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 Originally made entirely of single piece of iron that was folded around a handle-shaped pattern, axes incorporated steel wedges into their heads in the 1700s.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 a duller one for removing branches from felled trunks. 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.