In which we learn that the path to making our own axe starts with restoring vintage axes, find that the Maine maker community is extremely generous with their time, expertise and advice, and find a home on Thompson’s Point.
June 1, 2020 marks the 5th anniversary of the start of our journey to bring axe making back to Maine. Why we started Brant & Cochran (no one is making axes in Maine!), why we named it Brant & Cochran (name of our Grandpa Ferguson’s Detroit tool supply business in the 1950’s-1970’s) and why we decided to make Maine wedge pattern axes (Maine has its own unique axe pattern) is detailed in the OUR STORY page of our website.
What I want to share with you in these monthly blog posts are some of the way stations on our long strange trip, give credit and thanks to all those that helped us along the way, and show how our business grew through a combination of hard work, luck and perseverance. Steve, Barry and I are thankful to all of you for your help, support and encouragement over the years.
Now to the Wayback Machine Sherman!
Wow. It's 2015. Barack Obama was President, Tom Brady was a Patriot, Volume 12 of Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series was released, and no one had ever heard of COVID-19. What a time!
After deciding to start an axe company, and incorporating B&C on June 1st, 2015, our first stop was Ohio’s College of Wooster where Mark and Steve Ferguson attended school. The College runs a summer program in which groups of students work with faculty advisers and community experts on projects commissioned by various businesses. We tasked our team of three students in the College's AMRE program to investigate the market for premium axes and come up with a rudimentary business plan. We got that - and so much more. The team suggested that while we spend time trying to figure out how to make axes we should start an axe restoration business. Brilliant. And off we went.
You can read about the team's work in this Wooster Daily Record article.
After acquiring some axe heads to restore and cleaning them in a vinegar bath in Steve’s garage we decided two things: the vinegar bath method was messy and Steve’s garage was too small to work in. We tried to find a small commercial rental space in Greater Portland. The real estate agents that did return my call basically laughed and hung up. There were no spaces like that available.
In one of those serendipitous moments (of which our story is replete), Steve somehow heard about the Open Bench Project. It was a maker space run by Jake Ryan in an abandoned rail car maintenance building on Thompson’s Point on the banks of the Fore River . For a monthly membership fee we had access to all the machines and tools needed to restore axes. Best of all we could build out our own 8’ x 8’ space. That's 64 square feet baby. Welcome to our first shop.
Steve and Barry got to framing up our little shop in August, 2015.
And as nature abhors a vacuum, the shop quickly got filled up with axes to restore, handles, tools and the requisite picture of Elvis. Chicken wire windows too. For those of you that have seen the Blues Brothers movie you know why those are there.
With the shop finished, we started to figure out a process to restore vintage axes. My daughter Lela had taken some blacksmithing classes at the New England School of Metalwork in Auburn. The class was taught by bladesmith Nick Rossi. We got in contact with Nick who served as our first guide into the dark arts of forging and metalwork. He told us that we would need a good grinder for our axe restoration work and recommended the Stephen Bader Company’s B III belt grinder.
We asked Nick what could the Bader do. And were sold when Nick told us “what can’t the Bader do.” We picked up the B III at the Bader factory in Valley Falls, New York. Nick continued to be a resource helping us set up the Bader, show us how to efficiently use it, where to buy grinding belts for it (Supergrit) and generally kept encouraging us that we were on the right path. Soon thereafter we bought a sandblast cabinet – no more vinegar baths to clean the axe heads! Our axe restoration work could now begin in earnest.
I would be remiss to not mention those fellow makers that we met at Open Bench that first year. They helped us so much and continue to offer their advice and encouragement: Mat O’Brien of O’Brien Wood & Iron, Mike Roylos of Sidewalk Buttler, machinist Matt Byrne, and videographer Chris Battaglia. Thanks guys.
While learning the axe restoration business, we still kept axe making in our sights. Part of this was attending Steve Ash’s course on making a traditional axe at the New England School of Metalwork. My blacksmith daughter Lela took the course and I watched, asked a ton of questions of Steve, Nick Rossi and NESM’s Dereck Glaser. The traditional fold over, inserted bit axe made by Lela was christened B&C axe #1 and it sits in our shop to this day.
As 2015 came to a close, we had come to a restoration process that gave us consistent results, had a shop space to call home (albeit one without any heat – did I mention that?), thought that maybe we could sell some of these restored axes, and got a taste of the axe making process. 2016 would be the year we would try to turn all of this into a business.