Editor’s note: We’ve long been fans of the designer and entrepreneur Peter Buchanan-Smith’s work, including Best Made Company, where we were honored to sell our skillets. Peter’s excellent new book, Buchanan-Smith's Axe Handbook, is the result of his obsession with “objects that are simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary.” Below, Peter excerpts a selection from the book and reminds us why, like a good cast iron skillet, an axe is a tool that improves with time and use.
A good axe, a good rucksack, a good pair of boots, or a good cast iron skillet: these are the things we take into the wilderness, and most often we can only take one. As such we depend on them. We need them to be good.
In many ways, I started Best Made Company just to find the answer to what makes these things good. On all my adventures with Best Made I'd travel with at least one of our axes (yes, as long as it's checked luggage, you can fly with an axe). The thrill was watching an Alaskan bush pilot, an Argentinian gaucho, or a logger in the Pacific northwest put one of our axes through its paces. They spent the majority of their lives in the wilderness. They knew what was good. The minute they held one of our axes you knew they knew. Using a good axe, or a good cast iron skillet makes for better fires, better food, and better use of the valuable time you spend in the wilderness.
On my periodic table of wilderness elements, axes and cast iron are like oxygen and hydrogen. They are fundamental in every way (materials, design, and application). The more you use them, and the more you care for them, the better they get. Not many things we own can boast that. Of all my gear, my axes and cast iron will no doubt outlive me the longest. And that's all the more reason to know and invest in what's good.
What makes a good axe?
(Excerpted from Buchanan-Smith's Axe Handbook)
The best axes I have ever swung are efficient tools that elicit unbridled joy. On the joy meter of 1 to 10 (10 being the most joyful), you should swing an axe that prompts a 9 or 10. Don’t settle for anything less than 8, and don’t assume that an expensive axe will mean happiness. Some of the best axes I have ever swung have cost me less than $30 (all in). But we’ll get to that later in the book. Time spent chopping wood and being outside is sacred, and so respect that time by investing in an axe that’s a joy to use.
A good axe, when held in my hands, imbues me with a sense of confidence, calm, and delight. I think it’s important to surround ourselves with things that have this effect, the things we love, things with meaning, and things that we want to use. At the end of the day, the best things in my life just feel right, they belong.
It’s easier to know when you’re holding a bad axe, of course. You’ll have no problem spotting a chipped blade, or a splintered helve. It pays to sweat the small stuff. If you don’t see any obvious problems, but something still feels off, then it probably is off. When it comes to buying an axe, ask a lot of questions, and if those answers don’t add up, or worse yet, if they can’t even be answered, then keep looking. A good axe may not always be easy to find, but the good news is they are out there (the fun part is finding them).
It’s easier to forge a dull axe than a sharp one because forging a dull axe requires less skill, and less time. If an axe is sharp it probably (not always) means the maker has gone the distance, not just on the blade but hopefully the rest of the tool. At face value, an axe forged in a lesser-quality steel with the right blade profile and bit geometry is superior to an axe forged in a higher-quality steel with a lesser profile and geometry. But keep in mind you can almost always improve upon a bad bit.
Keep an eye on the grain orientation along the helve—it speaks volumes of the maker. If you hold the axe up with the butt end pointed toward you, you should be able to see that the grain orientation runs parallel to (or in line with) the orientation of the blade. The manufacturer obviously doesn’t make the wood grain, but it is responsible for selecting the right wood, hanging the axe, and making sure it is all in alignment. Just keep in mind there are always exceptions to the rules: Grain orientation mainly applies to larger axes (28 inches/71 cm plus), and sometimes the right orientation could just be a lucky mistake on the part of the maker.
An axe is just a piece of steel mounted to a slim stick of wood. Simple, right? Well, there’s a mind-boggling array of steps that go into making an axe. The bit may be sharp, the grain in alignment, but if there are gaps in the eye, or if the head is not seated correctly on the helve, then you will have problems. Don’t let the relative simplicity of an axe fool you: Every excruciating detail must be considered when making an axe, and it’s your job to evaluate those when buying.
As for materials, the helve of any axe will most likely be made of American Appalachian hickory, or plastic. Back to the happiness meter scale of 1 to 10, a plastic-helved axe is less than a 1: It will be painful to swing, it will be impossible to maintain, and it should be avoided at all costs. Don’t be alarmed if you happen upon a helve made of ash—that’s what they make baseball bats out of, and it’s a perfectly acceptable, albeit an uncommon and dated, choice.
Steel by its nature won’t reveal itself as easily as wood. For new axes, the maker or retailer should offer the origin and type of steel in question. What you do with that information is up to you, but at least you have it. Most axes I know are forged in either an American or European steel, and I would challenge anyone (without a mass spectrometer) to tell me the difference. European steels are thought to be slightly softer, and their profiles are designed for softer European woods, but the European axes I swing work just great on my dense American sugar maple or black cherry. For old axes there may be a mark that identifies the origin of the axe (though not necessarily the steel). Be it new or old, you want an axe that is forged with high-carbon steel. There is very little information about the composition of steel in old axes (pre-1950, say), but some say that it’s superior to steel in newer axes because blacksmiths and forging techniques were better back then, and the steel was purer (i.e., not recycled). This “old is better than new” theory is convenient, and to my knowledge remains anecdotal.
It’s no coincidence that the best axes I’ve ever owned happen to be a 10 on the happiness meter and a 10 on the joy-to-look-at meter. Like sharpness or grain orientation, you should consider the proportions, the silhouette, the shape, and the lines of an axe. How much thought has the maker put into this tool overall? Does the axe speak to you? If so, what does it say, and is that a good enough reason to part with your hard-earned money? Axes make bad impulse buys, so take your time making that final decision.