Bronze Age woodworking, adzes and axes

I am currently involved with a very exciting woodworking project which I will post lots about in due course but there is a press embargo until March the 6th. For now I can tell you that I have been having fun experimenting with bronze tools.

I have used bronze tools a little in the past but only felled an odd tree which doesn’t give you much idea of how well they work. The folk who used these tools no doubt used them for many thousands of hours and really knew how to get the best out of them. It’s not possible to form much of a judgment as to how well they work without at least putting in a few hundred hours.

There are lots of potential variables to play with from edge angles and sharpening profiles to hafting techniques and angles and finally variables in the way they are used. I started out with some bronze pallstaves straight from the foundry, they come looking like this. Pallstaves can be mounted as adzes or axes and are the standard form through most of the second millennium BC before socketed axes came in. This was cast from an original and as you can see it is pretty blunt.

Here are some original pallstaves in a museum to show the variation.

The first stage in preparation of the blade is peening or hammering it out toward an edge, I didn’t photograph this stage but I did it with a small steel hammer, presumably in the bronze age it would have been done with nice smooth rounded river boulders. I was surprised how soft the bronze felt compared even to hot steel and did not think it boded well for a working tool. The bronze apparently work hardens a little with hammering but my rockwell files suggested it was still below 40 r which is incredibly soft for an edge tool. Anyway after peening I ground and polished the edge, now they would shave arm hair or slice paper easily.

Next I set about hafting them, First I researched on the web to find images of as many early axes as I could, I knew Oetzi’s axe well but found just a few more. Here they are

I choose to haft mine with rawhide, I bought a dog chew, soaked it in hot water until it unraveled, cut it into a continuous strip and used it to do a nice neat lashing. And here they are two adzes and two axes all ready to go. I think they are rather beautiful.

Here is an index for all blog posts on the Dover boat project

bronze-age-woodworking-tools-early thoughts
woodworking-marathon-continued-just 18 hours to go.
dover-boat-launch-day-end-of-3-months work.
the boat-that-didnt-float.

bronze age boat in medieval castle

More bronze age boatbuilding

Bronze Age boat, on the water


10 Responses to Bronze Age woodworking, adzes and axes

  1. Gorges Smythe February 13, 2012 at 12:39 am #

    I'm sure they'd work, but they certainly look awkward!

  2. jarrod February 13, 2012 at 12:42 am #

    sweet, i've only made some of steel, can't wait for more on the project.

  3. John G February 13, 2012 at 3:51 am #

    I too have wondered about working with bronze tools, ever since learning about Oetzi the Iceman. Your axes and adzes look great so far. Please keep us updated!

  4. Rob February 13, 2012 at 7:46 pm #

    Very interesting project. What kind of wood is the handle?

  5. GreenMyrtle February 14, 2012 at 4:44 am #

    The design looks a lot like the adze on my ice axe I use to traverse glaciers with in the Cascade Mountains. I wonder if it is possible to self arrest with a copy of this relic.

  6. Robin Wood February 17, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

    Well a couple of weeks in and much to my surprise I am absolutely in love with my bronze tools. They work in a very different way to steel tools, they have a lot of similarities to the adzes I used in Japan last year but differences too. They follow the fibres of the wood much more than steel effectively peeling multiple small strips of wood away. Hard to describe. In due course hope to put up a bit of vid and photos which will explain.

  7. struglingfreeman February 17, 2012 at 11:39 pm #

    intresting stuff robin,do you think that our ancestors just got on with using them and replaced regularly or do you think they were well looked after?

  8. Robin Wood February 18, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    I don,t see any reason for them to deteriorate any more than steel tools, considering the investment of time and energy in creating them I suspect they were looked after.

  9. Robin Wood February 18, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    Rob I have made handles of several woods, cherry, yew, ash. Finding the right angle of crook is important any good fibrous wood will work.

  10. Tim February 20, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    As an archaeologist, I'm following this with interest. I had always assumed that the bronze tools were effective, but ultimately neither hardwearing nor long-lived, and that were often more for display than any practical purpose.