You’ve probably seen them stuffed piles in the cluttered tables of an old antique store or flea market. Kicking around your grandpa’s barn. Maybe you keep one in your camping gear (like my Dad does) for driving tent stakes and splitting kindling. I’m talking about the once-ubiquitous carpenter’s hatchet. These little guys were useful for trimming odd bits of wood to size or driving the occasional nail, but most carpenters these days wouldn’t know how to trim a piece of wood with a tool that didn’t have a cord or a battery pack, so these things mostly languish unused in forgotten corners.
I’ve had a carpenter’s hatchet head kicking around my toolbox for who knows how many years, always meaning to put a handle on it but never quite getting around to it. I’m glad I waited, because I finally figured out what to do with it.
For the last five years, I’ve been using a Gransfors-Bruks hunter’s axe that I picked up for $50 (used) for spoon carving. It’s a great little axe, but the handle is about six inches too long so I always have to choke up when I use it. It’s not a convenient length for packing up when I want to do a bit of spoon carving away from home, either. Something needed to be done. I though about buying a new, smaller axe, but good ones don’t come cheap. Then I remember my old carpenter’s hatchet:
It’s a terrible shape for spoon-carving. The hammer head places the balance too far back, the wide blade gets in the way of your fingers when you want to choke up on the handle, and the straight bevel makes it difficult to carve curvaceous spoon profiles. No problem though; I own a hacksaw.
The hammer head is the first to go.
Next I turned my sights to a nice cutout for my fingers when I need to choke up on the handle:
At this point, it’s still pretty rough-looking, but twice as functional as it was 15 minutes ago. I couldn’t resist prettying it up a bit with some work on the belt sander and some 220-grit hand-sanding. I also re-ground the straight cutting edge into a gentle curve:
That shiny look is nice, if that’s what you’re into. I know better than to think it would look like this for long, though. A clean metal surface like this is a magnet for rust when carving green wood. I gave it a soak in diluted vinegar overnight to tone down the shine.
Much nicer, in my opinion. All that’s left to do is give it a handle. I shaved some riven hickory to an octagonal shape, then dried it in my kiln for a couple of days before hanging the head. I also darkened it up a bit more (and added some more rust protection) with some cold gun blue:
Not bad. But how does it work?
Very nicely. Very nicely, indeed.
I’ll admit, it will take some getting used to the shorter handle after 5 years of used a sub-optimal size. I think once I get the hang this one, though, it’ll easily be my favorite carving axe.
So, what have you got to lose? Hatchet heads like these are $5-10 at flea markets and on eBay. Maybe you’ve even got one in the junk drawer of your shop (like I did). A couple hours of work is all it’ll take to turn that forgotten tool into a fine carving axe!