A Democratic Axe

A Democratic axe

One of the best books I’ve read in recent memory was William Coperthwaite’s A Handmade Life. In trying to figure out what made sense for me, his particular brand of “enlightened selfishness” resonated. A key component in Coperthwaite is accessibility.

In a sidebar I keep revisiting, Coperthwaite laments the accessibility of the small broad axe. I must confess that my least favorite tools are striking tools—things like hammers and axes— because they always seem to go horribly wrong for me. Wood splits (and not where you want it to) or worse still you hit yourself with them. They make loud noises and crush things, etc. However, axes are a frequent matter of discussion among green woodworkers for spoon carving and other activities which I am deeply interested in.

The hard part is that they are really designed to operate on green wood, which I don’t have easy access to. There are only small scrub bushes on my property and trashy pine trees. The only two decent trees, a maple and a pear, aren’t large enough to contribute branches of any size. Also, good axes are expensive. I bought a small swiss hatchet for splitting kindling, but I’m terrible at using it and it’s not really designed for delicately shaping wood. A good axe would cost far too much for me, given my timidity on the topic. Peter Follansbee has excellent recommendations on axes, I suspect, but I’m really not ready to go there. I was surprised that he didn’t mention Coperthwaite’s democratic axe.

Coperthwaite tells the story of searching for a decent broad axe. He carved a model from pine, and found that a blacksmith friend in Japan agreed to forge him one. After two years, the axe never materialized and he was traveling in Italy and found an old blacksmith there that would make one for him. This one was delivered, but Coperthwaite lamented:

Now, these are far from democratic tools. To get one you first have to design it and then know a smith in Japan or Italy or wherever who can—and is willing to—make an axe from your design.

It was doubtful that the axe from Japan would materialize, and the Italian smith was very old and sick and would probably not make another. A good broad hatchet for students and friends who wanted one was as elusive as ever. And though this axe adventure was exciting, and I had acquired some fine ones, we badly needed to have some inexpensive ones available. (17)

The primary difficulty in engineering and axe is the “eye” which attaches it to the handle; this can be avoided by making the blade from a flat plate of steel bolted to a handle. Then, the only technical challenge is hardening and annealing the steel once it is cut out, but a small propane torch and normal household oven can manage that. I note that John Wilson has a similar type of design for an adze, another difficult to find and expensive classic tool.

The importance of the sidebar isn’t really the design of an axe and presentation of easy to follow instructions so that anyone might accomplish it, but the philosophy behind the creation of this tool:

This experience with the broad hatchet is important for me on several levels. First it has been an exciting adventure all along the way, from learning to appreciate the variations in different forms of such a basic tool, to designing my own which others ultimately made, to ultimately making my own. Another level of the adventure is to be able to help others make their own hand axes and in the process gain the confidence that comes from making a tool. This process demonstrates how we can have adventure in a variety of ways: designing, working with the hands, and working with the mind as we carry the concept of democratic things further.

Another value this experience had for me is the breaking of mental and social barriers, which we need to be able to do if we are to solve our problems and create a society that works for all people. (18)

While I was trying to put all this together, I was a bit distracted by a podcast that Chris Schwarz linked— Looking Sideways. What fascinates me about Coperthwaite’s axe isn’t the tool itself. It’s the attitude toward toolmaking and tool sharing. Andrew Sleigh’s interview with Deb Chachra actually dovetailed nicely (stealing one of her hook phrases). She argues that we need to reassess making things in the emphasis we place on the things themselves to rebalance ourselves. Thirty minutes in, she offers the observation that “nice stuff that lasts forever is valuable, but so are the sort of day-to-day experiences that people have.” That’s similar to what Coperthwaite is arguing here. He’s championing not only the physical labor, but also the social and mental labor involved in his search for a serviceable axe.

In her Atlantic article “Why I am not a maker” (not her title, according to the podcast), she makes some really important assertions in the section that the title is misleadingly extracted from:

I am not a maker. In a framing and value system is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human. As an educator, the work I do is superficially the same, year on year. That’s because all of the actual change, the actual effects, are at the interface between me as an educator, my students, and the learning experiences I design for them. People have happily informed me that I am a maker because I use phrases like “design learning experiences,” which is mistaking what I do (teaching) for what I’m actually trying to help elicit (learning). To characterize what I do as “making” is to mistake the methods—courses, workshops, editorials—for the effects. Or, worse, if you say that I “make” other people, you are diminishing their agency and role in sense-making, as if their learning is something I do to them.

There is a quote that Coperthwaite offers up in his book that places the problem in a deeper context:

My teaching is a raft whereon men may reach the far shore.

The sad fact is that so many mistake the raft for the shore. —Buddha (53)

What is important about Coperthwaite’s democratic axe isn’t his methods—securing the the assistance of other artisans, learning how to harden and temper steel, etc.— but rather the effect of solving a difficult problem with easily sourced material, and better still, teaching anyone to solve similar problems themselves. It’s not limited to those who can afford to take a workshop, or travel miles to sit at his feet. A Handmade Life includes how to make an axe, how to bake a loaf of bread (with a recipe) and much more.

I feel incredibly blessed to live in a time where so many share so much on the Internet providing not only access to things, but methods of doing things that I really wouldn’t have invented on my own. It’s not just about having the tools, it’s knowing what you want to do and why. And it’s also important to value all forms of labor, not just the ability to make, except in the sense of making your own life.