Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Helko Vario 2000 Convertible Axe System- Is this the future of axes?


For centuries, traditional axes have been plagued with the shortcomings of the traditional head/handle arrangement, where the axe handle is "hung" inside the eye of the axe head. If the handle breaks, one must spend a fair amount of time finding and selecting a new handle, filing it to fit properly, creating and sizing the wedge, then "pinning" the two together by pounding the wedge into the eye between the split on the top of the handle.

Check out the US Forest Service's "Getting the Hang of It" to see a graphic illustration of the work involved in this process.

Another problem with traditional axes is finding one with good alignment, as shown in the illustration below:


In a correctly hung ax, the
cutting edge is in a direct line with the
center of the handle (from the
Axe Manual of Peter McLaren).

Here's an example of good alignment as shown on this Husqvarna Forest Axe:


The main reason axes suffer from poor alignment is usually found in the forging of the head. A head that has been improperly forged will cause the handle to be misaligned even if the handle itself is perfectly shaped and straight as an arrow.

Here's an example of an improperly forged head on a prototype Best Made Hudson Bay Axe and the corresponding misalignment. Notice the head is canted slightly to the left. This will make the cutting edge point away from the direction of the handle.


Fiskars Corporation solved the alignment issue with their synthetic handled axes, but if the handle breaks you must send it back to Fiskars for a replacement. If you need a new axe fast, like at your woodstove-heated homestead in the dead of winter, this obviously won't work. Helko has boldly attempted to remedy these longtime issues with the Vario 2000. Below we'll be taking a look at this revolutionary new axe to see if it really is the future of axe construction.

The Vario 2000 Convertible Axe System


Helko has been making axes in Germany under the name "helko-werk" since 1844, but still isn't widely known in the States. However, they have long been respected in Europe as a maker of high quality, mid-priced axes. In 2011, Helko set up US distribution through "Helko North America" and now markets their full line of axes, hatchets, splitting axes and wedges here in the US. We were honored when Helko asked us to review their new Vario 2000 System.

Features/Specs

For this review, Helko sent us their Vario 2000 Universal Axe, Vario 2000 Hatchet and a 31.5" Tomahawk Handle. All are completely interchangeable, which is another nice feature of this system. They include an allen wrench along with a nice little brochure which includes axe safety tips, assembly/disassembly instructions and a features outline.

So what is so different about this axe? It's actually quite simple. Helko designed the Vario's axe head to bolt directly onto the axe handle. This not only allows easy handle replacement in the event of breakage, but also allows different sized heads to be used on the same handle. Helko achieved this by milling the top of the wooden handle into a square, drilling holes through it and the axe head as well as the poll and protection plate. This allows the various pieces to be bolted together into one unit.


Vario 2000 SPECS:

Universal Axe
Length- 29.5 in. / 75cm
Head Weight- 2.8 lbs. / 1300g (4.4 lbs. w/parts)
Handle- Hickory 

Vario Hatchet
Length- 15.7 in. / 40cm
Head Weight- 1.3 lbs. / 600g (2lbs 5 ounces as weighed on a postal scale)
Handle- Ash

Tomahawk- Universal Axe
Length- 31.5 in. / 80cm
Head Weight- 2.8 lbs. / 1300g (4.6lbs total for the axe and handle)

The overall quality of these axes is quite good. They are also rather attractive in my book, almost like post-modern art. The handles are painted and varnished, and though varnish is generally not the best finish on axe handles (linseed oiled and beeswax are preferred by serious axe users), it is nicely done compared to most other varnished handles I've seen.

Helko uses C45 Steel for their axe heads, which is essentially a European version of 1045 Carbon Steel but with a small amount of Chromium, Nickel and Molybdenum added to increase wear properties. The bits (edge of the axe for newcomers) are hardened to around 55-56RC, which I consider an excellent hardness for most axes. Hard enough to take and hold a fine edge yet not too hard to make it chip-prone.

I don't have access to a Rockwell tester, but after spending time sharpening these for the review I do feel that the stated hardness is correct. In fact, when you tap the axe head with something hard the steel rings like a bell, which to me is a sign of good quality steel. The axes also took nice, sharp edges and seemed to hold them well during testing.

 Vario 2000 Hatchet

Handle grain/Alignment

Though it's hard to see in the photos, the grain tightness and direction on the handles of both the axe and hatchet are almost perfect. The alignment on both handles is also very good.

Vario Universal Axe:

Vario Hatchet:

Edge Profile/Thickness

The edges come a bit thicker than axes like Gransfors, Wetterlings and Council Tool axes. Here's a comparison of the Vario's edge next to a Council Tool 3.5lb Jersey Axe:


Here's a comparison of the Vario Hatchet next to a Wetterlings Wildlife Hatchet (Vario on left):


Sheath

The Vario axes come with a riveted, vinyl sheath with an elastic band attached. Compared to the quality of the axes, they are rather flimsy and cheaply made. The elastic band on the hatchet sheath actually broke off on the second day of testing just from taking it on and off a couple of times. Give us a better sheath Helko, you can do better than this!


Size Comparison Shots 

Vario Universal Axe next to a 31.5" long Council Tool 3.5lb Jersey Axe

Vario Hatchet next to a 12.5" Husqvarna/Wetterlings Wildlife 1.25lb Hatchet

31.5" Tomahawk Axe (with 2.8lb Universal Head attached) next a Council 3.5lb Jersey Axe

Convertibility  

As mentioned, this axe is completely convertible between different heads and handles. The Tomahawk handle does require a different set of screws (available on Helko's website) to work with the Vario heads. Here's the Vario Hatchet head on the 29.5 Universal Axe handle:


Below is the Vario 2000 Universal 2.8lb head on the 31.5" Tomahawk handle, which Helko bills as a "lightweight, virtually indestructible fiberglass polyamide composition handle, eliminating the need for a fixing cap or overstrike protector." 


At 29.3 ounces with the necessary bolts, I wouldn't call it a "lightweight" handle. However, it really does feel indestructible. Though hollow, it is much thicker than the handles on Fiskars' axes, for instance. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that it might be the toughest axe handle I've ever used. 

The Vario Universal Axe can be used with or without the protection plate as well. The protection plate is quite stout and weighs almost a pound by itself (14.7 ounces). The protection plate comes in handy for splitting tasks. Without the protection plate, the axe is similar in weight to my Council Tool Jersey Axe and is lighter and easier to swing for felling/bucking tasks.

Vario 2000 Universal Axe with the protection plate:

Without the protection plate:

Field Testing

Before I go any further though, let me state that I don't believe the Vario or Tomahawk Axes are good for carrying into the woods except for maybe felling large trees. At 4.4lbs and 4.6lbs respectively, they are rather heavy axes.

The hatchet is also quite heavy, weighing in at 2lbs 5oz, which is 3 ounces heavier than my Wetterlings 19.5" Large Hunting Axe, but is light enough to carry into the woods if used with either of the handles.

So what are these axes best used for since they are so heavy? How about an "Armageddon" axe. Stick a Vario Axe and Hatchet in your trunk with spare handles and you're ready to bug out to your favorite camping spot during a natural disaster or when the Zombie Apocalypse strikes (sorry, just had to include "zombies"!).

I think the Vario/Tomahawk System would also be a great homestead axe, especially for people who live off the grid and would have a hard time getting replacement handles. With the Vario, you could just keep spare heads, handles and bolts and you would never have to visit a hardware store again to replace an axe or handle. The Universal axe can handle splitting and bucking while the Hatchet handles kindling and smaller chopping chores.

It's also handy to be able to put different size heads on different handle lengths as well. Just for fun, I put the hatchet head on the 31.5" Tomahawk handle and used it to buck some logs. Weight for this combo was 48 ounces, or about the same as many Boy's Axes. Performance was pretty decent, though I think if the edge was thinned out more it would improve the chopping ability significantly.



 Chopping Test

Vario 2000 Universal Axe vs Council Tool 3.5lb Jersey Axe

To test the Vario Universal Axe's chopping ability, I pitted it against my 31.5" Council Tool 3.5lb Jersey Axe. With the protection plate removed from the Vario, the axes are very close in weight and I felt this would be a good matchup. The Vario does give up 2 inches in length to the Council axe. The Council also has a thinner profile than the Vario.

The edges on the Varios come slightly dull from the factory, but are also convexed for strength. I think "strength" is the operative word here, as it's evident that Helko built these axes for long term durability over the finesse and fine cutting ability of Swedish axes, for instance.

With this in mind, I spent half an hour working the Vario's bit into a razor sharp edge with a file, various sandpaper grits and a sharpening stone to ensure test consistency against the Council Axe's thinner, sharper edge.

Here are the results of 30 chops each into a seasoned Ponderosa Pine log (Vario is on the left). The Jersey Axe with it's 2 inch longer handle and thinner profile predictably outchopped the Vario, but not by a wide margin. I thought this was a very respectable performance from the Vario.


Vario 2000 Hatchet vs Wetterlings/Husqvarna 1.25lb Wildlife Hatchet

The edge on the Vario hatchet was sharpened in the same manner as the Vario Universal Axe and 30 chops were made into a seasoned Ponderosa Pine log by each hatchet. In this case, the Vario hatchet won by a slight margin simply because of its greater weight.


Splitting Test

Vario 2000 Universal Axe

To see how the Vario would perform as a log splitter, I selected a 12" seasoned Ponderosa Pine log and laid it in a notch that I chopped into a longer log. This is an old woodsman's trick for splitting logs when no chopping block is available. I also reinstalled the protection plate. The Vario axe turned out to be an excellent splitter.


First swing:

Second swing- success!

Vario Hatchet

To test the ability of the Vario hatchet to split kindling, I grabbed two dry Ponderosa Pine branches as shown below.


I took them to a dry area underneath a tree and then split them into kindling. The Vario Hatchet performed well in this role:


Conclusion

So is the Vario 2000 system really the future of axes? I think it depends on what you want to do with an axe. Bushcrafters will tend to stick with traditional axes for their lighter weight, better balance, classic feel, and thinner, more precise cutting edges.

However, for those who want a versatile homestead or camping axe and don't want to deal with alignment issues or replacing a broken axe handle, the Vario just might be the future. It's not the greatest chopper, and doesn't have quite the balance of a fine Swedish axe, but it's a great splitter, chops respectably and converts to many configurations. Most of all, it has solved two of the greatest problems inherent in traditional axes-- difficulty of handle replacement and alignment issues. These last two advantages alone make this axe revolutionary.

Pros- Revolutionary design that actually works as intended, well-tempered German steel, attractive, post-modern looking design, German quality, $5 shipping!

Cons- Flimsy sheath, heavier weight than traditional axes of the same size, expensive replacement bolts, edge is on the thick side

So whether you're an off-the-grid homesteader, want to prepare for disasters or running from a huge hoard of zombies, definitely consider adding the Vario 2000 system to your preparedness arsenal.

For more information visit: http://www.helkonorthamerica.com/


About the author
Jason Schwartz is the founder and senior editor of Rocky Mountain Bushcraft. He is a former Red Cross certified Wilderness & Remote First Aid Instructor, and has taught bushcraft and wilderness survival techniques to the Boy Scouts of America, interned with the US Forest Service, and studied wilderness survival, forestry and wildland firefighting at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Colorado. Jason has also written for magazines such as The New Pioneer and Backpacker, including writing the "Tinder Finder" portion of Backpacker's "Complete Guide to Fire," which won a 2015 National Magazine Award (NMA). Email him at rockymountainbushcraft @ hotmail.com (without spaces)

11 comments:

  1. That's a neat idea. I'm too much of a traditionalist to go for something like this though. Plus you lose out on the fun of hanging axes.

    - OutdoorEnvy

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very nice write up on this particular axe since I was looking for an "in-depth" review of these particular axes from helko. Your review answered my questions.

    Thanks for the write up!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, we appreciate your comment.

      Cheers, RMB

      Delete
  3. Canadian River RunnerMay 10, 2012 at 11:57 AM

    Hm. Interesting. I found this by trying to google for a quality axe - believe it or not, I just broke the handle on my (really expensive) Granfors doing a simple split on a portage trip last week. I was enraged, and without an axe for the rest of the trip (a whole week). So, I will be taking that back. Anomaly, I'm sure, but for that kind of money, it shouldn't be happening.
    99% of my axe-ing is on these portage trips - we pack what we can into a canoe, and off we go, carrying everything if the water runs out. So a few ounces here and there really add up. On the pro, I could have made myself a new handle if it broke. On the con, it's more weight to lump.

    If these was a perfect axe for a guy like me, a good balance between felling and splitting, could you name it? Or, should I look for a good feller and then fine splitting hatchet?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Canadian, it would depend on if you want to do more chopping with your axe vs splitting, etc. Do you buck with a saw and then split? If so, then a good splitting hatchet or axe might do the trick. If you do a lot of chopping along with splitting, maybe a thicker handled Wetterlings Scandinavian Forest Axe if you want to stay traditional.

      My personal choice for your scenario would be a Fiskars X15 Axe, because it has a synthetic handle, chops like a banshee, yet splits almost a like a splitting axe. I'll have a review of it up here soon. Surprisingly, it makes better feather sticks and out-chopped my Wetterlings Axe too. Hope this helps.

      -Jason

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    2. Looking forward to the review then. I will certainly keep an open mind, but I will admit I am quite wary of that type of handle.

      Thanks,

      Delete
  4. Another terrific review about a product I never heard of, despite a year of googling and reading about axes

    ReplyDelete