Gransfors Bruks Axes:

Tools for the Outdoorsman

Chad Engelhardt


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 Bruks

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.

The Mini

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.

Gransfors offers a larger hatchet called the Wildlife hatchet. The GB Axe book describes it as A small, light axe that can be easily carried, masked with its leather sheath, inside your pack or on your belt. Even with a small axe you can manage much: cut branches in the back-yard or chop and split sticks for a camp fire. This little hatchet awakes in many of us memories and dreams of exciting camps and adventures. The hatchet has a 3" face and a 14" hickory handle and the head weight. “


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.

Small Forest Axe

The SFA has a 1 1/2 pound head with a 3 1/4" face mounted on a 19 inch hickory handle. If I could only own one axe, this would be it. In fact, the SFA offers such high levels of performance over such a broad range of tasks, that if I were limited to one edged tool for a north woods excursion in colder weather, this would be the one tool I'd take.

My fondness for the SFA is an echo of Cliff Jacobson and Ray Mears. I find this to be very good company indeed. In Expedition Canoeing, Cliff Jacobson writes, “You need some sort of wood-splitting and hammering tool on a canoe trip. I prefer a quality hand axe. For years I relied on the all-steel Estwing hatchet . . . Then in the 1998 my friend, Dick Persons, who lives in a log cabin in the Yukon, gave me a Gransfors Small Forest Axe, which is far superior to any ax I've ever used. It has a 19-inch hickory handle and a 1.5 pound head. Its hand-forged, razor-sharp [really!] blade is hardened to R57C, which is harder than conventional axes and as hard as most good knives. An excellent sheath is provided.”

Further, Jacobson writes “The Gransfors hatchet is also an impressive tool, and frankly, it's all you need to maintain a campfire. But the Small Forest Axe, which will fit in a large portage pack, is more efficient. Gransfors axes are the best on the planet: Try one and you'll agree. Prices are very reasonable-you won't have to sell the farm. I might add that Gransfors makes a truly exemplary splitting ax [it's better than any maul] that's perfect for splitting stove wood a home.”  Ray Mears notes that the Small Forest axe is “the number one choice for bushcraft . . . it can be used efficiently with one hand or pressed to bigger jobs with two.”

To show the versatility of the design I have used it in the kitchen, as the sole cutting edge to prepare several dinners. By choking up on the handle, it is easy to use the SFA for fine work. Cutting up a variety of vegetables with the SFA really shows the advantage that a very keen edge offers.

The SFA offers a very high level of chopping power in a small package. It easily outchops a large knife, and really illustrates Kephart’s statement that “The notion that a heavy hunting knife can do the work of a hatchet is a delusion.” With a small axe you can use a two handed swing. You are using much larger muscle groups and can really get power, and increased stamina from the axe. In comparison, the large knife truly pales. The large knife is also more prone to deflection, does not have the advantage of leverage that the axe does, and on larger wood the cutting force is spread over a much larger area causing a marked decrease in penetration. The small axe allows you to chop with ease that which would be a major chore with a large knife.

Keeping the edge sharp on the GB axes is very easy as well. Just a few edge trailing strokes (AKA stropping) on a leather belt charged with metal polish kept the edge hair popping sharp. After using it to clear out some smaller trees (under 3") along a creek bank, the edge picked up some very fine chips. By small I mean that they could not be seen with a naked eye, and were barely visible under an 8X loupe. I discovered them by running my fingernail across the edge, and they could barely be felt. The bark of the trees was coated with dried silt, and was likely the cause of the very minor damage.

I used some 600 grit #m wet/dry Sic sandpaper glued to a cardboard backing, to repair the damage. I used edge trailing strokes, keeping the head close the paper. The cardboard deforms along the convex forged bevel and conforms to the original edge profile. After 25 alternating stroked per side I switched to 800 grit, then 1000 grit, finally finishing on the charged leather belt. All this took about 7 minutes at a leisurely pace. The finished result was an edge that was scalpel sharp, sharper than any production knife I have encountered. This edge easily push shaved hair above the skin, and filleted copy paper, as well as easily push cut thin strips against the grain.

Here the SFA bit profile shown next to the Mini:

And compared to a Greco Green River:

My favorite axe, however, is the Scandinavian Forest Axe.

Here is how the GB Axe Book describes the Scandi: "A professional axe for those who want to limb a felled tree in a traditional way. Forged to a thin, curved bit and sharpened to make it suitable for cutting branches in fresh, resinous wood, spruce or pine. The long handle gives extra strength and power to the cut. The axe has a 31/2" face and a 25" hickory handle and the head weighs 2 lb. It comes with a grain-leather sheath."

Ray Mears mentions the Scandinavian Forest Axe in his Book Bushcraft. He writes “ I reserve this axe for use almost exclusively in boreal forest in winter where the demands of limbing (removing) snow covered branches, and chopping into the tight grain of slow growing timber present tough work. This is a beautiful axe, to use with a pleasing weight and swing.

The Scandi axe is a true axe. It offers a tremendous amount of power and with its 25 inch handle, a fair reach. While it is a tad large to use one handed for carving tasks, it makes short work of larger jobs.
My axe supplier, Daren Cutsforth of took extra care in selecting this axe for me. It has excellent vertical grain, the head is aligned perfectly on center with the handle, the balance is perfect.

I find it funny that GB labels the Scandi as a limbing axe, since it has the thin bit of a felling axe. Limbing, especially small, dry limbs is very hard on an edge, and requires far more robustness than a felling profile.  The thin, super keen profile of the Scandi looks to be to be optimal for felling small trees (under 8”). In fact, the Scandi axe has a high performance profile that will make even thin bladed, performance designed knives jealous.

When I speak of performance, I refer to the ability to cut and chop though normal materials, like wood, with a high degree of efficiency, i.e., using the tool as it was meant to be used. It seems there is a trend in the knife community to equate extreme performance with extreme durability. This leads to people chopping blocks of concrete, doing pull ups on knife handles, stabbing through steel refrigerator doors, prying open truck doors and other questionable acts. This kind of behavior, defining extreme performance as the ability to do non-edged tool functions, is at best ridiculous and absurd, and at worst extremely dangerous to the person doing these things as well as bystanders.

In any event, I have limbed out many green branches with the Scandi and it performed flawlessly. This is as much a function of the excellent balance and accuracy of the axe as it is the power it has. I have split rounds up to about 6 inches and that is as large as I have ever needed for camp use. The Scandi axe can handle any stick that you are going to fell, buck, or split for outdoors use. It will easily bring down poles for a shelter or even a small cabin. For trips where the extra weight is not such a detriment, the Scandinavian Forest Axe would be a top choice.

A more specialized tool is the Swedish Carving axe. This axe has a wide, curved 4 1/3" face and a 14" hickory handle and the head weighs 2 lb. This is a very heavy head for such a short handle. The handle is also much more substantial than that that found on other GB axes. It is very hand filling and is rugged to provide exceptional grip. Here is how The GB axe book describes it as: "A chop axe for hewing bowls and other wooden objects, artistic wood carving and architectural work. The characteristic curved shape of the cutting edge, carried well above the head’s eye, the position of the edge in proportion to the handle, the rather thick bit and the big angle of the wide beveled face makes the axe a good carving tool. You "cut on the beveled face" with curved movements. This new axe pattern, based on old Swedish carving techniques, is developed by Wille Sundqvist, master craftsman and author of Swedish Carving Techniques in cooperation with craftsman adviser Onni Linnanheimo."

As can be seen in the pictures, the bit profile of the Carving axe is fairly thick. The edge bevel is more flat than convex, it is rather like a large more knife edge. Laying the wide edge flat on wood allows it to be peeled off the timber in long strips, especially if you articulate your wrist to follow the curve of the blade during the push cut.

Though traditional used and designed to carve large bowls, I have found it fun to use for other carving projects as well, walking sticks for example. I have not attempted to carve a bowl in the traditional manner yet, honestly because I lack the skill at this point. In the future, as my skill level increases, it is something I would like to try.

The Gransfors Bruk line of axes offers a substantial value. They offer a hand forged head, using high grade materials and a high performance geometry. These are cutting and chopping tool that the classic north woodsmen would have loved, and are coveted by the outdoorsmen of today.

I purchase my Gransfors Bruk axes exclusively through custom knifemaker Darren Cutsforth of Cutsforth Knives. He provides excellent prices and top notch service. He can be reached through his website at

Author's note
Jim Aston has a very comprehensive website dealing with axes and other outdoor tools. The web address is, his articles are also mirrored on Jim has an incredible knowledge of logging tools, and he is a person I turn to for advise on the subject.

Special thanks to Glen Lewis for his excellent photography and his technical advice. You can easily tell which of the above pictures are his; they are the ones that are excellent.