Question received from David Richardson (Shipmate 005) – 6 September 2022
Dear Team, I have a trio of technical questions for the team: Firstly, is there an axe which is a particular favourite to use? Secondly, how do you sharpen and maintain the edges of the side axe – whetstone, leather strop with a cutting agent, or what? And Finally, is the side axe Right or Left handed – and why?
Response from Tim Kirk, Master Shipwright
It is generally accepted in the archaeological record that the shapes of axes did not change significantly between the Roman period and the 12th Century. Even today, the shapes of axe-heads are recognisable compared to the Anglo-Saxon and Viking eras.
A number of companies still produce these commercially – we have tended to use those produced by Granfors Bruk (as imported by Classic Hand Tools, and others).
We use felling axes (straight handle, ground both sides (double-ground, so non-handed)), forest axes (straight-handle, ‘double-ground’) and the Swedish Broad axe (both double- and single-ground (right-handed)).
Tee-axes (finishing axes for taking off fine slivers of wood in order to put a final finish on a piece of timber) are bespoke and individually made for us by Alex Pole Ironworks. These have been excavated in English and continental contexts and can be seen in use on the Bayeux Tapestry – although this is some four centuries later than our period. These axes have a cranked handle to reduce the tendency to hit the knuckles on the work and we have examples of both left- and right-handed Tee Axes. Interestingly, in a general population of around ten per cent, boatbuilding seems to draw around thirty per cent of lefties – possibly due to right-side dominance in the brain being attributed to creativity and good hand/eye coordination. Left-handed individuals can learn to use a right-handed axe (and vice versa) and being able to do so gives the advantage of being able to work in both directions on the same plank.
To sharpen the axes we use a ceramic puck – also supplied by Classic Hand Tools – and just like a regular oil stone but circular and about 3” in diameter.
This is used (either with water or light oil) to grind the surface of the axe; if double-ground on both edges; if single ground, first to take any burr off the back of the edge and then on the bevelled edge. Each face is ground in three stages; first at the back of the (shiny) edge, then the middle and finally at the point. Each area has the puck passed over it in a continuous circular motion. The whole process (six stages) takes around twelve minutes and is required about twice a day.