It Came from the Archives: Country Life in Photos

Dr. Marty Olliff's monthly series turns its attention to a Wiregrass farmer demonstrating how tools were once made.

Dr. Marty Olliff's monthly series turns its attention to a Wiregrass farmer demonstrating how tools were once made.

Modern hand tools’ handles are made on an industrial scale, often in small factories by machines running for hours at a time. This means they’re relatively inexpensive, readily available and easily replaceable (because the tool-making industry has created size standards).

But not long ago, when farm folks in particular had more time than cash, tool and handle-making were at-home crafts that required skills and patience.

In 1984, Dothan photographer Doug Snellgrove took five pictures of Howard Smith (Hodgesville, Houston County, Alabama) demonstrating the steps of making an axe handle.

First, Smith chainsawed 40-inch lengths of a hardwood log about 12 inches in diameter, then split the log twice with a sledgehammer and axe. After quartering the log, he selected the best of these “blanks” to shape into a new handle.

Smith then rough-shaped the blank with a hatchet.

Next, he clamped the roughed-out handle under the hold-fast of a shaving horse. He weights the hold-fast with his foot as he shapes the handle with a drawknife. Although not shown here, he might have finished the handle with a spokeshave, then sanded and oiled it. To fit the handle into the axe head, Smith whittled it then bonded the pieces together with glue.

Craft woodworking tools (as opposed to factory machinery for woodworking) have changed little since colonial days. Drawknives and spokeshaves are all metal with replaceable blades, and axes no longer come from the blacksmith’s forge, but the shaving horse is still homemade and the basic work is still the same. (Eric Sloan, A Museum of American Tools [NY: Ballantine Books, 1964]).

According to Ben Ferguson of Florida, a woodworker who makes beautiful bread bowls among other things, a significant improvement has occurred in sanding technology. Thankfully, according to Ferguson, sandpaper replaced using a rag and shattered glass that cut the worker’s hands.

For more photos of life and nature in the Wiregrass, visit the Doug Snellgrove Photograph Collection at

This article originally appeared on the Wiregrass Archives blog.

It Came from the Archives is an ongoing series spotlighting the fascinating collections at the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, visit online at or in person in Everett Hall on the Dothan Campus.