Traditional wood used for axe handle used in europe ?

Discussion in 'Axe, Tomahawk, & Hatchet Forum' started by Titaniumlord430, Jul 4, 2017.

  1. Titaniumlord430

    Titaniumlord430

    43
    Jun 12, 2017
    Hello i just bought a axe head from ebay and wish to make a traditional handle for it , i know it should be straight with no pommel , but i do not know what wood to use , if you need to to know what area in Europe my axe head is from to tell me what wood i should make my handle out of, it is Friesland ,
     
  2. littleknife

    littleknife

    Nov 29, 2000
    Ash (European ash - Fraxinus excelsior) and beech (European beech - Fagus sylvatica) were the most common woods used traditionally.
    European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) and cornel cherry (Cornus mas) were also used in various places, if available.
    Since the 19th Century black locust (Robinia pseudo acacia), usually referred to as ‘acacia wood’ in Europe was also used occasionally.

    I wouldn’t be afraid to use hickory wood though. It will resemble ash, so it would not look very untraditional, but it will be definitely stronger.
     
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2017
  3. Moonw

    Moonw

    Nov 19, 2014
    Good answer, except "acacia" is not black locust, although the two are confused often. It's just our bad English at work I guess :).

    Cornel cherry, whatever that is, is new for me. I'd add the birch, elm, and I think white (?) oak in Britain?

    TL, since you are so diligent, I'd focus on what was available locally at the time, which may give you more than one possibility.
     
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  4. Kevin Houtzager

    Kevin Houtzager

    908
    Jun 25, 2017
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    Last edited: May 13, 2019
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  5. Titaniumlord430

    Titaniumlord430

    43
    Jun 12, 2017
    white oak is really expensive in canada , ash is half the price as a local tree farm grows European ash, i think i will sacrifice some accuracy for the huge price difference, i also read that the tannin's in oak make steel rust faster. Thanks kevin and the rest of you guys that helped me pick what wood to get for my frisian axe
     
  6. Moonw

    Moonw

    Nov 19, 2014
    I've seen hornbeam used on full sized axes w/o any issues whatsoever. Again, it may be some local variation, who knows..
     
  7. littleknife

    littleknife

    Nov 29, 2000
    As both I and Kevin said, ‘acacia’ is not the English term for black locust, but the common term in many European languages. Guess what do “Akazienhonig” in German or “akácméz” in Hungarian mean? It’s black locust honey.

    The reason it got confused with the true acacias is not simply the similarity of the woods, but mostly the similarity of the leaves.
    Black locust was introduced to France and England in the 18th Century and from there it spread into other countries. In 19th Century Hungary it was widely planted to fix the sandy soils stripped of trees during Medieval times. It became so common that within a couple of generation the people thought of it as a native plant.

    Cornel cherry is quite rare now in Western Europe. Once it was more widespread and used for tool handles extensively. It is an Eurasian member of the dogwoods.
    Before Kevin tells you that he tried it and found it to be brittle, you have to be aware that nowadays it has many cultivars selected mainly for decorative looks or the fruits, so they might vary in their strength characteristics too. ;)
     
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2017
  8. littleknife

    littleknife

    Nov 29, 2000
    European oak was used as axe handles, but for that purpose beech was preferred. Oak was more valuable as a building timber or wood for wine barrels.
    Also, beech is slightly more elastic than European white oak (Quercus robur).

    Most fruit trees make poor handles for bigger axes, because typically they are brittle. The occasional piece could be strong enough for a good hatchet handle.
    Birch was widely used in the Northern countries (Britain, Fenno-Scandinavia, Russia), less so in more Southern countries.
    Elm was also mostly used in Northern countries.

    As for hornbeam being brittle, it was widely used for axe handles and I guess the locale and way it was dried/processed also did count.
    Maybe the hornbeam in your locale is not useable for this purpose, but elsewhere it was a traditional axe handle wood:

    http://www.taddikentree.com/columnar-hornbeam/
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carpinus_betulus

    Trees grown in different locales can exhibit surprisingly different mechanical characteristics. That is why we have to be careful with overgeneralizing the personal experiences: they might be true, but not necessarily typical for other regions or times.
    E.g. European beech wood varies widely regarding its strength and elasticity, depending on the regions and tree variants. Soil, climate, the age of the tree at harvesting, schedules of drying, steaming etc. all do significantly influence its mechanical properties.
     
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  9. littleknife

    littleknife

    Nov 29, 2000
    At the end of the day, I would use European beech wood for the handle of your Friesian axe.
    You can buy long straight European beechwood axe handles from forum member FortyTwoBlades (owner and operator of the Baryonyx Knife Co.).
    For sure it would be traditional. Beechwood axe handles were and still are widely used in France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Central-Eastern Europe (Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria etc.). American beechwood (Fagus grandifolia) might not be the best substitute: it looks like the European variety but it is typically weaker. Also, I would avoid steamed beechwood used for interior construction or furniture/carpentry: steaming usually weakens the beechwood.
    That is why I would go with dedicated axe replacement handles: they are usually (or supposed to be) selected and properly dried for that purpose.

    Beechwood will give you not only a traditional look and feel, but also a wonderful smooth surface which will improve with frequent use.
    Make sure you oil/seal the wood because beech wood moves considerably with the changes in atmospheric moisture. Don’t store your axe in a shed, because beech wood is very susceptible to wood boring insects.
    Also, don’t expect the strength and elasticity of hickory.
     
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  10. 300Six

    300Six

    Aug 29, 2013
    Lots of good advice! Do I get the impression that you are located in Canada? If so you might want to try Yellow Birch. This stuff is much stronger than White Birch or European Birch but overall appearance is the same. White Ash ought to be readily available, and cheap, these days what with Emerald Ash Borer threatening all of the eastern trees.
     
  11. Moonw

    Moonw

    Nov 19, 2014
    +1 for all the details, thanks. I had the impression black locust was imported before as the preferred wood for building large ships.

    However, I'm not sure “akácméz” is black locust honey...I'd expect it to be honey locust...honey :).
     
  12. Moonw

    Moonw

    Nov 19, 2014
    That smoothness is a reason why I also love it. I have dried leftovers that I am using for whatever tools I need handled. It's quite hard to break. The only thing I'd like more about it would be some more elasticity...it kind of transfers shock.

    As for sealing...yes, absolutely! It tends to check / crack if left unsealed, at the mercy of the elements.
     
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  13. Kevin Houtzager

    Kevin Houtzager

    908
    Jun 25, 2017
    X
     
    Last edited: May 13, 2019
  14. littleknife

    littleknife

    Nov 29, 2000
    [QUOTE="Moonw, post: 17280882, member: 394901]
    However, I'm not sure “akácméz” is black locust honey...I'd expect it to be honey locust...honey :).[/QUOTE]

    "Akácméz" is not honey locust honey, it is black locust honey.

    https://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akác

    In Hungary there are great areas of pure stands of black locusts, specifically of a desirable variant called the shipmast locust.
    In the absence of the original damaging insect and fungal pathogens and being quite resistant to the native European insects it can provide nice, clean timber.
    After Hungary joined the EU, they started to export it to EU countries at very competitive prices. The French, Spanish and German timber industries facing this competition reacted by invoking "ecological" issues like the black locust being an invasive non-European species, and demanded that Hungary exterminates its black locust stands (most of which are 150-170 years old, of course not the individual trees, but the stands).
    At the end of the day, black locust might be not-native, might be invasive, but in Hungary the areas it grows were long cleared of any native timber, and there were moving sand dunes there, creating dust bowls.
    The black locust successfully fixed the soil, and created some industry for the locals (both timber and honey). The local climate also benefitted from the presence of trees.
    The EU did not provide clear plans, nor money for replacing the black locust with the ancient, native trees. With the hotter climate nowadays, I doubt most of the original tree species would thrive there now either.
     
  15. garry3

    garry3

    Sep 11, 2012
    Trees seem to be as individual as people. Just a huge variation. I have even seen it from trees growing on the same mountain side. In my experience some species seem to have more variation than others, here locally.
     
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  16. littleknife

    littleknife

    Nov 29, 2000
    There was a member from Belgium here, Ernest DuBois. He attested, and historical documents support that too, that beech wood was widely used for axe handles in Belgium until the end of the 19th, beginning of 20th Century. It was a common handle wood: cheap, readily available and easy to work with.

    Oak wood is not the best for axe handles, it has a corase grain and more prone to give splinters, even after careful sanding.

    Also, the OP asked about traditional European woods, not what is commonly used nowadays.
    Your personal (and modern) experience from Holland/Netherlands is kinda misleading, since large part the country's territory was under sea level a few centuries ago, and the tree species changed dramatically over the last several centuries. There was an extensive timber trade at the time, so good quality beech wood from not too far away (France, Germany etc.) would have been readily available and likely not very expensive. 'Traditional' does not necessarily mean 'exclusively local'.
     
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2017
  17. Moonw

    Moonw

    Nov 19, 2014
    "Akácméz" is not honey locust honey, it is black locust honey.

    https://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akác

    In Hungary there are great areas of pure stands of black locusts, specifically of a desirable variant called the shipmast locust.
    In the absence of the original damaging insect and fungal pathogens and being quite resistant to the native European insects it can provide nice, clean timber.
    After Hungary joined the EU, they started to export it to EU countries at very competitive prices. The French, Spanish and German timber industries facing this competition reacted by invoking "ecological" issues like the black locust being an invasive non-European species, and demanded that Hungary exterminates its black locust stands (most of which are 150-170 years old, of course not the individual trees, but the stands).
    At the end of the day, black locust might be not-native, might be invasive, but in Hungary the areas it grows were long cleared of any native timber, and there were moving sand dunes there, creating dust bowls.
    The black locust successfully fixed the soil, and created some industry for the locals (both timber and honey). The local climate also benefitted from the presence of trees.
    The EU did not provide clear plans, nor money for replacing the black locust with the ancient, native trees. With the hotter climate nowadays, I doubt most of the original tree species would thrive there now either.[/QUOTE]

    Very informative!

    Good luck, EU, forcing Hungary down that path. It sure worked well in the past :).
     
  18. Moonw

    Moonw

    Nov 19, 2014
    Beech is used in Eastern Europe, and has always been. I know about at least a local producer that is exporting axe and other tool handles made out of both ash and beech - 70%-80% goes to Austria and Germany.
     
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  19. Kevin Houtzager

    Kevin Houtzager

    908
    Jun 25, 2017
    X
     
    Last edited: May 13, 2019
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  20. Moonw

    Moonw

    Nov 19, 2014
    Kevin, I can't post direct links over here, it's against the forum rules. (All I can say is that they are willing to do custom stuff and hand pick items for you, based on a past conversation I had with them. I have not yet purchased from them, I was waiting for something else, but in the end I think I'll give them a try.)

    I'd be willing to share this info via email of course.
     

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