How Important Is Axe Handle Wood Grain Orientation?
Here at The Canadian Outdoor Equipment Co., we've had a few customers asking about the importance of the wood grain on their axe handles ("handle grain orientation").
We handed over the question to Gabriel Brånby, retired and previous owner of Gränsfors Bruk in Sweden and famous for creating a new organic trend for axes and axe handles. Here is his answer:
"With high quality American hickory, due to the nature of the species and the properties of it's wood, the grain orientation on axe handles is of minimal importance to the functionality and longevity of the tool.
To be clear, most people know and think that preferred wood grain in wood handled tools should run generally parallel with the direction of the handle. But, at the same time, all professional axe users know that the handle is merely a means of holding, aiming, and controlling the axe head. The efficacy of an axe is solely determined by the velocity (the speed) of the axe head – which is accelerated by help of the handle and not at all dependent on the handle grain orientation. A professional will focus of the speed of the head his muscles and the swing can create – he will not discuss handle grain orientation. Grain orientation in high quality hickory axe handles is not a make or break proposition, and is by-and-large immaterial to the function and longevity of the axe.
If Gränsfors should select handles because of a misunderstanding or unrealistic demand from amateur users or dealers, it conflicts with Gränsfors nature policy: What we take, how and what we make, what we waste, is in fact a question of ethics. We have an unlimited responsibility, a responsibility which we try to take, but do not always succeed in. One part of this responsibility is the quality of the products and how many years the product will maintain its durability. To make a high quality product is a way to pay respect and responsibility to the customer and the user of the product. A high quality product, in the hands of those who have learned how to use it and how to look after it, will very likely be more durable. This is good for the owner, the user. But this is good as well as part of a greater whole: increased durability means that we take less (decreased consumption of material and energy), that we need to produce less (gives us more time to do other things we think are important or enjoyable), destroy less (less waste).
In all the years making and selling axes, we've never seen an axe handle come back broken, or damaged due to a radius variances in the wood grain at the knob swell, or in the run of the handle. Axe handles come in broken 99% of the time from users missing, over striking, failing to maintain (oiling, waxing), or lending them to friends who do these things. Throwing axe handle will break quite often because of users hitting the target by the handle instead of the head. In very rare instances, hickory handles can contain a structural fault in the wood due to a fungus that compromises wood cell structural integrity. This is not possible to detect visually and will result in handle breakage in short order of beginning to use the axe. This type of failure is relatively easy to identify due to the forensic evidence left by the failure: spongy wood structure, and a clean break that does not travel down the handle.
Grain structure and minutiae of your axe handle have nothing to do with how your axe performs, or it's longevity. In addition to grain orientation and venation, there's a lot of misinformation about the differences between heartwood and sapwood in axe handles. In 2 official USDA Forestry studies, (Study 1, Study 2) there was found to be no functional difference in terms of performance and strength between heartwood and sapwood in wood handled tools. Again, in all years of making axes, we see no correlation between handle faults and heartwood or sapwood selection. So don't get hung up on looking for heartwood or sapwood handles (other than for aesthetic preference)."
- Gabriel Brånby