In front of Austin Shafer’s workshop in Starkville, there’s a step leading up to the door. The silhouette of a hammer is carved into the grey concrete slab. Added by a former owner, it’s been there since the day he moved in as a kind of foreshadowing of Fry Retool Company and all the hammers Shafer would stain and clean just inside the shop door.
From the outside looking in, Fry Retool seems to be about selling tools and restoring antiques, but it’s actually about stories, family and nostalgia. It all started with an ax that belonged to Shafer’s grandfather-in-law. Shafer found it and spent some time polishing it up and restoring it to its former glory. When Shafer gifted it to his brother-in-law, he didn’t expect more than a casual thank-you. What he got were tears—and stories and family and nostalgia.
That reaction prompted Shafer to dig for more pieces, learn their stories and get them back in working order. He collects boat oars, anvilles, hammers, hatchets, cleavers and axes, and calls them “mantiques.” For him, they represent a time when quality was the only priority and tools were made to be passed down through generations. A task, once-abandoned, that Shafer has taken upon himself. He doesn’t believe in replacing, just retooling.
“In the early 1900s, they made everything for a specific purpose,” Shafer said. “These are heirlooms.”
To honor these stories, Shafer includes a little history on his tags, a name, location or a snippet of its rumored past. It’s his way of keeping the stories of the Deep South and beyond alive.
“It’s a tangible connection to the past,” Shafer said. “I love to learn the stories about them.”
The tools come from grandsons hoping to use the same tools as their forefathers, estate sales, antique stores and junk piles. Shafer conveniently travels for work and has been known to show up on crowded porches with a wad of cash, hoping to “rescue” a few treasures. He has an aunt in Pennsylvania that gathers tools from Amish country and delivers to him, her trunk loaded down with wood and metal.
With his faithful shop dog Magnolia nearby, Shafer examines each piece, admires the pre-Civil War era steel and creates a mental plan for making the old new again. The tools are soaked in WD40 before he takes a wire wheel to each one, knocking off the decades of rust. Shafer uses a gentle hand in hopes of retaining the character and patina. Blades are sharpened, handles are stained and sealed. A bold stripe of paint is added to some handles. Others—too cool to change—are left just as they are, like the emerald green Bridgeport Girl Scout ax found in Corinth. It had been hiding behind a bookshelf since the 1960s.
“I love them with scars from use and all boogered up,” Shafer said. “That just tells their story.”
Once they leave his shop, Shafer does not care if the tools hang on a wall as Americana decor or are used daily, so long as they are respected for the many hands they have passed through, including his own. He sends them to stores down the street like Jamison Fry Interiors and Laurel Mercantile and Ben Napier himself, and as far away as Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Custom orders go to groomsmen, fathers and husbands—and chefs looking to up their meat cleaver game. Some are picked by Shafer and others are found and sent in.
The positive reviews and thrill of the find keep him in the shop.
“The idea that I can give something to someone that can help them honor a relative that they can also pass down to their children and grandchildren is what this is all about,” Shafer said.