June 11, 2014 | 6 Comments

American Felling Axe (Peter Buchanan-Smith)

From the curators: Peter Buchanan-Smith founded the New York–based Best Made Company to fill what he perceived as a gap in the market: an axe designed for more than purely practical purposes. We may or may not live on a “farm or homestead,” or carry out the “general chopping, bucking, and splitting” that this particular model (the Americana-evoking Emmett) is made for. But we don’t really need to in order to appreciate a Best Made Axe, a design as at home on a Brooklyn mantlepiece as it is in a Montana ranch outhouse. The axe is presented as both a well-crafted utilitarian tool, and also as a symbolic reminder of a traditional wilderness lifestyle harking back to the pioneer days of the American frontier. Made of materials indigenous to the USA, it’s designed as an heirloom piece to be passed down through generations, inspiring people to “reconnect with their hands, craft, and nature.” Based on a classic four-pound Dayton model steel head (so named for its Ohio origins), the contemporary twist suggests a romanticization of the everyday, or a nostalgia for a formerly quotidian, muscular, masculine, benign violence.

When encountering a Best Made axe, it’s not unreasonable to ask its intentions.

Is it an agent of force, dressed up in bright colors to camouflage its violent ways? Or is it an innocent showpiece, a rustic toy for a nature-loving hipster?

To meet one by the handle, it seems a playful soul. Its lively stripes, borrowed from the side of a sailboat or a spinning top, suggest a harmless bon vivant, in good company with the living room knickknacks. Leaned up against a basket of kindling, or perched jauntily on a mantle, it hardly has to work to conceal its keen edge, beguiling us with sunny charm and good looks.

But meet one by the blade, and it is cold, indifferent steel. It exists to leverage the force of the human arm and focus its power acutely. It descends from a line dating back to the Stone Age, evolving over thousands of generations to cut, to fell, and to split. In the hands of a lumberjack, or a horror movie villain, its cheerful pattern is irrelevant; it is as destructive an axe as any other.

The two ends of the Best Made axe embody an unlikely tension, playing on our most primal instincts: approach and avoidance. The handle’s lollipop colors have an appetitive quality that sparks our desire; the blade’s sharp contours speak a warning to our unconscious brain. Pleasure and pain: the potential for both arises simultaneously. The Best Made axe dwells in two worlds, one joyful, one violent. Yet in each, it is a misfit.

But is possible that these two worlds can overlap? Can we imagine a space of “joyful violence” where the Best Made axe is truly at home?

In our safe and sanitized Western existence, where nearly everything can be delivered in a neat box, the daily parade of violent acts that supports our lifestyle—the holes ripped into the earth for metal mining, the blood of the abattoirs, the species displaced by reefs bleached and forests leveled—is obscured by the neatness and efficiency with which we move through the world. Insulated by distance and design, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we live peaceful lives, when in fact our most routine acts contain an implicit brutality.

Craving an escape from this sterile condition, people seek refuge in wildness and a less refined way of life. The Best Made axe has become an icon of this nature-seeking movement, which manifests in ways as diverse as small-scale farming, pig-butchering classes, and the wilderness lust known as “cabin porn.” Contrary to our everyday norms, this wilder life embraces small acts of violence as a necessity: fields must be plowed, animals skinned, and trees felled. Done gracefully and in proportion to our need, this violence feels like a joy, an honest expression of a deep, sensorial engagement with the world, not an assault on it.

Best Made accepts the idea that people will use its costly axes as decoration, but clearly intends that they be functional, working tools. In fact, they are less tools for splitting firewood than for reconnecting man to a more primal self. The Best Made axe celebrates a reclaimed agency and self-reliance, without taking itself too seriously. Its vibrantly patterned handle is a lighthearted invitation: to venture out into the wild, and to play.


Peter Buchanan-Smith (Canadian, b. 1972). Best Made Company (USA, est. 2009). American Felling Axe (Emmett). 2009. American alloy steel, fine grain Appalachian hickory, and bridle leather sheath, 35″ x 7.5″ x 1.5″ (88.9 x 19.1 x 3.8cm). Image courtesy of Best Made Company



Can violence ever be truly joyful?

  1. June 11, 2014, 9:36 pm

    Peter Buchanan-Smith

    Thank you Ingrid for the thoughtful ideas. When I first started Best Made and selling these axes no one would give me liability insurance. So I decided to attach a few of cherished virtues to the axes (courage, compassion, grace, fortitude) as a non-legal, but more emotionally binding measure of built-in liability insurance. When someone raised their Best Made axe, they had to have happy thoughts. And painting the handles was also a means of giving the axe some life beyond the sinister associations (and I love the axe for many reasons, one is that it conjures such extreme associations). Our customers aren’t on the fence when it comes to buying a Best Made axe… I can’t say that would be the case with a Best Made hammer, or chisel.

  2. June 12, 2014, 12:10 am

    John Cumpston

    No axe to grind

    Lizzy Borden would be proud

  3. June 12, 2014, 3:10 am

    John Matthews

    The Deforestation of Surry Hills

    Hmmmm… Curiously I’m about to order a shirt and some enamel mugs (for cups of tea whilst gardening) from Best Made and it caused me to ponder on the whole axe thing. I think your violent/beautiful take is interesting but I don’t know if it’s a novel phenomenon. I think that weapons (as opposed to tools) have long been aesthetic objects or had design features appropriated and quoted elsewhere. That appropriation is perhaps the opposite of what’s happening here.

    I think your point about agency is interesting. The axe should require physical strength and effort but I can’t help feeling that bringing graphics to the object goes some way to remove it from its function – it feels sanitized, too precious to use as though it would be degraded by the act it was meant to perform. My first thoughts went to that odd place where these artefacts (along with fixed gear bikes, cuthroat razors and letterpresses) seem to signify masculinity and work whilst completely denying the sweaty realities of sex and class that are rolled up in the originals. I KNOW I always end up back at class with these things, I’m a Brit it’s what we do. The axe IS gorgeous but it feels odd, it’s an ‘axe’ but I’m not sure it’s really an axe.

    But it does make one think. Our studio is in Sydney’s hipster central. A Ned Kelly beard and workwear are practically de rigeur if you labour in digital agencies around here. I have often noted the absence of trees in the neighbourhood although I suspect that’s a coincidence rather than a result by a profusion of sweaty axe wielding hipsters.

  4. June 16, 2014, 1:13 pm

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