After watching someone swing an axe a few times I can tell if they’re an expert or a beginner. My friend Don Merchant is as good with an axe as anyone I’ve ever seen. He grew up on a rural farm and has been using an axe since he was seven. He wields it like a surgeon. And he doesn’t like the Gransfors Scandinavian forest axe. The problem is that this axe is held in high regard by many of the gurus, and now their followers, and is popularly known as the best axe for wilderness use. Granted, it’s the best steel available in any new axe, but it’s grind is concave so it can wedge into a cut.
It can be a useful tool, especially on the trapline or for use when crafting. I’ve got one and I like using it. I’ve also got two other axes of similar size and weight, an old Snow and Neally and an old Norlund, that I like better. They’re ground flatter and tend not to wedge as much. But for a wilderness trip, to lay up a bunch of firewood, or to open a long-forgotten portage trail, I go with a full-sized axe that doesn’t have a concave grind. Don agrees. As he puts it, “There’s nothing you can do with the small (Gransfors) axe that you can’t do with a full-sized axe, but the reverse isn’t true.”
Don had a young guy in his shop a while back who pridefully mentioned how he had just gotten a Granfors Scandinavian forest axe and that it was the best axe there was. When Don expressed his negative opinion of the axe the guy was speechless. Don had shaken his foundation and questioned the commonly held belief passed along by many gurus that don’t know enough about axes, or haven’t used them enough to spot the problem.
Before you send me an angry email defending the Gransfors axe, test it. Fell, limb, section and split two trees that are more than a foot in diameter at the trunk, one with the Scandinavian forest axe and the other with a full-sized axe. As there aren’t any good new full-sized axes I’ve seen, you’ll have to get one from a used tool, antique, or junk store. Or check out Don’s inventory of them. I’ve done this type of work with both axes, and it takes significantly longer, and uses more energy, to do it with the smaller, concave-ground Gransfors axe. If you’re just chopping small saplings and limbing small pieces of firewood the Gransfors axe performs admirably. But who can say for sure what they’ll need their axe to do over the course of a long trip?
It’s good to have your foundations shaken. It makes you examine them critically, and ultimately learn whether they’re valid or not. Hopefully that young guy learned that just because a bunch of people agree on something, it doesn’t necessarily make it true. And it’s important to remember it’s not the axe, it’s the axe user that makes it work. You can buy whatever axe you like, but you can’t buy skill and competency with it – that must be earned, over time.
I’ll close with two favorite quotations about axes, both from Edward Breck’s book “The Way Of The Woods”:
“The longer a man lives in the wilderness the more he loves and depends on his axe, and he will usually lug one with him even for a single night, looking upon all hatchets as playthings.”
“There is nothing in the woods that so fills the amateur with despairing admiration and envy as the manner in which an old woodsman uses his axe.”