Thursday, April 10, 2014

Gransfors Bruk Axe Review - Part 2

Gransfors Bruk axes are made in Sweden and are exported all around the globe. Their axes are unique, in that they are still individually forged and made by highly skilled craftsmen. No big factory, where truck loads of raw material are dumped in at one end, and endless numbers of axes pumped out the other end. No, this is where the time honoured methods and techniques of skilled tradesmen create finely honed, crafted axes. In fact, each axe head is stamped with the initials of the craftsmen for two reasons. As a testament and recognition of his ability to create a great axe, but also as mark of ownership. This ensures that they are constantly striving to make the best axe possible, but also take responsibility of any short comings. If that doesn't speak of quality, I don't know what does.

On the axe head, you can clearly see the initials, "AS". If you go
to the Gransfors Bruk website, you can find the smith's
name, in this case, Anders Stromstedt.

The shape of the Small Forest Axe head is long and narrow at the cutting edge, which is great for cutting deep into the meat of the tree. Then at the back end, it widens of course to accommodate the handle, but provides some depth to help with splitting. I would say the axe head is more of a felling axe head, rather than a dedicated splitter, but it will still split. The weight of the axe head is a fair trade off, not too heavy, and not very light at 1 1/2 lbs. The handle length again is a bit of a trade off too, not too short, but not long either at 19 inches. The handle is made from a solid piece of finely grained and knot free hickory. Lastly, the axe comes with a snug grain leather sheath, which protects both the cutting edge, and soft human flesh.

The well used axe head of a Gransfors
 Bruk Small Forest Axe.

This Gransfors Bruk Small Forest Axe accompanied me on many trips last year, 67 days in fact. I made sure this review came back with actual sustained field use, not just a weekend test run. Maybe it was coincidence, but it came in real handy on several occasions. This was perfect for properly evaluating its ability and effectiveness in real life situations, not just in the backyard. I carried it, worked it and sharpened it, all the while in the heat, the rain, in freezing temperatures, and with bugs. Trust me, it got out there, and got used - like it was meant to be.

What's the point of bringing an axe if you're 
not going to use it? 

So what did I do with the axe, besides portaging it a lot? The decision to bring an axe often rests on a particular purpose, which hopefully justifies the extra weight you will be carrying. Sure, someone may take it for protection against a bear, or a ravenous rabbit, but most times, people take it for its utilitarian aspect. Personally, because I often cook over a fire, or use a twig stove, I mainly use the axe for trimming tree trunks and tap splitting them into small pieces for the fire. Also, because I push the limits of the paddling season, having an axe in the shoulder seasons provide access to dry wood during a long wet cold spell. Lastly, I often trip in areas where the route is often not well maintained, or maintained at all. So this is where the axe  really gets handy - chopping through downed trees. As you can see, the axe serves a multitude of purposes for me, which to me go hand in hand with my other essential gear.

I've already lauded the craftsmanship of the axe, but now for the most important part. How does it actually perform? Well, in a few words, great, except for a few things. So let's talk about the two main things that I do with axes - at least for me. Tap splitting and tree/trail clearing (Mainly trees that have already fallen.) Because I usually have small fires, I don't often split big logs, so I won't be covering that, but what I'm going to share applies to that equally as well. For those that don't know, tap splitting involves taking pieces of cut wood, aligning it vertically, embedding the axe head into it, and taking a another piece of wood and hitting the back of the axe head to split the wood. Or, if the axe bites enough into the wood, tap the wood with the axe head above it over a wood block, or some solid surface to drive the axe head through it. Tap splitting can be done with large pieces of cut logs, but if that is the case, you may as well just split it standing above it. Tap splitting usually involves smaller pieces of wood.

Tap split wood was a big factor in our fire this day. After many
days of rain, even tap split wood can be damp,
thus our dry-feed routine.

As I tap split a lot of wood, and of various sizes and types, (hardwood vs softwood) I found in general, the Small Forest Axe does the job proficiently. The long narrow face drives well into small pieces of wood, and easily splits it. However, my issue stems around 2 things. First off, the longish handle. It is unnecessary for tap splitting. So in this case, I choke up on the handle and viola, problem solved. However, the 1 1/2 lb head, plus the weight of the long handle may not seem heavy, but tap split a lot of wood, and you'll soon find your forearm, and especially your wrist fatiguing. My forearm is less of a concern, as it is simply muscular in nature, but I have a small wrist and this weight and applied force (depending on the type of tap splitting you do) eventually causes aching, which is not of the good kind, unlike the forearm. This may not be a concern for people with big strong wrists, but for me, prolonged tap splitting means regular breaks. Other than that, the Small Forest Axe works admirably at tap splitting.

In the middle of a portage, we came upon a downed tree that
was too high to go over, and too low to go under.
As you can imagine, our favourite.

As evidenced, many people chose to go over the trunk,
as you can see the bark worn well off.

Felling trees is easier when it is standing, and away from obstructions. But on a 'trail', there is little that is ideal. (I rarely ever cut down a standing tree.) The ones I do, are usually horizontal, including all the other positions in between. There is no rhyme or rhythm when trees fall. They do so carefree, so that often means, you have to get into the most optimal position, since swinging an axe can be very dangerous. I probably got to cut through almost 10 tree trunks last year, most of them small to medium size - no bigger then 6-7 inch diameters. However, a few were bigger, with one being about a foot or more in diameter. And get this, it was high up too, making the swings very awkward. I eventually even had to climb atop and chop away. Let's just say it was a bloody good workout.

 Of course we could have just slid the canoe underneath and went
on our merry way, but this was a great opportunity
to test out the Small Forest axe.

  Almost there - it was a big trunk, easily over a foot in diameter.
It was awkward to cut too, as it was high up. At one
 point I had to stand atop the trunk
and swing away.

Hot and sweaty, but mission accomplished. The axe worked quite
well at cutting through this thick trunk. Future portagers
may not know it was the job of a Small Forest
Axe, but I'm sure they will
appreciate it.

Just as the axe performed well tap splitting, at the other end of the spectrum, it worked well chopping through thick meaty trunks. The 3 1/4 inch head depth allowed me to penetrate deep, whether hard or softwood, wet or dry. Rotating rhythmically from side to side, I was easily able to take chunks of wood out - yes, the chips were literally flying. In no time, I was quickly able to cut through the trees. Only a few times, when I had to deal with awkward angles and positions, did it take considerably more time, but that's expected. In general, I found it effective and efficient in cutting through. Saying that, there is one caveat. The handle. Not a fault in the design or wood, but in it's length. 

I won't deny that the Small Forest axe does a good job felling trees, but the handle is not the ideal length. The length of an axe handle is important for good leverage, and helps reduce fatigue, as less effort is needed to drive the head into the wood. Hence why when I swung at lengths, it always felt limiting. Thankfully, since the length of my arms are more akin to a gorilla, being longer than my height, this helped with the 19" handle. But ultimately, I always felt I was lacking in length. (This statement, nor the gorilla one, is going to fair well for my manhood.) Therefore, I believe the Small Forest Axe is better suited for cutting down the occasional tree, rather than sustained use. But in this regard, it is perfectly fine too, because I believe that was the whole purpose of it's design - a compromise. Or better put, a jack-of-all-trades, much like the Prospector canoe. A canoe that was designed to be good for both whitewater and flatwater, but not great at either. In the same way, the Small Forest Axe doesn't shine in any particular way, but it is good at accomplishing multiple tasks.

When downed trees block your way en-route to a canoe
trip, what do you do? Pull out your axe!

Three sizable trees came down, two softwoods and one
hardwood. If it wasn't for the axe, we'd have
to head back home.

Is this what you call, "Three up, and three down"?

Whether in sports or hobbies, when one specializes in a specific field, you quickly realize the shortcomings and advantages of things you regularly use. Hence why Gransfors Bruk, makes many types of axes. All axes have a purpose, and to that end, it's about matching the axe to its ultimate use. However, there are times, when it isn't ideal to take one of every kind. If you're going to let's say Algonquin, where you don't have to worry about clearing trail, and just want to tap split wood to cook, then a small hatchet would be sufficient. But if you are trudging into thick unmaintained bush and want to build a cabin, a good felling axe is the way to go. However, if you find yourself needing wood to cook, AND clearing the odd trail, then the Small Forest Axe is probably the one for you, as it often was for me.

So, is the Gransfors Bruk Small Forest axe the one for you?
Based on the trips I do, it certainly is for me!

It's a wonder how much I love axes now, and even more surprising how long I've went without one. Spending time in the bush can be accomplished in many ways, with various gadgets and tools. There is no right or wrong way. Sure, sometimes there are more efficient, or effective ways to do things, but based on circumstances, it's often what works for you at that particular time. It comes down to what you decide is important and how your time spent in the wilderness is to be enjoyed. Once upon a time, axes were essential for frontiersmen and settlers, but in this day in age, as trippers or adventurers, you don't need it. Or you have other options. But for me, the axe has become more than just essential to my enjoyment of the wilderness. Yes, it helps me make a fire, clear a downed tree, or used for camp craft, but this tool actually helps me to connect to the wild spaces around me too. I pay closer attention to my surroundings and spend more time wandering and admiring the forest while looking for wood. It's also taught me about the different types of trees around and the best wood for harvest. Who would have thought a simple axe could be the precursor for a more meaningful outdoor experience?

You don't need an axe to enjoy the wilderness, or for that matter, nor do you need a canoe. But I do love the canoe for where it can take me, and I do love the axe for what it can do for me. It's that simple.

I spend almost 3 months of the year on canoe trips. As important as
my paddle is to my canoe, so is the axe, (tucked nicely in
my pack), to my enjoyment of the outdoors.

Interested in Gransfors Bruk Axes? Check out The Canadian Outdoor Equipment Company store. The folks there will be more than happy to help you. Their website has all the information you need to take the next step from drooling over Gransfors Bruk axes, to actually purchasing one.
 Happy swinging!