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How did a retired air-traffic controller reinvent the axe?

Heikki Kärnä spent a decade perfecting Leveraxe – a new kind of axe that makes chopping wood safer and easier

How did a retired air-traffic controller  reinvent the axe?

Text by Mandi Keighran Photos⁄Hertta Kiiski

What’s the big idea?
Leveraxe – an oddly shaped wood-splitter that’s a smart reinvention of one of the oldest tools known to mankind.

The axe has been around since the Stone Age. Why does it need redesigning?
In Finland alone, there are almost 7,000 accidents annually caused by axes. Leveraxe rethinks the principle behind the tool to make it safer, easier, and more fun to use. Thousands of Leveraxes have been sold and, so far, there hasn’t been a single accident.

Who’s behind it?
Heikki Kärnä, a 75-year-old retired air-traffic controller who lives in Sipoo, near Helsinki, Finland.

Where did the idea come from? Kärnä moved to his isolated property 25 years ago, and started to cut down some of the trees in the surrounding woods to make paths and for firewood. He found the work difficult and dangerous, as traditional axes have no safety features. “I started to wonder why the axe still uses the same principle as when it was invented by Stone Age man,” says Kärnä. “We have been to the Moon, and we have invented computers, but the axe is still the same!” The moment of inspiration came in 1994, as he was moving a large stone using a crowbar to lever it. “I thought: this is how an axe should work – but how to do it?”

How did he do it?
He thought back to some of the basic principles he had learnt at school and, over the following decade, created various prototypes. The final version of the Leveraxe has a uniquely shaped head with a short blade and a counterweight on its right side. As the axe hits a piece of timber, it penetrates only around 5mm before the counterweight forces the head sideways. The resulting lever action multiplies the splitting force by up to 30 times, making splitting wood not only safer but also much faster, as each split takes only one downward swing. “You can use Leveraxe to split wood from morning to evening,” says Kärnä. “You don’t waste your strength.”

When did it first go on the market?

The first Leveraxe was given to Finland’s last prime minister, Matti Vanhanen, in 2004 as a 50th birthday present by his neighbour. “That was 10 years ago,” says Kärnä. “It might sound like a long time but it’s a very short time compared to how long the axe has been around!”

What’s happened since then?
The first eight years were fairly slow. Kärnä set up a website, and promoted the Leveraxe in forums online. Several international blogs picked up on the story, and the business, which Kärnä was running with his wife, began to slowly grow. Then, in 2013, US magazine Men’s Journal ran an article on how everyone had been splitting firewood the wrong way. “Suddenly, I had 72,000 visitors a day on my website,” says Kärnä. “At the beginning of last year, I got so many orders that it was difficult to keep up! I hired some extra people, and we managed to fill all the orders. It took eight months, but everybody told me it was worth the wait.”

So what’s next?
In September this year, Kärnä and his team of five, launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund new tooling so Leveraxe can be mass produced. “The original was expensive for some people,” he says. “It’s my wish that everyone can afford to buy it.” The campaign was a success, raising over US$222,000 (NOK1.84m), and Leveraxe is now available for US$149 (NOK1,235).

Any other inventions in the pipeline?
“My head is full of new inventions,” says Kärnä. “I’m just waiting for the right time to pick them up from there! Sometimes I stop and laugh to myself as I think that the human race has been around for millions of years – how can we do things so stupidly!” Next up, he’s planning to release a smaller, lighter Leveraxe that can be used as a camping axe and double as a hammer. 

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