Wednesday, March 26, 2014

17th Century Hatchets

Being that at least half of my carpentry work is done in front of the public in a 17th century context, it is essential that my tools are as historically accurate as possible. The big problem with this ideology is that historical tools from this era are a little bit hard (aka damn near impossible) to come by, and when we do find them, we try to preserve and study them rather than smash them against pieces of wood.

As a work around, the blacksmiths at the museum reprofile modern axes to better impersonate these actual historical artifacts. My new hatchet started its life as a Wetterlings broad axe (that's right, us badass pilgrims use broad axes as hatchets, but I digress).

Stock Wetterlings Short Handled Broad Axe #190

The pattern that my new hatchet is based on is from Martin's Hundred and dated to around 1621. It was found in the ground along with various other tools, most likely buried there to prevent the native populations from repurposing the metal into tools and weapons.

Archeologist's sketches of a Martin's Hundred hatchet

The Wetterlings head is hack sawn away to the same profile as the Martin's hatchet, removing a lot of the weight from behind the eye and reducing the bit length by several inches.

The hacked up head...luckily this was not my job

Next I reground the bit into a nice fair curve, filed it for a convex bevel, sharpened it with whetstones, and stroped with a piece of leather charged with rouge polish. Finally I helved the hatchet with a white oak handle (remember these are English settlers in 1627, they probably don't know the wonderful qualities of Hickory as handle stock).

The finished hatchet. I like a nice healthy fauns foot for power! 

Overall this is a beefy hatchet with one hell of a bite. You can see how thin the historic hatchet is right in front of the eye, but the Wetterlings is quite thick, giving it much more mass. After four hours of trimming lath, I appropriately nicknamed this hatchet "Wrist Breaker."

Check out all that iron in front of the eye.

In order to protect the edge, and lessen the amount of sharpening I need to do, I made a nice wooden blade guard (note that this is not historically based on anything).

An ash blade guard with some hemp rope to hold it on.


  1. Nice post with great pictures thank you .
    Just a couple of points .
    Those English settlers may not have known about the overated ;-) hickory for handles because they already knew about supiroir Ash but they did know that British Oak generally makes poor handles for axes . So would have been looking for a similar local wood to Ash to make their handles ?. An interesting point would be was the axe forged in Britian or the new colony ?
    Really interested in the Archeologist's sketches of a Martin's Hundred Axe you mention there were other tools are they similar sketches we could see ?

    1. And a point I missed Fawn foot on your new handle . I am not sure that I have seen any on period illustrations can you point me to some ?

  2. Belay my last , I have have found a medieval one , Here in the Bedford book of hours .

    1. Kevin,

      I love all the comments! As far as handle material they would most certainly look for ash (it did grow in the area) and we try to use it for felling axe handles when we can, but it is tougher and tougher to find these days. Also with hatchets, handle material is not as important and we have records of all sorts of wood being used. And really I prefer the feel of air dried oak over ash, better balance.

      In 1622, this hatchet was almost definitely forged in England and shipped over, because there was no tool industry in America as far as I know, but it is impossible to say for sure.

      I am sure there are more sketches of tools from Martin's Hundred, but I only got the one for this hatchet from our blacksmith, I will see if I can't scare some more up.

      We have seen handles with and without fauns feet since the medieval era, and mine is probably more pronounced than it should be, but since I am using this hatchet everyday I like it to be functional and comfortable.

      That picture is one of my favorites, lots going on! I am told it is depicting Noah's Ark being constructed, but we do have to be careful relying on it too heavily because it is significantly before 1627 (my target date).

      Thanks for reading.


  3. Cool project! It must have been a lot of work. Was the ax head hard to saw? I like the edge guard.

    1. Thanks. It was a fun project, luckily it was our apprentice blacksmith that had the honor of sawing, but he said it wasn't too bad.

      I had seen a similar axe guard on google images...I will have to look that up and give credit where credit is due.

  4. Jason ,
    Nice reply , your ash is very different from ours it didnt get the name Fraxinus excelsior for no reason !!!!!
    Did they not have blacksmiths ? an axe like that is a fairly easy make for the blacksmiths I know .
    It must have been quite wonderous for the carpenters amongst the settlers all those new woods to experiment with .
    The bedford book of hours pictures are great I have a facimile copy on my wall all the yellow that you see is in fact gold leaf. As you said lots going on . I think the link I sent you can be blown up pretty big . you will have noticed that it has both spoon and twisty end augers shown. Personally I think is fine to really on for tools between 1400 and 1700 nothing changed much . Th e only thing to realise is that the artist was Belguim /French

    1. They did have blacksmiths but they were most likely working on nails, hinges, repairs, etc. necessary tools like hatches would be brought over on ships.

      You are absolutely right about the origin of the picture. I am limited to English 17th c. Which is a problem because all the really good stuff is Dutch, German, or French. More often than not good English tool pics are by default in the background of still lives and royalty. Not to mention that the Dutch were way better illustrators than the English at the time. Nothing worth doing is easy.

  5. Awesome reno on the hatchet! My compliments to you all, and especially your poor apprentice! Any words of wisdom/advice for someone thinking about trying this at home? How much metal did you leave behind the eye? What did you end up with for a finished blade length? Overall weight? And did you need any special hacksaw blade to saw through it?

    These would all be good to know, before I take apart a $200 axe!