Double Bit Axes


From the beginning of time, the ax was the prime tool of civilization. All peoples everywhere have had axes -- but they reached their highest development in America about the time of the Civil War. Until that time axes were made by folding an iron sheet in half and welding on an edge of steel. But axes made that way are too light to be efficient. Adding a heavy pole (or "poll") was one way, it added weight to drive the cutting edge. Another way was to add another bit. That gave not only the weight but two edges; one kept "keen" (a sharp, thin angle) for chopping down trees and bucking them into logs, and a "stunt" (thicker, more obtuse angle) bit for clearing and chopping off hard branches. Though the crosscut saw had come into use in most places by the turn of the century, in 1905 there were still operations in Maine that used only axes. And studies made in the 1940's showed that most loggers in the United States still spent half of their time using their axes. And even in the 1950's and 60's much limbing was done with axes because chain saws were still so heavy and awkward.

The ax on the left is a "Michigan" pattern (rounded "corners") made by Vaughan in the mid 60's. The one on the right is a nearly new "Maine" pattern (squarish "corners") made by Snow & Nealley, a Bangor, Maine logging tool company that has remained in the same family since the mid-1800's (when Bangor was the lumber capital of America). These are both 3-1/2 pound axes. The typical Northeastern logger used a 3-1/2 to 4 pound ax, Western loggers typically used 4 to 4-1/2 pound axes. Some men, though, like the men who "sniped" (chopped the corners off of logs that were to be skidded on the ground) used axes a pound or two heavier.

Falling Axe

Falling Axe
Zenith Axe

What we see in this photo are two really unrelated things. One is an axe and the other is a small falling wedge. First about the axe. It is inscribed with the private label "Zenith" and has the words "Marshall Wells" in smaller print under the "Zenith" name. Marshall Wells was a major Portland, Or. hardware store on NW Lovejoy which was in business from about 1902 until 1959 which somewhat dates the axe. This writer's family has had the axe for 50 years more or less and didn't buy it new so it has been around for a while.

The 1927 edition of the Marshall Wells wholesale catalog included the following listing for the Zenith Axe:

The Perfect Pattern for Pacific Coast Timber; Used by Fallers; Correctly shaped and ground for felling Heavy Timber, insuring easy, rapid work. The Eye is perfect, so the Axe will hang just right; Highest Grade Crucible Steel, properly Tempered and Ground.
Weights, lb 3to 33/4 4 to 4 1/2 4 3/4 to 5
per dozen .$46.50 47.50 48.50

The study of this axe is that it is a falling axe, and not good for much else. The long slender blade is what sets it apart from most axes. If you take a mighty swing at a tree with it the thin narrow blade will sink about half way to the handle, and you are done. You can't get it out, but that wasn't what fallers did with them. Fallers needed to make deep narrow notches, and would always chop in such a way that the wood could break away thus avoiding 'sticking' the axe.

This special purpose axe is very good for this specific purpose, but is close to worthless for cutting brush or limbs. In these applications the narrow blade is just frustration.

Falling Wedge

The second item in the photo is a falling wedge. It certainly dates to the first half of the 20th century is believed to be a 'toppers wedge'. It is thin (less than 1 inch on the thick end) and much shorter than a standard falling wedge which was usually over 12 inches long. It also has a very unusual hole in it for a wire, rope or cable, and a necked down head presumably to save weight. the believe is that it was intended for use by a high climber who needed to top a tree. The light weight (for forged steel) and provision for a tether would make it ideal for that purpose.

- - Updated 02/04/2013
- - Updated 04/06/2008
- - Updated 2/08/01
- - Updated 03/23/2008