Oak Axe Handle: Success and Failure

So many things in life seem to possess opposite qualities, especially when it comes to hand-crafted tools.

Everything is balance. Yin and Yang, success and failure, good and bad. So many ideas, thoughts, and actions contain a little bit of both. There are few things in life that are “all white” or “all black,” and most everything comes in some shade of gray.

This applies to our behavior as well as our creations. Take welfare programs for example. In my country (perhaps it’s different in others), the wage for a great number of people isn’t enough to get by on. We have a minimum-wage instated to keep this from happening, but while I’ve watched the price of nearly everything triple over the last twenty years, the typical minimum wage earner today makes maybe a sliver more than the earnings from that same time-frame. We’re also surrounded with more stuff [we don’t really need] that has become a necessity in modern times. A phone isn’t a cool accessory anymore. In many ways, including getting a job, it’s a requirement (most job apps are online nowadays and many don’t have a computer). Food Stamps and other welfare programs fill in these gaps, but in doing so provide a dangerous entry into a new form of dependency. In many ways is isn’t all that different from indentured servitude from the feudal system. It starts off as a warm place to sleep for someone in need, and before long they are trapped by the rules and considerations that go along with the help. The system is also abused so often that it has brought strong opposition from some. I take no stance on the matter, politically, this is just an example of a recurring theme in our lives:

Not all good, not all bad, just is.

And so it happens that I accomplished something I thought terrific today. I fashioned out my new axe handle in a handful of hours, with plenty of time left in the day. I did it between other chores, so I was getting needed stuff done as well. And of course the kitties got to play outside while I was shaping on the porch, so I could keep an eye on them.

I was more than delighted with the progress. Usually I do these things for fifteen minutes here or there over the course of a few weeks (like I’m doing with the machete). I had to stop and put it in perspective. In effectively an afternoon’s time, I can take a split of wood and shape it into an axe handle, carve a wedge, and get it all together and fitted up. Amazing what can be accomplished when you sit down and put your mind to it.

As stated in a previous post, this was an axe handle made from red oak, which is generally regarded as an inferior timber for tool handles. I added insult to injury by snapping a wedge out of walnut from my burn pile. One amazing thing about walnut, after it’s sanded and oiled, it looks absolutely beautiful, like shiny ebony.

That sliver in the middle is the walnut wedge.

The picture really doesn’t do it justice, and for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, there’s now an aluminum cross wedge in the middle of the hafted head.

So, as much as I wanted to wait for a good time, I can’t resist taking a new tool out and putting it through the paces. I chopped up a couple of limbs, bucked an oak log, felled a small cedar sapling, and split a few bits of firewood, all this with the wedge poking out of the top.

After I cut-off the protruding pieces to get the result in the above picture, it was time to do some real work. Now, through this whole process, I hit several glances, and landed a few over-strikes. I was swinging light, but still, over-strikes are the biggest cause of dead handles for me, and it held up well to that point. Then I went about felling and bucking up this monster:

This is the real part of my axe-work. I have a bunch of these cedar trees reclaiming an old field, and I want the field, so they need to get out of the way and make room for native prairie, pasture, and wild herbs, not to mention a bunch of rabbit food (poor guys have limited foraging spots and stay very near to the house).

The head began to back off, but not much. I kept swinging, and it held all the way to the end. At some point I tried to haft it back on by slamming the butt of the axe against the ground. The handle cracked along a medullary ray. I’m starting to learn something about this species of oak that I didn’t know before, as the second split came from a particularly hard blow that over-struck the target, banging the handle against a protruding bit of limb on the knobby log in the picture. That split was also across the tree rings, rather than along them.

Anyway, rough end to an otherwise beautiful day, but I put it all in perspective. Nothing in life is all good all the time. The handle itself performs like a work of art. It feels lighter in my hand than any axe I’ve tested, it has a wonderful flex in both directions, and it’s solid as an oak. I feel that the neglect delivered to it would have cracked a split of hickory just the same (though the split would be along a normal grain line).

And the good news: Because of where the splits are and the size of them, the handle can be repaired with simple wood glue. It’s perfectly usable, even cracked. The spot lower down the handle showed me that a sharp curvature might not work so well with this species of wood, and I’ll have to take care if I ever need to re-haft it. I drove the head back down from the top and plugged it with a metal wedge just to ensure it stays in the right spot, even though I feel no danger of it actually flying off. It simply has a little wiggle room where it’s seated, and hopefully the metal wedge will fix that. The crack on the neck is a concern, but also a minor one for the moment. The only way to damage it further is by continuing to over-strike.

Which brings me to the crux of my problem. I absolutely must stop over-strikes if I’m to have any hope of keeping an axe handle around long enough to get some use out of it. I need to train on that, focus on it with every swing, test my distance more often, etc. Whatever it is, I need to stop doing it. I have a feeling that I’m not the only person out there that busts up their axes in this fashion (which is why modern axe-handles are annoying oversized).

Oh yeah, and that oil on there? Sunflower oil. It’s worked really well on my other tool handles (for me anyway) and I see no reason to stop using it. Can’t wait to get my oil press and kick the sunflowers into full production next year. That stuff is just great for everything!

I should also add that after doing the final sanding on the handle (80 grit was all I used), I noticed several checks and cracks from the drying process. Guess where these were. Medullary rays. I’m actually considering making my next oak handle by orienting the grain 90 degrees out from how it’s done on hickory handles, as those rays seem to be the weak point instead of the tree rings.

In case you are wondering, a medullary ray is a little line that runs from the central core of a log straight to the bark. They are lighter than tree rings and a little more tricky to see. Also, I don’t think all tree species have them. I’m staring at a piece of walnut right now and I don’t see any in the cross section. They are particularly vibrant on dried pieces of red oak, and show up as light streaks that run from the center out. Just take another look at the axe-head picture above. The dark, wavy lines are tree rings, and the brighter yellow lines are medullary rays. They’re very prominent on this species, which could be part of the reasoning behind varying opinions about oak in general.

That could be a bad thing, or a great thing. If the rings are strong enough here, then turning a piece of wood on its side could make up for the supposed deficiencies with oak. I plan on doing some torture tests to find out. I have a lot of oak up here, including several downed trees, and its use as a building material for me comes from its abundance. I can go out and grab oak wood without walking far from the front porch. Other species I have immediate access to are pine and cedar (ERC), which are far inferior to oak in most respects, from an engineering standpoint. They have their charms too.

In trying to get what I need from what I have available, it pays to study these natural wonders and determine for myself (rather than reading from the “common collective knowledge of the internet”) what species I can use for which purposes.

Today was such an experiment, and has given me a lot to think about. Plus, for the moment, I have a very pretty and still-functional new axe handle. Here’s a picture of the other side. Somehow I captured some very interesting tree rings in the sample that add deep tones near the light ones. Maybe it was an exceptionally hot and dry year when that ring formed or something. Maybe I’ll read some more about tree rings later, too.


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