Friday, October 8, 2010

Rusty Axes and Struggling Companies

My first adventure for the blog begins with, you guessed it, an axe or two. I’m from northern Maine, originally. Prime land for timber and farming. In August, we brought the children home to see the family and attend a wedding. We stayed at the family farm with my grandmother. It’s a modest place, three stories including an attic on about 60 acres, give or take. It has been in the family in one form or another since around the late 1800's.

My favorite place on the farm is the garage. I’d love to call it a barn, but poor people often can’t afford barns and while my grandparents were not destitute, they seemed to have exactly what they needed to get by and if they had a nickel more, it was for savings. Wise people in a foolish world. The walls of the garage are lined with every type of old junk you can think of. Rakes, saws, wrenches, drop chords, jacks, pick axes – the list goes on. In the darkened corners are shelves with old bottles, model airplanes, tires – again, the list goes on. Heck, there’s even a 1948 Ford farm truck tucked in the back. I’m told it has a flat-head 8-cylinder engine and the last time it ran was 1976-77 when my Uncle Myron restored it. Everything is covered with a sticky layer of dust and rarely moves unless the right person pokes around out of curiosity or concern.

Uncle Bern, the family historian/archeologist told me that most everything good in the garage had been picked clean after Gramp died. He was right, for the most part, but my goal was simple; I wanted an old axe from my grandfather’s garage. Gramp passed in 2005 and my part of the inheritance included two money belts and a couple of his infamous snot rags, or handkerchiefs. I wear his belt every day and give his snot rags to the kids when they have boogers. He would’ve wanted it that way.

After picking through the garage awhile, I had five axe heads that I had found tucked behind boards or under piles of bolts. All of them were in poor condition with chunks taken out of the blades. Some of these chunks were bigger than dimes. Every one of the heads had been turned over and used as a hammer at some point in time, so there was a fair amount of mushrooming happening. Uncle Bern stopped in one afternoon and took a look at them. He has a nice axe collection himself and seems to know a fair amount about the subject. He pointed out the mushrooming and general poor condition of the heads. He then went on to tell me that a person should not use an axe as a hammer because it could screw up the structural integrity and balance of the head. He went on to say that most people, in the short lifetime of most axes, do just that - CLANK – BANG-CLANK (mushroom!). Cruise ebay for a bit and you can see that good portions of antique axe heads are a mushroom splatterfest.

I scrounged around Gramp’s workbench and tracked down a wire brush. With it, I tried taking some of the rust off the heads. With a little spit and scrub I immediately found out that the Snow and Nealley Company out of Bangor, Maine made three of the heads. I was excited. In my limited knowledge of axes, I knew that Snow and Nealley made good quality axe heads. Here is a little history:

In the coming posts, I’ll document the resurrection of the old axe heads – and maybe add a few more to the pile.  I'm not going to stick strictly to axes......I think this will be a study and documentation of the old ways.  I just picked up a 2 ft. diameter sharpening wheel that I plan on hooking up to a ½ hp motor. We’ll see how it turns out. Stay tuned. Drop a note if you want. Pax Domini Sit Semper Vobiscum.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story isn’t quite as strong. In 2003, the company’s seven employees were laid off. Two of the employees we rehired shortly after and in 2007 the company moved from Bangor to Brewer. At that time they had one blacksmith and in an article from a local newspaper, they boasted of shipping 8,000-9,000 axes and mauls a year. Seems a little much for one blacksmith to pull off. If you do the math, that’s 21 heads a day working 365 days a year. According to another blog I’ve read, the quality control in 2010 has suffered. I’ve heard other *rumors* (note that I say rumors, I have no proof) that the axe heads have been outsourced to a different country and they are now only assembled to the handles in Brewer.

Disappointing to say the least. Not only are quality axe makers suffering because of the economy, they are also victims of a dying art form. Blacksmithing alone is near extinction. The blacksmith used to be a fixture in each town, making nails, horse shoes and tools just to name a few. Now, due to mass production everything, it has become a hobby for most that do it, relegated to the corners of heritage festivals and historical societies. My hope is that Snow and Nealley makes a comeback, but it’s doubtful.  If I had a couple million to blow, I'd certaily invest it in Snow & Nealley.

On a family outing during our vacation, we did stop by the Amish Store in Symrna Mills. There on the wall I saw a selection of S&N axes. I picked p a Hudson Bay style axe for about ten dollars cheaper than I’ve ever seen them on the internet. I let Uncle Bern have a crack at sharpening it a day later and it was almost razor sharp. The only quality deficiency I’ve noticed is that in about three days of moderate use, the head has begun to rock ever so slightly on the handle when a high amount of pressure is applied. Bummer. I’m sure I can shim it. The heritage of Snow and Nealley alone makes me want to favor this axe.


  1. That's a mighty fine axe. I look forward to seeing it's progression from old to old-new. Your grandparents sounded like wise people in a foolish world, for sure.

  2. Great blog! (especially for an axe nerd like me)

    I've heard that the Hudson Bay pattern axe heads sometimes had a tendency to move on the handle because the eye is shorter from top to bottom than many other axes (less surface area to hold on to the handle). A common solution to this issue was apparently to drill two holes (on a diagonal line) through the eye from the side, knock in two nails and then peen them over on the other side. This might help.