The first known axe traces its origins to around 6,000 BC in the Mesolithic era. At that time, the making of the axe was mainly dictated by the need to chop wood for firewood and making basic furniture. Almost without exception, the handles of those axes were straight.
In time, however, people saw the need to curve the handles. This trend started in the 1840s and was mainly driven by the aesthetics that the curvature potentially brought about.
They also had the added advantage of bringing about the dual benefits of functionality and beauty.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- Why do axes have curved handles?
- Straight vs. curved axe handles – Which is best?
- Why do some axes have straight handles if curved ones are better?
- Why are axe handles still made of wood?
Why do axes have curved handles?
Curved handles bring about two main advantages. For one, they place the blade in a little bit more of a forward position, while at the same time moving your knuckles a little further back. This position reduces the risk of banging your knuckles when chopping wood.
A curved handle is also more aesthetically pleasing – it looks better, feels more comfortable in the hands and is considered by most people as ‘higher end’ in terms of craftsmanship.
Related Article: Who makes the best axes in the world?
Straight vs. curved axe handles – Which is best?
As explained in the beginning, axes have two main kinds of handles. These are the straight and the curved, respectively. Let’s now compare and contrast the two on the basis of the leading parameters:
A straight handle is somewhat nondescript in the sense of lacking any interesting characteristics. It’s usually a straight piece of hickory with the grain running along the length to provide strength. They tend to be shorter and thicker then their curved counterparts.
A curved axe handle is more aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and is usually longer and thinner than a straight handle.
The shock or vibration generated when chopping wood needs to be reduced to avoid the jarring effect this can have on the human body. This is somewhat achieved by using a natural material such as hickory – it is both strong and flexible.
A curved hickory handle reduces shock even further due to the ‘wave’ shape of the curve. This is where physics comes into play – the curvature of the handle naturally dissipates the shock wave produced when you chop a piece of wood. They kind of cancel each other out as it were.
A straight handle does not provide this extra reduction in shock. therefore the curved handle is preferred for prolonged chopping or splitting.
A straight handle is capable of accommodating two blades more efficiently – most double bit axes have straight handles due to the symmetry of the tool. The symmetry of a double bit axe means that there is no need to fit a curved handle to achieve good balance.
Related Article: Can an axe be too sharp?
Single bit axes are almost exclusively fitted with curved handles nowadays. The curvature provides a more comfortable or ergonomic feel and also ensures the axe is ‘righted’ when it is held – this provides more balanced chopping than a straight handled, single bit axe in most cases.
The advantage that a curved handle has on the power of the swing is quite interesting, if you’re an axe geek like me. The curved shape at the bottom of the handle is usually very pronounced.
This acts as a fulcrum which accelerates the axe head into the wood at the very end of the swing.
It’s kind of hard to explain this important point in words, but the following video is a fantastic overview on curved vs straight axe handles. This guy knows his axes! If you have a few minutes, give it a click, it’s great.
Why do some axes have straight handles if curved ones are better?
Straight handles have the following distinct advantages or unique traits:
They are simpler in the sense of lacking sophisticated features and characteristics. Thus, even entry-level axe users will find them appropriately suited for their ends.
If you have never attempted chopping wood before or are just making some kindling every now and then, a little straight handled axe may be all you need.
The right tool for the right job
For chopping tasks such as splitting logs or limbing felled trees, a straight handled axe is perfectly suited to the job. These types of chopping tasks are a straight down type of swing, so the balance doesn’t come into play here.
To keep it simple, perhaps overly so, a curved handle provides better balance for horizontal type swinging such as felling trees.
Straight handles are logically more suited to double bit axes as explained earlier. The symmetrical design of a double bit axe negates the requirement of a curved handle as it is perfectly balanced and both edges of the axe need to be used.
A curved handle tends to point a single cutting edge in the correct position ready for chopping.
Of course, each person has his own unique tastes and preferences. Many people simply prefer the straight handle axes regardless of their potential shortcomings. That’s why many manufacturers still produce straight handle axes.
Why are axe handles still made of wood?
Wood, especially hickory or ash, is a great natural shock absorber. It is cheap, readily available and sustainable, and is the preferred axe handle of the majority of users. It’s also relatively easy to replace a damaged wooden handle compared to a synthetic one.
Wooden axe handles – curved or straight – are highly customizable. There are an abundance of oils, lacquers, waxes and finishes to suit all tastes whilst providing protection from the elements. This ensures your axe handle will last a long, long time.
Many thanks for staying with me till the end. It’s clear that there’s an advantage to having a curved handle in many cases and they are often the preferred option for users.
The look and feel of a curved handle is overwhelmingly regarded as ‘better’ but in some situations a straight handle is perfect for the task at hand.
At the end of the day, regardless of all the points raised in this article, it comes down to personal preference. If you feel more comfortable swinging a straight handled axe, go with it.
In the immortal words of Sheryl Crow… If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad!