Gransfors Bruks Axes:
Tools for the Outdoorsman
Throughout the history of North American woodsmen, it is the axe that has been viewed as the most essential wilderness tool. A reading of the works of the most influential wilderness skills experts quickly reveals the high regard in which they held their beloved axes. One of my favorite wilderness skills writers, Mors Kochanski, devoted an entire chapter of his excellent book Bush Craft to "axecraft." Kochanski introduces this chapter by writing, "The axe is the most important of the basic bush tools. Outside of fire, little else can contribute more to living comfortably in the wilderness than knowing how to properly use a well chosen axe."
This sentiment is echoed by other eminent North American woodsmen. Ellsworth Jaeger, in his classic text Wildwood Wisdom, remarked, "As in pioneer days, the ax today is one of the most important tools the camper has." Bradford Angier wrote in How to Stay Alive in the Woods that a proper axe "will enable one to put up a satisfactory log cabin in a pinch."
The writings of the great American outdoorsmen stress the necessity of a sharp axe as a common reoccurring theme. In 1917, Horace Kephart, in his book Camping and Woodcraft, noted that "Next to a the rifle, a backwoodsman's reliance is on his axe. With these two instruments, and little else, our pioneers attacked the forest wilderness that once covered all eastern America, and won it for civilization."
In the Camping portion of the book, Kephart writes that “[a] woodsman should carry a hatchet . . . The notion that a heavy hunting knife can do the work of a hatchet is a delusion. When it comes to cleaving carcasses, chopping kindling, blazing thick barked trees, driving tent pegs or trap stakes, and keeping up a bivouac fire, the knife never was made that will compare with a good tomahawk."
Perry Frazer, in his 1897 book Canoe Cruising and Camping, wrote that: "The selection of a camp ax should be carefully made. One with a blade 4 inches broad is large enough. The handle should not be longer than 16 inches. It should weigh less than 2 pounds, and be of the best steel . . . . As one may use the ax when in the canoe or when wading, it is well to have it provided with a straight handle, which should be wrapped with cord at the end, to render the grasp firm. In cruising down some streams I have often been compelled to cut a way for the canoe through fallen treetops and drift with the ax, and at such times it would have been unfortunate to have dropped it in the water."
The importance of the axe to the backwoodsman remains paramount, and is still reflected in the writing of highly regarded modern practitioners in the field. Canadian wilderness expert Alan Fry, who lives in a teepee year round in the Yukon, wrote in his Wilderness Survival Handbook that "In bush country there is so much useful material at hand in the form of trees and saplings that to go afield without an axe is simply to deprive oneself of convenient access to an abundant resource."
A recognized leader in the field of canoe camping, Cliff Jacobson in his book Camping's Top Secrets noted that "Outdoor experts value a good sharp axe. They know it is much simpler to produce fire after a week long rain if a splitting tool of some sort is available."
Ray Mears, in his book entitled Bushcraft, writes that “in bushcraft, the axe still lives on, used mainly for cutting and splitting dead wood for the fire and in speeding up the carving of rustic tools . . . With a well set up axe we can make things of practical value and things of beauty quickly, from wood that would otherwise only be burned. You can split firewood that will burn more efficiently or fit inside your stove. You can remove fallen trees, which may impede your travel, and fell dead standing firewood in winter.”
Selecting an axe
Axes are available in a staggering array of patterns and sizes. When choosing and using an axe the most important thing to remember is safety. It is axiomatic that the smaller axes can be very dangerous if not used properly, but as with any tool, it is imperative that all safety precautions be followed. In selecting which size and pattern to buy, the individual must closely examine his intended use for the tool and his own experience and skill level. There are several books, including those by Clyde Ormond, Calvin Rutstrum, Ellsworth Jaeger and others, which contain detailed illustrated instructions on the selection of a proper axe. I highly recommend that you read them if the subject is of interest to you.
One factor that is essential, no matter what style or size axe you select, is that it be properly forged and sharpened. Another of my favorite writers, Calvin Rutstrum, in his book The New Way of the Wilderness, illuminates this point nicely: "The blunt, woodshed variety of ax has no place in the wilderness. Your ax should be of high-quality, tough steel; it should have a straight-grained hickory handle, and the blade should line up with the center of the handle. The blade must be thin enough for easy chopping. It should be kept very sharp, and properly sheathed when not in use." Kephart made the same observations. “The common hatchets of the hardware stores are unfit for woodsman’s use. They have a broad blades with beveled edge, and they are generally made of poor brittle stuff.” Mors Kochanski, again in Bushcraft, also emphasizes the importance of having a properly sharpened axe, writing, "All woodworking tools, including axes, should be sharp enough to shave with for effortless, efficient and enjoyable work."
The lively and colorful outdoors writer George Sears, under the pen name Nessmuk, detailed the trouble he went through in getting his ideal hatchet, and also of its importance in the wilderness in his book Woodcraft and Camping: "And here let me digress for a little chat on the indispensable little hatchet; for it is the most difficult piece of camp kit to obtain in perfection of which I have any knowledge. Before I was a dozen years old I came to realize that a light hatchet was a sine qua non in woodcraft, and I also found it the most difficult thing to get."
Thankfully, today the perfect line of outdoorsman’s axes is not difficult to find. They are forged in the shop of Gransfors Bruks AB. My experience mirrors that of Ray Mears when he writes: For wilderness use you will need an axe that is made with the passion of perfectionists: Gransfors of Sweden. Their axes are to be found deep in the bush wherever an axe is essential.”
Gransfors Bruk has been hand-forging axes of the highest quality in Sweden for over one hundred years. At first glance the Gransfors axes look rough, they are not smoothly finished, or painted like the commonly seen hardware lines of axes and there are initials stamped deeply in the head. This is an intentional decision by Gransfors and is in line with their corporate ethos: "At Gränsfors Bruks the forging craft is allowed to take its time. The smiths do not work by the piece. They take care and do the right forging from the beginning. There is no need to stone or grind or smooth or paint the axes in order to hide or eliminate imperfections in the forging."
"A smith at Gränsfors Bruks has nothing to hide and he is proud of his professional standards. When he is satisfied with his work and has accepted his axe, he marks the head with his initials beside the company’s crown label."
The axes from Gransfors come from the factory with a hair popping edge. The phrase "an edge as thick as an axe" certainly has no bearing here. The edge profile of Gransfors axes is exceptionally thin for very high performance. It is comparable to the high performance edge found on the hand forged knives of master bladesmiths of the ABS.
Here is how Gransfors describes the birth and sharpening of an axe: "The room next to the forge is the sharpening room. Here the right edge bevel is established by grinding (beveling) and, after the tempering and annealing operation, the beveled edge is ground with a finer stone, honed and polished. After the forging and the first step of sharpening the edge, the lower part of the axe head, the blade, is tempered by warming it to 820°C followed by a quick cooling in cold running water. Then the axe head is annealed: kept for 60 minutes in an oven that is 195°C. This relieves the stress in the steel, built up by the forging and tempering processes and gives the bit the desired hardness and toughness. The hardness of the bit is measured, 57 Rockwell C, and every single head is tested by a smith who, with a big hammer, strikes on the edge’s corners. If the blade does not break the head is good."
"After the final sharpening and the “stropping” of the edge (stropped on a rotating buffing wheel) it is time to put a handle on the axe head. With the help of a hydraulic press the handle is squeezed into the axe head together with a wooden wedge. The right angle in relation to the axe head, the alignment and the hang, are tested. The last step is to drive a three legged steel wedge into the wooden wedge. Finally the axe is carefully checked, the axe head is rubbed with a water repellant and rust preventive oil and the axe is given a leather sheath. Not to be forgotten, The Axe Book is tied to the axe. "
Gransfors makes axes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, some of which are highly specialized tools, such as the Swedish Carving axe with a curved head made for hewing bowls out of blocks of wood. Other axes are more traditional in design such as the American felling axe, which approximates a single bit Hudson Bay style felling axe, popular among professional loggers of yesteryear.
I have had the good fortune of owning several axes from Gransfors, and have been very impressed.
My friend Dr. Terry Trier introduced me to the Mini. He pulled the little hatchet out of a phoenix emblazed paratroopers bag at a knife show a few years ago. At first I thought it was a toy, it looked so cute. But after feeling the razor sharp edge, and hearing how much a knowledgeable outdoorsman like Terry liked the Mini, I knew it had to be a serious tool for the outdoorsman.
At first blush the Mini-Hatchet seems more like a toy than a serious working tool. Don't let its small size fool you; the Mini is capable of tackling some large chores. It is a hair over 10 inches long and only weighs 11 ounces. The face is 2 1/2 inches and the poll has a nice beard that allows you to choke up on the handle, placing your fingers right under the edge. This allows for a high degree of control during fine cutting tasks. The beauty of the design is that it is small enough to carry with you any time you are in the outdoors, yet packs sufficient power to accomplish a wide range of outdoors tasks.
Noting how versatile the GB Mini is, Cliff Jacobson wrote, “It's small, light and perfectly balanced. It can sharpen a pencil, slice a tomato paper thin, and shave the print right off this page. It will frizz sticks for tinder, cut fine kindling and split small logs. It will fillet a fish, skin a moose, tenderize a steak, and turn your pancakes, spread jam and peanut butter, pound tent stakes and chop vegetables. It will ride as lightly on your hip as the average hunting knife.”
Basically, the GB Mini will handle virtually all commonly encountered camp tasks that require an edged tool. It can easily take the place of a knife, and despites its diminutive size packs more chopping power than any knife of the same size and weight. When I first held the GB Mini, my first impression was that it was a tool my grandfather would be proud to own. It has a certain heft and balance that belies its light weight. The head is forged very thin, and the edge is hair popping sharp. The cutting edge is very thin, thinner than most modern day tactical knives.
Over the past year I have used the Mini in a variety of situations. For my uses it works much better than a mid-size knife does. The forward balance allows it to out chop knives of the same weight and size by a wide margin, yet the fine edge, allows it to excel at fine tasks. I have used it in the kitchen to chop a variety of foods, from garlic and tomatoes to all manners of meat; the Mini went through all with equal ease.
The Mini easily takes down sapling and small trees, suitable for use in emergency shelter construction, and is maneuverable in tight areas, where swinging a larger axe would be problematic. Working directly with a knife of similar size and weight, the Becker Knife and Tool Campanion, I found the GB Mini to be far superior in every aspect. The small axe out chops the heavy belt knife by a wide margin, yet the Mini is also much better for fine tasks because of its excellent balance and keen edge.
Carving a spoon with only the Mini and burning out the bowl using a coal from the fire was an easy tasks. The keen, convex edge slides though wood, and allows for excellent control. Varying the depth of cuts easy, and felt very natural.
While I find the Wildlife Hatchet to be a fine tool it is a compromise. IN exchange for giving up the ease of carry and high degree of control presented by the
Mini, you receive some additional chopping power. How much chopping power? Well, I have not used the Wildlife hatchet a tremendous amount, but my estimate is that it outclasses the
Mini in chopping by about good margin, and even outclasses a 10 inch bowie knife by a good bit.
Combined with a folding saw, the hatchet will certainly serve an outdoorsman well. However, if I am going to give up the high degree of control offered by the
Mini, and carry a little more weight, what I really want is to step up the Small forest axe, which offers a much more chopping power with just a little more sacrifice in weight.