Adze – A Brief Guide to This Primitive Woodworking Tool

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One of the lesser-known woodworking tools is the adze, also known as adz. This tool traces its history back to ancient times. It serves well in carpentry tasks. According to archaeological evidence, neolithic farmers used adzes extensively.

The adze is a primitive woodworking tool that we don’t know much about. With a bit of experience and knowledge of this woodworking tool, it can help you in your woodworking tasks in a surprisingly efficient way. It primarily removes large quantities of material in the least possible time. It is well-suited for rough carving work.


old tools two

Neolithic farmers used adzes for multiple purposes like use in architecture, felling trees, making boxes and furniture, and using to line subterranean wells. In ancient times, adzes were used along with axes, gouges, rasps, chisels, and saws.

The adze dates back to as early as the Middle Stone Age at around 70,000 years ago. The adze was part of a standard hunting kit way back then. In the early days, adzes were made of stone, animal bone, and various metals, typically bronze, copper, and iron. Today they are made of steel with a wooden handle.

What is an Adze Used For?

Old carpentry tools on a work bench

The adze is an ancient cutting tool, but it has survived history and is in use even today. It has a structure similar to an ax. But unlike an ax, the blade is perpendicular to the handle instead of being parallel to it.

In ancient times woodworkers used adzes to cut and trim wood and smoothen rough wooden surfaces. So, they played the role of a plane and carving knife, two tools that didn’t exist in ancient Egypt.

Today, woodworkers and farmers still use adzes for various purposes. While agriculturists use them for working the soil, woodworkers use them on wood to perform various tasks.

Some of the tasks that woodworkers perform on wood using adzes are planing, hewing, and gouging. You can get a variety of adzes to perform these different tasks as we will discuss below.

As we mentioned above, adzes have been used since the Stone Age. They are good for smoothing and carving wood. They also double up like a hoe in horticulture and agriculture.

You can find two types of adzes, the hand adze (short-handled) and the foot adze (long-handled). We swing the hand adze with one hand and it handles lighter jobs. The foot adze calls for swinging it with two hands and we work on the workpiece at foot level.

You can also get a tool similar to an adze called a mattock. It has two blades, one parallel to the handle and the other perpendicular to it.

What is the Difference Between an Ax and an Adze?

The primary difference between an ax and an adze is the orientation of the blade. The blade of an ax is in line with the axis of the handle of the tool. The blade of an adze is perpendicular to the handle of the tool.

Axes and adzes also vary in other ways. For example, the shape of the blade of an ax remains somewhat the same. If the shape varies, it becomes a different tool like a machete and so on.

With Adzes, you will get blades of different shapes and sizes for performing various functions. The name of the tool will remain the same – an adze.

What is a Cooper’s Adze?

Antiquated coopers workshop with barrels in work

You will find a cooper’s adze in any standard cooper’s toolkit. A cooper is a person whose profession is to create wooden casks and barrels. It is a short-handled adze meant for performing several tasks like cutting the chime (top hoop of a wooden barrel) and leveling barrel ends.

You can use it instead of a hammer. The handle of the cooper’s adze has a metal bolt running through its length adding to the strength of the tool.

What is a Shipwright’s Adze?

The full name for this tool is shipwright’s peg-poll adze. It is a symbol of the shipwright’s trade. Shipwrights use this single-edged tool in a vigorous chopping motion to shape timber.

It has a double-curved handle (also called a helve) which imparts balance to the tool, making it manageable for the shipwright to do their job. The helve is usually made from ash or hickory and is ergonomically designed. You can use this tool in any direction without experiencing fatigue.

There is an oval section in the helve which helps to provide added control of the tool while hefting it. You will never find the helve of the shipwright’s adze excessively polished, as it would compromise the grip on the handle.

Do Woodworkers Still Use Adzes?

Today woodworkers still use adzes. Depending on their application, they use them heavily or sparingly. As you have seen above, coopers and shipwrights use adzes. The practitioners of these trades use them daily.

But if you have a general woodworking workshop, you may or may not use an adze. Woodworkers might not use an adze because they do not know about this tool. Although an adze can prove to be somewhat cumbersome, once you know how to use one, you can make it work for you in your woodworking tasks.

How to Use an Adze

Watch the video below that gives you an idea of how to use an adze:

What to Look for in an Adze

An adze is a versatile tool that can remove wood rapidly and efficiently. You will find this ancient tool in the woodworking workshops of those who understand the true value of an adze. To get the complete benefit, you need to know what to look for.

We can consider an adze as a carving gouge that we swing to work with. But it can be a challenging task to find a suitable adze if you don’t know what you are looking for.

You may need to adjust to suit your adze to your specific requirements. Sometimes, you might even have to turn to the helve to make it more ergonomically comfortable.

You can get some good adzes on the market, but they are not always readily available. You might have to wait some time before you can get a suitable adze. But it will be worth the wait if you get an adze that lasts a lifetime.

Try to understand the key concepts that lie behind a good adze. It will help you to get a tool that will be in sync with the tasks that you have in hand. There is a variety of adzes from different regions of the world that vary proportionately in shape and hang. But that being said, you only need to check the following parameters:

Check the Hang

Antique adze (24374167973)
Image Credit: Thomas Quine via Creative Commons

By hang, we mean the length and shape of the handle. You also need to pay particular attention to the orientation of the head. Ensure that the cutting edge of the adze is in line with the outer arc of the swing. It seems simple, but when you start checking, you may notice some variations.

For example, if the hang is too tight, then with each stroke of the adze the outer bevel will embed too deeply into the wood. Your tool will work, but not as efficiently. Also, it can cause fatigue to your arms and wrists.

Understand the Hang

Once you understand the hang of your adze, you can figure out how to get the best out of it. Observe where the pivot point is. There can be some variation here because it depends on the design of the adze and the way the user swings it.

For example, if you have a short-handled, bowl-hollowing adze, you would ideally swing the head near the end of the handle

Test the Hang

Once you have the hang figured out, it’s time to test it. If you extend the handle off the edge, with the pivot hanging free, the cutting edge must be perpendicular to the surface.

If you notice a swell at the bottom of the handle, you don’t have to grip the handle with all your might. While swinging an adze, you shouldn’t push it into the wood but swing it around the pivot point.


Even if you are a somewhat experienced woodworker, you may have heard of adzes but not seen them. But as discussed here, adzes are still in use today – even indispensable in some trades.

An adze can be a valuable addition to your woodworking toolbox. We hope that with the information we have provided here, you get a better understanding of adzes, how to use them, and what to do with them.

So, is the next addition to your woodworking toolbox going to be an adze? Get one and have some interesting experiences trying it out and making it a handy tool for your woodworking projects.