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 Ray’s 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 either 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. It 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 (update 2017: around £120, update 2019 around £140). 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 (update 2017: less good value now at around £80, update 2019: around £100). 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 a great axe for carrying in a backpack. Again it would be possible to fell and limb a tree with this axe, though it is best 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 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. A lighter axe moves more quickly and lots of small cuts can 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 that 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 do all however come very blunt, not just needing a sharpen but some major grinding work to get them working properly. I tend not to recommend them unless you have a power grinder and know how to reprofile one. Searching the web for the best axe 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 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 the best for carving. It came with a rough convex edge so not as blunt as the Bahco but still needs 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 a film of the sort of carving I tend to do with axes, the axe does matter but correct technique is much more important.
EDIT August 2014 4 years have passed since I wrote this article and I have now started to have my own made since I had never found just what I wanted. The head weighs 500g total weight 760g so ideal for carving or as a pack axe. They come razor sharp and with a nice ribbed handle for great grip. Best of all they are half the price of a Gransfors at £39 see all the details in the shop here