If you’re looking to do any sort of woodworking above and beyond the tasks of felling trees or splitting firewood, you won’t get very far unless you have an axe suited to the task. Roofers, framers, carpenters, log cabin builders, general contractors – they all need to split wood, drive nails in or pull them out, break something apart, and more. So what is the best axe for carpentry? This article is all about this question. I review several different carpenter’s axes and half-hatchets (also called as rigging axes) to help you decide which one is the best for the money and for your needs. Also included is a buyer’s guide and answers to frequently asked questions at the bottom of the page. With that said, let’s get stuck into it. Read on for the full review roundup!
Top 7 Carpenters Axes
The Estwing Carpenter’s hatchet is an example of a solid (literally), functional half-hatchet that is perfect for building, demolition, and woodworking. It comes cast in one solid piece, meaning you never have to worry about the axehead coming loose as you work.
The solid steel handle is wrapped in a blue shock reduction grip to protect your wrists from the impact of the axe against whatever you’re striking. The grip is serious and fulfills its task very well – it doesn’t slip, deadens the shock from almost any blow, and is long-lasting and durable. You won’t find it coming apart after a day of use.
Like most carpenter’s axes and rigging hatchets, it has a hammer face on the poll side of the head and a notch just behind the bottom of the edge that will help you pull nails, should you need to do so. The axe edge is hardened steel, and will take a crazy amount of abuse without breaking or serious damage. This axe is tough as nails – people have used the bit to break apart asphalt, and they only needed to spend some time afterwards sharpening it to bring it back to “full power”.
For the price, it’s excellent value and a great choice for anyone who needs to do heavy-duty building, demolition, and wood processing work.
The Estwing Rigger’s axe is a larger version of the Carpenter’s hatchet. Its handle is 16 inches – 3 inches longer than the Carpenter’s hatchet, allowing you to put more force into your swings. This Rigger’s axe is great for setting up scaffolding, lopping off the ends of beams, or doing more serious work than you could do with the Carpenter’s hatchet. The same basic design as the Carpenter’s hatchet – cast in one piece, practically indestructible, with the blue shock reduction grip to protect your hand and wrist.
The Gransfors Bruks Carpenter’s axe is a different beast than the Estwing. This tool is great for finer woodworking, such as shaping wood, hewing beams, and so on. That’s not to say that it can’t do heavier work – Gransfors axes can do just about anything – but it is especially good at detail jobs.
The handle is straight, which is the most neutral shape and gives you the most control over your movements. The axehead also has a small recess near the blade edge that allows you to place your finger in it, control your movement very finely and apply force through the center of the blade. The profile is thin – it’s perfect for making precise cuts, shaving pieces of wood off, and doing precision work in general. You could even hew small logs with this, no problem.
Gransfors probably have the best quality control in the industry – I’ve heard of very few occasions when there has been a problem with their axes out of the box. But if there are any manufacturer’s defects, they have a 20-year warranty.
This is an axe that will last a lifetime and longer, and fulfill its purpose faithfully throughout all that time if you just take decent care of it (don’t leave it exposed to elements or moisture – that’s why the sheath it comes with is quite handy, apart from being beautiful and well-made). It doesn’t come cheap, but there’s a reason you pay more for premium, top-of-the-line products. Highly recommended.
The Husqvarna Carpenter’s hatchet is a heftier and more affordable alternative to the Gransfors Bruks Carpenter’s axe. It has a similar profile, although the cutting edge has slightly more curve, and weighs about half a pound (~220 grams) more than the Gransfors. It is made in Sweden by the same group (Hultafors) that make the excellent, premium Hults Bruk line of axes, so there is a lot of manufacturing experience and expertise going into this.
The Husqvarna has a 19-inch handle and in the axehead there is a recess near the edge that, like the Gransfors, allows you more control over fine cutting or shaving movements with the axe. It also has a curved handle, unlike the Gransfors, which is straight. The great thing about this axe is that it doubles as a multi-purpose camping and bush axe – the heavier axehead and allows you to take care of bigger pieces of wood, and the much lower price means you won’t be as paranoid about using it out in the field as you might with the Gransfors, which is a top-of-the-line tool and almost a work of art in itself (with an appropriate price tag, to boot).
The Husqvarna Carpenter doesn’t come shaving-sharp out of the box, but a few minutes with a sharpening stone and you’ll be tackling carpentry projects and felling small trees in no time! For the price, this is great value. It also comes with a fine leather sheath to protect it from the elements.
The Vaughan Rig Builder’s hatchet is a true professional’s tool – made for lots of use by framers, carpenters, and contractors in their everyday work. It’s two tools in one – an axe and a hammer, with a notch behind the bottom of the blade that allows your to pull out the kinds of big nails that you’d be using when building the frame of a house or doing other serious construction projects.
It’ll work great for smaller tasks, as well, and can even serve as a multi-purpose camp axe – you can use it to split wood, drive stakes or nails into the ground (or other pieces of wood), and so on. With a straight 17-inch hickory handle that has a palm swell in the middle, to give you better control for certain grips, the Vaughan weighs around 2.2 pounds.
The Vaughan Rig Builder’s hatchet is made in the USA, and comes at a great price point (just over $30 as of October 2019). With some sharpening (it doesn’t come very sharp), you can honestly have a half-hatchet that will hold its own against much more expensive, fancy axes. That’s the quality of made-in-USA workmanship, I guess. Recommended!
Plumb are well-known as makers of hammers and hatchets, making them (and using the first cast steel technology in the USA at the time) since 1888. Their half-hatchet has a 12-inch handle and the features as the Vaughan – a 3 ½ inch cutting edge, a notch for pulling out nails, and a hammer face on the back of the poll. It has a permabond construction between the hickory handle and eye of the axehead to prevent a tight, secure fit. Overall a good, decent axe for the money, but it’s not made in the USA anymore (Taiwan), and for almost the same amount of money you can get a Vaughan. So, I only partly recommend it.
Finally, an honorable mention goes to a pretty wacky-looking tool – the “trucker’s friend” by Off-Grid Tools. It’s a multitool, with a 19-inch handle, and is great for the carpenters or contractors who are planning to do a lot of demolition. It is also, as the name implies, great for keeping in your vehicle in case of an accident or emergency situation. The axe blade itself is very nearly a half-circle, and it combines an axe, hammer, spanner, nail puller, tire chain hook, prybar and lever into one tool. The handle is fiberglass, which makes the axe lighter than wood-handled or all-steel ones, and has a rubber anti-shock grip with ridges to both absorb the shock from any blows and help keep it from slipping out of your grasp even if you have gloves on.
This tool is excellent for people who need something that’ll come in handy when demolishing old construction, working on new projects, as well as in emergency situations at home or on the road especially. You won’t be doing any delicate wood shaping jobs with this, but if you need to take apart drywall, pull out big nails or chop apart wood, the Trucker’s Friend is an excellent multi-tool for the purpose. At just about 19 inches, it’s also easy to use one-handed. For the price, this is a great tool to have in your arsenal.
Carpenter’s axes – frequently asked questions
What are carpenter’s axes and what do you use carpenter’s axes for?
Carpenter’s axes are usually medium-small axes, slightly larger than an average hatchet, that are used specifically for cutting and shaping wood in traditional woodworking, joinery, and building projects. This can mean shaping beams, tenons, lopping off the ends of pieces of wood that are too large, rough carving jobs, and more. They usually have pronounced beards (as can be seen on the Gransfors Bruks Carpenter’s axe) and a recess on the axehead near the blade for the user to place a finger and thus gain better control for fine, precise movements. Some of the newer carpenter’s axe models have a notch or groove for pulling nails as well, and the back side of the axehead, the poll, is hardened so as to be used as a hammer for nails or stakes.
Can you carve bowls and spoons with an axe?
You can get quite close to the final shape of a bowl or a spoon with an axe, especially an ultra-sharp and premium one such as a Gransfors Bruks Carving axe, but you’ll be hard-pressed to get a good finished product without another tool such as an adze, hook knife, or even a regular knife. Carpenter’s axes aren’t really made for carving jobs.
Can you use a carpenter’s axe for hewing logs and beams?
Yes, you can – with the caveat that it’ll take a long time to hew a beam out of a log that’s any size larger than medium-small. That’s because hewing axes are made for hewing, while carpenter’s axes are made for shaping already-hewn pieces of wood. Still, you can hew with a carpenter’s axe – make sure that it’s plenty sharp and practice a lot to prevent taking off more than you need to with each stroke. Carpenter’s axes are definitely suited to shaving off pieces of wood.