What a Swedish Axe Can Teach Us About Building a Quality Workforce

A friend asked me to go antelope hunting yesterday, but I said no.

First of all, I don’t hunt, and secondly, I’m still freaked out by the recent Lysteria outbreak. Instead, I bought an axe — a Gränsfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest axe to be specific. Gränsfors Bruks is a Swedish company that makes the best axes in the world — axes like our ancestors used to rid their New England farms of the medieval forest.

Recently, I’ve been reading about Colonial Americans and the way they lived. Axes were vital, but what’s been the most interesting to me is their commitment to quality.

A history of making things to last

Our forefathers knew about quality tools. In fact, they knew about quality in everything they did because their lives depended on it.

A sloppily built chimney meant death by carbon monoxide or a midwinter fire. A cheap axe in the forest meant more effort for less firewood, which cut into their farming time, leaving them at risk of starvation. Remember, there were no grocery stores back then — families ate what they grew.

When we modern Americans think about the amount of effort the previous generations put into making even a simple chair we usually respond: “Well they had nothing else to do,” and “They had a lot more time to spend.” We couldn’t be further from the truth.

  • In Colonial America, you could expect to live for about 45 years. If this was 1750, most of you reading this would be dead by now.
  • Colonials didn’t have lights for night work. The most you could work was 12 hours per day in the summer – eight in the winter. (Some tasks though, like roofing, were always done at night during a full moon. This had more to do with their knowledge of wood — shingles last longer if they dry during the cool of the night. Scientists think people had much better vision back then.)
  • All colonials were farmers and farm work always came before building chairs. Animals needed care, crops required daily work, and a growing family meant more land needed to be cleared.
  • Hunting, firewood and fence building were matters of life and death and took precedence over building a chair.
  • There were only six days in a week. Sunday was the Lord’s Day and they took this seriously.

Early Americans had less free time than we do, a lot less time, yet they still made everything to last. Part of the reason was survival, but the rest of the reason was their morality. To an 18th century American, it was considered virtuous to do everything as well as it could be done. Building a chair was a reflection of the builder’s character, and he was proud of what he made.

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Supporting a quality product – and workforce

Some people — and some companies — still believe this. Companies like Gränsfors Bruks. To every axe they sell, Gränsfors Bruks attaches The Axe Book, a 40 page compendium of axe lore, as well as a description of the company’s philosophy and work ethic. (They’ll send you a free copy.) They even include a photograph of every employee who works for them. The employees are proud of their work, and proud of the company they work for.

In today’s business environment the quality companies are still thriving. We can revive this philosophy, the search for quality, but it will take effort on the part of everyone.

Well built items cost more than their inferior counterparts. My axe was $128 (a disposable axe costs $30) but my axe will easily last for three generations. I intend for my grandson to use it and leave it for his children. The $40 axe won’t survive the Obama Administration.

There isn’t a day that passes where I don’t hear a complaint about how cheap everything has become. I feel like Mark Twain: Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it. Buy quality, and support a quality workforce that’s proud of their product, and proud of the company they work for.

David Sneed is the owner of Colorado-based Alpine Fence Company and author of Everyone Has A Boss – A Two Hour Guide to Being the Most Valuable Employee at Any Company. As a Marine, father, husband, entrepreneur, author, and teacher, David has learned how to help others succeed. He teaches the personal benefits of a strong work ethic to entry-level employees. Contact him at David@EveryoneHasABoss.com.


6 Comments on “What a Swedish Axe Can Teach Us About Building a Quality Workforce

  1. You are correct that we need to focus more on quality than quantity.

    However, I was a history major and there were so many sweeping generalizations and historical inaccuracies in this article that I will have trouble taking anything you say as expert opinion.

    Please do more research than watching the “History” channel before appointing yourself as qualified to make these sorts of observations.

    1. As an anonymous guest who won’t even give your name, you should at least give some specifics about the inaccuracies and generalizations you generalize about yourself. Anonymous pejorative comments are bad form, especially from someone who takes such a scolding tone yet offers up zero evidence of what they speak …

      1. I left my name on a comment once. It wasn’t even a “scolding” or negative comment. It was actually complimentary. I was harrassed by the blogger for weeks. I no longer leave my name on comments.

        1. The forests weren’t medieval. They were ancient.
        2. The colonial period lasted from the early 1600’s until the late 1700’s. During this almost 200 year period not all of the colonists were farmers. There are many documented instances of colonists being doctors, lawyers, ministers, silversmiths, blacksmiths, etc. They lived in the countryside, in villages, in towns, and in cities.
        3. They had light at night. It’s called candles and later oil lamps.
        4. Many of them did not roof their houses at night. Besides, if they did, where did they get the light, since the author has stated they didn’t have any?

        Besides, since the article was so generalized, why would I need to refute it with specifics? There weren’t any. My comment might have been a bit “pejorative” but the author should defend himself, not you.

        1. Guest. This is not a history article, but hear this: Everyone had a garden in Colonial times. Everyone WAS a farmer in that respect. Candles were expensive. Yes, there were ways to light things up, but no one “worked” at night. The full moon. Read up on it, they also believed that wood shakes last longer if installed at night since they wouldn’t dry out as fast the first time. Google “Eric Sloane” and read his books.

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