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.

40 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: An Ax Factory of Yore

  1. “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!

    1. Here, here!

      let’s not forget that in a forge tobacco smoke would be the least of your worries, like any “real” job, where a bloke made an honest living from toil.

      And ya might wanna look up what the meaning of the word “kitsch”…

          1. It is; I work as a large scale toshiba CNC repair technician, I hear a lot of things regarding lung disease and being a machinist, some of the less well equipped shops I visit [ie; old] have some pretty vicious air.. I’m glad that I do not have a daily gig in some of this places, I know the people suffer in the long term from it. Improper air filtration and circulation play a big part, exposed machining areas, and burning cutting oil play another. Newer shops usually have machines where the work area is enclosed and ventilated, and the air in the factory is heavily filtered and circulated. You can ‘taste’ the difference

        1. It was probably the grinding wheels. I mean it too. There are far worse carcinogens than cigarette smoke. Truck drivers have the same cancer rates as heavy smokers. I would not be surprised if all those airborne particulates in grinding wheels are pretty nasty. Was it mesothelioma? That was/is very common in industries that require heat resistant materials, like metalworking.

    2. I can say from first hand experience, even when the law says no, hard working people in not-so-clean factories still light up on the job. It isn’t like that other hard working person welding 15 yards away will care.

      Also, a neat thing, high end axes are still made this way and sometimes completely by hand. The handmade hackaday subdomain even featured one of those companies.

      Here is the article on making a knife:

      And here is their video on making an axe:

      Watch it. Seriously.

      1. That was somewhat neat but they spent to much time on the cinematics, and the music was annoying, just show us the process don’t try and make it some sort of deep meaningful crud.

        1. The deep meaningful crud is the only reason why the tools are made the way they are. Modern ways are more efficient, but less ‘connected’. Why are you even on this site if you do not appreciate the method of creation?

          1. @XOIIO
            The company doesn’t exist for your personal edification. They exist to make money, and they make money from the people who care about the deep meaningful crud. You are literally complaining that a commercial has been tailored to a target audience.

        2. Good Grief.Revisiting this old post because of a recent post. Respectfully I don’t know what you are belly aching about . As best I can tell the film did what it intended to do well. Chronicling the men and the work they do in a shop that was the last of it’s kind in that in that region at the time it was filmed. The film wasn’t intended to be a hold your hand comprehensive instructional video.

      1. So could the fumes from the oil fired forges. At least they’re not coal, my dad’s forge ceiling used to be white, it’s all mostly black now. The three forges they use now are propane fired, but there’s still the one coal forge for some of the bigger things.

        1. “Scumbag Jew”
          “Scumbag Black man”
          “Scumbag woman”
          “Scumbag Pollock”
          “Scumbag Wop”
          “Scumbag muslim”
          “Scumbag atheist”

          Go peddle your bigotry somewhere else.

        1. Yea you can die while driving or riding in a motor vehicle, but it’s a poor analogy. That can happen while walking or riding a horse. Transportation is seen as an essential, recreational drugs not so much. Humans, Pope or otherwise, have been deciding what is or isn’t sinful, ever since humans invented the concept of sin.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. “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!

  6. The narrator suggested that mass production was a factor in the demise of shops as these. That’s sorta over looking that mass production was filmed isn’t? Mass production is a relative term to be stating the obvious, and isn’t necessarily universally evil.

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