JOHNSON CITY — Manager David Ramsey remembers the first shipment of Gransfors Bruks axes he received at Mahoney’s Outfitters.
He was intrigued. He was impressed. And he was a little mortified.
“I guess I felt a little sticker shock when I learned what the prices were,” Ramsey said. “They are not cheap.”
That was more than a dozen years ago, when the Outfitters shop — which now takes up most of the first floor at Mahoney’s Sportsman’s Paradise in Johnson City — occupied a separate location on North Roan Street.
Since then, 21st century demand for these hand-forged Swedish axes has steadily increased. Production at the factory has plodded along at an early 19th century rate. Prices have risen accordingly.
While there are limited run models that can approach the $700 mark — like a historically correct 1700 broad ax — the mainstream production models range from $110 to $225.
One wonders if axes used to lop off the heads of former kings and queens cost so much. Gransfors Bruks models are easily three to four times more expensive than most mass-manufactured axes and hatchets.
Emphasizing quality over quantity proved a winning formula for the company during an era when axes became virtually obsolete as professional logging tools. In the late 1980s, the company realized its main market was no longer the timber industry. Instead, “homeowners, firewood cutters, campers, hunters, joiners, woodworkers, log builders” were going to be its best customers.
Gransfors Bruks refocused its attention on design, forging and edge profile and finish, skipping cosmetic polishing altogether. By selling ax heads that look as if they just came off the forge, the company transformed the aesthetic standard for premium hand tools.
Which is kind of ironic. At a glance, a new Gransfors Bruks ax head looks rustic, unfinished, almost antique. But the edges of the bits are expertly profiled, mirror bright and razor sharp. Careful with that ax, Eugene!
“When (Gransfors Bruks) reps go to trade shows, they’ll have a good growth of beard going. They’ll lather up and shave with these axes,” Ramsey said. “They’re not specially sharpened. The factory edge they shave with is no different from what we have here in the store.”
The head of each ax is initialed by the individual smith who forged it. Most Gransfors Bruks fans know who the initials stand for. “MM,” for instance, is Mattias Mattsson. “LP” is Lennart Petterson. And so forth.
The initials are a matter of accountability at the factory but also contribute to the collectible status of the items. Some people accumulate these hickory-helved beauties never intending to use them. Not even to shave.
Experts in the actual use of traditional axes — from BBC bushcraft star Ray Mears to U.S. Forest Service ax guru Bernie Weisgerber — tend to praise GB axes highly. The quality of these tools equals or exceeds that of high-end American axes of late 19th or early 20th century manufacture. If you take reasonably good care of them, Gransfors Bruks axes are lifelong tools that become family heirlooms. They can easily outlive their 20-year guarantee many times over.
Ramsey owns four of them. They all see regular use.
“For six years I lived in the mountains of Unicoi County in a cabin heated by wood. I put those axes through their paces,” said Ramsey, who has kept the heads well oiled and the handles clean and cared for. “Except for a few mud stains and things like that, they still look good and certainly function as well as the day I bought them.”
The smallest Gransfors model Mahoney’s usually keeps in stock is the Mini, a razor-sharp little hatchet that weighs about 11 ounces total and is 10¼ inches long. Some ardent fans claim it punches above its weight, arguing that it can displace a heavy bushcraft knife in a summer kit.
While he concedes the Mini is a collector’s jewel, Ramsey thinks the heavier-headed models — the Hand Hatchet, Wildlife Hatchet, Small Forest Ax — are more practical small axes for most campers. There are several GB splitting axes the shop regularly carries that will keep a fireplace or a wood stove well stocked. The American Felling Ax — with a 3.3-pound head and 31- or 35-inch handle — is the largest Gransfors Bruks ax the store usually sells.
Each is accompanied by a small publication, replete with bibliography, simply titled “The Axe Book.”
“The book that comes with these axes is a little treasure. There is a lot of traditional information about axes concentrated in that little book,” Ramsey said. “It tells you all about the tools and how to take care of them. It even tells you the best way to split, stack and dry firewood.”
Average campers and hunters probably don’t need a GB ax. Even many folks who admire the quality have a hard time talking themselves into one.
A few of those guys might get lucky, if they drop some hints.
“They’re really popular gift items at Christmas,” said Mahoney’s associate Joy Robbins. “It’s usually girlfriends getting them for boyfriends or wives getting them for husbands.”