European Usage

By Joseph A. McGeough

In western Europe the advent of metal was about 500 years later than in the Middle East. In making the transition from stone to metal, Europeans continued the tradition of the knee-shaft handle. Another type of metal head was given a wide slot, by either forging or casting, into which a cleft knee-shaft was fitted and lashed. This was the pal stave. To minimize splitting of the shaft, a stop was later cast at the bottom of the slot. Subsequently, one or two eyes, or loops, were furnished in the casting to allow firmer lashing.

The socketed head, perhaps carried over from the spearhead, was an improvement because the knee-shaft stub sat in a socket with greater security, although it still required lashing. Like its predecessors, this tool was small, almost toy like; the cutting edges of about 3.8 cm (1.5 inches) and short handles suggested a one-handed operation. Adzes were similarly proportioned, as were hammers.

The Bronze Age smiths of Europe were slow in inventing the shaft hole that those of the Middle East had developed in an earlier millennium. The knee-shaft tradition, with its socketed head, entered even the Iron Age before shaft-hole tools appeared in Europe. To forge a socket is a difficult enough operation with even modern equipment. A shaft hole, however, is fairly simple to make, but such tools appeared in northern Europe well after the Iron Age was underway, perhaps after 500 BCE. By this time, expensive bronze had been supplanted by plentiful iron for use in tools.

Bronze tools had been relatively delicate in design; their iron successors soon gained size and developed in character and effectiveness to display specialized forms. Of these, two are especially important. First, there was the felling axe of the woodcutter, the blade bevelled on both sides for symmetry and often fitted with a flat end suited to driving splitting wedges. There were numerous variations of this form as the tool evolved toward its finely balanced modern conformation.

The iron axe had little advantage over its bronze forerunners until smiths discovered carburization and could produce a temperable steel along the cutting edge. This must have occurred early, for repeated heatings of the edge in forging would draw in small quantities of carbon from the charcoal of the fire. A number of Roman axes subjected to analysis have been found to contain steel.

Steeling, or the welding of strips of steel to the iron head, was invented in the Middle Ages. The head was first rough-forged by bending a properly shaped piece of flat iron stock around an iron handle pattern to form the eye. Steeling could take one of two forms. In the first, a strip of steel was inserted between the overlapping ends and the whole welded into a unit (inserted steeling). For the second, the overlapping ends were welded together and drawn to a V-shape over which a V-shaped piece of steel was then welded (overcoat, or overlaid, steeling). Inserted steeling was regarded as superior because it furnished about three times as much steel to resist loss of metal by repeated grinding and sharpening. The manufacture of steeled, or two-piece, axes ended in the early 20th century. Thereafter heads were made of a single piece of high-carbon steel whose properly tempered edge was backed by a tough body.

To convert felled timber into squared timber, special tools were required. As the log lay on the ground or on low blocking, vertical sides were produced by using a broad-axe, or side axe. Somewhat shorter handled than the felling axe, it had a flat face, the single bevel being on the opposite or right side; it sliced diagonally downward as the carpenter moved backward along the log. The head was heavy, about twice that of a felling axe, and, although it was a two-handed tool, the broad-axe was never swung in the manner of a felling axe but, instead, was raised to waist height and allowed to fall with minimum added pressure. The handle was bent, or offset to the right, to give finger clearance when “hewing to the line” on a debarked log. A felling axe was used to score a line, after which the broad-axe was used to split off the wood along the score line. Hewn timber found in old buildings often carries the faint marks of the scoring.

If the timber was to be presented to view it was smoothed by an adz that removed the last of the score marks and left a type of ripple finish. For this purpose, a long-handled adz was used, the radius of its gentle swing originating in the carpenter’s shoulder. The blade was bevelled on the inside and removed material in the same manner as does a plane.

The adz was once an indispensable tool of general utility. In addition to surfacing, it was particularly useful for trueing and otherwise levelling framework such as posts, beams, and rafters, in setting up the frames of wooden ships, and in dressing ships’ planking. For special purposes the blade was round instead of flat, allowing the adz to cut hollows such as gutters. Dugout canoes, log coffins, and stock watering troughs, all cut from a whole log, were products of the adz. Short-handled adzes were used by coopers and makers of wooden bowls.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s