A package postmarked Columbia, Missouri arrived at my door the other day. Inside was an antique ice axe with a broken handle. The client asked me to fit it with a new handle and clean it up a bit.
Wooden ice axes tend to break at the same two places. Here, where the metal head ends. The hickory grows brittle and dry over time. The other failure point is at the spike end. Spike-end failure is just a result of wear and tear (poking into snow, dirt, and rocks thousands of times). Wearing out the spike means the climber put in some serious mountain mileage. Breaking the shaft up high is often the result of a misplaced chop (and a rock). There is a third reason why axes fail, but its much less common. Holding big falls. A wooden axe that fails under a heavy fall load (falling partner) appears messed up in more ways than one. You rarely see such an axe.
This is a classic design made by the Austrian company, Stubai. They manufactured "Aschenbrenner" series axes from the 1930s through the 1960s. I actually own one of these myself.
A wooden ice axe consists of 7 parts: a forged head (pick, adze & ears), the wooden shaft, steel drive pins, a steel spike, a tapered steel ferule, a fabric leash & ring, and a screw-in leash stop. Except for the leash, all the parts are integrated into the shaft, so replacing the shaft involves freeing all of the parts. I started with the spike.
The spike is set into a tapered hole in bottom of the shaft. The tang is diamond-shaped in cross section and about 2" long. By holding the spike in the vise I was able to split away the hickory to free it.
The spike's tang becomes visible inside the ferule. I drilled out as much wood as possible inside the steel ferule, then pared away the rest with a 1/8" chisel.
Tap the spike backwards out of the ferule.
The next step involves liberating the metal head from the wooden shaft by removing three 6mm steel pins.
The drive pins become visible once a portion of the shaft is split away. The soft-steel pins must have been pressed in by machine; they are bent and torqued inside the shaft.
The forged head assembly and drive pins sans wood. The pins and the ears form a light, strong ladder frame. The ears are not part of the original forging. They are forge welded to the head early on in the process.
The local lumber store had no hickory, other than full planks. I rummaged through my piles to find some stock suitable for the shaft.
Almost forgot. Before hacking into the old axe I made a full size template and labeled the location of the parts and important transitions.
Working from square stock, I used my small hand router, chisels, and a gouge to create slots for the steel ears of the head. A trim router would work just as well.
Fitting the ears takes more time than any other step. Quite a bit of fiddling is required to get a good fit between metal and wood at the top of the shaft.
Restoring an axe takes a surprising number of simple tools.
The leash stop is a 3/4"-long buttonhead screw captured by a little conical stud. The screw takes a standard screwdriver, but the slot commonly gets mashed down over time.
I recreated the screw slot with a few passes of a hacksaw blade.
These axes originally came with a steel ring and a sewn leash. The leashes tended to wear out and break. When a leash broke, people would remove the ring instead of having it rattle around. Replacement rings can be found on Ebay, but they are are not cheap.
The restored axe in its native habitat.
I didn't completely shine up the metal parts, just gave it the once over. Buffing it out completely would have taken just a few minutes with the wire wheel and a SandFlex, but I felt leaving some of the tarnish helped retain a certain amount of character.
Not perfect, but pretty to look at. The restored axe alongside my own Aschenbrenner of the same age.
If you want your old ice axe restored, please contact me at email@example.com.