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Geography of the American Felling Axe

February 11, 2011

In an effort to give you some sort of idea of what we mean when we say “you can look at anything in a spatial context,” I’m really excited to have the chance to share with you one of my favorite companies out there right now–a company I can really get behind and believe in: Best Made Co. and (in an extremely roundabout way) hopefully show you the extreme breath of geography. Best Made got it’s start modestly enough–in search of a well made axe, something that apparently couldn’t be found in New York City. The best he could find was a cheap, plastic handled axe from Home Depot. In the words of the founder, Peter Buchanan-Smith, “I just couldn’t bare to resign myself to yet another hollow transaction, I couldn’t walk out the door with such a mediocre tool in hand. So I drew inspiration from my love for the axe…and then set out to right a wrong.”

I am really attracted to this story. I have, more times than I’d like to remember, just been disgusted with the quality of a product I needed to buy for some project or another and ended up resigning myself to buying it even though I knew I would be throwing it out after a few hard uses. I, personally, really hate this feeling and it’s not just the money aspect of it, it’s more about a certain lack of respect. Whoever made that tool had no pride or passion for their work. They knew that their tool was shit and they put it out there for us to buy anyway. And that pisses me off.

Apparently, it pissed Mr. Buchanan-Smith off too and I really appreciate his tenacity in setting out to do something about it. This guy’s life was in the shit, a marriage on the rocks, a dog recently diagnosed with a rare brain disease, and a house he was forced to sell that he lost $100,000 on. I think there is a very natural tendency to want to do something right when you’re chips are that down–to seek to create something as close to perfect as you can get. That’s what Best Made is all about, making the best product possible, something that will last longer than your lifetime, something that you will pass down to your children. Full disclosure here: I am what some might call obsessed with these axes. I’ve wanted one for over a year now, but just can’t seem to scrape together enough for their pricetag which, granted, is high but fair for the quality in this geographer’s opinion. All their axes are handcrafted, beautifully painted, and exquisitely designed. You could hang one on your wall (and people do, including David Lynch). Not only are they beautiful to look at, but they are a testament to functionality. There is no gimmick, no innovative handle, no bottle-opener on the head–just an axe, and a damn well made one. On March 1st they will be releasing their new line of axes, the American Felling Axe, with 35 inches of Appalachian hickory, 4 pounds of American 5160 high carbon steel and featuring an axe head in the Dayton pattern. Now, at this point, you might be asking what the hell this has to do with geography and why is this kid shamelessly plugging this company and whether or not I am trying to get a free axe from Best Made (which, of course, I totally am), but honestly there is a point in all this, and I hope you’re still with me because this is where it starts. Recently on their blog, Best Made posted a diagram with nine different types of axe heads, a mere fraction of the nearly 200 distinct patterns that over 300 different axe companies produced at one time in this country. This starts the history of the axe in America…

The story of the our axe begins with our own tale as Americans. We left our homelands and their young, taxed forest for foreign territory and virgin woodland. We struggled and learned from our tribulations, slowly and surely forging new tools to support new needs. We altered our Old World axes, more suited for hewing, into ones more suited for felling to accommodate our voracious appetite for timber. We grew. We expanded outward, and as we did so the newfound American blacksmiths moved with us, adapting to the new regions recently declared as ours, annihilating any claims and any people that said differently. Our smiths developed new axe heads for the geographic area in which they settled, each having a different opinion on what were the important features an axe needed and what characteristics suited the specific timber of that region. Every axe tells a unique story about the place in which it originated–it’s climate, local aesthetic tastes, and most importantly the trees in a particular geographical area. Here in the Northwest, the Puget Sound head was preferred with its double bit, heavy head and long handle that was well suited for felling the great, big Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock.

This is a classic geographical phenomena, the kind they put in introductory human geography textbooks. We have a clear point of origin (Jamestown) and an obvious pattern of diffusion from that point, with each incidence providing a different take on a single tool. How that tool changed, progressed, and adapted to its surroundings could be the subject of a lifetime of study. Why the Baltimore Kentucky pattern has a slightly longer blade than the plain Kentucky pattern, where the poll (the heavy, hammer-like end of the head that helps the balance of the axe) originated, which woods were used for handles in which regions–these questions are endless. I, for one, would love to find the answers to them, and maybe someday I will. But for now it is enough for me to take this example as a way to show you just how broad the field of geography is. You could literally spend the rest of your life studying axes. This, at least to me, is really cool. And I think it is a powerful demonstration of how you can take a geographical approach to any subject that might interest you. For me that just happens to be axes. I hope that whatever that is for you, this example will help you look at your passion in a new, spatial light.

The axe is arguably one of, if not the most, important tool, not only for our country but for our species. It has been with us in one way or another for 10,000 years, from stone, to copper, to bronze, to iron, to steel, it has accompanied us. You can draw a line from some enterprising early human cutting with a sharpened stone wedge to me swinging my father’s axe by the campfire through this one tool, the one that helped build our nation’s backbone, that cut the trees to build our homes and kept them warm, that George Washington cut down his cherry tree with, that Thoreau borrowed from his neighbor on Walden Pond and returned it to him sharper than he had received it, and that served the legions of American loggers before the crosscut saw began to dominate the felling market. Today, though the axe has fallen from the popular consciousness, it remains with us, the same tool it has always been–waiting. Best Made has tapped into the legacy of the American axe, and I think that is a big part of their success–they are returning us to where we came from through the tool that helped define us the most.

I, for one, will be saving my pennies for March 1st.

The Best Made American Felling Axe

The Best Made Camp Axe

One Comment leave one →
  1. Grant Robinson permalink
    May 25, 2011 6:28 pm

    I to have become an axe nut the past few years and have begun to use them for felling and limbing our fire wood. I own a chainsaw for larger trees but there is something magical about facing a descent sized tree with nothing but an axe and the strength of your own muscle.
    If you have not yet read “The Axe Book” by Dudley Cook you must, it is an amazing book and is published by Hood.
    Good luck with your new axe but be careful , as there is a reason the axe was also the weapon of choice around the world for hundreds of years. I have the marks on my safety boots to prove it.

    Ontario, Canada

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