A Lesson in Axe Repair
By Michael McGehee
All was not well, I knew, when I saw sparks, a butterfly of fire, leap off the blade of my Best Made axe and disappear into the air. My buddy Paul, who was swinging the axe into an already felled tree and trying to chop off a limb for our campfire, had missed his target and driven the top of the blade into a stone.
Ach. Cringe. Time to slow down on Wild Turkey.
I took the axe from him and inspected the blade, now deformed by the bite the rock had taken out of the toe. Paul, I could see, was already cursing himself for the flub. I like to swear, so it was hard to hold back some choice words, but I managed to. No sense in kicking a guy who’s already down. Besides, I could repair the axe, right?
I really didn’t know. I’d never owned an axe before, and I had no idea how to maintain it, much less repair it after watching it get driven into a block of shale.
At a loss for what to do, I emailed Nick Zdon, Best Made’s axe-repair samurai-master, and asked if he could recommend any axe repair shops in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.
"Any place you take it to will probably put it to a belt grinder, and that’s no good," Nick said. "But if you bring the axe to me, I’ll show you how to repair it yourself." Being from Minnesota and meeting my share of nasty people, I’d always thought that "Minnesota Nice" was nothing more than myth. Maybe I’d been wrong.
When I arrived at the St. Paul outpost with notebook in one hand and my damaged tool in another, I thought I’d pop in for a quick lesson in axe repair, then leave in an hour, tops. But Nick had other ideas. Wearing a tanned canvas apron as he firmly shook my hand, Nick looked like he was ready to cook a feast. Only instead of spatula and spoon spread before him, there lay on a worktable four diamond files of varying roughness, a flat bastard file, two clamps to hold the axe in place, sandpaper to smooth the steel, a cup of water to keep things clean, a can of WD-40, and leather gloves.
Nick proceeded to teach me how to repair my axe by hand. Without the use of machines, Nick’s method of reparation required, beyond tools, passion, care, and the rarest of virtues in the age of Amazon.com and On Demand TV, patience.
“Might want to wear the gloves,” he said. “Or the blade may bite you.”
I started out with the flat bastard file on the good metal. The idea, as Nick instructed me, was to file the undamaged edge down to the level of the gouge. “You’re going to reshape a good portion of the axe head,” he explained. Forty-five minutes passed as I ground down the blade, making the good metal conform to the disfiguration. Worried about overdoing it, I ground the axe with extreme delicacy, removing only a modicum of metal at a time. Gradually, though, I became more confident in my steelwork.
Approving my progress, Nick eventually handed me the diamond files, smaller tools used to sharpen the axe rather than reshape it.
“Make sure that your diamond files are made in the U.S.,” he said. “Sometimes you’ll find them made in Mexico, but the good ones, the durable ones, are made here.”
I filed down one side of the blade, moving the instrument in an outward motion as if tossing beer out of bucket (which, it goes without saying, I would never do).
"See where the light catches the blade differently? That’s where the file has rubbed into the metal," he said.
Pouring myself into the work, I flipped the axe over and filed the other side. I flipped it again and filed it until the edge began to catch my fingertips as I rubbed them, perpendicularly, across the blade. Then I moved to a finer file and repeated the process. Then I again moved to a finer file. And so on, until… when?
"Until it’s sharp enough," Nick said.
Another hour passed as I filed the blade to an ever narrower edge. Sweat surfaced on my back, causing my T-shirt to stick to my skin. As I worked, Nick talked about blades in a way I’d never heard. He told me of his plans to restore the sheen and usefulness of a rust-encased axe that looked, to me, abandoned to the Minnesota snow for at least forty winters. Nick spoke of axes as the oldest of tools, instruments that chopped the wood whose burning warmed the hands of the earliest humans, and whose lumbering built the oxcart, the table, civilization. Axes could also serve as heirlooms, beautiful symbols and instruments of labor that connect parent to child.
All this talk of axes didn’t stop Nick from talking about other types of blades, too. Take the Japanese Kitana. Explaining that its curvature is made by lowering a heated blade lengthwise into a pool of cool water and allowing the contraction of the immediately cooled steel to pull the steaming metal into the famous Kitana crescent, Nick spoke of that elusive moment when a sword acquires its soul. The birth of the blade’s final shape, the ineffable instant of its becoming.
Was this philosophy, history, or axe repair? I wasn’t sure whether my axe had a soul or about its cultural or historical importance. An ordinary dude, I hadn’t thought about these things. But the axe did have personal significance, and not just because I’m a sentimental guy. It was a gift. On a frigid February night last year, a few of my friends had given me the axe because I’d gone through a tough time, a divorce, and they wanted to show a pal some love. To me, then, the axe meant friendship, which delivered extra satisfaction in repairing it.
When the time came for Nick to test the sharpness of the axe, he did so in an unexpected way. “How sharp is sharp enough?” Nick asked. “Depends on the person. Me—” he smiled. “I’m sort of fanatical about it.”
He grabbed a mustard colored post-it note from a nearby table and held it before me, stiffening it between his fingers. “Let’s see if it’s ready,” he said. Touching the blade of the axe to the top of the note, I slowly slid it downward as the paper, yielding like a piece of timber, split in two.
"Exactly what we want," Nick said.
At his instruction, I placed the axe back on the worktable. Using sandpaper, I rubbed the blemishes and rust spots out of the axe-head. Then came time to clean the tool.
“Some people polish the axe with linseed oil,” Nick said. “Problem is, oily linseed rags are combustible. Why risk burning down the house? WD-40 works just fine.”
By the time I was finished spraying and wiping down the axe, three hours had passed. It was past nine o’clock, and darkness had fallen. Fatigue set in, along with the revelation that I’d entered into a new relationship with my axe. Infused with my labor and time, it seemed new in a way that a fresh store-bought axe could never be. And only I, and perhaps Nick, could really see or appreciate this richer and deeper newness.
The experience had, thanks to Nick’s passion for his craft and openness to helping a stranger learn a skill, committed me to the axe. I now knew how to care for and repair the tool, which meant that it would remain with me for a long time. Hopefully, barring Wild Turkey-induced acts of forgetfulness, for life.
Michael McGehee is a writer and an English professor at a community college in Minneapolis. This is his first contribution to Best Made Projects.
Photo by Clinton Lugert.
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