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Forging of a Biscayne Trade Axe

Regaining Lost Knowledge:
Biscayne Axe Head

thundra - 18 Aug 2016


Over the past year and a half, blacksmith Mathieu Collette has been researching various examples of the Biscayne (Biscayan, Biscayenne) axe in order to rediscover the recipe of production. This post marks the beginning of a series presenting the results of his research, motivated not only from his love of the craft of blacksmithing but by the need to regain and preserve lost techniques and knowledge. In the following paragraphs one will find a general overview of the project, with future posts detailing specific aspects and techniques.

Biscayne Axe Head

The choice of the Biscayne axe is significant on a couple of levels. First, until very recently, the axe would have been considered one of the most important tool in anyone’s possession. Prior to the industrial revolution, these tools were fabricated in the smithy. Second, as a matter of cultural heritage of Quebec and for that matter the Americas, the Biscayne axe was critical in the early development of the new world. It accompanied the early settlers from France and quickly became an important item of trade with the native Americans. For an excellent article on the Biscayne axe, please refer to, “Axes in New France: Part I, The Biscayan Axe” (Journal of the Early Americas, Vol. II, Issue IV, August/September 2012).

Re-Tracing Steps

Biscaye Axe - Les Forges de MontrealTo rediscover the plausible techniques and ultimately the “recipe” used to forge a particular model of the Biscayne axe starts with careful inspection of original artifacts. Coupling this with historical knowledge of available material stock for the period as well as intended end use and production volume, one can start the educated guesswork in initial material volumes and how/where to stretch and manipulate the stock.

It is important to note that two styles of Biscayne axes have been found in North America, one asymmetrically formed with no steel bit and the other symmetrically formed with a welded steel bit insert. The asymmetrical version was by far the most common as it was easily produced from bar stock using a clever fold and weld for the eye which left minimal working of stock for the cheek. Having no steel bit further reduced labor as there was only a single weld to perform as well as reduced material costs. The lack of a steel bit however raised a serious question as the resultant axe made solely from wrought iron would be of fairly poor quality. Indeed, none of the examples researched by Mathieu in pictures and museum collections had steel bits or evidence that there might have previously been one.

Forging the Biscayne Axe Head - Les Forges de MontréalAfter finding a suitable recipe for production of a bit-less asymmetrically formed head, Mathieu experimented with splitting the blade from toe to heel to forge weld in a steel bit. This proved to be excessively difficult as the split naturally wanted to follow the grain of the material. It would be unlikely that a blacksmith would take a time saving step in the beginning of forging only to loose some of this time at a later stage. The asymmetrically formed head thus was never intended to have a steel bit. This style of the Biscayne axe was intended for high volume production and not as a high quality tool. Naturally it is this style that is known today as the trade axe.

Mathieu Collette forging the Biscayne Axe Head - Les Forges de MontrealThe style of axe that Mathieu then concentrated his efforts towards came from a relatively rare artifact in the possession of Ontarian master blacksmith, Lloyd Johnston, who also aided in the research. Lloyd had been collecting and researching axe artifacts for more than thirty five years. It is this style of axe that the videos and photographs on this page depict the production of. Axes of this style were rare in North America for a reason, they were very high quality tools that took much time to forge and thus were very expensive. Footage of practically every step required to forge this style of axe head can be found in this video: https://vimeo.com/75285063.

A Few Notes on Method and Results

To rediscover the plausible steps used to forge these axe heads involves systematic trial and error, each step taken documented for measures and weights and cross referenced with previous attempts. It is important that precision is employed in the execution of each these steps, care being given to heats and how hard the material is worked.

Of particular importance is how much material is lost in the fire. For example, in forging the symmetrical head pictured on this page, 44% of the original material volume was lost during eight consecutive hours of heating and forging. The two good welds of the steel bit insert to the cheeks accounted for 20% of the total loss.

The recipe settled upon this particular style of Biscayne axe was 1800g mild steel at 2 1/2″ x 3/4″ x 7 1/2″, 444g 0.55% C steel at 1″ x 1″ x 3 1/4″ fagot welded to 690g mild steel at 1″ x 1 1/4″ x 3 1/4″ to form the bit insert. Total weight of input materials was 2934g.

Final weights of these axe heads have varied between 1500g to 1780g. This can be attributed to how quickly they were forged (One or two strikers, which is directly related to how many heats needed), strength of the hammer blows and how the temperature was controlled in the forge welding steps.

Biscayne Axe Head - Les Forge s de Mtl

More to Come

This research was conducted over a period of one year and a half. Beyond the 350 hours of forging, 1500 lbs of coal, 400 lbs of mild steel and 15 lbs of 0.55 % C steel were consumed. The next step will be to replace the mild steel with wrought iron and truly finalize the recipe historically. From there the research will continue to the handle, of which there are actual examples preserved from the era which will be studied.

To put a loose figure on the monetary value of this research, it can be broken down as such:

  • 1500 lbs coal: $625
  • 400 lbs mild steel: $280
  • 15 lbs carbon steel: $30
  • 350 hrs shop time: $4375
  • 350 hrs honorary labor: $5250

Mathieu Collette would like to thank blacksmith Mr. Lloyd Johnston for aid in research, Steiiff Vinet and Marc Lepage, apprentices, for striking in shop and at demonstrations and Kayla Williamson for additional research and documenting.

Amongst other things, future posts will delve into greater detail on the techniques and recipes for the two styles of the Biscayne axe discussed here.

Biscayne Axe - Les Forges de Montréal