Nick Zdon is a modern-day jack of all trades (and master of many). He has a killer collection of vintage and antique axes and axe labels, and he taught us everything we know about collecting, restoring, and understanding the history of American axes. He's one of our favorite people at the metaphorical axe bar, and he’s quick to share his appreciation and respect for the lost art behind a sharp axe.
Project Woodchips: How did you first become interested in the tools of yesteryear? (And how big is your collection these days?)
Nick Zdon: I grew up around axes as a Boy Scout in Minnesota. But they weren’t very good axes. No one ever maintained them, and I doubt they were ever sharpened. So when I came across Best Made six years ago, I was immediately enthralled with their respect for the axe. I realized that the axe had really been under-appreciated and I set out to learn everything I could about them. I soon found that there were a lot of holes in the history of the American axe that were unaccounted for. This lack of information is what’s turned my hobby into a bit of an obsession: I’ve had to fill in these holes through all sorts of other resources like patent archives and cross referencing other tool and manufacturing histories.
I lost track of how many axes I had once I got to around 30. I’ve got about a dozen in "working condition." The rest are in various states of restoration. And about five are regular users. Some of my favorites are a 5lb NOS Michigan double bit (which I’ve finally decide to hang on a new handle, once I find the right one), a 3.5lb Manhattan Axe Co. single bit from the American Axe and Tool Co., and a 3lb Kelly Woodslasher Jersey which was incredibly rusted and pitted, but is a real workhorse.
PW: There's so much nuance and time that goes into restoring a tool that's fallen into disrepair. How did you learn all the different techniques to get it right (especially given the number of questionable sources that are out on the Internet)?
NZ: Experience is the best teacher. I got the basics from Bernie Weissgerber’s An Axe to Grind publication from the United States Forest Service, and from a few forums. But all the really helpful tips and tricks I learned from failed attempts at restoration. I probably hung a half dozen axes before I got one that really held tight on to the handle. And I sharpened another half dozen before I had one that had the proper profile and really cut nicely.
I always tell people that are just starting to learn about axe restoration and maintenance to buy the cheapest axes they can because they’ll learn a lot from them. I also tell people to just pay attention to the axe and to not be afraid of taking it apart and redoing it. If something doesn’t go right the first time, pull the wedge, remove the handle and inspect everything. Is the wedge curled up at the bottom? Then it’s bottoming out. Are there good wear marks on the handle showing good contact with the interior of the eye? If not, you need to remove handle material from someplace. Often times the axe will tell you what you need to change the next time around.
I do caution people on putting too much stock in internet resources. There are some good ones, and there are some bad ones, and when you’re just starting out, it’s hard to tell the difference. You’ll learn much more, and have more fun, if you give yourself the freedom to try and fail and learn as you go.
PW: The history of American axe manufacturers is a fascinating tangle of brands, styles and characters—most of which are long gone. What's driving a new generation of axe makers (like the folks at Best Made) to channel that history and what have they learned from the legacy of storied brands like Kelly?
NZ: A lot has changed since the heights of American axe manufacturing. Long gone are the days when people needed an axe to survive, or really knew how to use and care for an axe. In those days, the axe was a real performance tool. Handles were thin. Bits were thin. And it was assumed that the person using the axe knew how to use it and maintain it properly. In the intervening years people have forgotten how to use and care for axes, and tools, in general.
Unfortunately the real glory days are probably gone forever. The age of having dozens of axe manufacturers, each making dozens of patterns (or even hundreds) is simply not sustainable for any one company today. But the upshot is there are a whole lot of folks who are rediscovering these old axes and giving them new life. There are a lot of axes out there in barns, workshops, garages across the country just waiting to be rediscovered and brought back to life.
There’s definitely been a resurgence of interest in new American-made axes as well. The Scandinavians used to be considered the only source for high-quality axes, but that perception is changing. The good folks at Best Made Company have had a lot to do with that. I worked for them for a number of years, and we put a lot of effort into changing that perception and popularizing the idea of a premium American axe. They’re making axes with bit and handle profiles that are actually based on antique designs, and I consider their axes to be some of the best in the world. In addition to Best Made, a handful of American forges have been restarted, and the older brands like Council Tool are getting well deserved recognition for the high quality products they’ve been making continuously for over a hundred years. We’re even seeing the slow reemergence of Snow and Nealley in Maine, an axe brand that most thought was gone forever.
PW: What advice would you give to someone who's thinking about starting an axe collection?
NZ: Do a little research before you really begin buying. Axes run the gamut of styles, shapes, origins, and uses. I try to tell people to find something about axes that really interests them and expand outwards from there.
Perhaps you’re interested in axes made in a specific state. Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania are all great places to start. Maybe you want a single manufacturer: Kelly, Collins, or Sager will give you a lot to explore.Maybe you’re interested in woodworking axes, like hewing axes, mortising hatchets, and half hatchets. Or even competition axes: Look into Tuatahi or Keech, and get ready to pay some heavy shipping fees from Australia.
Or you could just want to focus on collecting for the sake of sharpening and learning about different bit profiles. That’s easy: Grab three or four cheap unmarked heads and a handful of bastard files and go to town!
PW: Any tips for a new buyer?
NZ: Prices are on the rise and I think people will be much more satisfied spending their money when focus on certain aspects of axes and manufacturing that really interest them, rather than just chasing after the perfect Norlund Hudson Bay hatchet or any other ‘white whale’ of axe collecting.
I started out by giving myself a limit of $25 to buy whatever looked good on eBay. But once I really started to learn about axes I became less interested in most of what I had bought. Now I’m focused almost solely on pre-1900 axes. Once you find the angle that appeals to you, you’ll have a better sense of what to spend and where to spend it.
PW: What's the story behind your impressive collection of vintage axe labels?
Axe labels were used to add some visual appeal to axes, and to rebrand ‘contract axes.’ All the major makers like Kelly, Plumb, and Warren made axes for other distributors and hardware companies. In these cases the heads would be unstamped, and the hardware company would re-brand the axe as theirs with a paper label on the head.
Labels are a real niche piece of axe history to collect, and the design and visuals of the labels are amazing. I have a soft spot for printing from this era: minimal use of color, overprinting and elaborate typography.
PW: What adventures do you have lined up for 2016?
It’s been a few too many years since I made it up to the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. We went when I was a kid with the Boy Scouts, and it’s hands down one of my favorite places on Earth. Five days in a canoe, no cell reception, and the absolute quiet of the woods is a welcome retreat. Add some fishing and nights around the campfire and it’s almost perfect.
Inspired to become an axe junkie yourself? Check out some additional wisdom from Nick, ownload the free and wonderful An Axe to Grind book to learn more, check out YesteryearsTools, and join us this summer at the Project Woodchips Getaway. (No previous axe obsession required.)