An Axe – Worth its Weight in Gold:
Many people spend more on a good quality bushcraft or survival knife than they do on an axe.
In an environment where an axe is important it is often as valuable as, if not more valuable than, a knife. For example, in the northern, or boreal, forest where trees grow slowly and the wood is dense and knotty, an axe is extremely valuable and your most important tool.
In any woodland where you were working on larger woodcraft projects that require bigger sections of wood, being able to fell and process both live and dead standing trees is something for which you need an axe.
Parts of an Axe Which Require Care
A good axe of a traditional design has several components made of materials which require some maintenance. If you look after your axe, it will give you many years of service.
A good quality traditional-style axe will likely have a wooden handle, or ‘helve’ as it is sometimes known. As with any wood that is kept or used outdoors, it needs to have some protection from the elements, most notably water. When you buy a new axe it comes with a protective finish on the handle. This finish is often made from linseed oil and beeswax.
A good axe will have a head made from high quality steel. The head will be tempered so that the bit of the axe is tough, not easily chipped and able to attain a very sharp yet resilient edge. This quality piece of steel will also need some protection and care to keep it in prime condition.
The third component that we need to give some consideration is the mask. This is what some people might call the sheath but is more appropriately called a mask. A mask on a traditional-style axe typically will be made of leather. As with any leather item, it will need protecting from the environment to keep the leather in good condition.
How to Look After the Axe Head
Keeping your axe in prime working condition does, of course, include keeping it sharp. I’m not, however, going to cover axe sharpening in this article. What we’re concerned with here is how to keep your axe in good condition and protected from the environment.
The axe head of a good quality axe such as those made by Gransfors Bruks is typically made of steel that is not stainless. That is, it will quite easily rust if allowed to remain damp for a period of time. This would obviously have a detrimental effect on both the finish and ultimately the longevity of the axe head. So, we must protect against moisture.
The easiest way to do this is to oil the axe head. Some oils are better for this than others. But in the absence of the ideal, anything is better than nothing. Personally I find a gun oil which is designed to dry once applied is the best option. It remains on the axe for longer. Also, since it dries it doesn’t make the inside of the mask oily. Nor does it transfer on to other items of kit while packed in a rucksack.
First remove the mask then apply a thin layer of oil all over the metal of the axe head. Remove any excess with a cloth. Leave the oil to dry before refitting the mask. If there is some rust already present, apply some oil and use some wire wool to remove the rust and work oil into the area. Wipe the area clean then apply oil to the whole axe head as above.
How to Look After the Axe Handle
The handle of a traditional-style axe will typically be made of wood; these days this will most likely be of good-quality hickory. Hickory is a very tough and resilient wood but will still last much longer with a protective finish.
We want to retain, if not improve, the finish that the axe handle comes with. While we can completely replace the factory finish on a wooden handle and replace it with a higher-quality finish such as traditionally used on gun stocks, this is not necessary for keeping the handle in good condition.
With axes such as those by Gransfors, maintaining the finish of the handle is a case of simply applying a coat of boiled linseed oil from time to time. Please note that it must be boiled linseed oil, not raw linseed oil. Raw linseed oil will not dry; at best it will remain sticky.
Boiled linseed oil can be bought from DIY/home improvement stores quite readily. First make sure the handle is free of dirt then simply apply the boiled linseed oil to the existing finish. To do this take a rag, pour on some of the linseed oil and rub this into the handle. Alternatively use a small paint brush to apply the liquid.
Once you’ve coated the entire handle reasonably liberally, take a rag or some kitchen towel and remove the excess. This should now be a thin layer of linseed oil left remaining on the handle. This can then be left to dry. This simple process provides another very fine layer of finish to the handle and increases its level of protection from the elements. Over time if you keep adding single layers, you will build up a very good and resilient layer of finish on your axe handle.
Warning: Please note that rags or pieces of cloth soaked in linseed oil can spontaneously combust if left scrunched up and should not be left indoors. The potential for serious fire is well-documented. The best solution – where safe to do so – is to burn the rags. The second-best solution is to leave them hanging outside, unfolded to dry before disposing of them.
How to Look After the Axe Mask
If you have a mask that is made of leather it will need to be cared for. You must remember that the mask is designed to protect you and your other equipment from the sharp edge of the axe bit. The mask must retain its original good fit. You do not want the mask to become loose or to fit sloppily. Therefore, you shouldn’t apply any treatment that will soften or allow the leather to stretch beyond its original size and shape.
There are a number of easily available products that can be used to treat your axe mask. Personally I use Nikwax Aqueous Wax. To apply this treatment to the axe mask, first remove the mask from the axe. Then apply a liberal amount of the liquid to the exterior of the leather, not forgetting the welt. Leave the Nikwax to dry, then rub it into the leather with a damp piece of kitchen towel or cloth. This last action creates an even protective finish.
Look After Your Axe and it Will Look After You
If you follow the above simple steps to look after your axe and apply them on a regular basis, your axe will stay in top condition for many years to come.
I hope you find this information useful. Please let me know in the comments. Also, please let me know in the comments if you have any other axe care tips.