The Long Dark Improvised Hatchet


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It is hard to find a good broad hatchet—a small, broad axe with a wide cutting edge beveled on only one side, like a chisel; this special bevel makes it easier to hew to a line. After forty years of hunting in antiques shops and flea markets, I have found only two broad hatchets that passed muster.

The first questions that people will be wanting to ask is 'How tiny is tiny, and are they good for anything?'. Best to let an old hand, Horace Kephart, tell us what his was and how he used it. As luck would have it someone emailed me the quote today!

I read the following passage in Kephart's Woodcraft (p.32):

'Among my most valued possessions is a tiny Colclesser tomahawk, of 8-ounce head and 2-1/2 inch bit, which, with hickory handle and home-made sheath, weighs only three-quarters of a pound. I seldom go anywhere in the woods (unless in marching order with a heavier axe) without this little trick. It is all that is needed to put up a satisfactory shelter wherever there is hemlock or balsam, or bark that will peel, while for other services I use it oftener that I do my jackknife'

I've actually had a lot of email over the years asking where to get a Colclesser tomahawk. The truth is that they were an old company when Kephart was around, and anything that comes up now is likely a fake - because you'd be talking well over $1000 for a poor specimen. Instead a lot of people have rushed out and grabbed a Gransfors Mini hatchet. It's a good choice too!

Once you are done admiring Glen's awesome photographic skills - and also admiring his care of his tool handles, you'll be noticing that the Mini really is mini compared to the Gransfors Wildlife above. It sure is pretty, though, with much better grain orientation than mine. Here's another pic, to see if you think that the mini is worth close to $80 US - and prices soon to rise dramatically according to GB.

I'll guarantee you, that when you open the box and remove the mini, two things will come to mind. One is how pretty it is - but the other is how tiny it is. The horrible question will come rushing up about whether it'll actually prove useful.

The Long Dark Improvised Hatchet

I'll gradually be adding a lot of information and more pictures on the Mini, since I love mine and use it all the time. I consider it - like Kephart - a tool that's with me when other tools aren't, and yes I trust my life to it. I also know how to use it, and live in conifer country where splitting lower dead branches is the main trick in starting fires.

Where things get tough is with people emailing me to ask if the mini works and is worth the money. It's only tough because whether it works for a person depends on that person's skills and temperament. Lots of people love them - but others have little faith in them as bottom line tools. The problem is that you have to get such a hatchet and try it to see if it suits - and you need a decent one. I had tried a trapper's hatchet of the same weight, but found it to be too thick bladed for real utility on wood. I used it to chop down some trees - but basically I knew it wasn't the thing that I was looking for:

And so the problem remained as to how to get a decent tiny hatchet to see if the concepts work - cheaply. After that it's up to the user to figure if they want to go to the expense of getting a Gransfors. It seemed to be a pretty impossible task to find a decent $20 hatchet in this category.

The Vaughan Sub-Zero Half Pound Head Hatchet Enters The Race! - A $20 Tiny Hatchet.

The Vaughan website is here:

Vaughan Manufacturing

I haven't been able to obtain one at any of their resellers in Canada, but they can be obtained for about $20 from:

Forestry Suppliers

In Europe from Axminster Power Tool Co in England - or just do a search on Vaughan sub zero hatchet.

The first time I heard from someone who actually had one of these hatchets and had used it was from Reid - Sharpshooter on the forums. Here's his pictures and commentary:

I worked over the hatchet a bit, and actually put an edge on it. Nice as it looked when I bought it, I knew that I was going to have to put an edge on it. Filing axe heads is NOT one of my favorite tasks, the last time I sliced the heck out of the middle finger on my LEFT hand (not the hand holding the file). This time, no blood was spilled and a satisfying pile of filings lay beside the hatchet. A bit of stone work and then the mouse pad. Out into the yard we went and tried chopping..

MAN! This thing goes thru wood like a chain saw. Now for some 'fuzzys'..

and just so the Little Shaver doesn't feel left out..

Now I do have to get into leather working.. the shoulder rig with pouch to hold this pair would be double neat.

Does anyone have any knowledge of such a carrier/pouch being made of canvas? I'm wondering if there is a historical period where such a thing would have been done.

Can I come out of the corner now?


A quick look at the thin blade and the wood on that hatchet and I was impressed! Unfortunately, I was unable to get one of the hatchets in Canada despite a lot of trying - and so put things on the backburner. Reid's also been extremely busy with other knife tests which you can read about here:

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Jean-Marc's Outdoor Magazine

Well I did until I exchanged email with Steve Acker! He not only followed through with searching out the supplier and links, but actually got one of the hatchets for some real life testing! Up until that point, we only had some experience with one sample which Reid had picked up at a hardware store - it being the only one in stock. On the forums people were asking about Vaughan hatchets on ebay - at $40+. For that price I'd naturally thrown in my two cents and told them to forget it! The GB mini is almost double that - but it is a known quantity.

Where Steve's information is invaluable is that I was able to follow through the process of what people think when they first get one of these tiny hatchets. I'd left things too long and now I have a whole new idea of what tiny hatchets are about, because I have tried them in different conditions.

Jim, Got the hatchet, it looks good. Very light, total weight 11-12 ounces. Comes with a nice sheath. Good grain orientation in handle, handle appears to be attached well. Vaughan lists a replacement handle for this axe. So far I have filed the sharp edges off of the top, bottom, and back of the head, reground the cutting edge to a better bevel, and cut the bottom of the handle to better fit my hand. The taper toward the cutting edge is pretty thin, one quarter inch thick at a point one and a half inches back from the cutting edge, should cut well. The finish on the head is sort of a belt-sanded finish, not bad looking. It could be polished to a mirror finish relatively easy, I will probably not go to the trouble. The temper appears good, it holds a good edged based on cutting paper with the edge, then cutting through a pine 2x4, still cuts paper. I tried it like a knife, choking up on the handle, works well. I used a light touch when chopping, trying to let the weight of the axe head do the work and not strain the handle. I like what I see, I will take it out in the woods and see how it does. Should be good for fire building, clearing small brush, etc. I am concerned that it is too light to cut well, but it went through the 2x4 pretty easily. I am going to make a cover for the edge out of Kydex and glue it into the sheath so I can transport it safely. The advantage seems to be that you would tend to have this with you when you are out, rather than a bigger axe back in camp. I am not sure if I would rather have this axe or a slightly heavier camp knife. I think this axe will cut more efficiently than a similar weight knife, but obviously a heavier axe or knife would have more cutting power. I would like to see you get one and evaluate it. I can see this axe in my hunting backpack. Later, Steve

And now some pics of the hatchet:

You might have to scroll around a bit as I left the pics as big as possible to give some detail. You'll notice that the wood is very acceptable - as good as on most GB hatchets, and that the head is really decent. And so back to Steve!

I have attached photos of my new axe after reworking it. Mainly I reworked the end of the handle by removing wood to create a little bulge on the end. I do this to all my axes, it helps me keep my hand consistently positioned on the axe. The cutting edge was ground on a belt grinder. The angle used was 22 1/2 degrees to the centerline of the axe head on each side. I use this on all my axes, it seems to cut wood well, hold up well, and will slice paper.

I went through a 2/4 quickly and the axe would still slice paper. From the pictures of the GB Mini it looks like the GB may have a larger and therefore stronger hole in the head for the handle. Just looking at the pictures it seems that the GB might be able to take more abuse, but I have no way to confirm that.

Let me know if this helps. If you would like use my previous comments and these photos in your article comparing the GB and the Vaughan please feel free and keep me posted. Thanks, Steve

Here are some more pictures. I cut through the 2x4 in 2 1/2 minutes using 234 strokes. This was an old dry 2x4 and I cut it through from one side only, a tougher test than cutting half way through from each side. I used a fairly light and rapid cutting action, trying to let the axe do the work. After cutting various kinds of green and dry wood with this axe I think forceful swings would work against you. The light head did not allow deep cuts directly into the wood but sliced off relatively long sections from the sides fairly easily. This is visible in the photos. With a new 2x4 I think it would have taken less time and less strokes, particularly if you cut half way through and then flipped it over.

The edge would slice paper easily when first reprofiled and sharpened. It was then used to make some small fuzz sticks, which it did well. Small green branches were cut easily in a few strokes. I made an edge guard from Kydex to be used when the axe is in the supplied sheath.

After cutting the 2x4 in half the edge was slightly rolled in the center area. Since this was old dry wood and I ground the axe to a shallower angle I felt like this was acceptable. Touching up with a hand held sharpening stone restored the edge.

My original estimation of this axe is higher after this test. It is a real tool and if not abused will do real work. Making an emergency shelter or preparing a camp fire and cutting three inch firewood would be well within the capabilities of this tool. This is a tool that can be kept with you in a backpack or daypack and will be there when you need it, as opposed to the Hudson Bay axe back at camp.

Some Additional Pictures and information:

Steve naturally got so enthused about mini hatchets that he just had to go out and get a Gransfors Mini. The great part is that he sent along some pictures of the relative eye size of the hatchets. This is pretty important in terms of strength of the hatchet. Following the pics are some great comments!

I made one of my very few impulse purchases and bought a Gransfors Mini for $68.00 plus shipping. This was my first Gransfors. I was then able to compare the Vaughan and the Mini side by side in the woods. The Gransfors weighs two ounces more than the Vaughan. After some admittedly subjective testing I believe the Gransfors chops much better, feels better in the hand, and also does better in making fuzz sticks and splitting wood. I was simply amazed at how well the mini worked. The Gransfors cuts almost as well as my prized one pound head small Norlund axe.

The Vaughan chops better than a large knife of similar weight but I was, perhaps without basis, fearful that the handle would not be strong enough at the eye to withstand severe usage. If this is the axe you have with you when the going gets tough you need that confidence. The tremendously larger eye in the Gransfors simply must be stronger, all other things equal. I guess I am hung up on that point, probably because I have broken the handles out of axes and hammers before. In all fairness a friend helping with the tests made the comment that there was just as much or more wood in the eye of the Vaughan as was in the eye of my old faithful ball pein hammer that has seen its share of abuse. His point is well taken. Now that I have the Gransfors I may just abuse the Vaughan enough to see how tough it actually is.

So far this journey to find a small axe for my outdoor activities has been very enlightening. The Vaughan will probably serve most users well. For three times the money and two more ounces of weight you can carry the Gransfors Mini. After testing both side by side I feel that the Gransfors was worth the extra money. I am curious what other folks would say about these small axes. They are a compromise, not as good for general work as a three quarters (or boy's or Hudson Bay) axe, but small and handy enoough to carry when you would leave a larger axe at home or camp.

I have attached photos of the axes. At this time I will carry a small hunting knife and the Gransfors Mini in my hunting and backpacking bags. The hunting knife will be used for most cutting chores and the axe for chopping and firebuilding chores.


I was lucky enough to get a Vaughan from Sharpshooter, who many will recognize from the various outdoor forums. This is the same one as shown with his comments above - but he sent it to me AFTER having Mike Stewart of Bark River Knives convex it. Here's a picture of the trapper's hatchet, Vaughan and Mini to show sheath ideas and sizes:

And here they are without sheaths:

It was raining too much to get many shots without risking the camera, but here are a few interesting ones to show the actual bevels on the ones I have. The trapper's hatchet looks sort of OK from the side but is hindered by a thick blade. Of special note is the bevel on the Vaughan. One swipe of a piece of fine emery paper shows what a wonderfully smooth job Mike Stewart does! I was so impressed by the performance of the Vaughan that I can see I've got a bit of work to do on the Mini!

Trapper's Hatchet

The Gransfors Mini

The Vaughan Sub Zero

And a Few More Days of Trial:

I managed to get Forestry Suppliers to ship me a couple of Vaughans and extra handles. Very nice people they are to deal with too! I'm sort of in a hurry to see a Vaughan with factory edge because the one Mike Stewart ground is still soundly spanking the Gransfors, despite a 25% weight advantage to the latter. That's simply due to the edge having more curvature and being vastly better profiled. Now there are vast advantages in whittling with the GB edge curvature, and it's the whole chopping/whittling package that's important. I have been steadily working on the bevels of the mini using a sheet of emery on a mousepad and things are coming along. The point of this rambling is that work on a mini will really pay off. It's effective new, but that's nothing to what will be seen with careful work. I thought that I had seen the limits instead of just scratching the surface - but that's the story of my life in general.

I've sort of fixed the loose head problem on the Vaughan, but now I have more questions. I've seen precisely two factory axes with grooves inside the eye to make sure of absolutely solid handle attachent. One is a Norlund and the other strangely enough a Vaughan Value Brand. I intend to have a lot of fun modifying the eye on a tiny Vaughan and filing in such grooves to see what can be achieved. So - surprise - I feel that I haven't scratched the surface with the Vaughan either!

I do feel like I've patched this web page together - but I'm anxious to get the information and pics up as a lot of people will be starting to look at tools to play with in their summer excursions. Please see the page as a work in progress, because there's sure going to be lots to add! We've only just scratched the surface with this one!

And Some More - I Ordered Some New Vaughans to Play With:

First here's a picture of a Vaughan large head with a neat idea for keeping a handle fixed in position. Usually I've seen grooves forged in, instead:

Yep it's a Vaughan..

Here's a picture of one of the new hatchets I just got alongside some hanldes that I got with it. It's worth noticing that the handle on the hatchet is thicker and all light wood. You'll also notice that eh spare handles are different thicknesses. When I looked into the box and saw the spare handles I thought at first that they were heartwood - but actually as you can clearly see they're just flame treated in the old way.. Let's not worry about whether that works, for now. The important thing is that I haven't seen any factory handles with that done for a few decades,

And here's a view of the endgrain. It's not perfect but it is good enough.

If you have questions, criticisms, or things to add - email me please.

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The Long Dark Improvised Hatchet Summary


The Long Dark Improvised Hatchet Meaning

For those axe enthusiasts who wish to carve their own axe handles! We have various handle styles for which we cut the blanks out of in house. This is a good alternative for those who wish not to spend the full cost of having us properly carve and hang your axe for you. All handle blank wood is fully seasoned, dry, and is cut to have the straightest grain possible.

The Long Dark Improvised Hatchet Map

*Note figured woods such as curly ash are cut to have the most figure at the expense of grain orientation! Recommended that they be mostly used for show pieces, wall hangers or even users! Use it and compare to other woods to truly see if grain orientation is important or not!*