The ax has been an important tool for millennia, from the Stone Age to the present day, and while most of us don't need to use an ax every day to work, let alone survive, the ax remains a sexy, commonly used tool.
The golden age of agriculture and forestry is long gone when many rural workers wielded an axe, but in the 21st century the use of axes has risen not against the mass ax users who go to work every day, but against completely different audiences. The popularity of crafts and survival skills, woodworking, reconnecting with nature and more means a resurgence in demand for authentic handmade axes, and this is especially true for the Gränsfors Bruk axis.
Gransforth Brook has been making high quality axes in northern Helsingland, rural Sweden since the mid-19th century. Traditional hand tools were made from the very beginning, then came the era of mass production to meet the huge needs of mass use in the forestry industry before the advent of chain saws, and then when Gabriel Brandy in the 20s. acquired in the 1980s, seeing a return to traditional craftsmanship.
An ideal has since developed that includes honesty and conscientiousness in all things, which is often a Swedish virtue; transparency of environmentally friendly sources of materials, good working conditions, respect for minimalist design. functional, beautiful and eco-friendly axes.
During a recent visit and workshop, we had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Ericsson, CEO of Glensforth Bruker, where he was able to gain insight into the history of Glensforth Bruker...
Firstly, for those readers who are not familiar with Gransforth Brooke, could you please explain what you do?
We have been making axes and carpentry tools in Sweden for over a century and we sell them to customers all over the world. Our blacksmithing and log making courses are part of our concept of placing products in a specific context.
The village of Gransfoort in the northern part of Helsingland looks like the perfect place for a forge specializing in making axes - isolated, without any close neighbors; Do local resources have the materials needed to make axes, or why is the company located? harder than that?
Although there are old steel mills in the area, such as Gransfors Bruk ("bruks" after Galtströms bruk means "factory", e.g. steel mills, glass processing plants, etc.), but compared to other parts of the country, the region is not a place of steel production. So it's not so much the local resources that make these axes, but the local resources that need them. It is a densely forested area and there is a tradition of paper mills along the coast so axes have historically been needed to clear trees in forestry and other industries.
The area may seem isolated today, but 100 years ago it wasn't, the rural population was more densely populated and more people worked in forestry and agriculture, so the area would not have been considered as remote.
For centuries, our adjacent river - the Grensfors stream - has been used to power the machines that make things (in fact, our own machines were once powered by water), and various industries are involved upstream and downstream from the region. in metal and forged steel processing for various tools, including horseshoes, sickles, forestry tools and hooks, door hinges, forestry machines and plow tools, etc.
In fact, just 150 meters upstream from here is an old nail smithy, now a community center. Glensfort is known not only for its metalworking industry, but also for a nearby pottery factory that has been in operation since the 1860s and still produces pottery today.
As part of your obvious and exemplary concern for the environment, I know that the steel used is recyclable... Can you tell us how to use the old steel?
It's important to us to work with steelmakers who share our philosophy of sustainability, which is why we buy our steel from a manufacturer in Dalarna who specializes in recycled steel, which is just three hours away from us. Steel can be reused many times without degrading, so there is no need to mine new iron ore when reusing steel from old scrap cars, etc., minimizing the impact of pollution on the environment.
Steel has passed a series of rigorous tests and is divided into different grades. Thanks to the metallurgical skills of the steelmakers, different grades of steel are precisely combined to produce the perfect alloy steel, the length, thickness and width of which depend on the size of the various axes we forge.
We have a very close working relationship with our suppliers to produce steel with just the right amount of carbon, ideal for making axes, i.e. not too hard, but at the same time not too soft or malleable.
We are a small company compared to the others they work with, but they enjoy working with us because we share their ideals.
How important is the quality of the wood when making a custom ax handle? Do you have a favorite wood?
The quality of the wood used is critical and must be strong, durable and flexible. In previous centuries, birch was the wood of choice, but today we use American hickory for all ax handles, with the exception of beech, which is used for ax carving.
The hickory tree has a long growing season and its wood is made up of thin, parallel fibers, but it needs to grow at the right temperature and humidity to be perfect for an ax handle, so it needs to grow fast. We use American hickory wood because European-grown pecans grow too slowly. Hickory used to be considered a premium wood, but now it's more affordable.
The imported wood is transported to the south of Sweden, where it is dried, cut and worked into the right shape for the appropriate ax handle. Drying is important so that the ax does not become loose after installation, which can happen if an uncured handle is used. The handles are also dipped in hot linseed oil and treated with beeswax to further improve the quality of the wood and make it waterproof.
To get an idea of your work, can you briefly describe the ax forging process and how long does it take from start to finish?
A key aspect of our axes is that they are all hand forged without the use of automated production lines. It is also important to emphasize that ax making is not just forging - an ax includes rough grinding, hardening, annealing, fine grinding, polishing, etc., and all this is done by experienced craftsmen. If you sharpen poorly, it doesn't matter how well you forged it, because the quality of the ax will be worse, etc., and vice versa. Also, if you make the bevel too thin, it won't be that hard to work. Also, if the ax head is not securely attached to the handle when installing the handle, it will fail - all parts are needed.
The first step in this process is to choose the width and depth of the reinforcing bar, depending on the forged axe. It is then sent to the forge, where one end is heated to about 1200 °C, giving it a yellow-red color, and then cut and shaped on an anvil to the desired ax length.
This rectangular piece of stock is then transported to one of our large hydraulic presses, each equipped with its own ax head style tool, where it is forged into an ax shape. Blacksmiths must work quickly on hydraulic presses to transform the hot steel into the desired shape before it becomes too cold to work with.
This is a very skillful forging process, since the hydraulic press works at about 80 beats per minute, with a force of 180 tons per hammer, there is not much room for error.
The last task of the blacksmiths in the forge before cooling is to engrave their initials and the Gränsfors Bruk logo onto the axes, which are then left to cool naturally.
After cooling, the ax is transferred to another master for hard or rough sharpening of the blade. Only the blade needs to be sharpened, and the rest of the ax is left intact.
The next step is to harden the edges by tempering by heating the ax to over 800°C and then placing it in cold water to cool it quickly.
While this hardens the steel, it also makes the steel quite hard and brittle, so the ax needs to be further worked in the annealing process, which heats the ax in a furnace to around 200°C, where it is left alone. hour, during this time all stresses from forging and hardening are removed in the steel.
Although we only sand our ax blades to give them that characteristic "unpolished" look, we still have to remove some of the burrs that show up on the surface from time to time, which also contributes to rust resistance. We do this through an acrobatics process where the ax is buffed and polished with many small ceramic balls that are flipped together to give the ax a smooth finish.appearance.
To ensure strict standards are met, we then test the hardness of the steel on each ax to make sure it is suitable for our purpose - not too hard and not too soft - and hit each corner of the ax with a hammer to check for cracks. As soon as we are satisfied with the quality of the ax, we sharpen it. Some axes require a different sharpening angle to be better suited for purposes such as wood carving or splitting.
The final step in making an ax is to soak the ax in mineral oil to prevent rust, and then, after drying, attach the hickory handle. Once this is done by hand, we now install the ax handle with a pneumatic press that presses the ax handle against the ax head.
This is held in place by the steel edge of the ax and a beech wood wedge that is driven through a lug into the end of the hilt. The wedges are sometimes held tighter by steel inserts.
The ax is then subjected to quality control to make sure there are no defects; if the ax passes these tests, the ax receives a leather sheath to protect the blade. Each case is crafted from vegetable-tanned organic leather from central Sweden.
Due to the many complex steps involved in the manufacture of one of our shafts, after 2013 we looked at our traditional processes in a new way to control the production process, encouraging improvements in material handling, ergonomics. Continuous improvement of training and teamwork. .
With the shift from mass production to an artisanal spirit, have the materials used and the quality of workmanship changed much since the Gränsfors Bruk Axis company was founded 100 years ago? To what extent would a 19th century blacksmith recognize the raw materials and methods you use today?
The working principles of the tools have remained the same, the way of forging axes has hardly changed - we still use old machines (one hydraulic press is 100 years old, the youngest is about 70 years old) and the axes are stamped. our personal marks on our axes, but working conditions vary greatly and we use more modern technology for specific tasks.
In the forge itself, the main change will be heating the steel. Although steel was originally heated by burning coal and more recently by oil, it is now mostly heated by induction, although oil is still sometimes used when absolutely necessary.
After forging, the ax will be roughly sharpened by a team of grinders using whetstones to sharpen the ax blade, which takes a long time, but is now done with ceramic belts, which is faster for the men doing the task. , much more convenient.
In order to strengthen the blade of an ax, in the past, steel was hardened by placing it in lead water,up to 820°C, but now it is quickly hardened using electromagnetic induction heating.
To improve working conditions, workers are no longer exposed to toxic paints, varnishes and chemical solvents as they used to be because we don't use them. Similarly, modern ventilation and filtration systems now exist that remove excess harmful elements at the source so that they do not circulate in the air. Without a proper ventilation system, workers can work in cold conditions in winter and 50-degree heat in summer, with all stoves on, which is stuffy and unpleasant. Another change is that in the past blacksmiths and grinders worked on a piecework basis, but this is no longer the case.
Could you describe aspects of Gränsfors Bruk's "handicraft business" in more detail, such as blacksmithing and log making courses?
We've been running courses in blacksmithing and log making since the 1980s, and for those who signed up for courses at the training blacksmith, it used to be a way to find blacksmiths who could come here and work. In the 80s and 90s we had six-month courses, after which a person could become an apprentice.
We used to also run one-week courses, but found it too much for most people, so we also introduced a series of two-day courses to give people an idea of how to forge and sharpen an axe, as well as how to pick up an ax handle or pass courses in professional blacksmithing, such as Damascus steel.
Your Scandinavian companion Lars Meiting, whose tree-inspired books have become bestsellers in many countries, is British survival expert Ray Mears. TV shows about bushcraft are very popular in the UK and other countries. Do you see the domino effect of this shift in emphasis on traditional tenses and skills like bushcraft, whether it's people attending your courses or buying your axes?
In a sense, yes. In places like the US and the UK, we are seeing an increase in demand that is in line with the Bushcraft phenomenon. Bushcraft as a concept is actually quite new to Sweden.
However, due to our "Allemansrätten" ("right to roam") habit and widespread hunting and fishing traditions, many people spend their free time outdoors and have done so for centuries. Having said that, times are changing and as more and more people move to cities like Stockholm and Gothenburg, I see that soon they will need to be more organized and therefore jungle activities will develop.
As demand for your products grows, how does your location affect your ability to find craftsmen?
Gransfoss is located in a sparsely populated area of Sweden and I would say it was almost impossible to find someone who had the experience we needed on site. So we have no choice but to train them here.. A big part of it is to focus on the person, their attitude and ability to learn, rather than their immediate skills when they join.
Looking ahead, how do you predict the future of Glensforth Brooke? the future?
As always, we will continue to work hard. We will continue to introduce new products and grow, but at a pace we can handle. It takes time to train people in their roles, in the last few years alone we have grown from 25 to 40 people, so we have room to grow as the business expands.
High quality work environment and setting extremely high standards for our products are two of our most important core values that will always guide us. We have clients in over 20 countries who need our company Axis and as we are still quite a small company we must believe that we can meet the needs of clients all over the world without compromising our core values.
Thanks to Grans Forth Bruker CEO Thomas Eriksson for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. All images above are courtesy of Grans Forth Brooke.