Collecting Axes and Antique Hatchets
Collection of antique hatchets and vintage axes shows varied use of simple but essential farm tools.
This hatchet, manufactured by Plumb, was known as a vegetable hatchet (or crating hatchet). “It was used to make wooden crates,” says David Johnson. “They’d saw the lumber thin for side slats. If it was good lumber, you could get four 2-inch slats out of an 8-inch board.” The notches on the hatchet’s head were used to pull nails.
Hatchets and axes have, technically speaking, nothing to do with farming. And yet they've long been indispensable tools on the farm. As with any tool, variations have been developed to tackle different jobs. From a basic tool of survival to specialized application, antique hatchets and axes have staying power and enduring appeal.
About 10 years ago, David Johnson, Falconer, N.Y., began finding choice pieces at swap meets and flea markets. Soon he had the foundation of a collection. "As a boy growing up, I always had a knife and a hatchet," he recalls. "I grew up with those things; it was just a part of life."
The distinction between a hatchet and an axe is simple. A hatchet is essentially a small, short-handled axe. "You can use a hatchet with just one hand," David says. "Only rarely does a hatchet weigh more than 1.5 pounds. But an axe takes two hands to use, and it'll weigh 2.5 to 5 pounds or more."
David collects what he likes. "That's the trick to collecting," he says. "If you buy it just because it's collectible, it's not fun. And it's got to be fun." His favorites are pieces made for specific purposes. His collection includes shingle hatchets, lathe hatchets, crating hatchets, a trapper's axe, cruiser's axe and even an ice axe. Each had very specific applications.
The shingle hatchet, for instance, features a cutting edge sharp on one side only and gauge holes at half-inch intervals. "The workman would put a pin in the hole, bring it to the bottom of a shingle and lay the next row of shingles on the top of the head," David explains. "That gave the overlap. Otherwise you'd have to lay a string to get the rows straight, and these guys were paid by the square foot. Using this hatchet, they could split a shingle, drive nails (they held the nails in their mouths) and use the gauge, all with one tool."
Lathe hatchets are closely related to shingle hatchets. Designed to cut and split lathe strips for construction work and drive nails, the lathe hatchet was used in the era before plaster board became commonplace.
A very early piece in David's collection was used just to split shingles. Perhaps 200 years old, the froe was driven into the end of a piece of wood, tipped one way or the other and a shingle would be split off. It's a classic example of what David calls "the physics of wood."