Introduction: Forge a Viking Axe and Seax
Ragnar Lothbrook might have been an incredible Viking Warrior, but he could not have gotten anywhere without an awesome blacksmith behind him. This project really gave me an appreciation for what those smiths knew and the hard work that went into making a battle worthy axe. Afterall, not doing a good job in the forge may have resulted in your blade fracturing and costing you your life!
What I made here is a traditional pattern of a Viking "all purpose axe" that was used on the farm and in battle. The shape is true to historical axes, very flat across the top with a "beard" or curved blade that could be used to hook over walls or a combatant's arm or ankle to gain advantage in battle. I chose to make a Damascus type steel for an artistic look. The small knife in the photo is also a standard Viking shape known as a Seax, that was made off of a cut-off of the Axe's blank and set into an Elk Antler for a handle.
Let's Get Started!
Some Really Good Advice: This project is very equipment intensive and very dangerous to the novice and expert alike, so I HIGHLY recommend that the best way to learn what goes into this craft and to result in a really good outcome is to take a forging class! There are at least 317 ways to get seriously injured while making this axe and it is a good idea to have a partner as a teacher and an overseer to remind each other on good safe practices! Good PPE is a must and a clear workspace to move hot steel around the shop. After all, there is an enormous amount to really learn what forging is all about and knowing what is going on in each step and why you are doing certain treatments makes it all the more fun! Forging involves forcing the steel's crystalline structures to bond together to create a strong, uniform material of improved characteristics - hardness, flexibility, etc.
Steel plates - 1/8th thick approximately 4" x 4" square. Made up of alternating plates of 1095 and W5 steel.
Rebar rod to handle the steel blank in the forge.
Forge, Hydraulic Press, Hydraulic Hammer, Anvil, Hammer, Tongs, "D - Handle" Eyelet tool, Belt sander, Ferric Chloride Acid to Etch, Oil Bath Quenching, Salt Bath Annealing, Leather Strings & patches, Barge Glue.
Step 1: Be a Good Viking ! - Develop a Plan of Attack!
More on equipment: The forge I used was fed by natural gas for an even heating capability, but coal can be used and it is MUCH harder to keep the temperature up to forge steel - especially long pieces of steel as compared to say a horseshoe. The forge runs approximately 1500 F or 815 C. The steel is handled by a welded on rod of rebar as a means to put the steel in the forge and hold it while being hammered. Hammering the steel is to bond the layers of steel together (first step) or to shape it (in later steps). Hammering is done by a hammer and an anvil to basically beat the heated metal into shape using various parts of the anvil or by use of drift pins or forms to shape the steel around it. We used a form that has the shape of an axe handle later in the process. The easy 20th century way is to use a hydraulic press to do the hard part for forging. The press literally develops thousands of pounds of force to force the steel to bond together. Otherwise, old school, historic Middle age Vikings just beat and beat, and beat the steel until Odin or Thor wouldn't have any more of it! Their workout hammering an axe together would rival any bodybuilder's regimen of today!
Even a seasoned blacksmith needs a blueprint. So mine was a basically a full sized sketch. it shows the general size and how I wanted the Damascus steel twists to show up in the blade. Damascus steel is basically a laminate of two or more steels forged (bonded) together. Think of it as two different flavors of salt water taffy that are layered and pulled into a long bar. The bar is then cut into 4 bars which are then each twisted to spiral the laminated steels into a swirl pattern. It basically will create a "grain" pattern when etched for aesthetic appeal. Note that 2 bars are twisted in a clockwise direction and 2 in a counter clockwise direction. See the figures that show the steps that I will explain as we go along.
Step 2: Forge the Basic Stack
First Forging: This is to basically heat the stack to forging temp (~1500F) and literally crush the sheets together. The high temp has the molecules of steel highly vibrating and when put under extreme pressure of the press, the crystal lattice will break apart at the surfaces and reach out and reconnect to the other steel layer above it. The crystal lattice structures will then bond together on an atomic basis. After each crushing of the stack, borax is thrown onto the steel to remove the impurities from the fire and surrounding oxygen etc of the forge. The borax keeps the steel clean for the next crushing. Reheat the steel, crush it, borax it, and repeat until the stack is now a uniform glowing mass with no discernable boundaries seen.
Step 3: "Twist & Shout!"
Once the layers are bonded, we have to draw it out into one long bar. The hydraulic hammer is great for this and very dangerous! Watch the video to see the stack being drawn out to a single, long bar. The speed of the hammer is great because the steel cools off very fast and this tool greatly accelerates the process. Imagine those Vikings doing this all by hand!!!
Once drawn into a long bar ~ 36", let it cool and cut it into two ~18" pieces. Grind each bar clean of forge scale and into a decent square shape with a ground flat on each end. The flats allow for one end to be placed into a bench vise and the other flat to be gripped by a pipe wrench so we can twist it. Each bar will be reheated in the forge, then pulled out with tongs and put into a vise in a vertical orientation. A pipe wrench will then twist the initially square rod into a round rod as it is twisted. This takes a bit of doing (around 4 - 6 reheats) as the twisting only gets about three or 4 turns before it cools so fast as to get very hard to twist.
IMPORTANT ! : Twist one rod counterclockwise (CCW) and the other clockwise (CW)! Let them cool down and regrind them again from round rods back into square rods. We need them to be square so we can stack them again. Once squared off, cut the two rods in half to make 4 rods total ! Be careful NOT TO MIX UP THE RODS as to which are CCW and CW rods ! If they get mixed up and not assembled correctly in the next step the Damascus pattern will not look right.
Step 4: Restack & Reforge
Stack the 4 rods in an alternating stack of CW, CCW, CW, CCW orientation. See the diagram I drew up. Tack weld them onto another piece of rebar and reforge them into a uniform vertical shaped stack. Flux often to keep the impurities out and when clearly forged, draw out the blank into a longer bar that will be folded over the "Handle Tool" that will form the eye of the axe head. Once into a long wide bar, we cut the handle off and use tongs from here on out. I had excess steel at this point so I cut an end off and made the Seax knife from this small cut off.
Step 5: Shape the Axe Head
Shaping the axe head takes a lot of patience and skill to get it right. Heating the blank and moving the steel where you want it to be is tricky as you try to move only the steel that is out of place, yet the steel that is correct is just as hot and wants to bend with the rest of the head. So with repeated attempts over multiple tooling to get just the right hit on the right hot part of the blank is starts to look like an axe.
The handle tool (mandrel) is a piece of steel shaped in cross section just like the hickory axe handle that will allow the blank to be folded over it to have the correct eye hole shape for fitting over the handle. Then the handle will fit nicely into the axe head. But before I fold the blank in half, I need to make a blade "bit" of 1075 high carbon steel to be the true cutting edge of the axe. The bit is slightly longer than the beard and it is inserted into the leading edge of the beard once the two halves are folded over. Then the bit is once again as before, forged into the axe head to bond the two steels together. See Pictures.
I thought I was done and started grinding and then noticed the head or beard was a bit droopy, so it had to go back into the forge for reshaping. Lesson here is follow your plan, be patient and multiple reheating wont hurt your product - so take your time.
Step 6: Grind on the Belt
Now the grinding comes in to really define your blade. Wear a dust mask as silica / carbide dust is harmful to the lungs! And you will soon find out once the grinding begins! The dust goes everywhere!
Using multiple places on the belt grinder, you can find the right spot to get into just about every nook and cranny on the blade. Again, be patient, as you can always take more steel OFF but once it is gone, baby... it is GONE! So be careful not to grind to thin... ease up onto the shape you want, with a balanced blade edge as viewed fro the top. No Viking worth his salt rushed the grind for a lopsided axe!
Step 7: Quenching / Annealing / Etching
The science of phase boundaries and crystal structures within metals is very complex and is really what metallurgical engineering is all about. But a basic description what I did here was to just ensure the blade was hard enough to hold an edge and the body soft enough to not fracture or crack under use.
Once the basic shape is determined on the grind, the blade is quenched and annealed in a molten salt bath. Yes, standard table salt melted to liquid form (1474 F or 801C) ! The annealing takes a bit of time excess of 1 - 2 hours to basically "bake out " the discontinuities within the crystals as they rearrange themselves to a stable structure. I added a really cool video of a different knife blade with damascus steels to show how the crystals actually release heat as they rearrange into a more stable structure on another blade project that was being done in the forge.
The Damascus pattern is not at all seen throughout this entire process until this next step. Up until now, the blade looks like a uniform shiny steel mass. But the different steels are there. The blade is therefore placed in Ferric Chloride acid for a short time (say 15 minutes) until the pattern emerges. The pattern is then easily seen and the blade washed with a base (soap) to neutralize it. Here you will easily see if the patterns of the twists were mixed up or not!
Step 8: FINISH HIM !
FINAL STEPS: For the handle, I bought a hickory handle from the hardware store that came with varnish on it. I sanded off the varnish and then took a propane torch and gradually heated the handle, moving the flame quickly over the surface as it started to turn brown. I did this until it was completely uniform in color. Go slow to allow the heat to penetrate the handle and move the resins around, but be careful not to char the handle, Take your time.
I then slipped the axe head onto the handle and slammed the handle (upside down) on the end on a heavy bench to set the head into the hickory. To ensure a really great fit, I then poured some epoxy glue into the small gap between the head and the handle. It is rock solid now as there is no air space between the head and handle.
To finish it off, I cut a scrap piece of leather into a square patch and punched some lacing holes into each side. I used Barge leather glue on the handle and leather patch and laced it up with the laces forward to act as a really good grip. I did this up at the head for design purposes only as I saw in a reference text for Viking axes.
For the Seax knife, I just took the cut off from the head and ground it to shape, annealed it as I did with the axe. After etching, I drilled out an elk antler and set the tang into the handle with epoxy glue. Warning on drilling out the antler... The inside of an antler is bone marrow and the smell can be downright nauseating, so you may want to do this outside! A war experienced Viking probably never thought much of that but it is a smell to remember!
In conclusion, there are a lot of steps and a lot to learn with this project, however this Viking set was made in two 10 hour days in the forge and about another 6 hours total finishing up the handle and knife. It now proudly is on display in my movie room where guests cannot believe I made it! You can too - all it takes is a desire and a good resource to learn the techniques as I did!
Runner Up in the