On a recent snowy morning I answered a YouTube comment on axe handle breakage that led to a one take video shoot with a beautiful snowy background. Being conceived and shot in one morning, this is just a partial snapshot of the subject. It revolves around the specific problem of design factors contributing to handle breakage just below the axe eye. It could easily have snowballed into a multi-part series on axe handle function and design ideas, leading to yet another video or series on user contributions to breakage; but the snow melted and I couldn't throw out that beautiful backdrop, which some people actually thought was done with a green screen!
This is viewed primarily from the perspective of American axes, which are evolved in the direction of high performance with the consequence of increased delicacy. At least that is my current take on it. An axe is a system composed of a handle and head which creates some inherent problems. In America, the European axe systems that migrated here with early colonists eventually evolved toward higher performance creating narrower eyes that are inherently weaker than the wider ones they descended from. European axe eyes seem to have remained wider for the most part, often even when copying American patterns. In fact, I think the standard American axes are refined to a point where the handles could not be much thinner at the eye without becoming impractical for use with wooden handles, and some might argue that they already have become too thin. That is a subject for another time though. For now we will just look at, common problems that we see from both manufacturers and folks producing handles at home, which are easy enough to fix with some tuning up.
While there are a lot of people that understand some of this intuitively and practice it, I don't recall seeing it spelled out anywhere. It is my hope that this information will spread and eventually reach manufacturers, many of whom who are clearly not axe users. Most axe handles will need work out of the factory and that is fine, but the mistakes that are greater in concept and scale are costing a lot of handle breakages at the eye that are totally unnecessary. The essential problem is that manufacturers think they can just increase the thickness of the handle body to decrease handle breakage. When viewed as a dynamic system though, it quickly becomes obvious that doing so puts undue stress on the thin eye portion of the axe, instead of sharing the stress across the length of the handle. At some point, continuing to thin a handle will obviously reverse that problem and create excessive vulnerability in the handle's main body. That is really another level of this discussion though and one I purposefully avoided in this presentation. Another issue is that there are other types of stress that are incurred from different types of use or mishap that may be more likely to break the body of the handle. The grain of the wood and it's character is also at play. We are dealing with a tool that sees different types of stress at different times, has inherent problems that are not entirely solvable and involves an inconsistent natural material. Wood of even the best quality has fatal faults. We continue to use it for the same type of reasons I continue to use vacuum tubes in my stereo and guitar amps, and that is user experience. I personally also like wood because I can cut down a tree and make a new handle without relying on industrially produced products that I have to buy.
There is a lot of forgiving grey area in this problem and we don't have to engineer a perfect handle. But, we do need to avoid the largest mistakes being made and if we get a handle that has them, we can tune those problems down until we have something that is more comfortable to use for long periods of time and also reduces stress on the eye. I don't think I've seen a handle yet where the problem encountered was too little wood to work with!
Enough said here. While this video is incomplete, it presents some ideas that I think are important and which can go a long way toward practical solutions.