which is the best axe for carving, bushcraft, general use?

I get asked which is the best axe for carving a lot so thought it would be good to make a blog post which I can refer folk back to.

In the world of Bushcraft most folk go for the Gransfors Bruks small forest axe, it is recommended by Ray Mears which no doubt helps it’s popularity, it is like Rays bushcraft knife, a bit of a “jack of all trades, master of none” compromise and I personally think there are better options.

Axes always tended to be designed for use two handed and have long (around 30-33″) handles or one handed use and have short (around 14-16″) handles. One handed axes are often called hatchets whilst the longer handled axes of various designs were for felling, limbing and splitting. The Small forest axe is sort of between these at 19″ so you can just about use it two handed though it never feels right or you can use it one handed but the long handle stops it pivoting nicely when held close to the head and used for the sort of controlled carving that I do a lot of.

If I were to only have one axe (a terrible thought) it would be a Gransfors Bruks Swedish carving axe. This axe was designed by Wille Sundqvist the Swedish mastercraftsman who first inspired me in my work and it is specifically designed for one handed carving. It will do everything though. It will fell a tree at a pinch and split it into firewood but if you do a lot of that I would strongly recommend an axe with a 30-33″ handle. This one excels at carving objects with curved surfaces like spoons but is also very good at hewing flat surfaces to make beams, given time and a woodland it would be possible to build a house and it’s contents with this axe.

It has 3 drawbacks, first it is expensive at around £80, second it needs someone with reasonable forearm strength to use it properly and they don’t make a lighter version and third whilst Wille designed it to have a slightly longer bevel on the left side to help control carving and they used to come that way it now comes either completely flat on the left like a side axe or with an even bevel. Out of the two I would favour the even beveled one as the flat sided one tends to dig in a little and be more difficult to carve concave areas. (update 17/5/11, I have been talking with Joakim Nordkvist
Managing Director at Gransfors and it looks like we may get the grind returned to the original, watch this space)

Another axe from the Gransfors stable that I rate highly is the wildlife hatchet, these are quite good value at around £50 the handle is 14″ same as the carving axe but the head is around half the weight at about 1lb. Anyone can use this axe and it is the only axe I would consider carrying in a backpack. Again it would be possible to fell and limb a tree with this axe though it is perfect for light carving work, such as spoons or tent pegs. When choosing an axe I suggest you use the heaviest axe you can carve with for 20 minutes or so without getting at all tired. If you can manage a heavier axe the weight will do the work and you don’t have to swing as much but a lighter axe moves more quickly and lots of small cuts remove wood just as a few large ones do.

This is sounding a little like an advert for Gransfors Bruks. I do like their axes and the beauty of them is they come sharp and ready to use and with a sheath to keep them sharp. There are many much cheaper axes that work very well but I have yet to find one that is cheap and comes well sharpened for carving. One of my favourite cheap axes was sold for a while by Argos and reduced for a while to less than £5. I imagine most of these cheap axes are made in China but all that I have tried have been good steel and well tempered, they have all however come very blunt, not just needing a sharpen but some major grinding work to get them working properly so I tend not to recommend them unless you have a power grinder and know how to reprofile one. Searching the web for the best deals today this Bahco axe looks about perfect, an 800gm head on a 14″ handle.

Update 17/5/11 I bought a Bahco axe and it was OK but also needed significant work with a file to get the bevels set and a good cutting edge, it is a good head weight and shape for carving but needs some work.

Another axe which looks good value, I have heard good reviews of but have not picked one up yet is the husqvarna hatchet These retail just over £20 but come with sheath and sharp. I have not had one yet to know whether the bevels are good for carving as they come but it sounds a good option.

Update 10/2/13 I have the Husqvarna now and it is a useful general purpose axe but not great for carving. It came with a rough convex edge so not as blunt as the Bahco but still would need file work to shape the bevels properly before sharpening. It looks quite nice and the handle is much nicer than the Bahco but it is pretty heavy at 780g compared to 660g for the Gransfors carving axe which many find too heavy.

Another nice option is to look round your local car boot fair and buy an old axe. All our grandparents generation had hand hatchets for splitting kindling, at boot fairs they tend to have loose handles and be completely blunt so need a new handle and a regrind but it is a joyful job to bring one of these old axes back to life. Here are a few typical ones. And blog posts on making and fitting a new handle here

This is the sort of carving I tend to do with axes, the axe does matter but correct technique is much more important. Video currently without sound but still shows the techniques.

You may also like to read:

22 Responses to which is the best axe for carving, bushcraft, general use?

  1. Le Loup July 25, 2010 at 11:00 pm #

    A great post. My Father told me there was a right tool for each job, and I have followed that all my life, and have difficulty understanding the modern views on so called bushcraft knives. You to date are the only one other than myself to express this belief.Thank you for sharing.Regards, Le Loup.

  2. Robin Wood July 26, 2010 at 7:37 am #

    I get wound up by these Chinese spammers and have to remove comments regularly but whilst irrelevant to the blog post I quite like this one so I think I'll leave it here.I have no idea what they get out of the spamming though.

  3. Robin Wood July 26, 2010 at 7:44 am #

    LL I think much of the bushcraft ideology is linked to survivalism. "what if I was lost in the jungle with only one tool?" and for that a single big knife that is half way to being an axe or pry-bar is a good way to go. The truth is however that most folk most of the time are just popping out to the woods to do a bit of whittling or have a campfire much as scouts did 30 years ago, and for that tools that are less of a compromise work much better.

  4. Daniel Carpenter July 26, 2010 at 8:24 am #

    Thanks for this post Robin! I sold my car yesterday so will be ordering the Gransfors carving axe today! Daniel :-)

  5. Woodman.... July 26, 2010 at 8:59 am #

    Very interesting post Robin. I haven't got a GB axe so can't comment on them but I think the value & abilities of the GB axe and Woodlore have been distorted by the TV shows I believe. I cracked briefly once and made a woodlore and can't see what the fuss is all about. What I have got is a Roselli Wildlife axe and I am very happy with it, it really is very good at splitting wood, does not stick in the wood at all, and I have used it for some carving, particularly a couple of paddles, it's easy to hold close to the head and very well balanced. I also got a small hatchet I bought from America, and now I just bought a tomahawk Trail to have a try and see what can be done with them.

  6. Hawthorn September 5, 2010 at 3:30 pm #

    Great post. I have an old axe that I'd like to know how to sharpen properly – my father-in-law has a powered grinder. Can anyone recommend a good YouTube video or similar on the best way to sharpen them?Thanks, Martin

  7. Village Carpenter March 21, 2011 at 10:08 am #

    Hi Robin, I've just bought a GB carving axe mainly for spoon carving. I'm very pleased with it's readiness to work but agree with you regarding it's flat side. It works as a side axe but is deeply frustrating if used to cut concave curves for spoon handles, it just doesn't want to do it. The fatter bevel on the right of the bit turns the cutting edge into the wood. This tendency to bite deep even needs careful control when used as a side axe. I guess what I'm saying is I'm pretty disappointed with the axe in it's present design. I love the weight and balance but it needs more versatility in the cuts it can make to be useful. So it's back to my side axe for roughing and light kent pattern axe for shaping while i see if the woodsmith's store will do an exchange for a even beveled carving axe. None of the UK suppliers websites show the even beveled option. I hope I'm not stuck with an expensive tool without a use for it.

  8. Konstantine La November 16, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    Gransfors Bruks axes are very expensive in my opinion. I agree that some of the $20 made in China axes are great–especially if you sharpen them. $20 axe + a wet stone == a very good axe.

  9. Andrew Birnie August 14, 2013 at 9:03 pm #

    Great article. Thanks. Pedants Corner: Axes have helves or hafts but not handles. I use the Carving Axe for most work. Even though I have little girl’s hands it works fine.

    • Robin Wood August 14, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

      Maybe we can argue that one over a beer some time Andrew. I find the term helve and haft tend to be used by folk who want to appear knowledgeable. When I worked in forestry 25 years ago we called them handles. my local agricultural merchant sells axe handles, Carters make tens of thousands of axe handles a year and Herb Edlin in his seminal “woodland crafts of Britain uses the terms handle and helve interchangeably. I like to use old words when they are clearly part of the cultural tradition of a craft but here I am writing an article to make the craft accessible to beginners. When folk are learning a new skill if they find they have to learn a new language first it can be off putting.

  10. Graeme November 9, 2013 at 2:37 am #

    Hehe, perhaps helve and haft just make it clear it is a handle for a hefty tool for hitting or hacking, like stail makes it clear it is a long handle for a tool such as a rake, or porringer is a local name for a turned wooden eating bowl with a handle.
    Levity aside Robin, would you mind sometime expanding on the axe theme with some detail on what makes a good profile for the carving axe? By that I mean the overall cross-section plus the tip to heel profile of the cutting edge plus the shape of the bevels (cross-section again). Peter Follansbee did a couple of excellent blogs on this for hewing ‘hatchets’ although his idea of a hatchet looks bigger than what I’m used to as an axe.

    Anyway, it’s good to have that idea that it’s OK to adapt what you have available and get going but it would be nice to know what the optimum axe head might look like before starting to grind.
    Cheers
    Graeme

  11. Don December 10, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

    Hello, all. Has anyone used an axe or hatchet by Mueller of Austria? There are several available with a weight around 1 lb.

    Regards,

    Don

    • Robin Wood December 10, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

      I have used the Mueller side axes and they are OK, if you want a side axe. Not worked with other models.

      • Don December 12, 2013 at 2:24 am #

        Thanks!

  12. Stephen December 30, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

    It would be useful if you could write something on sharpening axes for carving. Should the bevel be “sharp” like a Scandi grind knife, or should there still be a slight curve at the edge (as is most common on axes)?

    • Robin Wood December 30, 2013 at 7:41 pm #

      The bevel should be either dead flat scandi grind or some prefer just very slightly convex. It absolutely must not be heavily convex as is common on general purpose axes.

  13. kevin January 13, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    hi robin,thanks for the tutorial,found it very helpfull,just made a new handle for my kubben(wildlife)hatchet more in the style of a carver which is what it gets used for mainly,no more cut knuckles..atb kev

  14. TrevorML February 26, 2014 at 11:52 am #

    Hi Robin, any experience/opinions of the Roselli small axe? cheers from Oz Trevor

  15. TrevorML February 26, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    Forgot to say… thanks for the great spoon knife blade… very nice indeed and for a very good price too :-)

  16. Arturo March 22, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

    I hope that by this point you have replaced your John Neeman Robin Wood axe. I was wondering, are you still using your Swedish carving axe as much?

  17. Joshua Farnsworth March 26, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

    What do you think about Wetterlings Axes (that Lie-Nielsen now carries)? I’m leaning towards the Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet, but am wondering how it compares with the Wetterling Camp Hatchet and Small Hunting Axe. Thanks!

    • Robin Wood March 26, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

      I visited the wetterlings factory a few months ago and they are well made. In fact the head smith there is the guy who used to be at Granbsfors. I don’t have the particular axes you mention so can’t comment on details. It will also depend on what you want to do with it.

Leave a Reply

Powered by Wordpress and Woocommerce and tweaked by Tom Broughton 2013