Sunday, August 7, 2016

Council Tool Hudson Bay Project Pt.2

hudson bay axe
In Part 1 I took a look at the Hudson bay axe from Council Tool's standard line as it arrived to me. The purpose of the project was to get a Hudson Bay pattern axe because I didn't have one, make a new handle in the length I wanted, and then put together a sheath and sling combo similar to what Council offers. Part 1 also covered the creation of the handle from a Locust stump that a local tree service saved for me. There were probably 10 or so 35" staves in that stump, so I have plenty of material for future projects. What I didn't do was cover the creation of the sheath. I used to buy veg tanned tooling leather for these sorts of projects which is probably the way to go if you want all the control and an extra fine finished product. I now just buy finished oil tanned leather. Cut it out, make a welt if you are so inclined, glue and rivet it together, done. Stitch it if you are feeling extra ambitious. You won't get the finely finished edges that you can get with tooling leather, you are stuck with the colors and finishes you can find but honestly, the options are pretty deep and it's a good way to spend twenty bucks here and there to just get enough for the project at hand. If you want to be a master leather guru, this probably isn't the route to take, but if you just want a nice finished product but need to save a little time and spend a little less money, it's a good alternative. As you can see from the pics, I purchased the leather from different places at different times so the strap doesn't match the sheath. That's the case when you start with finished leather products. To wrap it up, all I do is rub in some Neatsfoot Oil, then go over it with Mink Oil and/or you could use some other kind of leather water proofing concoction.

bushcraft axe, camping, hudson bay, custom sheath
Moving on, this post is all about the finished product. I took the angle grinder and went to work on the areas where the flashing had been ground from the head at the factory. Obviously they use a very coarse grinding solution because it's fast, but it leaves rough marks and as was the case with my example, if the head was held out of square with the grinder, it probably only takes a second to take off too much. I trued up the grinds then took it to the belt grinder to clean up the angle grinder marks. I then used a cup brush on the angle grinder to remove the remaining black paint. What I discovered in the process is that the cup brush acts as a really gentle deburring tool that hides some of the belt grinder lines. I hadn't bothered to go too fine with the belt grinder - I used a half worn out 36 grit followed by a half worn out 80 grit. I wasn't looking for perfection, just a clean and tidy grind all around. I applied my own bevels here and there for some personality, then dunked it in vinegar for awhile just to get a uniform appearance. The bit needed some work. It had been ground unevenly at the heel and when you have to do a lot of work to the heel or toe portions of an axe, you are dealing with the thinnest areas where you have to be even more careful about the heat. With a jug of water at the ready I went to the 36 grit belt and began working the bit back to straight. If the steel doesn't get hot enough to burn you, it's nowhere near hot enough to impact the hardness of the steel and even going slow, this isn't a very time consuming process.

Enough talk, let's get to the finished product. The only complaint I have about my own work is that I should have paid better attention to the lines through my handle. I ended up with a slightly "closed" feel where the swell is somewhat forward of the tongue (the portion of the eye that passes through the axe head). This isn't much of an issue unless it's extreme but if you aren't critical of your work you won't improve, I figure.

bushcraft, hiking camping axe

hudson bay sheath and sling

custom handmade sheath and sling

odellstudios odell studios original content

Note the heel has hardly any edge bevel. This is where the factory had already removed too much steel.

But the heel on this side is ground further than the rest in an effort to straighten the edge.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Council Tool Hudson Bay Axe Project and Observations Pt.1

Like an awful lot of axe and outdoor enthusiasts today, the Hudson Bay pattern axe aesthetic catches my attention. While I do tend to find functionally lacking, but attractive looking objects to be flawed and therefore less appealing, I also believe firmly that beauty has a certain kind of functional necessity. With that said, like many popular things, the Hudson Bay pattern has begun to gather a cult following of consumers who view them through rose colored glasses. Soon the humble axe is imbued with mystical attributes, elevating it from good to infallible. Unfortunately, the prices of vintage Norlund, Collins or Snow & Nealley Hudson Bay heads have reached lofty heights in line with the perceptions now associated with them. I never personally found them to be as alluring as some people, but I am interested in axes and enjoy exploring different patterns and even tools from other countries of origin. After all, the axe has existed in some form in probably every culture on Earth and has a long and fascinating relationship with the development of human-kind. But I'm not sure I am interested at $70 or more and the associated bidding war on ebay to get one. Council Tool offers a Hudson Bay axe for about thirty or forty bucks with a handle. Of course there is the Velvicut line, and it gets all the attention, but their regular line is very budget friendly and I am happy to support an American company that works hard to bring affordable tools to the market. In fact, at that price, I really don't understand most of the other offshore produced options that are out there right now.

I am alluding to some inherent flaw with the Hudson Bay pattern that not everyone will be familiar with. I wouldn't necessarily call it flawed. When I look at the axe I see a design that resulted from an attempt to produce a simple, lighter weight multipurpose outdoors tool. It resembles a large tomahawk with a poll. It doesn't have the raised cheeks of a felling axe. For all intents and purposes it looks a little like someone took a full-size axe and whacked a big chuck out of it in order to lighten it up. The result is an easier to manufacture axe that's sufficient for the light duty tasks it was intended for. The shallow eye does not offer the kind of contact with the handle that a larger axe does and under heavy use there is the possibility of the head coming loose. What's more, the head is bit heavy and has a significantly different feel in the hand when compared to a true poll axe with perfect balance bit to poll. I don't know exactly what lead to the creation of the Hudson Bay axe, but it looks like a piece of square stock with the bit end mashed out and a hole drifted in for an eye. It seems cheap to produce. Somehow in the back of my mind I can't help but think that perhaps the truth has more to do with visual appeal than I am giving credit for. Attractive things sell.

But is there anything especially attractive about Council Tool's standard line of axes? Honestly, not really. The black paint strikes me as simultaneously superfluous and cheap. One has to consider the target audience while also looking at the paint slathered history of axes. I will say however, if you are going to use color to differentiate yourself on the shelf, black isn't the way to go. Even the specific angle at which the paint terminates before the edge seems odd to me. However, this is not a review of Councol's Hudson Bay axe, I just want to toss out some of my observations concerning the example I received.

I actually thought the handle that came on it was pretty well done. Overall the handle was appropriately thin, and while the swell wasn't generous, it was better than typical, especially in shape. Mine had excellent grain orientation all around and the handle was the most surprising feature. I'll let the pictures tell the story in detail but if I had to give a general opinion of this specific product I would break it into two parts. First, I don't think a 2lb head, especially the unbalanced Hudson bay pattern, is a good candidate for an 18" handle. It feels unwieldy when compared to a balanced hatchet of about the same weight and length. For someone who wants maximum heft but the shortest useful handle length, it works, but you'd be surprised what a couple inches can give you and stepping up to the 24" arena where the heavier HB was intended to be, it really becomes a multipurpose tool.

For the second part, I would say, yeah if it's what you want, go for the Council Tool. It's got some issues that we'll cover but what I see when I look at it is a simple basic tool made affordable and left a little rough so that you don't have to pay for the time spent making it pretty. Do I think Council could do a couple things differently and still keep it low cost? Yeah. If you're like me and you'd rather put in a little elbow grease yourself instead of paying someone else to do it, then it's a bargain.

axe mod, review, custom, handmade
Next to a Craftsman on a handle a couple inches longer and overall weight just 2 ounces heavier - 2lbs 10oz. A balanced poll axe and the extra length makes it feel far more nimble and even lighter in the hand. This Craftsman is for sale - contact me if you're interested. The haft is one I made from Ash, from tree to tool.

Uneven grinding leaves the head out of square.

The biggest issue is the uneven grind on the bit, putting a bend in the cutting edge.

I had no complaints about the hang. It was tight and well done.

 But you know what, I expected all of this. On a basic tool like this the handle is likely to be hit or miss and even when it's a miss, it may very well serve the user just fine. I expected rough grinding and a dull edge. I like the idea that I can get a basic tool because my intent is to put in a little sweat equity and make it nice. All I require is a good enough steel with an acceptable heat treat. The belt grinder and angle grinder can help me sort out the rest. Step one, before I even ordered the head, was to start roughing out a handle. I recently got a Locust stump from a tree service after borers had killed it. It was thornless so I hoped that it was a Black Locust. However, I believe it is probably a thornless hybrid Honey Locust. Does it make any difference? I have no idea. I moved forward with the project regardless.

bushcraft, outdoors, carving, hatchet

So the primary issue with my Locust was that it had a slight twist in it and really wide growth rings. Again, I have no idea if the size of the growth rings makes much difference on this particular species of wood, but if there is some bend in the grain, it's that much more difficult to keep the grain running the full length of the finished handle. Here you can see the bend in the grain but ultimately it worked out fine. I was able to keep most of the grain running throughout the handle.

I also set out to make a sling and sheath much like Council Tool offers, so we'll finish off this post with a shot of the head cleaned up, the handle ready for the final seating, wedge made, and sheath assembled. The head was just a matter of squaring up the grinds where the flashing had once been, then truing up the bit - slowly and carefully, with a water bucket at hand to keep things cool.