Mar 8, 2014

"The Devil Is In The Details" - Hafting a Finnish Billnäs/Kellokoski Model 12 Axe

Getting a proper handle for a Finnish axe is a difficult today as there are hardly any pre-made shafts made available on the market. Shafts can be still be ordered from some Finnish carpentry-shops, but for the dismay of Finnish axe fans, these are not made available for international customers.
Image 1. Kellokoski 12:2 and modified Finnish-carpentryshop shaft.

The shaft

Making your own shaft is always possible, but for many it might be surprisingly difficult. Shaping a good shaft requires an acute eye for details and design. It is important to realize that the axe head is not just made as ergonomic as possible, the shaft has to also be able to absorb some of the violent vibrations that occur when using the axe for cleaving and cutting. 
Image 2. A set of old axe-handles, the one on the left is a store bought shaft. Old shafts tend to have more of a bend and a shorter grip than the ones that were developed during the early 20th century.

The handle is not just a static lump of wood as the lower part of the shaft is in fact shaped so it will act as a efficient chock-absorber. This is a key difference to other types of wooden axe-handles today, which do not have this feature. Keep in mind that birch is the preferred material due to its good carving qualities and its durability. The same design that applies for birch handles might be less suited to other types of hardwoods.  

Image 3. A store bought Finnish birch-shaft before carving.

Developing a good “eye” for axe shafts takes some time. A way of developing necessary carving skills and a sense of form is to make miniature handles, approx. 12-15cm long, and compare these to the design you are trying to copy. Over time you will excel and be able to make a good handle on “eye” only. The proper length of the shaft is determined upon the use of the axe. A cleaving axe handle should reach to the palm of your hand when standing upright and having the shaft standing on the floor next to your leg. A utility axe-handle should reach to the second joint of the index finger. 
Image 4. Axe-handle blueprint.

Fitting the head.

This is where many people get it wrong. The sleeve or the collar of the axe is long and slim and not short and flat which is the case with American style axes. Also, the sleeve is slightly curved and not straight, which is a feature that many people fail to realize. Depending on personal  preference, one can carve out a “ridge” at the point to where the bottom of the collar extends, in which case the end result will look more smooth. The head can also just be slid down on the shaft without carving a distinct ridge. Both versions are just as good and in fact the latter might be more durable.
Image 5. The axe is ready to be fitted on the handle.
Make sure to leave enough room on both sides of the handle section that will go inside the sleeve so that the groove can easily fit a wedge. The wedge is traditionally carved from a resinous piece of tight grained pine. The reason for this is that the sap will aid in driving the wedge deep inside the sleeve. This happens when the friction of the blow heats up the sap and it becomes and effective lubricant. Once the sap cools down the wedge will stick just like glue. It also helps to make a small notch groove on one side of the wedge to make it stick better.

Image 6. The wedge-slot should be about 2/5th lengt of the sleeve.

There are two very different approaches as to how the handle should be treated before shafting. Some people used to boil the top of the handle and then force the head as far down the shaft as possible. 
Image 7. The wedges are made of resinous pine.
Others would make sure that the handle was as dry as possible. I have used the latter technique, often even drying the shaft end in front of a fire before hafting. Please note that too much scorching will make the wood brittle and it will break. Keep in mind that the axe head has to be fitted at a downward facing angle. This is important as it will effect balance and accuracy. Also the fit has to be snug, if you get it wrong here your axe will not stay on the handle and it will keep getting loose. Take your time with this stage, remember that the "devil is in the details".
Image 8. The wedge is driven in the slot.

Image credits 
1-3, 5-8. Marcus Lepola
4. Nordiska knivar.

Jan 13, 2014

1945 - Finnish axes and superior axemanship at Aulanko

I felt compelled to write another piece about the Finnish axe. This time the whole article is about a single event; the Finnish national logging competition held at Aulanko in 1945. This film is accessible from the Yle (Finnish National Radio Service) online-archives. As there are no subtitles I have proceeded to explain the contents of the film for English viewers. 
Click the image above to watch the movie.

This event took place shortly after WW2 had ended.  The War with the Sovjet Union had ended the year before in September 19th, only to be followed by another conflict with the northward retreating, previous allied German forces that ended in April 1945 with the burning of Lapland.
All of the men that partook in the competition were war-hardened men who had only recently returned to their homes after enduring long years at the front lines. These men were scarred for life both mentally and physically. There was no therapy, no psychological counseling available for these men who had against all odds, survived all the hardships of a cruel war against a superior opponent. Many friends, brothers and relatives did not make it. Of the men that were 20 years of age when they were called to arms in 1940, half were injured or dead by the end of 1944. The surviving men had to return home to the grueling task of rebuilding a worn torn, poor country. In addition they had to face the challenge to work even harder in order to pay war reparations to the Soviet Union. Finland was obliged to pay 300 million dollars – a punitive 7% of its national income - to the Soviet Union in the form of goods. Finland paid this in full by 1952. 

Image 1. Otto Niskanen from Lestijäri finished 15th in this competition, despite having only one working lung after being hit in the chest by a Russian bullet during the Winter War of 1939-40.

In Finland, hand tools were used to harvest trees well in to the 1950s, and in some areas even in the 1960s. The work was difficult and dangerous, but to the men that had survived the war, woodcutting in times of peace was a walk in the park. During the war the Finnish service men were kept busy building fortification out of lumber and the work was often halted due to enemy attacks on the building-crew. 

In 1945, the country was at peace but the future of the now poor country was uncertain. People were in a need of getting the economy going and wood was needed for building, heating and export.  For this reason and to boost national pride, the state of Finland invited foreign reporters to cover the event at Aulanko. The reporters were truly impressed of what they saw; hardened men, working in primitive conditions with simple hand tools, were cutting down trees with unimaginable speed and determination during the four day long competition in October of 1945. In preparation all participants used the first day to sharpen their tools. Most men brought along a bucksaw and two axes. The saw-blades had to be carefully sharpened to perform well in the following days of competition.
Image 2. Sharpening saw-blades.

The men were monitored by doctors during the competition to determine what type of physical strain loggers had to endure. This information was later used to promote physical awareness and health. A sauna was heated every morning and evening during the event.  On the eve of the competition the logging areas were divided among the competitors by drawing lots. 
Image 3. The participants were sawing wood at incredible speeds.
The first two days the loggers were cutting wood for lumber, on the third and fourth days day were cutting firewood. The fire wood was measured per stacked cubic meter, a so called “motti”.
By the second day of competition, the champion of the previous year, Heikki Aho, from Kuru, began to take a leading position in the competition. His meticulous and systematic approach to woodcutting allowed him to avoid unnecessary work and thus conserve energy, which ultimately gave him an edge in this competition. 

Image 4. Tools used by the Finnish logger.
Even the Swedes were impressed by the Finns, they had to admit that logging at this incredible speed could only be done on the other side of the Gulf of Bothnia, “in the country were people did not eat oranges or bananas”. The price received by the top participators included real coffee, traditional Finnish leather boots, tools and some price money.
Image 5. The champion, Heikki Aho.
Many of the competitors were still using the old style of axe wielding which could be really dangerous but also allowed for a faster pace. In the old style the logger will stand next to the trunk working his way through the branches, facing the top. 

Image 6. Manne Vuorinen finished 2nd in the competition, here he swings the axe like a champ using the old, more risky technique of branching.
The logger cuts the branches off at the trunk with a downward strike, which is directed towards the legs of the logger. This is a risky technique as there is every chance the axe will hit a leg if it glances off the tree or misses it´s mark. Expert axe men avoided injury as they were seasoned axe swingers who knew exactly what they were doing, also the axes were kept as sharp as possible so the cut would be clean. The length of the handle was individually suited to each user so as the axe would not reach the feet or legs of the user. 

Image 7. The top three, in order from the left, Mauno Montonen (3rd), Heikki Ahonen (1st) and Manne Vuorinen (2nd).
Nevertheless, these axe men were pushing the limits and there was only a small margin for error.
Later all loggers were recommended to always hit away from the feet which also slowed things down as the axe man had to turn his body and swipe the axe in a sideways blow at the branch. The old style made it possibly to swing the axe in a smooth circular motion without halting the axe while the logger was moving along the trunk of the felled tree. It is incredible to watch these logging masters at work. These were truly hard men born out of hard times.  This is the legacy of the Finnish axes such as the nr 12 Kemi type axe manufactured by Billnäs – Kellokoski.
Image 8. The most popular all-around logging axe in Finland, the "twelve".

Images 1-3, 5-7. Screenshots from the film.
Image 4. The Forest Musem of Lusto, Finland.
Image 8. Marcus Lepola 2013  

The living archive of the Finnish National Radio,

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