The Changing Shapes of the Axe
Tools are Alive
In A Museum of Early American Tools, a timeless sketch book homage to the integrity and excellence of handmade tools, historian Eric Sloane writes: "Like the nails on a beast's paws, the old tools were so much an extension of a man's hand or an added appendage to his arm, that the resulting workmanship seemed to flow directly from the body of the maker and to carry something of himself into the work."
Little wonder, then, that there is an ancient tradition of naming the parts of a tool in an anthropomorphic manner. Often the working blade of a tool is called its head, like the head of an axe or an adze. Perhaps this is because the head of the tool is an extension of the user's mind, creating in wood the idea that the carpenter has in his mind. The parts of an axe head are the eye, lug, cheek(s), poll (butt), blade (or bit), cutting edge, bevel (or bezel), and shoulder.
The handle (also known as the haft or helve) of the axe, like the carpenter, has a neck, shoulders, back, heel, foot, and toe, propelling the tool into the physical act of shaping a piece of material. Learning such terminology for describing woodworking tools is one way to understand their development.
Most axe heads and handles have all these components; it is the shape and size that change. Both the felling axe and the broad axe have undergone very distinct changes over the course of their history, though it seems that changes in form to the felling axe are more definitively American than the changes to the broad axe.
Origins and Evolutions
Every utilitarian device goes through a cyclical pattern of invention, adaptation, and decoration as its developers try to perfect it. This can take place rapidly, as in the case of modern computers, which seem to advance every day. In the case of woodworking tools, the pace is a little slower. Development may come in sudden spurts followed by centuries without change. Some tools even come to a complete stop and are discarded.
Hand tools like the axe and the adze have thousands of years of history. Remnants and pictorial references have been found in Egyptian tombs and in Stone-Age Denmark.
Axes of the Middle Ages in Europe began to show sophistication in handling specialized tasks. Different axes developed distinct head and handle shapes for different tasks, such as one for felling trees, one for hewing logs flat (side axe or broad axe), and a more general axe for coopers, shipbuilders, and other professions.
Immigrants from many ethnic backgrounds brought tools to North America and established their building traditions in discrete areas along the Atlantic coast. From these locations different groups branched out in various directions with different levels of success.
The French left their mark in Canada, the Spanish in Florida, the Dutch in New York, the English in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, and the Swedes in the Delaware Valley. Despite being separated from European culture these settlers didn't stop in the pursuit of maximizing efficiency, and increasing the beauty of their tools.
Interestingly, the tools these groups used to make their structures were remarkably similar, but the buildings were constructed in ways unique to a particular ethnic group. Obviously the shape of the building isn't necessarily a result of the type of tool.
The terminology used to describe the different parts of an axe, whether from human or animal anatomy, show the connection that medieval European and colonial American carpenters had with their tools. It was not uncommon for the tool itself to be named, sometimes even with an inscription on the head or handle.
This relationship between a carpenter and his tools was so strong, in fact, that tools were often in a family for generations, and patterns for handles were recognized by neighbors. Sloane wrote that the American felling axe handles were "so subtly curved and proportioned that they were as distinctive as a man's signature, and it was considered counterfeit for another family to copy it."
Gregory Thomson is a graduate of the Department of Architecture and a graduate student in the Historic Preservation program at the University of Oregon. He is also an experienced carpenter and cabinet maker.
Book Review: Eric Sloane has written and illustrated a series of beautiful, inspiring, and important books on early American tools, buildings, values, lifestyle, and landscape, including A Reverence for Wood, A Museum of Early American Tools, and Our Vanishing Landscape. Any dedicated hand craftsperson should own at least one of his books, and will return to them again and again. Several other great Sloane books are sadly out of print, but should available at your local library, or through a book search service. — ArchitectureWeek
The medieval felling axe is heavy, comparatively long, and narrow. The broad or "bearded" axe (3a, 3b), was used with a long handle and two hands or, as a side axe, with a short handle and one hand.
Image: William Louis Goodman, The History of Woodworking Tools
Ends of three different handles, showing aesthetic and practical embellishments. The curve of the rest of the handle is revealed where the illustration fades.
Image: Eric Sloane, A Museum of Early American Tools
Click on thumbnail images
to view full-size pictures.