Keen edge of history

Historic axes tell a story of industry


Life & Style
Doug Campbell, Kyogle, has spent a lifetime in the timber business and retains a keen eye for historic axes that span the ages.

Doug Campbell, Kyogle, has spent a lifetime in the timber business and retains a keen eye for historic axes that span the ages.

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Timber-felling history is enshrined at Kyogle in Australia's greatest private collection and curated by an industry lifer with a passion for woodchop.

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AS A boy in the bush near Bonalbo, Doug Campbell grew to love the crunch of an axe cutting the belly of a tree, or the rasp of a crosscut saw running along the grain.

Felling of hard wood after a day swinging one of the oldest of humanity’s tools just felt right.

Doug’s father Merv used a broadaxe to earn a living making sleepers for the railway while the family slept in a tent. Mother Dorothy did more than camp duty, usually hanging on tight to one end of a lengthy saw, teeth like sabres, made from the kind of steel which rang when you shouted at it.

After the work was done the family loaded large lengths of timber, planed smooth and all done by hand, into the back of an old Essex cut down to a ute.

From the age of 14 Doug also swung a broadaxe, crafting girders rectangular and round and from this age his mentor was Kyogle axeman Clive McIntosh, who was thoroughly absorbed in the sport of woodchopping after winning his first world championship at the 1940 Sydney Royal Show.

The sport resonated with Doug as well, and as a bond it remained throughout their friendship. When Clive passed away Doug organised the best funded woodchop event Kyogle had ever seen, let along Sydney.

Clive was a master at grinding a racing axe to precision, first taking a rough casting from Keesteel in Sydney, which was known to use the best alloy.

One of the 26 ingredients that went in to their racing axes was a special powder that sparkled, recalled Doug, but the amount was small with just one shovel-full for a full factory pour.

When Keesteel became too busy making parts for the newly imported  Volkswagen beetle, Clive ordered six tonnes of axe heads, pulling them straight out of the casting sand and filling the boot of his Holden Statesman before driving to Kyogle. Obviously the exercise took more than one trip.

Later, after Clive ground and polished the axe heads to perfection, he sold 375 to the US and hauled the heavy load to the Kyogle post office in that reliable Statesman, his wife Coralee behind the wheel. The local branch of the Queen’s service took four full days to process the shipment.

An old hobbled boot among racing axes and competition crosscut saws.

An old hobbled boot among racing axes and competition crosscut saws.

Doug can recall Clive annealing an axe head in the wood fire stove in his kitchen, with 500 degrees of Celsius required to turn the casting straw yellow. Coralee didn’t seem to mind, even when the heating water started to steam, nor when Clive dropped the hot specimen onto the vinyl floor.

Racing another man with an axe began for Australia in 1870, on the north-west coast of Tasmania, and while the sport started in Spain 700 years ago Doug reckons the Aussies have taught the rest a thing or two about success.

He still laughs at the memory of US champion Dave Gear, who in the early 1960s  stepped off the plane at Sydney to a media scrum, carrying a big headed axe bearing a short stout handle. Proudly he prepared to claim a scalp at the Royal Show.

When he puffed and sweated through his first log, culled from the forests near Bega, the Yank remarked to Doug, then a young man working as a volunteer, “Boy, is this here ironbark?”

And Doug replied “no sir, it’s about four times softer!”

Some of the other competitors lent the foreign sensation an axe made in Australia, ground as it should be with a sensible handle and after a bit of training he started to improve his time.

When it came to the chainsaw race Dave’s two-stroke running on  nitro-methane cleaned up the competition with pure grunt over speed, beating Doug and his Stihl, running on alcohol and gliding on French Fag bearings and spinning twice the speed of Gear’s Whitehead.

“The Yanks were good at making engines go,” he conceded..

Doug has some remarkable specimens in his collection, including one he claims was made by Romans and bears the maker’s mark of a bear’s paw. There’s unusual felling axes designed to cut below ground level to retain the fine grain of a trunk and a rare French goose-wing axe, made with the care and craftsmanship expected of a European.

Then there’s the American Weed, invented by W.H. himself, which for the first time in 1830 allowed cacky handers to have a swing of the flat-sided broad axe. Weed’s invention was simple – allow the handle to be let in from either side, so the flat edge can always strike the cutting face. Doug appreciates the innovation, being a left-hander himself.

He also has an example of a Kent axe, of the kind imported to Australia by the first and second fleets. The wrought iron in those cheap tools were no match for the eucalypt.

The keen collector has been known to sell the odd item from his store room, though not often. Once he offloaded some very fine Keesteel axes to a group of surveyors who needed a sharp edge to clean the edges of tree shields, so they could read the co-ordinates inscribed.

Some time later detectives from Victoria made contact with the Kyogle man, as he was the only one on the internet who dealt in the legendary brand. It seems one of those tools had been used as a weapon in an awful murder. From the photographs flashed through those detectives’ hands that old axe lived up to its ferocious reputation!

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