Dec 12, 2016

Headhunting Billnäs "12" Axes

Growing knowledge of Finnish made axes has created a wide market for these vintage tools. The Kemi-model axe made by the Billnäs Forge in Finland is among the most coveted traditional Finnish axes. The Kemi model is also known as the “twelve”, due to the serial number given by the forge. These axes were manufactured from the early 1900s up until the early 1970s. Over the years the model experienced some small changes in design. The size of the socket and in the thickness of the blade were modified over time. Generally speaking the “Twelve” progressively became slightly lighter in time as metal quality and forging technics improved.

1. Finnish lady splitting fire wood during WW2.

The twelves were available in three sizes; 12/1, 12/2 and 12/3. The 12/2 was most popular at 1.4kg. The largest 12/1 weighted 1.6km and was an effective felling axe. The smallest axe, the 12/3, was used as a limbing axe, women and children preferred to use the 12:3 for splitting firewood as it was lighter (around 1,1 kg) and easier to use.

2. An Kellokoski advertisment from 1927, the axe appears a bit too big for the user.

In Finland the 1936 version of the Billnäs “Twelve”, the 12/2 M36, was regarded as a superior felling axe by the Finnish Work Efficiency Society. (Fin. Työtehoseura). The popular "Twelves" were constantly tested and revised by the Finnish Work Efficiency Association. Feed-back on necessary improvements from the users were forwarded to the forge.

3. Finnish soldiers carving axe hafts during WW2. Museum of North Ostrobothnia.

Billnäs was not the only company to make these axes. A rival company, Kellokoski-Mariefors also made similar axes as Billnäs with identical labeling. However, Kellokoski struggled with steel quality issues which gave the company a bad reputation among loggers even if both companies provided an extensive warranty service. Kellokoski was never able to compete with Billnäs who was the market leader in axes. 

4. Two Twelves from the 1960s, a Kellokoski 12:3(top) and a Billnäs 1123, which is slightly more worn than the Kellokoski.

Axes were in general sold without hafts up until the 1940s as everyone was expected to make their own hafts to fit the axe. The axe hafts became more standardized in shape and perfomance during WW2 when Finnish soldiers posted along the Sovjet front made use of spare time in between battles for making crafts such as axe hafts. Good axe hafts were necessary for the families back home who relied on firewood for warming the houses and to cook food. Different courses in haft making were organized for the soldiers using templates recommended by experts from the Work Efficiency Society.
5. Two Billnäs axes with 1940s style hafts. The top one is a 12/2 and the bottom one a more unusal 17/2 model.

The Fiskars company became a majority shareholder in the Billnäs Company in the 1920s but the production of steel goods in Billnäs continued as usual up until 1957 when the Fiskars company finally took over the whole factory. At this time the Fiskars company modified the manufacturing process of the ”Twelves”, which were now made out of cast steel. The labeling of the axes also changed; the number “1” was added to the make number 12 and the slash was removed. A 12/2 was now labeled as 1122 and was in production until the early 1970s when it was discontinued and replaced with a new series of axes. The Billnäs name remained stamped on the axes for a while, but by the 1980s the Fiskars company had replaced the Billnäs print with it´s own name.    
6.The last of the Billnäs axes from 1980s; 1132 (top) and 1134.

Rapid modernizations in forestry and the lumber industry were to blame for the disappearance of the twelve and many other native axe types in Finland. The chainsaw grew in popularity and axes became obsolete. Axes were henceforth mainly used for splitting fire wood and manufacturers needed to manufacture axes that would function well for that single purpose. Also people became less capable of tending to their axes such as mending hafts or sharpening blades, therefore the axes needed to be drurable as well as simple to maintain. The most resent Fiskars series composite haft axes are the result of this development.   
7. Felling a tree with a chain saw in the 1950s. Museum of North Carelia.

Finding proper axe heads

12s and other Finnish made axe heads are still found in Finland, but there is a great variety in quality and condition among the axes that are made available. Typically axes are sold in garage sales and at flea markets. There are few things any eager pursuer of a Finnish axe head should be aware of before buying one online. 

8. Good examples of bad axes in the 1940 manual "The Forestry Tool Guide" (Fin. Metsätyökaluopas)

First off a photo, even if it is a good one, will not necessarily tell you if the axe is in good condition. Cracks and other damages can be hard to spot from just looking at a photo. A twisted blade is also hard to determine from a photograph, but will make life hard for anyone hafting the head. Rust is not necessarily a problem as it is easy to clean off, however rust might cover up cracks and therefore rusty axes should be avoided unless they are cleaned by the seller. 
9. A crack has developed from a smashed poll on a Kellokoski 12/2 axe.

The blade and the poll are good indicators of the condition of an axe. The iron on the poll is soft and will mushroom easily. The poll is design to be used for hitting wooden stakes and wedges, it will not withstand hitting on hard steel wedges or rocks. If an axe has been used frequently as an hammer the poll will mushroom and potentially cause cracking along the sleeve. Hammering can also smash the sleave and render the whole axe useless.
10. Top view of two Billnäs 12/2s. The lower one is in perfect condition. The top one is worn and the sleeve or socket has been slightly deformed by hammering. 
An axe head might have withstood considerable abuse which is visible in a worn down blade and a beaten upp poll. The poll on the 12 is made of softer iron which is intended to absorb some of the energy of a strike and in doing so keeping the socket from being deformed. A deformed socket will make hafting difficult if not all together impossible.  
11. Four Billnäs 12/3s. The first two from the left are in good condition, the third one is too worn down and the fourth has been resteeled.

The amount of wear on the blade can sometimes be hard to determine for the untrained eye. The "Twelves" were designed to withstand a considerable amount of wear, but at some point the axe will become too short to perform well and needs to resteeled or reworked by a blacksmith. It was common to send worn axes back to the facory to be repaired as this procedure only cost half as much as a new axe head. The worn axes were refitted with a new carbon steel blade which was forge welded on the head.
12. Swedish language add from the 1950s regarding axe repair services offered by the Kellokoski-Mariefors company.

Axe heads that bear the mark of this procedure are occasionally sold and easy to identifie due to the rough, but functional workmanship.These reworked axes are usually without issues and will perform well. The forge welded joinery is often clear as the axes were seldom cleaned and polished after the procedure.
13. A Billnäs 12/3 which has been resteeled. The forge welded joint of new blade is clearly visible and is in fact larger than the original was.
Another similar, but less expensive procedure is the rehammering of the blade, but this procedure was not done by the large companies, rather they were attempted by local smiths in crude forges. In this procedure the blade is streched out by hammering. Axes that have undergone this procedure are recognizable as the blades appear thinner and there are clear hammering marks on the cheeks. This is actually a good way to repair an axe, but some of this type or repaires are too crude. An experienced blacksmith can, however, remold beautiful and fully functional heads using this procedure. 
14. A rough-looking "Twelve" which has at one point been re-hammered in a forge and been in use for a number of years after that procedure.

Any issues regarding the quality of the metal are almost impossible to determine just by looking at a picture of an axe. Powergrinding marks on the blade might indicate that the temper has been drawn from the blade due to excessive heat by the grinding process. This latter damage can be assessed by pulling a good hardened metalfile across the sede of the blade and feel how if it cuts in to the hardened metal, if it glides it´s an indication that the temper might be noneffected.

15. Three 12/3. The one to the left is in perfect original condition, the one in the middle is worn out and the one to the right has been rehammered and retempered from a worn head by a skilled blacksmith.
Some axe heads that are sold today might have originally been sourced from a factory back storage after the production halted. This can be a problem since failed series of axes were usually stored at factories for reuse. Luckily there are few of these axes around as most were sold as scrap metal when the factories closed and only few survived the scrapping.   
16. A small part of the blade of this Kellokoski 12/3 has broken off. This might indicate problems with tempering or poor metal quality. 
Axes with basic quality issues in the metalcan be identified by cracks and breaks in the tip of the blade. Often this is an indication of a failure in controlling the tempering process. This can be corrected by a skilled blacksmith who can retemper the head. Other issues regarding the quality of the metal can not be corrected. 
17. This axe has been laying on the ground for a while and is pitted by rust. The temper line of the blade is clearly visible. The axe is visually appealing and structurally sound.

Most online sellers are honest but not all sellers of vintage Finnish axes are capable of determining the true quality and condition of the axe they are selling. There is no standardized system of determining the amount of wear on an axe. One seller might claim an axe is in excellent condition while another one would say its in a slightly used condition. Also the seller might be unaware of the make of the axe due to the stamp being worn out by either corrosion or use. Kellokoski axes and Billnäs axes are often confused with each other. Also the model of the axe might be misrepresented - A 12/2 can be put for sale as a 12/3. Possible damages inside the sleeve of the axe can be overlooked or ignored by the sellers. Buyers should be aware of these challenges when looking to purchase vintage axes. 
18. A slightly more worn Billnäs 12/1 and a less worn Kellokoski 12/1. It became more usual after the 1960s to drill a screw hole in to the sleeve for additional protection against the head loosening from the haft.
Getting a completely new axe made by a professional blacksmith is possible but incredibely expensive. The model made by the blacksmith can also be very different from the original axe. A less expensive alternative is to look for vintage axes that have been processed by a proffessional blacksmith. These repaired or rehammered axes usually come with a new maker´s guarantee covering any damage resulting from flaws in the manufacturing process.   
19. The top view of a carefully rehammered and retempered 12/3. The bevel angle is set at 26 degrees to add durability when performing bushcraft tasks, carving or splitting fire wood.
The good news is that more Finnish vintage axes are becoming availabe for international buyers and axe quality awarness is improving, making it easier for axe hunters to find suitable heads or ready hafted traditional Finnish axes at resonable prices. However axe hunters need to be mindful when browsing the internet for an suitable collection piece or a functional bushcraft axe. A high price does not always determine high quality. Avoid buying pricy axes from buyers that provide little information of their condition or quality. Happy hunting!

20. A mixed lot ot axes will contain a few good heads, some mediocre heads as well as a lot of worn down, useless heads. For every 10 axes you buy, you only receive 3 really good ones.
Marcus Lepola

Image sources;
Finnish Wartime Photograph Archive.
Museum of North Ostrobothnia.
Museum of North Karelia.
Marcus Lepola photo archives


  1. THANKS,Marcus,EXCELLENT article.
    A quick question,if by chance you'd know:You mention that "... At this time the Fiskars company modified the manufacturing process of the ”Twelves”, which were now made out of cast steel...."

    Do you mean by that Forged from Cast Steel(as in many Sheffield tools,et c.,meaning the fairly new then steel-making process),or actually Cast of Steel(of whatever composition)?
    Thanks in advance,and really do appreciate your contributions to the spreading of Kirves knowledge.

    Best regards,Jake

  2. Hey, great article, really enjoyed reading it. Is there any literary source for citation about the factory re-steeling of worn axes? It would be very handy for my dissertation. Thanks!

    1. Hi Peter, I seldom have the time to reply to questions asked on the blog and on my youtube channel. Image 8 and 12 in the article you commented on are valid litterary sources, Image 8 is page 18 from Metsätyökaluopas 1940. The comment next to the photo of the axe head states that an worn axe like this has to be replaced or sent to be resteeled. The other image is an ad for Kellokoski offering to resteel worn axeheads.

  3. Sorry,Petr,it's a very interesting subject,but here's all that i,personally,have came across in a great while....:

    1. Thanks, I know that video. I'm well aware of how it's done (I forge as well), but I wanted to know more about the fact that a factory actually offered to fix their old axes. You know, some literary source that could be quoted in a text.

  4. I found your this post while searching for information about blog-related research ... It's a good post .. keep posting and updating information. best-battle-throwing-axes-for-beginners

  5. My trusty 12:1 is so sexy and has so much character she's hard to look at! like a beautiful Roman coin, but one U could wac a town out of virgin Forest with. No problem.

  6. Actually I read it yesterday but I had some thoughts about it and today I wanted to read it again because it is very well written. Try reading this for more info

  7. I forgot to mention that I became so interested in this axe type that I actually bought a vintage Kellokoski head on ebay and restored it. The poll was just very lightly beaten, so I easily touched it up with a file, then I drew the worn blade back to shape and good edge profile and did new heat treatment. I made great effort (at least I thought so!) to make the shaft fit correctly. Despite that and despite the fact that I've made and fitted dozens of shafts for other axes and tools before, the head flew off the shaft twice during work! First time it luckily missed my friend's head. I improved the fit some more and tried it again...second time it flew off and missed my car's front window just by couple cm. I really don't know what's the trick to make it hold right. I mean, hey, the socket is smooth and conical. All that holds the haft is friction. And as the tool is used, it receives a lot of impact and vibrations, which can knock the friction fit loose...I would love to see what's the catch. I really understand why did people drill a hole for a screw/nail to secure the heads. Even medieval socketed axes were secured that way. But apparently, it seems to have worked well for the Finns even without the nail and I fail to understand how.

  8. Petr L. check the video at about 8:10 mark, it shows the recommended method for collared axe haft securing (in this case it's the Billnäs 12/2).
    Overall this is a great video (the images are enough, even if you don't get the Finnish voice-over) for the re-hafting methods, sharpening and care of these wonderful tools.

    1. Thanks! That's an interesting idea to open/close the socket a little. I may try this.


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