Axes

Axes are ancient tools, long pre-dating the Middle Ages. During the medieval period they were used for nearly every stage of cabinetry. “Two-handed axes” (axes with long handles, swung with both hands) were the foremost tool for felling trees and cutting wood. These axes had dual-inclined planes, meaning they were beveled on both sides of the blade.

Two-handed axes being used to fell trees. British Museum MS 18855.

Single-inclined plane axes (beveled on only one side of the blade) -known as “broad axes”- could also be swung two-handed and were highly effective at hewing (splitting off the sides of logs to create flat faced beams).

Albrecht Kestel (d. 1533) using a broadaxe to hew the side of a log. He has chopped notches along the length of the face and now is removing the waste from in between. This style of hewing is called ‘joggling’. Nurnberg Hausbuch, Mendel I, folio 148 recto.

Axes swung one-handed have shorter handles and are usually referred to as “hand axes”, although “hatchet” (from the French hachette meaning “small axe”) is also a common term. Hand axes excel at shaping wood: everything from removing waste on a roughly dimensioned piece, to carving fine details in woodenware or statuary.

Erhardt the Wagonmaker (d. 1545) using a handaxe to shape a wheel. Nurnberg hausbuch, Landauer I, folio 34 recto.

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