Hafting a Tomahawk in the Wilderness

Michel Curot, the XY Company clerk posted in the “Folle Avoine” (meaning “wild rice”) district near the St. Croix River, wrote of notable happenings in his journal. Curot’s entry for Thursday, October 13, 1803 concluded with one short sentence:

“Boisvert broke his Ax in cutting a piece of Wood.” (Curot, 414)

Amidst talk of rain, the two geese Gardant Smith killed, Brazile David returning with the meat of a deer and two otters, and the wife of Ouaisza who was ill, Curot simply says Joseph Boisvert broke his ax. Being more interested in the hunting and game gathering aspects of the journal, I read over this sentence without giving it much thought. My mind was well into the next week’s activities, pondering more ducks, geese and venison haunches, when a little voice said, “Wait a minute, Denny, they broke an ax.”

Neither the passages before, nor those that came after gave any clue as to what Curot meant. At first, I based my interpretation on modern experience; I thought Boisvert broke the ax’s handle, but breaking an ax handle did not seem noteworthy enough to include in the journal, given the unique nature of the other circumstances recorded that day. If a splintered wooden handle was important enough to write about, then there should be similar entries in Curot’s journal, or those of his contemporaries, but I find none. I now believe the iron ax head broke.

Outlining a Wilderness Classroom Lesson

With a single swipe, the tomahawk severes a branch from a red cedar tree.As a traditional black powder hunter, I learned long ago that wilderness classroom lessons have strange beginnings. A few weeks after reading Curot’s journal, a fellow asked a vendor at the Kalamazoo Living History Show for replacement tomahawk handles. Then during spring turkey season I “remodeled” a fallen tree top. As my hawk hacked and hacked, I paused and held the product of David Monds’ anvil in my hands. The handle was a work of beauty: sanded smooth, fire-striped and finished with a dark stain. The handle, at least, was hardly a working woodsman’s tool.

In 1777, William and John Kay outfitted a “Montreal canoe” (35 to 40 foot birch bark canoe) and sent it to Michilimackinac for David McCrea, along with a compete inventory of goods, broken down by bales, crates and kegs. “Case 47” contained axes, tomahawks and other cutting tools, but makes no mention of handles, which would have added unnecessary weight:

“1 Case g [containing]: 24 half axes, 24 Tomahawks, 3 Large axes, 7 Tranches [cutting knife], 2 Augures [drills], 1 Tille [Slater’s hammer], 1 Pioche [pick-ax], Case of Cord.” (Armour, Crossroads, 205)

In 1966, Claus Breede, a diver with the Quetico-Superior Underwater Research Project, returned to the surface all excited after discovering a submerged crate containing fur-trade era iron axes in the Winnipeg River:

“…Claus Breede surfaced to tell us he had found what appeared to be a large lump or cluster of iron trade axes…” (Wheeler, Voices, 28)

This lump contained 29 axes (Ibid, 82). Portions of the crate’s pine boards still clung to the rusted mass, and Breede’s drawing shows the axes stacked in a manner indicating they were not yet hafted (Ibid, 29).

On the Basswood River, the underwater archaeologists found 36 axes, along with 19 ice chisels and 6 spears.  The recovered ironware weighed 73 pounds, and allowing for rust, the researchers postulated that the find was all part of the same crate (Ibid, 69).

In a later work, A Toast to the Fur Trade…, Robert Wheeler states:

“…Trade axes were imported in great numbers and a variety of sizes. These were shipped to the wintering posts in wooden crates. Handles were fashioned and installed by the buyers.” (Wheeler, Toast, 61)

Digging a hole in soft dirt, the tomahawk's handle displays the forge-burned rings.When I purchased the tomahawk, Monds, a seventh generation blacksmith whose ancestors made similar hawks for the Hudson’s Bay Company, explained that the haft’s dark rings were “forge burned.” He stated that when a hunter asked a local blacksmith to forge a new tomahawk or belt ax, the blacksmith furnished the handle. But what of the hired hunter who traded two prime beaver pelts for an ax from a North West Company post in 1794 (M’Gillivray, 31)? Or what did one of Little Turtle’s Miami warriors do when a tomahawk handle broke at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August of that same year?

Hafting a Tomahawk

I wondered if Monds would be upset as I thumped the grip end of the HBC tomhawk’s handle hard on a melon-sized rock. It took a half-dozen tries to free the head. Following Jonathan Alder’s advice to young Tom Springer, I entered the glade with Old Turkey Feathers, a butcher knife, my blanket roll and the tomahawk’s head, the bare necessities of a backcountry woodsman (Alder, 126).

Guiding the butcher knife with both hands was safer and notched the sapling faster.Using the hawk’s eye as a guide, I selected a broken-down wild cherry sapling with an almost straight trunk. I leaned the trade gun against a nearby oak, pulled the butcher knife from its leather sheath and started whittling a “felling notch” in the cherry. The first cuts were shallow and hard; I soon learned two hands controlled the blade better and sliced deeper. I notched around the tree’s little trunk, but grew impatient as the sapling started to wobble and broke it off, leaving a splintered stub.

 

 

Notching the handle blank while sitting on an oak log.On that warm August afternoon, I sat in the shade on a fallen oak trunk. Using the Biblical cubit, the distance from my elbow to the tip of my middle finger, I measured the cherry sapling, added a couple inches for final trimming and mistakes, then whittled the handle blank to length.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Removing the wild cherry branch's bark with the tomahawk head.With the haft’s grip end pressed firm against the log, I first tried peeling the bark using the hawk’s sharp cutting edge, but quickly switched to the butcher knife. The blank had a natural curve to it, so I sliced a flat spot on the handle to remind me how I wanted to orient the head in relation to the curve. Long, cream-colored sapwood shavings fell away, and soon the hawk’s teardrop eye slid onto the blank.

 

 

 

The forged head left black marks on the cherry's fresh cut sapwood.With a few more slices, the forged head moved up the handle. The eye’s inner surface left faint, black marks where the wood was too thick. By whittling away the marks, trying the head again and then cutting away the new black lines, the head inched farther. Halfway up the blank I realized that after removing all of the bark, the head end of the handle might not fit as tight as I wanted.

 

 

 

The forged head slid farther up the handle with each fitting.Like most lessons in the wilderness classroom, the quality of the final result is dependent on learning through trial-and-error experimentation. Even though the sapling appeared dead, the wood was still green and shrinkage from drying was a certainty. As the head approached the end of the blank, I stopped with the idea of letting the wood dry out before the final fitting. I wondered if the old woodsmen sped up the final fitting process by slowly drying the blank over the evening campfire, for that is what Native Americans did with fresh scalps.

 

 

 

 

Pouding the head end of the haft on the log tightened the fit.With the eye’s fit still an issue, I decided to continue the lesson, knowing I needed to try again with a larger sapling. For the final few inches, I took thinner cuts with the butcher knife, scraping away fine marks rather than removing too much wood. I pounded the haft’s head end on the log more often, seating the forged eye firm, then thumping the grip end to release it. Finally, I was satisfied.

 

 

 

 

 

The finished tomahawk drove deep into the oak log without loosening the head.The tomahawk’s head held tight through repeated tests over the next several days. After three or so weeks, the cherry handle seasoned to the point where that no matter what I did I could not keep the head from moving when it struck a limb. The next handle took longer to make, but remedied the first’s imperfections. I now have a tomahawk hafted in the wilderness, a woodsman’s tool that possesses the feel and look that I expect Joseph Boisvert’s ax had.

 

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

8 Responses to A New ‘Hawk Handle

  1. Darrel says:

    Another great job! This was truly a good read.
    It reminded me of a spring training weekend at a small outpost in Ohio, one of the Rangers dug through the wood pile until he found a piece of suitable hickory and while sitting around the fire he made a handle for his ax.
    It was interesting watching him shape the piece of wood while everyone else carried on with there duties of clean there fowler’s or preparing a evening meal. It was just a simple task but it added so much more to the atmosphere of the weekend event.

    • Dennis Neely: Traditional Woodsman says:

      Thank you, Darrel,

      Sometimes small details transform simple times into “pristine moments.”

  2. R. C. Evans says:

    Thanks for that reminder of another “chore” commonly done, but mostly fogotten about as we pass back and forth from then to now. I have several bag axes, tomahawks, and hatchets that are haftless and I have been waiting for the trader to come ’round with his goods. Maybe I need to take a look at that downed maple tree top for a useable handle?

    PS…I have used the t’hawk head and my knives as scrapers in the past, and find I can do a much better job getting the wood gone where I want it gone that way.

    Thanks for the article and encouragement.

    Rick

    • Dennis Neely: Traditional Woodsman says:

      Rick,

      I have also come to appreciate the knife as a scraping tool, not just on wood, but also on horn or antler. It’s all about relearning the woodland skills our hunter heroes took for granted.

  3. R. C. Evans says:

    Forgot to say that I have read (and will need to look for the citations later) that sometimes a piece of deer hide was used as a “gasket” of sorts not only on pipe tomahawks but also when fitting heads to handles.

    • Dennis Neely: Traditional Woodsman says:

      Thank you, Rick,

      Please share the documentation when you run across it. That makes sense and salvages a loose handle that would otherwise have to be discarded. Please keep us posted.

  4. Mike Swayze says:

    I just found this site this past weekend from a discarded Woods and Water News. I was reading this post and reminded me of a long time ago, (last year), I reforged a hawk head from a drywall axe found in a trash can with a broken handle. It was a learning experience for sure, now i’m hooked.
    I recieved a .32 cal muzzle loader for my birthday and have been using it exclusivly for small game.

    Thanks to a Backwoodsman magazine I have been inspired to make all kinds of things to go with it, capote from an army blanket to a knife from a broken sheep shearing scissor.

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