Gear | May 11, 2021 7:39 am

Peter Buchanan-Smith on Writing the “Axe Handbook” and His Five Favorite Axes

The Best Made founder's "Axe Handbook" is equal parts guide, inspiration and epilogue

Best Made Co. founder Peter Buchanan-Smith in black and white on a wood grain background
Peter Buchanan-Smith knows a thing or two about axes, and owns way more than that.
Photo: Jason Frank Rothenberg / Background: Sergey Ryumin

At this very moment, you can head over to Duluth Trading Co. and buy a Best Made American Felling Axe with an exquisitely decorated handle for $270. Those painted and varnished helves, elevating the axes from a humble tool to a symbol of Americana, are what Best Made built its reputation on when it started in 2009 in New York City, and thus a big reason why Duluth recently added the company to its stable of brands

So why is Peter Buchanan-Smith, the 49-year-old founder of Best Made, finally disclosing his seven-step process for painting the handle of your own axe at home? Maybe it’s because he left his company in 2019 and isn’t so concerned about protecting trade secrets. In his mind, though, it’s because the Grammy Award-winning graphic designer who became a pioneer in the era of outdoor aesthetes is finally ready to close the book on that chapter of his life. 

“It was like completing a circle of sorts, a life cycle of having started this amazing company with an axe and then ending it with this book,” Buchanan-Smith recently told InsideHook. The book, out Tuesday (May 11), is called Buchanan-Smith’s Axe Handbook: Knowing, Buying, Using, Hanging, Restoring, & Adorning

“This homage to the axe was really like a swan song, a farewell to everything Best Made on some level,” he said. “So in that sense, it was really to everyone who had ever bought an axe and supported us; the book is for them. It was something that I wanted to do all along while I was at Best Made, but we were so busy selling axes I couldn’t write a book about them.” 

The cover of Peter Buchanan-Smith's book "Axe Handbook" on a wood grain background
Once a graphic designer, always a graphic designer.
Abrams Books / Sergey Ryumin

For those fans, chapter 21, “Adorning,” includes the aforementioned helve-painting process with accompanying photos, as well as a poster of some signature designs from Best Made, from the polka dots of “Jim Dandy” to the stripes of “Canuck Clipper.” But for those who may not know Buchanan-Smith or his brainchild, what the Axe Handbook offers is a more democratic entry point into a greater appreciation of the title tool than a high-end version of it.

The hardcover tome is elegant in its design (Buchanan-Smith has not lost a step in that regard), but small enough to toss in a rucksack, and the information is part history, part how-to and part reckoning with the axe’s place in the year 2021. 

“I always say that [axes are] this tool that’s deeply embedded in our DNA,” Buchanan-Smith said. “I think that when I started the book, I appreciated that, but it was almost like I needed to write the book to prove that assumption.” 

After finishing the final section on storage, handling and upkeep, readers will likely feel the same; that is, they’ll want to get themselves a hickory-handled felling axe if they don’t have one already. But as the title suggests, the book is more of a reference than a read-through. As such, it’s easy to see the gorgeous cream, red and blue hardcover book sitting on a shelf in an Airbnb in the woods, an object of ambience more so than utility. But like his Best Made axes, Buchanan-Smith’s volume can be wielded as well. The integrity is there; what happens next is up to the owner. 

That’s not to say there is anything inherently bad about displaying an axe on a wall. One of the most surprising elements of the book is Buchanan-Smith’s insistence on buying old axes and restoring them rather than buying new, and sometimes those old tools are beyond repair or hold too much sentimental value to risk them on the chopping block. 

We asked the author to go through the personal collection that he’s acquired over the years and pick out his five favorite axes, and as it turns out, there’s only one that he uses regularly, and there’s only one that he will never, ever swing. 

A polka dot axe from Best Made called the Handsome Dan on a black background
The first polka dot axe Buchanan-Smith ever painted for Best Made.
Peter Buchanan-Smith

Peter Buchanan-Smith’s Five Favorite Axes

Best Made Co. Handsome Dan
“This is the axe that, if there’s a fire, it’s the first one I’m going to grab. It’s one of the first axes that I ever did for Best Made. At the time, it was such organic growth — literally every axe I sold helped support the company and buy the next two axes and so on and so forth. At that time, we were working with an axe company called Snow and Nealley. It’s a classic felling axe pattern. When you think of an axe in your mind, this is what you would picture. The handle, the name of it was the Handsome Dan, and it was the first polka dot axe that I ever did. For me, it was almost like an excuse — starting Best Made was really just an excuse to do a polka dot axe. But if I broke it, it would just be … It’s such a piece of history for me.” 

Collins Felling Axe
“Number two would be an axe that was given to me while I was making the book by this guy named Harry Prouty. He’s a third-generation logger in New Hampshire. He’s a collector himself. Also, he was a lumberjack and a competition logger. He would go to all the state fairs and county fairs in the area and compete in chopping logs and all that sort of stuff. He gave me one of his — it’s another classic felling axe — made by this company called Collins, which was like the Ford of axes, one of the real originators and a legendary forge based in Collinsville, Connecticut.”

Restored Boy’s Axe 
“Number three would be an axe that was given to me by a guy whose handle on Instagram is @cooperhill. His name is Chris Garby. He gave me, in the early days of Best Made, it’s basically called a boy’s axe. It looks like a classic felling axe that’s been shrunk down by 30-40%. His restored axes are real works of art and some real one-of-a-kind objects. That is a very important piece of my collection.”

Gränsfors Bruk Splitting Maul
“One of my favorite axes that I use more than any other is my Gränsfors Bruk Splitting Maul. Since we moved upstate, I burn probably five or six cords of wood a year. It’s funny because early on I bought us a log splitter thinking I was going to have so much wood that I couldn’t possibly split it all myself. I started using the splitter and realized it was just really slow, so I ended up investing in this really beautiful Gränsfors maul. Oh man, it’s one of the tasks that I look forward to more than any others, going out for an afternoon, just splitting wood with this thing. It’s so finely engineered and finely built. Its end use is just so primal and it’s just explosive. You’re just smashing wood apart with it.”

Hoffman Felling Axe
“It was an axe that I purchased while I was making the book, before I had met with Liam [Hoffman] and went to visit him. There are few axes being made right now that I would say are just so finely crafted. So much thought and detail has gone into this axe. It’s actually one of the axes that I do love using, but it’s almost so fine I’m scared to use it. It’s a lethal tool in terms of its efficiency and it’s so much fun. It’s like driving a Ferrari.”