A Joiner’s Toolbox: The Axes of Evil?

The TSA doesn’t tend to like me very much. You see, I like to fly to the Midwest or South and bring back loads of rusty things that make metal detectors go “BEEP!” It’s not my fault that all the good old tools, all the greatest houses of rust and dust really, are in the middle and southern reaches of our country.

As The Engineer says: “All Scott’s favorite souvenirs are all on the No-Fly list.”

The axes of evil?

If you look at the many, many, many* paintings of medieval and renaissance woodworkers and their tools, you will note four tools that are given particular prominence: Planes, chisels, a frame saw, and a nice big axe.  We’ll get to the frame saw soon, but in most of these images, the axe is front and center.

A Joiner’s workshop from my old nemesis: Jost Amman’s “Das Standebuch” 

of 1568 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone who just said “Aren’t those for chopping down trees?” gets three demerits and must report to the Forbidden Forest after class, where Professor Ash will teach you why chainsaws were invented.

Have you ever chopped down a decent-sized tree with an axe?

I have and I don’t recommend it. Of course you can do it and once you get the hang of it, it’s not the worst thing in the world. It certainly didn’t seem to keep our ancestors from darn near clear cutting the Americas, but never forget how eagerly they took to an invention that was originally a surgical tool (yes, really) once it had been properly biggie-sized and offered up as a bane for trees and zombie hordes alike.

But that’s another tale. We’re not chopping down a tree today, just cutting it to a manageable size for employing other tools and to do that, we will need a range of axes.

The prominence of the axe in woodworking has fallen considerably since the saw mill became more prevalent and lumberyards grew neat stacks of sawn and pre-dimensioned lumber. While the chainsaw might have spelled the end of the big felling axes, it was the 2×4 that killed the carpenter’s axe.

(Left to right) Carpenter’s axe, large “Kent” style side hatchet, small “Kent” style side hatchet, and a head for a broad axe.

Thankfully, great grandpa kept his and I picked up a couple more in my beloved web of rust emporia scattered across southern Missouri. The largish Kent hatchet in the picture above was an inheritance, the rest I rescued and brought home to Washington to the consternation of my wife and airport security.

Use your axes for good, my friends. Never evil.

Axe? Hatchet? Plumb? Side? Broad?  (Watch who you call a broad, pal…)

An axe, Roy Underhill likes to say, is essentially a piece of steel mounted on the end of a stick. One of the few things everyone can agree on is that. After that, the nomenclature gets a bit contentious. We can’t even decide how to spell it with England and America using an axe or an ax, respectively. The main problem is that the axe has been around almost as long as humans have, and every culture has named it and the parts of it as suited their fancy.

Thus, we’re going to be a bit generic with our terminology. Also, a hatchet is a small axe. Alas, there are sizes of these tools where different people will refer to it as one or the other at whim, sometimes in the same sentence, but really it’s about size more than anything else.

As you already know, I tend not to get too caught up on taxonomical issues anyway. Honestly, as long as you can tell the handle from the sharp bit, you’re going to be fine.

Here are the absolute basics…

Just remember this: shape dictates the use.  
In the drawing above, you can see that I delineate a difference between a “wedge” axe and a “side” axe. 
A side hatchet and a “boy scout” style wedge hatchet shown
side-by-side for comparison.

The side axe is flat on one side and specific to a right or left handed user (actually many can be either, you just flip the head over and mount it the other way on the haft). A side axe is mostly used for hewing a round log into flat faces. The bevel forces the wood off to only one side and tends to take relatively small pieces, leaving a relatively flat surface behind to be dresses with other tools such as a plane. Logs are turned into timbers by hewing away the rounds with enormous broad axes which are ‘sided’ like the hatchet you see in the photo at right.

The wedge style is for cleaving or splitting. You can dress logs with a wedge axe if you want to, but it’s more work because the double bevel pushes the wood in both directions and tends to break fibers and knock out a chunk of wood rather than taking a slice. I’m tempted to say that there’s not as much finesse in a double-beveled axe, but you can use it to do most the things you can with a side axe if you’re willing to put in the work.

Mostly though, a wedge is a splitting tool and boy can it split kindling.

Speaking of splitting kindling, there’s one other type of axe that we need to talk about: The Froe. A froe is an axe in the same sense that an adze is — they are technically axes, but their blades are turned at angles to the handle that we’re not used to seeing so that they can do some very specific jobs.

The froe is all about riving wood. Riven wood is split, but not in a haphazard manner like firewood, but very accurately and in careful consideration of grain direction so that you have boards you can work with when you’re done.

My froe making short work of a fresh bit of a plum tree.

Almost all the wood used by an Elizabethan joiner was riven rather than sawn to dimension. Sawing was reserved mostly for shaping or doing any sort of cutting across the grain (which a froe or axe are ill-suited for).

All of this is preparatory for doing what’s nowadays generally known as “Green” woodworking. In this case, “green” isn’t used in the Al Gore sense, but rather in the sense that no one is baking the tree in a kiln before it gets to your workbench. Many of these tools and techniques we’re going to talk about are sort of useless on kiln-dried fir from Home Depot. The bit of plum tree I’m splitting in the picture above was cut the day before from an old tree growing in my garden.

The nice thing about greenwood is wet and springy and above all, easy to work. Unfortunately, it will also rust your tools, so you have to take care.

More on that later when we start making things with all these tools out of all this wet wood. For now, I’m going to refer you once again to Peter Follansbee and Jenny Alexander’s excellent “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to 17th Century Joinery” (Lost Art Press, 2012) or to any of Peter’s excellent appearances on The WoodWright’s Shop on PBS.

If you don’t have access to a trove of old tools, can you make do with a double-beveled axe or modify one to make it work? Of course you can. But I’ll let an expert deal with that. For expansion of this topic, this is a video that woodworking gurus Christopher Schwarz and Peter Follansbee filmed on this same subject.  Enjoy.

~ Scott

*It helps that Jesus was a carpenter, or at least his dad was. Depictions of the Holy Family are almost inevitably filled to the rafters with tools. In many ways, the artifacts of the Mary Rose ship’s carpenter and the Vasa ship’s carpenter are just confirming things we already knew from period depictions of Joseph. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s