Perhaps no tools are more closely linked to the founding of America than the axe and its smaller sibling, the hatchet. Cast-iron axes with heads weighing seven pounds were swung by pioneers and Colonists, who used the versatile tool to clear land for crops and build their homes. And while the exact implement of destruction is not definitively known, a young George Washington held either an axe or a hatchet in his hand when he famously cut down the family cherry tree.

The most familiar type of axe (also correctly spelled “ax”) is the felling axe, whose long, curved handle increases its impact. The heads of these axes varied regionally in terms of their design, but their functionality was the same. Originally made entirely of single piece of iron that was folded around a handle-shaped pattern, axes incorporated steel wedges into their heads in the 1700s. Steel was not only more durable that iron, it could be sharpened to a finer edge.

Most 18th-century felling axes were single bit, which means it had a cutting edge on one side and a flat hammer-like head called the poll, or butt, at the other. Double-bit axes had two edges—a sharp one for cutting trees and limbs, and a duller one with a shorter taper for splitting firewood. Significantly, the handles of double-bit axes were straight rather than curved.

Once a tree was on the ground, the woodsman would turn to his broad axe to square, or hew, the trunk. Broad axes can be identified by their chisel edges—in contrast, felling axes are beveled to a knife-like point on both sides, not just one. The handles of broad axes were also unique—they were installed bent or swayed away from the blade’s flat side to keep the woodsman’s hands from being mangled against the tree trunk with each swing of the axe.

North American broad axes varied in their designs from region to region—the heads of those made in New England, for example, tended to be narrower in width than those made by Pennsylvania blacksmiths. Broad axes brought over from England generally lacked a hammer-like poll, while those imported from Germany had a medieval-looking goose-wing design.

As with hammers, planes, chisels, and numerous other antique tools, there was a specialized axe for just about every job. Shipwrights wielded axes designed to shape masts, while coopers swung short-handles axes that were good at shaping barrel staves. When expertly struck by a mallet, a good mortise or chisel axe was used to create holes in the shape of tenons—mortise-and-tenon framing was common in barns and other rural structures.

Of particular interest to those fascinated by Native American history are trade axes, which were used by French, Spanish, and English settlers when bartering with the New World’s indigenous peoples. Some of these axes were small enough to hang from a belt. Others were favored by Native American women for chopping wood. Today these tools are known as squaw axes, but due to the rarity of these items they are favorites of forgers, so make sure you’ve done your homework before adding one of these beauties to your collection...

Another specialty axe is the fireman’s axe, which, in the 19th century, was often monogrammed with the insignia its fire company. Fireman’s axe are easy to identify by their curved pike opposite the tool’s blade, which was used to pull hot debris in a burning building out of a firefighter’s way. The pulaski, which was designed to fight wildfires, arrived in the early 20th century—it swapped the pike for an adze. For collectors of firefighting memorabilia, either is a prize.

Finally there are hatchets, which were used for everything from splitting wood for shingles to hammering the laths inside plaster walls. A lathing hatchet had a flat end so that nails could be hammered into the laths very close to a ceiling. A notch in both types of hatchets could be used to pull nails if one lacked a claw hammer.

Numerous 19th-century tool manufacturers made names for themselves with their axes and hatchets. For example, the Keen Kutter brand was first applied to an axe. Winchester also made axes, as did Stanley.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)



Author Tom Lamond’s YesteryearsTools focuses on axes and other edge tools, from spokeshaves to hatchets, produced… [read review or visit site]

A Millers Falls Home Page

A Millers Falls Home Page

Randy Roeder has carved out a niche for himself with his fine website devoted to the history of the Millers Falls C… [read review or visit site]

Alloy Artifacts

Alloy Artifacts

A tool collectors’ dream, this site is a deep repository of photos and info on 20th century hand tools and the co… [read review or visit site]



Josh and Cam Larios have created this site enabling people to upload and 'tag' photos of historic or artistic manho… [read review or visit site]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Blacksmith Leather Shaping Hammer Custom Jesse Reed Grooved Handle Vintage Carpenter's Draw Knife With SheathGransfors Bruks Sweden American Felling 32" Axe Vintage Black Raven Axe In Excellent Condition Nice Strike True Temper KelleyGransfors Bruks Sweden Adze Gutter Blade Axe RareVintage Norlund Frontiersman Tomahawk With Sheath 1 Of Only 1000 MadeWetterlings Of Sweden Broad Axe #190 Saw Axe Vintage Kelly Black Raven Double Bit AxeVintage Plumb Boy Scout Axe Hatchet Polished Custom Jesse Reed HandleVintage, Collins "legitimus" 7-1/2" X 5-1/2", 2 Lb 12 Oz, Axe HeadWetterlings Of Sweden Carpenter's Saw Axe Vintage Norlund Frontiersman Tomahawk With Sheath 1 Of Only 1000 MadeAntique Plumb Hewing Axe Large 12 3/4"inch Blade No Reserve Auction Collector AxRare Vintage Colonial Rings For Quality Liberty Bell Double Bit AxeVintage Viking Bearded Tomahawk Axe Hatchet Polished Custom Jesse Reed HandleVintage Plumb Boy Scout Axe All Original With Sheath And Imperial Knife NrVintage Picaroon Tomahawk War Hook Axe Hatchet Polished Custom Jesse Reed HandleVintage Embossed Keen Kutter Single Bit Axe Head / Collector AxeVintage Axe Heads CollinsRare Vintage "sager Chemical Axe 1928" Axe Double Bit Tool Pat. 1928? Very NiceVintage Swedish Cruiser Axe Head With Beautiful Leather SheathVintage Plumb Axe No Handle Double BitVintage Norlund Hatchet Axe, SheathVintage True Temper Kelly Perfect 3.5 Lb Axe HeadVintage Genuine Norlund Hudson Bay Hatchet Axe Original Sheath 26 1/2" Long Vintage 31/2 Lb. Kelly Perfect Single Bit Axe#830 'fallen' Viking Battle / Rumble Axe. Sheath. Functional Wall Art Small Vintage Bearded Axe / Hatchet / Chopper. *rare* Vintage 12" Combination Hatchet Pliers Axe Fencing Old Tools CollectableVintage Plumb Axe Hatchet Boy Scout With SheathVaughan Senior Official Scout Axe Vintage Boy BsaHultafors A-b (hults Bruks) Agdor Chopping Felling Axe Head 3 Lbs 7 Oz SwedenGenuine Norlund Hudson Bay Tomahawk Pattern Single Bit Axe 1.5 Lbs 5 X 3 1/8"Vintage Collins Legitimus Axe Hudson Bay Style Us Military With Leather SheathVintage Plane-axe 4 Way Multi-tool- Hammer, Hatchet, Plane And Nail PullerNative American Tomahawk Axe Peace Pipe 18" (lot118)Vintage Norlund Axe / Hatchet W / Leather Sheath Hickory HandleSmall Clean 2 Lb Genuine Norlund Single Bit Hudson Bay Camp Hatchet/axe Vintage 12" Genuine Norlund Tomahawk Axe Hatchet W/ Leather Cover / SheathSager Warren Axe & Tool Co, Warren Pa. Rare Tool W Nice Handle No ReserveVtg Fayette R Plumb Broad Axe Original Handle 6 Pound Ax Very RareVintage Broad Head Axe Douglas Axe Mfg Co East Douglas Mass. D. Sharp Mfd StampVintage Plumb Broad Axe Hatchet 5 1/2" Head Old Hewing Tool Vintage Fireman's Fire Axe - Made In UsaNorlund Camping Axe Ax Tomahawk Hatchet W/ Original Handle + "canoe" Sheath Vintage True Temper Kelly Perfect Single Bit Axe W/handle Tool WoodsmenNorlund Hatchet Axe Hudson BayVintage Un-marked Double Bit Cruiser Axe Head Sold As FoundGenuine Plumb Vintage Axe Vintage L.l. Bean Inc. Freeport Maine 1 Pound Hudson Bay Axe HeadVintage-plumb-rockaway Style -axe Head Vintage Winchester Trade Mark Hatchet, Axe Hammerhead Nail Puller Made In UsaVintage Skatcket With Sheath Camping Survival Multi ToolLot Of 6 Vintage Axe Heads, Collins, Warren, StillettoVintage U.s. Plumb 1942 Camping Hatchet,wwii Tool Military AxeThe Winchester Store Sales Service Bulletin 1924 Tools Axe Hammer Saw Calendar Norlund Hudson Bay Camping Axe With Sheath Blade Cover AxOld Vintage 4.6 Lbs Genuine Norlund Single Bit Axe Head, Logging, Timber ToolHand Made Forged Axe. 10" Long, 6" Head, 8 Lbs 6 Oz. Solid, For Work Or DisplayJapanese Hand Axe Hatchet Japan Vintage Woodworking Tool Iron Masakari 110mm 23