The adze (also spelt adz) is a wood cutting tool dating back to the Stone Age. With its broad and rectangular head, its appearance is largely axe-like. The head of the adze, however, is attached at a right angle to the handle, like that of a hoe.
What is it used for?
The adze is a versatile tool, with numerous variations of different weights, sizes, and blade shape. Different types of adze are have been specifically designed with certain tasks in mind, but generally speaking, the purpose of the adze is to shave slithers from the wood’s surface, rather than chopping out sections. It can be used for hollowing curves, or for shaping and smoothing flat pieces.
The history of the adze is long and geographically far-reaching; it’s actually one of the earliest-dated tools in archaeological record. Examples of the adze dating back to the Stone Age have been discovered across Europe, and there’s evidence of it having also been used by the Maori tribes of Australia and the native people of the Northwest American coast. Depictions of the adze have even been found in Ancient Egyptian Art, from the Old Kingdom onward.
So, what about the adze today?
Well, unfortunately, the popularity of the adze hasn’t survived quite as well as some of the early adzes that we’ve unearthed as artefacts. This is largely down to it being replaced, at least in industrial cultures, by more modern tools such as the power-plane and the sawmill.
But that’s not to say it’s died out completely. In fact, the adze is frequently incorporated as a feature of more well-known tools. The head of an ice axe, for example, often features an adze for chopping steps into the ice. The halligan bar (used by fire fighters) also has a dull adze on one end for demolition and forced entry.
The adze does still exist as a stand-alone tool, however, and gets some good use in certain cultures and trades. Its noble, historical charm makes it popular amongst Revivalists, such as those in Colonial Williamsburg (USA), and amongst the Canadian Indian and Northwest Coast American sculptor communities. It’s also used by some specialist craftspeople such as coopers.
The modern adze head is typically made from steel, and fitted with a strong wooden handle designed to absorb shock. You can choose to purchase an adze pre-fitted with a handle, or you can purchase the head, and handle it yourself. Adzes tend to be hand-forged pieces rather than mass-produced tools which, for many fans of the adze, adds to the charm.
Types of Adzes
There are two distinct categories of adze: the foot adze and the hand adze, though there are numerous variations within each. The heavy, long-handled foot adze is designed to deliver a powerful strike to a large piece of wood at foot or knee level, whilst the lighter, shorter-handled hand adze is designed for one-handed use on smaller pieces.
If you’re looking for a tool for shaping or smoothing large pieces of wood, the foot adze is the more suitable of the two. One of the most popular types of foot adze today is the carpenters adze, a particularly heavy and powerful variation with a flat plane, ideal for shaving down broad wooden floorboards or timbers for a building’s frame.
If you’re looking for the power of a foot adze but with a more lightweight and versatile design, the shipwright’s adze is a popular alternative. Its lighter weight means it’s can be used at waist or chest height, or even swung overhead. It’s also ideal if you’re looking for a tool to remove large areas of wood, as its flared edge removes wide shaves with each stroke.
The foot adze family isn’t limited to shaving and planing, however. The gutter adze is an interesting variation of the foot adze family. It has all the weight and power of a carpenter’s adze, but its lipped blade makes it ideal for hollowing out a log or forming a curve. It’s a useful tool for hollowing out large pieces such as guttering or a canoe.
Using the Adze Tool Correctly
With so many variations in size and edge-shape, there is no one technique for using the foot adze. Generally, however, the technique involves standing astride the log or board to be cut, and swinging the adze down between the feet, chipping away the wood one stroke at a time. Start at one end with your back to the length of the wood, and move backwards down the piece, leaving a smoothed surface behind.
The stance for using a shipwright’s adze will vary depending on the level at which you’re using it. You should make sure to grip the handle firmly with two hands: one at the base, the other halfway up. Making sure the blade is tilted towards the wood, swing, then develop the momentum into a pull-back motion as the edge makes contact with the wood, shaving a slither from the surface.
With heavier variations such as the carpenter’s adze, you harness the full power of the tool by allowing it to swing like a pendulum. To achieve this, stand astride the wood, with the adze in front of and between your feet. Cup the base of the handle with both hands, bracing the elbow of your non-dominant hand against your hip. This allows the non-dominant hand to act as a fulcrum (the point from which the pendulum swings) whilst your dominant hand guides the swing.
This grip can be tricky to prefect since it needs to be both strong and accommodating of the pendulum motion. However, it should become second nature with practice. For the most effective cut with a foot adze, you should cut diagonally across the grain, and be careful not to swing with the adze’s edge pointing downwards, as it can become stuck in the wood.
The foot adze is a heavy, powerful tool, and the main safety concern in mind is for your feet. They should be kept far enough apart at all times that even if you lose control of the swing of the adze, they should not be injured. Turning up the toes can also help to prevent injury (as if the blade did make contact, it would be with the thicker ridge of the boot).
Whilst the foot adze is used for larger practical projects from floorboards to canoes, its lighter, shorter-handled cousin the hand adze is more popular for craft work. The hand adze is much more suitable for use in confined spaces, and delivers a more precise result for smaller projects.
Implementing the Right Adze for the Right Project
Like the foot adze, the hand adze has numerous variations. The two-handled hand adze, for example, is designed to allow greater precision and control over the swing. The D-handled adze offers even greater precision, as it is not swung at all, but held directly against the wood, allowing you complete control.
The flat-bladed hand adze is a tool popular with coopers for smoothing barrels, and can be used to any other precision smoothing job which doesn’t demand the power and scale of the foot adze. A hand adze with a lipped blade, on the other hand, is perfect for hollowing out bowls, or for precision carving.
One of the most popular lipped-bladed hand adzes is the bowl-carving adze. Despite what the name suggests, it’s not only useful for hollowing out bowls. It’s a useful tool for cutting or hollowing a curve into any piece. The outer edge of the blade on a bowl-carving adze features a significant degree of outward bevel, allowing it to naturally shape a concave inclination into the wood as it shaves away the surface.
Another handy feature of the bowl-carving adze is that it tends to feature a straight edge on the inside of the blade. This effectively allows the blade to lift itself back out of the wood after impact, making it an efficient and precise tool to use. It can be used both to shape and smooth a bowel, so this is a great one-tool project for anyone taking on the hand adze as a hobby tool.
Using a Hand Adze: Safety and Technique
Unlike the foot adze which is used at a low level, the hand adze is often used at hip or chest height. With safety in mind, the grip on the hand adze needs to be firm and strong. With your dominant hand gripping the handle, your wrist should lead the swing, with the elbow then drawing the adze back as the blade makes contact with the wood, removing a shave from its surface.
Whether you’re using a foot adze or a hand adze, developing the best technique is largely down to feeling what’s right. You’ll soon find the ideal strike by noticing what sort of bite you’re getting on impact, and learn to avoid common mistakes. Chipping too deep into the food, for example, the blade can get stuck, while weak or badly angled strikes can glance off the wood completely. As a general guide, the blade should chip just far enough into the wood to start, continue, or remove a single shave.
And once you’ve mastered the basic technique of your chosen adze, your possibilities expand endlessly. The adze is a versatile tool, not only in the number of variations which exist, but in terms of the results and effects which can be achieved with a single model. By playing around with the power and arc of the swing, and the angle at which the blade makes contact with the wood, you can achieve diverse and numerous results. The best thing about this ancient tool, is that it’s one which you can really make your own.