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‘American Axe’ offers surprises, practical beauty

Brett McLeod’s beautifully composed “American Axe: The Tool that Shaped a Continent,” lives up to its extravagant title. The Paul Smith’s College professor chronicles the history of the weapon/tool that “Otzi the Iceman” used in Tuscany 5,300 years ago to its recreational use in competition. (McLeod is the coach of the woodsmen’s team at Paul Smith’s.)

In between the Iceman and today’s recreational axe throwers, McLeod reviews the axe’s role in the homesteading of America, the golden age of the axe industry, modern axes, and restoring that old axe rusting in the garage.

Like every good expository writer, McLeod “makes the familiar new.” At first, the axe was an axe, the tool the earliest settlers used for “felling, bucking, peeling, notching, splitting, and even chinking.” But by about 1860, more specific chopping tools were produced to help pioneers cut down trees and turn them into fuel and shelter, into heat and structures. Soon there were new terms for new tools: the hatchet, boy’s axe, felling axe, adze, maul, throwing axe, hewing axe, shingle hatchet, carpenter’s hatchet, mortising axe, etc. Curiously, these tools, so necessary for survival, such an extension of the worker, have body terms: Each axe has a heel, a toe, a cheek, an eye and a shoulder.

The technical advances that began around the Civil War ushered in McLeod’s “Golden Age” of axes, which lasted for about 100 years. In that time, more distinctive axe patterns were developed in response to local woodsmen’s needs and to carve a commercial niche, a brand, in the market. McLeod illustrates 40 different patterns.

Many vintage axes can still be found at auctions and in sheds. McLeod’s exploration of these old tools is a delightful and wonderfully photographed, “Antiques Roadshow” meets “American Pickers” episode. He finds beauty and value in rusty relics from Charleston, West Virginia, Chicago and San Francisco. For the axe hunter who finds a special, rare specimen, the author provides restoration advice.

And now there are fine modern axes. They are not mass-produced, their creators closer in spirit to a microbrewery than a Budweiser factory. Some are used for chopping and some for throwing. Christine Baranski, the star of “The Good Fight,” the courtroom drama television series, takes up axe-throwing to relieve some professional pressures. She throws at a club and finds the exercise therapeutic and the implements beautiful (and expensive). Woodsmen coach McLeod doesn’t write about therapy, just says axes “can be a heck of a lot of fun.” So he offers advice on how to build a target, how to throw axes and tomahawks, as well as some other recreational wood chopping competitions.

This is a surprising, wonderful book. Each page offers a bit of history, a picture of practical beauty, an insight into an implement that’s been around forever. Because the timber industry has been prominent in Adirondack history, it’s appropriate a resident of these mountains has written so well about a tool that shaped that industry.

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