RUSTIC AMERICAN BLACKSMITHING
H & B FORGE FABRICATE CAMP AXES FOR THE MODERN PIONEER
Turning back the hands of time, these rustic camp axes and hawks are solid performers with a historical look, quality and feel. BY REUBEN BOLIEU
“THE LARGE CAMP AXE IS SUITABLE FOR MOST OF THE TYPICAL WOOD PROCESSING TASKS REQUIRED FOR CAMPING, WOODCRAFT AND SURVIVAL.”
About two years ago I was on the search for a good bush axe. At that time, the popular axes for camping and bushcraft were the Wetterling's Large Hunter's Axe and the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe, which are made in Sweden. I wanted an axe that was smaller than usual and easy to carry in the woods. It had to be wellmade, hand-forged, and have a rustic look about it.
Also, I wanted it to be made in the USA. Eventually, I bought a sub-par axe and experienced the frustration of the head loosening up and wobbling around when being used. The search was back on, and I found a place in Ohio that made small axes and tomahawks—h & B Forge.
Family Owned & Operated Since ’65
I wasted no time in calling owner, Will Barber. We had a brief conversation about what I wanted for my wilderness outings, and I eventually had the pleasure of talking to his wife, Mary, and then Jarrod, his son. Will and Mary Barber were the owners of the H & B Forge Co., which began in 1965 with Mary's father.
Mary told me, “My dad's name is Jim Huston. His first partner was Tilton Bowen, thus the H & B is for Huston and Bowen. We always laughed at the coincidence that I would marry someone whose last name started with a B and who would be interested, and able, to make hawks!”
Will was a man of many trades when he took over as the main blacksmith from Mary's father. Always the perfectionist, Will refused to make anything with his name on it that was not only a work of art, but functional and durable, as well. Over the years, H & B Forge has added many styles, including Naval Boarding axes, Medieval and Nordic axes, as well as various styles of spiked and hammer poll axes. H & B Forge also welcomes custom orders.
Sadly, the world lost a fine craftsman, artist, patriot, and father, in late 2012. Will and Mary's son, Jarrod, learned from the best, working alongside his father in the shop for the last 10 years, and is now the main blacksmith, and the driving engine behind H & B Forge.
How They Are Made
In the spirit of early blacksmiths, H & B Forge tomahawks and axes are handmade tools. The process is much like it was done hundreds of years ago, wrapping softer 1018 steel around a mandrill, then inserting a harder 1095 carbon steel bit for the cutting portion of the head. Like axes and tomahawks from that time, the handles are top-loaded through the eye and are friction fit. They can't come off while chopping, but if they do loosen up, a simple knock on the top of the handle against a stump will tighten it back up. If the handle breaks, it is easy to replace it with a new handle by simply inserting it, or fashioning one in the woods. H & B Forge uses hickory wood handles on all their axes and tomahawks.
My first axe from H & B Forge resembled an old “trade axe” with a hammer poll. I originally ordered it from Jarrod with a longer, 22-inch handle instead of their standard 19-inch handle. This was due to the amount of leverage and reach I wanted. After over a year of hard use, I eventually cut the handle down to 20 inches long, making it more packable. The axes I received from H & B Forge were all ready to use as throwing tomahawks or as choppers, but they all had a small secondary bevel, which limits the tool's ability to do fine tasks, like sharpening a stick or fine carving. This is easily fixed with a file and a diamond stone or sharpening puck. Much like an axe from the old days, or a machete, the edge can be altered by the end-user to best suit his or her needs. I used a bastard mill file and then a Lansky Puck (coarse/fine) to get the edge bevel thinned out to my liking. Since I was going to be using it for chopping oak, maple and other hard woods, I didn't want something too thin, just a working/chopping edge.
Size- and weight-wise, I considered the Large Camp Axe to be the American equivalent of the popular, Small Forest Axe and Large Hunter's Axe made in Sweden. The Large Camp Axe is suitable for most of the typical wood processing tasks required for camping, woodcraft and survival. I consider it my “Winter Hawk.” Easy to transport, lighter than a full-blown axe, and with an easy-to-replace handle, it's the perfect camp axe for established camps or trekking.
One summer in Georgia, I did a headto-head “axe-off” with a Council Tool Hudson Bay axe, with a 17-inch-long
handle, but a heavier 1 3/4-pound head. I was surprised to see the H & B Large Camp Axe out-class the Hudson Bay Axe—not only at the brute force work on hardwoods, but fine feather sticks as well. I have used it to split and chop all kinds of wood, without any worry of the head getting loose or coming off altogether after hours of work in many different climates, which eventually loosen a conventional axe.
The H & B Forge Medium Camp Axe is a slightly scaled-down version of the Large Camp Axe. The length of the handle is 17 inches, and the overall weight is 1.5 pounds rather than 2 pounds for the Large. The lead instructor for Randall's Adventure & Training uses the Medium Camp Axe as his go-to tool in classes and around the property. It has yet to let him down after years of hard service. It's definitely the little brother to the Large Camp Axe, but not by much.
H & B Forge's Shawnee Throwing Tomahawk is said to be the most popular throwing hawk in the country. Easily their most popular tomahawk yet, with the Bushcraft crowd, not to mention award-winning competition tomahawk throwing. Countless competitions have been won with this hawk. When I first saw the Shawnee, I saw a possible woodcraft and camp axe, despite the smaller dimensions and weight. After two years and running, I still consider it my favorite chopper and all-around wilderness tool.
The standard handle length seems to be 19 inches at H & B Forge, which is about right. It can be used with a two-handed grip or comfortably with one hand around the middle of the handle. This style of tomahawk does not have a hammer poll, but driving wooden stakes into the ground with the rounded back is fine with the Shawnee. The roundness of the poll actually prevents splitting and cracking on the wooden stakes, which is a plus in my book.
Having no problem keeping up an all-night fire, splitting kindling, crafting, or hammering wooden stakes into the ground, the Shawnee is a legend.
I first saw this hawk as a smaller, kid brother to the famed Shawnee, and it is. The blade is about 3.5 inches and the head length is about 5 inches. The head weight is only 3/4 pound for an overall weight of 1.25 pounds, which is perfect for one-handed chopping, as well as long distance carrying. I carried this all through spring, summer and fall seasons. I used the large buck saw, small axe/hawk combo and never felt the Boy's Hawk to be “too little.” If I needed to split larger wood, I would use a big wooden mallet along with the small hawk. It is the perfect carry size for onthe-go type of wilderness travel. I can do just about everything with it that I do with my Shawnee, but just on a smaller scale. The shorter handle makes this a one-hander all the way. It seems to do best at splitting kindling and finer carving than outright chopping. I like how compact and capable it is for my style of wilderness travel.
Add One To Your Kit
H & B Forge offers heavy-duty leather sheaths to complement their periodpiece tomahawks with the same high quality you'd expect from a U.S. company like H & B Forge. Give Mary and Jarrod a call and see what they have cooking up. KI
“IN THE SPIRIT OF EARLY BLACKSMITHS, H & B FORGE TOMAHAWKS AND AXES ARE HANDMADE TOOLS.”
Two of the author's favorite wilderness and camp tools are the Large Camp Axe and Shawnee Hawk from H & B Forge, pictured here.
Lower Right: Having a hammer poll on a tomahawk is another tool for camp. The hardened hammer poll can be used for cracking open nuts or hammering nails or wooden stakes.
Top; The small shop in Ohio is where Jarrod pounds out the steel on an anvil. Hammer, heat, tongs, anvil, gloves, and water can make masterpieces when in the right hands.
Bottom Left: Dry oak was split in the California mountains with the H & B Forge Large Camp Axe. The weight gives the small axe the splitting power, despite the less-than-ideal wedge shape of the head.
Top: In the Northeast, the author chopped through this thick piece of red oak for a long fire. Usually done with an axe, this was no problem for the Shawnee tomahawk; it just took a little longer. Middle: The Boy's Hawk is a smaller version of the Shawnee, but still a very capable tool. The drier months, where minimal splitting and chopping are necessary, is where the Boy's Hawk really fits in, although the author has had only this tool in driving rain while camped out. Bottom: With a 3.5-inch cutting surface, the small Boy's Hawk could take the place of a small knife and portable chopper. The head can be removed for using as a splitting wedge, scraper, ulu, and fine slicer.