So good—but for one inescapable flaw—it hurts.
It’s harder than you might think to find a good axe these days, and the reason is simple: Most people don’t need a good axe anymore. Those few members of the general populace who still fell their own trees do it with a chainsaw, and while lots of people still split their own wood, very few put much thought into the quality of the metal they’re using to do the job.
And so, most of the major American axe companies have been driven out of business, the market flooded by cheap, plastic-handled tools with heads made of pot metal that hold an edge about as well as an over-ripe banana. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really great low-cost axes on the market (the Fiskars is a popular and good choice), but if you’re looking for something that’s pleasing to the eye and that will cut clean and true through swing after swing, that’s going to take a bit of research.
However, we’re seeing a bit of a renaissance of the timber lifestyle. Not only is flannel plaid most certainly back in fashion, there’s a general appreciation for the rustic woodcutter existence. Timbersports are on national TV, woodsman reality shows are spawning their own spinoffs, and there’s an increasing appreciation for not only the practical but the aesthetic merits of a fine axe.
The blade was more than capable of dry-shaving a few hairs off the back of my hand, my go-to test for sharpness. Which is a far less macho process than my lumberjack grandfather employed: shaving his face with his axe before heading into the field.
Gransfors Bruks is one brand of axe that’s been around for hundreds of years, fine axes from Sweden widely available in the United States. They’re handmade of a very high quality and, from a pure aesthetic standpoint, are top-notch.
They’re also incredibly expensive.
Following in Gransfors’ footsteps is another Scandinavian brand that’s been around for hundreds of years: Hults Bruk. Newly available in the US, Hults Bruk itself has a line of fine, hand-made axes mounted on hickory handles that, it must be said, bear a striking visual resemblance to Gransfors in a lot of ways. However, they’re a bit cheaper on average.
To see whether the quality meets the visuals, I requested Hults send me one of the more practical types of axe they offer: a hatchet. Small axes like hatchets are invaluable around the house and are portable enough to take along on a camping trip, ensuring that you’re everybody’s best friend when it comes time to get the fire started—or fend off a rabid raccoon.
The Hults Bruk Almike hatchet ($149) arrived secure in a perfectly proportioned box, alongside a small booklet describing the history of the company. (A move clearly inspired by Gransfor’s “Axe Book” that accompanies any new axe.) The head was housed in a leather sheath, which is certainly effective at protecting both you and the blade’s edge. Releasing the small spring clamp and sliding out the leather strap is a little more complicated than would seemingly be necessary, but there’s at least no worry about this thing slipping off accidentally.
Out of the box the head of the hatchet was very well finished and precisely sharpened, requiring no tuning before going to work. A quick check showed that the blade was more than capable of dry-shaving a few hairs off the back of my hand, my go-to test for sharpness. Which is a far less macho process than my lumberjack grandfather employed: shaving his face with his axe before heading into the field.
I walked over to my woodpile and selected some medium-to-small pieces, about all you’d want to tackle with such a little thing. The head sinks in cleanly and the handle is well shaped for single-handed use, with just enough room for a second hand if you come upon something particularly stubborn. The head of the axe is well-hung, with the grain running parallel to the shape of the head, exactly as you want. Interestingly, Hults Bruk uses a round metal wedge in addition to a wooden wedge. That’s in contrast with the simple metal wedge used by Gransfors and most other high-end axes.
The wedges serve to spread the wood of the handle just enough to keep the head from departing, usually in an unfortunately dramatic way. It’s said that flat wedges do less damage to the wood and therefore the handle lasts longer. I doubt that will be a problem for most.
But there is one major problem with this hatchet I didn’t notice until I started using it. It’s right there on the backside of the handle, conveniently covered in all the online images you’ll find of this axe. Hults Bruk has a ridiculously, annoyingly massive disclaimer stamped onto the handle of the axe. It’s the sort of thing most manufacturers would stick on a removable label or, even better, stamp on the box.
Not here. It’s actually burned into the handle of the axe. If you want to get rid of it, and trust me you will, you’ll have to sand the axe down and then re-seal it with some linseed oil or the like. If you know what you’re doing it’s not a big deal, but given the cost of this thing it’s an unwanted and, frankly, hugely disappointing misstep.
As a general-purpose, light-duty workhorse the Hults Bruk Almike hatchet is a fine choice. It’s well made, cleanly hung, and appears to hold its edge well. It’s also a very good-looking piece of equipment—but for that damn disclaimer, of course. I’ll be honest, it ruins the whole thing for me. Yes, you could sand it off or hang the axe on your wall so that it’s out of sight, but you simply shouldn’t have to do that. It’s a big ugly wart on the nose of what is otherwise a very fine-looking piece of kit.
Bonus Man Knowledge! A Primary Axes Primer
Choosing an axe is not a decision that should be made lightly. Woe betide he who walks into a hardware store and walks out with the first piece of wedge-shaped metal mounted on a stick he sees. Your average axe sold in an average retail environment is a compromised thing, certainly capable of multiple uses, not particularly good at any of them.
Will your average axe split wood? Surely, but not as well as a maul. It’s probably better suited for chopping down trees, but how many people use axes to fell timber these days? When buying a big axe, you want something specialized for the job at hand. Here are a few common types you should know…
Felling Axe: This is what you’ll typically see hanging on the wall at a hardware store. They’re usually roughly three feet long with a large, flat, single-bladed head on top. That narrow head makes this type of axe a less-than-ideal solution for wood splitting, rather better at felling or other general duties, while the flat end is designed for pounding in wedges or other tasks where a little blunt force is required.
Boys Axe: Smaller version of a felling axe—same basic design but shorter and lighter. Yes, you might give one to a boy, but they’re not exclusively for the young. The lighter weight and size makes it a little easier to carry into the field or operate in confined spaces.
Hatchet: A hatchet is a general term for a smaller axe, typically under 16 inches in length and usually used single-handedly. Hatchets are general purpose axes ideal for light splitting of small wood into kindling, minor trail clearing, and basically anything else that needs cutting. A hatchet’s light weight and portability make it great for camping.
Maul: A maul is a large axe that is basically a cross between a sledgehammer and an axe. They offer a large, much heavier head than a traditional felling axe that’s generally mounted on a straight, rounded handle. A maul’s head is also quite a bit wider, which means it’ll do a far more comprehensive job of splitting one piece of wood into two. The flat end of the head, meanwhile, is ideally suited for hammering splitting wedges into particularly stubborn, knotty pieces of wood.
Double-bit: A double-bit axe has not one but two cutting surfaces and, again, typically a straight handle that allows it to be swung equally effectively in either direction. The flat, narrow head is really only ideally suited for felling trees. The two blades mean you can go for twice as long out in the field without re-sharpening, though many timbermen traditionally would put a fine, narrow edge on one side for initiating cuts into a tree, and a slightly wider, more durable edge on the other for chopping roots or limbs or anything that might damage the finer edge. These axes are visually quite impressive but practically obsolete for non-professionals.