Tools of the Trade: Hatchets & Axes

Tools of the Trade: Hatchets & Axes

Tools of the Trade: Hatchets & Axes

Today we’re going to cover some of the less-discussed tools in an 18th-century millwright’s tool chest: axes and hatchets. While they might seem crude to a modern woodworker, historically they were a mainstay for carpenters, joiners, and millwrights as a vital part of everything from framing a building to trimming a board.

What are they?

Moxon describes hatchets (above) as being so well known that they don’t warrant much description, but he does explain their use.[1] He explains that they are used to trim boards down to width, removing stock more quickly than a saw. From their use and the image we can surmise that they were used close to the body with only one hand. They would be ground with a bevel only on one edge, grinding the other side flat, this allows the user to accurately work down to a layout line, not unlike a very coarse plane.[2] Note that Moxon’s hatchet is illustrated for left handed use, but this is likely incorrect, as he later explains that they’re used with the right hand.[3]

Axes (shown above), according to Moxon, are larger, designed for two-handed use, and have their blades ground to the middle (with no flat sides, unlike the hatchet).[4] In practice, carpenters use them to square a log into timber or a beam.[5] This does, however, leave out another tool which doesn’t show up in Moxon’s work: the broadax.

Broadaxes are the blending of both tools; like the carpenter’s hatchet, they’re only ground on one side, but like the ax they’re significantly larger and designed for two-handed use. They’re used to flatten, or hew, the side of a log removing the rough surface left by the ax. They’re difficult to define using period sources, but we do know that they were being imported into Philadelphia by at least 1739 [6], and the trade card of John Jennion (below) can give an approximate idea of their appearance. It has a broad, relatively flat head with a skewed eye (the socket that the handle goes into), which allows the user to swing the axe next to the workpiece without smashing their fingers. [7]

How are they used today?

This picture of Marshall Scheetz, a cooper from Virginia (, illustrates how these hatchets were used to quickly and accurately trim stock.

We recently demonstrated the use of axes and broadaxes to hew a white oak beam for the renovation of our 1739 pantry.

This beam started as a large log (we way oversized the log for the beam we needed, a rookie mistake).

We then chopped down its sides with an axe.

Finally we cleaned up the remaining sections with a broad axe.

Hatchets, axes, and broadaxes, while seemingly crude tools, were essential pieces of kit for joiners, carpenters, and millwrights. And are still important today, both for trimming small pieces of stock or squaring large timbers.

While we’re still closed to the public, we’ll be getting back into the shop to continue work on the wheel and flume, so we should have some of those progress posts I’ve been promising soon!

As always, I would normally invite everyone to come visit us in the Millwright Shop, but it’s currently closed due to COVID-19. We will be continuing to post here on the blog, and we’ll be doing more Facebook Live videos, so be sure to follow us on Facebook. Stay safe and check back here next week!

If you’d like to take the next step and get involved in the shop once this has all calmed, please contact us at:


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[1] Moxon, Joseph. Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works. London: D. Midwinter and T. Leigh, 1703. Digitized by University of Michigan, Accessed July 7th, 2020 Plate 4

[2] Ibid., Pg. 95

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., Plate 8

[5] Ibid., Pg. 119

[6] Reese Meredith, “Just Imported from Bristol and London,” Pennsylvania Gazette, September 30, 1742, accessed July 7th, 2020,

[7] Anonymous, print; trade card, 1720-1740, The British Museum, Accessed, July 7th, 2020


Anonymous, print; trade card, 1720-1740, The British Museum, Accessessed, July 7th, 2020

Moxon, Joseph. Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works. London: D. Midwinter and T. Leigh, 1703. Digitized by University of Michigan, Accessed July 7th, 2020

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