Living as I do in the one-time axe-making capital of the world (Maine, between 1860 and 1960, had 300 axe-making factories. One small town alone had 20 of them.) I tend to be reverential toward mankind’s oldest and most useful tool. Therefore, it’s with a certain amount of joy that I can report the availability of a first-rate line of axes and hatchets that was shyly introduced to the U.S. last year by a Swedish company called Hults Bruk.
“Bruk” is Swedish for factory, and the Hults factory has been turning out axes since 1697, which has given them quite a bit of practice. Today, there are 20 highly skilled Swedes working there, and they make some 100,000 axes each year.
The history of the axe in Sweden goes back to the Vikings, who hacked each other as well as timber. It was nearly impossible to make a good, strong sword back then, and most Viking swords were pretty lousy, but it was comparatively simple to make an axe that wouldn’t fail. Eventually, whacking people with axes declined in popularity, but there were always farms, and the timber industry, to support the axe biz. Even the invention of the chain saw did not kill it off completely.
Americans were introduced to Swedish axes by Gransfors Bruks, which came to the U.S. for the first time in, I believe, the late 1990s. I got one, and wrote that it bore as much resemblance to the average hardware-store axe as a Porsche did to a school bus. It was an object of great beauty, fine balance, and sharp as a razor. It was also a throwback to what axes used to be in the U.S. An axe is simple, yet it’s also a tool which requires considerable skill and subtlety in its making if it is to be any good.
Hults Bruk axes are made along the same lines. The heads are forged by two-man teams. The edges are mirror-polished (and will shave the hair off your arm) while the rest of the head is left pretty much as it comes from the forge. The handles are American hickory, which is tougher than any other wood, and fastened to the head with both wood- and circular-steel wedges. If, once a year, you put a couple of drops of raw linseed oil on the hickory where it passes through the eye, your axe head will stay tight forever.
The Hults Bruk I got to chop with is the Almike hatchet, which sells for $149, has a 1-pound head, a 16-inch handle, weighs 1 ¾ pounds overall, and comes with a very good leather sheath. HB says that it can be worn on the belt, but I think it’s on the heavy side for that. Stick it in your pack. It cuts with amazing speed. You give something a casual whack and it falls in two pieces, while you are left wondering if you really chopped it that hard. The Almike is ideal for disjointing large animals, chopping wood of all sizes, pounding tent pegs (Do NOT pound anything harder than a tent peg with this or any other axe, and do not pound on the poll with anything. Aside from the edge, the heads are deliberately tempered soft, and you can ruin your axe this way.)
You can, if you’re skillful enough, whittle with it or do a lot of the work that you normally do with a knife. This is because the edge is both small and sharp. I know of advanced woodsmen who can carve furniture with an axe or a hatchet alone.
It is, in short, a versatile and invaluable tool. You must take care of it, and if you don’t know how to sharpen it properly, find someone who can. Treat it with reverence.
And a couple of side notes: There are still some fine old axes around up heah, but they are getting damned hard to find. Brant and Cochran, in Portland, is a company that tracks them down, removes the handles to see if the heads are sound, and then polishes, resharpens, and re-handles them. Prices are quite reasonable. B&C is at the moment relocating itself in Portland, and when they do I will check it out and let you know what I find.
If you’re interested in axes, the pre-eminent book on the subject is The Ax Book—The Lore and Science of the Woodcutter, by Dudley Cook. It’s a 134-page softcover, and there’s more in here on axes and their proper use than you ever dreamed of. Published in 1999 by Allen C. Hood and Company, it’s available, quite reasonably, from the usual online sources.