“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
This post has been “in the works” for awhile, mainly to address the frustration some people have expressed in buying old axes. I hope that the suggestions and tips mentioned here will be useful to others as they have been useful to me. I will also put the spotlight on some common misconceptions about vintage axes in the hopes that others will be better educated.
Over 100 years ago at the turn of the century, during what many call the “Golden Age” of axe manufacturing, the majority of mass-produced axes were made to meet the demands of the logging industry. Over the course of the next 40 years – especially in the 1920s, as classic camping (then called “auto-camping”) became a popular pass-time – the axe market evolved to produce more household and outdoor/camping-related axes, as evidenced in early catalogs of companies such as Marbles, Collins, and Stanley.
By the 1960s, the development of portable, one-man chainsaws took hold and effectively replaced the loggers’ felling axes and crosscut saws. As a result, axe production decreased. Companies either merged with each other or were bought by larger, more successful manufacturers.*1 In 1960, the True Temper Co., formerly American Fork and Hoe Co (which had previously bought Kelly Axe and Tool Co in 1930), was purchased by Ludlum Corp. 27 years later, Ludlum sold the True Temper/Kelly axe manufacturing divisions to Barco Industries, which remains in business.*2 The Mann Edge Tool Co absorbed Collins in 1966, with Stanley Works purchasing four Collins factories located outside the US.*3 Mann Edge started producing a line of “sportsman’s axes” under the Norlund brand in 1968, though by the 1980s, despite a favourable reputation for offering high-end tools, demand lessened significantly. Norlund’s production all-but ceased in 1986, and 17 years later, Mann Edge Tool Co (and Collins subsidiary) was sold to Truper Herramientas in Mexico.
*2 – YesterYearsTools The Collins Co Pt 1. (Tom Lamond)
But since the late 1990s, and especially in more recent years, axe production in the US and Europe seems to have been jump-started by the growing interest in homesteading, woodcraft, and bushcraft, promoted on TV shows and the Internet. Companies like the infamous Gränsfors Bruks (popularised by Ray Mears), Wetterlings, Husqvarna, and later Council Tool, began producing large quantities of portable “bushcraft” axes marketed directly to outdoor enthusiasts. With the Internet’s evolution of social networking sites, like-minded people could share their ideas with a world-wide audience. Some individuals started encouraging the practice of restoring old axes as a practical method of recycling (that also preserves history), allowing others to “make their own” axe for a lesser price. And indeed, for the past 6 years or so, refurbishing vintage axes has become quite a popular trend. Currently, on social media sites such as youtube, searching ‘axe restoration’ will yield you over 48,000 results.
Lots of people now collect a variety of old axes (particularly certain brands, the most recent popular one being Norlund), whilst others acquire a few to be dedicated “users”. Due to the increased value from demand, sellers at flea markets, on ebay, and even in antique stores are listing vintage axes at higher prices than a few years ago. Some disgruntled individuals have openly stated in frustration that it is “impossible” to find cheap old axes nowadays, and many blame certain youtubers and forums.
In reality, this trend is not the fault of any one individual or group of individuals. Social media is a very powerful force in our modern world, allowing content to be viewed and shared across the globe, wherever one can access the internet. With that in mind, it only makes sense that many thousands of people wanted to find old, serviceable axes, and fix them up as their own DIY project. For many people, restoring axes, as well as other old tools, has become a hobby – and as previously stated, there are numerous collectors who seek specific brands and lines of axes. With a surge in demand, sellers realized that their rusty piece of steel may be worth much more than a few dollars. Prices for certain axes might seem ridiculous, but you have to take into account the fact that some people are willing to pay that price. So yes, the days of finding a 3.5 lb True Temper axe head in good condition for $12 on ebay are pretty much gone. If that’s all you’re willing to spend, then yes, your options are going to be extremely limited.
But in the $15-$30 price-range, you can still find a serviceable axe. Ebay can be very competitive, especially when old axes are auctioned, and what starts out as $9 axe can quickly become a bidding war with the winning offer of $45 or even $70. My first bit of advice is to establish an amount that you are willing to spend up to. The $15-$30 price range is about ideal, considering the extra cost for the helve, compared to affordable options from Council Tool. Personally, I stay away from axe auctions on ebay because they are almost always too competitive. Buy-it-now listings are fewer, but much more promising. To refine your search, you can use the “advanced settings” function next to the search bar by typing in the $15-$30 limit (or whatever your price range is) and clicking the check-box for “buy-it-now”. You may not find what you’re looking for at first, so make sure to check each day.
That was how I picked up this beautiful 3.5 lb Michigan pattern double bit on ebay for $20.80.
Aside from a little surface rust, some minor pitting, and a few chips in one of the edges, it was in near mint condition. It still had the factory grind, with over 2 inches depth of temper in both blades. I will be posting a restoration article on this axe in the near future, so stay tuned :).
Another tip is to let all your friends know that you are looking for old axes. Talk about it with your acquaintances. Hey, you might get something for free. Last year, after responding to an advertisement in the local newspaper, I was talking with the seller, and the subject of axes was brought up in the conversation. I ended up with a bonus….a Chopper 1 splitting axe (or maul?…).
Earlier that same year, I was gifted with a 3.5 lb True Temper Kelly Works Flint Edge Michigan pattern single-bit from a friend, who bought it for less than $25 on ebay.
I posted the restoration of this axe here, though I later ended up re-working the edge (the profile was too rounded), and more recently, I rehung the axe on a shorter 31 inch handle made of heartwood.
Sometimes you’ll find decent axes at yard sales, in flea markets, or second-hand stores. You might have to haggle, but don’t be afraid to walk away if the seller remains fixated on a high price. With some perseverance and a bit of luck, you will find what you’re looking for. Don’t give up.
Axe Myths: Don’t judge a book (or an axe) by its cover
This brings us to the subject of common misconceptions regarding vintage axes. Earlier in this post, I put up a photo of my latest project, the Michigan double-bit that I acquired from ebay. It is unmarked – there is no visible factory stamp or logo to be seen. Some people scoff at the idea of buying an axe such as this because of the rather silly notion that it might be made in China, Taiwan, or Mexico, or any other off-shore country where they believe cheap steel is made. They want to see “USA”, “Made in the USA”, “Germany”, “Sweden”, or better yet, a well-known manufacturer’s name like “Collins”, “Kelly Works”, “True Temper”, “Gränsfors Bruk”, “Norlund”, etc., because if the axe doesn’t have these markings, you could be buying “a piece of junk”. I beg to differ – years of corrosion from neglect can wear away the manufacturer’s stamp in the metal. Sometimes all that’s left is a stamp of the head weight. The fact remains that the majority of old axes out on the market were made in the US. From the mid 1800s to just before WWII, more axes were produced in the US than any other tool.
Nevertheless, many sellers will offer an unmarked axe at a more affordable price because there’s often no way to tell exactly which company made it. On ebay, such axes will be listed in the “buy it now” category at a lower price due to the lower market value. An exception (as of current) are Hudson Bay axes, which are still exceedingly popular, and therefore have a higher market value.
Some things I look for in unmarked axes are convexed cheeks, phantom bevels, and-or ridges in the eye. If the axe has one or all three features, chances are very likely that it was American made. Specific patterns like Connecticuts, Jerseys, and Michigans are also indicative of a US-made axe.
The second axe myth I want to shine the spotlight on the generalization that old axes were “hand forged”. This notion has been around for awhile, but it is only partly true. From colonial settlement in North America up until the introduction of power hammers (i.e. drop forging), the majority of axes that were mass-produced were forged from mechanical trip hammers, many of which were water powered. Some trip hammer forges remained in use into the 20th century.
“Hand forging” refers to forging metal using only human power, i.e. a hand hammer. Forging axes in this manner was common on a small-scale in early North American history. *1 Drop forging is the method of using a high energy transfer of force via a power hammer. It how axes were made for the past 100 years. With trip hammers and power hammers, axes could be manufactured on a large scale requiring far less time and human effort compared to hand forging. That said, there are some smiths today who do make axes and tomahawks by hand forging on a small-scale. But since this article is about vintage axes, I won’t digress any further.
Reference: *1 – Library of Manufacturing: Drop Forging Hammers
It should be noted that older Gränsfors and Wetterlings axes were often stamped “drop forged”. Just because an axe looks old, has cool forging marks in the metal or an uneven surface, does not mean that it was forged by hand. So when you see an ebay listing for an old axe head with a title description like this, “Vintage Kelly Axe Mfg Co.: Hand Forged Jersey Pattern Axe”, or “Vintage Gränsfors Bruks Felling Axe Hand Forged In Sweden”, don’t believe it. And if you find a seller at a flea market or in an antique shop who is asking a high price for the “hand forged” axe that you’re eyeing, be prepared to walk away and look elsewhere.