Saturday, July 3, 2010

Pretty Axes

Lest you think I've played another practical joke on you and used my ninja photoshop skillz to lure you into thinking that some manufacturer has morphed a workhorse of a tool into frilly eye candy, I assure you.....the images you are about to see are real.

Peter Buchanan-Smith, owner of Best Made Company, and a graphic-designer-turned-axe-painter, sells hand-forged axes made by an undisclosed company in Maine.

Apparently, the fashionable axes are well-made. And people are buying them.

The New York Times wrote an article about it here.

As woodworkers, what do we think of these? Do we dismiss them as unnecessarily-decorated tools? As croquet mallets with a serious business end? As functional works of art?

Is decorating a tool necessary? No. Have craftsmen decorated their tools for centuries to make them more attractive? Yes.

Think of chip carved 16th-century Dutch planes and the carved router plane at left.* The carving lends nothing to the workability of the tool, and yet, the maker felt compelled to add ornamentation.

Are some forms of decoration okay, but not others. If so, why?

*The 18th-century router plane image is from Sandor Nagyszalanczy's book "Tools Rare and Ingenious: Celebrating the World's Most Amazing Tools."


gchpaco said...

My brain has a much easier time with carving as decoration than it does with painting as decoration for some reason; possibly because the one celebrates the wood while the other conceals it? I'd also be concerned that the painted axes would make the handle slick, thus destroying the usefulness of the tool in a way that chip carving didn't.

Not pretending this is rational, tho.

joel said...

While I can't say for sure, if you want a hand made ax by a company in Maine try here:

(and you don't have to strip off the paint on the handle)

Darnell Hagen said...

I think they look neat, but I wouldn't put an axe with a spray painted handle in the same category as a chip carved router plane. Woodworkers have a long history of refining skills and techniques on shopmade items. Because they were not meant for sale, the maker could exibit whimsy and personality. I don't know how many people would place a premium on a commercial router with the owners face carved into the wedge. That makes this plane unique. The axes may be different colours, but they are not unique. I may be missing the point, but I don't feel it takes much talent to spray paint designs like those on an object someone else manufactured. Frankly, I see more artistic talent in oil painted country scenes on old Disstons.
That aside, they do look cooler than the average axe, especially mine with it's yellow fibreglass handle!

Adrian Baird Ba Than said...

I don't see anything wrong with decorating a tool,painting,carving or other but as gchpaco says,that paint on those handles is not a great idea as painted wood gets slippery with sweaty hands & also helps to promote blisters in hands not used to working with tools.
When I make my own tools it's about creating something individual & before I was able to make my own tools when I decorated my shop bought tools it was about the same thing.That decorating was part of making the tool MINE.
Thinking about it though,I prefer carving or inlay over painting but that's just a preference,not snobbery.

Robin Wood said...

If folk want to pay silly money for packaging and advertising it's up to them. Somehow I suspect if people are buying these then it will be to give as gifts rather than intelligent folk buying them as tools.

For a more serious look a the way to market good axes with integrity watch Gabriel Granby director of Gransfors Bruks. This explains how 20 years ago we liked our axes with bright paint and ground finishes and how they set out to be different.

The video of the "Best Made" packaging process says it all I think. It rather reminded me of Rowan Atkinson in Love Actually

The Village Carpenter said...

My first reaction as a woodworker was "You've got to be kidding me." Then the graphic designer in me thought the designs were pretty cool. The advertiser in me sees it as a gimmick. The business owner in me says "Bully for you finding something that sells." After all that, I say, in reference to my three Gransfors-Bruks axes, "From my cold, dead hand!"

Darnell said...

I agree with all yous. :)

Alfred said...

Just looking at their shape I thought at first they were Norlund axes/hatchets. Apart from the ones you mentioned, Norlunds are terrific.


Alfred said...

Small correction to previous comment:
Just looking at their shape I thought at first they were Norlund axes/hatchets. Apart from the ones you mentioned, Norlunds are terrific, too.


Larry Marshall said...

I agree with you, Kari, that the guy who is painting these has an artistic flair.

Personally, though, I don't want paint on the handles of my tools. Even heavily varnished handles are less than optimal in my view.

The flipside, however, is that the paint would sure make it easy to identify your axe when Paul Bunyan walks off with it :-)

Cheers --- Larry

Jonathan said...

I see no problem with it. Decorate away, just keep the pink snowflakes, and rhinestones off of my stuff.

adp said...

The equivalnet of designer labels for the woodchuck? Makes about as much sense to me as spending $200 for a pair of jeans.

Now if you'll excuse me there are some children on my lawn I need to yell at!


Jonathan said...

What I don't understand about the camp axes, is the range in cost from $220 - $180 when the only difference is the colors.

Anonymous said...

I would categorize these hatchets and axes as “boutique”. If someone wants a few strokes of colored paint on their axe handles they can get out the blue painter tape for masking and paint away. They would not be restricted by the few patterns offered, and they would be able to buy a fine hatchet or axe (even a hand made one) for about half the money.

If Norlund is your thing, I see they have them on e-bay. They had one double bit Norlund axe with leather head case for $125.

Anonymous said...

The more I look at the components of the axes and the painting, the more they look like a mass produced product.

I have no problem with the guy selling them, though I'd question the hand made aspect.

Maybe I should call up Estwing and get a few 100 leather handle hatchets, tie feathers on them and open a web store.

Eric said...

I don't know about those axes, but I sure would like to have that router plane!

Joseph Pritchard said...

I think these are like the 4 wheel drive vehicles that never leave the pavement. It's possession that counts. There are many people who have no connection whatever with hand work. What does a painted "hand made" axe or pocket axe mean to such a person? I don't know. But! Spray painted axes? This is the silliest thing I've seen in a long while.

Jonathan said...

So after all of the comments, I was thinking people were being a little harsh on this guy. So I went back and re-read the articles... HE DOESN'T MAKE THE AXES?!?! It's just ridiculous. I'd rather buy the axes from his supplier and paint them myself.

The Village Carpenter said...

I first found out about these axes on the Old Tools Forum, where they were causing a bit of a stir. So, I wanted to see what you guys thought about it. Thanks for all the opinions!

The axes remind me a bit of Tomboy Tools. When they first came out, I was completely insulted. Pink tools! Yick. But, I suppose if it encourages some women to get into carpentry, then it's a good thing. I guess.

Darnell said...

That Gabriel Granby/ Gransfors Bruks video is excellent.
"If you know where you stand, and what you stand for, JUST GO ON."

Anonymous said...

Now you know how us guys felt when Ryobi went from deep blue to fluorescent green.

Will said...

I would suggest a discussion about the re-definition of the purpose of “hand tools”. Originally hand tools were made for paid work. Yes, there were a few fancy tools made for royalty and moneyed gents but primarily tools were for work purposes.

That’s no longer the majority situation. Most of today’s tools are not for paid work. Instead, they are bought by hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers, collectors and others who do use their tools 8 hrs. a day/5 days a week in order to pay rent and buy food.

Furthermore, those that do make things with hand tools (and power tools) for their career are not a significant economic force in our society. In truth, if it wasn’t for hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers and collectors many, if not most, hand tools would not be in today’s market place.

Tools are anachronistic items. That’s not to say they don’t have value but that value has changed over the decades and applying the values of 1860 to 2010 can be a reach.

Once upon a time the axe was the primary tool for almost everyone living outside of a city. Eric Sloane writes about pioneers walking into forests, and with axe in hand, spending day after day cutting down big trees. The logs were hauled out by mules or horses, then sawn for lumber or burned for heat. Today, the axe is mainly a symbol of those early days with billions of people living in cities and seeing trees mostly as recreational objects.

Yes, yes, you can argue “you” use your axe, you respect the tradition it represents and you have a keen eye regarding the type and quality of today’s variety of axes. But that doesn’t change the fact hand tools are now in the domain of people revering the past but living in the present.

I see the painted axes as objectified symbols, not of those who practice/play with tools, but of those who simply visualize the axe as a highlighted icon.

Mitchell said...

I would bet that most that earn their living as an arborist do not walk around with a three-coloured painted handle on their axes (axi?).

Those, however, that swing an axe for pleasure (although I am sure they are few and far between because I have swung one once or twice, and it sure wasn't pleasure), would love this type of decoration on their toys.

I would think this boils down to making a living from a tool, or having it as some sort of status symbol. The former wants the best in blades and the later wants the best in "impact" (pun intended).

Not wanting to raise an old argument again, but seeming to be unable to stop myself from jumping into the deep end without my flotation device, this example is the same as the difference between vintage European tools, usually decorated, and vintage North American tools, usually plain. One used the decorations on their tools to elevate their positions within their station and the other left them plain because they were too busy making money with them to raise them to a higher station.

That's my argument, anyway, and I'm stickin' to it.


Woodbloke said...

Hi Kari - I guess that most of us like to use woodworking tools that are well made and look the part...hence the re-emergence of quality tool manufactures in the last few years.

But an axe?..that one defeats me. An axe must surely be one of the most definitive and primitive of tools and lets not forget, was used in this country for lopping of heads!

I wonder if Mary Queen of Scots looked up from the block just before the blade fell and thought...

'Ooooooooh, pretty handle!'

Still, whatever floats your boat - Rob

Michael D. said...

Kari, I'm not surprised these axes originated from the state of Maine! As one of the most prolific lobster catching states, these axes feel right at home. My first thought seeing the axes are the buoy's the fishermen use to mark the location of their traps. Fisherman have their own colors and stripes, much like the axe handles. Who knows -- those axes could be handy if you have a crew working in the woods and they want to keep track of their own axe!

Jonathan said...

@Will Well said.

@Michael D. I like that idea.

The Village Carpenter said...

I was surprised to see that the designer chose an axe to decorate. I have never seen an antique axe with any kind of ornamentation. Maybe that's because few still have their original handles. Maybe, because handles would break, the owners never felt compelled to carve them. Or maybe people felt differently about their axes than they did their handplanes.

Jonathan said...

@Kari I would also think that the force required to use an axe, as compared to a plane, would prevent a lot of ornamentation, for fear it would interfere with the users grip and use. Or maybe they just didn't care.

Jeff said...

One word - Kitsch

LizPf said...

I sincerely doubt these axes will be used by anyone who cares about the axe as a tool.

Instead, they will be bought by wealthy people decorating their vacation "cottages" who want something to hang on their walls that is "rustic, but goes with the curtains". Maybe some college student will take one and try to split some kindling.

If the axe painter makes some money off this, fine. But if I ever want an axe for use, I'll paint the handle myself, thank you. I don't care for pink, but it would make sure nobody borrows it!