Friends who visit self-described “girlie girl” Sheena Lara at her home in Ames, Iowa, might be surprised by what they see leaning up against her bed: an axe, its smooth hickory handle painted Day-Glo orange and red. Lara bought the axe, her first, a few months ago; since then, she’s used it to split wood and fell trees at her cousin’s nearby farm. “I chopped down a walnut tree. That was pretty hard,” says Lara, 26, a graphic designer. “Not everybody knows how to chop down a tree. It’s empowering.”
Axes aren’t just for lumberjacks, contend the owners of Best Made Co., which produces made-to-order axes (including Lara’s) that are part design object, part tool. Their glossy handles are hand-painted by Peter Buchanan-Smith, an award-winning graphic designer whose clients include Isaac Mizrahi and Philip Glass; their heads are hand-tempered by one of America’s oldest axe makers, and can last for generations, they say. “Everybody should own an axe,” says Graeme Cameron, 37, who co-founded the company in May with Buchanan-Smith, his lifelong friend. An axe isn’t just a tool, he believes, “it’s a symbol of mental fortitude, moral courage, and will.”
Cameron and Buchanan-Smith, who both grew up in rural Ontario, met at summer camp in Algonquin Park. In the bush, says Buchanan-Smith, also 37, “an axe is a major tool. It’s your best friend, like an extension of your hand.”
After attending boarding school together as teenagers, and a brief stint on exchange in Scotland, the two parted ways. Buchanan-Smith moved to New York to pursue a career in design; he went on to serve as art director of the New York Times’ op-ed page, creative director at Paper magazine, and won a Grammy award in 2004 for designing the Wilco album A Ghost Is Born. Cameron stayed in Ontario, building a log cabin on Stoney Lake with a two-bladed axe, a set of chisels and a chainsaw, the only machine he used. “I cut down my first tree, and I’d made a mark on the land,” recalls Cameron, who runs a Mississauga company that sells products for cleaning up oil and chemical spills. “I thought, I have to finish this.” Six years later, he did.
Last winter, Cameron was visiting Buchanan-Smith at his home in South Orange, N.J., just outside New York City. To celebrate Cameron’s birthday, the two bought Wagyu steaks that cost “about $100 each,” Buchanan-Smith says. Deciding that a gas grill “would not do them justice,” they opted to build a pit and cook them over a searing-hot hardwood fire. The friends needed an axe, and bought a cheap one; after the meal (which, they agree, was sublime), the axe sat in Buchanan-Smith’s workshop, inspiring him to start collecting them. “I bought three or four vintage axes, and leaned them against a bookshelf in my studio. They looked just great,” he says. Eventually, he began to experiment with decorating their handles. Best Made Co. was born.
At Best Made, each axe model bears a different, evocative name: some of those in the summer collection are Conacher (with a white and green handle), and Auld Reekie (blue-grey and orange). Sources of inspiration include Canadian painter Tom Thomson, the poet Robert Frost, and Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk who lives in Central Park (prices range from $200 to $450). Buchanan-Smith paints each axe, while Cameron builds a community: “Everybody who buys one hears from me personally,” he says. The fall collection will have double-bladed axes, too.
Practical reasons aside, why would anybody need an axe? “It reminds me of the smell of pine trees, and the sound a loon makes,” says bestselling author and blogger Seth Godin, who has a Best Made axe hanging on the wall of his office in New York. Godin grew up in Buffalo and spent his summers in Algonquin Park. “The idea you can get a connection from a piece of wood and metal sounds weird, but it’s true.” For Lara, who runs a Best Made Co. fan site on Facebook, it evokes memories of her father, who died from emphysema a few years ago. As a child, she says, “I used to watch my dad split wood all the time.” When she heard about the axes, “it resonated with me. I thought, I’m going to buy this for myself and learn how to chop down trees.”
Just as the axe makes Lara feel closer to her father, she hopes that, one day, it’ll make her son feel closer to her: Lara plans to give the axe to Royler, 16 months, on his 18th birthday. “I hope when he sees the axe, he thinks of me as a strong woman,” she says. A woman who could fell a walnut tree.