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.

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