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The Making of My Tomahawk

Anyone who knows me knows I don't usually photograph people. I don't photograph relatives' weddings, grandchildren's graduations or our family gatherings; I've conned my wife into doing that with her digital camera. With that being said, I have to confess that I do make exceptions. I have photographed the Inuit when I was in Alaska, the Masai and Zulu in Africa and the many different peoples in Nepal.

I always try to document native customs and costumes because both are being lost at a tremendous rate. The whole world is being homogenized and the world will be poorer for it. I feel that we, as photographers, have the obligation to document cultures and crafts whenever and wherever it can be done.

Those who know me best know that I feel that I was born two hundred years too late. I have always wished that I could have been a mountain man and, because of that, have always been fascinated with the crafts of that period. I have spent a good part of my life hunting, trapping and living in the wilderness. As a young man, for seventeen summers, I lived the life of a voyager, paddling a canoe in the virgin wilderness areas of Quebec, Canada, while guiding trips for senior boy scouts. I was raised on a farm when almost everything was done by hand or with horses. I can name almost all of the tools in an antique tool museum because I have worked with most of them.

For years I have wanted a really fine example of a presentation tomahawk similar to those I have seen in some of the museum collections. I have a half dozen tomahawks, with one of them being over one hundred years old, but I wanted a really fancy one, an authentic fancy, and had given up on the hopes of obtaining one. All of that changed last fall.

This country has been truly blessed in that a number of our families of great wealth have so generously given of their fortunes to benefit the country. The John D. Rockefeller family is probably the best example of this.

The fantastic beauty of much of the Grand Teton and Acadia National Park areas have been preserved forever for us by gifts from the Rockefellers. They have made the preservation and recreation of Historic Williamsburg, the first capital of colonial Virginia possible.

My wife and I were guests of my sister and her husband, Evelyn and Bill Guthrie, on a visit to Williamsburg, VA. Being a history buff, it's a place I always had hoped to visit, but, because of my commitment to my wildlife photography, I hadn't been able to get there.

Colonial Williamsburg has been researched, restored, recreated and refurbished exactly as it was when George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other founding fathers lived, walked the streets, and laid the foundation for this great nation of ours. We visited the palace where Lord Dunsmoor, the last colonial governor of Virginia, lived. We walked the gardens and saw the same plants he and his wife looked at. We sat in the same pews in the Bruton Parish Church where Washington and Jefferson sat when they attended services there. 

We stood where Patrick Henry stood when he uttered his famous pre-Revolutionary words, "Give me liberty or give me death." Listening to the actor portraying Patrick Henry brought tears to my eyes as he brought history to life for me. We visited the armory where the Royal Marines confiscated thirteen kegs of gunpowder that almost precipitated an armed conflict before Lexington. We visited the blacksmith shop where they are making farming tools today that are replicas of those being used in the colonial period. And we visited the gunsmith shop where they make rifles and tomahawks. It was there that I saw the tomahawk that I had long desired. I met Richard Sullivan, the smith who had made it. In less time than it takes to write this, I had placed my order.

I received my tomahawk several weeks later, truly a thing of beauty, with its exquisite engraving and handle made of curly maple that pulses and glows as if alive when turned different ways in the light, I knew I had to document one being made.

I called George Suiter, the supervisor of the gun shop and he graciously gave me permission to come back and photograph the making of a tomahawk. Richard Sullivan, who had made the tomahawk I so admired, agreed to do the work while I videotaped and photographed the process. Richard had put together a number of the steps in the making of the tomahawk, so I could both photograph and film the entire process.

From the time that Richard started the coal fire on the forge until he had a basic tomahawk ready to be helved, sharpened and used, was about two hours. It was a privilege to watch a craftsman work; it is so seldom seen today. Of course, to make a presentation tomahawk, as he made for me, takes a lot more time because of the polishing, engraving and inlay work done on the handle. As mine is a pipe tomahawk, it took a longer yet, because the pipe bowl had to be formed, drilled, fitted and the handle had to be drilled and fitted with a horn mouthpiece.

Starting with a basic piece of raw iron about one and one-half inches in width, ten inches in length and one-half inch in thickness, Richard thrust it into the fire and vigorously pumped the bellows until the metal turned a yellow-white color.  
He then hammered the center until it had an indentation. The metal required constant re-heating because it cooled down to a cherry-red color in about two minutes.

Next the metal was bent into a U shape and the ends were hammered together. Powdered borax was placed inside the seam as a flux, so the two pieces of metal could be hammer-welded together into a single piece. 

After that was accomplished, a series of shaped tools were driven through the loop that was to form the eye of the tomahawk, which would hold the tapered handle. 
With that step completed, the metal was reheated and  opened up at the forward edge. A piece of a file was heated, cut off to size and inserted into the open edge of the metal to form the cutting edge of the tomahawk. A file is made of much harder steel than the wrought iron that makes up the bulk of the tomahawk. Later, when the tomahawk is sharpened, the softer outer edge is ground away, exposing the harder cutting edge of what used to be a file.
Borax powder was sprinkled again on either side of the file and, after being heated, the entire edge was hammered into one solid welded piece. 
More hammering was done over the rounded point, or toe of the anvil, which gave the tomahawk its curved bottom and longer cutting edge. At this stage the tomahawk was basically completed and was plunged into water to give temper to the metal. The head was then placed in a box of sand to finish the cooling and annealing process.

At that point the tomahawk was a workable tool ready for sharpening, and the handle.

Going into the gun shop, Richard drew some fancy patterns, free hand, using a pencil on another tomahawk that was almost finished and showed us how a plain tomahawk was to be made into a fancy, beautiful piece of art. 

He first demonstrated the skill, mastery and concentration that engraving requires by gouging a strip of metal in an absolutely straight line from a piece of brass. The metal pieces removed were slightly thicker than a human hair and coiled like a fine watch spring. Using a very fine gouge and, thirteen short taps of a little mallet to each impression, he proceeded to etch in a decorative line along the top and bottom of the tomahawk's face. 
Following his pencil marks, he then cut out the fancy scrolls he had drawn onto the metal. 

It was amazing, to see this man, who just an hour ago had swung a heavy hammer, now gently and with precise control of a mallet, cut out a delicate design onto the tomahawk's face.

Lastly, a pipe bowl was fitted to the head, placed in a vise and drilled so it could be smoked.

Until the first Foxfire books came out about thirty years ago, many of the old time crafts had not been documented. 

They, like Colonial Williamsburg itself, are a part of our treasured heritage that has to be preserved and we, as photographers, can do our share to insure that they are.



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