In the time of extremely fancy axes

The American ax fetish is everywhere: in designer ax brands, the rise of ax-throwing bars and the internet’s first ax emoji, which debuted this year. Timothy Robinson/New York Times

The 2000s felt like a decade of looking forward. Wi-Fi went mainstream, phones got smarter, social media connected us, digital tools let us rely less on physical ones.

But the 2010s brought a shift. There was still tons of new technology, but also glamping, -vanlife, tiny houses, “Cabin Porn,” the mainstreaming of the farm-to-table movement, a market for artisanal cast-iron pans and boutique butter churns, a fascination with going back to the land (lived out, for many, via Instagram) — all signs of longing for a simpler life.

Also: pervasive political anxiety, a wave of post-apocalyptic literature, the reign of “The Walking Dead.”

It has been a decade of pushing back against the increasingly isolating life we’ve created and of feeling the need to make preparations for the aftermath sure to come. The ax as a household item, even for people in cities with no cause to fell trees, fits right into the zeitgeist of the 2010s.

The American ax fetish is everywhere — in designer ax brands, the rise of ax-throwing bars and the internet’s first ax emoji, which debuted this year. If you want to buy an ax for Christmas, move fast — they’re sold out at Nordstrom.

If you just want to hold one, try a social club like the one in Brooklyn that hosts urban wood-chopping workshops for “desk job warriors” who crave timber skills and connection to the outdoors. Closer to the north country, there is Bad Axe Throwing in Camillus, Far Shot Syracuse and Kingston Axe Throwing across the border in Ontario.

For decades, the ax was inextricable from a vision of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” Now, they’re being given as gifts in lieu of cuff links to best men, and in lieu of salad bowls to newlyweds. Axes have even begun to crop up as baby shower gifts, which explains the ax-themed birth announcements and baby milestone posts on Instagram (hatchet for scale).

Every lifestyle trend comes from somewhere. Foster Huntington, a fashion expat, pioneered -vanlife. Emily Katz, a design influencer in Portland, Oregon, is credited with the resurgence of macramé.

And Peter Buchanan-Smith, a graphic designer to the stars, was the champion of the fancy ax.

In 2009, he started a boutique ax line called Best Made Co., for which he sourced high-quality axes from another maker and painted the handles with colorful block and stripe motifs, evoking both Pendleton and Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom.” They were a sensation.

Today, the brand’s brick-and-mortar stores in New York and Los Angeles stock all manner of nostalgic but purposeful camping gear. Stalwart offerings are axes ($228 to $398) and hatchets (similar but smaller, $98 to $228). In-store events serve to culturally align the ax with third-wave coffee, houseplant collecting and listening to vinyl.

“Just because so many people live in cities doesn’t mean your internal desire to get out into the wilderness has been completely bred out of you,” said Craig Roost, known as Rooster, who is a salesman and tool designer at Council Tool Co., a legacy American ax maker. (He is also moderator of the 35,000-member Facebook group Axe Junkies.)

“I think owning an ax gives some of these people the idea, at least, that they’re connecting to their heritage and to places outside of where they feel they may be trapped,” Roost, 49, said.

In 2017, Best Made was acquired by Bolt Threads, a Bay Area biomaterials company that makes synthetic spider silk, and this year Buchanan-Smith left the company to pursue other things. (That includes writing a book about axes, out in the fall of 2020.)

But the modern cultural history of the ax is still unfurling. According to Roost, the American ax industry is booming — the product of a “social and cultural perfect storm” of recession, recovery, existential dread and the loss of manufacturing jobs, which inspired a renewed interest in American-made products, to name a few ax factors.

While people may have been at a loss for what exactly to do with fancy axes back in 2010, today new use cases are buoying the market: Modern ax-throwing leagues began in 2006 in a backyard in Toronto, slowly developed a cult following, and over the past three years, swept across the United States with a wave of new ax-throwing clubs, many serving beer, some serving mead.

Throwers are another circle in the Venn diagram of modern ax consumers, joining collectors and restorers, survivalists and bushcrafters, aesthetes, and that circle of fancy cabin owners, weekend warriors and suburban pioneers who aspire to chop firewood not because they’ll freeze to death if they don’t but because they find it meditative, or because it offers a sense of physical purpose in a very digital world, or because controlling the supply chain is so hot right now.

These audiences are converging, boosting business for the relatively few legacy American ax manufacturers that have survived into the 21st century and fostering a cottage industry of new ax artisans across the country.

“We live in a society where everything is bought to be thrown away — nothing really lasts,” said Thomas Holloway, 36, who started Anchor Axe Co. in Kansas City, Mo., in 2016. “I think people gravitate toward axes because they’re something they can pass on to their kids that’s never going to go out of style.”

His vintage refurbished camp hatchets ($100 to $150) sell at boutiques across the country, including Hamilton and Adams in Kingston. (Leading up to this Christmas, all the ones in Kingston are sold out.)

In 2015, Brant & Cochran in Portland, Maine, began resurrecting extinct heritage ax designs native to the state, like the Allagash Cruiser Maine wedge, with a 28-inch hickory handle and handmade leather sheath ($250). In 2017, the company crowdsourced more than $26,000 via Indiegogo to buy upgraded equipment, and in 2019, the company said, it doubled production and sales from the previous year.

“I’m 58 years old,” said Mark Ferguson, a founder. His generation, he said, created big-box stores like Home Depot “and has buried the world in plastic junk. But people are thinking a lot harder about their purchases now. When people spend $250 on a camp ax, they want to know where that money’s going, to see the process, to know the maker — not some big faceless corporation.”

He thinks the growing interest in axes foreshadows a larger renaissance for craft tools: that at this point, consumers seek objects that are beautiful, authentic and useful.

He may have prophesied the next decade. Refurbished vintage ball peen hammers with ombre painted handles are already cropping up on Instagram.

New York Times

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