Monday, June 30, 2014

Rehanging Another Old Axe

rehanging and old axe
Well I managed to go seven months without purchasing a new axe to work on. Seven months ago I wrote a blog entry detailing the last axe I worked on and how I felt the addiction take hold. I had rehung an axe before that, but it was just a tool to me then. I didn't know anything about axes or picking a good handle and didn't really care either. It split wood just fine and lived outside. It's always interesting to look at the way your perceptions change and for me I can't always figure out exactly what factors came together to facilitate the change. Somehow I came to the realization that the standard 36 inch handle was too long for me. We had actually hung a 36 inch handle on a boys-size axe head. I didn't know. That was the handle the hardware store hand so that's the handle it got. Needless to say it took a LOT of fitting to make it work given the eye size difference. I am always watching outdoor kinds of youtube videos and I have always understood the value of the axe, I just hadn't made the deeper connection with the value they once had for people who did all manner of work with one. It was a necessity. It built houses, provided warmth and even income for many. There are many kinds of axes for special jobs, but just one axe has more potential uses than virtually any other tool, rivaled only by a knife. For a long time I've understood the intrigue of popular survival tools - little things that fit into tins, survival this, survival that. However, I've always been conflicted about them as well. Watching craftsman or any skilled person work with the tools of their trade has always been one of my favorite ways to learn. When you watch people who live and breath by their tools, you don't see them using any kind of nifty little survival gadgetry. Whether it's an axe, knife, or large jungle blade like the parang or e-nep, they are well rounded tools capable of a variety of daily living tasks and are combined with skills, not gimmicks.

And so my perceptions of the axe changed. I rehung that Wards axe in November, about the time we started burning wood for the year and it did a lot of splitting over the winter. Not only are axes always going to be useful for their intended purpose, there are tons (literally and figuratively) of them out there rotting away. To me that's unfortunate so there is the fun factor of finding a gem, saving it, and bringing it back to life.

Lately, my home town seems to be haunted by oppressive humidity which significantly hinders my micarta making process which in turn slows down my whole wallet project. Add in some rain, and cabin fever gets to me quick. I had to get out of the house so I swung by a local antique mall where I ran into a friend who was suffering from the same ailment and had a handful of old tools already picked out when I showed up. I had a 28 inch handle sitting around and what good is something like that without a head? Low and behold there it was, this Gambles Artisan axe in great shape. The internet can't tell me much about it and so I don't even know how old it is but I do know that Gambles was pretty much dead by the 80s as a company. Chances are it's pretty good. My file pretty much skittered across the bit without really digging in, so I feel good about the cutting edge. Overall, with a few splotches of blue paint that I suspect was its original color, the fact that the bit doesn't seem to have any extra rounding from years of sharpening, and the lack of abuse to the pole, I can conclude that this axe had very little use. It rested in one place for at least some period of time because one side has some minor pitting where it may have laid. I suppose these are indications that it could be 30 or 40 years old, older if it was used very little throughout its life and kept in a dry place. 

Here it is in the condition I got it in. Very little rust and a scary grinding for a cutting edge. The line under the head on the handle is where I had already begun to drive the handle out. You can see that the previous owner used a file to fit the handle.

The grain on the old handle wasn't great but I liked the overall shape so I wanted to salvage it just in case.

Here is a better shot of the original condition.

Here are some of the markings - and you can see only minor pole abuse.

Here is the Gambles ARTISAN logo on the opposite side
So I managed to get the old handle off in one piece and here is my new House Handle. I got it from a local hardware store and it's not great. It may be hard to see but it kind of had this huge bulbous swell. The nice part though is that I was able to reshape it to my liking and you can see my pencil lines in the picture basically where I cut the new profile. On my last handle they got stingy with the swell so I couldn't really change it, but in this case I had material to work with.
Here is the new shape. It's different and I like it.
The end grain here is nice and straight - a little wood burning going on too.
But toward the head it takes a turn. I've only used 2 House Handles but they seem to leave very little extra material for fitting and here you can see I had to drive in some filler pieces at the rear of the eye. I didn't get a picture but that gap was really only toward the top. From the bottom is fits very tight all the way around and I'm satisfied with that.
Something odd I didn't notice until I started grinding was these dips near the bit. I could see them being a functional feature, but they are only on one side and it makes me wonder if it's not just half-assed craftsmanship. If you look closely I was able to clear out almost all of the grinder marks except from these two low spots. The other side came out nicely which you can see in the picture at the very top. Here you also see a little streak of heartwood but nothing terrible. Overall it's a user, not a beauty queen and should work out fine.
UPDATE 10/15/14: I noticed that this post is getting some views lately which prompted me to go back and read it - that and the fact that I have re-rehung this axe since. Early on I was caught up with getting the handles to fit tightly from top to bottom and often the kerf would close up when I seated the head. I would then have to really fiddle around with getting the wedge in, ultimately without great success as in this case. The picture above shows how thin the wedge was. Now, the fact of the matter is that this axe would have held up just fine and getting the head off was still difficult when I went to round 2 with it. The handle was made for a boy's axe and this is a full-size head - without ordering a stick online, this is often the only way to get a shorter handle. However, unless that boy's axe handle is left pretty over-sized it's going to be much too small to work on a full-size axe. But this experience, and another, taught me a valuable lesson - it can be done. 

Here is the same axe 4 months later on the same handle, rehung. My original hang was slightly "open" and with the head properly seated it all fit together much better.

This wedge is much more effective than before and the eye is full.
So fitting the handle that tightly was actually holding me back, something this project taught me. While it is slight, an axe eye is tapered from top to bottom. If we think of this in an exaggerated way, the eye is a traffic cone upside-down where the bottom is smaller than the top. With that in mind, how can you expect for something that fits through the smaller bottom hole, to be the same size as the larger top? Obviously, this is by design and the wedge is the device that makes the magic happen. If you take away the mystery of the wedge, the simple function is nothing more than to spread the wood at the top of the eye so that it is impossible for it to be pulled free through the bottom where the opening is smaller. Without the exaggerated mental picture, this isn't really very obvious if you're new to hanging tools, especially with axes. I learned a lot about eye taper from hanging hammers where it is more obvious, but for the most part it isn't apparent when you look at an axe.

The point is, you don't really want the handle to fit tight at the top when you seat the head, and you don't want the kerf closed. You will hear different theories on the subject. For instance, some people cut the kerf wider to accept more wedge. Some people just leave a slight gap, maybe 1/16th, around the eye. I personally don't see the point in a wide open kerf if the handle is tight. You'll get a thicker wedge in there, but is it really having a wedging effect if the wood has nowhere to go? Therefore, both theories are a different approach to the same thing. You are trying to bend the wood slightly to fill up the cone, which means if the handle is tight around the walls of the eye, then it has nowhere to bend to. Whether you cut a wider kerf or not, you need to spread the handle and I like to wedge it until it begins to bulge from the top. The image below illustrates the bulging effect.