A restored camp axe will be as good as
the best new axe you can buy.
Good camp axes can cost well over $100 and cheaper axes are likely to fail after brief use. So which type of axe should camping families buy? As I have mentioned in a recent Youtube video, an Estwing Campers Axe 14 is a rugged and reasonably priced axe but is not as comfortable as a good hickory handled axe. If you want the highest quality axe for a reasonable price, restore a good used axe or buy a restored axe from a reputable smith. You can buy a good used axe head from flea markets or the eBay store for less than $25, a good handle for about $10, and leather for a sheath for about $10 - and have a great camp axe for less than $50. If the original handle can be retightened, you will save $10. If you buy it from a smith, you may have to pay a few dollars more but you will have a great camp axe for a reasonable price that will last a lifetime.
When shopping for a used camp axe, consider the following features.
Rectangular shaped heads are best suited for typical camp chores. In particular, Dayton and Michigan shaped heads are good for cutting, splitting, and carving. They have long eyes that hold firm to the handle and small overstrike zones. Rockaway, Hudson Bay, and Rhineland patterns are acceptable but these three shapes have longer overstrike zones that can lead to premature handle failure. Avoid double bit, tomahawks, half-hatchets, carpenter's hatchets, shingling hatchets, broad axes & hewing axes.
Head weight is much more important than total weight and the best weight depends upon the primary use of the axe. Heavier heads (1 3/4 to 2 pounds) are best for splitting larger pieces of cord wood - but lighter heads (1 to 1 1/4 pound) are best for splitting kindling and carving wooden implements. Medium weight heads (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pound) are the most commonly used size for scout and camp axes. Ideally, I would like to pack a heavier and a lighter axe but if I can only pack one axe, I prefer one with a 1 1/3 to 1 1/2 pound head.
The overall length (sometimes called handle length) of camp axes typically range from 9 to 24 inches. In general, shorter handles are fitted to lighter heads and longer handles are fitted to heavier heads. Again the best length depends upon the primary use of the axe. Heavier axes with 19 to 24 inch handles are best for de-limbing fallen trees and splitting larger pieces of cord wood. Lighter axes with 9 to 12 inch handles, frequently called pocket axes, are best for splitting kindling and carving implements. And they would be a good choice for backpackers, motorcycle campers, and others with limited packing space. Scout and camp axes with 14 to 16 inch handles seem to be the best all-purpose camp axe size. They perform a variety of chores reasonable well and fit into most tool bags.
The quality of the steel is a very important factor that determines how easy it will be to sharpen the axe, how sharp you can get it, how long it will hold a sharp edge, how well it resists chipping, and how well it resists rust. Typically, good axe makers start with a good quality carbon steel (1050) and forge it into the final axe shape. Hand forging is considered to be the best procedure but drop forging is more economical. After forging, makers hardened the bits by heating them and then rapidly cooling them in oil or water baths. If the bit is soft (HRC less than 50), it will not hold a sharp edge; if it is hard (HRC above 60) it will be difficult to sharpen and will chip easily. The best axes have a HRC of 55 or 56. Unfortunately, is is impossible to get these important details for used axes and difficult to get them for most new axes. The best way to assure your axe has good quality steel is to buy axes made by reputable makers - Helko, Ochsenkopf, Hults Bruk, Hultafors, SA Wetterling, Gransfors Bruk, Collins, Craftsman, Plumb, and True Temper. Avoid axes with no maker's mark. Also avoid axes that have been “re-profiled,” re-ground, or placed in a fire because their steel may have been softened by the heat.
Old axes found in flea markets and on eBay vary considerably in terms of their condition. Those with a little rust can be restored to make great camp tools. But those with badly damaged heads, mushroomed polls, cracked eyes or heads, distorted eyes, chipped bits, re-ground toes or heels, heavy pitting, and obscured maker's mark may be impossible to fix.
The eye should be larger at the top than at the bottom so that the handle neck can be properly secured to the head.
Thicker bits and cheeks are best suited for splitting wood while thinner heads are best suited for cutting trees and limbs. Cheap hatchets, made with lower quality steel, have thicker bits that split firewood reasonably well but are poorly suited for other common camp chores. Some people try to “re-profile” these bits but thin bits made from poor quality steel will chip or dull easily. It is best to buy a good brand name axe head made with good steel with moderately thin bits.
Many old American made axes had a concave curvature along the centerline and a pronounced convex curvature across the center line. This elevated centerline geometry reportedly was designed to keep axes from sticking in wood but I prefer a flat ground head because it facilitates splitting small pieces of firewood into kindling and carves well.
Steel and composite shafted axes are very durable but most axe enthusiasts, including me, find wooden handled axes to be more comfortable to use. Axe enthusiasts have used a variety of exotic woods to make their handles, but modern tent campers should stick to hickory or ash. Hickory and ash handles are very strong and comfortable to use. Replacement handles made by Beaver Tooth, House, and Link can be purchased on the internet and from a few hardware stores.
Fit & Finish
Anyone can stick a handle into an axe head but only a few can do it well. Thus, the head and handle interface is the most important factor to examine before buying a new or reconditioned axe. You want a head that will remain solidly attached to the handle after many hours of work because a loosened head could fly off and injure a bystander - and will result in several hours of downtime replacing it. The handle and head should fit tight at the top and bottom of the eye but small gaps should not cause a problem. To get this solid fit, the eye of the head should be wider at the top than at the bottom and the top of the handle neck should be spread wide by a good wedge. The handle should be smooth and well-oiled with no cracks, rot, or overstrike damage. And it should have a lanyard hole. A lanyard helps to keep the axe from slipping out of your hand. Many axe enthusiasts consider the grain orientation of the handle to be the most important fit & finish factor but I would disagree. Although I prefer handles with good grain orientation, many excellent camp axes are sold with "poor grain orientation" and these axes will give many hours of excellent work with no problems.
A sheath is absolutely necessary for safety reasons but few used and new axes are sold with good sheaths. Therefore, you may have to make or buy a sheath for your axe.