Friday, December 9, 2011

REVIEW: Council Tool Velvicut Hudson Bay Axe



Council Tool is a relative newcomer to the field of boutique axes, with the category being formerly dominated by Swedish axe makers Gransfors Bruks and Wetterlings as well as Maine-based Snow & Neally. Due to the rise in popularity of homesteading, bushcraft and wilderness survival, the axe appears to be making a comeback after decades of obscurity following the invention of the chainsaw. This has influenced longtime makers to introduce the concept of "boutique axes" or axes that are assembled by hand with a high level of fit and finish so that the axe needs no work prior to using. 

Prior to the boutique concept, a person would have to hand select their own axe and then spend several hours with a file, sharpening stones and linseed oil to make the axe head and wooden handle ready for use. Now all that's changed. If you can muster up the dough then you can have a finished axe that is "turnkey," to borrow a term used in the automobile world. Though costing 4-5 times what a cheaply built Chinese-made axe costs, the advantage is that someone without years of experience can buy an axe that is expertly tweaked, finished and ready for use.

Enter Council Tool's Velvicut Hudson Bay Axe. Council is America's oldest continuously operating axe business, originally founded by John Pickett Council in Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina back in 1886. Council has managed to survive for so long by providing simple, yet well built tools along with a commitment to customer service. Council has also provided axes to the US Forest Service since at least the 1930s. They continue to forge and assemble their axes in this same little North Carolina town today.


The  Axe

Sporting a two pound, drop forged 5160 polished steel head, 22.5" top grade hickory handle (Grade "A" handle for those new to axe terms) along with a sturdy yet elegant brown leather sheath, the axe is simply stunning:



The size and weight are similar to famed UK bushcrafter Ray Mears' Wilderness Axe (made by Gransfors Bruks of Sweden). In other words, a very compact 3/4 axe. Council felt that this was an optimum size/weight for a packable axe that still had enough oomph to split larger pieces of wood. This was also Mears' thinking when he helped design his wilderness axe. My preference with this head weight is a longer handle, but the shorter handle of the Velvicut does make it easier to use in tight spaces. The axe is also hung in the traditional manner with a wooden wedge and metal pin as opposed to Council's usual manner of an aluminum wedge.

The steel that Council uses for the Velvicut line, 5160, is quite revered in the knife community for having outstanding toughness along with good edge retention. Kudos to them for selecting a steel with these qualities. The axe is advertised as having a Rockwell hardness of 50-54 at the bit (the axe's edge). This particular axe tested in at RC 53. By comparison, the Swedish manufacturers Gransfors Bruks and Wetterlings harden their high carbon steel axe bits in the range of RC 56-58. 

This is a fairly substantial difference. This means that the harder Swedish axes tend to take a finer, sharper edge while also retaining that edge better. The downside is that their harder edges can chip easier, especially when it's cold or if you hit a hard knot in a log while chopping. 

By contrast, Council's softer yet tougher 5160 steel is more resistant to chipping and breaking. The downside is that it won't hold an edge as long and may not get as absolutely sharp as an axe with harder steel. I guess everything is a tradeoff. The obvious advantage to having an axe with softer, tougher steel is in winter, where steel can become overly brittle. In this situation, the lower hardness makes sense. Either way, Council guarantees the head for life. For additional information on this axe's specs, please check out my Initial Impression Review. It also includes photos of the box and brochure as well some additional angle shots.

Performance Testing

I received this axe back in October, and having used it for a couple of months, feel like I have a good sense of its capabilities. I based my review on five specific traits: 1) Chopping ability 2) Splitting ability 3) Balance\Feel 4) Quality of steel and 5) Wood shaping ability for bushcraft\camp duties 

I decided to pit the two pound Council axe against the 1.5lb Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe, also known as the Wetterlings 19.5" Bushcraft Axe. The Wetterlings is a popular axe and has a well deserved reputation for having excellent chopping ability in spite of its smaller size. Even though the Council axe is bigger, I thought they were close enough in overall size to be a good match for each other. 

The bit on the Council axe came roughly paper-cutting sharp and slightly thick, while the Wetterlings, when new, had a thinner edge and was hair- shaving sharp. To ensure fairness, I cleaned up the edge on the Council with a belt sander and then stropped it to get it as sharp as possible. The Wetterlings is my personal user, so it was already sharp and ready to go.

The two competitors side by side:


Head profiles of the two (Council on left):


Closeup (note the thinner edge of the Wetterlings on the right):

 
Chopping

I tested each axe by chopping 30 times into a large seasoned Ponderosa Pine Log. The wider bit and heavier weight of the Council gave it a slight advantage. With a thinner edge I think the Council would have chopped even better. The Wetterlings' thinner edge and smaller cutting surface bit in deeper, but was still bested by the Council axe, thicker edge and all. 

The notch to the left is the Council, the right is the Wetterlings:


Down and dirty! Rough testing the axe by chopping some tough roots to find the magical Elven resinwood from a dead Douglas Fir tree:


Splitting

This log is bigger than what I would normally split with an axe of this size, but I wanted to see what it was capable of. The log to be split was chopped off the main log (shown in the photo) with the Council axe. The technique for splitting shown in these photos is an old woodsman's trick for when no splitting block is available.


First swing: 


Rotating the log to get away from the large knot and then another swing:

Success:


After getting the big piece split, the rest of the wood was easy to reduce into both medium sized and kindling sized pieces:



Wood carving/shaping tasks

For wood carving and shaping, I did two simple and commonly used camping/bushcrafting techniques: 1) Feathersticks for firemaking and 2) carving a tent peg. In these tests, it was quite evident that the extra head weight and thicker edge that helped with splitting duties would make things a bit more tricky when doing finer work. In all fairness, using any 2 pound axe for making feathersticks just isn't my idea of fun anyway. I would certainly suggest carrying a sheath knife with this axe for doing the finer work, but it's also good to know that if the knife was lost then one could still survive with just this axe.


Rough featherstick made with the Council axe:


Pointed end of a tent peg made with the Council axe:



CONCLUSION

All in all, the Council axe performed well, and was exceptional in the splitting category.  I feel it would make a great winter trekking companion in the cold country due to the nature of the steel. I also believe that if the bit was thinned out more it would noticeably increase the chopping and wood carving ability of this axe.

I would like to see Council raise the hardness up to about Rockwell 54-56, which I think is a good compromise between hardness and toughness. That said, its present hardness doesn't hamper its ability to chop and split well. I would however suggest carrying a ceramic sharpening rod to touch up the edge occasionally when doing fine work.

The Velvicut feels well balanced in the hand, and the handle shape is excellent. One of the criticisms I have about Wetterlings is that their handles are too thick. I believe Council is superior to Wetterlings in this respect.

I'd also like to see another sheath option. The supplied sheath is well built, attractive and provides good protection, but I'd like to have an option for one like the sheath I built for it in the photo below. This style is generally easier to use in the field compared to the top loading factory sheath:


What's most significant about this axe is that it's a piece of history. It's the first American-made boutique/bushcraft axe introduced to compete directly with the popular Swedish axes. It is indeed a worthy competitor, and in an age where almost everything in the US seems to be outsourced to China, Council is bucking that trend, and I applaud them for it. 

 4 out of 5 Stars (Recommended)

22 comments:

  1. Great review. I don't think we can get them over here but I will definatly keep an eye out for them as they look very well made.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Secretcamper, thanks for the comment. Council will ship to the UK, just email them.

      Hope this helps and I'll be sure to check out your blog as well. Cheers, CW

      Delete
  2. nice review.
    some pertinent information especially for axe buyers.
    you write fairly well, which usually keeps me interested
    but, you don't need to use the word "that" as often as you have in declaring the facts or your observations.

    the word "that" is way over used by almost everyone for some freak reason, maybe it sounds more authoritative , i am not for sure.
    anyway
    if you go back through your post and edit out the "that"'s i think you'll not miss them
    nice review and thanks

    buzz

    more stuff to say.

    i really enjoy working on axes, re-prof;ling and restoring edges always is rewarding
    i have several Snow & Nealy's but nor GB's.
    i have a couple of Norlund hatchets, nice little cutters, but not really very practical.

    i tend to re-cut old choppers into Hudson bay style axes to cut down on weight and improve efficiency , most turn out well.

    i am looking at Council Tools for a new axe after reading your blog.

    all good

    buzz

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. PrairieBuzz,

      Thanks for the comment. I'm not sure where any T's were inappropriate, but appreciate the heads up and will be sure to consider them for my future articles lol.

      I love your idea of modding standard axe heads into Hudson Bays. Any pics?

      Cheers, CW

      Delete
  3. Excellent review once again, Jason. Very informative - and I like benchmark comparisons as such. I like the term you coined ... "boutique axes". I do hope more companies or craftsmen eventually enter this field.

    Thank you for the link to Council Tool as well. I found some other great non-axe tools of theirs that interest me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. CRCO, thank you. I should have the article about resin up in the coming weeks so keep checking back!

      Delete
  4. One other thing, it's interesting to see the aesthetic differences between the polished Council axe head over the Gransfors Bruk unpolished head.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Excellent review. I have been looking for an axe in this pattern for a while. Glad to see that Council is making these. Nice to finally have an American option. I wish they would start to make more of the GB style heads as well.

    Dave

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Dave, thanks, really appreciate that. You have an interesting blog and I'll be sure to go and check out some of your articles.

      Cheers,

      Jason

      Delete
  6. Very good review. Its good the hear of tools like this being made in Nort America.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hey Jason,
    It has been awhile since I've owned and gotten to know my CTHB.
    Overall I couldn't be happier it is my go to camping axe and has seen a lot of duty since purchased.

    While camping with a buddy recently, he decided to chop thru a branch without any backing and struck the axe into the ground multiple times. Yes I gave him proper axe etiquette advice and hopefully it works next time. It's just an axe though. Suffered no damage to the edge other than making it dull.
    I am curious how your experience with the HB has been?
    Any probs?
    Al

    ReplyDelete
  8. PrairieBuzz,

    I'm not sure where any T's were inappropriate, but appreciate the heads up anyway.

    I love your idea of modding standard axe heads into Hudson Bays. Any pics?

    ReplyDelete
  9. Secretcamper, thanks for the comment! Council will ship to the UK, just email them.

    Hope this helps.

    -Jason

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi Dave,

    Thanks, I appreciate that. You have an interesting blog and I'll be sure to go and check out some of your articles.

    -Jason

    ReplyDelete
  11. My handle loosened and had to ship it back. Might have been fluke, or it's because of the small contact surface on the Hudson Bay head design (common issue with HB heads), coupled with how hard I use my axes. Who knows? I'll have to see how the new handle holds up and then write an update.

    ReplyDelete
  12.  Just curious how the new handle is working out?  I am looking at this axe myself and am curious...

    ReplyDelete
  13. Aaron, I apologize but I should have specified in that comment that I was referring to 26" Best Made Hudson Bay version. No problems with the shorter Velvicut.

    ReplyDelete