Introduction: Custom Axe on a Budget
After having a Gränfors Bruk stolen from a State Park campsite, I wanted a unique, easily identifiable, heirloom quality axe without the sting of the premium price tag.
After doing a LOT of research, the Cold Steel Trail Boss seemed to offer an exceptional steel, build quality, and size/weight for the money. It is very highly reviewed in the forums/reddit and after using it am glad that I went this route.
After posting on social media a number of folks asked if I could make an instructable, so here I author my first instructable, with limited photos, as I hadn’t planned on documenting the process for internet strangers.
The most important thing to remember in this project is to take your time. While it being easy to do, it is also easy to rush through and get poor results. This project took me about 3 hours over the course of about 2 weeks. The second thing to remember is that you are dealing with a heavy sharp blade so wear gloves whenever feasible.
• Cold Steel Trail Boss Axe
• Electrical Tape
• Wire Wheel (Bench Grinder or Drill)
• Harbor Freight Abrasive Set
• Fine Bastard File (And Gloves)
• Vinyl Stencil
• 2X 9V Batteries/Wire
• Cotton Bandana (Preferrably Wool Felt)
• Small Scrap Steel Bar
• Very Sharp Knife or Razor Blade
• Boiled Linseed Oil
• Coffee (Crazy Strong Brew)
• Soldering Iron or Wood Burner
• LOTS OF PATIENCE
Step 1: Removing Factory Coating
The axe comes with a thick, shiny, black lacquer coating on the axe that I did not care for. After taping the handle with electrical tape to protect it from abrasion, she went to wire wheel and I removed as much of the painted coating as possible. The cheeks of the axe were still very rough after this process but the surface was bare steel.
Step 2: Getting a Mild Shine
For $10 at Harbor Freight with a coupon I picked up an abrasive RoLoc set that fit in my corded drill. Starting with the most aggressive and finishing with the least, left a perfect finish (in my opinion). More rugged and blemished than a high-maintenance mirror polish, but still pretty darn shiny. Be sure to hit all surfaces and take your time on this step to get things as smooth as possible. It cannot be rushed or the etching will not take. Any imperfections on the surface will cause your etch to look blurry or the stencil to not adhere properly.
Step 3: File the Blade
The factory bevel of the axe blade is very obtuse and designed for splitting. I was looking for a more “All-Around” axe for both felling and splitting so taking a fine bastard file and after watching a lot of YouTube videos, I fixed up the bevel to exactly what I wanted. Be sure to go slowly and safely. I highly recommend gloves for this step to protect your mitts.
Step 4: Designing Your Pattern
This step took me the longest. I had some analysis paralysis as all of the ideas online I saw were very fantasy Norse/Viking themed which did not appeal to me, or hand engraved which I do not have the skill set/tools for.
I figured something organic would be the best fit for me, but this is where you can make it absolutely custom. Initials, family crest, whatever you’d like. It is a blank canvas at this point. Do yourself a favor and keep patterns on the simple side (wider lines) to make etching easier. A good google search is “Black and White Tattoo” for inspiration.
After getting a black and white axe shaped doodle on my computer and precisely measuring the axe head, I created a pattern that covered the entire face of the axe, inset from the edges .25” on all sides. I followed the blade curvature and provided extra relief for the edge so as it gets sharpened the etch will remain. (See photos)
Step 5: Get Your Stencil On
I have access to a commercial vinyl cutter, but this can be done by hand, or if you know one of the millions of people with a Cricut machine. Get them the pattern and they can make you some vinyl stencils for about $2.
Carefully consider what will be an etched as you “Weed” (The removing of excess vinyl) the stencil. The best trick I found to be really sure was to hold the weeded stencil up to a light and take a photo. If you invert the colors you will see what your etch will look like (see image)
If you’re unable to locate someone with a vinyl cutter, coating the blade with nail polish and using an x-acto knife to remove your pattern is another method commonly used by small scale custom knife makers.
Step 6: Etching the Pattern
Electro Etching is a simple (and very old) process of removing metal by forcing corrosion with DC electricity and an electrolytic solution (Huzzah science!). Rather than redoubling efforts, check out other instructables for the how-to on electro etching. Personally I used 2x 9v batteries in stead
I will add these tips for those unfamiliar with the process:
1.) Thoroughly clean your surface before applying the stencil. Any oil/rust on your blade will affect the etching.
2.) Carefully apply the stencil to ONE SIDE of the axe head at a time. This ensures that you can get a good electrical contact on the axe head.
3.) Electro Etching requires low DC voltage at around 1200ma.
4.) Pick a number and count every time you place your etching pad for a nice, even etch.
5.) Wear gloves. It took 3 days of Covid-19 hand washing frequency to get my hands clean again.
6.) Practice first - Get an old pocket knife, or other steel item to try out with a simple pattern first
Step 7: Refining the Handle
Remove the protecting electrical tape from your handle and let’s finish it up. Axes come with clear polyurethane on the handle to keep them looking new as they are handled. This will also give you awful blisters with use so let’s take that off.
Taking a very sharp knife blade or straight razor at an 80°-90° angle to the handle, carefully draw the blade over the surface to scrape off little ribbons of polyurethane exposing the bare wood underneath. May want to do this on a tarp or sweepable surface as it can make a real mess.
I also find it is best to do this outside in full sun as the poly reflects the sunlight as makes it easier to see if you missed any spots.
Once completely bare wood is achieved, Hit the handle with 200grit sandpaper to smooth any rough spots and brew up some incredibly strong coffee. With gloves and a cotton rag apply the rich coffee to the handle evenly. The tannins in the coffee will fill the grain and naturally stain the wood fibers. Once it is as dark as you want it, let it dry thourougly for a few days in a climate controlled environment. Once dry, apply 3-4 light coats of boiled linseed oil twice a day wiping with a clean cloth between coats.
Lastly, I wanted the ability to measure wood with my handle. Taking a soldering iron, I made a small burn “dot” every 3” up the handle (as most Firewood is cut in 12”, 15”, 18”, 21” sections).
I finished with a wood burn of my last initial on the bottom of the palm swell so my axe could be easily identified if set down handle up.
Give it one last coat of BLO and you’re now the proud owner of a completely custom, heirloom piece for a shade under $50.
Step 8: Care and Use
As with any outdoor steel tool, be sure to store the axe with a light coat of oil to prevent rusting.
Getting a sheath is also advised to prevent injury.
Store the axe with the blade hanging on a shelf, not leaning on the handle as it will bend/warp over time.