Hatchets, or belt axes, have a variety of blade shapes and uses for both the building tradesmen and outdoorsmen. The evolution of these useful shapes goes all the way back to the Stone Age, but it was hardened bronze that really brought this form into full development with significant improvements being added when iron and steel became the preferred material for hatchet heads. It wasn’t that stone was all bad. Indeed, some beautiful and effective hatchets were made from tough rocks like diabase, andesite or even jade. Obsidian can yield the sharpest edges, but even the tougher rocks could not be sharpened as effectively as a metal blade, and obsidian was too brittle to be used for forceful chopping.
The Carpenter’s hatchet is the variant that is most often seen. Most commonly these have wooden handles and a flat back with a broad curved blade with a nail puller forged into the blade. A particularly robust version that I have from Norway also features a forged neck that extends down the handle below the head, a steel wrap around the wooden head and a screw through the head and handle to doubly insure that the head stays attached. These added features were designed to prevent two common failings of hatchets that have wooden handles. Either the head would become detached because the handle wood dried out or the handle would be snapped off if the user missed his piece of wood and hit with the handle just below the head.
Heads on Carpenter’s hatchets are strongly wedge-shaped. They are very much like smaller versions of the common heads on felling or chopping axes and for the same reason. This head was intended not only to cut, but to also push the chips away from the work as it impacted the wood. Using a hatchet wooden structural elements could be effectively shaped/notched to rest, or be inserted into, other timbers. The wedge shaped also helped the head split straight-grained pieces of wood so that they could be quickly cut into pegs to hold a building’s frame together. It is not unusual for a Carpenter’s hatchet to weigh 2-3 pounds with the heavier implements being preferred by shipwrights.
Coopers, barrel makers, and Shinglers, those who worked with wooden shingles, needed a different tool as they were working thinner pieces of wood and attempting to do so in a more precise fashion. The Shinglers’ hatchet, for example, has a sharper thinner blade, with an adjustable stop to enable him to very precisely trim shingles from heart pine, cypress or cedar. In more modern times Western cedar is the most commonly used shingle material. Because straight-grained Western cedar splits very easily, the head could be lighter and some hatchets even had built-in stops on the blade to prevent the blade from overly penetrating the shingle and striking the roof that was being worked along with a flat back that could be used to wedge and nail the shingles in place. (I find this stop very useful when cleaning tough gar fish where you must brake through the tough scales along the back to extract the “backstraps,” but do not want to penetrate into the guts.)
Campers’ needs for hatches depended directly on how they traveled. Those who were carrying everything on their backs wanted a hatchet that was as light as possible, but more effective than a belt knife for working up firewood for camp, pounding in tent stakes and incidentally for cleaning game. Many a Carpenter’s hatched went camping, but specialized tools started to be made in the late 1800s for this market and increased in diversity and type through the 20th Century. In the U.S., these small axes had their roots starting in the 1500s with the Native American’s tomahawk that was not only used for combat, but was also a utilitarian tool. These were commonly tucked into a sash with the blade exposed which invited disaster, should this blade be brushed by an arm or somehow reversed and driven into the abdominal cavity.
Accidents caused by carrying hatchets with exposed blades or having the blade cut through packs, clothes etc. while being carried on horse or in a boat caused makers to either put their Camper’s hatchets in leather sheaths for belt or pack carry or to provide some mechanical means of protecting the blade, as with Marbles Safety Ax. The Carpenter’s hatchet conversion to a camping tool consisted of its retaining its flat back, but is blade length was commonly reduced, its head slimmed and made into a more compact, light-weight package that was sold with a sheath. The wedge-shaped head remained, as wood would always need to be split for campfires and cooking.
Hunters also needed hatchets for working up big game, particularly animals the size of moose, elk and mule deer. Here the need was not for so much for splitting but for cutting, although weight was still needed to break through heavy bone. This increased cutting function was facilitated by reducing the width of the blade and making it more like a plate of sharpened sheet steel attached to a handle. In fact, some of these were forged in just that manner with very thin scales of bone or wood and the back of the hatchet becoming only a bit over 1/4-inch thick. Hunters could still cut some wood with this instrument and pound tent stakes by hitting them with the flat of the blade, but the pounding and nailing ability of the hatchet was largely lost. (Interestingly, the nail pulling cut remained on one old hatchet of this type that I own, although it has a very thin back that would be nearly useless for setting a nail.) The hunting hatchet also needed to be carried to the kill site, and it was also sold with a sheath.
Modern hatchets became divided into two categories of instruments, i.e., one with a flat back and wedge-shaped head and a second type that was shaped more like a sheet of steel with an attached handle. For reasons that I can only conjecture, Fox, an Italian Company, decided to go back to Roman times for inspiration to revive a hatchet shape first used in the Bronze Age and refined by the 3rd Century AD. This hatchet has a broad sweeping blade that is made of sheet steel and is welded to another sheet-steel wrap that goes around a very well designed ash handle. This type of assembly was first seen in Bronze Age swords and axes from China with rivets holding the components to a wooden shaft. This assembly provides a flat back which may be used for pounding and a thin sharp blade made of good steel that I have used for a variety of tasks including hacking up limbs up to 4-inches in diameter from a fallen pecan tree. You can see a video of me using the Fox hatchet at: http://youtu.be/mTxeqtsmxU8. For larger wood, a bigger tool is required.This hatchet has gone with me on boat trips, to the Adirondack Mountains of New York, on many camp-out hunts here in Georgia, and has become my favorite instrument of this type, compared to both larger and smaller versions of the hatchet. For example, I used a Swedish-made backpacker’s hatchet to help clear trail in New York, but the next day did much faster and easier work with the Fox hatchet. I have a video about this hunt at: http://youtu.be/XOCOJXSc3ak. The Fox hatchet is cataloged by the R.G. Russell Co., who specializes in high-quality knives and edged products from the world’s best makers.
For cooking purposes there is a transition between hatchets and cleavers with the significant difference being that cleavers have much longer blades than hatchets, but I also commonly use the Fox hatchet, and others, in the kitchen when I need to do some serious carcass splitting, as for breaking up a turkey carcass to go into the stock pot. I also have a Swiss-made tool which is somewhat like a cleaver, but with a much thicker blade designed for splitting firewood. In this derivation, the blade is longer than the handle, as is exactly the case with cleavers. As in most categories of objects, a little research will often reveal transitional forms that do not cleanly fall into one category or the other.
A video about these axes is now up on YouTube and may be seen at: http://youtu.be/KD08S_RQwvM.