When it comes to reliable tools, axes are one of the most ‘old school’ options around. While the oldest handled axe dates back to 6000 BC., handles decay pretty easily, and the oldest non-handled axe dates back a solid 1.5 million years.
It’s safe to say, with this tool we were definitely ‘on to something’ and the usefulness of the axe isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
With that in mind, today we’re going to explore the types of axe heads that are commonly in use to this very day, as well as what they are good for in your garden or around the home in general. We’ll even show you some examples, just in case you feel like adding something to your tool chest that’s got a million and a half years of conceptual mileage on it.
Finally, we’ll tell you how to take care of an axe and throw in some frequently asked questions that we get from time to time on this fun and interesting subject. If you’re good and ready, then let’s talk about the different types of axe heads and what you’re supposed to be doing with them!
Table of Contents
Popular types of Axe heads and their uses
With such a rich history behind them, there’s no way that we’ll have enough space to describe every axe that is out there, so instead we’ve compiled a list of some of the most useful and popular types. Each of these axes is a great addition to your home tool kit and can come in handy for chopping and splitting wood, carpentry, digging in the garden, and more!
While we tend to think of axes as a one-trick pony, that’s definitely not the case, but you don’t have to take our word on that – let’s look at some of the different types and you can see for yourself!
1. Grub Axe
A Grub axe gets its name from its usefulness in ‘grubbing’ in the soil. This makes it quite the handy axe for the garden and the way that you recognize them is that they will have a vertical axe head on one end and an Adze head on the other end. You’ll also hear them referred to as ‘Garden Picks’ or a ‘Cutters Maddock’, but when using them you’ll be employing the Grub axe against heavily compacted soil and when you hear the clink of rock, you’ve got a pick blade for breaking it up nicely or simply tugging it out to discard it.
By way of example, we’ve chosen this Glourousamc Grub axe that employs a carbon treated alloyed steel that is both tough and easily sharpened with the handy application of a file. When you are starting from scratch or simply preparing to plant and want a no-nonsense solution for hardened soil, it’s really hard to beat a proper Grub axe!
2. Felling Axe
A Felling axe’s function is exactly what you might think – it’s for felling trees and for chopping up logs. Typically, the blade itself is a dense little number, weighing in at 2 to 3 pounds, with a blade that is wide and flared with a sharp, thin edge. These are the kinds of axes that you can swing sideways at a thick tree and the elongated handle – typically made of hickory for durability – allows you to really put your back into every stroke and swing.
As an example of a Felling axe, we’ve found this fiberglass handled model from Intertool, which is anti-slip, shock absorbent, and which hefts a 2.2 pound axe head. While these make short work of trimming branches or the actual tree, we should note that they aren’t designed for splitting – only for large logs or actual trees. The sharp blade can easily get stuck when attempting to split wood, so if you want something for splitting then you’ll be disappointed.
For sheer clearing power, however, a Felling axe is a mighty choice, indeed.
A Hatchet is the type of axe that most of us are likely to already have somewhere in the workshop or in the toolchest. Essentially a short-handled, sharp, broad-bladed axe, hatchets have a heavy head that flares, much like a Felling axe, but come with a shorter handle that gives you a proper balance to work with.
This makes Hatchets quite easy to use, as the heft and balance let you perform quick and powerful strokes with a high degree of accuracy. As far as utility, Hatchets are great for chopping down small trees, trimming branches, or splitting wood in preparation for winter or some crafty woodwork in your spare time.
By way of example, we’ve got a fiberglass handled model from WilFiks that is both shock resistant and durable, with a handy plastic edge cover for when you are not using your Hatchet. If you don’t already have one, these are definitely handy to have and getting one won’t break the bank (and if you check at your local hardware store there are some nice belt attachments for carrying them!).
4. Carpenter’s Axe
Next up is the Carpenter axe, which is a little bit larger than a hatchet but not really designed for splitting wood or too much chopping at all. What you get with one of these is a wide, very sharp blade, and a butted end that can double as a hammer for when you need it. Modernized versions of this often have a groove or holes for pulling nails, as well, just to add a little more utility to this trusty carpentry favorite. Aside from these innovations, you’ll often have a bit of a notch on the handle for a little extra control through a secure grip.
By way of example, we’ve found this hickory-handled Carpenter’s axe from Vaughan. As you can see, it’s got a notch on the underside of the blade for ripping out nails and taking a close note of the thin edge – this lets you easily shave wood with the axe, rather than forcing through it like you would with a chopping-type of axe. The butted end on the Vaughan has also been nicely done for when you need to drive a nail, rather than ripping one out.
Definitely useful and as you can see, it’s very distinctive from other axes now that you know what to look for!
The Native American Tomahawk is such a good design that it’s actually favored by soldiers to this very day. Useful as a close-quarters or even a thrown weapon, the design is similar to a hatchet, though you have a butted hammer-end on one side and a small, widened blade at the other.
You’ll see modern Tomahawks quite often, usually marketed as ‘Tactical Tomahawks’, but what you are basically getting is a Native American hatchet that can dig, pry, chop, slip, and more. They also have a light, straight handle as a final distinctive trait, but once you’ve seen one then they are pretty easy to pick out from a stack of axes.
The Tomahawk example piece that we’ve found for you is this Estwing lightweight Tomahawk, which incorporates nylon-coated steel and features a shock-resistant handle so that heavy duty work won’t be transferring all that force onto your hands. It’s a sleek-looking thing and just by looking at it you can see why this is a design that won’t be going away anytime soon.
6. Pick axe
You don’t need to be a gold miner to make solid use of a Pick axe – it’s plenty useful in the garden. Shaped like a ‘T’, you’ve got a flat, hoe-type blade on one end, with a dense spike-like chisel on the other, allowing you to break up rocks, rip out weeds, and to dig the toughest soil while making some serious headway. Aside from allowing you to fracture concrete or pry apart stones, that chisel also serves for better balance and a stronger momentum whenever you swing the Pick axe.
Our example to show you is this Wilfiks anti-slip handled Pick Axe, and like some of the others that we’ve shown you, it incorporates modern fiberglass to aid in shock absorption which you will definitely appreciate if you need to work your way through some pesky concrete or dense stone obstructions. As far as utility axes go for yard work, the Pick axe is another great example of a tool you’re definitely going to find good use for.
7. Boy’s Axe
A Boy’s axe is basically a smaller version of a single or double-bit style axe. Probably the easiest way to think of them is a ‘medium-sized’ type of axe that can fall into a lot of different categories, but which is basically just small enough to be used one or two handed. Not too large, not too small.
By way of example, this Truper hickory-handled Boy’s axe weighs about 2.25 pounds and has a 28 inch handle to it, so that you can easily use it one handed or grab on with a second hand for a little more power when you need it. If you like the idea of having a useful axe at your disposal but you’re worried it will weigh a ton, then Boy’s axes are just about a perfect fit.
8. Splitting Maul
Speaking of hefty axes, the Splitting Maul is one of the monsters on our list for those times when only raw power will do. We aren’t kidding about the power, either – you’ll find axe heads weighing in at around 8 pounds, in some cases, and while they look similar to a Felling axe there is more to it than meets the eye.
The blade itself is optimized for splitting, as it utilizes a hefty wedge, but the sledgehammer-like butt of the blade also gives it an appreciable bit of extra weight. That extra weight does most of the actual work for you, so that you’ll seldom even have to sharpen the blade at all.
Our example of a Splitting Maul today is this Fiskars Pro IsoCore model with a heavy-duty 8 pound head and we know what you’re thinking – ‘why would I need this for splitting wood when I’ve got a hatchet?’ but the difference is really like night and day. The IsoCore handle absorbs 2x the shock that you could with a hickory handle and as far as splitting those logs, it’s the closest you’ll ever get to cutting through wood like butter. It’s a bit of a juggernaut but if you have the workspace to house one, they’re mighty handy to have!
9. Double bit Axe
If you’ve never handled a real Double bit axe before, then you’re probably visualizing it being used in a fantasy ‘sword and sorcery’ epic, but as it turns out there’s a good reason to have a two-headed axe. That’s because only ONE side of it is sharp. What this does for you is it gives you an axes that you can use the sharp side for chopping and the blunt side for splitting up the chopped wood into kindling.
As an example of a popular Double Bit design, we’ve got this Estwing Double bit axe to show you and if you like your tools to scream ‘utility’, then it’s really one of the best examples out there. With a safety-yellow fiberglass handle and the smooth steel of the 3 ½ pound head, no one is going to accuse you of going to the Ren Faire when you use it!
So, if you aren’t quite up to hefting an 8 pound maul but you don’t want to make do with a hatchet, then consider the double-bit axe – they’re handy and not so fictional after all!
10. Hudson Bay axe
The Hudson Bay axe is a type of Boy’s axe that was designed originally by Canadian fur trappers who wanted an axe that wasn’t a big, old beast, nor would it be as small as a hatchet. The result is a medium-sized utility axe that does all the things that you expect an axe to do. While it’s not designed for large trees, medium and small ones are certainly assailable with an axe of this size and it makes short work of trimming branches, splitting wood, and is especially useful for gathering up some ready-cut kindling when you’re on a camping trip.
Our example today is this Council Tool Hudson Bay which sports a traditional 18 inch hickory handle The head itself weighs about 2 pounds and makes this axe quite suitable for cutting, stripping, and light splitting jobs in the backyard or when you are out camping. This is a great option for those that want to bring their axe with them from time to time to add a little utility to their nature outings or to collect some raw materials for a little woodworking at home.
11. Roofing Axe
Lightweight, portable, and highly useful, the Roofing axe is also sometimes referred to as a ‘Shingler’s hatchet’ and it’s optimized for… well, working on a roof! The thin blade on one side makes short work of peeling off or loosening shingles and notches or holes are also often part of the design for removing nails. On the other side of the blade, you’ve got a flat hammer head, so that once you’ve gotten those old shingles out of the way then you’re ready to line up the new ones and hammer them home.
While it depends on the axe, many of them will have a magnetized head so that you’ll be less likely to drop any nails while you’re up on the roof. Our example today doesn’t have the magnetism, but it’s definitely a well-designed roofing hammer that can save you from lugging a handful of tools on the roof with you. This Real Steel brand Shingling hatchet features 2 holes for nail removal as well as a light design that features retractable cutting blade to make it extra useful for cutting and measuring shingles.
If you are a bit of a builder, then a Roofing axe is going to be an excellent choice if you haven’t got one already – they’re just so much more than your average, everyday axe!
Tips on taking care of your axes at home
While the title of this section certainly sounds like an introduction to ‘Vikings 101’, there are actually a few tips out there for maintaining an axe properly which we think that you will find useful. When chopping wood and performing other tasks with an axe, you can actually end up with a little buildup from tannins, saps, stone dust, and other little parts of the job that you might not be expecting.
With that in mind, here are a few tips for taking care of your axe:
Unlike knives, axes only need to be sharpened every 3 to 6 months, on average, unless it is a splitting maul – in which case you really only need to sharpen it when you damage it. Sharpening is done with a sharpening puck like this Lansky Axe and Tool Sharpener, which features a coarse grit on one side to repair chipped blades and a medium grit for giving them a good, quick sharpening.
After using your axe, you should clean it before you put it away. The easiest way is a little steel wool with some acetone on the top, so that you can scrub away any tannins or sap that have built up on it, and a fine steel wool and turpentine is a great way to get contaminants off of a wooden handle.
Oil is your axe’s best friend. A light coat of it, applied after cleaning, is good for keeping the steel at its best and it’s also great for a leather holster and wooden axe handles!
If you are cutting wood that you found on the ground, don’t chop on the side that has dirt and grit in it – this is harder on your axe and might lead to some accidental chipping if you are unlucky.
If you are going to split wood, consider a splitting block – you never know when there’s a stone just beneath the surface or something else that you weren’t intending to whack with an axe!
Don’t chop knots if you can avoid it – they’ll dull your blade quicker and this is easily avoidable.
Store wooden-handled axes somewhere shady, dry, and warm – but not too warm. Too much heat or damp can warp wooden handles and once that happens, you’ll almost always have to replace them.
Before we go, we’ve collected a few frequently asked questions about axes just in case we have missed a few things along the way. While we can’t always be as comprehensive as we might like in the space available, we hope that these humble questions and their answers will prove useful to you in the future.
Let’s take a look!
How do I clean a rusty axe with stuff around the house?
If you’ve found an old, rusty axe sitting in the garage or stuck in a stump in your backyard, there’s a neat little household hack that you can use to clean it up a bit. All you’ll need is some salt and citrus in the form of lemons or limes.
Salt the axe head up thoroughly, following this by juicing your lime or lemon on it, and then let it sit for a good 2 or 3 hours to let the salty citrus mix do its work. Once the time is up, just give it a good scrubbing and you should get a good bit (and maybe even all) or that rust off of the blade so that you can sharpen it, clean it a little more, oil it, and then put it away until you need it!
How long should an axe last?
A good axe can last a lifetime if you take good care of it and use it for its intended purposes. Provided that you are sharpening it every 3 to 6 months and keeping it clean and oiled, then it’s going to be one of those tools that you’ll be getting good use of for a very long time.
Even cheaper axes can surprise you, but it’s definitely worth investing a little more for good, quality steel, as it’s going to hold an edge better and be much more resilient to the ravages of both time and a heavy workload.
How do you know if an axe is good?
Unlike knives, an ax edge needs to be sharp but not overly thin – unless you have a Carpenter’s or other specialty ax that is more for crafting than chopping. With most axes, you want it sharp but still thick, so that it can cut into the wood but it’s going to be resistant to chipping. That’s why you only need to sharpen every 3 to 6 months – you don’t need to give an axe a razor edge, it just needs to be able to give the wood a good BITE.
Can I sharpen my axe with something besides the puck sharpener?
Yes, there are lots of ways to sharpen an axe, depending on what you have around. Metal files are great for repairs and sharpening, and you can also get large whetstones that are specifically sized for axes and other large bladed tools. Finally, there are even camping hacks such as sharpening with a river stone that you can find on YouTube but while that kind of thing will work in a pinch, your blade will last a lot longer with a puck sharpener, whetstone, or a file.
Some final words on types of axe heads
Today we have explored some of the different types of axe heads and as you can see, there’s a whole lot more to axes than just chopping wood. Tactical Tomahawks, Splitting Mauls, and Carpenter axes are just a few examples of a wood chopping, easily weaponized, and infinitely useful tool that we’ve kept close as a species for more than 1.5 million years!
Now that you know a little more about their versatility, be sure to consider adding an axe or two to your home tool hoard and see what happens. They really come in handy and we think you’ll find that you love having one of these old school tools in your collection!
Thanks so much for reading and we hope to see you again soon!
More gardening stuff