DES MOINES, Iowa -- When you listen, you’ll hear sounds that don’t fit the setting. This is the trendy East Village, where you’ll find young men doing an old job.
“Sometimes handles can be salvaged," says Adam Tweedy, 25. "Sometimes they can’t. So this is an unsalvageable handle.”
In Adam Tweedy ‘s hands a forgotten piece of America gets remembered.
“Looks good, still looks usable,” he says, examining a rusted, chipped True American axe head from the 1930s.
Tweedy restores vintage axes for a living. That can’t be the most unique job in Des Moines because, his partners do it, too.
“This one is gonna be really easy,” says Erich Bockman, holding up a new hickory handle that he'll rasp down to fit another old axe head.
Like America itself, it was an axe that cleared the path for the Fontenelle Supply Company--owned by four camping buddies who simply wanted to split wood for a fire.
“Initially," says co-owner Andrew Willoughby, "we brought some axes that just didn’t quite…cut it.”
Pardon the pun--necessity did lead to invention, here.
“We went out and looked for an old axe head," Willoughby continues, "figured out how to restore it—how to resharpen it, hang it on a new handle—and then that’s when we realized that sometimes doing things the old way still works really well.”
Before long they were buying up old axes at garage sales and on eBay, and selling them on Etsy.
They were becoming new experts in an old field.
“These are two different types of metal," says Tweedy, holding up the rusted True American head. "They have a cast iron body with a carbon steel cutting bit on the front that’s welded on during the blacksmithing process.”
A 24-hour vinegar bath eats away the rust and reveals not only the line where the two metals are joined together, but also the considerable amount of life it has left.
"You can sharpen this all the way back,” Tweedy says, showing a good two inches of carbon steel blade remaining, even after decades of work. “That’s a lot of use, right there.”
These days, many of the axes coming in are family heirlooms, brought in by people wanting them restored either to use or to display on a wall.
Presenting them back to the owners is a treat.
“They can see the quality, the hard work, the amount of years that it’s lived," Tweedy says, "All at once it hits them—and you can see that emotion on their face. That’s honestly why we do it.”
For Tweedy, Willoughby, Bockman, and the fourth partner, Asher Connolly, this is a part of something bigger. They began making custom leather sheathes for their restored axes, which led producing to a full line of leather goods. They later began making their own candles. Then in November, they decided to jump all the way in and open their own shop in a restored building in the East Village. They carry not just their own products, but those of other small, American companies like Filson clothing and Chippewa boots.
“We want to be sort of the voice for other people who do handmade or high-quality manufacturing in the Midwest,” Tweedy says.
But the axes will always be what got them going, and the plan is to stay sharp in the craft…
Because there will always be a certain nobility in a reclamation project…be that an old tool, an old job, or…the old building that they’re in.
“This is American history. I’m keeping it alive,” says Tweedy.