Country Life in Photos: Making an Axe Handle

Modern hand tool handles are made on an industrial scale, often in small factories by machines running for hours at a time.  This means they’re relatively inexpensive, readily available, and easily replaceable (because the toolmaking industry has created size standards).

But not long ago, when farm folks in particular had more time during the lay-by than cash, tool and handle-making were at-home crafts that required craft skills and patience.

In 1984, Dothan photographer Doug Snellgrove took five pictures of Howard Smith (Hodgesville, AL) demonstrating the steps of making an axe handle.

First, Smith chain-sawed 40-inch lengths of a hardwood log ca. 12 inches in diameter, then split the log twice.  After quartering the log, he selected the best of these “blanks” to shape into a new handle.

Smith then rough-shaped the blank with a hatchet.

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Next, he clamped the roughed-out handle under the hold-fast of a shaving horse. He weights the hold-fast with his foot as he shapes the handle with a drawknife.  Although not shown here, he might have finished the handle with a spokeshave, then sanded and oiled it.  To fit the handle into the axe head, Smith whittled it then bonded the pieces together with glue.

 

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Craft woodworking tools (as opposed to factory machinery for woodworking) have changed little since colonial days.  Drawknives and spokeshaves are all metal with replaceable blades, and axes no longer come from the blacksmith’s forge, but the shaving horse is still homemade and the basic work is still the same. (Eric Sloan, A Museum of American Tools [NY: Ballantine Books, 1964]).

 

According to Ben Ferguson of Florida, a woodworker who makes beautiful bread bowls among other things, a significant improvement has occurred in sanding technology.  Thankfully, according to Ferguson, sandpaper replaced using a rag and shattered glass that cut the worker’s hands.

For more photos of life and nature in the Wiregrass, visit the Doug Snellgrove Photograph Collection at http://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives/inventories/099.html

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