The axe man's next act

Peter Buchanan-Smith built a retail empire selling hand-painted axes. Now that he's left the company behind, he's written a new book – and is gearing up for what's next.
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Canadian-born graphic designer Peter Buchanan-Smith has had a varied career – from working with fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi and designing books and brand identities to creating the album artwork for Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born. But even for him, launching an axe business was a bit like jumping off a cliff, he says. ‘Who in their right mind would start an axe company?’ he asks with a laugh.

Best Made, which he launched in 2009 after a lifelong fascination with the tool, soon grew beyond his wildest expectations. It became a retail brand with bricks-and-mortar stores in New York and Los Angeles – and a deeply loyal fan base obsessed with its treasure-chest-like catalogue of unusual items, clothes and goods.

In 2019, Peter left the company to focus on fresh projects – one of which is The Axe Handbook, his new field-guide-like treatise on knowing, buying and using axes. We caught up with Peter to find out more about his journey.

What's the story behind your axe obsession? Why not pocket knives or hammers?

A. ’There is really a multitude of reasons. To start with, the axe was a vital and influential tool from my childhood. When I was starting the company, I was in the throes of a divorce and I had also just put my dog down. Really, without thinking, I reached out for something that was familiar and evocative of a time that was better. Did you ever go to a summer camp as a kid?’

No, I lived a more suburban life...

A. ’So, when I was growing up, summer camp was a rite of passage. I was lucky to go to one of the oldest boys’ camps in Canada, in Algonquin Park, south east Ontario. And the axe was a vital tool. There was a real reverence built around this thing. In 2009, when I started Best Made, I felt that the axe, and this ethos instilled in me as a kid, was something we needed.’

What about the axe is so fascinating?

A. ’It’s a lightning rod – you either love it, hate it or you’re scared by it. It’s associated with productivity on one hand, but also violence on the other. What really resonates for me, and what the book celebrates, is this perfect union of style and function. 

‘At the end of the day, you can wander outside with an axe, cut some wood and build a fire. It’s one of the greatest things in the history of humankind. It’s deeply embedded in our DNA in that sense. The axe is a tool that belongs in our hands.’

Let's wind back to 2009. How did you get started with Best Made?

A. ’It happened very quickly. It was like jumping off a cliff. Just to go to my garage and paint these axes was the height of success. There was this immediate excitement. And I realised it was an opportunity to use that tool to create something a lot bigger.’

You sold dreams of the outdoors. People fled for the countryside during the pandemic...

A. ’One of the takeaways of the pandemic is that many of us don’t need to work in an office. That is going to open up a lot of opportunities to be in the outdoors, chopping wood and building fires.’

And that's what you've done, right?

A. ’I was in New York City for 25 years. After I left Best Made, we decided it was time to pull the plug – my girlfriend and I bought a more liveable place about three and a half hours north of the city. It was really a golden opportunity to catch my breath and try to figure out what the next step is.’

What was the idea behind the book?

A. ’It completes the circle. It’s my love letter to the tool that made me who I am. I think of the thousands of people who bought axes from Best Made. That’s what the book is really for – to continue that relationship and that conversation.’

Buchanan-Smith’s Axe Handbook is published by Abrams Image.

This article was first published in Courier issue 41, June/July 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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