Early ingenuity by the Collins Axe Works put a sharp edge on fledging American axe industry.
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.
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.
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.
Then, before grinding and polishing on the big grindstones, the bit must be tempered so it would take and hold a sharp edge. In those days, smiths didn’t yet understand the chemistry of tempering steel. The more observant and experienced ones would heat the axe until the metal became just the right color and then plunge it into a cold brine solution, thus attaining the desired hardness. But the process still relied on a lot of guesswork.
In 1832, Collins hired Elisha King Root, a young mechanical genius. Root had who developed better trip hammers and the associated dies to shape metal, as well as a machine to punch eyes through the heads. He also developed circular drums for use in furnaces where the tempering was done. One hundred or more axe heads were hung in each revolving drum, ensuring that each axe head got exactly the same heat treatment.
Root also invented a machine to plane the axe heads so less grinding was necessary, and jigs to hold the heads against the grinding wheels in precisely the same position and angle, innovations that improved the quality of the finished product, while greatly increasing efficiency.
As an aside, Elisha Root went to work for Samuel Colt in 1849 as shop superintendent and became president of Colt Firearms Co. upon Colt’s death in 1862, serving in that capacity until his own death in 1865.
Scientific American reported in 1859 that the Collins factory employed “about 350 mechanics and other operatives. A large capital is invested in the operations, 1,200 tons of the best wrought iron, 300 tons of fine cast steel, and 2,000 tons of coal are annually worked up in conducting the manufactures. Over 2,000 tools are finished daily, and these are of such a variety, that Mr. Collins, in passing over the list, bit them all off at one sweep by stating, ‘We make almost every kind of tool which has a handle to it.’
“We saw chopping axes; broad-axes, hatchets, adzes, picks, sledge-hammers, hoes, cane-knives, Spanish-machetes, and a whole host of other tools passing through the different processes from the rough-bars of iron and steel, until they were polished like glass, finished and packed ready for transporting to the sales office in New York.”
At one time the Collins company was probably the largest manufacturer of edge tools in the world, but damage to the factory and railroad from a devastating flood in 1955, as well as growing competition from chainsaws, began a downward spiral. In 1966, after 140 years, the Collins factory closed, with its South American business sold to Stanley Tool, and the domestic part (plus the Collins name) bought by Mann Edge Tool Co., Lewistown, Pennsylvania. In 2004, Truper Herramientas, a Mexican company, bought out Mann. That company continues production of Collins axes today. FC
Many thanks to my friend Greg Stephens, a Brewster, Ohio, collector of axes and Coleman lanterns, for the photos of the Collins axes.
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.