30th Jul, 2008

An Axe to Grind

If you know me at all, you know I love axes. Most of my past experience has been with your average, everyday axes that everyone comes across. Then, I got a Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Ax. The performance was WAY beyond anything that I had used before. But, that still doesn’t mean that it is optimum.

While the Gransfors is shaving sharp, and easy to keep that way, the head geometry is not necessarily the best for the hard woods you find here in Michigan. So, I have been on a quest for a different head shape. One more made for “American Wood” if you will.  Enter the Snow & Nealley Penobscot Bay Kindling Axe. With an 18″ handle, it is very close in size to the GB SFA. I had no hopes of this axe coming as “ready to use” as the GB, but I was assured by a very famous knifemaker that this axe could be made into the axe I want it to be :D More on that later………

So, this is a little review on the S&N and a little comparison to the GB.

Here is a picture of the S&N.

Compared side by side with the GB.

The handle grain on the S&N was not the best I have ever seen. But, it was not off enough to really complain about.

Actually, it is not even as bad as it looks in the above photo. As you can tell in the next couple, it “sways” a little towards the end, and the rest of the handle is really rather quite straight.

Here is a head profile comparison between the two:

GB profile:

S&N profile:

Side profile comparison:

Poll comparison:

Finally….on to the use comparison.

Keep in mind that my “use” comparison is based on the “not optimally sharp” edge that the S&N came with. I did not want to alter it before sending it off for modification.

Here are my impressions:

- The S&N edge is very slight convex, and then the head goes into a v-grind shape.
- Compared to the GB, the S&N hits the wood like a ton of bricks, even with a slightly shorter handle. It is indeed a “different” tool for different work.
- On hardwood (I was using Ash) the S&N had much further penetration. This wood was difficult to get through with the GB, but much easier with the S&N. However, due to the v-grind shaped head of the S&N and the deep penetration, it tended to stick.
- Because the S&N hits harder, it is more useful as a hammer (for wooden stakes and tent pegs, of course).
- Splitting: The S&N definitely ruled here. It split hard wood much easier in all sizes, both hitting and batoning. I believe this is due to the head shape again. The GB is so thin that as you approach the eye, the metal is actually concave, and it doesn’t work as a “wedge” very well.

Other things to note:
- I don’t like the lacquered handle of the S&N as much as the linseed oil soak GB handle.

So, now the S&N is being sent off to have a competition grind put on it. One that will hopefully take care of the balance issues, the sticking issue, and of course it should also shave hair. I will report back when I get it back.

So which one would I chose for my woods bumming axe??? They are definitely two “different” tools, and there is quite a difference in feel between the two. For the wood I like to work with, the area I am in, I have to say that hands down I will pick the S&N. Even without sending it off to have it re-ground, I feel that I would be able to blend and convex the primary bevel on this axe and greatly improve its performance. But, this axe seems to be better at doing the things I do better.

Now, if I am traveling to really northern Canada, where the woods begin to change to softer spruces and pines, I might consider switching. But, I am really impressed with the S&N.

I am really looking forward to getting this back from re-grind, and I will definitely post more pictures then.

Responses

Heya,

I thought I would comment briefly in that it is a little like comparing apples and oranges. The GB Small forest axe is intended mostly as a multi-purpose forest axe for limbing trees and handiwork. The heads are clear evidence of the difference between the two axes as the S&N head is a splitting head. If you want to use a GB axe for any kind of log splitting I would recommend checking out the Small Splitting Axe instead. It will blow through wood. Its handle is about a hand length longer than the Small forest axe but it is designed for splitting, not for limbing and utility. With a 20 year warranty on their Axes I have yet to find an axe as good. (I have three, the Small Forest Axe, the Small splitting Axe, and the Wildlife Hatchet) I also noticed my forest Axe is made by the same smith as yours (Mathias Mattson I believe).

-Monk

You are exactly right about me comparing apples to oranges, and that is also my point! : ) Let me explain.

There is no doubt that GB makes the highest quality “production” axe available. However, the head design is still a European design and that doesn’t mean that it necessarily meets my needs.

If you look back into American history, you will find that when the European axes were brought over here, they did not fair well at all against American hardwoods. Therefore, smiths were forced to come up with their own head designs. There were literately an uncountable number of designs. Then, around 1925 or so, the Ax Manufacturers’ Association agreed to set standards for head designs. Designs that worked well in American forests. What I wouldn’t give to get a GB quality “Michigan” headed axe.

The problem is that with the advent of saws, chainsaws, etc, there was no longer a need for American companies to continue to produce high quality axes, in “American” head designs. If one would step up, and do as GB has done, I think it would be a big hit.

I heat my house with wood, and do all my splitting by hand. I have a full size splitting axe for that, so that it not my intention. In fact, splitting was only one comparison I made between the two. Sorry if I wasn’t clear on that.

But, what I want is a 15” to 20” general purpose hunting, camping axe that could do the things I want, and still fit in a backpack. Here are those things in order:

- Cut dry hardwood to useable length.
- Split small and large wood for fires.
- Use as a hammer for construction with wood.
- Sharp enough to use as a cutting tool.
- Felling and limbing small stuff.

My experience has been that if an axe can throw large chips with hard wood, it will work great on soft wood. I personally think that the S&N does the first 3 things on my list better, and what the GB does better, it will be more clumsy at it, but can still do it. I can also make it perform number 4 the same as well. Since other things are lower in priority for me, that is the trade-off, and I am fine with that.

I did not mean this to be a quality comparison (because it is not a contest….GB wins), although the S&N does sport a lifetime warranty.

Also, keep in mind that I did not buy this axe for what it is but for what it CAN be. When it gets back to me, it will be a different axe and hopefully exactly what I want.

Everyone’s preference is going to be different. If the GB works for you, the tasks you are doing, and the wood you are using, then great. It will save you a lot of trouble! : ) Unfortunately, I am looking for something different and don’t want to pay $1500 for a truly custom one!

Man, I cannot believe that I stumbled across your site here. You compared the exact two axes I had narrowed my choices down to, and the uses I want line up exactly with yours. I will be trying out the S&N shortly on a backpacking trip through Arkansas. Thanks a lot, man. Your review really helped.

Brad Williams

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