Traditional wood used for axe handle used in europe ?

Discussion in 'Axe, Tomahawk, & Hatchet Forum' started by Titaniumlord430, Jul 4, 2017.

  1. Moonw

    Moonw

    Nov 19, 2014
    Gotcha Kevin. Deleted your post to protect the address from nosy spammers.
     
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  2. Kevin Houtzager

    Kevin Houtzager

    908
    Jun 25, 2017
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    Last edited: May 13, 2019
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  3. littleknife

    littleknife

    Nov 29, 2000
    Thanks for the interesting info, Moonw. :thumbsup::thumbsup:
     
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  4. littleknife

    littleknife

    Nov 29, 2000
    Thanks for the interesting info, Kevin! :thumbsup::thumbsup:

    Museum pieces from centuries ago are tricky though. Those are pieces which have survived, and those were not necessarily the common/typical pieces though. Especially when it comes to weapons.
    Oak wood is much more durable than most other woods in Europe, so no wonder you will see oak wood hafted halberds. I don't know if beech wood was used for halberd or pike hafts, but it would not have survived the hundreds of years. Beech wood is notorious for attracting wood borers, so the hafts would have been destroyed within a decade.
    Also, halberds are not axes, neither were used as ones. The axe part was more like an angled blade to cut an onrushing mounted soldier or its horse, or catch/hook on some protruding limbs, parts or weapons. They were rarely whacking away with the axe parts. The hafts were frequently reinforced with metal straps, both to increase strength and to reduce damage from another blade (e.g. swords).
    So I don't know how a halberd's haft would be informative regarding the type of wood used for the haft of working axes.
    Also, oak wood was very valuable timber for building houses, big structures requiring strong timber frame, building boats and making barrels. Not many woods are suitable for these purpose, while other woods are useable as tool handles.

    I think we (axe enthusiasts) are overly obsessed with the optimal types of haft wood.
    In the past most peasants or craftsmen used both better and less optimal woods, since they were replaced frequently anyway.

    As for using local woods vs. imported ones. Frisia wasn't a very remote, isolated part of Europe. Importing axes and helves from abroad, or trading them within Holland does not sound very fantastic, especially if there was a strong demand for it and money to pay for it. After all, the timber did not have to be imported directly to Friesia, just close enough that after that it could have been traded locally.
    This does not sound fantastic for the 17th Century, and definitely not for the 19th Century. In this case the French, German, Spanish beech wood axe handles (or staves/billets for making ones) could have been readily available commodities, just like today the hickory handles.

    I am not saying that no local wood would have been ever used for making axe handles in Friesia, just that the Frisian builders, craftsmen and farmers could very likely afford to by not only axe heads made far away, but also wooden billets for making the axe helves.
     
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  5. I'mSoSharp

    I'mSoSharp

    833
    Mar 8, 2011
    It's quite fanciful to think handles or hafts were "imported" or transported around Europe, until fairly recent history the proiority was to have food & shelter, getting the absolute best wood for a tool handle would be the last thing on anyone's important list.
     
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2017
  6. Agent_H

    Agent_H

    Aug 21, 2013
    I "liked" this exchange of ideas not only out of sheer interest (I've learned something) but how differing perspectives are being shared and the willingness to start conversation off board as well :thumbsup:
     
  7. littleknife

    littleknife

    Nov 29, 2000
    I agree, everyday survival was the utmost priority.
    I was proposing the idea that trading for timber in a not heavily forested area does not seem to be too outlandish.
    Also, getting a useable wood for a handle does not mean 'the absolute best wood', but simply an economically viable one.
    Beech or even ash wood are hardly the best woods for a tool handle, but they were available, cheap and useable.
    I doubt most axes were used to clear forests in Friesland. Besides the occasional felling, they were most likely used for splitting and shaping timber.
    Craftsmen (boat builders, carpenters etc.) would use their axes and hatchets daily, so a useable & affordable handle would have been of their important list for sure, being part of their livelihood (a mean for survival).
    The commoners of Friesland who would use axes frequently would have likely used a little bit more sophisticated handles than a crooked, wormy branch fallen from the tree in the garden.
    We tend to forget that at that time knowledge regarding the practical use of various timbers was very widespread, and people were familiar with timbers not native or not growing any more in their locales too.
    People were traveling and trading at the time too, what’s more, the guild system required that the apprentices visit faraway places, frequently abroad, as part of their professional training (journeyman).
    Peasants and farmers were also conscripted or recruited into their countries’ armies, so they got to see places outside their villages too and experience new things as well.
     
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2017
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  8. Kevin Houtzager

    Kevin Houtzager

    908
    Jun 25, 2017
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    Last edited: May 13, 2019
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  9. Kevin Houtzager

    Kevin Houtzager

    908
    Jun 25, 2017
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  10. littleknife

    littleknife

    Nov 29, 2000
    A nice print there, Kevin.
    What I see on it is a siege of a (stone?) walled city by an army with some naval support. Siege guns, a lot of pikemen in tight formations and the odd officer with a halbert, most likely a symbol of their rank. I don’t see any defensive wall building there, but I’ll take your word that they were used occasionally, in a hurry for that purpose.
    The halberds have the typical for the age concave blades, which would be destroyed in a hurry if one would attempt to hew or chop timber with them. Yes, they would survive like 5-10 chops, but try to use them as axes, and they are quickly becoming useless, both as a weapon and as an axe too.
    Also, the long handles would have been very awkward to use for wood chopping.
    The army looks well equipped for its time, with various branches. Both boat repairs as well as siege work would require various axes. You can safely bet that they had those tools at hand, either carried them and/or plundered them. No need to use dedicated weapons for a task they are not designed for.
    We tend to think of people from several hundred years ago as total primitives, but that is a mistake.

    Bernard R. Levine repeatedly commented, that even in frontier America, where supplies for sure were not in abundance, the settlers were not primitive and they did not lack sophistication and refinement regarding their clothing and tools. They might have not many things but they did try to get the best they could afford, or at least imitate it. The whole “homespun = primitive & unsophisticated” notion is more of a modern myth than a reality.
    Even more so in Europe.
    I lived most of my life in Europe, so I am familiar with many of the facts and some of the history of the region.
    What is ‘remote’ and what is ‘poor’ is relative.
    The poor Friesian peasants/farmers were not your Eastern European serfs. E.g. serfdom was abolished in Hungary (Austrian empire) in 1848, in Russia in the 1860s. Serfs frequently were not allowed to leave their villages without the permission of their lords. But even in those regions trade existed, traveling merchants, tradesmen and peddlers roamed the countrysides and there was trade even in those cash-strapped and dirt-poor regions.
    Compared to that a poor Friesian peasant was definitely not so poor. But even if they would not have the means to trade for timber, likely, the axes were mostly used and owned by tradesmen rather than farmers. By the 19th century even in poorer places there was a well-developed division of labor. Craftsmen would travel widely and offer their services, and most likely not with tools borrowed on site. A craftsman, carpenter who used his tools on a daily basis would likely ensure the tool he was using was functional. Try to use for a couple of hours an ill-fitted, poorly handled axe or hatchet and then you may revisit your notion about an ad hoc improvised handle made from the first branch encountered in the garden.

    As for trading between merchants/individuals from states in war, that was normal. Not only contraband, but regular trade was business as usual. The continental blockade of Napoleon was more of an anomaly than the norm. So yes, acquiring things from Spain, France and Germany, or from other places through their merchants - with the involvement of your local merchants of course - would have been not only possible, but likely a common occurrence.
     
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2017
  11. 300Six

    300Six

    Aug 29, 2013

    Millions upon millions of board feet of squared timber was rafted down the Ottawa River to the port of Montreal throughout the 1800s and all of it was destined for Europe. Mostly White Pine and to Britain but that doesn't mean some woods didn't wind up elsewhere. Tradesmen have always sought out the most durable materials with which to make their tools. And a log drive, ship or barge was a much more economical way of transporting bulk goods than was a horse and cart!
     
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  12. littleknife

    littleknife

    Nov 29, 2000
    Of course Europe is not, and never was a single country, but that was never implied in this thread, at least not by me.

    As for your statement, that: ‘Frisians where poor in general, so everybody used those branches for handles.’ I think this is an over-generalization, which is unlikely to be supported by facts. Some Friesians were poor and they might have used branches for handles, but others were not.
    Once again I am referring to tradesmen, craftsmen, carpenters, builders, especially in the last two centuries.
    As for the guilds, you might not have dedicated, guild-approved masters in every village, but you would have the wares of those shops in country fares, markets, among the wares of traveling peddlers etc. What I was referring to, is that the lack of a native timber would not have equal the lack of knowledge regarding its uses. I mentioned the journeyman and guild members as a reminder to the means of spread of technology, know-how.

    Also, we are talking here about axes, not wooden shoes. To make functional axe is a little bit more complicated than making wooden shoes (even though the latter is not a simple task either).
    Your notion that the peasants were blacksmiths, framing and furniture carpenters, and all kind of craftsmen rolled into one PLUS farmers is not only naive but also historically inaccurate. You ned specialized tools to make it efficient, and you ned a dedicated time to become proficient with the tools and to make the things with them. You also have to take into account if making something is economically more viable than trading for it.
    So to answer your doubts, ask yourself if the Friesians who owned and used the axes we are talking about
    - had the specialized tools to make them,
    - could afford the time to make them instead of doing something else,
    - had access to trade which could supply those to them,
    - had the means to trade for them, etc.

    After taking into account all these factors we would likely conclude that not every Frisian was so poor and lived in such an isolated place that he could not afford to trade for an axe/hatchet and/or timber for a handle, and that some might have had even the economical motivation to invest in something more than the odd branch from the tree in the garden.

    Also, I did not imply that ash or beech were the best woods for handles.
    I myself prefer hickory over those too.
    The OP asked about traditional European axe handle woods, and also mentioned Friesia. Ash and beech were the most common axe handle woods in most of Europe (save the most northern countries, where likely birch was the most common). That is why I suggested it, not because they were the best.
    The reason they were common was that they were common enough and functionally good enough, not because they were ‘the best'.
     
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2017
  13. littleknife

    littleknife

    Nov 29, 2000
    Birch is notoriously perishable wood outside, exposed to the elements too. That is why you are unlikely to find many surviving birch handles, and that is why oak is the most common wood surviving in museum pieces. But even those pieces were kept mostly indoors.

    You might have had oak locally, but if it was not of sufficient quantity and quality, you would still want to import it.
    Oak was one of the most valuable timbers in Europe: used for both ship building and for large constructions. By post-medieval times in Western Europe it was mostly sourced from the Baltic, Poland, Germany and Central Europe.
    I doubt that Holland (Friesia) were heavily forested areas over the last 500 years. Maybe in the last 100 years you have planted new forests, but before that - much like Britain - you would have heavily depend on timber trade to get enough wood for all kinds of application. Until the 19th century and the age of the mined coal, wood was central in almost every aspect of life: heating, cooking, building, charcoal, tools.
    It made more than sense to trade timber, it was a necessity of life. The notion that the local oak and birch trees would supply all (or even the majority) the wood the Friesian farmers or craftsmen would need is a romantic fantasy.
     
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2017
  14. Moonw

    Moonw

    Nov 19, 2014
    I'm getting a kick out of this thread.

    IMO, it's safe to say that any peasant that had an axe around their home would use a branch in a pinch, and that a professional may have taken more interest in the functionality of the tools that provided their livelihood.
     
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  15. ipt

    ipt

    60
    May 14, 2013
    Here in Bulgaria we are using mostly beech, ash, oak, acacia, and for some of my customers I'm using "дрян". I think that it is harder than american hikory...
    I think it is cornus or dogwood in english...
     
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  16. 300Six

    300Six

    Aug 29, 2013
    We're all becoming 'armchair historians' with these opinions. Axe handle quality had already gone seriously downhill by the time I learned about (and experienced) axemanship in the early 1970s. Only because I took that learning and experience 'to heart' did I begin to hi-grade hardware store stocks on a regular basis in anticipation of making sure to have "good" handles on hand if/when it was ever needed. So here we are 50 years later and it's no wonder that those 1 in a 1000 'beauties' disappear from store shelves well before any ordinary stiff discovers he/she actually needs one. And the stuff I've tucked away (and not used) during all that time can be counted on the fingers of both hands.
     
  17. Kevin Houtzager

    Kevin Houtzager

    908
    Jun 25, 2017
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    Last edited: May 13, 2019
  18. 300Six

    300Six

    Aug 29, 2013
    If the ultimate in a springy yet durable handle is in the offing then seek out Hop Hornbeam or Ironwood. (Ostrya virginiana and/or Carpinus caroliniana in n. America). There are European versions of this incredible stuff to be found if you look hard enough. This wood is tough as nails but is not commercially viable with regard to quality nor availability. But it's been used for tool handles, sleigh runners, plough carriages and zero maintenance ball bearings in grist and sawmill water wheels for quite some time.
     
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  19. garry3

    garry3

    Sep 11, 2012
    I make an occasional tool handle. And it's out of small diameter stuff most of the time. I personally avoid branches. I choose saplings or small trees instead. The branches are full of reaction wood and have a tendency to walk around during manufacture. Just my preference.
     
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  20. littleknife

    littleknife

    Nov 29, 2000
    :D:D:D
    Kevin, first of all no need to call 'bull' other people's opinions, just because they don't match with your own ones.

    What period(s) are you talking about?
    1300s?
    1500s?
    1600s?
    1700s?
    1800s?
    All or any of those, whenever the argument requires it? ;):D

    Thanks for your suggestion to keep it simple, so let me do so accordingly:

    I don't know how many local trees + how much, if any, imported timber you had to have to support 23 Friesian boers per sq. km at the specific time of your choice, but I have a strong suspicion that you don't know that either. :p:D

    As for making up answers, does that print, which doesn't even show those 'defensive walls built in a hurry' with the evidently oak handled halberds, count for a made up answer, or am I just not seeing the obvious? ;)

    Finally, you definitely convinced me, that I should not believe you. :p
     

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