Creating my own tools has always been a staple of my craft. I love the idea of tools being used to create other tools which, in turn, go on to create even more constructive tools in an endless cycle of upgrade and repair. Even every day, household tools such as an axe, can be improved in both form and function.
In my work, an axe represents one of the most essential pieces of kit, and finds its use in better than half of what I create. As such, I do own several of them, ranging from generic hardware store finds, to tomahawks, and woodworkers models, but I've never owned one that was purposely designed for an artisan or craftsman. An artisan axe is unique, in that its function goes well beyond simply chopping wood. It's a sculpting tool, a carving knife, a smoothing file etc etc. The list goes on and on and is only limited by its user. Unfortunately, artisan axes can be pretty expensive, costing as much as $300-$400 but that doesn't, necessarily, mean that they are out of the reach of the average craftsman. With a bit of creative modification you can turn an old axe head, or even a cheap store bought model into an artisan axe without having to dole out great sums of money, and potentially, create something worthy of handing down to your kids.
The design uses, what I call, the trifecta of my craft, wood/metal/leather. The head was created from an old felling axe that was passed down to me through my family. It had seen better days, and, hating the idea of throwing it out, I decided to give it a new life. The handle is made out of cherry, but you can use any hardwood you have on hand (just avoid soft wood such as pine or cedar). For me, the cherry wood was an aesthetic decision, not to mention that it is an absolute pleasure to work with as it fills your workshop with a sweet smell as you shape it. I chose a straight design for the handle, but implemented hand holds at the shoulder of the handle, for close work, and a curved swell knob as a slip guard for simple chopping. Finally, I didn't want to hide the head under a full case, so I made a simple edge protector out of 7-8oz leather that should help keep the blade good and sharp and also protect me from injury while it's not in use.
Step 1: Tools and Supplies
- Angle Grinder
- .045 or smaller cut off wheels for your grinder
- minimum 1/4" grinding wheel for angle grinder
- sanding wheel with 50 and 80 grit disks for angle grinder
- wire buffing wheel (for angle grinder or on a bench grinder)
- Bench sander or vertical belt sander (optional but useful)
- Orbital Sander with disks ranging from 100 - 400 grit.
- bench vise
- Wood workers vise
- Draw knife (optional if you want to craft your handle by hand)
- Spoke shave (again optional)
- Leather hole punch set
- Stitching Awl
- Scrap axe head
- Wood for axe handle (hard wood roughly 4"x1"x20")
- 7-8oz leather for sheath
- Button snap for sheath
- Sand paper 100 - 1000 grit
- Linseed or almond oil
- Leather dye
Step 2: Roughing Out Your Axe Shape
The first place to start is knowing what each part of the axe is. The top of the blade edge is called the 'toe' while the bottom is called the 'heel'. The bottom drop of the 'heel' is referred to as the 'beard', while the back hammering surface is referred to as the 'poll' or 'butt'. The sides are called the cheeks and and the hole that the handle passes through is referred to as the 'eye'. With that aside, I can refer to the parts by their proper names for brevity.
For my design, I wanted an axe with a longer beard, like a Viking axe but with an overall tomahawk shape. I also wanted the poll to be tapered and smaller in area. Part of this was aesthetics, but mostly, this large hunk of metal needed to lose some serious weight if I ever wanted to use it as a one handed tool. I didn't remove any metal from the cheeks, as that would thin the walls around the eye too much, so I simply decided to narrow the blade into a more concave shape to lighten it up a bit.
I started by drawing out my basic design on the axe head, then clamping it down in the vice, I used the angle grinder with the .45" cut off wheels to slice off the excess metal. These wheels made quick work of cutting through the steel, but you really need to be careful of them as any twisting action can cause them to shatter sending shrapnel across your shop. When shaping the inside edge of the beard, I couldn't do it in one cut, because of it's inward angle, so I put a bunch of slices (not unlike cutting bread) in at one angle, them sliced them out with opposite angular cuts. It worked well, but left it a bit rough. To finish it, I installed the 1/4" grinding wheel on my angle grinder and began shaping it to the desired depth. The entire process took less than a half hour to rough it out.
**Note** Cooling is very important and having a quench bucket nearby is essential. If your metal gets too hot, it could lose its hardness (although only the blade should be tempered) and become too soft to hold its edge requiring it to be heat treated.
Step 3: Refining the Shape
As mentioned before, when grinding your axe head, you should cool it often to prevent the blade from annealing. Generally, axe heads are only hardened on the last 2" or so of the edge, with the rest being much softer. This is to prevent the axe head from shattering on impact, but allowing the blade to retain a decent edge. For this project, we don't need to heat treat, as we really won't be modifying the edge very much beyond sharpening.
The biggest trick is reduce weight without reducing strength by strategically removing metal from areas that either, don't suffer as much stress from impact, or are excessively thick, based on the head's former incarnation. For my axe head, I decided to narrow the area between the blade and the cheek to an almost concave shape as well as tapering the butt end on all four sides. This would give it a much smaller hammering surface, however, since I'm not really intending on doing much hammering with it, it offers me the best of both worlds.
Step 4: Begin Polishing
Once you're satisfied with the overall shape of your axe head, it's time to remove some of those nasty tool marks. Now, it's a matter of choice as some people enjoy a brushed metal look, however, since it's an artisan axe, I thought shiny would be better. Well, shiny but not mirror.
I began by high speed sanding using my angle grinder with the 50 grit paper then graduating to the 80 grit. This removed most of the tool marks but I wanted it even shinier. I then applied 100 grit paper to my orbital sander and, using progressively smaller grit paper, continued sanding all the sides until they were quite smooth.
**A good trick to sanding is to do the cheeks first, then clamp your axe head between two pieces of wood and sand the top and bottom. This prevents the vice from biting into the metal and scarring it.
Finally, when I was done sanding down to 400 grit with the orbital sander, it was time to start on wet sanding. Wet sanding is done using extremely fine sandpaper that is dampened to lubricate its sanding surface. Wet sanding can produce an extremely smooth surface and can even create a mirror like finish. For my piece, I didn't want mirror, so I stopped sanding at 1000 grit which was enough to hide any tool marks, but not enough to gloss the surface.
Step 5: Roughing Out the Handle
For my handle, I used a drawknife and a spokeshave, but it can easily be done using a scroll saw. Draw the basic shape of your handle on your piece of hardwood, then, following your lines, rough out its basic shape.
If you're confident enough, you can work on the overall shape of the handle before carving out the socket that fits into the eye of the axe head, but I honestly think, as a first timer, you should consider doing it the other way around. It's very easy to screw up the socket as it's a trial and error fitting process and you don't want to have hours of work shaping your handle wasted because of one small judgment error.
For my axe handle, I opted for a straight shaft design, with an angled 'swell knob' (a term I forgot to mention that means the pommel end of the axe handle). There is a pronounced shoulder just below the axe head with a rounded front edge for hand grip when used as a fine working tool. The overall length is 19" from sell knob to the end of the socket with the shoulder sitting 5" below the socket end.
Once you have your handle roughed out, you can begin on carving the socket.
**Notes On Handle Grain** This was brought up in comments and got me thinking so I thought others would benefit from it.
If you're going to undertake this kind of project, grain direction is almost fundamental. However, There is a grain direction in the eye, that's subjective. To clarify, some tool makers suggest running the course of the grain parallel with the eye slot, which isn't round but oval, while others (especially bow makers, myself included), Suggest running horizontally to the eye is equally as effective. Both are equally strong in their own way and only vary in dynamics. 'With' the eye offers a less splintery, more rigid handle that require less maintenance, whereas a horizontal grain, not unlike a longbow, offers more 'spring', especially on heavily impacted tools but will burr over time if not oiled regularly. It's all choice as they say.
Step 6: Socketing Your Axe
The process of socketing or hafting is very simple. Invert your axe head over the socket end of your axe handle, and using a fine pencil, trace its inside diameter onto the wood. Next, measure the depth the socket will fit into the eye, and mark that on the shaft. These are your rough guides. Again, I used a spoke shave to carve my socket, as I feel it gave me better control over size, but it can easily be done on a belt sander, or roughed out with a saw then smoothed with sanding paper.
Keep testing your axe head on the socket until it slides roughly 3/4, of the way, on. Don't worry that it doesn't go on all the way as that tension will invariably strengthen the union as we hammer the socket into place.
Next, using a hand saw, cut a 1.5-2" slot down the middle of the socket along its length. Make certain this cut is nice and straight. You can widen it, a bit, using a file or a wider saw, but it shouldn't be necessary other than allowing our wedge to fit in.
To create our wedge, take another piece of your wood that is as long as the socket and narrow it to roughly 3/16" thick then taper one edge of it. Your wedge should be 1/2" longer than the depth of the cut you made in the socket.
Don't install your axe head just yet. We need to shape our handle now.
Step 7: Shaping the Handle
And again, I used the spoke shave to create my handle, but it can just as easily be done by hand, using a knife or axe, or better still a bench sander which will make the process a heck of a lot faster. This is where personal preference comes in. As you carve and shape your handle, keep testing the feel in your hand. You're making it personal to your comfort so take your time and create it so that it fits your hand best.
Once you're satisfied with the overall shape of your handle, it's time to sand. Keep sanding with progressively finer grit paper until your handle is nice and smooth. I generally stop at 220 grit, but you don't even need to go that far. 150 grit should be enough.
Step 8: Socketing the Axe Head
This is the moment of truth, where wood and steel come together to make the perfect tool. Place your axe head on the socket of your handle, then invert it over two boards and let gravity do all the work. The wood will prevent any damage to the axe head, and the gap between them will allow the socket to protrude through the other end. Keep tapping it until the handle is set to the desired depth.
Next, mix some epoxy and butter up the bottom inch of your wedge, applying some extra to the slot in the socket. Using a wooden mallet, or just a piece of 2x4 hammer the wedge into the slot till it is securely in place.
**Note** Not all axe eyes are created equally and some are longer than others. I wanted to keep the shoulder of the handle narrow enough so that my hand would fit it comfortably, so I left the front 3/16" edge of the eye blank. To fill it in, you can cut a small wedge of wood and epoxy it into place, but this is more of an aesthetic and doesn't affect its strength.
Once the epoxy dries, use a coping saw and cut the protruding wood level with the top of the axe, then sand it gently to make it smooth and level.
Your axe head is now hafted on the handle.
Step 9: The Sheath
The sheath is the simplest design of all. I cut two pieces of 7-8oz leather to cover, roughly 2" of the blade. For stitching, your leather should extend beyond the edge of the blade roughly 1/4". This will also allow room for the leather to mold around the edge of the blade. On one of the pieces of leather I created a 1.5" tab that would be used as a button to secure the sheath.
I then punched holes on two edges (for obvious reasons) to seal the sheath on the blade and beard edge and using heavy waxed thread in my awl, stitched them together.
I installed the top half of the button snap on the tab of the sheath first, then test fitting the sheath on the axe head, marked the bottom half location and punched a hole for it. Once the snap was installed, I used some brown Fiebings leather dye to dye it brown.
Finally, after a few hours of dry time, I applied some high grade beeswax polish to protect the sheath. You can find the recipe I created in another instructable here; High Grade Polish
Step 10: Protecting Your Work
I don't generally use commercial products in my work, and often prefer natural alternatives. To bring out the grain of the wood, and to protect it from rot, I coated the entire axe in almond oil, allowing it to soak in for 20 minutes before wiping it off. A big advantage of protecting it this way is the concern over the handle becoming slippery under the commercial wood finishes. With natural oil, it all seeps into the wood allowing for a firm grip when wielding your tool all the while offering excellent protection.
I also coated the axe head itself to protect it from rust, but I'm considering using gun blue in the future as it'll offer long term protection. I've used it before on other projects and recommend it, highly, if you intend on using your axe in damp environments.
I repeated the coat process twice more before I was satisfied with the finished product.
Step 11: Finished
That's it, the trifecta of wood, metal, and leather all in one functional tool. One of the biggest problems with creating a tool like this is working up the will to use it. It's knowing that the first time you sink that blade into something it'll scuff, but then, we don't make tools to be decorations.
As usual, I hope you enjoyed the instructable and thanks for following.