The Michigan Pattern Axe: Design, Use & History

The Michigan pattern axe was established around 1860 for winter logging the large pine forests in the Northeast US. It is a felling axe with a wide bit, rounded poll, rounded corners, and thick cheeks. It became one of North America’s most widely produced and used patterns and is still made today.

The wide blade and thick cheeks can cut and pop large chunks out of softwood and are perfect for felling large pine trees. The blade’s toe and heel (corners) were rounded specifically for winter logging to reduce the risk of breaking in cold conditions. The poll (back of the axe) is a little longer and heavier than some other patterns, acting as a counterweight for the wider blade.

It is optimized for chopping softwoods, but the Michigan pattern is capable of felling all kinds of trees, and the wide blade is great for limbing, and clearing brush. And, while designed as a felling axe, the thick rounded cheeks make for a decent splitter, even after the blade has worn down, extending the life of the axe.

This helped drive the success of the Michigan pattern as it became a popular option for a general-purpose “work axe” on farms and homesteads.

Identifying a Michigan Pattern Axe

Most Michigan pattern axes were full-size felling axes and the head is typically 3.5 – 4.5 lbs, although they have been found going up a whopping 7 lbs (I’m not sure who was swinging those).

It’s important to note that axes from different makers, and at different times will show some variations. But, there are a few features to look for that make the Michigan pattern axe distinct:

  1. Rounded Poll: The easiest and most iconic way to quickly identify a single-bit Michigan pattern is the rounded pole (back of the axe). Both corners are clearly rounded, but the whole length of the back will also be slightly curved.
  2. Wide “drooping” blade: The blade is wide, curved, and drops down at the heel. Michigan pattern axes typically came with a rounded toe and heel. However, many older axes you find today have been worn down with use and re-sharpening.
  3. Rounded cheeks: Looking top down, the cheeks of the blade widen substantially in the middle, and thin out near the top and bottom of the blade. This became less pronounced with time as production was simplified, with the final iterations being basically flat.

An Updated Michigan Pattern Axe Design

In the 1970s-80s the Michigan design started to change. The newer Michigans still had a wide blade, but now they had a much shorter body, and the cheeks were much more flat.

The axe industry was shrinking, and its importance was already well diminished, so these changes may have been a mix of marketing and simplified production. Or possibly as an adaptation to focus on limbing and light chopping. Very few people were felling large trees with an axe in the age of the chainsaw.

Mann Edge axes, in particular, produced Michigans with an incredibly short body and round poll.

These axes are so unique from the original Michigan design, I have seen them misidentified as a large Hudson’s Bay axe.


The Double-bit Michigan

The double-bit Michigan pattern has the same blade shape as the single-bit. It has a fairly flat top, only a slight rise in the toes, and the heels will often be rounded a fairly dramatic single curve between them.

Like the single bit, the wide blades make this pattern well-suited for limbing and clearing brush as well as chopping and felling.


The History of the Michigan Axe Pattern

By the mid-1800s the supply of large timber on the East Coast was dwindling, and loggers were moving west – further into the vast untouched white pine forests that stretched from New England, all the way into Western Canada. By 1865, Michigan was the leading producer of timber in North America.

Pine was essential to support the rapidly growing American population. Straight-grained and easy to work with makes Pine perfect for building, and it was relied on heavily for home and building construction. It’s also very buoyant, making it easy to move down the waterways.

Logging in the region was primarily done in the winter months, when timber could be moved more easily on snow, and the frozen roads could better support the heavy timber-laden sleds.

After the spring thaw, the logs would then be sent downriver to the sawmills, and on to be shipped via the Great Lakes.

Pattern Development

The creation of axe patterns (including the Michigan pattern) came in the mid-late 1800s as the American axe industry grew beyond local forges and blacksmiths. Larger axe makers needed a way to standardize and market their axes, and designed and named their patterns based on what was popular in specific regions.

This was happening at the same time as the timber boom in Michigan.

The earliest listing known listing of a Michigan pattern axe (at least to me) is from a Bliven, Mead & Co (New York) catalog in 1864, made by Weed, Becker & Company. The illustration is simple, and they still added the description of “wide-bit”, as the pattern was not yet universally understood.

But, it’s unclear how long before this time or who the local smiths were making Michigan-style designs – just without the name.

The rough-drawn Bliven Mead example still has the slightly curved look of early “pancake” style axes. But, the more polished illustration from Douglas Manufacturing less than ten years later (1873) shows how the pattern will remain for the next hundred years.

Michigan Axes Everywhere

The popularity of the Michigan pattern axe spread, and it became a staple offered by all major axe manufacturers in the US. It is noticeably one of the most common patterns shown in advertising in the early 1900s, probably matched only by the Dayton.

Around this time, the size and influence of the US axe market patterns also took over in Canada. US axe patterns replaced (often very similar) Canadian patterns, and by the 30s the take-over was complete and the Michigan was one of the most popular patterns in Canada as well.

The Declining Axe Industry

As the axe industry shrunk in the late 1900s, companies drastically reduced the number of patterns they offered, as well as simplifying production. Due to its wide popularity, the Michigan pattern became one of the last consistently offered patterns on the market.

By the 70s, large department store brands like Craftsman (Sears), offered the newer version of the Michigan pattern (shown earlier) as their only option, and as North American axe makers vanished – so did the Michigan pattern axe.

Today, Council Tool still offers an American-made Michigan double-bit. However, any other Michigans on the market are made overseas, and a shadow of where the pattern started.

Luckily for us, there is no shortage of vintage Michigan pattern axes still hanging out in basements, garages, barns, yard sales, and flea markets.

Please comment below If I missed something or if you have any questions. I do my best to respond to everyone.

About the author:

Jim of axeandtool.com in the woods with axe

About the author:

I’m also on Instagram: @axeandtool

Jim of axeandtool.com in the woods with axe

Sources

  1. Blade Forums – AMERICAN AXE HISTORY: SINGLE BIT DESIGNS​
  2. Canada Lumberman & Woodworker 1915 – Thomas Fischer Rare Book Library
  3. Bliven Mead & Co. Catalog – 1864
  4. Douglas Axe Mfg. Co. Catalog – 1873
  5. The Canadian Encyclopedia – The Timber Trade
  6. Library of Congress – The Pineries (1820-1900) and the Mines (1850-)
  7. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

2 Comments

  1. Jim, My great, great grandfather owned an axe factory in Petrieville, Michigan, in the late 1800’s. I am trying to find out more information, and maybe even one of his axe heads. Can I leave a comment on your historical website requesting information from anyone who may be able to help? Thanks, Wayne

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