My friend Bill has spent the last sixty years in search of the “perfect axe”. He is in his eighties so I would say that sixty years is a conservative number. When I say “searching” I mean it in a very active manner: All summer Bill uses axes and other nomadic hand tools on his land in Maine and every winter he travels in search of the “perfect axe”. He spent one winter crossing Siberia. Two years ago he hiked through the kingdom of Bhutan. His travels have taken him to India and Italy and Mexico – always searching out blacksmiths and carvers and woodsmen, always asking questions about nomadic handtools. Last winter Bill went to remote areas of western China looking for people still using and making nomadic tools.
In the early 90's Bill compiled what he had learned from a lifetime of observing axes and made a wooden pattern for a small broad axe. A broad axe is flat on one face and used to hew to a line. There are right and left versions depending on the handedness of the axeman. In the Tosa region of Japan on the island of Shikoku Bill had once seen the work of a master blacksmith which he considered to be perhaps the best in the world. Pattern in hand, Bill went looking for this smith to see if he would turn it into a functioning axe. All the tools made by this smith were scored with seven hash marks in the steel. When Bill found the master he left the wooden pattern and requested an axe made to the highest standards. He also asked for the axe not to have the seven hash marks evident on the smith's other work. The smith refused saying, through an interpreter, that the marks were necessary to recognize seven spirits which guided and protected him.
Bill returned to Maine and heard nothing for two years. He assumed his order had been forgotten or lost. Then one day a package arrived. It contained not one axe but two and a note in Japanese that read: “I couldn't remember if you wanted a right or left handed axe so I am sending you one of each.”
Bill is right-handed and I am left-handed. When I was an apprentice in Maine I would often go up to visit Bill on his land. To call anything “perfect” is really just Bill's manner of opening a discussion on the nature of perfection. Bill's more recent “perfect axe” is a piece of flat steel hacksawed to shape and hoseclamped to a hammer. It takes a couple of hours to make. The axe's perfection arises from its democratic nature since anyone of any means can construct one. Viewed in this way my “perfect” broad axe made by one of the world's finest blacksmith is perhaps perfect in its function but flawed in that is an elitist tool. An elitist tool but a unique and treasured one none the less.
In the winter of 1996 I was at the Apprenticeshop building a 21-foot rowing and sailing gig for the tall ship the HMS Rose. Working with me on the project were the two junior apprentices. (This gig later turned up in the movie Master and Commander when Warner Bros. bought the Rose and turned her into Jack Aubrey's HMS Surprise.) Unbeknownst to me the two junior apprentices, Matt and Sarah, had bought the left-handed version of the “perfect axe” from Bill during one of our visits and then presented it to me on my graduation from the Apprenticeshop. And so I came into possession of a “perfect axe”. That axe traveled with me around the world on my sailboat. I romantically imagined hewing a new mast on some remote – but forested – tropical island. Fortunately, such folly has never come to pass.
Last summer I sailed into a narrow channel near Maine's Canadian border called Moose Snare Cove. This anchorage put me a short dingy ride from Bill's front yard. Bill lives on five-hundred acres protected coastal forest. Without a boat to access Moose Snare Cove it takes an hour to walk to his three-story concentric yurt where he lives off the grid in handtool heaven. Despite never locking up his yurt Bill has never had anything stolen from his house even though he is often gone traveling for long periods during the winter. He never had anything stolen until two winters ago when someone hiked into his yurt, entered his home and took only one item: the right-handed perfect axe.
Bill and I bemoaned the loss of the axe but he seemed resigned to the fact that things come and go in life including some very fine tools. That was his attitude last summer but apparently, after another winter of reflecting on the loss of the axe he was less resigned. A few weeks ago I received the following hand-written letter (Bill is one of three friends I have who are not connected to the internet):
Hi Bruce ---
I hope this finds you in fine fettle and enjoying the spring. I have been trying to reach the blacksmith in Japan that made our axes. I need your help.
My axe was stolen last year and I've been trying to reach the blacksmith with no luck. Then – I remembered your axe and believe the smith's name is on it. (I hope so) In any case I'm going to try and get another made there in Kocheken. So – can I get you to send me:
- A rubbing that shows the writing on your axe.
- A photo of the axe.
- A tracing of the axe (so I'll have its full dimensions.)
- The weight of the axehead (make an educated guess as to the handle wt.)
And so the story of the “perfect axe” continues...