Notes On Axe Handles

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2003 US Forest Service axe handle spec:

3.2.2 HANDLE
The handle shall be Shagbark Hickory (Carya Ovata), Shellbark Hickory (Carya Laciniosa), Mockernut Hickory (Carya Tomentosa) or Pignut Hickory (Carya Glabra) of clear all white wood (two small streaks or threadlike discolored lines extending along the grain not more than 1/3 the length of the handle are permitted) No brown heartwood is permitted. Annual growth rings per inch of radius must not exceed 17. Weight must be at least 55 pounds per cubic foot (these weights are based on a moisture content not to exceed 12%). The wood grain lines shall be parallel to the cutting edge of the axe blade. No cross grain is permitted (cross grain-deviation of the fiber from a line parallel to the axis of the handle in excess of one inch in twenty inches) The handle center line shall be parallel to the cutting edge of the axe blade. The handle dimensions shall conform in all respects to drawings MTDC-632. Each handle shall have a wedging slot cut in the head end as shown on the drawing for the insertion of the wedge. The wedge shall be made of Yellow Poplar (Liriodendron Tulpifera). The wedge shall not have a protective coating. The handle shall fit snugly into the eye of the axe head (see 3.2.4) The knob end of the handle shall be chamfered. The wood shall be sound and free from knots, crooks, bows, cracks, splits, scores, or other defects that may affect appearance or serviceability.

3.2.2.1 HANDLE FINISH
The handle, including the knob end, shall be smoothly finished and protected with at least one coat of boiled linseed oil. No wax, stain, lacquer, or varnish is permitted. The protective coating of linseed oil shall be applied evenly over the surface and shall be free from runs, drips, wet or tacky spots, or other defects. Flame hardening is not permitted.

3.2.2.2 MOISTURE CONTENT
Moisture content of the handle or the wedge shall not exceed 12% when tested as specified in 4.5.2.1

It is of course much better if the hickory is air dried, but this spec was taken out by the contracting office because no contractor would bid on the handles if they could not klin dry the sticks.
Interesting they have a study saying that heart wood is just as good as sap wood but they are not wanting to buy it. Can't make that stuff up..
 
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Interesting they have a study saying that heart wood is just as good as sap wood but they are not wanting to buy it. Can't make that stuff up..

There may be a difference between the old growth hickory of the past and the 2nd growth hickory of the present. From what I've read fast growing 2nd growth hickory is the best. There was a study that showed the best hickory had 5-20 growth rings per inch. There was another study that showed best flexibility and around 15 gr/i. I always consider 12-15 gr/i as optimal.
 

Old Axeman

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You are talking directly to the man who wrote those 2003 specs. The reason I was asked to rewrite the specs is that the MTDC engineer responsible for the specs felt the 1999 specs were "woefully inadequate" He and I wrote the 2003 specs using these criteria: all of the previous specs we could find in FS archives; my extensive collection of historic brochures from American handle companies; the experience of the best axemen that we knew who were still alive; a conversation I had with O.P. Link and his plant manager Lowell Little who worked for Mr Link for 50 years; and lastly, my experience.

Like I said, the air dried and even the riven specs we put in were thrown out because if you can not get anybody to bid you can not get handles.

I retired in 2004, so I guess that Dennis was not able to convince the contracting officer to change any of the 1999 spec.

Take it or leave it on the 2003 proposed specs, I only thought you might be interested.

Bernie
 
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From what I've read fast growing 2nd growth hickory is the best. There was a study that showed the best hickory had 5-20 growth rings per inch. There was another study that showed best flexibility and around 15 gr/i. I always consider 12-15 gr/i as optimal.

Here's one of the documents I was looking for.

Growth%20rings%20-%20mechanical%20properties%20of%20wood.jpg
 
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You are talking directly to the man who wrote those 2003 specs. The reason I was asked to rewrite the specs is that the MTDC engineer responsible for the specs felt the 1999 specs were "woefully inadequate" He and I wrote the 2003 specs using these criteria: all of the previous specs we could find in FS archives; my extensive collection of historic brochures from American handle companies; the experience of the best axemen that we knew who were still alive; a conversation I had with O.P. Link and his plant manager Lowell Little who worked for Mr Link for 50 years; and lastly, my experience.

Like I said, the air dried and even the riven specs we put in were thrown out because if you can not get anybody to bid you can not get handles.

I retired in 2004, so I guess that Dennis was not able to convince the contracting officer to change any of the 1999 spec.

Take it or leave it on the 2003 proposed specs, I only thought you might be interested.

Bernie

Thanks for the background on those 2003 specs. If they had been adopted, those FSS axes would be much more attractive.
 
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You are talking directly to the man who wrote those 2003 specs. The reason I was asked to rewrite the specs is that the MTDC engineer responsible for the specs felt the 1999 specs were "woefully inadequate" He and I wrote the 2003 specs using these criteria: all of the previous specs we could find in FS archives; my extensive collection of historic brochures from American handle companies; the experience of the best axemen that we knew who were still alive; a conversation I had with O.P. Link and his plant manager Lowell Little who worked for Mr Link for 50 years; and lastly, my experience.

Like I said, the air dried and even the riven specs we put in were thrown out because if you can not get anybody to bid you can not get handles.

I retired in 2004, so I guess that Dennis was not able to convince the contracting officer to change any of the 1999 spec.

Take it or leave it on the 2003 proposed specs, I only thought you might be interested.

Bernie
Thanks for sharing that with us Bernie. You tried...
 
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There is another simple and elegant one. First you have to consider what is happening to the wood, in particular right at this spot we are going on about, the bottom of the eye. The sharp edge at the eye's inside and or a swell at the shoulder right there is not only creating some concentrated pressure but scoring the wood as well. You don't have to saw through a piece in order to make it into two pieces, often scoring, it can be both with or across the grain, is enough to begin and guide the process of division. If I want to accurately split a billet down the center for making shingles I always first score a line across the end grain to begin the split. The straight line there at the eye makes an effective score on both sides of the handle. The Norwegian ones spread the pressure out and eliminate the straight line by angling the opening where the handle enters or more correctly make an arch or curve of it. Well, here's one I've got not strictly speaking Norwegian but coming from a Norwegian trained smid.
p6250103.jpg

I wish someone would come up with a name for this part, would make describing the situation a bit less tortured. Still the intention is not arbitrary or a matter of style but is also functional.
Oh yeah, and lugs/ears. A very good remade to this problem.

p6250103.jpg

Ernest, can you fill us in a bit on your axe? - not detracting from wood discussion of course.
 
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You are talking directly to the man who wrote those 2003 specs. The reason I was asked to rewrite the specs is that the MTDC engineer responsible for the specs felt the 1999 specs were "woefully inadequate" He and I wrote the 2003 specs using these criteria: all of the previous specs we could find in FS archives; my extensive collection of historic brochures from American handle companies; the experience of the best axemen that we knew who were still alive; a conversation I had with O.P. Link and his plant manager Lowell Little who worked for Mr Link for 50 years; and lastly, my experience.

Like I said, the air dried and even the riven specs we put in were thrown out because if you can not get anybody to bid you can not get handles.

I retired in 2004, so I guess that Dennis was not able to convince the contracting officer to change any of the 1999 spec.

Take it or leave it on the 2003 proposed specs, I only thought you might be interested.

Bernie
My apology to you Bernie for my presuming that the specs were cobbled together by a disinterested technical writer. What threw me were the glaring omissions due to political (ie bowing to private industry interests) interference.
Ideal VS practical has changed considerably over the past 100 years. Supplying select clear air dried riven wood is strictly a cottage industry now and not remotely competitive when it comes to tendering lowest bid to produce 10s of thousands of handles in a year.
25-50 years from now handle specs may even feature a disclaimer that says "Caution: this product may contain wood"
 
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Now that you've professed to being personally involved with making recommendations for Forest Service specs Old Axeman perhaps we can 'pick your brain' about the advantage of using Yellow Poplar (Tulip Tree) wedges. We've all learned that it's traditional fare in North America and store-bought offerings, by Garant et fils, throughout Canada (where Tulip Tree doesn't even grow) appears to be of that species (it's poplar-like but more yellow than green). Tulip Tree (far as I know) is similarly soft as true Poplars, Basswood (Linden in the Old World) and woods such as White Pine. What is it about this particular material that makes it more desirable than others? And why wouldn't domestic axe makers, and FSS and Forest Service, favour harder wood wedges such as Bl. Cherry or Bl. Walnut which are softer than Hickory?
 

Old Axeman

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300Six- Any wood that is softer than the Hickory helve will serve just as well as Yellow Poplar for the wedge. I often use Black Walnut wedges (my personal favorite) But for production sake, other excellent species for the wedge are just too costly. And, Yellow Poplar is an American tradition for axe helve wedges.

Just to stir the nest a little, as for the helve of a 3/4 - full size axe, there is no substitute for American Hickory! For hatchets, etc., many species will work for the helve.
 
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300Six- Any wood that is softer than the Hickory helve will serve just as well as Yellow Poplar for the wedge. I often use Black Walnut wedges (my personal favorite) But for production sake, other excellent species for the wedge are just too costly. And, Yellow Poplar is an American tradition for axe helve wedges.

Just to stir the nest a little, as for the helve of a 3/4 - full size axe, there is no substitute for American Hickory! For hatchets, etc., many species will work for the helve.
Thank you very-very much Bernie for being forthright about this topic because 'recommended and/or published' wood wedge materials have been a longtime puzzle for me. You're 20 years older than I am and 60 years older than the ever-increasing contingent of Google Search 'absolute know-it-alls'.
There is no substitute for "right from the horse's mouth" and you're as close as it gets, even for 'seniors'.
 
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Old Axeman

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I have never worked with celtis australis so I looked up as much info as I could find. Did not find anybody using it for commercial handle production. What I did find on paper did not impress me for handles. But again, I never worked with it.
Here's the thing, American Hickory has long been, and still is the preferred handle wood by all major axe makers world wide. Does that, along with history and tradition tell you anything?
 
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I suspect poplar is used for wedges because of its ability to compress and spring back. In this way a fully compressed poplar wedge is essentially 'spring loaded' to take up the slack caused by shrinkage, weather, humidity, etc. It also seems to have a somewhat coarse grain which help it to grab the inside of the kerf and resist backing out.

Further, a springy wedge may reduce the occurence of cracked eyes during wedging at the factory.
 
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In a circumstantial way I got my hands on the wood, Celtis australis, made a handle measuring 91 cm and it has out lasted a number of axe handles made from ash and a few less made from hickory. Now, this statement is so full of subjectivity that, while true, it is hard to believe but no less so than these claims about the superiority of hickory and a damn sight less sweeping. Going in to the mechanics of the wood is no less fraught without a clear idea of the specifics of the methodology underpinning them, so, for example, do we know all the parameters that lead to the numbers, are we making relevant conclusions? Information valuable to have at the back of your mind, but as a generalizations and not prescriptions to be filled. I for one like to lean heavily on tradition, of a particular kind, more ethnographic, you know, knowledge that is coming from people like myself that was rarely written down but that got passed on and on mostly without reasoning behind it other than this is just the way it's been done before, but still which is highly refined, for the most part very localized. More often than not this is going to end up diverging from conventional knowledge when the traditions become obscure, factions dominating the culture at any particular time, overbearing. We've got one responsible way to go about it and it is to seek out the best we can get our hands on under what conditions we are in and stay open minded in the search for suitable handle wood. For Henk the best may be going to the shop to make his selection, for Martha a run up the holler, for Hans taking advantage of the trimmings left by the side of the road which he brings home for the long process of seasoning and waiting before his wood can reliably be seated in its socket. What is to be avoided are these proscriptions of this or that wood from this or that expert in his field wherever that field might be regardless of the relevance to the field we might be out standing in.
 
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