History of the Collins Axe Works

Early ingenuity by the Collins Axe Works put a sharp edge on fledging American axe industry.

| June 2018

  • A view of the Collins Axe Works across the millpond.
    Image courtesy of Sam Moore
  • The sign on the front of the Collins Axe Works.
    Image courtesy of Sam Moore
  • A Collins double-bitted axe.
    Image courtesy Greg Stephens
  • A Collins hatchet.
    Image courtesy Greg Stephens
  • This 1909 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, titled โ€œThe Railsplitter,โ€ depicts Abraham Lincoln as a young man splitting rails for the fence in the background.
    Illustration by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

To further the axe story begun last month, we’ll take a look at one of the factories established in this country early in the 19th century to manufacture axes.

In the years prior to the war between the states, the industrial revolution was just gathering steam in this country and the pages of the newspapers and periodicals of the day were full of stories about how mundane items, once handmade by country blacksmiths, were now being turned out in the hundreds by machinery. A case in point is the story of how axes, found nearly everywhere in our young country, were being made by the Collins Axe Works in Collinsville in northwest Connecticut.

Converting conversation into opportunity

Samuel Watkinson Collins was born in 1802 in Middleton, Connecticut. By 1820, he was working for an uncle in Hartford, Connecticut, who sold iron and expensive steel imported from Sheffield, England. The story goes that Sam delivered some steel to a local blacksmith and began to talk to a customer who was waiting for the smith to finish hammering an axe head for him. Although the smith welded a steel edge on the bit of the axe, he didn’t sharpen it, and the customer complained bitterly of the half day or so he would have to spend to grind and hone the tool to a useful edge, and to find, whittle and polish a suitable handle.

Sam thought about this and decided that there was a potential market for a well-made and well-finished axe, at that time an essential tool for every farmer, pioneer and builder. In 1826 he, his younger brother, David, and a cousin, William Wells, bought an old gristmill on the Farmington River near Canton, Connecticut, that had a water wheel for power. At first they had no power machinery to speak of, except for an air pump run by the water wheel to force air to the forges, but they turned out a quality product: ready-to-use axes already sharpened, polished and handled.

As the news of the Collins-made axe spread, demand soared and in 1828 they installed water-powered trip hammers and huge grinding wheels said to be 6 feet in diameter and a foot thick. Soon each smith was turning out 10 axes per day and by 1831, the company employed a workforce of 40 men.

Early process based on inexact science

We mentioned earlier that good steel wasn’t yet being made in this country. It had to be imported from Europe, making it very expensive. The head was hammered from a flat billet of cheaper but softer wrought iron and heated and folded around a pin to form the “eye” – or hole – for the handle. The bit, previously hammered from English steel, was coated with a borax flux and tongued into the split end of the head. The parts were then brought to a white heat in the forge and “welded by hammering with a sledge and all the muscle a blacksmith had” into a solid block. No brief flash of an electric arc here, just lots of heat and muscle.


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