looks. The L3 Illumination L10C and Solarforce Z2 are both cheaper and do the same work, plus they both come in different colors. All three of these lights are relatively new, an indication of the popularity of the class and form factor in my opinion. There are other, more expensive options already out there, but we're finally seeing some affordable competition for a slim, 1xAA pocket light with a clip and tail switch. 1xAA lights are long enough to grip, but slim enough to vanish in your pocket and clamp in your teeth for hands free operation. The tail switch provides one hand operation and mode changes and the pocket clip keeps the light where you want it. Eneloops and other "pre-charged" batteries make it easy and affordable to gas up your torch, while alkaline AAs are about as readily available as anything you can think of.

The bottom line on the T10 is that it steps up the looks department for budget pocket lights and gives owners a few nice extras in the deal. The stainless steel T10S has a definite tank-like feel with a little extra weight while the aluminum version keeps the cost low. To complete the line, the titanium T10T provides high end materials without sending the price through the roof. For the CR123 fans, there is the T20 line. Thrunite certainly makes it look like they've been listening to consumers and have put together the right product and successfully adapted it for a full line of lights for a full range of consumers.

stainless steel flashlights, budget edc, every day carry lights
The T10 lights we tested. The black version is the least expensive aluminum version.

Just a nice shot of some good looking lights.

review, thrunite products, thrunite review
This is how they are packaged and you see the diffuser included there - a nice touch.

1xAA flashlights review edc
Here they are pictured with the Solarforce Z2. Same form factor, much less money.

No reverse polarity protection, but pretty neat and clean workmanship.

The Saber 2014 is a keychain light which comes with two body tubes enabling AA or CR123 batteries.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Cutting Down a Badly Damaged Axe

Much as I like the idea of saving old axes from an ill fated existence, there isn't much that can be done with one that's been mistreated to the point of being damaged. I think it's fair to avoid those abused choppers out there as a prudent measure of caution - a notion at the front of my mind when large pieces of sharpened steel moving with great force are involved.

Each of us assigns value to items in different ways and perhaps some things, despite a rough exterior or unpleasant history, may be worth a little more consideration if they are of greater perceived value to us. This Keen Kutter fit this description for me. It would require surgery, but botching the procedure was worth the risk when the axe, in received condition, couldn't be used. It was a well made tool in its day, unappreciated by owner, abused, then left for dead. In good condition it would have been too valuable to cut into pieces, but in present condition, unusable without cutting. Ironically, from an edged tool's perspective, every edge but the cutting edge had been used to accomplish some task, leaving damage on virtually every surface it shouldn't have been. By luck, or fate, I had recently contemplated creating a smaller axe by relieving it from a larger one, but up until this point, I simply didn't have the heart to put steel to steel.

Keen Kutter stamp.
I'm not knowledgeable in the art of steel, the science of metallurgy, but I know two things to be fact. One, I don't have a lot of patience for certain things, and two, I know power tools designed to save patience generate a lot of heat. This goes back to that part where botching the surgery was worth the risk. I knew I had to keep it cool, and I knew I'd cut corners if it took too long to get it cut down. My understanding of axe steel is that the majority of the tool is in an unhardened state, while the bit, the cutting edge, is the area to be particular about. With this in mind I soaked a couple of shop towels in cool water, wrapped the axe in them and clamped them into place as I cut. I have a testing system for heat, it's very sophisticated. There is warm, where you can touch it with your fingers and not get burned. There is hot, like the water that comes out of the hot water heater - it'll scald you. After that is piss-your-pants hot. If you touch it, expect a blister or worse. I figure the steel needs cooling when it gets to scalding water temperatures and it's a good job when it's not too hot to touch. If you touch it and it's so hot you just about piss your pants, you screwed up.

First cut made to the bottom.
I used a thin cut-off wheel made for steel on my 4.5 inch grinder. It cuts through steel, hardened or not, like butter. These things laugh in the face of pretty much anything, are cheap, and actually very durable. The whole unit, clamps, rags and axe could all be dunked in a bucket of water from time to time when I felt I was getting to the appropriate range on my special heat test.

Regardless of experience or knowledge, the proof as they say, is in the pudding. When I finish an axe, I like to split some wood with it, especially Hedge (Osage Orange), just to see if my hang is tight, but in this case, to see if the edge would roll. Cutting hedge is a little bit like cutting concrete, and short of whacking my hard work against the sidewalk, is a good test of the cutting edge. My chopped down Keen Kutter passed the test. I've been known to tackle hunks of wood with my axes that are best left to a maul or wedge, or chainsaw (let's be honest), but I don't suggest splitting wood with your axe if it's really reluctant to give way. Some people believe that mauls are for splitting wood, axes are for chopping wood, and they are strictly segregated races within the world of cutting implements. Of course that's nonsense. But there is a line. An axe is light and handy and I have a personal preference toward three pounders on 28 inch sticks. A general purpose profile axe will split like a dream with considerably less effort than a maul, which tends to maul not only wood, but also the user. By the same token, there's no sense in busting your handle over a hunk of stubborn timber.

The finished product with the rest of the family.
This little Keen Kutter is now 2lbs 6oz and with the haft, 3lbs 5oz. Its splitting limits are different but with the smaller size comes new uses and conveniences in processing kindling or simple brush clearing or even carving. It originally had an octagonal handle and I felt this was a good time to give one a try as I haven't before. House Handle makes octagonal handles and so I placed my order for one 28 inches long. After some trimming and touch up, it measures just a little over 26 inches finished. Sadly the Keen Kutter stamp fell victim to the mushroomed poll, but the USA stamp is intact.

Some very pronounced mushrooming to the poll here - both sides.
Serious damage toward the bottom or "heel".
It just keeps getting better and better. Damage to the eye.
24 hours in vinegar means very little elbow grease needed. The black bit indicates the hard steel where it was folded over the softer steel in the forging process.
The first cut is pictured earlier in the post, but here it is just about finished.
This mark was found on the underside of the poll.
Still made in the USA!
Some of the finish work. Still a dent in the eye but now minor.
The underside. I ended up taking a bit more material from the top and bottom but this is the more or less finished state.
It has a slightly up-swept appearance but nothing serious.
Handles that came in that same day.
Here she is in all her glory with the octagonal handle. You may be able to notice that I trimmed the swell down some.
My best fit to date.

A nice little roll of wood all the way around. I know it's tight.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Black King Axe Project and Tool Handle Selection

What can I say, I enjoy working on old axes. I think someone referred to it as "rescuing" them and I really think that is the right word for the way I feel about doing this sort of work. Losing great things to nothing more than the passage of time just seems wrong. It's the same way I feel about old cars and no doubt the same way other people feel about whichever old things they enjoy rescuing. The mere fact that they can be rescued some decades later is a testament to their intrinsic value and quality. An old axe may have been seen as a tool in its time but that doesn't mean it wasn't much more. People lived by their tools in simpler years gone by and perhaps in different ways and by different tools, still do. Some derived income from an axe to feed, clothe and shelter themselves and their families, others may have directly used it to achieve those same results by harvesting and processing plants and animals themselves. It's fair to say the axe was the tool for its time, meaning that it existed because it was needed. When things are no longer needed, they aren't made. Computers and electronic appliances may be the tools of our time and many of them are very well made. Computers, I think, represent our era, and while some may be well made, they will cease to be useful in a relatively short period of time - some in just a few years, others even less. Computers reinvented the term obsolete. However, we found better ways to cut down trees, and we find better ways to process data today. A person can, and many do, go to work and derive the income needed to feed, clothe and shelter themselves and their families by using a computer.

So far as I know, no one has used a computer to directly process or harvest wood for shelter, or animals for food and clothing. A computer is part of an unsustainable system, and I expect that it always will be. There will be arguments, but the computer will always rely on another piece of unsustainable material or process to provide us with the essentials for life - no matter how sci-fi your imagination can get. In the Fifth Element, one of my all time favorite movies, Leeloo, the lovely red headed alien, was able to press a button on the microwave and produce a complete chicken dinner in a matter of seconds. That's impressive but it makes me think of another classic sci-fi quote from the Stallone Judge Dredd - "Eat recycled food. It's good for the environment, and OK for you". The axe and other hand tools are part of a sustainable system, directly connected to self-reliance, freedom and life. Each part of the system can be grown, or made by hand using human ingenuity. The iron needed for an axe is used so efficiently that its impact is infinitesimal compared to modern tools destined to live brief lives. Humans are tool users, and we'll always use the tools of our time, but certain tools are timeless. To live, to have the things we absolutely must have or perish, regardless of the time, the axe will remain constant while the computer will not.

In fifty years the computer I am writing this on most likely won't even turn on due to component or system failure, or incompatibility or all three, and whether it turns on or not it will be obsolete. Fifty year old axes, even those left to be reclaimed by nature, are fully capable of performing their intended function, and are often rescued for it. There is no component like plastic, or system like electricity or micro manufacturing required to sustain an axe and the only material with which it must be compatible is a living thing. The axe to me represents that connection between us and nature, a time of craftsmanship, pride and quality, and most importantly self reliance. Because the poll axe is an American creation and because most modern axe patterns are a variation of the American axe, it is a symbol of the founding of this country as well.

House Handles seem to commonly be lop sided like this and I am picky about the shape of the shoulder. Not just visually but also in feel since my hand spends a fair amount of time on this area. As it was, it was much too large for my hands.
After a vinegar bath you can clearly see the hardened bit. I'd like to see every axe be like my Snow & Nealley with more than 2 inches of bit, but this is acceptable.
The Black King markings.
More goofy shape, but I asked for a large swell in order to shape it to my liking.
The Black King is on the right with a Hedge wedge and a fitting I am proud of. I think it has an odd design myself. You will notice in the next picture that the bit is quite thick, yet you will also notice how much more wedge shaped the Snow & Nealley (on the left) is. One would expect a wider bit on an axe designed for splitting duties, but not the taper toward the poll. Maybe that taper has some benefit in splitting that I don't know about, but I honestly don't see much difference and the thick edge doesn't bite like a thinner edge does. It tends to want to bounce out of the cut on stubborn wood.
There is a good shot of the thick edge.
A shot of the shoulder after it was thinned down.
A heart sinking hairline crack that I didn't notice until it was done. I don't believe it will be a real issue, it's just not what you want to see after you spent 3 hours reworking the shape of a handle this much and fitting it to a new axe.
While I was at it, these two hammers got new life.
I am led to believe that the little guy on the right might be old and original because of the simple (non-step) metal wedges.
That is a U mark, I think. This was an impressive job fitting the handle whoever did it originally. The eye is tapered on the inside - larger at the top and bottom which means the handle is flared significantly in order to fill the eye. This was a challenge for me to say the least.
Bits and pieces and the new handles.

Run-out. The grain runs fully across the handle.
You may have noticed that my new axe handle is dark, made entirely from heart wood. A good helping of boiled linseed oil took it from the light color pictured toward the top, to the final dark color. I did some research and it would appear that there is some mythology involved in handle selection. Your standard handle selection advice sounds something like this; heart wood is a no-no, and the grain must be perfectly straight, parallel to the tool. I happened across some documents from the National Forrest Service and other writings dating back to the 20s or 30s if I remember correctly, which seem to suggest that these requirements aren't really necessary. Trees are round and we're not cutting naturally grown, old trees like we might have in the 1800s, so perfect grain orientation is somewhat unrealistic by itself. I think that parallel grain orientation is requested not necessarily to provide theoretical strength, but as an easy way to avoid grain run out. If you can picture wood as thin layers stacked up, you want to avoid having those layers run at an angle across the handle. That is where the handle is going to break. Grain which runs perpendicular to the tool, you may be able to imagine, needs to only be at a slight angle in order to result in bad run out. Of course this problem could happen in either orientation. There is a reason Hickory is the choice wood though. It's strong and straight grain is easy to come by.

So based on my research it looks to me like run out is a top priority and grain quality is another. Some stripes in the grain look speckled, or porous, others look smooth. I suppose the logic here is obvious. The porous wood is weaker and brittle, the smooth, tight wood is strong and flexible. In the image to the left the lightest band is just a thin line which sort of dissolves into speckles until there are none leaving the darkest band. Much like grain run out, I think the chances are pretty good you'll land good grain quality more often than not when buying AA grade Hickory, and it's not worth stressing over the thickness of the smooth bands of wood in your handle. It is more important to avoid those which are obviously bad. I'm not going to ransack the handle isle for an extra millimeter of good grain, I'm just going to look at the end of the handle and check that the speckled bands are thinner and the smooth bands are the thicker bands. Hickory is good stuff, and wood will eventually break. I figure these are the realities of the handle situation. I split wood to heat my house, I don't harvest lumber for a living, and because I enjoy saving axes, I have a growing collection where I can rotate them often enough to put very little stress on any given one.

The same Forrest Service research detailed significant strength/break testing on Hickory heart wood and they concluded that it's perfectly suited for axe handle use.

I guess the moral of the story is, don't over think your handle. By the same token, if you want it I say go for that parallel grain if it's available - it looks great and shows some attention to detail. There is no argument against a nice handle, there is just evidence that losing sleep over less than perfect grain isn't warranted. If you find heartwood attractive, get it, and enjoy your axe.