Peter Buchanan-Smith
Peter Buchanan-Smith

The lower Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca has seen a lot of changes over the years. Most notably are the tall condominiums that sit along the water, and the growing number of tourists who flock its attractions. Those same out-of-towners, looking for something only New York City can show them, hardly ever spot Best Made. It is a true New York experience: the narrow shop is tucked away on White Street, and barely boasts a sign. Stepping inside Best Made is unlike any other shop. The wall of hand-made and hand-painted axes is like a small museum exhibit. There are almanacs to comb through and army knives to test out. What I have learned from Peter Buchanan-Smith (owner of Best Made) is that many outdoors companies like "vintage" Abercrombie got their starts on the same city streets. Imagine: you’re heading home from your New York City vacation with a souvenir that is truly a gem: not some plastic key chain you snagged at Port Authority. It’s an axe or a first aid kit or a wool blanket. You bought an outdoorsy item in the most unlikely of places: Tribeca. You can’t have a more New York experience than that! And, even though it may seem like a small discovery, it is one that took you on an adventure. That’s the point of Best Made — even the tiniest explorations have meaning.

What was your life like before Best Made?
I grew up on small farm in Canada. I spent a lot of time outdoors and moved to New York City 20 years ago. I would spend time outside, but not like I did when I was child. It’s difficult to participate in the outdoor experience when you live in a city, especially New York City. My career took off — I was a graphic designer by trade. I did a lot of branding for clients, but I was very entrepreneurial. I always had a personal project on the back-burner. I started a publishing company — even when I was working for other clients, I was always publishing something throughout my career. Then, I hit the wall. It was a combination of many things that happened simultaneously. The economy had been tanking for a while, which was an excuse for clients to cut their budgets. I suddenly had a lot more spare time. I also had an empty garage at my disposal, I was there and I needed an axe to chop wood for my BBQ. That’s how Best Made was born. But, there were bigger things happening as well: my dog died and I got divorced.
So, Best Made was born because all of these somewhat lousy moments coincided?
You could say that. Look, I’ve always been focused on tactile design. I’ve never been a digital designer. I’ve always been directly or indirectly involved in the design of products. When I thought about the future, it wasn’t a matter of, “will I come up with my own products or brand?” it was more like, “what form will it take?”. Throughout those life changes I dipped back into the well — the well of youth. It wasn’t a calculated decision — it just happened. I went to my comfort zone. The axe was my security blanket because it was this thing I could hold onto. It is also a positive tool for me — something that could get me outside into nature; I could make things with it.
You decided to have an axe made, then what?
I’ve traveled all over the world to visit people who make axes. When we started, I reached out to a 4th generation axe maker in North Carolina. The axe is very much an American tool. There once were 300 axe companies, now there are only three. This company in North Carolina was making a good axe, but not a great axe like the premium ones in the world. I said to them, “look, guys, everyone is beating us to the punch — it’s OUR tool. We need to make something as good or better.” I worked closely with them on the design and materials. That was five years ago.
What is the core Mission statement?
I’m going to read a few lines from our website, because we want everyone to know our mission statement: “we equip customers with high quality products and dependable information they can use and pass down. We empower people to get outside, reconnect with their hands and nature, and in doing so, embark on a life of great adventure.” To me, the real pivotal word is “empowerment.” Many outdoor companies, in theory, empower you to go outside. But, the thing that distinguishes us from those other companies is the mindset. There are four tenets at Best Made: C.C.G.F.: Compassion, courage, grace and fortitude. Focusing on those values, and returning to a Boy Scouts approach, sets us apart. We’re empowering you to have a bolder and brighter outlook on life, whether you’re outside or inside.
Is there a public figure who embodies the Best Made brand?
Argentine chef Francis Mallmann. He started shopping at our store a couple of years ago and he would spend two or three hours there. Every couple of months he would come in and buy five axes. We introduced ourselves, and within a half-hour of meeting he invited us to his remote island in Patagonia. He’s a true outdoorsman. He’s a classically-trained chef and highly acclaimed. But, he turned his back on that way of cooking for a more primitive style. Cooking over a fire became his thing. Everything about him — his lifestyle, the man himself, his pursuits — is Best Made. Francis embodies the spirit of adventure. He proves that you can go into the wilderness and look good at the same time. Every day with him is a grand adventure.
Can you tell me about the adventures you went on with Francis?
We’ve been to his island twice and we’ve shot three catalogues there. Every meal is an adventure with Francis and his team. It’s more than a meal! In theory, lunch could start at 10am and you won’t eat until 6pm.
Do you do something outdoorsy every day?
I run a lot, and I try to run three or four times per week. I can’t stand running on treadmill! But, I wake up at 6:30am to run for one hour. I’m at work by 8am. Like everyone else, I spend most of my day in meetings or behind my desk. I visit the shop at least once per week. And during the weekend, I’m upstate in my cabin — it’s a tiny remote cabin on 50 acres in the woods. That is when I get in my outdoors-time. I try to take advantage of as many adventure opportunities as possible. I recently went fly fishing in Montana.
When did the shop open?
We opened about three years ago on a side street with no storefront. People miss it all the time — even interns can’t find it! Funnily enough, there’s a history of great American outfitters like Abercrombie that were founded in New York City. Abercrombie started about two blocks from where we are! I think it’s the same reasoning for country music being popular in the cities. People in cities want to be outdoors. Best Made is a magnet for New Yorkers and people all over the world who want to be outside. My favorite story is of the Australians who came straight to the shop after their transatlantic flight. They checked into Best Made before checking into a hotel!
What separates Best Made from other brands?
Best Made is much more of a lifestyle. I wouldn’t say I came up with this term, but it’s a term I use a lot: legacy outfitter. Companies like L.L.Bean and Eddie Bauer were established to get people outdoors — those brands are on the verge of being a lifestyle. We’re probably closer to a brand that has roots in the outdoors, but also focus on lifestyle like Ralph Lauren. Patagonia, The North Face, and Columbia are for a different market. They are much more technical, and less lifestyle.
What do you say to people who claim they’re not outdoorsy?
I understand why people are scared or why they think it’s a hassle to be outdoorsy. I just think that they haven’t found the right outdoors to be in yet! We’re so conditioned to extreme — you have to climb the Himalayas or surf some massive waves — there’s nothing wrong with building a campfire in your backyard. Our axes, although they’re intended to cut, can be windows into the wilderness. On one level, they’re artwork. Even if you do use it, you can use it and then hang it on your wall. It’s suddenly something other than just a tool. All of our products are intended for the outdoors, but that doesn’t mean they have to be there. All of our products can live in the outdoors and the indoors.
Tell me about your workshops. How was that arm of the business born?
Guys would come to us and say, “I want one of your axes, but I can’t afford it. I actually have my grandfather’s axe — it’s rusted and falling apart, what do I do?” The first workshop was an axe restoration workshop. That skill isn’t just for old axes, it is also applicable to a brand-new Best Made axe. Most importantly, they learn how to sharpen an axe. We also talked about the history of the tool, how to care for and maintain their axe and how to restore the handle. With the success of that, we started teaching other workshops: field medicine, foraging, sausage making, and cast iron restoration.
What was the last adventure you took? What did you pack?
It was Canada — British Columbia. I pack lightly — a dependable wool-based layer that I wear over and over, a small camera, a flask of whiskey, and a SOLKOA survival kit. We sell the SOLKOA kit, and I take that kit with me everywhere I go. If I ever did need to use it, and I didn’t have it with me… well, let’s just say it’s not how I want to go!
The price points are pretty reasonable! Was that intentional?
It’s funny you say that because we are accused of being too expensive! We try to keep the price point as low as we can. There are tons of constraints when you’re a small manufacturer. Look, my goal is to create products that people touch and use every day. You can’t do that with very expensive things, but it’s not our destiny to sell cheap or inexpensive products. Even people who don’t have a lot of money are willing to spend it if it’s for something of quality and it’s rewarding.
The products are old school (axes, compasses, journals, etc.) is it natural for you then to use social media to grow your brand?
We’re still figuring it out! We couldn’t do what we do without e-commerce and the internet. We have a loyal following on Instagram, and that channel has lent itself to us because we’re such a visual brand. Just like our product, our Instagram posts are going to be meaningful, too. If we can’t do it well, then we’re not going to do it at all.

Author: Sarah St. Lifer

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