The Changing Shapes of the Axe
by Gregory D. Thomson
Editor's Note: The vernacular houses at the foundation of an American concept of "home" have their origins in simple constructions, where tools and materials coexisted in seemingly rustic harmony. To grasp the spirit of those archetypical structures, it helps to understand the tools that shaped them.
For early Americans who built log houses, the axe was indispensable. The axe is one of the most fundamental woodworking tools, and in skilled hands, one of the most versatile.
Like the signature profile of a master woodworker's chamfer on the summer beam, the tools used to make a log structure leave their own distinct marks indicating to the trained eye exactly the tools and techniques used in its making.
For anyone familiar with the log buildings of the 17th and 18th century and the tools needed to make them, it is obvious that those who fashioned them often had more than just a small box of simple tools. In order to make accurate dovetail joints for the corners of log buildings, plumb walls, level floors, and precisely fit mortises and tenons, the carpenter often had access to a well stocked tool chest.
Indeed, according to researcher Warren E. Roberts, these carpenters "must have possessed considerable expertise because their task required them to use knowledgeably no fewer than seventy-six tools." In this context, even such a basic and still-familiar tool as the axe was differentiated into several distinctly different forms.
The felling axe and the broad axe were used in the preparation and rough shaping of logs prior to their final shaping and assembly into their architectural form. To build with any efficiency and skill, the colonial craftsperson needed a dexterous hand when wielding both kinds of axes. Without that skill the builder could expect to have a poorly made house, barn, or storage building, and quite possibly do physical harm to himself.
The tools of the pioneer American craftsman were more than just utilitarian pieces of metal from which they extracted a modicum of work and then discarded. Rather, they were vital to the survival of the family. Only by carefully making, maintaining, and handling tools could the colonist expect to survive.