Retrotechtacular: An Ax Factory of Yore


When your mind’s eye thinks of an ax factory you may envision workers loading blanks into a machine that refines the shape and profile before heading to an annealing furnace. But this is Retrotechtacular, and we’re tickled to feature a look at a different time in manufacturing history. This ax factory tour looks at every step in the manufacturing process at a factory in Oakland, Maine. It was shot on film in 1965 just a few months before the factory shut down. [Peter Vogt] did a great job of shooting and editing the reel, and an equally fine job of converting it to digital so that we can enjoy it on his YouTube channel.

Above you can see the automatic hammer — known as a trip hammer — that is driven by cam action. At this point a lot of work has already been done. Blanks were cut from steel bars by two workers. These were shaped on the trip hammer before being bent in half to create the loop for the ax handle. From there a piece of high-carbon steel was added to form the cutting surface. This brings us to the step above, shaping the two glowing-hot pieces into one.

We don’t want to undermine the level of craftsmanship, and the labor-intensive process shown off here. But we can’t end this write-up without at least mentioning the kitsch that is smoking cigarettes and pipes on the job. At one point a worker actually lights his pipe using a the glowing-hot ax head.

To give you an idea of how this contrasts with modern manufacturing, here’s How It’s Made episode on axes (although we think whats being made would more appropriately be called hatchets).

[via Reddit]

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.


  1. der says:

    “But we can’t end this write-up without at least mentioning the kitsch that is smoking cigarettes and pipes on the job. At one point a worker actually lights his pipe using a the glowing-hot ax head.”
    What do you mean here?
    Have you ever 1, smoked, 2, worked (been inside)in a forge, 3, smoked in a working forge?

    There is something satisfying about lighting up of a piece of white steel, or a welding rod!

  2. XOIIO says:

    Neat, but the video shaking is kind of nauseating

  3. barry99705 says:

    That’s pretty cool.

  4. DR says:

    Here’s how Gränsfors Bruk makes high-end axes today:

  5. Galane says:

    A thing I saw some years back on an episode of This Old House would be a neat subject for retrotechtacular, if it’s still in business.

    The house being rehabbed needed shutters for the windows, real ones with movable slats, not those obviously fake ones screwed to the siding.

    Nearby in New England was this 19th century shutter factory, all line shaft driven equipment powered by a water wheel. The owner was looking for something (IIRC some shutters for his old house) and discovered this factory that had been closed for a long time.

    It was like walking back in time. Everything was as it was the last day the factory was in operation. All the machines, all the tools, the drawings, probably even some by then very well seasoned wood. Everything ready to go back to work, just had to engage the water wheel.

    Exactly what some woodworkers and machinists dream of, finding a complete shop where the last day it was tools down, everyone out and lock the doors – to await however long until the day it is needed again.

    So he bought the place and ran it by himself. Couldn’t make shutters as fast as with a full crew, but there’s not the demand for a the large numbers of real window shutters with movable slats that there used to be.

  6. Am I the only one who, upon reading the title, wondered what the body sprays of yore were like?

  7. draeath says:

    You do realize that Oakland (and Waterville, Sidney etc) are not exactly metropolitan areas? So, #1 this was in the 60s, and #2 this area was rural, yet you still get caught up on them smoking while working?

  8. K!P says:

    really sharp images!

  9. t-bone says:

    I wonder if you could retrofit those trip hammers with some sort of progressive dies and come closer to the “How It’s Made” production line?

    The skill they needed was amazing, but I think I’d be over it after the 100th axe.

  10. devianwp says:

    Here is a video of John Neeman, a master smith, making a high-end axe blade with step by step explanations. It is actually quite a beautiful process

  11. Joe Bonasses says:

    “At one point a worker actually lights his pipe using a the glowing-hot ax head.”

    Absolutely no sense of history……OSHA didn’t even exist when this film was created!

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