My restored double-bit axe – A “blast from the past” post

Last year, I won an old, rusty double-bit axe head in a writing contest at The Sharpened Axe blog. Most people who are not interested in such things would seriously question whether this is any kind of “prize” at all. Of course, you and I know better. ;) I did a series of write-ups for TSA on how I restored the axe and have since put it to some use. The following post shows the progression of the restoration and some new pictures as well.

The head weighs four pounds and, from what I can tell, was not used much, if at all. Since these old axe heads were usually made very well, that makes it a great catch, as it’s got lots of life in it. Both bits were of the same thickness, and they were pretty thick.

To begin, I had to remove the rust to see what I had to work with. After leaving the head in a vat of vinegar for almost a week, all of the rust had come off, and only clean metal with a vinegar patina remained. You can clearly see how the vinegar made a darker patina on the tempered section of the bits.

The next step was to file the bevels/edges to get to the bare metal underneath. Looks good so far!

This was followed by sanding the bits with progressively finer sandpaper (a smooth bit prevents the axe head from sticking in wood).

Once the head itself was complete, it was time to fit a handle. I was not patient enough to make a handle myself and wait for it to dry out, so I bought a handle from a local hardware store. As double-bit axes are/were not common in Finland, I had to use the closest thing I could find, which was a pick handle made of birch. It actually turned out to be a pretty good solution. I shaped the handle with a knife, rasps and sandpaper and fitted the head onto it. I made a poplar wedge and used it and two steel wedges to secure the head in place. Since the pick handle did not quite fill the eye of the axe head, I made two wooden wedges of equal size and knocked them into the spaces from the bottom in an alternating fashion (one knock on one side, then one knock on the other, to make sure they went in evenly).

This was followed by finishing the handle with a few light coats of walnut stain and some teak oil. I soaked the top of the handle with teak oil to strengthen and harden the wood in the eye (birch tends to be soft and can deform/compress much easier than, say, hickory). The dark splotches you see are from the natural grain of the wood.

I have not done anything to change the thickness of the bits, so right now the axe is best suited for green soft woods, birch etc. (though I have used it for some seasoned-wood bucking, as you can see below). I may leave it this way, or I may thin out one of the bits in the future. Who knows. I already have a full-size felling axe with a thinner bit for seasoned wood, so I’m in no hurry to modify the double bit. The main purpose of this axe will be notching trees for felling with a saw or possibly for the entire felling task for larger trees. It’s not intended to be a bushcraft axe for every trip, because I usually just don’t need an axe of this size for camping or daytrips.

And…the money shot:

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32 comments on “My restored double-bit axe – A “blast from the past” post

  1. Ron says:

    Nice work, and a clear description of the progress.
    I really like that last picture! Could be one for the manufacturer’s salesbrochure!
    The staining and colour of the wood makes it more of an eyecatching wallornament than a tool for use.

    • Thanks, Ron. :)

      If the manufacturer were still around (and making quality axes), I’d be happy to let them use the picture. ;)

      I like my tools to be functional and look good as well, so I was happy to add a quick few coats of stain and sealant to the handle to make it look nice. I don’t hesitate at all to use the axe in the field, though.

  2. Finnman says:

    Very good looking double-bit. Nice restore work, you have used a lot of elbow grease to get it look nice!
    Because in Finland double-bits have never come standard (back in the days woodsmen who worked in states / canada bring em here, but woodsmen here didn´t feel comfortable with them) I have never had chance to really use one. So out of curiosity few questions:

    1. Is it clumsy to use other than wood felling?
    2. Do you feel double bit more dangerous in use than single bit?
    3. What´s orginal purpose of double bit? Is it that you can have different grinds for different work or just that when one bit gets dull you can directly continue with other one and don´t have to have sharpening break?
    4. How it compares to you single bit axes in general use?

    - Finnman

    • Thanks for the comments.

      1. I have only used it to section a few logs so far and have not used it for other purposes. It is quite long and sort of heavy, so it would take some practice to be able to handle it “naturally”. The main purpose of this kind of axe is felling, though.

      2. I don’t feel that the axe is more dangerous in use than a single bit, because I am always careful and aware whenever using any axe. I am not afraid of the other bit hitting me or anything else.

      3. If you want, you can have two different grinds, one for felling and bucking, and the other for chopping knots, roots in the ground etc. Or, you can have the same grind on both bits. Then when one side gets dull, you can switch over to the other side without having to stop and sharpen.

      4. It is less of a general-use axe than single bits, since you cannot hammer with a double-bit axe and they don’t have a poll for use as a hammering surface, anvil, etc. I definitely prefer a single-bit for their versatility.

  3. John Wright says:

    As you are obviously a Finn you are entitled to your opinion but as a mid-south American farm boy your statement in item 4 above is both ignorant and misleading. First, an axe tempered in a proper process (i.e. chemical or quench) is never to be used as a heavy hammer as it may crack. Second, any light hammering needed may be done with the broad side of a double bit axe though heavy hammering should be done with A HEAVY HAMMER. Third, though a double bit lacks a poll it gains a second cutting bit and never needs any vise to sharpen since one bit may be buried into a stump or log leaving the other bit directly exposed and tightly secured for just that purpose. As to the loss of the make shift anvil (i.e. poll) the same tool may be created by sticking a double bit sideways but again I don’t recommend any use as other than intended. I have used both single and double bits and the only real drawback to the double is trying properly sheath one for safety carry or storage.

    • Actually, I’m from the US. :)

      If you read my comment, you’ll see that I never said axes should/could be used as heavy hammers. Hammering can also including things like cracking nuts and knocking in tent pegs. I do not and would not use a poll axe for heavy hammering.

      Sure, you can do light hammering with the side of a double bit, but it’s been my experience that the flat poll of a single-bit is better suited to the purpose because of its shape. Seems to me more damage would be done over time by using the side of a double-bit for hammering, as opposed to a poll, because of the thinness of the eye on the side.

      Yes, a double-bit is more versatile when it comes to chopping, as you can shape each bit to suit different needs, however for my purposes in the woods, a single bit and a hammer poll are more useful and versatile overall. Everyone else’s mileage may vary.

      Thanks for the comments and for sharing your opinions.

  4. John Wright says:

    Don’t have an “axe to grind” with you about this. It just seemed to me that you might have been short sighted in your analysis. Both of my grand fathers were born in hand hewn log cabins. My mother’s father came from the heart of W.Va. timber country and when I was a boy that cabin was still standing although not in use. The Tenn. side of the family had a log walled section of that house torn down and replaced by my father in the early 1950′s. I later found out that my father slept in that part of the house as a boy. Both families heated with wood cut and split by hand with the most practical of tools: 1. An axe, 2. a cross cut saw, and 3. a wooden mallet and gluts made from locust Y’s. Both families used double bit axes as a matter of practicality. I used to wonder why Dad didn’t enjoy camping, hunting, hiking, and fishing like my friend’s fathers because he liked being outdoors and engaging in outdoor activities like water and snow skiing. He also enjoyed raising cattle and keeping a garden and he heated with wood in the winter into his eighty’s. At some point in my young adult life it occurred to me that he roughed it so much at home growing up that camping out, walking every where, and killing what you eat weren’t his idea of fun. I never used a single bit axe or hatchet until I was a Boy Scout for the exact same reason that he didn’t enjoy camping, hunting, hiking, or fishing: Practicality. My double bit Michigan pattern Homestead axe has had at least 2 handles that I know of and to my earliest knowledge the head either had no paint left or never had any paint. During my childhood I saw Dad use it as both a makeshift sledge hammer & anvil, a cold chisel, a heavy wire cutter, a maul, a grub hoe, a bush hook, and more than once as a fence stretcher. Dad did more with less than most I know and he didn’t collect many tools in the process. No Sir, he used tools whatever they were as best he could for what tasks were at hand. He wasn’t a skinflint but he had an appreciation the value of full utility. I learned some of these things are unsafe or inadvisable later on as a Boy Scout but I also learned that they could be done with a little effort from the progenie of mountain men and pioneers. So I guess what I was getting at was that the reason that your post struck me as odd, misinformed, incorrect, or otherwise untrue is really a twisted duality of my upbringing; first to fully use a good tool but later learning to use it for the correct intended purpose. I see your point.

    • You and your family obviously have plenty of experience using axes. As you mentioned, different people will see the same thing in different ways based on their experience, knowledge etc. When it comes down to it, a lot of things can be used for a lot of different purposes, both intended and unintended. When resources etc. are scarce, people often just do what works because it works, regardless of whether it’s a “good idea”. I admit that I don’t have a lifetime of experience with any type of axe and am therefore the furthest thing from an expert. I know what I like/am familiar with and I know what I think about other options (based on my level of experience with them).

      In any case, thanks again for the comments! I always appreciate them, especially the ones that challenge me, because they make me reconsider my thoughts on things, which is always a good idea! :)

  5. Chris Tetman says:

    Thank you for the idea of using vinegar to remove rust from old axe heads. After looking at an old double bit that had been laying in the dirt garage of my father in laws cabin, I finally grabbed it. After the vinegar treatment, what a monster! I have an unmarked, very thick 8 pound double bit. The hardened edges showed up nicely. I sharpened, then honed the edges (and cut my finger…). Some final sanding and a handle and this very old head will be backk in service. Thank you!

    • No problem, but I can’t take credit for the idea. :) I’m happy you were able to make use of the information. Wow, and 8 lb. double bit…that thing is a monster! Use that thing enough and you don’t need a gym membership. ;)

  6. Chris Tetman says:

    By the way, I also grew up with a double bit axe and a two man bow saw in my hands. From the 60′s to the 80′s my father heated his house with wood. For us as a family, needing only 4 cords to survive a year, we looked at woodcutting as an adventure. Twisted, I guess…

    • I kind of wish I had grown up using those tools often like you, instead of learning later on. I’d be a much better axe user! :) I guess the amount of wood you need for heating can be either an adventure or a pain in the butt, depending on how much much you need. ;)

  7. Rocky says:

    Always amazed at the depth of knowledge we have now with the internet!. I just picked up a nice double bit head at a yard sale for .25 cents. It is an old TrueTemper that has a nice high ring when you tap it. A bit rusted but in pretty decent shape and it goes into a vinegar bath tonight! I got a hickory haft for it but am concerned the grain on the butt is more diagonal than vertical. I’ll take it back when I get up north next week. The store is 50 miles away! Now that I know better what to look for I’m sure I’ll have a neat axe to work with. Years back I was taught one edge was sharp with a narrow edge and the other end was more wedge shaped for the heavy bucking. In any event, they will be near razor sharp. I made my own sheath with heavy saddle leather with a flap and tie down rings so it could be safely packed on a mule or horse in the back country of Montana.
    Thanks for all the hints and tips.
    Selway Kid in Western Montana

    • Glad to be able to pass the information on to you!

      That was a great find for a quarter! The diagonal grain shouldn’t be a huge problem. The handle might not last quite as long as one with a vertical grain, but you’d still get plenty of good use out of it if the wood quality is good.

      In any case, it sounds like you’re going to have a really nice axe soon. I’d love to see pictures of it strapped to your horse in the Montana wilderness! :)

      • Rocky says:

        A monster has been created! Three days of a vinegar soak to hit the rust, lots of bubbles, lots of scale coming off, blackened fingers from the oxide, a ruined shirt from the splash, and a gorgeous ax head. It has some chisel marks where someone abused it for some reason, and the eye and head are also deformed from abuse (hammered?). I’ll have to do some careful file work to smooth them out. As near as I can tell from research, it is from 1954. The edges are still ready to go but they need work obviously. Now then, here is the dilemma and problem. I interviewed at least a dozen hafts at the local store and picked one with a pleasing vertical grain and figure. I’ll strip off the finish and stain/refinish the wood to make it pleasing as well as practical. Got a wild hair and decided to do an inlay with my initials or brand someplace near the butt end. Am thinking of doing a ductile wire wrap near the head for mis-strike protection.
        Got a friend who does master engraving work and thought of using the chisel marks as tree trunks and making them look like pine trees that are common here. omg A custom engraved ax head?
        To take it further, my daughter has a bunch of leather from an auction and I am looking at making a sheath, and doing some leather carving to make it pretty.
        Of course I am taking progress pics and if I do this again I’ll charge $1000 and all the beer I can drink. Oh, I’ll have to buy a new toothbrush for my brother since it was used to clean off some of the oxide. He won’t notice the difference I don’t think…

        • Rocky says:

          Will the madness ever end? I found a felling ax at a barn sale with a nice hickory haft. The head had been pounded down until the wood started to curl, and the wedge driven in. Of course the head was loose and rusted and I got it for $5. Took it off last night, put it in a vinegar bath and it began to bubble within :15 minutes. Spent about a half hour with a rasp and sandpaper to take the wood down to smooth and ready for stain and finish. I’m going to inlay the family brand in it with brass. Will do the same with the double bit ax. Both hafts are nicely grained with a slight diagonal at the butt end.
          I’ve definitely found a new hobby for restoring old working tools! I am taking progress pics as I go just in case someone wants to try it out. Will also do final pics just to show them off and perhaps give someone ideas for their own.

          • Nice! I think you’ve caught the “axe restoration bug”. ;) I’m glad you having good luck with your projects. :)

            It is a great feeling to take what many would consider junk and turn it into a classy and useful tool!

        • Rocky says:

          The bit is more deeply pitted than I thought. Gonna take a lot of work. I did find it is a Vulcan with Kelly Works under it, and 4 on the reverse side which confirms a 4# head. The haft is now ready for stain and finish.
          Picked up a felling axe at a barn sale with a god haft for $5. Unfortunately, after a few days of vinegar soak, the axe has a split from the poll halfway down the face which makes it unusable. The haft is a nice piece of wood though so now I have to hunt for a good head as a companion to the double bit. Lots of fun and adventure in doing these and great therapy for an over worked under paid helicopter pilot!
          p.s My brother said his toothbrush tasted funny but I told him to soak it in baking soda and it would be fine……

          • A Kelly Works Vulcan! Great find! They’re supposed to be great, from what I’ve read.

            Sorry to hear about the split felling axe, but I guess we can’t win them all. Still, the five bucks were well spent since you got a good haft out of the deal. :)

            I’m really happy to hear how you’re enjoying these projects! I imagine your brother might not be enjoying the experience as much, though. ;)

        • Sounds like it’s REALLY coming along! I’m happy it’s working out so well for you. From what you say, I’m sure it will be one of the nicest axes around when you’re done with it. Charging $1,000 and lots of beer for a job like this sounds pretty good. I’ll have to see if I can find any takers next time around. ;)

  8. Padi says:

    Hi guys, I’ve just found this blog after buying an old double bit axe head in pretty good condition, it’s a True Temper Vulcan ( but without the Kelly Works brand name on it – so I assume it dates from before Kelly Works took over Vulcan??? )
    Any ideas on it’s age guys? It weighs 4lbs and you can see the temper marks quite easily.
    Anyway I’ve found an old (new) pickaxe handle so it’s up to the shed and the belt sander/ rasp/ chisels and see if I can do a reasonable job on getting it to fit………
    Thanks for all the info here, guess I’ve joined the circle – I’m blaming Jack Kerouak for talking in his books about double bit axes back in the ’50′s………….
    They’re pretty rare beasts down here in Australia, so here’s hoping I do a decent job on it.
    I’ll let you know how I go.

    • Thanks for the comment, Padi! Glad to hear of your axe head find. :) Sorry to say I can’t help in identifying its age, but maybe someone else can help.

      Glad you find the blog informative! I hope your double-bit axe project goes well. Do let us know how it turns out!

    • Rocky says:

      I discovered it is really easy to take off too much wood if not careful when fitting the haft. Wheew it scared me! Fortunately, I didn’t take off too much but it was close. I used Gorilla Glue when I put in the wedge as I couldn’t find some of the Swell Lock to swell the wood. Seems to work out OK. I used one of my knives to scrape off the lacquer or whatever was on the haft down to bare wood. Now I am finishing it with sandpaper and will stain it before the final finish.
      The edge is well angled on each end, one edge being more narrow and both will get touched up with a stone to bring them both to a razor edge…and I mean sharp enough to shave hair off my arm.
      Have laid out the pattern for the leather sheath and have several options to pick from. My immediate choice is utilitarian to protect the edges, and myself, with the axe in in the truck in the backcountry. I’ll have all winter to work on different designs for use in the truck or on horseback. Taking pics along the way for future reference. Am amazed at how much I’ve learned about hanging an axe via the internet. One of the best is a USFS video on YouTube and done by a pro with axes. It was done about 80 miles from where I live.
      Great satisfaction is taking an old ax head and returning it to work as designed.

    • it would date after (most likely) the ones with kelly works on it. At some point, True Temper dropped the Kelly Works label. They all can be put in the general 50s-60s usually.

  9. Padi says:

    Hi again, well I’ve been lucky enough to find a guy here in Australia who has some hand-made shafts made from Australian hardwood, so the pick handle can stay as it is while I use his handle – yippee, that’ll save a lot of cursing and messing around. Guess I’ll use the saved time getting out my leather bits and making up a couple of sheaths for the axes now.
    I also bought a few other things off him, one being a Double Temper Pulaski head.
    His website is http://www.axeoexa.com and he posts worldwide – wouldn’t I just love a shed wall like his…….
    Rocky, I’d heard that a bit of linseed oil on the wedge and down the kerf of the shaft will do the job as well as Swell Lock (though it doesn’t sound right to me somehow?)

    • Rocky says:

      Padi
      None of the pros here recommend that linseed oil on the wedge or in the kerf. I agree with them that it doesn’t make for a permanent solid tight fit. Not sure if you have “Gorilla Glue” down south but I think a good wood glue may work as well? I’m going to wait to try my axe before I put in any metal wedges. The fit seems to be good but I did put some small hickory wedges in the head at the top of the poll to fill the gaps. I’ve got two different axe styles that I am working with and one that will go into the high country tomorrow. I’m still trying to smooth out the original axe head that I started with and its taking longer than I expected. As for the sheath, I plan to do some carving on it with some decoration, or perhaps the old family brand as well as inlays on the haft. They’ll be different in any case! Most importantly, they’ll be working tools to clear trails if/when I run into blowdown trees that block travel. We’ve had a lot of fires that left a lot of trees dead and standing that go down in high winds, or sometimes just a puff in the right direction! With our narrow roads and steep banks it can be exciting! Perhaps with a pvt email address I can send you some pics.
      Cheers Mate
      Rocky

    • Thanks for the link, Padi. I also don’t use linseed oil on wedges, although it is common practice.

  10. Padi says:

    I agree Rocky, putting oil on something you don’t want to move didn’t strike me as very sensible either, and yes we can get the Gorilla Glue here in Oz, so I’ll use that or some wood glue when fitting the handles to my axes. PM is padi@fjmegabytes.com we have similar problems in Oz with trees coming down in storms etc since most of the eucalypts have very shallow root systems, mind you axes hardly touch some them at all or just bounce off – thank god for chainsaws!!!
    Have a good Sunday mate, Padi.

    • Rocky says:

      Padi
      Linseed oil is frequently used as the finish on the axe handles/Hafts and on top of the head to seal off the wedge and kerf AFTER it is installed. Some like to rough up the handle end for a better grip, some like it smooth. Personal preference I guess? I’m doing a smooth finish on mine, and if it is too smooth, I can always rough it up with a rasp. Meantime, I’m trying to make mine pretty, as well as useful, since I’m not making a living at chopping wood. Sending some pics via a pvt email.
      Cheers
      Rocky

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