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  Saturday at the flea by John Manners


Fellow Ferrousoxidites,

There was I on the 29th of July at yet another Holy Saturday at the flea.

The banana queue was extensive but, in terms of rust, only the man who has cornered the market in second-hand irrigation pumps was in sight. He informed me that all of his competition had gone to a large swap-meet at a nearby town and by the prices he was asking for his wares it was clear that he intended fully to exploit his monopoly for the day.

The free-range dogs seemed too dejected to offer combat. Even the man who sells wooden tool handles, a steadfast vendor through all adverse weather conditions when only the truly brave venture forth, had deserted his ever-faithful customers for greener pastures. I purchased two books (no O.T. content unless one stretches the mission statement to include military railways before 1918 or childhood fights with pet 'possums) and soulfully kicked around until the distaff side returned to the dogmobile laden with fruit and vegetable booty and oddments of household use or ornament.

Ennui loomed large for the balance of the week-end, no planes to fettle back to brilliant performance, no saws to de-rust, sharpen and set, no drill chucks to dismantle and re-spring. The Yandina wallabies put in an appearance under the lifting mist on the trip homewards, a heartening omen for the Rugby clash to come that evening between our mighty fifteen and their opposition from the Land of the Long White Dole Queue, the All Bleks.

A false omen, as things turned out. Must have a word with those wallabies about their becoming a bit more professional in their function as augurs of the outcomes of Rugby matches.

However, a look around the garage which serves as a workshop during a conversation with the dog who occupies this space as his preferred principal place of residence disclosed that all was not lost. I had made a bit of a promise a while back to endow one of my sons with a half-axe for his hiking and camping expeditions into the outlands and there, amongst my accumulation of precious objects, was the head of a Kelly half-axe and a suitable handle which I had forgotten I had left in this particular place.

With the thought that this would occupy me for ten minutes or so before I took the dog for a couple of hours walk along the beach I set about removing the handle stub from the axe's eye, trying to punch the stub out with a wooden drift from the axeman's side of the eye. Ever heavier whacks with the mallet produced not a millimeter of movement of that stub.

Close examination of the head at the tree's end of the eye revealed through the grime that the axe's former owner was a major devotee of the goddess Araldite. The end of the handle had not exited the eye when it was being fitted, there to be wedged and sawn off, but had come up somewhat short and the cavity had been filled with araldite. The other end of the stub revealed a heavy application of araldite acting as a gap-filler where the stub had been shaved too thin. I have previously used freezing to break araldite bonds but that usually requires leaving the thing in the freezer for a couple of days and I was in no mood to take the slow, scientific approach.

Instant gratification was what I craved, so I drilled three holes through the stub mixture of wood and araldite. Then out with the trusty blowlamp, on the appearance of which the noble spaniel retired to the extremities of the garage, no doubt in recollection of the occasion when the blowlamp, during preparation, had assumed the characteristics of a flame thrower whilst he ambled into its path with the result that I had half-smothered him in my shirt whilst he, much younger then, sought to repulse such an unmerited assault with all the bravery, vigour and teeth he could bring to bear in such do-or-die circumstances. Minor interest side-note: one does not require anti-tetanus shots for dog bite as canine mouth enzymes destroy the tetanus bug, or so I was informed in my youth by my favourite grog-blossoms medical practitioner who decided that, instead of administering a shot, we should go together to the pub.

With the blowlamp working nicely the three holes quickly enlarged under the application of the flame as the wood and araldite mixture did their best to assume the proportions of a raging conflagration and I was able to use that universal tool, a screwdriver, to poke burning sections from the eye. I noticed that, almost as soon as the flame was removed, the araldite assumed adamantine qualities and it was necessary to keep the flame on the araldite whilst scraping and pushing with the screwdriver to clean out the eye fully.

I was somewhat concerned not to interfere with the temper of the bit and kept that portion of the axe-head below the eye in a container of water which barely changed temperature during the proceedings. The spaniel re-assumed his good humour and cheerful demeanour after the blowlamp was extinguished.

I then sanded off the light coat of varnish from the handle, oiled it and then waxed it with a mixture of beeswax and mineral turpentine. The wax provides a good grip notwithstanding sweaty palms and the oil tends to prevent drying out.

It took about five minutes of trial and error to spokeshave the eye end of the handle to fit reasonably tightly. By-the-bye, an axe handle must be driven for approximately the last half of the length of its eye section to fit correctly. This is most effectively accomplished by inserting the handle into the eye until it sticks, then holding the axe by its handle at the axeman's end in one hand with the head suspended a short distance above the bench whilst striking the butt end of the handle with the mallet. This saves damage to either the handle or the head and usually surprises those who use this method for the first time for its ease. Before the handle is finally inserted to be driven home it is advisable to cut a shallow groove with a chisel along the end line of the wedge slot as this assists with starting the wedge. I prefer old, dry hardwood for wedges and plane them down to a fairy sturdy edge, never a feather edge which will crumple under blows. Steel wedges are dangerous. The blunt leading edge of the wedge is then planed to a sharp, obtuse edge so as to gain a start in the groove prepared for it.

Here I probably part company with purists in that I smear ordinary wood glue on the wedge before commencing to drive it as it acts as a lubricant for the driving and should assist the wedge to stay in place during seasonal wood movement and the expansion and contraction of the head due to temperature changes. The end of the eye section of the handle is then cut off almost flush to the head with a coping saw.

Interesting experience has taught me that final sharpening of an axe should be postponed to fitting the handle. The Australian-made "Dandenong" Kelly in this case, a forged axe, was old, blunt, slightly gapped, very hard and showing file marks, and notwithstanding its diminutive size it took me about twenty minutes on the coarse carborundum oilstone to produce a very thin wire edge with a bevel extending upwards for about 3/4". Establishing such a relatively wide bevel initially is important as it greatly facilitates resharpening during use and allows the axe to bite reasonably deeply without having to overcome the bit's swell too soon whereby the force of the stroke will be dissipated.

Competitive axemen establish, or have established for them by professionals in the art, a sharpening bevel extending more than half way up the bit but this, of course, makes the axe a much more fragile thing and therefore not particularly suitable for general usage involving the occasional miss-hit.

After this it was pretty much plain sailing as I refined the bevel on the coarse side of an India stone, then on the fine side and finally on a natural stone. As progress was made through the finer stones it became harder and harder to detect a wire edge, the sign of a good edge on good metal. It was quite happy in the business of defoliating my calf muscle.

There now awaits a bit of leatherwork to produce a head cover and accompanying baldrick, a sort of Sam Browne contrivance which keeps the axe's proclivity to slice the nearest parcel of flesh whilst being carried abroad to a minimum.

Regards from Brisbane,
John Manners
August 2006

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