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The History of the Axe and Related Tools in Australia

Corin

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Most are now aware of my thoughts to start docmenting bushcrafting skills in Australia History, I will be the first to admit that is going to be bigger than big as far as projects go, but I have a habit of finishing what I start and I will give this a go as time permits.

If it gets people thinking about Australia, its history, and bushcraft skills it can only be a good thing for an Australian bushcraft forum!

If you want to contribute please include a source for the information be it link, book, or personal experience and clearly say it if what you are saying is just something you think might be the case.

So without further ado lets talk Axes, one of the iconic bushcraft tool.

YES I KNOW WE DID NOT INVENT IT, though the aboriginal people are recognized as the first to make ground stone tools including Axe heads, so maybe we did... I dunno nor care its not relevant.

Here are the questions for discussion feel free to add more as discussion evolves these will just get things rolling

1) How did the aborigines make axes, what rocks did they use and how did they attach handles?

2) What types of axes came out on the first fleet, and how did they cope with Australian timbers?

3) what improvements, developed here or elswhere in the world changed the way axes were used in Australia?

4) During the periods specified in this thread http://bushcraftoz.com/forums/showthread.php?3094-Periods-or-Era-s-in-Australian-Bushcraft what sort of axes were being employed?

5) is there such a thing as an Australian unique design of axe?
 

Aussie123

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The aboriginals certainly did make and use axes. As I understand it there are two principal types, ground axes and flaked axes.

The axes could be used as a hand axe or hafted to a shaft.

The axes could be used for cutting wood (trees) and butchering animals.

Axes were made from hard rocks which were quarried at specific sites. Many of these sites had specific legends and stories attached to them, which would increase the prestige of obtaining an axe from that site (like Holden vs Ford – you’ve got to have a stone axe from Mount William !).

Quality axes (or axe blanks) were traded over large areas, hundreds of kms and even 1000 km ! This shows trading between tribes was wide spread.

All rocks have a unique chemical composition, so when a stone axe is found, it can be analyzed and its origins determined back to a specific quarry site.
Mount William (Victoria) hosts a large Aboriginal greenstone quarry and axes from this side occure as far away as South Australia’s Flinders ranges.

(Greenstone is geologically related to basalt type materials)

There have been quite a few papers about Mt William, here is a great summary:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_William_stone_axe_quarry

I know some of the NSW contingent have posted grinding groove pictures, it may be interesting to note that quarrying of blanks and polishing often did not happen at the same places.
I was going to point out that stone axes can become chipped, but the edges can be re-worked and the tool can continue to be used, sometimes it is not necessary to remove the axe from the handle to do this.


@Templar - In the picture it looks like the haft has been achieved by bending a green stick in half, thus forming a “loop” at the top to hold the axe head.
There is probably a strong lashing (perhaps sinew) underneath his hand to hold it tight. The inside of the stick may have been thinned out at the top to help the stick bend without breaking.
It is possible that an adhesive resin, or wax was used too, but I’ve seen examples where none has been used at all and its just the tension from the stick and lashing to hold the head in place.

An adz configuration seems to have been common place too, not sure if you want to include these in the axe thread ?
 

Hairyman

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The oldest ground-edge axe yet found (in the world) is from 35,000 years ago,
found in a rock shelter in Jawoyn country in Arnhem land.
http://www.theage.com.au/national/3...utting-edge-of-technology-20101105-17hil.html
Im not sure if older non-ground-edge axes have been found in Australia/Sahul.
Sahul is the name given to the extended Australian/New Guinea/Tas continent etc that
form with low level iceage oceans.
Ive read somewhere that for 80% of the time that Australia has been inhabited
it was joined to New Guinea and Tasmania.
 

Aussie123

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The oldest ground-edge axe yet found (in the world) is from 35,000 years ago,
found in a rock shelter in Jawoyn country in Arnhem land.
http://www.theage.com.au/national/3...utting-edge-of-technology-20101105-17hil.html
Im not sure if older non-ground-edge axes have been found in Australia/Sahul.
Sahul is the name given to the extended Australian/New Guinea/Tas continent etc that
form with low level iceage oceans.
Ive read somewhere that for 80% of the time that Australia has been inhabited
it was joined to New Guinea and Tasmania.

Hairymay, you are correct. I can't find the article, but Aboriginals are (believed to be) the first humans to grind axes (as opposed to knapped). That's a big technological breakthrough.
 

Corin

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WOW Guys, That is some fantastic info on Stone axes! I now feel the irresistible urge to make and try one! I have a piece of sandstone there to sharpen it!
 

Howling Dingo

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DevilsRockTrip051.jpg


Aboriganal axe sharpening grooves,yengo national park.
 

Hairyman

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Interesting Oz, I been shown a couple of these little 'Native wells" by some aboriginal friends,
(except they were in granite) and they explained they used to be cleaned out regularly and had a flat rock
on them that must have reduced evaporation, kept some leaves and dirt out and stopped wild life
from getting to it. Something to look out for on large slabs of rock and probably deserves its own thread.
 

Corin

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This is a definitive article on axes in Australia and makes Excellent reading! Great information also about lots of other tools in the link below.

It contains many answers to the questions initially raised.

Source:http://mileslewis.net/australian-building/pdf/05-timber-frame/5.02-timber-processing.pdf


English axes had the same limitations as other English tools. In Van Diemen's Land
in 1817 William Thornley tried to cut down a tree using heavy broad axes which he
had brought from England, but had much more success with the 'camp axes' which he
bought in Hobart, and which were 'much longer in the handle and narrower in the
blade', though it is not clear where they were made. In Western Australia from
1829 the settlers also found English axes unsuitable for local hardwoods, and got
around the problem mainly by ringbarking and burning to clear the land. Even in
1841 James Allen of Brownhill Creek, South Australia, wrote 'Few axes that are sent
here will stand against our wood, without being re-hardened'. By the 1820s
distinctive local tools had begun to develop, at least in the east, and Peter
Cunningham stated 'Our felling axes are long and narrow, to penetrate our iron woods
more readily, and with one somewhat larger and narrower still, the mortices are cut in
the posts.' This implies that axes different from the English standard were used, but
it may be that this was a question of selecting one of the less usual English types
rather than redesigning the implement entirely.
Robert Irving has explained that the English felling axe, though unsuitable for the job,
remained the norm in Australia until the American axe was imported, probably in the
1860s. It may have been somewhat earlier than this, for the problem had been
obvious from the beginning. In Canada it was said in 1838 that 'an axe has not yet
been manufactured in England in the form or temper which long experience has
proved best. A good chopper will do treble the work with an American made axe
than he could do with an English made one.' In New Zealand George Earp wrote in
1853 that carpenters:
should always have a good assortment of tools ...
.. make a selection of American axes, all others are of no use ... the timber of
New Zealand will try the goodness of the best article.
In fact suitable axes began to be made in Australia at about this time, and John
Capper recommended the settler to equip himself with 'a common Australian axe
forged in the colony'. Certainly by 1866 axes on the American pattern were being
made in Melbourne by Peter Valot, and the judges at the Intercolonial Exhibition
considered them virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, made of the finest
steel and properly tempered.
A German observer commented that the American axe would fell and smooth logs in
the same number of hours as the German axe would require days. It was likewise
superior to the English one, which had a large but light head, a straight cutting edge,
straight tapered cheeks and a straight short handle. The American axe, 'a steel version
of the Red Indian axe', had a small, heavy head with fat cheeks and a curved cutting
edge, and a long tough hickory handle which could absorb shock: it was swung wide
and thrown into the wood, whereas the English axe was used like a chopper.
Salaman explains that the English axe had a smoothly curved handle, oval in crosssection,
and thickened slightly at the foot. American felling axes had a double curved
'fawn-foot' pattern handle, apparently devised in the mid-nineteenth century, which
permits a fixed grip near the foot with one hand, and a sliding grip with the other.
Salaman also illustrates an axe head made in Britain for the Australian market, a
heavy version of what is known as the 'Kent' type. This embraces a number of
variations, but all with a symmetrical round-shouldered blade, a flat poll (the side
opposite the cutting face), and pointed lugs above and below the eye through which
the handle is fitted.
Late in the century settlers in the Goulburn Valley used an American axe called 'The
Sharp', made by the Douglas Axe Co, and this gave rise to an idiomatic expression
'swinging Douglas'. By the 1890s the Douglas and other American brands such as
Plumb, Underhill, Hubbard, Chopper's Pride Mam, and Lippincoat, had largely
displaced English axes such as Elwell and Gipin. In axemen's competitions Plumb
and Underhill proved the best, and by 1892 most competitors favoured the Underhill
bronze coloured axe. Local blacksmiths were themselves making improved axes, and
the United Axemen's Association invited axe competitors and manufacturers to
submit ideas for the best axe design. Agreement was reached that the ideal was a
blade 51/4 to 51/2 inches [134-141 mm] wide, a total depth of 71/2 inches [192 mm], a
half inch [13 mm] pole, a width at the handle of 41/2 inches [115 mm], and a total
weight of six pounds [2.72 kg]. Four American companies, but no British ones, were
able to supply this. By 1897 90% of competitors preferred American axes despite a
general belief that the British ones were of higher quality manufacture.41 It does not
appear, however, that Australia took to the double-sided axe which West Coast
lumbermen had adopted in the 1870s. There the motivation was that one side could
be used for undercutting, while the other was reserved for hard knots and other work
that would quickly dull the edge. Such contrasts were perhaps less pronounced in
Australian timbers.
J C Penny, writing after the turn of the century, refers to the astonishing workmanship
of Tasmanian axemen, who produced surfaces as clean and true as if cut by
machinery, and who were expert with the broad axe as well as 'the ordinary American
axe'. In 1898 the English company Brades had taken an interest in the market, and
sent out specimen axes, which were judged to be the best yet seen. Brades then sent
out a case of axes for the International Wood Chop and Sawing Competition in
Tasmania in 1899 and won the competition, notwithstanding the fact that the
American Axe and Tool Company had produced their Hollow Concave Axe in
January 1899. This latter company had by 1902 acquired many of the other American
manufacturers. It was this competitive process which established the form of the
'Tasmanian Axe' as manufactured for many years afterwards. Soon John Danks of
Melbourne advertised Plumb's, Collins and Brades (Cockatoo brand) axes in the
Tasmanian pattern, each in seven weights from 4 to 51/2 pounds [1.82 - 2.50 kg]. In
1924 Colton, Palmer & Preston stocked the Plumb Tasmanian pattern and the Kelly
Standard Hand Made Axe in the Tasmanian pattern, as well as 'Kelly's Perfect
Yankee Pattern'. In 1949 McPhersons of Melbourne were similarly advertising
Plumb's Tasmanian Pattern, Kelly Dandenong Tasmanian Pattern and Brade's
Cockatoo axes.
 

Aussie123

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Interesting Oz, I been shown a couple of these little 'Native wells" by some aboriginal friends,
(except they were in granite) and they explained they used to be cleaned out regularly and had a flat rock
on them that must have reduced evaporation, kept some leaves and dirt out and stopped wild life
from getting to it. Something to look out for on large slabs of rock and probably deserves its own thread.

Also called gnamma holes (with a silent G like in gnone; pronounced "namma"). I was lucky enough to be shown a few of these the central desert; they are very well "hidden" and you could literally stand on a cap rock and not know water was under your feet. Its part of the traditional knowledge of the local people of course.

WOW Guys, That is some fantastic info on Stone axes! I now feel the irresistible urge to make and try one! I have a piece of sandstone there to sharpen it!

It is on my list too ! I picked up a really nice rock, which I wanted to grind down and thought I'd test how hard it was (when I was back at home); so I kept belting it until it broke.
Then I realized it wasn't any good any more. I don't know why I did that ? Stupid me - Doh !
 

Hairyman

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Aussie , ive found the best way to chip a small piece of rock off to see whats its like
underneath is to hold it in one hand and nick/hit one edge with another rock.
The first couple of tries miss altogether gradually moving closer until it connects.

Great articles Corin.
 

Aussie123

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@ Corin, those are great articles. I've learnt quite a bit, although I'll need to find some pictures of Tasmanian vs English axes side by side !

The articles did prompt me to start to look and that lead me to this reference:

(extract from http://www.yesteryearstools.com/Yesteryears Tools/Plumb Co..html)
PLUMB RACING AXES
Axes made by the Plumb Co. had a significant impact on the harvesting of trees in many parts of the world including Australia and New Zealand. Various sources of information indicate that Plumb was one of the three earliest major North American axe manufacturers that exported axes to Australia. One of the supplemental advantages to supplying such axes was the input provided by indigenous choppers. One of the patterns attributed to such input was called the Tasmania pattern while another was the Gippslander.


As well as the Tasmanian pattern, it looks like there may be a Gippslander pattern ? I could not find any other references to the Gippslander, although there are many references to the Tasmanian Pattern.



On another tack I think we need to mention wood chopping competitions. I love woodchopping when I see it at a show. It amazes me how skilled those chaps are !
Here are a couple of articles on the history of this international sport:
http://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/W/Woodchopping.htm
http://www.abc.net.au/tv/axemen/historymore.htm
 

Corin

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Yes Aussie, definitely need pictures of the different patterns, from what was being used in England in 1788 through to the modern day.
 

Aussie123

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It’s a bit vague, but I believe these are the type of axes available to the first settlers - "English Axes" ? I may stand corrected, but I coundn't find too much info.



The first is described as being made of iron !

B479 Axe, felling, Old English, blade of iron, narrow and thick towards handle, becoming broader and thinner towards sharp edge, which is curved in smooth arc. Handle of 'Acacia Maideni', "[N]EBRO &" on blade, England (OF).
http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=213933#ixzz1uSJvBPVr
axe1.jpg


H9238-1 Axe, wood/steel, [England], 19th century
http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=255903
axe2.jpg
 

auscraft

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Hi This is a copy about Hatchets and knives taken from a book published 1914. I will add more from other books from different states and authors as i can.

Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia
by Baldwin Spencer
Macmillan And Co., London
[1914]




STONE HATCHETS AND KNIVES.
At the present day it is not common to meet with stone hatchets except amongst the tribes in far outlying parts, and these are so wild that white men very seldom come in contact with them. For very many years past, the natives, partly through intercourse with whites, and partly, along the seaboard, through intercourse with Malays and others, have been well acquainted with the use of iron. Amongst the Northern Central tribes, we have previously described in detail the nature and manufacture of their stone hatchets, picks and knives, and, in all important respects, what we wrote concerning these tribes is true of those with which I am now dealing. As I have pointed out before, the terms Eolithic, Palæolithic and Neolithic have no meaning whatever when used in connection with culture stages or periods in reference to Australia.

The one thing that stands out clearly, is that the nature of the stone weapon, or implement, used by an Australian aboriginal is determined, primarily, by the nature of the material available. If he lives where he can secure only quartzite, or some such rock, then he makes chipped and flaked implements. These may be as crude as the crudest so-called Palæolithic implements, or they may be as beautifully and delicately chipped as the finest arrow heads found in European prehistoric collections. If he lives where he can secure diorite and rocks of that nature, then he grinds his stone implements and, if he lives where he can obtain both quartzite and diorite, then he makes flaked, chipped and ground implements, just according to what material lies handiest. It is no uncommon thing, or was not until the Northern Central tribes came into contact with foreigners, to find one man carrying with him, at one and the same time, a ground and hafted stone axe, a flaked pick, a flaked stone knife, and a few small, crudely flaked, or perhaps flaked and chipped stones. He might even have also a beautifully chipped spear-head and, at the same time, you would find him using in camp a stone that he had just picked up and roughly flaked to serve some passing need. sonic indeed, of their stone implements are so crude that, if found fossil, they would only be recognised as being of human manufacture by those who have had personal experience of the Australian aboriginal, and have actually seen him at work, and even then in many cases it would be difficult to be absolutely sure.

It is not, I think, too much to say that we can now, amongst Australian stone implements, find parallels for all the various types that have been described elsewhere, and the interesting feature is that they all exist and either now are, or until very recently have been, in use side by side.

Tribes like the Larakia, Worgait, Warrai and others have practically no stone weapons left. They use iron or, perhaps, if they do not happen to have a white man's knife or hatchet with them, they may use a flaked stone which is thrown aside as soon as it has served its temporary purpose.

Amongst the less contaminated tribes of the interior, hatchets, knives and picks are still met with, though, yearly, in decreasing numbers. Amongst the coastal tribes two influences have been at work tending to lessen the importance of stone cutting implements. In the first place the natives have, for long years past, secured a certain supply of iron hatchets and knives from Malays and others visiting the northern coasts of Australia in search of trepang and tortoiseshell. In the second place they have found that shells, such as a large species of Cyrena, very common on Melville and Bathurst Islands. make admirable cutting and scraping tools. The I result is that stone implements of all kinds are now comparatively rare.

On Plate XII. four specimens of hafted stone axes are illustrated which are interesting because of their crudeness. Figs. 1, 2 and 3 are from the Kakadu tribe on the Alligator River. In the first specimen the stone is evidently a naturally wedge-shaped pebble of diorite. It measures six and three-quarter inches in length, three in greatest width and, in thickness, diminishes from one and a quarter inches to three-quarters of an inch just above the cutting edge. The latter has been worked on both sides. In the second and third the stone is also a diorite pebble. The second has evidently had chips knocked off the side which lies to the right in the figure, and both surfaces, close to the cutting edge, have been ground to a slight extent. The third has one surface left in its natural condition, the one seen in the figure has been roughly worked and there is just a slight, but only a very slight, indication of grinding close around the cutting edge. In each of these three specimens, the handle has the form of a bent withy, passing round close to the wider end of the stone, which, together with the withy, is enclosed in a mass of beeswax.

Fig. 4, which came from Melville Island, represents the crudest hafted axe that I have ever seen in Australia.[1] It is simply a roughly shaped block of ferruginous sandstone, measuring six and a half inches in length, four and a quarter in width, and two and a quarter in greatest thickness. It has been very roughly flaked so as to reduce it to its present shape and to form, also, what must have been a very unserviceable cutting edge, but there has been no attempt at grinding. It is the only example, that I have seen in Australia, of a hafted axe which has been flaked and not ground. The withy passes

[1. Unless the extraordinary, roughly shaped little blocks of granite, hafted in resin and formerly made by certain West Australian natives, can be called axes.]

almost round the centre of the stone, to which it is I attached by kapei, that is a hard, brittle resin, derived from the root of the ironwood tree (Leschenhaultia sp.), the two halves being tightly bound together by strips of bark.
 

auscraft

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During their thousands of years of living in the rainforests of North Queensland, the Ngadjonji have acquired an intimate knowledge of the plants and animals which shared their world.
Link http://www.ngadjonji.bigpondhosting.com/Food/tools.html

As Quoted from the page link above.
"Stone axes were highly-prized and very useful tools for the Ngadjonji.
They were used mostly for woodworking - to cut out and dress the wood needed for making shields, swords, spear points and boomerangs and for removing the sheets of bark used for making blankets. They were not usually used for fighting.
The stone axe head was ground to an edge at each end with a groove ground around the middle for the strap which attached the head to the handle.
The handles were usually made from the robust lawyercanes jungganyu or nidu. A strap of the handle cane was wrapped around the central groove in the head and bound in place using strips of yapulam or barrga. (See Lawyercanes)"


A brilliant site with a wealth of information and pics in regards to the Ngadjoni people and a plant index of traditional names to modern names with uses and preparations.
 

Dusty Miller

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One thing about axes not mentioned is the skill needed to use them, and to use them safely. Mention should be made also of the use of wedges and hammer (and woe betide anyone caught using an axe to hammer a wedge) and crosscut saws too. Whether cutting down a tree, or using a speed axe in comp, the level of skill required is considerable.
 
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