Introduction: Forging a Viking Axe
In 2010 I began practical research on historical methods used in the Viking age to forge axes. My purpose was to publish a DVD tutorial which would enable an intermediate-level blacksmith to forge such an axe. In preparation for the tutorial I made about 40 axes in order to try out different approaches to asymmetric axe forging. The goal was to find a procedure that could best produce the my “ideal" wish-list of features in a Viking-style axe eye with fairly simple tooling:
1. A thick poll and thin, symmetrical cheeks
2. Long langets (the pointy bits above and below the eye)
3. A weld joint with no obvious seams inside or outside the eye
4. A relatively short weld-joint lap combined with symmetrical placement of the eye within the finished axe body
5. A weld seam strong enough to withstand the substantial transverse forging later required to shape the profile of the axe In addition
In addition I wanted to be able to forge the eye nearly to its finished shape by using basic blacksmithing techniques that would have been common in the Viking age (especially drawing and fullering). The procedure I settled on is an asymmetric variation of a classic, symmetrical axe forging technique which I believe was often used in the 18th century.
Step 1: Starting Material for the Axe With a Welded Steel Handle
In this tutorial the axe body is formed from a piece of hot rolled mild steel which is 0.75” x 2.5” x 4.5” (on the mid-line) and weighs 1070 grams. I think of it as a proxy for a compact chunk of bloom that a Viking blacksmith might have started an axe with.
Note that the square card is marked with a 1” grid (black lines).
On one side the cut is slanted at 7 degrees. The slanted face will become the blade of the axe and is split in the middle with a saw or chisel to a depth of ½” for later insertion of a high-carbon steel bit. To the slanted side is welded a handle of 5/8” square steel about 20” long, which is clearly marked R and L to denote the right and left faces of the axe blade (I have reusable handles with welded letters). This is VERY important in knowing how the piece is oriented in a deep fire (especially - knowing which side is facing the tuyere-blast). In my opinion a welded handle is the last word in control of the axe as it is being forged and welded.
Step 2: Forging a Shank on the "eye-side" of the Axe Blank
About half of the material on the free end of the work piece (right) is forged out to a straight shank with the dimensions 0.6” x 1.625” x 4.75”. The end of the piece attached to the handle (left) is tapered down from the original cross section on the bit-side to the shank cross section (leave a little material un-forged on the bit-side to avoid narrowing the finished blade).
Step 3: Schematic Diagram of Forming the Axe Eye
The above diagram will be helpful in mapping out the steps that lie ahead in forming the eye of the axe. The diagrams show edge views of the axe as it is fullered to form the features of the eye. Later steps in this Instructable will refer to Figures 1 - 5.
Step 4: Beveling the End of the Shank (forming a Weld-scarf)
The end of the shank is then squared and beveled as in Figure 1 of the schematic diagram. I always wrap and weld the eye onto the right side of the blade. Doing this in a standard way is valuable in controlling my welding procedure – i.e. knowing which side weld joint is facing the blast when the piece is buried in a deep coke fire. The side of the shank that wraps to the INSIDE of the eye has the sharp edge of the bevel. This sharp edge forms the weld scarf – a very important concept is structural forge welds. Accordingly, the sharp edge of the bevel is forged on the right side of the axe.
Step 5: Laying Out the Shank for Fullering the Features of the Eye
When the bevel is finished the shank is measured and marked for the fullering required to form the eye. The fullering process that follows is the most crucial step in forming an excellent axe eye and must be done precisely to attain symmetry
Starting at the sharp edge of the bevel the top edge of the shank is marked with four lines (as shown in the first picture above) at the dimensions shown in Figure 2 of the schematic diagram.
The top (narrow) edge gets marked so that the lines can be projected down either the right or left sides of the shank. The outermost lines are projected with a small square down the RIGHT side of the shank (second picture above). The right side forms the inside of the axe eye and the matching faces of the weld joint. The middle two lines are projected down the LEFT side of the shank (third picture above). The left side of the axe forms the outside of the eye. Fullering the middle pair of lines forms the outer edges of the poll.
All four lines on the sides of the shank are marked with multiple, heavy center punch marks to make them easy to see when the shank has been heated for fullering (fourth picture above).
Step 6: Fullering the Shank to Demarcate the Features of the Eye
At this point the shank is heated and fullered on alternate sides as shown in Figure 3 of the schematic diagram. When fullering under the power hammer I use a steel rod a little over ¼” in diameter. When fullering with a striker I use a similarly dimensioned normal fuller. In these pictures you can also see that the shank has been fullered about ¼” narrower on the middle of the lower edge. This will counteract the widening of the poll that will occur later as the eye is forged, and help achieve the (my) preferred form in the finished axe.
Step 7: Beveling the Fuller Grooves
When the first fullering is done one edge of each groove is beveled with a set hammer toward the cheek of the eye as shown in Figure 4 of the schematic diagram. This will help prevent cold shuts when the cheeks of the eye are cross-fullered to thickness.
Step 8: Forging the Cheeks to Thickness and Profiling Their Width
The cheeks of the eye are now fullered cross-wise to thickness while simultaneously widening them to form the characteristic langets of Viking age axes (the resulting cross section is shown in Figure 5 of the schematic diagram). This is done in numerous passes over the edges of the anvil with a longish-edged fuller as shown above.
Fullering is alternated with flatting to smooth the surface of the cheeks. When the cheeks have the right thickness and width (about 0.2” thick and 2-5/8” wide) the cheeks are measured and adjusted to equal length with a little corrective fullering. This is very important in order to achieve a symmetrical eye in which the edges of the weld joint match when the eye is folded shut.
Step 9: Upsetting the Edges of the Eye-seam for a "seamless" Weld-joint
When the fullering of the eye has been finished the edges of the inner shoulders are upset to help the eye joint to close seamlessly when it is welded. This is done with fullers from the inside of the eye as the axe is held in a vise.
Step 10: Closing the Eye for Welding
From here the eye is closed over the horn of the anvil with many light and balanced blows. This must be done carefully with a lot of corrective work to insure that that eye closes symmetrically with straight cheeks and with the inner edges of the weld joint matched. Care must be taken to avoid forming tight creases inside of the eye by the poll.
Step 11: Forge Welding the Eye
The eye joint is now ready to weld. The whole axe body is buried in a large, clean fire (I use coke) outfitted with a strong air blast. The coke is retained by a loose brick wall about 8” high that I build in a U-shape around the fire pot (bottom draft). In order to heat the joint evenly on both sides it is necessary to direct the blast onto the large blade section (by the handle) for a while to preheat it before bringing the joint to a welding heat. Flux the joint with (preferably anhydrous) borax at an orange heat. The weld will probably take 5 -6 heats to complete, including blending the scarf in. Make extra sure to seal both sides of the joint. If the tapered scarf it is not properly welded its edge has a tendency to open up, especially at the corners, when the blade is forged thinner. The seam inside the eye must be very well welded to withstand being reshaped on the mandrel.
The above videos show the welding process almost in real-time (the second one in close-up) . This is my favorite step of forging an axe.
Note that during the later part of the welding procedure the throat of the axe is forged narrower and thinner with a fairly rounded hammer over the base of the anvil horn (not shown). This is the time to finish the throat, taking care not to fracture the new weld with heavy or prolonged transverse forging. Always follow a few transverse blows with flat, welding blows to insure the integrity of the joint.
Step 12: Shaping the Inside of the Eye With a Mandrel
After the eye is welded it is shaped on a mandrel. I have used the same mandrel for the last couple of years on nearly all of my axes. It is "shield-shaped" in cross section. It is about 9.5” long with a circumference of 3” on the small end and 4.5” on the large end. As viewed from the side the mandrel tapers from 1.7” wide to 1.2” wide in its whole length. It is important not to drive the mandrel into the eye too hard (which can rupture the weld) but rather to shape and enlarge the eye by forging on the outside of it. When working on the cheeks of the eye it can grow at an unexpectedly fast pace – especially later in the process. It is important to leave some mandrel length for finish-forging so that the eye is fully supported by the mandrel to the very end of the process.
Step 13: Shaping the Langets
The langets (pointy projections on the tops and bottoms of the cheeks) are shaped with the peen of a light hammer as shown above. As the edges of the langets are forged they are upset and bent out of true with the eye and must be continually corrected on the mandrel.
Step 14: Shaping the Blade of the Axe to Receive a Steel Bit
When the forging of the eye is finished the handle is cut off and the blade is forged out for inserting the bit. During this process the axe body is gripped through the eye with tongs. The thickness of the blade is tapered to about 3/8” on the edge that receives the bit, and the upper and lower edges of the blade profile are forged nice an straight. The front edge of the body, which was split ½” deep when the blank was first cut is now forged out to a fairly sharp chisel taper. Only the split material in front is tapered. The tapered section comes out to about ¾” - 7/8” wide. It is then reheated and opened up with a chisel to receive the bit.
Step 15: Forging an Axe Bit From High-carbon Steel
For the bit I use 1075 steel that is 5/16” x 1” in cross section and about 1” longer than the cleft in the body. I forge a sharp edge on this piece, leaving a band about 3/8” wide un-forged. The sharp edge is cut with teeth that will hold it in the axe body for forge welding.
Step 16: Setting the High-carbon Steel Bit Into the Axe Body
To insert the cold, toothed bit into the warm axe body set the bit on its back on the anvil or a heavy table and drive the axe body down onto it. Follow that immediately by flattening the tapered cheeks of the cleft tightly onto the bit. This all has to happen very quickly for the tiny teeth to survive being driven into the hot cleft. I trim the excess length of the bit off flush with the axe body to make the assembly easier to move in the coke fire while welding it.
Step 17: Welding the Bit Into the Axe
At this point I re-weld the labeled handle to the axe - this time to the poll – in preparation for welding the bit. The R and L labels on the handle enable me to accurately alternate my welding passes between the right and left sides of the bit. To prepare the forge for the weld I again completely clean out the slag and fines. Almost the whole axe is buried in a large, clean coke as done previously for the eye. I weld the bit in about 6 passes during which I alternate between the right and left sides of the weld. The first passes are done at the root of the cleft and subsequent passes are done closer to the outer edge of the cleft until the scarfed edges of the cleft are blended into the bit material.
Step 18: Finish-forging the Blade to Thickness and Profile
After the welding is finished I normalize the axe blade at least twice to help strengthen the welds before finish-forging the blade. This is done with careful fullering and flatting to spread it to the desired thickness. I often use water on the anvil face to help release scale from the face of the hot axe, thereby reducing pitting in the blade. During this process the upper and lower edge profiles are forged to maintain clean curves. The fourth picture above shows the placement of the eye-weld seam in the axe body.
From here the axe is normalized, heat-treated and ground. A thorough round of normalizations (I normalize 3 times) will help keep the bit from warping during the quench. My axes typically have edge lengths of 6.5” – 7.5” and weigh about 750 grams when ground.
Step 19: Some Finished Axes
These last pictures show a few of the more than 100 axes I have forged over the last 4 years or so. I sell them through my website forgedaxes.com where I also list classes which I teach at my shop in Oakland, California, and blog about my experiences as a teacher and researcher of ancient blacksmithing techniques.
In conclusion I’d like to note that the goal of the work shown above was to make an idealized axe based on some of the most beautiful artifacts that have survived from the Viking age. That said, many historic axes were forged as utilitarian tools or weapons without the high degree of geometric regularity or finish that we have gotten used to seeing in industrial products. Axes such as these can be made by leaving out or altering some of the techniques that are outlined here, and easing up a bit on the tendency toward rigid geometric perfection. Of course many different axe forms can be achieved by using different starting pieces and forging to different proportions.
I hope that you found this Instructable interesting and informative!