Saturday, September 14, 2013

Stuff I Love #6 -- Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe



     One pitfall facing the aging middle-aged suburban male is a phenomenon I think of as "tool porn" — an obsession over tools, focusing on the best and most expensive, detached completely from the requirements of the job they are supposed to do.  
      In general I avoid this, by necessity, because the best tends to cost a lot of money, and I am on a perpetual budget. Good enough is usually plenty. I'm happy just to get my hands on the right size screwdriver; it doesn't have to come from France. Though occasionally I am drawn in to the allure of some glittering instrument. Once, for instance, it came time for me to buy a hammer, and I splurged and bought an Estwing hammer, not because of its cool all-steel construction, or comfortable blue handle, but because as a fossil-hunting youth, I had an Estwing rock hammer, and felt nostalgic attachment toward the brand. I wanted it. 
     Of course I was punished. Those who give in to the tool porn urge usually are. In line at the Home Depot, waiting to purchase my beloved Estwing hammer, the lady behind me leaned forward, draped her big bazoo over my shoulder, and asked, "How much does that cost?" 
     "Umm," I said, taken aback. "$19.99." 
     She snorted.
     "What does it do for that—drive the nails in itself?"
     I did not point out to her that the difference between the Estwing and the cheapest conceivable hammer, at, say, five bucks, is a whopping $15 which, amortized over the 30 years I would be swinging that hammer, was effectively nothing—a penny a week—compared to the joy of ownership I would derive. Or would have derived, had the pleasure not been permanently mitigated, a little, by the echo of that woman's derisive cackle. Thanks lady,
     I tell that story to drive home how I was predisposed against ever buying a Gransfors Bruks axe.  I had never seen one, or even heard of the company, way the heck over in Sweden. Unlike the Estwing, I had no emotional attachment to the brand. But I was helping a neighbor chop up a tree that fell in a storm, using whatever crude mass-produced axe I had lying around. "Wait a sec," he said, running into the house, returning. "Here," he said, holding a sleek axe lightly atop his open, upward turned palms. "Try this."
      Cutting the tree apart with it was like hacking apart a stick of butter with a red-hot meat cleaver. The thing just felt good in my hands. Hand-forged in Sweden by a Swedish blacksmith. A handle of hickory, rubbed with oil and beeswax. 
        It also cost money, I learned from research, $130, or about five times the price of a decent axe that would do the job well enough and last for the rest of my life.
        This was, oh, 2007. I thought about that axe for the next five years. I remember being in a knife shop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 2009, noticing they carry the axes, asking the clerk to see one, feeling its heft, wondering whether it should be my souvenir of our great trip out West, considering the c-note and a third, and handing it back with a sigh. 
      Years passed. You can only be a bystander at life's feast, as James Joyce says, gnawing on your own rectitude, for so long. Finally, a year ago Father's Day, I gave in, and told my wife that the time had come to deploy the axe, as my Father's Day present. I didn't have to say any more. My wife, God bless her, leaped to her assigned task. It's a lot for an axe, but not so much for an indulgent gift. Give the Swedes credit, the axe comes with several books and pamphlets that tell me everything from the address of the Swedish Axe Throwing Society (730 30 Kolsva) to the name and photo of the actual  blacksmith who forged my particular axe (Kjell-Ake Sjolund) to how to hew the logs for a log house (don't ask; it's complicated). 
     The axe does the job. You can fell trees, you can limb them. Hold the axe up high, by the throat, and you can strip small branches from a tree faster than anything. I'm blessed with a tangled woodsy property at one edge of my yard, and I am constantly on the prowl for buckthorn and other garbage trees to take out. The axe also looks great. Every year, when I go to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to visit a pal, I bring it with me, and the other guys find reasons to use what my buddy Rick has nicknamed "The Swede." Chopping with it is pleasure, and exercise. By the time someone with a chainsaw has finished priming and starting and adjusting it, I can cut through a tree with my axe. I've looked at cheap axes at the store - they just don't come close. Heavy, crude, unbalanced implements. It's like comparing a surgeon's scalpel with an old butter knife. 
      Frankly, you don't even have to use it. There is a joy to owning a really good tool. Just having it. You should own something that's the best there is. My house isn't the best house on the block, and my car isn't the best car. But my axe, well, is the best axe, the very best — well, mine and my next-door neighbor's, who has the exact same model, the Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe. He never questioned why I bought one. Owning one himself, he already knew. 


9 comments:

  1. I wonder if your pal had the Black Sox scandal in mind. One of the main conspirators was Charles "Swede" Risberg. When asked why he went along with the Big Fix, Shoeless Joe Jackson allegedly said "The Swede was a hard guy." And this post will be a hard axe to follow . . .

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  2. Bill, that was an awfully sharp joke.

    Isn't the Swede of the black sox the guy that Algren liked the best?

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    1. He identified with the Swede before the scandal broke, but he was a Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver supporter after.

      And all of these sharp, edgy, puns lack the weighty haft I expect from such interlocutors.

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    2. Bill, no use cutting us down to size.

      As much as I love Algren, and City on the Make, the awful Cubs fan in me thinks those south side bums got what was coming to them.

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  3. Bill is known for his edgy, cutting humor.

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  4. I don't know, sometimes it feels like he just has an axe to grind.

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  5. A contemporary hand tool made by someone who knows how to use it is a rare find. Beyond rare, in fact; it's now an oddity. I understand the appeal of the axe. My favorite is 19th-century Disston handsaws.

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  6. I came to know about the leading tree fellers in Pretoria through a friend, and it helped me a lot in clearing the space in my backyard so that I may expand the area of two rooms.

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