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"Be Just And Fear Not" The Maine Charitable Mechanic Association

You may know that Brant & Cochran is a member of the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association (MCMA).  You might say – those guys aren’t mechanics.  They just make axes.  You are no doubt correct.    But crafting axes and collaborating with the Maine maker community gets us up the steps and into the Mechanics Hall on Congress Street in downtown Portland. 

The MCMA not only has a fascinating history; it is enjoying a renaissance as the maker economy (of which B&C is a part) continues to expand and mature.  And it has a cool logo and motto!

The MCMA was formed in 1815 to promote and support the skilled trades.  Its members were master craftsmen and entrepreneurs – referred to in the early 19th century as “mechanics.”   Members included sailmakers, carpenters, masons, jewelers, shipbuilders, and blacksmiths among others.  The membership list is a fascinating look at the many different types of and industries that were practiced in Maine in the last 200 years 

Why did these flinty, independent craftsmen band together to form the MCMA?  They wanted to build an educational cooperative:  A place where they could learn more about their craft and train their apprentices.  To do this they needed a library.  In 1820 the same year Maine gained statehood, the MCMA founded its library making it the eighth oldest private membership library in the United States.  It is still open today to all members.

Construction of Mechanics Hall was completed in 1859. 

Located at 519 Congress Street in downtown Portland, the hall has served many different uses over the years:

  • 1861 saw it become a billet for Maine troops headed to fight in the Civil War
  • In 1866 after the Great Fire of Portland it served as the city’s municipal offices
  • Member C.P. Kimball used the ballroom to show off his patented velocipede in 1869 and give riding lessons to prospective buyers.

  • 1875 sees the establishment of the Free Drawing School to teach mechanical and architectural drawing. The program continues into the 1980’s.
  • The main ballroom is renovated in 1890 for Melvin Gilbert to teach dance classes.

  • 1973 sees the Hall listed on the Register of National Historic Landmarks.

One of the more interesting projects undertaken by MCMA members was the making of silk trade banners in 1841 to be used in the Association’s triennial October festivals.  Each trade came up with their own unique 3’ x 3 ½’ banner featuring a motto.

We are partial to the blacksmith’s banner

The shoemakers obviously had a sense of humor

Lost over the years seventeen of the banners were found in a closet at Mechanics Hall in 1983.  The MCMA sold these banners to the Maine Historical Society for preservation where they are stored today.

There has been a surge of interest in the MCMA as the maker movement gathers steam.  Here’s MCMA’s Communication Coordinator Karolyn Greenstreet’s insight:

“In the past few years, on the Eve of its 200th anniversary, the organization has revitalized its mission of helping Maine's Makers (once called the "mechanics").  MCMA has expanded the definition of a mechanic to include all artistic pursuits and anyone that creates anything in the realm of computer and internet science among many other trades.  Membership has increased, especially amongst those of a younger generation of entrepreneurs.  Fine craftsmen, artists, artisans, dancers, actors, tech professionals, beer makers, civic hackers, writers, historians, and other creative professionals or hobbyists, all gather at the Hall to support and learn from one another.”

Programming at the Hall has also increased and diversified.  There are book clubs, dance lessons, civic “hack” sessions, concerts, First Friday events, presentations by members on their businesses (B&C did one of these in September), and travel lectures.  Keep up to date on goings on at the Hall on its Face Book Page.

The MCMA, Mechanics Hall and its members are a unique resource available to all Mainers seeking advice, encouragement, and support in building Maine’s maker community.  We would urge those of you makers out there to get involved with the MCMA.

And remember to always follow the Association’s motto:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Labelled With Love - The Beauty of Vintage Axe Labels

Labelled With Love - The Beauty of Vintage Axe Labels

One of the fun things to show folks coming to our shop is our collection of vintage axe labels.  Like labels adorning old vegetable crates (think "Mr. Asparagus") the creativity, artistry, and sense of humor found in the thousands of different paper axe labels is amazing.

Many collectible axes have beautiful etchings on them which allow identification of the maker, factory, year of production and in some instances even the craftsman who tempered the axe.  However, the vast majority of the axes found in garages, barns, antique stores and flea markets around the country are unmarked mysteries.

Paper axe labels were introduced in the mid-1800's as the number of axe makers increased leading to the need to differentiate their products from those of their rivals.  It was certainly easier to paste a cheap paper label on an axe than go to the trouble of etching a name on the axe head.  The earliest known trade name registered in the U.S. for use on an axe label was the "King of Cutters" by Julius Meyer of St. Louis in 1870.

 

From here the number and diversity of axe labels exploded.  Here are just a few examples of labels from Oakland, Maine axe makers:

In the Maine State archives are some of these labels and documents pertaining to their production. Here is Oakland's Emerson & Stevens working on its "Forest King" label.

Maine axe makers were not the only ones coming up with unique and interesting axe labels:

Using paper labels also allowed axe makers to sell their goods to distributors and hardware stores who private labeled them under their own trade names.  These labels don't usually have the same level of artistry (or any) but demonstrate just how many different trade names axes were sold under.

One of the great on-line collections of axe labels can be found in Tom Lamond's Yesteryears Tools site.  It is a treasure trove of information on axe companies, their trademarks, and label designs.  Mr. Lamond also wrote a nice article on axe label diversification in the Spring 2006 issue of Fine Tool Journal.

If you want to wear one of these labels on your chest we have turned some of our favorites into T-shirts which are for sale on-line or at our shop.  And for the month of January we'll take 10% off these shirts.  Use discount code LABEL18 when shopping at bnctools.com .

 

 

To Restore Or Not To Restore - That is the Question!

To Restore Or Not To Restore - That is the Question!

When we do events and show off axes that we have restored we invariably get a few questions about how we decide which axes are worthy of restoration. Many folks have old axes lying around in their garages, barns or camps.  They may be tempted by seeing a pile of axes for sale at an antique store, flea market or yard sale.  We know that steel doesn't go bad, but is it worth the effort to restore an old axe?  The answer is not always yes.

Here are a few tips to help you decide whether to put in the effort to restore the axe yourself (or send it to us here at B&C to do it for you)

1.  Leave the Severely Mushroomed Heads Alone.

This advice given you by your tie-dye t-shirted friend at a Grateful Dead concert is easily applied to axe restoration. All of us are guilty of using the poll of the axe as a hammer at one time or another.  How can you not?  It is so hammer-y.  Like anything done in moderation, using the poll as a hammer is not in and of itself a problem.  But repeatedly doing so can distend the eye making re-handling impossible (and dangerous).  It also can cause cracks in the eye.  Check out this poor old guy below . . .

2.  Chips Are for the Poker Table Not the Bit of an Axe

We see a fair amount of axe heads with small chips in them. The initial thought is "well I can just grind this down and re-profile the entire bit."  Not so fast.  By re-profiling an axe with a chip bigger than 1/8"or so you run the risk of removing the hardened bit steel thereby reducing the usefulness of the axe.  Leave axe heads like the one below be.

3.  "The Right Profile" is not just a great Clash song.

Even if an axe bit is not chipped the hardened steel may have been removed by improper sharpening.  A bad habit is to sharpen blades from only one direction.  This leaves the bit more worn on one end.  Sometimes this is just a cosmetic problem.  The bit will still bite.  However, asymmetrical honing (what happened to the axe below) sometimes results in the hardened steel part of the bit being removed.

4.  Beware of Poison Eye-vy

One other tell-tale sign of potential problems with the eye of the axe is the number (and type) of wedges jammed into the axe handle.  You know you have seen it:  the eye of the axe jammed with metal screws, nails and wedges - anything to snug the handle to the axe head.  While certainly this can fix a loose axe head in an emergency, resorting to such extreme measures may indicate an unseen defect in the eye of the axe.  This may indicate that there is no good way to keep the axe head securely on the handle.  Be careful!

5.  That's the Pits!

Don't reject axe heads out of hand just because they have excessive rust or pitting.  We have restored axes for clients which are severely pitted from rust and corrosion.  If the bit steel is still good and you don't mind the look, a pitted axe that is restored can still provide years of service.  It is all in the eye of the beholder.

Questions on whether to restore one of your axes?  Give us a call (207) 730-2929 or email us at mferguson@bnctools.com

B&C Restoration Services

If you aren't that adventurous, without the right tools, or strapped for time B&C can help with your axe restoration project.  We have restored dozens of axes for clients. Send us a picture of the axe you want restored and we'll get back to you with a quote for restoring, re-handling, and making a custom leather sheath for your treasured axe.