"The Woodwright's Shop" Episode Review #11: Can you handle this axe?

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Blog entry by StumpyNubs posted 08-19-2014 01:10 AM 3204 reads 0 times favorited 1 comment Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 10: Roy Underhill wrestles a tree on a horse... Part 11 of "The Woodwright's Shop" Episode Review series Part 12: Roy wraps his thong around a lathe and warns us of crotch splinters... »

The following article is a commentary written by Stumpy Nubs which includes his description of the episode, thoughts and additional content. Only the phrases within quotation marks are the exact words of Roy Underhill.

For more episodes, including all of season one, visit!


It’s 1982 and Roy is back in the shop: “The place where we dare to question some of the burning issues of our time, some of the imponderable enigmas of all history, such as why is an ax handle is always wedged in tight on the head, whereas an adze handle is always loose and easily slipped from its handle…”

Yes, season two of The Woodwright’s Shop starts off with somewhat less than a bang. We’re going to talk about handles, the least interesting part of every tool. But young Roy Underhill has a way of making dull subjects interesting as he hones our understanding of the days gone by.

“The answer lies somewhere over here in the rocks…” With a few pedals of the grinding wheel we learn that an adze is impossible to sharpen with the handle in place, so it’s designed to be removable. Makes sense. But not every handle is designed for function, some reflect the style of the period. Roy shows us how a pile of handsaws can be a virtual timeline of woodworking history if you know how to read the handles. The open “pistol grip” of the dovetail saw gave way to the closed handle of the sash saw. The early examples were more sculpted, and the later favored strength over beauty.

“There’s another kind of saw handle that’s interesting… this old crosscut saw.” Roy’s vintage saw features an adjustable handle that rotates ninety degrees, making it easier to cut a standing tree. This is an example of handle evolution through convenience rather than style. The idea never really caught on, perhaps because lumbermen of the nineteenth century were among the last to adopt new-fangled fluffery. A fancy new handle wouldn’t impress unless it lasted longer than the old one. These desires for increased durability led to the evolution of chisel handles. Repeated striking with a mallet or, heaven forbid, a hammer could devastate even the hardest of turned handles. But the addition of an iron band could add decades to its lifespan. At the lathe Roy demonstrates how to turn a hickory handle and fit a ring cut from an old piece of iron pipe. He begins with “bone dry wood” so that a tightly fitted ring will only tighten with humidity. Any good woodworker knows how moisture can affect his tool handles:

“Sam Watkins was telling me… he farms over near Efland… his hoe handle got bit by a snake. And that hoe handle started to swell up on him, you know, because the snake bit it. And finally it got so big he couldn’t use it as a hoe handle and he had to break it up into timbers and use it for a hog pen. Well, he kept his hogs in there until one day just last spring he spilled some turpentine on the logs and the swelling started to go right down on them logs, and it squeezed up on them hogs and before he knew it… well, anyway he’s still got some of the sausage.”

With an old cant hook handle he next demonstrates how a clever tool maker would use the natural deformities of the timber to his advantage. A twist or turn in the grain can naturally form a bend that would otherwise have to be cut into a handle’s profile. The obvious benefit is the added strength that comes from unbroken wood fibers.

What would an episode of The Woodwright’s shop be, especially in the early seasons, without splitting some green hickory? Season two will be no different as Roy gets down on his knees to make some axe handles. If you’re building along you’ll need an eight inch billet, about three feet long. Ash will work too, in fact it’s all they use for handles in England “because hickory doesn’t grow there.” Roy imagines how the first colonists went out looking for the traditional ash that they had always made their tool handles from, only to discover the far more resilient hickory. It’s these little sidebars that make the show so entertaining, and I quickly find myself picturing the Pilgrims tramping around the forest in their big hats and buckled shoes. At first glance they may have thought the hickory was in fact an ash, both having compound leaves. But the hickory has alternating leaves, which the Pilgrims may not have known. They might have spent their time “barking up the wrong tree”.

As he splits his timber Roy tells us that a wooden maul is preferred so you don’t blind yourself; the first safety tip of the season. You may have a maul in your shop, but it’s doubtful that you have as many as Roy. He’s even crafting a new one, using a rare rounder plane to shape the handle. Also called a “nug” or a “witchet”, we saw this tool once or twice in season one, and its usefulness is undeniable if you make a lot of long handles. While I’ve heard such a tool referred to as a “witchet” a time or two, the term “nug” is more common among the pot smoking community than the woodworking one. I don’t know whether the young, formerly commune living, mother earth defending Roy Underhill would have been familiar with that usage. Watching him shave the bark off the pieces of hickory with quick chops right next to his thigh, it is clear that Roy is NOT under the influence. I would have buried that hatched deep in my knee, but he comes out of it no worse for wear. With bark removed his billets are far less attractive to bugs which might have made them their home during the year that the wood now has to dry.

“While we’re waiting…” Roy goes into one of my all-time favorite illustrations from the early seasons. With nothing but a bit of charcoal from the wood stove and a slab of white oak he gives us a lesson in geology, climatology and dendrology. For those who don’t know, Roy isn’t just a country woodworker. He majored in theater at UNC, hardly a surprise when you see how comfortable he is in front of an audience. But he also has a master’s degree from Duke University, where he studied forestry and the environment. Perhaps he first saw this illustration on one of his professor’s blackboards, but I like to think he made it up himself. It’s the story of why hickory and magnolia and other trees aren’t found in Europe. “Here’s our planet, a great place to be,” he begins. Drawing the continents as best as can be expected with a cinder, he shows us how the mountains in the Americas run north to south, while the great European ranges run east to west. “Now here come the ice ages…” Sprinkling sawdust over his charcoal planet he mimics a glacier creeping down from the north like an icy monster striking fear into the hearts of trees everywhere. “A tree can outrun a glacier, if you’ve ever seen him try it… in Europe they’re being forced higher up into the elevation of the Alps and they’re freezing cold, in fact they’re dying out. But what happens in North America? They’re going down between the mountains ranges, down south staying warm so that after the ice ages…” (He begins blowing the sawdust “snow” off the earth) “The trees come back north. North America still has all its species.” I honestly never knew that.

Now we’re invited to pretend that it’s a year later and those good old American hickory billets are bone dry. At his shaving horse Roy begins shaping his handle, but not before telling us how that shape developed over time. Producing a stone axe, he shows us how the head is attached to a stick with sinew. Then an early iron axe with a straight handle. Next comes the early nineteenth century axe with a sweeping curve in the handle. “We’re starting to get design coming in here… but then it starts getting decadent… it starts going downhill.” A more modern axe handle has a double curve and a “ridicules” shape at the end called a fawn’s foot. “High style but really useless”, in fact that foot makes tightening the head with a mallet blow on the handle’s end more difficult. People made their own handles to their own tastes. Once you get a style that suits you, you made a pattern so you could duplicate it. Roy has his own pattern, having perfected his “whip”, which is how the energy is transferred from your shoulders, down the handle and into the tree. The unique shape of an axe handle is designed for just that purpose, and a woodcutter would tweak its shape to fit his unique style.

Of course the shape of your handle depends on the type of axe. A hewing broad axe, for example, would have a shorter, straighter handle that’s canted to the side to give you clearance as you work your way down a timber. Roy shows us a roughed out blank he’s been making for such an axe, shaped with a draw knife rather than steam bent as some do it. At the shaving horse he continues to refine the shape, keeping the growth rings at ninety degrees to the axe blade, as is his preference. “Some manufacturers put paint on an axe handle to cover up cheap wood”, or as one would assume, a handle that wasn’t carefully smoothed and scraped with a spoke shave and piece of broken glass like Roy is using.

How do you get an old, broken handle out of an axe head? Throwing it in a fire is a bad idea as it will take the temper out of the head. You could bury the head in the ground and build a fire around the handle, but it is best to just saw and hack it out. Handles are difficult to remove because they are tightly wedged. Some stick the head into a bucket of water so the handle will expand in the hole. Roy says this is a bad idea too since the fibers will compress as they swell and the head will actually be more loose once they dry.

Before wrapping up the season two premiere he gets out an old catalog to show us how these old axes that collectors so prize today once sold for a few dollars. It makes me wish granddad would have bought a few crates full and saved them for me. At any rate that wraps up this episode of The Woodwright’s Shop.

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1 comment so far

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17040 posts in 4385 days

#1 posted 08-19-2014 04:35 PM

Enjoyable read Stumpy. So much knowledge from the past has disappeared, I’m glad some of it is still around. It is always amazing how apparently simple things are a lot more complicated (read interesting) than meets the eye. Our ancestors were ergonomic masters since they mostly used their own muscles or their animals muscles to do all their work. They had to make tools that optimized their input out of necessity. Most of us who use hand tools are just stumbling around in the dark compared to them.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

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