Just inside the door to AMC’s trails workshop in Pinkham Notch, N.H., there’s a battered wood tool bench with a faded logo spray-painted on its side: a pair of double-bit axes forming a cross. Actual axes and ax heads cover the bench’s surface. Many are rusted and missing handles; others feature jagged shards of wood sprouting from their eyes. Alex DeLucia, AMC’s volunteer trails program manager, has offered to show me how he revives these antiques, a process called rehanging an ax. But first he starts with a history lesson.
The ax heads DeLucia has collected, some dating back to the heyday of New England logging, made their way to Pinkham Notch via many routes. He found the ax he plans to rehang today in his father’s garage more than a decade ago. Others came from local antique shops and tool barns, places with which DeLucia and his predecessors have developed relationships.
AMC doesn’t invest time and care in vintage axes for nostalgia’s sake, although there is some of that. Decades ago, when axes were in higher demand, manufacturers forged the heads from hard steel. That metal yielded the sharp edge necessary to fell a tree but also required care to maintain. Today’s mass-market axes are made from a softer metal that isn’t as brittle but dulls easily.
“They are often the door stops,” DeLucia says of his junk-shop finds. “They’re often rusted, in a bin, in a dark corner.” He makes a habit of carrying a scrap of sandpaper with him while browsing. That way, when he comes across an old ax, he can rub off some of the rust to reveal clues etched in the metal. A date, a weight, or a brand name such as Collins, Kelly, or Snow & Neally can tell him whether he’s found an ax worth reviving.
And DeLucia needs a lot of axes. Every first-year AMC trail crew member and campsite caretaker receives a single-bit: a traditional, wedge-shaped ax. One of the staffers’ first tasks is to revive these axes, rehanging them on new handles and sharpening each blade to a razor’s edge. Giving out axes every year has seriously depleted the local supply, so trail crew members now leave at the end of the season with one final assignment: “We task them, when they go back home and back to college, to hunt around and see what they can find,” DeLucia says. Boxes of old single-and double-bit axes have arrived at Pinkham from as far away as Montana.
Double-bits, which have two blades and look a little like the Batman symbol, are reserved for trail crew members who return for a second year. DeLucia tells me the story of his own first double-bit ax, which he received when he was promoted to project coordinator for AMC’s trails department. A predecessor had found the ax head in a tool shop in rural Maine and rehung it. That staffer passed it to his successor, and she, in turn, passed it to DeLucia, who used it for years until the head cracked. The retired ax hung on a wall at Camp Dodge, AMC’s volunteer trails center, for several years until a former campsite caretaker started dabbling in metalsmithing.
“He took that tool and reforged it, like [in] Lord of the Rings,” DeLucia says, laughing at the memory. Suddenly the ax was back in circulation. I don’t see it during my visit for a good reason: It’s out in the field with this year’s project coordinator.
DeLucia picks up a different double-bit ax then pauses to gather his emotions. “This ax once belonged to a friend who has since passed away. He was a young kid.” A moment later, DeLucia continues: “It’s tough. He did volunteer crews at Camp Dodge as a teen, and then he worked for the Randolph Mountain Club’s trail crew, and he worked in the Pinkham kitchen. This was Joe’s ax.” Each ax has a story, some more personal than others.
DeLucia picks up his own single-bit ax and turns it over in his hands. “We describe the ax as a living thing,” he says. “The personal connection and intimacy of people and this tool is reflected in the naming of the parts of the ax.” Those elements include head, cheeks, eye, neck, throat, foot, toes, heel, and butt. DeLucia’s ax head gleams a shiny silver, the cheeks defined by arced bevels on either side. He sharpens the blade after every use with a small, disc-shaped whetstone that he carries into the backcountry.
“It’s an incredibly efficient tool,” DeLucia says. “You can be just as efficient, and in some cases more efficient, than a chainsaw.” AMC trail crews carry their axes deep into the backcountry while patrolling for blow-downs, covering up to 20 miles a day.
“In [AMC’s] trail program, there is a lot of pride in the ax you have and the care that you give it,” DeLucia says. “Your ax is a reflection of yourself. It’s the only personal tool that you have. All our other tools are shared tools.”
Having covered a brief history of axes at AMC, DeLucia returns to the task at hand. He picks up a broad, rectangular ax head speckled with rust. “We’re going to see what we can do with this one,” he says before heading back into the shop to pick out a handle.
Watch a video about how AMC’s trails staff makes the iconic white-and-green trail signs used throughout New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Revisit AMC’s volunteer trails hub, Camp Dodge, on the eve of its renovation.
Meet an AMC campsite caretaker who spends the summer on the edge of New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness.