In which we run a focus group to see if we are crazy to start an axe company, launch an on-line store, sell our first restored axe, take our show on the road, dip our toe into retail, and have a nail-biting summit with the Maine blacksmithing community about forging our own axes.
As 2016 dawned, we had settled into our little 8’ x 8’ shop at the Open Bench Project on Thompson’s Point, learned how to restore axes, and started plans to launch our website and on-line store.
We thought we were doing a good job restoring vintage axes, but would anyone pay us for them? In early January, we organized a focus group comprised of about 40 axe and tool collectors, blacksmiths, outdoors enthusiasts and small business owners. While plying them with craft beer, we asked the group to judge our restoration work and whether the prices we put on each axe seemed reasonable.
Later that evening we reviewed the completed focus group questionnaires. The verdict? Great work priced right. Relieved by this reaction, we then headed down to Portland’s snowy Old Port to celebrate (maybe a little too much).
With help from Insivia, a web and marketing company, we developed our website and on-line store using Shopify. Our goal was to create a site that was not just a sales portal but one that serves our mission to MAKE-EDUCATE-CURATE. We spent considerable time writing and gathering content about how axes are made, how to use and take care of them, and the rich history of axe making --- especially in Maine.
The website and store went live in April. We made our first axe sale to our college friend Chris Causey of St. Paul, MN. Chris has been supporting us ever since. Thanks buddy!
Our next goal was to road test our business. We pitched our tent, planted our flag and started to sell our restored axes and related accessories and apparel at events like the Patten Lumberman’s Museum’s Fiddles & Fiddleheads Festival in May and its Bean Hole Supper in August, Heavy Metal Days at the Maine Forest and Logging Museum in Bradley, and Woodsmen’s Field Days in Boonville, New York. We also did events in Oakland, Brunswick and at Shelter Tool in Woolwich.
Our biggest coup in 2016 was getting accepted into the Common Ground Fair run by the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association in Unity. By this time we had made a nice "U" shaped display table which unbelievably we have not destroyed and use to this day!
These fairs and events provided us confidence that our restoration business was viable and encouragement to press forward with making our own axes.
2016 saw us also dip our toe into the retail market. As part of our AMRE project the previous summer, the College of Wooster student team had contacted some retail outlets and asked if they would be interested in carrying Maine made axes. One of those stores was Kazeem Lawal’s Portland Trading Company. Kazeem graciously agreed to have us set up a display in his Old Port store where we found our restored axes and hatchets selling right next to his fancy handmade shirts. Thanks Kazeem!
Going to all these events led to us getting some notoriety and in October an article ran in the Maine Sunday Telegram about our goal to start forging Maine wedge axes. This was to be the first of many articles, blogs, and TV spots about B&C.
Another important connection we made that fall was with Tammy Knight and the Maine Made program. Maine Made certifies and promotes businesses making high quality Maine products. Tammy took us under her wing, introduced us to other makers, resources, and opportunities. She even put some of our axes and swag in a display case at the Bangor airport giving us some needed visibility. Tammy and the Maine Made program have been true friends to B&C and we thank her and the Maine Made team for their continuing support.
But all this time while we were restoring and selling vintage axes, behind the scenes we were working towards our goal of forging our own axe.
With the help of bladesmith Nick Rossi (again), we convened a summit of local blacksmiths at Nick's Portland shop in November. In front of some of Maine’s best blacksmiths, we presented our plan to forge our own Maine wedge pattern axe. After our presentation, we were peppered with questions about where we would get the steel in the size, type and relatively small amount needed (tough to do), where to buy and how to use a small hydraulic press or power hammer to shape the axe head (problematic), and how we could do all of this with the precision needed to make a world class axe (tricky). As conversation died down, Steve, Barry and I sat there stunned, scared that we were in over our head, and that all of our talk about bringing axe making back to Maine would be just that – talk.
Then . . . the heavens opened, the angels sang, and machinist/blacksmith Gabriel McNeill came up to us, showed us some quick sketches he made during the meeting and said “I think I can do that.” And he could and has.
2017 would be the year we started forging axes led by Gabriel’s ingenuity, optimism, and McGuyver- like ability to solve any mechanical puzzle. 2017 would be when things would start to get real for us at Brant & Cochran.