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The philosophy of axes with a minor component on welding mild to mild

Steffen Dahlberg

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So,an intertesting picture is developing...A number of cultures,each with it's own complex and very involved relationship with wood as a building material,develop a technique whereby the finish surface of a structure is achieved by means of a wedge-shaped cutting implement,leaving behind this rather characteristic,scalloped texture:





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Japan:(not a great illustration,but many of you are plenty familiar with Yari,and the surface finished using it)






Russia:(the second shot is a close-up):










Why,what's up with all this scalloping?!


The Theory:


(The possibly excessive romanticism of which we're cautioned against by Steffen,above,and his remarks i think are well thought out,and valid in many respects.I'd respectfully question some of them further on down,(if i can concentrate on keeping all this straight...).



Majn point in all this,probably preservation of the material itself.


(Folkemuseum in Oslo has a couple of farm buildings pushing 1000 years in age;i've recently watched an interview with a Korean woodwork contractor(mostly temple work),who normally guarantees his work for 700 years,et c.)


Such toolmarks,left on the coniferous species(though not 100%,some deciduous trees used,the shingles on last photos are aspen),act in the following manner:


1.They're super-smooth.

(The grit # of the tool transfers itself to material(we all know how shiny a cut the razor knife leaves on a carpenter's pencil,as an example).

To achieve the same grit with abrasion would be tedious in the extreme,if at all possible.


The smoothness repels moisture better,keeping the material too dry to sustain the life of the bacteria.It drains the driven moisture(rain)better as well.


2.The pressure treatment.

Known in machining as planishing,it,the finishing by pressure,really exists in whatever form in many trades.

The cutting action of these assorted hewing axes does this kinda automatically,it's the "kick-back" of the chip-parting action.


Notebly,the cutting edge of many of these tools is weighted down yet more(than the already significant weight of many broad axes).The extreme of this is Piilukirve,that has a thickness close to the edge of 1" or so(will add photo later).

Yari,of course,is used with a pressing motion that is directed toward the similar goal,or at least has similar result.

(Interestingly,all these tools,as dissimilar as they appear(and are),share a funky,3D parabolic curve.They're also mostly single-bevelled).


3.The resin-smearing action.


These mostly being the resinous conifers,the resin that is contained in the wood comes to the surface during the working of these timbers et c.,and get smeared along the surface,"gluing" the ends of the fibers to prevent them from fuzzing out,and absorbing more moisture than can be helped.




I must admit to being biased,and partial,as i've been looking at all this with the goal of FINDING the connections(between the shape of tools and the rest),which makes me a bad scientist.But there is SOMETHING to all of this,as a number of p[eople way smarter are seeing stuff there,so i'll try to keep my own opinions to myself,and here am setting out the info/ideas of others,the ones that i found interesting,and possibly worth discussing?.

God is in his heaven,and Czar is far away...

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Steffen writes:


"I have several questions that needs answering before I'm willing to accept that, because quite frankly it's easy to raise fibers with water no matter how hard they are compressed.

(1) -Are the Medieval axes small because axes are expensive, or because they wanted them that way? Would such an axe also work for hewing perpendicularly like we do today?

(2)-Sometimes it is clearly done in a very exact pattern and can be meant as decoration, but most often it is inside a roof or under a floor.
If they really regarded it as beautiful and tough against rot, why did they not do more of it? It looks to me like most often the most important parts are planed with a "skavl" or "pjål".

(3)-As Daniel mentions and I have heard also, edges were made more blunt in winter since the steel is more brittle. -Could Sprettetelgjing be more common in buildings buildt during the winter?



Steffen asks some good questions,i've taken the liberty of numbering them,and now another,of mumbling my possible ideas on the subject(-s):


1.I believe that the entire concept of "ancient steel expensive because rare" questionable,and often substantiated poorly,or not at all: For many decades archaeology in Russia was trying to deal with these strange shapes of found knives,unique and puzzling,till finally(Zav'ialov et al),they were admitted to be wore-out remnants,simply pitched in the trash.Even some pattern-welded ones...Knives were then thought of,it appears,as widespread,cheap,plentiful,and disposable.


This photos are from one of the Oseberg ship reproduction processes.It's striking how small most axes used are.The reproduction seems responsible,and convincing,well-informed/researched.The guys seem to hew just fine with these minute tools.

I can't help thinking that the craftsmen of a 1000,and more,years ago,worked with exactly the tools that they chose to work with(on sufficiently funded projects;surely,then as now there were peasants without tools,or pots to...place things in,(such as meself...:)


I'll transfer the other questions to keep things more orderly into the next post.




God is in his heaven,and Czar is far away...

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"(2)-Sometimes it is clearly done in a very exact pattern and can be meant as decoration, but most often it is inside a roof or under a floor.
If they really regarded it as beautiful and tough against rot, why did they not do more of it? It looks to me like most often the most important parts are planed with a "skavl" or "pjål".



The decorative concept is far from my thinking,i've been way too busy with structural stuff,and frankly see no end of it...


As we know from,say,boatbuilding,the finishing of timbers must be done especially carefully where they cannot be seen,in out of the way places.There,the structural members may easier be neglected,the problems will not be noticed in time.Also,in such places the ventilation-which is the saving grace of wood-is likely to be poor.

So,even more care was taken with the hidden from sight stuff.


(sorry,what are a "skavi" or a "pjal"? :)

God is in his heaven,and Czar is far away...

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(3)-As Daniel mentions and I have heard also, edges were made more blunt in winter since the steel is more brittle. -Could Sprettetelgjing be more common in buildings buildt during the winter?

I only wish that i knew morte about the seasonality of it all...It probably plays an important role,but one that i can only guess at.

Some guesses:

The agriculturist CAN only build during the very limited periods,farming took too much time and left very little for the rest.The particulars can probably be figured out regionally,to a degree of exactitude,based on records.

In Scandinavia some villages also fished very intensely,which meant the same thing,but probably different seasons,et c.

Another concept is transportation:How massive are the structural members,and how these sticks came out of the woods?If it involved a horse,then very possibly it also involved snow...(Snow does not necessarily means cold,in some areas the best time to hump logs (or finished timbers)out of the woods is springtime,when it still freezes at night,but melts during the day.The wood will only be partially frozen(i just got 30 cottonwood logs out of the woods in April,and they were not frozen through...).

I think it CAN be quantified,but only locally,and carefully,with attention to these few common sense factors.

God is in his heaven,and Czar is far away...

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Oh my :lol:

Jake, I'll have to get back to you on this, and find some examples.
For now I'll just answer quickly from the top of my head.

The smoothness. One thing that is often disregarded is the very nature of the wood that is selected for axe work opposed to the sometimes indiscriminate use of wood for sawed work.

Season. Farmers can be expected to do alot of building work in winter, but the further north you get, the more time is freed up in the summer season. In Helgeland there is only two rather late grass crops, and only one if any grain crops. Lofoten fishing is from January to April, and would be prioritized, as each crew member with a bit of luck in a good year could earn the equivalent of 250.000$ in todays money. (On the larger 40-50' net fishing boats)

A Pjål can have different shapes ranging from a gouge on a stick to something similar to a Spokeshave (I'm not sure, but I think this one is more likely to be called a Skavl), but is used as a drawn plane to smooth a rough hewn face.

Funny you should rephrase "if axes were expensive" to "if steel was expensive", as I was deliberately trying to avoid that. A few months back we had a lengthy debate on that subject on "Ironsmelters of the World" on Facebook, and it came out inconclusive, but I learned a lot.
It's only a bit more than a hundred years ago we got letters from Norwegians that left for America, saying "Here, if you have an axe you have all you need. -If you have two you're a rich man".
I just assumed they would be even more valued earlier, but that is not necessarily the case as I suspect more people were proficient in making iron in Medieval times.

Edited by Steffen Dahlberg
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No good ones, "Thoughts on axes, and the troubles of welding the folded ones with certain kinds of mild steel" ?? :unsure:

How about "The philosophy of axes with a minor component on welding mild to mild"?


That looped pjål is most similar to what I know as a cooper's inshave, used to smooth the inside of wooden casks after assembly. I know of no analogue to the non-looped one. That second tool, the skavl, is indeed what I'd call a spokeshave, or travisher if large and convex.


Now then: as some of you may know, log construction was integral to the European settlers of my part of the world, the southern Appalachian backcountry. Interestingly, the vast majority of these settlers were of English and Border Scot ethnic background, although there were far more Germans than most people realize. I am speaking of the timeframe from ca. 1750-1840 AD, a mere blink to you Europeans. :lol:


Anyway: There is no, none, zero tradition of building with hewn logs in the north of England and border Scotland, yet they universally adopted hewn log construction with notched corners, most often the half-dovetail notch, when they got here. Where did this come from?


According to Terry Jordan and Matti Kaups (this book, I highly recommend!), the key factor in addition to the abundance of timber was the fact that the vast majority of these people arrived on these shores in the Delaware valley in an area settled during the previous century by Swedes and Finns, who had brought the Scandinavian tradition of hewn log architecture with them. Thus the existance of British house morphology with Scandinavian construction techniques.


One thing that did not make the transition was that scalloped texture. Maybe it's because the hardwoods most often used for construction here don't need it, maybe it's because the axe types the British brought with them were different. The germans kept their goosewing axes, and the British kept their felling axes and broadaxe styles that had been used for squaring timbers for timber frame construction back home. The technique as it was practiced here became one of using a felling axe to cut shallow notches across the length of the log about a foot (31cm) or so apart, followed by hewing with the broadaxe to knock off large flat slabs, yielding a rectangular log with a series of vertical slashes between which are broad flat surfaces:




Shingles for the roof were split out with a froe, leaving the raised fibers running the length of the shingle.


Froe: https://pfollansbee.files.wordpress.com/2008/08/froe-panel.jpg


Interesting stuff...

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This is developing into a cool thread,thanks,everyone.


There IS quite a complexity to this,as so many elements are involved,but it's the nature of the beast,for how can the tool,and the details of it's construction(the axe and the attendant forgewelding of it's parts),be separated from it's intended purpose,the woodworking methods and it's specifics?


We have the most esteemed Sir Alan aboard,fortunately,who'll hopefully help with minimizing the inevitable tangle of concepts and opinions.


The subject is so vast,that i think it's naturally will progress in the technique of a pointillist painting,with all of us adding a spot of color here or there...(i think it has already started to go there,or at least it seems so to me and my ADD:)


I'd like to skip for a moment back to the welding of axes.


Personally,i'm glad to see the new day dawning on the forgewelding in general:The availability of clean,guaranteed alloys,the ajustability of the gas forge,all the cool info on the internet...Much is different now.

Certainly,a neat,cleanly-ground stack of 1095+15N20,a decent gas forge,thermocouple and a press or a roll-mill will get you a clean,solid,beauteous weld-never better!(Historically-quite literally so).


However,all this lovely modern stuff is deficient in one dept.,...It's a poor character-builder!

(A silly joke,please disregard...).

It,the new and sensible way to weld,does not contain within it those important limiting factors that served as (one of)factor in the tool developement and design.


The axe,i believe,was shaped by a number of important factors:


1.The nature of wood itself.


2.The human anatomy(i.e.the fancy modern "ergonomics"),as relates to BOTH the woodworking and forging of axes.


3.The specifics of the forging process(all the many and sundry pains-in-the-neck,from holding the pieces welded,to the chemistry of the dirty homemade alloys,all these separate Hells).


I believe that this latter was especially important in determining the shape of axes,and possibly even superceded #1...

(That potentially is a heavy thesis,as i happen to believe that much of modern architectural forms were derived from the early axe-made joinery,to put it very briefly,and thus,this heretical idea would trace the geometry of the Gothic cathedral to the solutions come upon by a frustrated,cussing,7th c.AD smith,failing this one weld for the 4th time,et c.,is that twisted or what?!:)


Anyway,take a look at the disection below.I think that there's LOTS to learn from there:

Analyse av egen øks.pdf

God is in his heaven,and Czar is far away...

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Just look at those nasty welds!Behold the filth of the massive Inclusions!!!Ah,does it not do your soul good?!


Obvious where i'm going with this...ART,vs Technology...For art is the way into the finer wiring in our nervous system,and it is from thence that the more elegant solutions in both wood and iron do spring.


Technology is sterile,it leads you to Damasteel!And the Made in China axes from Walmart!


So,work in the darkest and messiest of shops,up to your knees in filth!It'll make you a better smith!:)



God is in his heaven,and Czar is far away...

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Sadly the couple books I looked into didn't shed any more light on what the Cu might be doing. If I ever do stumble across anything I'll start a new thread with the info.

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I don't really have anything to add to this conversation but have to say that it makes me glad to be once again educated and entertained by the inimitable Mr. Pogrebinsky. :)

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Darn it,i've been recognised...Most fortunately,i only have access to the internet while travelling,and my travelling is rapidly coming to an end...(alas,for some of us,of a certain ethnicity,AND an obsession with axes,remaining long around people,where there're so many old lady-usurers at every turn,is simply unsafe...).


This subject can never be properly summarised,i wonder if it's a pathological compulsion of some sort to keep trying to do that,on my part,but i just want to...


Nagged by our restless little brains,and through the means of our insanely complicated neuro-mechanics,we humans kept on with our attempts to modify the existent physical reality surrounding us.


One of the first major steps towards that was our developing of a wedge-shaped cutting implements,especially ones with a lever extended by a wooden handle,for more versatility by acceleration,and other tricky physics.


The axe,being a link between our complex neurology and the equally complex material universe surrounding us,developed to have an incredibly complex shape...

(I happened to be presently staying with friends that are in the process of learning to program and use a Tormach CNC mill,and i'm watching them program it.I'm extremely impressed with it all,needless to say,but still i'm not exactly sure if one could SCAD an axe, the(4)axis an all don't seem to be enough!:)I know they are,but imagine the conditions in which folks worked a 1000 and more years ago,and how well they did designing MOST elegant of axes...)


The discovery and use of the Isothermal hardening of steel i'd also chalk up to the necessity of working with wood,as the wood is so abrasive,and dulls the cutting edge so depressingly steady and constant.

With all due respect to the weapon-makers,whose forum i'm so shamelessly infesting,it's just much more likely that the heat-treatment R&D was fueled by the necessity of cleaving wood,for cleaving the fellow humans(even the toughest of the little usurous old ladies),requires only something like Rc3 5 or so,and that for only a short period of time,as it probably all happens very fast!:)

Afterall, look at Micronesia and such paradisical environments:With their hard-wood swords they managed to commit a very respectable amount of butchery(they did have some sexy hardwoods,to be sure,the lucky dogs).


So i can't help but end up looking at shipbuilding,and architecture,as the end results of all these processes,especially since they,to whatever extent,are still available to be studied by us.

And they're awesome!:)


The construction details of the individual,private dwellings are very interesting,and rich in information.But also,in a different way,are the communal edifices,where the people came together,to combine their skill and knowledge.

And of course especially the Churches,as people then had this even yet additional incentive,and were motivated to do their utmost best.


Stavkirke,can there be a more explicit diagramming of the intent of axemanship?

Borgund,_GABull (1).jpg




God is in his heaven,and Czar is far away...

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My apologies to you,and everyone else,for forgetting my manners sometimes,i'm concentrating so hard...


Alan,thanks for those thoughts,and the link to that book(i'll see if i can get a hold of it).The American side of things is super-complicated,with the availability to them all the different cultural-regional building methods,and the plentiful materials and room,they took all that and ran...VERY far.


I'm pretty disgusted with my graphomania up to this point,it's so confusing and scatter-brained,so i think that i'll try to wrap it up the best i can here.


So,very roughly,the axe as a structure-/boat-building tool i more or less hold responsible on the spread of refining of the Fe-alloy technologies incl.the HT.


From the log-building,things progressed to more complex wooden structures,the stavkirke i think being a representative mix of log,and "stav",vertical structural members,till later,and further south,with the wood becoming scarcer,and the demand for larger and taller structures increasing,it all morphed into timberframing,which contains all the essential characteristics of the modern architecture as we know it.


So,similarly to the computer being an extention of our mental prowess,the axe was an attribute of extention of our ability to modify the physical reality surrounding us.The beginning,the very germ of it.

That's why it was of a such a complex shape...


Just some pretty diagrams from an old French building manual,late Middle ages...


big (5).jpeg

big (4).jpeg

big (6).jpeg


big (7).jpeg

big (3).jpeg

big (2).jpeg

God is in his heaven,and Czar is far away...

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Apropos the Scandinavian hewing a few posts ago,here's even a better one:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9-miG3J6n4


The shapes of axes are easily seen,and i love how "half-a$$",so to speak,many of the operations are conducted,using just that one log-dog,chasing the moving log around with their tools,et c.


It all registers in my(puny and twisted)mind as a further proof of how it wasn't the technology that was the main operating principle,but the idea,the underlying logic.

Thus,the sloppiness in the execution was totally ok.


My contention(one of)is that it was similarly so with forge-welding.It wasn't to produce a pretty seam,but to hold the parts together...(for a couple hundred years or so...:)

God is in his heaven,and Czar is far away...

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I agree completely.


I was at the monthly meeting of my local smith's guild yesterday and took a couple of shots of the hewn logs of the barn next to the shop. It was built ca. 1828. Sloppy where it doesn't matter, but look how tight those notches are and how clean and flat the hewing is...


barn 1.jpg


barn 2.jpg


barn 3.jpg


Contrast the clean flat surfaces with the scalloped top of that one log. Again, this is a barn, not a house, so the gaps are wider and the finish isn't as clean as some. But still, not bad for axework!

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Fantastic photos,Alan,thanks a lot.


A perfect illustration of how deceptively simple such structures appear.


The logic alone that is behind the work is difficult to appreciate fully if one is not a log-builder themselves:The notches,shaped to a section of a pyramid,that they'll stay tight as they shrink(all the work being done out of green wood),the very principle of that type of construction-with space between logs-assuring equal humidity and other factors to all sides of timbers...


Many of the tecniques had more than one purpose,like hewing,becides other functions,getting rid of those layers of wood next to cambium,containing too much sugar and starch for longevity...


So yeah,an excellent illustration of the great but subtle elegance of design,masked (to an untrained eye especially) by that seeming carelessness of execution...

"Seeming" being the key word here,NOTHING at all is careless or not most thoroughly deliberate.


As evidenced of course by the longevity of the structure.

Edited by jake pogrebinsky

God is in his heaven,and Czar is far away...

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