Saturday, October 18, 2014

Big Knvies vs Small Axes - A Splitting Tool Continuum Part 3

With a nasty knot, this was asking way too much of the SFA.
I'll be honest, the cute little Small Forest Axe wasn't really going to impress the likes of this guy, someone who considers a 3lb head on a 28 inch handle to be a small axe. In spite of all the hype, I just couldn't picture myself being surprised by the capabilities of the Gransfors. It's a hatchet with a long-for-weight handle. In fact, with no cheeks whatsoever it's sort of a tomahawk with a poll someone mistakenly fit with an axe handle and marketed as some "traditional" Swedish woods tool. In case you weren't aware, Gransfors makes American poll axes and their appearance is an evolution from American poll axes in order to differentiate them from American poll axes - there is nothing traditional Swedish about them. Furthermore, and all to often, a youtube video comes across my desk with some master woodsman chopping down a tree with a Small Forest Axe demonstrating more accurately the folklore surrounding the tool than its actual capabilities. Eventually legend surpasses reality and it gets mighty difficult for me to desire something when choked by the rose colored fog of pixie dust bellowing from it.

And yet, it powered through.
Another hangup for me is how they are routinely touted as the best, the best, the best. It's not necessarily that they aren't the best, but I can easily get my hands on axes that are just as good if not better any day of the week for about $40 and made in the USA. Of course I'm talking about vintage axes. I can't argue that GB aren't the best, or among the best made today, but I have to wonder if those exclaiming their superiority are aware of America's axe history, or the quality of countless forged axes rusting away in junk shops. 

But that was the easy side. Anymore would have been abuse.
The Gransfors Bruk axes aren't cheap but in all honestly, they aren't terribly expensive either, depending I suppose, on how you calculate value relative to the price of things today. I guess when I think of something that is essentially hand crafted and made specifically to be of high quality, the price of a Small Forest Axe isn't really all that high to me. In the realm of high quality cutting tools $100 is more or less the starting point, even for tools that will never do as much work as the SFA, and never could. So I guess the price doesn't particularly turn me off from them. Price immediately turns me off from products like those from Best Made. Cutesie branding schemes on products made by someone else just make me want to avoid the product entirely, and in the case of Best Made, the name itself suggests so much arrogance that the effect is multiplied. It seems to me that at the very least they should be made by the people claiming they are the best.

There is just one problem with all my assumptions and poking fun; here I am with my very own Gransfors Bruk Small Forest Axe. What's more, it's pretty much as excellent as everyone says it is. It is an intelligent balance of chopping and splitting features for its size and purpose. More importantly, it will do a lot more work than its stature would suggest. With craftsmanship, quality and good looks all mixed together, you basically can't go wrong. For this splitting test, the Gransfors showed that it can take a licking, and put down some hurt. We jump up in weight another 8 ounces from the E-nep, this time to 2lbs 2oz. I didn't actually plan to make an 8 ounce jump with each tool, but it's interesting that it worked out like that. At any rate, in the case of an axe, that weight is concentrated at the head which certainly changes the game. Despite the cheekless, knife-like bit, the splitting power gets a significant boost from the somewhat abrupt widening at the eye. One of my few complaints of the Small Forest Axe is in fact the abrupt transition from the bit to the eye. Wood tends to want to follow the bit, then, as it meets the wider portion of the head, glance upward and off the head. It's not terribly annoying, technique tweaking alleviates it for the most part, and the SFA is a balancing act, jack of all trades sort of tool. However, I don't think a little cheek behind the bit would hurt performance in regard to any of those trades. And anyway, who doesn't like a little cheek? I have no idea what that means.

Bottom line? The Small Forest Axe is a great product, no question about it. It will split much more stubborn wood than I thought it would, it does a really nice job hewing, and it has the exact balance needed for one handed use. My only other complaint is that the swell actually doesn't work great for me. It turns in too abruptly and tends to rub the pinky on my left hand, but it's minor.

splitting test bushcraft tools small forest axe
The Small Forest Axe splitting, and doing it like a boss.

bushcraft outdoors woods tools
Here the SFA shows that it's ready to take on serious work. Would I want to do this all day long? No, but it is certainly a testament to its inherent power and versatility.

small forest axe gransfors bruk review testing
The chunk from the image above, reduced to fuel sized pieces.

bushcraft review testing
Fuel sized pieces from the image above, reduced even further.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Big Knives vs Small Axes - A Splitting Tool Continuum Part 2

splitting wood with big knives camp knives jungle machete
Note the height of the kindling pile compared to yesterday.
Yesterday I went out and drove the Kershaw Camp 10 through some seasoned Ash from my wood pile. While I think the limits of each of the tools in this testing session are somewhat obvious, it's nice to use them all at the same time, to do the same tasks, in the same media. This is a splitting test for the sake of splitting for the most part, with no real-world objective in mind. However, while I worked with each of them, I began to think of the original question in a different way. Rather than, can these smaller tools do bigger tool jobs, it's the reverse; can the bigger tools do the small tool jobs? We know that even the biggest knife isn't going to split like an axe. And of course, inevitably, you have to ask yourself just exactly what kind of work you expect your tools to do. While the axe might be capable of heavy splitting, will you actually need that capability in your outdoor activities? And if we're interested in value per ounce, then what good is the extra power of an axe if you don't really have any use for it?

So, as I crossed the line from large knife into small axe, the equation flipped simultaneously. There might be an interesting reason for this. Many of you know that the Gransfors Bruk Small Forest Axe is one of the quintessential wilderness tools for a number of reasons. This being a splitting exercise, one of those reasons became apparent very quickly. It splits well beyond its size.

A single, one-handed blow nearly did the job.
First, let's quickly check out the Aranyik Trading Company E-nep K-1. It brings eight more ounces to the table along with three extra inches, making it 1lb 10oz with a 13 inch blade of slightly thinner stock that tapers toward the tip. Every one of those extra ounces is found in the deep belly where all the work is done. As big knives go, it is a solid rung above the Camp 10. The weight is found substantially further forward and sweeping curves give the user lots of access to effective wrist action. Watch any native person using a tool like the E-nep and you will find that it's all about letting the belly drop with effortless and accurate wrist hinging motion. The people still using these sorts of knives process virtually everything with them, from food to firewood then turn around and use them to make other tools and build their homes. Splitting large chunks of hardwood really doesn't factor into their design and doing so is an injustice to the genius simplicity of the E-nep and knives like it. In an attempt to bring my splitting tool continuum into reality I switched to mostly arm-sized sticks, something a person is likely to encounter in the wilderness and select for the camp fire. I am pushing the capabilities of these tools but choosing the right tool may not be as important as making intelligent wood choices. The E-nep, and in fact the Camp 10 as well, are good workers here. The E-nep brings with it some heft and a heavy belly, tempting the user to deliver mighty one handed blows. Without any sort of real guard the user has a number of hand placement options which are very important to the versatility of the E-nep, including a forward pinch grip.

aranyik e-nep review
Batonning quickly reduced the large chunk above, into this.
My preferred technique for splitting small stuff, and the most effortless, is to hold the wood in one hand, place the blade where the split is to occur, then tap through, moving the wood and blade together. Often I give the wood a thump with the blade just to get things going. Once started, I remove my hand and simply tap the wood and blade as one until the job is done. The axe is used in exactly the same fashion when dealing with kindling and small fuel pieces, so there is no reason to treat the knife differently. In this situation, big knives work nicely and batonning becomes a convenient option, rather than a necessity to getting the job done.

wood splitting comparison
I switched to more realistic sized chunks and reduced them from large on the right, to kindling on the left. Compare the the height of my kindling pile in the background of this image to the one at the top when today's session was done.
Gnarly wood yields to the mighty E-nep!

I think the handle of the E-nep is just a bit small in diameter and with the exposed tang, it feels like more shock from batonning is transferred to the user. It came with a relatively steep convex grind and strictly speaking, there is no defined primary bevel on this blade. Or maybe it is more appropriate to say that it has a convex zero grind - it has only one bevel. I believe that the flat primary bevel on the Camp 10 lends itself to wedging and the over-molded rubber handle backs it up to reduce vibrations. On the other hand, the E-nep bites so hard and cuts so well that the opposite is true when it's delivered single-handed. It's not tiresome, aside from its weight, to swing like a machete.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Big Knives vs Small Axes - A Splitting Tool Continuum Part 1

camp knives, kershaw, wood splitting test review
Well sort of a continuum. For it to be complete I think a hatchet would need to find its way in there at some point, but I don't have one and the light weight head on the Small Forest Axe is basically that of a hatchet anyway. What's more is, I really wouldn't want any sort of axe for general purposes with less weight or handle. But this isn't a discussion of semantics or even any particular goal of scientific discovery. I was prompted to create this little testing session with just a single thought in mind; for a large knife to do axe duty, it needs to be able to split wood. I'm not looking to help you choose one over the other, or convince anyone that one is better than the other, I just want to see where the dividing lines appear during splitting - where each tool stops and the next one starts. And any excuse to use fun tools is a good one.

testing, splitting, wood chopping, bushcraft
So to begin with, we need a couple knives that contend for axe duty. I do think a large camp style knife is really only a lighter way to carry something that can split up wood or get into rough work when dealing with bone. Wounding capabilities aside, what else is a big knife really for? Sure, one can benefit from more reach when processing large animals, but the breaking knife or cimeter don't have the spine to edge width we're dealing with here, or the blade thickness, and are much better suited to the task. Old timers made kitchen knives work because that's what they had access to. More likely than not, those knives processed more large game than wood, and so we've discovered the line between large meat knife and camp knife. Thick, wide knives, for me, start to shine when they get bigger than the Kershaw Camp 10. Anything smaller, with similar blade thickness is really too small for big tasks and too big for small tasks. Virtually any 3-6 inch belt knife is more versatile for me than any knife 7-10 inches made with thick steel. So briefly speaking, here is where we go from general purpose knife, into axe duty contender.

Typical results of one-handed power swings.
Next, this is a splitting test. I guess it's fair to say that I am looking for a measure of how much energy am I going to use to process wood relative to the carry weight of the tool. Secondarily, what are the limitations of each tool. We all love the romance of felling trees with an axe. Every time I read or watch a review it never fails to include the fabled "chop test" of even the most puny "survival" blades. Often, reviewers chop dead standing trees - poorly - to test the chopping capabilities of knives, tomahawks and axes, typically with hard to watch results. The urge is understandable. It's an axe, I want to chop something down with it. In an effort to preserve the dwindling forests of this planet, most of us resist the urge to chop down half the living trees in sight, to relish in the thump of the axe and the shower of wood chips. For the typical outdoor enthusiast who doesn't own hundreds of acres of personal woodland to manage as he or she sees fit, we are left with building camp fires or splitting wood for home use. Felling even smallish dead standing trees with even the most appropriate tool is going to be tiring and in the case of the Kershaw Camp 10 or smaller knives, pointless. It's probably just as easy to collect firewood without a cutting tool of any kind - laying around, leaning in other trees where it fell, or still standing but small or weak enough to push over - and let the fire do the rest. Bottom line is, I'm not dealing with chopping. Folding saws have obvious advantages when it comes to making long sticks of timber, short sticks of timber. We're looking at splitting. In order to really put these tools to the test, we need some real wood. The woods I spend time in don't seem to carry any of this soft, straight youtube timber that splits into nice wedges like a pizza. I typically get gnarly, twisted hardwoods that split like concrete and in fact, my Father mostly "splits" wood with his chainsaw. I heat my house with a wood burning furnace and to truly heat a house requires efficiency. Hot fires are efficient fires and that means lots of splitting for fuel.

testing camp 10
Here the batoning starts.
Enough of that, you get the point of this test, so let's get started. The Kershaw Camp 10 is a popular and fairly handy large knife made of pretty nice carbon steel with a recurve blade shape typical of many American outdoor knives today, and derived from those of far eastern jungles. Simpler to forge from available recycled steel and with fewer tools than an American poll axe, large knives in those portions of the world are essentially hand axes with the slicing power of a machete for the sort of dense vegetation found in jungles. The Camp 10 has a 10 inch blade that runs about .2 inches - a big 3/16ths - and weighs in at 1lb 2oz. It is the lightest of our line-up and the shortest. It is also the most Chinese, and inexpensive. The immediate downside of being foreign produced is not the foreign production itself, but likely the mechanized heat treating process. I'm not saying this from a scientific standpoint, and I know the blade is tough, but chances are it's not as tough as the differentially hardened E-Nep pictured, and you can feel it. However, the high flat grind of the Camp 10, and extra thickness do function as a splitting wedge which sends plenty of the shock of batoning, into the wood, not your body parts. There is a noticeable popping effect while using a baton as the Camp 10 ultimately splits the wood more than it cuts. The extra thickness produces enough weight to overcome the relatively short and somewhat narrow blade. These intelligent design features are what make it handy for its size and set the starting mark for splitting duty sized knives.

review testing wood splitting
Limited penetration from a single blow on stubborn wood.
Because the Kershaw Camp 10 is not especially wide from spine to edge, and essentially full tang, not as much weight falls forward as it could. It doesn't have the deep curves of the E-Nep so it feels like less wrist action is accessible with the somewhat short handle. The flares and guards of the handle are nice for the safety Nazis but not entirely useful. It is small and light enough that a power swing feels full of muscle, and short on iron. The tool isn't really carrying itself into the blow and the cut is dependent on the power the user generates, not the inertia of the tool itself. This results in shallow penetration into substantial material.

First section split off with baton laying to the right side.
With that said, it will split pretty hearty wood using a one handed power swing. I have a good rank of Ash - full of wood bores as you can see - which is often fairly straight, hard, and when dry, is not as stringy as some wood. Often it will pop apart into nice straight sticks and is a pleasure to split, but like any naturally grown wood, it can take a nasty twist, get stubborn, knotted and even stringy. A large portion of my rank is limbs and that's where the tough stuff is found. Taking splits about the size of my forearm from the inside of a round, the Camp 10 was able to split with a single blow, with or against the growth rings. Stubborn pieces required some whacking, but nothing I'd call strenuous. I moved on to large wedges, probably out of a tree 12-15 inches across to get into batoning. At no point did I feel like I was bashing the Camp 10 or pushing it too hard. I didn't even use an especially heavy baton, but I also didn't do a ton of work either. I would call the Camp 10 a success but it would have met its match in stringy and knotted limbs. I took one about 6 inches across, requiring two or three blows from the largest axe pictured to reduce to pieces manageable for the Camp 10.

Here is that large wedge reduced to fuel.
For machete use against small, green brush the Kershaw has the slicing power and speed to be useful, while making pretty easy work of kindling and small fuel wood. Without a solid platform for splitting, I can't say it's particularly good for one handed power swinging. It doesn't have the mass and therefore the accuracy to be really useful or safe when you're putting the kind of effort behind it necessary for splitting bigger timber. However, with some wedging action built into the design it will do quite a bit of work with a baton. All in all, there are no big surprises from the Camp 10 and doing any more than this with it is probably an indication that you need a tool with more grunt.

Just a leisurely 20 minutes worth of work and we're ready for a fire.
large knives vs axes bushcraft survival outdoor
In part 2 I'll compare the Aranyik E-Nep K-1 to the Camp 10 and the next cutter in line, the Gransfors Bruk Small Forest Axe. In this picture the crack is caused by a single blow from the E-Nep in a wedge almost identical to the one used with the Camp 10 in batoning - nearly blew completely through.

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.