Recently I had a comment on a thread asking for some older books dealing with the subject of axes. I decided to put together a short post on the subject instead of trying to cram it into a comment response.
Civil War camp of the 6th N.Y. Artillery at Brandy Station, Virginia, 1864
To begin with, as I have mentioned before, my blog and what I do and write about here is simply a hobby. I am not a historian, nor do I work in a lumber yard. Everything that I write about is based on information I have been able to find from people, books, and a lot of experimentation.
There are a few books that I have come across on the subject of axes that I have found useful, so I’ll share them with you here.
First however, remember that if you are looking for historical data about axes, your primary sources will not be books. I have not been able to find anything on the subject prior to the early 1900s. My sources of information for that earlier period have been photographs, in particular Civil War photographs, and images of old advertisements. You also often have to read between the lines of books unrelated to the topic, to pick up some information about the tools that the author mentioned unknowingly.
In the early 1900s we start to get some literature on the subject of axes. I find that a lot of the literature that follows largely just repeats the information published during that period.
ANCIENT CARPENTERS’ TOOLS, Together With Lumbermen’s, Joiners’, and Cabinet Makers’ Tools in Use in the Eighteenth Century, by Henry C. Mercer – This book was first published in 1929, and to date remains one of the most influential works on the subject. Clearly the book covers a much wider range of tools than axes, but it has some excellent section on the subject, along with some good photography of the tools. Most subsequent books tend to repeat the information provided by Mercer here. Unfortunately I find that further research, with few exceptions tend to be lacking.
THE AXE MANUAL OF PETER McLAREN America’s Champion Chopper, by Peter McLaren – This book was first published in 1929. Almost certainly the book wasn’t actually written by McLaren himself, but it was published by Plumb when McLaren became a champion using their axes. The book does not discus any history, but instead focuses on technique, use and maintenance. It is an excellent source of information, and you can get it for free here.
WOODSMANSHIP, by Bernard S. Mason – The book was first published in 1945. It also focuses on axe use and maintenance among some other tools. It is a great source of information and can be obtained for free here.
THE HISTORY OF WOODWORKING TOOLS, by William L. Goodman – This is a book that was published in 1964 and contains quite a bit of independent research, providing very useful information on the early stages of axe development. Goodman also has a series of excellent articles in the Journal of The Institute of Handicraft Teachers.
AMERICAN AXES, A Survey of Their Development and Their Makers – The book was first published in 1972. It covers some history about axe development, and also has some information on specific, historically significant, manufacturers. I find the information to be good, although I wish there was more debt to it. I would have loved for this book to have been twice the size it is.
THE AXE BOOK, The Lore and Science of the Woodcutter (Formerly published as Keeping Warm With an Axe), by Dudley Cook – This book was published in 1981, and covers topics of axe maintenance and in particular axe use. When it comes to axe use, it covers the topic with more debt than most other books, and in that respect is quite good. There are some aspect of the book with which I outright disagree, specifically his discussion of handles, but that should not detract from the other excellent parts of this book.
AXE MAKERS OF NORTH AMERICA, A Collection of Axe History and Manufacturers, by Allan Klenman – This book was published in 1990. Its main focus is an encyclopedic description of American axe manufacturers, with a few pages dedicated to some foreign companies. It is not a complete listing, but is an excellent resource.
AN AX TO GRIND, A Practical Ax Manual, by Bernie Weisgerber – This book was published in 1999 by the US Department of Agriculture. It covers a bit of everything, from history to axe use. It is a companion edition to a set of videos with the same name. You can see the videos here, and the book itself here.
YESTERYEARS TOOLS – This is actually a website. I ordinarily wouldn’t include a website in this list, but it is simply an excellent source of information. In a similar fashion to Axe Makers of North America, the website provides information on different axe manufacturers and more importantly, graphics of many of the logos used for their brands. You can see the website here.
Aside from the above books which are at least in part focused on axes, there are many other books where a simple mention of an axe can give us a glimpse into a history that has been lost. Some of my favorite books, which are not on the subject of axes, but can provide some contextual information are:
WOODCRAFT, by Elmer H. Kreps – The book was first published in 1916 and along with being one of my favorite books on the subject of bushcraft, contains some excellent bits of information about axe use and maintenance. It can be obtained for free here.
THE BOOK OF CAMPING AND WOODCRAFT, by Horace Kephart – The first edition of the book was published in 1906 and the second, more extensive edition in 1916. The book is very long and has a short section on axes, but the most useful bits of information about axes can be found scattered throughout the rest of the book. A free copy can be obtained here.
As I mentioned above, some of the best information you will find on the subject is through independent research. Unfortunately too much information just gets repeated without too much thought or support. Don’t take what you read in any book as the final word on the subject. If something doesn't make sense, question it, no matter who wrote it.