One of my favorite places in the South is an uninhabited barrier island off the coast of South Carolina where I’ve left tracks in the sand since I was a kid. In grade school I lost my first bull redfish in the surf there (and broke down in tears on my knees as the waves washed around me), and I encountered my first rattlesnake that wasn’t behind glass, coiled perfectly between clumps of sea oats on a brisk November morning. These days I love watching my kids’ enthusiasm as we beach the jon boat and they run wild on the vast and open sand flat, hunting for lettered olive shells and collecting feathers left behind by the resident pelicans and terns.
Recently, we nearly stubbed our toes on a hunk of rusted metal resting in the sandy clay of a tidal pool. After turning it over in our hands for a few minutes, we realized it must have been the head of an old sledgehammer. Knowing my penchant for things with a past, my wife, Jenny, wasn’t surprised when I slid the heavy find into the bottom of the shell bag. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ve got a plan.”
That plan involved Chris Richardson of Richardson Axeworks, a 2018 Made in the South Awards honoree who created a business out of his passion for restoring old tools, from axes to cleavers, to functioning works of art. While Richardson has instilled new life into some pretty rough pieces, this project was unique, he says, due to an untold number of years of saltwater corrosion and deep pitting. We agreed that the end result should accentuate the years of use—and disuse—the seven-pound sledgehammer had seen. Richardson started with a vinegar bath and a steel brush, then used a wire wheel before moving to countless rounds of sanding. The process can sometimes take weeks, until, he says, “I just get that feeling in my gut that it’s done.” From there he worked on a suitable hickory handle with a drawknife and sander before finishing it off with a scorch to bring out the wood’s grain.
For Richardson, who since the awards has restored tools for folks in twenty-nine states, every project is special. “When I get to see the finished work, there is joy and relief and thankfulness that I get to do this,” he says. You’ll find that same sentiment among this year’s crop of Made in the South Awards winners and runners-up, whether it’s Pamela D. Jones Mack and her seafood spice mix, inspired by her Gullah Geechee roots, or Ethan Summers and his indigo-dyed jackets, which riff on the traditional Japanese clothes his mother made for him when he was a boy. They all prove that creativity and craftsmanship have never been more vibrant in the South—and it’s an honor to shine a light on their work.
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