In 2013, the USS Constitution Museum received a grant from MassHumanities to produce a short film about an eighteenth century tool with a remarkable story. In 1928, a man named Reuben Sibley donated a shipbuilder’s axe to the U.S. Navy’s growing collection of artifacts displayed on board USS Constitution. According to the family story, Reuben’s great grandfather Jacob Sibley had used this axe in the 1790s to shape timber for the ship. This puts it among only two tools know to exist that were used to create the frigate.
We wanted to make a reproduction of the axe that visitors could touch (albeit safely!) and that we could actually use. We turned to blacksmith Derek Heidemann of Resurrection Iron Works in Millbury, Massachusetts. Derek has honed his skills by working in a nineteenth century forge at Old Sturbridge Village, and has reproduced countless period artifacts. Accurately reproducing the axe proved to be quite an undertaking, however. First of all, it is huge! With a head 11 1/4 inches long, it is nearly twice the length of a common felling axe. Nevertheless, Derek was up to the task. Using two pieces of genuine nineteenth-century wrought iron, he crafted a thing of beauty and utility.
To make the axe for this video, Derek and his “striker,” Dave, forge welded the two halves of the blade together. First they heated the metal to about 2,400 degrees. After prying open the two halves, Derek sprinkled borax between the parts. This acts as a flux, which helps prevent oxidation of the surfaces to be joined, while lowering the melting point of the oxides that do appear. The piece went back into the forge to raise the temperature and then they beat the blade with a forging hammer and an eight-pound sledge.
UPDATE: The video is now complete and available for viewing on our YouTube channel.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.