Not every student-athlete in college winds up at the end of his sporting career with a love for vintage axes, but that is just what happened for Cheyenne’s Josh Van Vlack.
When he was a forestry major at the University of Montana, Van Vlack competed with the school’s timber sports team, which introduced him to high-end racing axes. He and his teammates used axes and saws in competitive logging skills challenges like crosscut sawing, tree climbing, chopping and log rolling.
Now Van Vlack has turned his love of axes into a business called Wyoming Axe Works, where he restores vintage and heirloom axes to their former usable glory. Part of updating these axes is creating new wooden handles and new leather sheathes for each axe. Van Vlack taught himself how to do the leatherwork to go with the axes, and now his business also includes manufacturing other custom-made leather goods, as well.
Van Vlack, who works as an assistant state forester for the Wyoming State Forestry Division, said his Forest Service work lends itself to knowledge about axes, as well. In fact, it was old Forest Service books from the 1930s and ’40s where he learned much of what he knows about refurbishing heirloom axes. He said he also watched old videos the Forest Service made in the 1970s based on those same books.
The historic axes he works on are typically some he has picked up at garage sales or auctions, or they may be from clients who bring him old axes they want repaired.
He found his favorite axe by chance at a garage sale in Denver. Called a Lincoln Axe due to the portrait of the former president on the side, the axe was made in about 1912 for a hardware store company out of Dubuque, Iowa.
“It’s in almost perfect condition,” Van Vlack said. “There’s not a lot of them around, but when they do sell, they’re $2,000 or $2,500.”
When Van Vlack gets an axe like this to work on, he begins by hand-sanding off any rust the axe head has accumulated. He never uses a chemical rust remover because this also removes any patina the axe may have developed over the years.
Next, he fits a new wooden handle to the head. When he started his business he made handles for his axes from scratch, but the hickory he used was hard to source. Now he has started using handles manufactured by an Amish company in Tennessee. He pays attention to the shape of the handle and the direction of the wood grain – which plays a role in how sturdy the handle will be.
When he places the handle into the eye of the axe head, he uses wood wedges to hold it in place. He said modern axes typically have metal wedges to hold the handle in, but Van Vlack uses wood because it is more historically accurate and matches the tradition of the historic axe head.
Sharpening comes next. He finds out how his customers intend to use the axe before he determines how thin or sharp of an edge to put on it. For axes used for general camping, he takes into consideration where in the United States his customer lives and what kind of wood is prevalent in that region. If the axe is headed for the workshop of a furniture maker who only cuts clean wood, he can put a much sharper and thinner edge on it, he said.
“I sharpen it to whatever the customer’s needs are going to be,” Van Vlack said.
He then finishes the handles with a stain and a coat of tung oil or linseed oil.
In order to safely mail the refurbished axe to his customers, he has to cover the blade, which he does with a custom-made leather sheath.
When customers began seeing his custom leather sheaths, they started asking him to create other leather goods. Now the leatherwork is about 70% of his business, while the axes themselves make up the rest.
“As I started doing axes, there was a demand for leather,” he said. “I taught myself more and more on the leather side.”
From his workshop in the house he and his wife share near Curt Gowdy State Park, Van Vlack now manufactures custom leather bags, belts, knife sheaths, journal and checkbook covers, and anything else his customers request.
“That’s really what I am trying to keep the bread and butter of it, is the custom work – really making something special for an individual and not trying to make 60 bags that look the same,” he said.
People give him an idea of what kind of leather goods they are looking for, and he comes up with a pattern and creates the item based on their needs.
“To me, it’s just relaxing, working in the shop and making stuff out of leather,” Van Vlack said. “It’s a good creative outlet.”
Van Vlack has taken to social media to connect with his customers, marketing his business on Facebook and Instagram. Networking with other creative businesses has helped get the word out about his business, he said.
Looking to the future, Van Vlack is hoping to do more sharpening of old crosscut saws. To learn how to file these saws, he spent a week in Montana with an expert saw-filer who has been doing this work for 60 years. Van Vlack said there is a market for crosscut saws with backcountry horsemen who can’t carry a chainsaw with them when they camp. He also hopes to work with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to sharpen their trail saws and fire saws.
“There are only a dozen people in the U.S. who can file right now,” he said. “Some of them have a really long backlog.”
Those who are interested in collaborating with Van Vlack on custom leather goods or who want to have a vintage axe refurbished can contact him through Facebook or his website at www.wyomingaxeworks.com.