Making an axe handle seems simple enough. Take a piece of wood, cut a pattern, and carve it into shape. Easy. Well, not quite. In the late 1800’s, edge tool makers were cranking out thousands of axes a day. Hand carving handles could never keep up with demand. A simple lathe could not be used since axe handles were not round, but flatter on one side. Additionally, most single bit handles were curved.
The problem was solved by lumber mill owner George Ober of Chagrin Falls, Ohio who invented a revolutionary duplicating lathe bringing mass production to making axe and other irregularly shaped tool handles.
George Ober went into the lumber business with his brother John in 1862 in South Newbury, Ohio about 25 miles southeast of Cleveland. The brothers’ saw mill made handles, wagon spokes and coffins. In 1865, George received patent number 48,428 for a duplicating lathe that produced irregularly shaped pieces like handles.
Over the years, Ober improved his duplicating lathe and received five more patents between 1867 and 1897. A list of the patents and links to the USPTO filings can be found here.
In 1890, George took to the road to sell his lathes. He traveled throughout the country as the sole salesman and installer. His lathes were shipped to Mexico, Argentina, Scotland, England, Australia and Belgium.
In addition to lathes, the company made irons, trivets, toys and wood products such as axe and other wooden handles.
[Ober Co. Price List 1894]
George Ober died on December 10,1903 and his son Archie took the helm. Business continued to get better for the Ober company leading to talks of moving the company to new facilities in Muncie, Indiana. In a story replayed today by NFL owners, in 1909 Archie asked the community and employees to chip in to keep the company in Chagrin Falls. A subscription drive was held raising $7,000 and Ober stayed put.
[1909 Subscription Agreement]
By the 1920’s the sales of lathes began to dwindle. Archie Ober attributed this to the fact “we made our machines to wear too well.” The company never really recovered from the years of the Great Depression. By the 1950’s the company had ceased manufacturing lathes and was operating as a simple machine shop by Archie’s son Gale. When Gale died in 1959, the Ober Manufacturing Company died too. The property was sold and buildings razed. Only the machine shop building remains from the nearly 37,000 square feet of manufacturing space.
[Picture from collection of Chagrin Falls Historical Society]
While the Ober Manufacturing Company may be gone its lathes are not. They are still being used today in some cases more than 100 years after they were made. This is a true testament to the quality, craftsmanship and care which went into the making of these machines.
There are a number of videos showing these lathes being used yet.
Click here to watch a video showing a single bit axe handle being turned by an Ober lathe.
The lathe can also be used to turn other irregular shaped wood articles such as walking sticks.
And if you know of anyone that wants to sell an Ober lathe, please have them give us a call!
Collections of the Chagrin Falls Historical Society
US Patent and Trademark Office