As the saying goes – one mans trash is another mans treasure. The restoration or up-scaling of old, unwanted items is a huge business and old axes can be some of the best around.
Typically, axes made 100 years ago comprized of high quality steel and were forged by hand with traditional methods. This made them incredibly durable compared to today’s standards.
Unfortunately, modern axe manufacturing has diluted the quality of axe head steel to cut costs, and many new axes are simply not as durable as the old ones.
Where can I find antique axes?
Some of the best axes are the ones hiding away in old barns or tool sheds that have been forgotten about. Or even selling at yard sales or flea markets for a few dollars. If you manage to find one of these, and you know how to restore it, you may have found an axe that you can grow old with!
If you’re really lucky, you could pick up a vintage axe such as the Kelly Black Raven. These are one of the most sought-after and collectible American axes around. In prime condition these can be worth over $1000 at auctions nowadays.
What should I look for in a vintage axe?
There are 3 things to look for when assessing an old axe.
- The condition of the axe head. Cracks are a problem, we don’t want cracks in the steel. Mushrooming of the poll indicates it has been used to hammer other metal objects and has deformed the head – this is no use. Ensure the toe or heel isn’t overly worn down and the eye is not warped. Also, grinder marks are a sign that someone has used power tools to sharpen it which may have compromised the heat treatment and weakened the steel.
- Any identifying marks. The stamp or etching will usually give you a general idea of the origin and date of the axe head.
- Restoration. What is required to get the axe back to a useable state? Do you possess the skills and knowledge to restore the axe to its former glory, or is it too far gone?
If all these boxes are ticked, snap it up and go to work!
What are the best vintage axes?
Plumb, Kelly, True Temper, Zenith, Sager and Collins are just some of the better known vintage axe makers that are renowned for their quality. For newer but still traditional in their craftsmanship, Gransfors Bruk, Hults Bruk or even Council Tool or Snow & Nealley in the USA produce some of the finest axes available today.
If you are looking to build a collection or rejuvenate a vintage axe for selling on, any of these are a great find. It can be difficult to identify an old axe unless you have a lot of knowledge on the subject and you know what to look for in the design or markings. But an old axe in decent condition is always worth restoring!
How to identify a vintage axe head
The key to identifying an old axe head is by the makers mark, which is not always visible in really old axe heads. These may or may not have been stamped, only labelled so identification of old axes can be difficult.
If there are markings, this resource from YesteryearsTools is a fantastic resource to help identify your vintage axe head.
Why are Kelly Black Raven axes so expensive?
Manufactured at their foundry in Charleston, West Virginia and introduced in 1904 by the Kelly Axe Manufacturing Company, Black Raven axes were considered to be a premium axe.
The Black Raven ‘gold’ etching was found on many of their single-bit felling axes, double-bit axes and hatchets, and are sought out by keen axe collectors to this day. Their distinctive markings and top quality craftsmanship represent an age before huge manufacturing plants sacrificed high quality for high output.
These axes are still being bought for a few bucks at barn sales, auctions, and flea markets to this day.
How to restore an old axe
Restoring an axe is a highly rewarding process and doesn’t require too much skill, but like any activity, you get better with experience. Some basic tools and some woodworking abilities are all you need to restore your first axe. As a primer, take a look at this quick video for an overview of the process.
The result is amazing! Once you find a good quality vintage axe head, the corrosion is removed easily with some gentle grinding then buffed to a beautiful shine. The blade can be sharpened with a file or puck later for wicked sharpness!
Selecting a good sized piece of hickory with the grain running along the length is vitally important to ensure durability of the finished axe. The length should be considered also – hatchet heads require a 14 inch handle on average. A felling axe head should be fitted to a handle around 30 inches. Axe handle templates are widely available online as a starting point.
The rest is basic woodworking that will require a band saw for cutting and a belt sander and hand file for shaping. Trimming the handle to fit snugly into the eye of the axe head is the painstaking part, but shouldn’t be rushed. It’s important to have a tight fit with minimal gaps to ensure the head is firmly fixed to the handle.
Once the head is attached to the handle, a wooden wedge is tapped and glued into the slot to firmly fix the head. All that remains is a few coats of boiled linseed oil or tung oil to finish and protect the wood.
Related Article: Best finish for an axe handle – Boiled linseed oil or Tung oil?
Old axes are some of the best axes you can get. The steel used a hundred years ago is superior to most axes made today. If you can pick up an old axe that still looks in decent condition, grab it and run! (Don’t steal it – that’s just a figure of speech…) With a little restoration the results can be amazing and can provide you with an axe that will last a lifetime.