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Thread: Review: Barco "Cruiser" Ax

  1. #1
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    Review: Barco "Cruiser" Ax


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    The following was posted on Peter Vido's blog, AxeConnected.






    Earlier this year we ordered a two-pack of double bit "cruiser" axes from the Barco company in Pennsylvania; one for a fellow ax user in Nova Scoti, the other for us to test out and review.

    First of all, let me say that I consider this ax to be very unique. I'll elaborate on that, but for now, some of my first impressions:

    Barco's description of their axes sounds very impressive. They don't say too much on the specific product descriptions, but the implication is that these are US made

    From their website:
    "These are the finest quality US made axes available. The Kelly Perfect® features a full polished head with deep bevels to reduce binding of the head in the wood, painted a distinctive blue, while the Kelly Woodslasher® line is painted red with polished edge."

    Although I hope that this company would not deliberately mislead their customers, at this point I am doubtful about the origins of this cruiser ax.
    The most obvious thing to cause my suspicion that these "Forged with pride in the USA" axes are imported -- the heads are not stamped with any name or trademark, or even weight. The heads do have a faint "BARCO / WEAR SAFETY GOGGLES USA / 08 1" printed on one face.
    (Gee, thanks for reminding me, where did I leave those safety goggles that I always wear when using an ax...?) As soon as the red paint is removed, the only mention of USA is gone with it. If one of the last remaining ax manufacturers in the US was proud of their product, don't you think they would be sure to leave a prominent trademark, one that will speak to the quality of their axes in years to come?

    Back to the ax (whatever the origin), that "2 1/2 lb. Kelly Woodslasher Michigan double bit cruiser" from Barco.

    Taking a closer look at the one we kept, it seemed worthwhile to document how the edges had been ground. Or over-ground, I should say. The edge had been rather unevenly ground, too much taken off at the top and bottom corners, one corner nearly burned and a big burr left on the edge.



    Peter spent half an hour thinning down one of the faces to the kind of edge we keep on our felling axes, which is thinner than the standard these days, but nearly on par with how the old fellas in these parts liked their axes. He didn't file right up to the corners, but the top right one already looks as though it's had too much metal removed.



    We hadn't done anything to the handle by this point; I could already tell that, at 20mm, it was thicker than I would like to use (though admittedly thinner than most conventional ax handles these days), but it wasn't a "club", so Peter suggested that I try it out as is.

    Heading off to the woods to give it a test run, I felled a small green fir tree and then quickly hewed a short piece of the trunk.



    The thick handle bothered me, and I felt like it should have been longer for the weight of the head, but overall, I was pretty pleased with the little cruiser by that point. Impressed with how clean a hewing job it did, I was already thinking about the review I'd be giving it; if not glowing, at least pretty positive. Well, that was before I went to limb the few small branches…

    About three-quarters of the way along the length of this little tree, something felt wrong. There was a bit of swearing involved when I looked at the ax; the edge had gotten both chipped off and bent over -- "rolled" is the proper term, I believe. Going back over the length of the tree, I and located the largest limbs, all of which were smaller than 1/2 an inch in diameter.



    This is where I started feeling that I was in possession of a pretty unique little ax; I've never before heard of this happening. I am by no means knowledgeable when it comes to steel quality and forged tools in general, but I was under the impression that edge tools can sometimes be too hard, causing the steel to chip, or too soft, causing it to buckle or bend over. Never seen both at once though…

    Here's a closer look at the edge. Unique, all right!



    I had taken another ax along that day, a 2 3/4 lb. Swedish military surplus single bit on a 27" handle, with the edge filed down the way we like them. So before heading back home, I felled and limbed another fir with that one. The edge remained intact…

    Then for good measure I chopped down and limbed a third tree using only a kukri knife, a new one that a good friend had kindly sent for us to test out. The edge on this kukri was thinner than others I'd seen, but when put through the same treatment as the cruiser, it passed the test with flying colours, no damage whatsoever.



    Thus I suspect that it can't have been only those 'tough' branches that were to blame…

    At Peter's suggestion I took the cruiser out again later on, this time using the opposite face. I had taken the burr off and smoothed the transition between the micro-bevel and the rest of the face but did no actual re-shaping. With it, I managed to take down a small green beech (with a great deal of effort, since the edge had virtually no penetration ability, unsurprisingly).

    The next day Peter removed the damaged edge on the first face, leaving a thicker profile. By this time I had gotten tired of using that handle the way it had come from the factory, so I took a rasp to it and pretty much just removed the lacquer, then smoothed it down with a piece of glass.

    I happened to think of taking photos of the labels on either side of the handle before removing them.



    Good thing too, this one had a very important message, as I was soon to find out.



    Not as thin as I'd like, but it sure felt better after being slightly flattened, with the lacquer removed.



    Then I headed off into to the woods and picked a medium-sized poplar to test it out on.



    I was nearly done notching it, when I took another swing and the handle came back empty, with the head lying in the snow at the base of the tree. I just stared in disbelief. Nope, I hadn't overreached and hit the handle; that fine American hickory just couldn't take the combination of the soft green poplar wood and the girl swinging it. (Weren't these cruisers supposed to be used by grown men?)



    The "wear safety goggles" is still faintly visible; now I understand... Shouldn't they have added "wear steel toe boots"?



    I'd be interested in hearing some opinions on this one; have you ever seen such a porous-looking hickory?



    Another thing we realized once the handle broke was that the wood was amazingly light, not even close to the weight of normal hickory. If we take Barco's word that the handle was USA hickory, not some strange Chinese wood that looks like an Aero Bar on the inside, then our tentative conclusions are that this wood had dry rot.

    Okay, but we didn't give up on this ax yet; Peter knocked the remaining broken handle out of the eye, and quickly fitted it with a thiner (18mm) 30" maple handle. This time I tried splitting some firewood with the original (thick) face. This ax does not have an optimal splitting profile, but it worked fine with the "flick" technique I use.




    Then, with that new maple handle, I headed off to see what damage I could do next. Taking along the Swedish military surplus ax again, I did some comparisons of the chopping efficiency. Not a real fair comparison, but the Swedish ax's extra weight and the Barco's (now) longer handle balanced out a little bit.
    I took down a pair of dying poplars, trying to make an unbiased comparison of the effort expended, then did the same with two larger firs. (One more strike against this "USA" cruiser: the steel has much poorer edge retention in comparison to all of the other axes I've been using; I could hardly believe how fast it dulled even while bucking poplar with no knots.)



    The Swedish ax won, hands down. I chopped the trees down in approximately 1/3 less time, and as I limbed each of their respective firs, the Swedish ax left much cleaner cuts, while the cruiser tore the bark surrounding the limbs.






    I wasn't happy with the edge on the cruiser (the one that had been thinned, damaged, filed off and left thicker) so in the spirit of second chances, Peter filed it down again, though not quite as thin as the first time. Again, I chopped down a couple firs, then carefully limbed them. Whew, no damage. Then I took down a tiny (green) fir to use as a pushing pole for the larger trees, and started limbing the 1/4" diameter branches. Whoops, there goes another piece of the edge! A few more cuss-words and I headed home, since I hadn't taken a back-up ax along that time.

    That was the end of my using this ax for the time being. During the time that I was testing the Barco cruiser, I'd also been doing some chopping with several other axes of adequately thin edge profiles, none of which ever suffered torn edges and broken handles. I might add that the maple handle is still intact, after being put through tougher treatment than the hickory one lasted long enough to endure...

    So, would I recommend this ax to anyone based on my experiences? Com'on, now, do I really have to answer that one?

  2. #2
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    Nice review, thanks!

    (Good choice of providing a link to an Aero bar... I don't know if they sell those south of the border.)

  3. #3
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    By Peter Vido:

    There were two features of the Barco Cruiser that glared at me immediately upon the first visual examination. I told Ashley that I would comment on these in some sort of addendum to her review and that she could leave that aspect undiscussed, which, for the most part, she did.

    Now, however belated, here are my observations:

    It occurred to me that 'our' Cruiser was likely among a batch of early Monday, or end of the shift on Friday, ax heads. Either that, or its edge was ground by a person new to the job -- to whom no one adequately explained that the corners of the bit (all of them) ought to be 'babied'…

    Furthermore, the loose-handedness of the grinder accounts for only a portion of what I perceive as a notable flaw with both upper corners. Namely, I believe that the original designer of this ax pattern meant it to have slightly more steel in the upper corner. (If he didn't, I think he should have.)

    Yes, the 'Michigan' is among the North American ax patterns with more (if not the MOST) rounded corners. My intent here is not to debate the respective virtues of round versus more sharply pronounced corners, but to point out that -- in view of the 'inevitable' shape-shifting many ax faces will undergo during the subsequent use -- it is unperceptive on part of the makers to NOT provide the ax users with some grace in this regard.

    [It is indeed rare to find an old (while also much used) ax with an even face -- meaning one that still somewhat resembles the edge lines of the initial model. Most have far more steel missing from the upper half of the bit than the lower. This is 'natural' because the upper half receives way more nicks than its lower counterpart. When these damages are filed/ground off, the ax owners often do not re-shape the rest of the face so as to maintain the original line. The reason is simple -- it takes a lot of time to make up for even less than a 1/16" nick.]

    Anyway, I have a suspicion that when BARCO made their 'moulds' for these heads to be shaped in, an error had occurred and that little extra bit of steel has no room within the mould to be accommodated. Just a speculation…

    The conclusion?
    Well, I'd like this 'Cruiser's overall shape better if the upper corners extended at least 1/4" further forward and then gradually blended with the rest of the line towards the centre of the bit. The corner could still retain the classical 'Michigan' shape, of course.

    In addition, perhaps I ought to explain what exactly was the edge geometry I imposed on this Barco Cruiser -- the one it could not gracefully tolerate (but most of our other axes can…).

    A little background:
    During the early stages of my ax sharpening search, the local old timers were rather vague with advice. They plainly did not think of head/edge shaping in terms of specific angles; if I showed them one of my axes, they felt the bit between their thumb and first finger and (usually) declared it too thick here or there… Only one of them, Arnold Hanscomb, was explicit: he laid a file between the edge and the centre of the ax's eye and said but one word: "FLAT! " He fixed my gaze and repeated "Flat… then you will have an ax that cuts." ALL our axes back then failed that parameter, most of them miserably. Though I later tried to meet his specs, I too failed, mostly because it took a lot of time along with many good files to properly convert the worn and abused old axes we had collected, which had the cheeks too thick to allow for the file (or other straight edge) to lay 'flat' -- that is to contact at once the eye and (almost) the edge.

    Some years later I came across Dudley Cook's Keeping Warm with an Ax (now published as The Ax Book) and grasped a few additional details which the old Arnold did not mention, but understood himself, I believe.
    Cook, by the way, was far more explicit with regard to ax sharpening than anyone else whose written advice I've come across to date. The angles he offered for the respective parts of the head geometry are, I've concluded, very sound. Arnold's suggestion of a 'flat' line between the edge and eye more or less corresponds to Cook's 10 degrees. BUT, that holds true to within 1/16" (for felling ax) to 1/8 " (for swamping/limbing) of the very edge -- where the combined angle is gradually increased to approximately 30 degrees in order to provide the needed crumble resistance. Well, 30 degrees or so means lifting the file (or stone) so that it aims about finger thickness above the face. This applies, more or less to majority of North American axes, the thickness of which at the centre of the eye ranges from 1" to 1-1/8".

    However, there is a seemingly tiny difference over exactly what distance that increase in angles takes place. Tiny in measure but significant in performance. Cook's 1/16" is pushing many axes' limits, I think, and I did not thin the Barco 'cruiser' quite that much. But close. If one is to test an ax, I reckon the thing better be tested…unless "cool" looks is more important than hot work. In this case I conclude that if the contemporary cruising men wish to look cool, Barco may serve them well. But to make an honest living actually chopping trees..?

    You see, after that initial edge failure, my dressing it to a far more 'safe' (but rather useless) profile and then making it somewhat more useful again (albeit with a more forgiving angle), it failed second time. By then the micro bevel was at least 35 degrees and arrived to that increase over a strong 1/4" -- and that ain't good, period.

  4. #4
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    I wanted some unambiguous information about where these Cruiser axe heads are actually forged, so I contacted Barco directly.


    Me:
    Greetings,
    Can you verify that your Kelly Woodslasher double bit cruisers are in fact forged in the USA? Their description implies that the handle is of US origin, but I'm wondering about the head.
    Looking forward to your reply. Thank you!

    Barco:
    "We have our own forging plant in Pa."

    Commentary: Okay, but could they be forging some of their products in Pennsylvania, and importing some other products (such as the Cruiser axe)?

    Me:
    Thanks for your prompt reply, much appreciated!
    However, that still doesn't quite answer my question. Is your
    forging plant in PA still making axes these days? And, are the Kelly
    line forged there?
    With best regards,
    Ashley

    Barco:
    "The full description will specify IMPORT or USA. The Michigan and Western DBL bit are IMPORT, but the Cruiser DBL bit is USA. We don't import ANY handles. We're also in the process of converting all remaining import heads to our own forgings once the current supply runs out."

    Commentary: This is good news, that Barco is moving away from imports and will eventually be forging all of the axes that they sell. However, it is still not clear whether the axes currently described as "USA" have all of their components originating in the USA. Recall that Snow & Nealley axes were being sold as "Made in USA" even after they stopped forging operations and sourced the axe heads from China.

    Me:
    Thank you for the interesting information. I have a final question of clarification though -- I am aware that some products can legitimately be labeled "USA" even if not every component was actually made in the USA, as long as there are enough American-made components and enough value added in the USA (finishing, assembly, etc.) My question of clarification is not about whether the axe was made in USA, but whether this one component, the axe head, was forged in the USA, or elsewhere. I am not asking about where the head was ground, polished, painted, or assembled; I am simply asking where the head was forged.
    So, my question, "Are the heads of your company's Kelly Woodslasher Cruiser double bit axes currently being forged in the USA?" can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no".
    Thank you for your time.
    Ashley

    Barco:
    "YES The cruiser DB axe heads are made/forged in the USA."

    Commentary: There you have it. Unambiguous confirmation (finally) from Barco that these cruiser axe heads were actually forged in the USA. This means that if heat treatment problems have led to the failure of the axe edge, then it's actually the heat treatment at the USA facilities that are at fault.
    Last edited by Sparrow92; 05-23-2013 at 08:37 AM.

  5. #5
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    Thanks for the review and the news about the USA forgings. I sure hope they get the heat treat and/or material problem resolved. I mean it could just be crappy steel.

  6. #6
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    Barco - axes aren't their game they just happen to own the rights to a couple axe names of history - such as wood slasher and perfect. Shame really. Too bad the euro comparison had to come in on the review but oh well.
    Axes4Life

  7. #7
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    Those axes are junk. That handle that busted is as bad a piece of hickory as I've ever seen. Should NOT be porous at all. The edge getting that banged up over some light limbing is very bad heat treat. This confirms why I've never bought a barco and don't plan to.

    Thanks for the review though. It was very insightful and done well.

  8. #8
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    Hoping that you can find the time to do some more great reviews.
    How about the popular Council Tool "boys" axe?

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by OutdoorEnvy View Post
    The edge getting that banged up over some light limbing is very bad heat treat.
    Does this result prove that the heat treatment is to blame?

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by KingKoma View Post
    Does this result prove that the heat treatment is to blame?
    No. It could just be real crappy metal that no heat treat can help.

    That is both chipped and rolled is a clue. If it's made out of recycled scrap then it might not be well homogenized - i.e. high and low carbon steels not well mixed together. I've seen import rebar where you could actually see old nuts and bolts and stuff in it. Pretty sad.

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by Square_peg View Post
    No. It could just be real crappy metal that no heat treat can help.

    That is both chipped and rolled is a clue. If it's made out of recycled scrap then it might not be well homogenized - i.e. high and low carbon steels not well mixed together. I've seen import rebar where you could actually see old nuts and bolts and stuff in it. Pretty sad.
    This is a serious accusation. An accusation that would be difficult to prove, no? What other possible explanations are there that can be ruled out?

  12. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by KingKoma View Post
    Does this result prove that the heat treatment is to blame?
    Yes, that is way too soft to roll like that for what it was used for.

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by Square_peg View Post
    No. It could just be real crappy metal that no heat treat can help.

    That is both chipped and rolled is a clue. If it's made out of recycled scrap then it might not be well homogenized - i.e. high and low carbon steels not well mixed together. I've seen import rebar where you could actually see old nuts and bolts and stuff in it. Pretty sad.
    That's certainly possible too.

  14. #14
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    Quote Originally Posted by KingKoma View Post
    This is a serious accusation. An accusation that would be difficult to prove, no? What other possible explanations are there that can be ruled out?
    It's not an accusation at all. It's one of many possible explanations. I'm not a metallurgist. I don't know what's going on there. I just know that I expect better out of axe, regardless of where it's made.

    Some food for thought. A chipped edge could result in putting someone's eye out and a lawsuit. Rolled edges don't produce lawsuits. As a manufacturer which would you risk?

  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by Square_peg View Post
    It's not an accusation at all. It's one of many possible explanations. I'm not a metallurgist. I don't know what's going on there. I just know that I expect better out of axe, regardless of where it's made.

    Some food for thought. A chipped edge could result in putting someone's eye out and a lawsuit. Rolled edges don't produce lawsuits. As a manufacturer which would you risk?
    Well, it is an insinuation. I would think that if you had made that comment about someones knife failure you would get a pretty strong reaction.

    What is remarkable to me is that no one is asking "what happened to the axe AFTER heat treatment?" Does this not look like typical grinding damage? If you think it doesnt then at least it is the factor that is the easiest to rule out.

  16. #16
    Dieter Schmid, (Dieter Schmid - Fine Tools) has already identified this problem with the hickory handle.

    From his web site:

    "With Hickory wood, which is often used for axe hafts, it can happen that the wood has been infected by a kind of fungus that destroys the cell structure of the wood. This problem is unfortunately impossible to detect from the wood’s surface. So pay extra attention when using a hickory haft for the first time! The haft can break immediately! This kind of fungus damage can be easily diagnosed by the spongy structure of the break, very sharp and abrupt, that doesn’t travel up and down the grain structure."




    E.DB.

    Not being a follower of that web site I had no idea this same thought had already been anonymously attached to the original posting over there. Having gone to Dieter now for years I'm glad to see he is gaining good traction on the European end of things out of his Berlin shop. Always good information and top notch stuff there right from the man who's got his finger on the pulse.
    Last edited by Ernest DuBois; 05-23-2013 at 07:31 AM.

  17. #17
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    Quote Originally Posted by KingKoma View Post
    What is remarkable to me is that no one is asking "what happened to the axe AFTER heat treatment?" Does this not look like typical grinding damage?
    That's another very strong possibility. One might think that a manufacturer knew not to ruin his own HT but this surely wouldn't be the first time it happened. After Peter's two sharpenings one would hope to be past any grinder damage but that wouldn't necessarily be the case, either.

  18. #18
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    I bought a Barco cruiser two pack. It was like getting one of them for the cost of shipping alone. I sold one to a friend of mine. One of the two had a terrible grind done to the bits and the heads finish was much rougher than the other one.
    It really appeared that they were shipping a second quality axe with a 1st quality axe in their two pack.

    I haven't used mine yet. My friends Barco cruiser lost its head after some minor use. I'm not impressed with a company that will send out a second quality or a flawed axe alone with a decent one. I'm sure they are betting on one not complaining because of the price.

    It was most definitely a second quality axe that they shipped. NO MORE Barco for me.

    Double Ott aka; Tom; TC

    Vintage PUMAs from the 1970's & 1980's.. Let me know what you have, Thanks

  19. #19
    Haaaaahaaahaaa Aero Bar!!!

    A real shame about the abysmal quality. Operator--the Vidos actually tend to prefer American axes to the best of my understanding (though I certainly can't speak for them) so the comparison to the European axe was unbiased in that regard I believe.

    I second the opinion that the edge was damaged through improper grinding post-heat treatment. That would explain the combination of both rolling and chipping--rolling in the parts where it was burnt during grinding (just because it isn't discolored doesn't mean it wasn't burnt! Could have been burnt then ground over) and chipping in the places where it was still overly hard.


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  20. #20
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    Quote Originally Posted by FortyTwoBlades View Post
    A real shame about the abysmal quality. Operator--the Vidos actually tend to prefer American axes to the best of my understanding (though I certainly can't speak for them) so the comparison to the European axe was unbiased in that regard I believe.
    Most of the Swedish axes, even today, are "American" in pattern, despite them making a few major omissions in terms of design subtleties. The older ones, before the yupster axe trends that yielded the current designer swede axes, were actually pretty geometrically sound. If American companies still made good axes, I'd be all for supporting them over Swedish companies making axes of the same patterns. But there aren't any, and the Swedish axes don't impress me much either.

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