Des Moines Register: Axes to Grind


 

The headquarters of Fontenelle Supply Co. is a garage in Des Moines' Beaverdale neighborhood, the walls of which call to mind both rustic woodsmen and punk rockers. The company's owners are somewhere in between.

Old axes, cleaned of rust and with new hickory handles, hang one after another above an electric guitar and an old skateboard. A well-stocked workbench lines the back wall, while a folding card table stands in the garage's center. Adam Tweedy, 25, sat there on a recent Thursday morning, sipping coffee along with Erich Bockman, 29.

Both men, like the other of Fontenelle's co-owners, are young men into old things. Their business scours estate sales and antique shops for old axes, the kind made in 1930 and left to rust over decades, and brings them back to life. Ax restoration, the kind that enables a tool to last another century, requires hands-on skills and old-school know-how. The company applies the same skills to its handmade leather goods, including wallets, key fobs and ax covers.

Tweedy and Bockman discussed how Fontenelle formed around a niche calling, and how smart Web marketing gives their business global reach from Des Moines.

Q. How did you discover you had a penchant for old axes?

Tweedy: Me and Sam, my wife, and Asher (Connelly) and Andrew (Willoughby) were living in a huge house turned into apartments in 2011. There was a fireplace running through it. We wanted to see if it would start working. The previous tenant had a bunch of firewood and we had an ax trying to spit it. The ax was dull and crappy, so we looked into what it took to make a solid ax. We found a bunch of Swedish, blacksmithed axes in a price point out of our league. So we found a bunch of DIY old timers on the Internet posting pictures of old tools they had restored, axes that looked neat and doable. That's a common thread among the four of us: When we see something that we can't afford we try to do it ourselves.

Q. And the business came together shortly thereafter?

Tweedy: Six months after we discovered we could make an ax and taught ourselves these things, it spiraled from there by word of mouth. Friends would ask where we got them when we were camping. We sold them to friends and co-workers. Then we opened an Etsy shop.

Q. Why do customers take the time to restore an old, rusted ax when they could simply buy a new one?

Tweedy: It's a pleasure and thrill of taking something forgotten, rusted, old and decrepit and tak­ing it back and making it more usable than anything on the market. And you did that. You brought it to life.

Bockman: A lot of the products we've worked on have been from people who found a corroded ax in their grandfather's shed and they brought it to us. You get this family heirloom where, if properly cared for, it will easily last another 100 years.

Q. Do you seek out the old axes or do folks bring them to you?

Tweedy: We have enough inventory built up just by buying them ourselves, but people are more interested in bringing them to us themselves (to be refurbished). You can find them at antiques malls. Ebay. Estate sales.

Q. It seems like younger folks, people in their 20s and 30s, are particularly interested older things despite being more immersed in technology than ever. The popularity of vintage clothing and vinyl records are easy examples. Why do you think that is?

Tweedy: Everyone's got a phone with the Internet connected to it all day. But people are holding onto old things. We're so immersed in technology that you forget about cooler, older things. We want to keep that live.

Q. It's certainly not shocking anymore to hear of millennials leaving their day jobs for a startup, but they're more often focused on apps than old axes. What makes the uncertainty of being entrepreneurs worth it for you?

Bockman: The end goal is for the four of us to be doing this full time. It can be frustrating sitting at your actual job when there's something I'm passionate about and know could succeed if only I could find the time and energy after work. We're getting more and more opportunities to do things and it's becoming more of a reality.

Q. Are your products in stores?

Tweedy: We're stocked in Fugitive Apparel in Des Moines' East Village and are staying true to them. He came to us first, so we're going to try to stay loyal to that and make it exclusively at Fugitive. We're also in Barcelona, Spain, at La Corona Motorcycles, a motorcycle shop that buys Japanese bikes and turns them into cafe racers. We make camp mugs for them with their logo.

Q. Spain? How did you link up with a store in Europe?

Tweedy: Instagram. We're working out of a garage, so the Internet is our medium. We don't have a lot of camper types in Iowa who would buy into this lifestyle. Because of the Internet, we are able to advertise our Midwest product that's probably more appropriately aimed at a Pacific Northwest or a Colorado Rockies crowd.

Q. Fontanelle was a vendor at the recent Market Day, a show of craft vendors populated mostly by women makers of crafts and jewelry. Do you feel out of place at events like that?

Bockman: We were in between a candy booth and a pillow booth at Market Day, but a lot of our ax sales have been to a wife or girlfriend who knows their husband or boyfriend will love this.

Tweedy: A lot of it is mothers and wives looking for really cool products, gift ideas. Men are the hardest market to corner, to get to buy into a brand or product. That's always hard for retailers. If anything, those women-dominated craft shows are helpful for us in that aspect.

Q. None of you has a business degree. How did you learn that end of it?

Bockman: Trial and error. When we were selling axes on Etsy two years ago, we had no legal safety net whatsoever. We don't have business degrees. We could easily have had a lawsuit on our hands if someone cut themselves, if the ax broke and a head flew off.

Josh Hafner covers young professionals in central Iowa. Have a story idea? Contact Josh at 515-284-8412, jhafner@dmreg.com or on Twitter @JoshHafner.

How to restore an ax

Fontenelle Supply Co. co-founder Adam Tweedy explains how the company restores rusty, corroded axes into tools that gain new life.

• Remove rust: We start with a rusty axehead. The best way to remove rust without taking a high speed grinder to it and damaging the metal, is to soak it in vinegar. It eats the rust off and leaves this really cool patina, saving the head and maintaining its history and character. Then we treat it with an oil so it doesn't rust back up.

• Shape the handle: We bought a bunch of old stock handles made in the '60s from a guy in Omaha. He had pallets of them that had never been used.We select the best quality hickory handles we can find. Hickory is the traditional hand tool: It's got a great flex to it, but it's also the most sturdy. If you get a properly grained handle, it will absorb the shock of hitting wood at speed and force. It's the same they use on baseball bats and is a workhorse wood.

• Fit the handle to the head: We use only hand tools: A wood rasp makes sure you get the most control in the fitting process and keeps the head from slipping because it grabs into the metal. The new shape the wedge by hand to make sure it goes into the handle, driven in with a wooden mallet. Then it's a hung ax, ready to go.

• Sharpen: An ax needs consistent angles so it remains sharp. It should bite into the wood. I profile it using the jig and polish and hone it it using a diamond sharpening stone. We test out all the axes. The only way to tell if there's a problem with the handle is if you go out and use it. We want it safe for the person buying it.