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I’ve decided to give what I thought was my granddad’s last rig-builder’s hatchet (I’ve since discovered another) to a young friend of mine. He’s interested in hiking and camping, so it may come in handy for him. Unlike most 28 year-olds (+ or -), he seems to have some interest in history. He knows the history of the hatchet, in the sense that he’s read the whole story that I wrote about my granddad’s work in the oilfield, part of which was published. I’ll include the part here that relates to the use of such hatchets, back when oil derricks were built of wood. (Incidentally, the guru recently looked up that style of hatchet and found them called “framer’s hatchets.” They may have been called that in the catalogs even back then, for all I know.)
“Like many mundane tasks in those days, spiking the derrick often became a competition, not just to speed the work, but also as a way to break the monotony and gain bragging rights. Granddad always used cut spikes, rather than the newer and cheaper “wire” spikes, saying that the “square” spikes held better. The standard tool for driving the big 20-penny spikes was a heavy checker-pole hatchet with a 20 inch handle. The edge was deliberately dulled for safety, since they used them only for spiking. Normal technique was to use the strong hand to grip the handle just under the head, holding the spike between the thumb and finger with the head of the spike against the handle of the hatchet, directly beneath the pole. The hatchet was then swung at arm’s length, so the momentum would stick the spike as deeply as possible on the first blow. The next blow was a full round-house over the head, which seated the head of the spike flush with the surface of the plank. Until a worker could perform that feat, he was considered a greenhorn."
The original 20” handle in this head was cracked beyond repair. I couldn’t find any 20” replacement handles for it, so I put a new 14” handle in it. The head had been sandblasted and tumbled when I’d worked at the shovel factory years ago. The guru, as a favor to me, made a nice half-sheath for it. I’d sharpened it after it had been sandblasted, so it’s good to go. It was a difficult task getting the paper label off the handle, so there may be some permanent variation in color where I cut and scraped it off with my penknife (heat didn’t work). Incidentally, I thought the head had a very “reared-back look” the way it was fitted on the handle, but the face of the checkered pole lines up just right for a 20” handle, since hammering was its main function, not chopping.
If I could find both of them, I’d give my young friend one of the round sharpening stones of Dad’s that I always used for sharpening our axes, but I can’t seem to lay my hands on the second one. I won’t part with the one I have, since I continue to use it. It has a coarse grit on one side and a fine grit on the other and is used with water (or spit) in a circular motion. Since I can’t find the other round one, I’ll give him Dad’s last scythe stone, it will work fine if used in the same manner. I still have a newer scythe stone that I bought myself.
When I was in the basement the other day, I passed a bucket of salvaged square nails from my old home place, when the rear ell was torn down and rebuilt. Among the 8 penny square nails were also a few square spikes. Picking one up and looking at it, I thought that it was probably a 20 penny, just like granddad used on the rigs. When I measured it, I learned that I was correct. So, now my friend will have an example of the spikes that were driven with the old hatchet. AND it will be from the house where I was raised, which was built in 1865. Thus the spike is far older than the hatchet (Granddad’s last wooden rig was probably built in 1943). That spike was probably made at Wheeling, West Virginia, perhaps at a now-defunct cut nail plant that was the largest in the world at one time. © 2016
Incidentally, I just learned that Vaughan still makes an American made rig-builder’s hatchet and calls it such, but it only has a 17” handle and they don’t say if the pole is checkered or not, they use the term “milled.”