Introduction: Trotsky's Mountain Climber's Axe

About: Creating affordable props and set pieces for local community theater

I was recently cast as Leon Trotsky in the short play, "Variations on the Death of Trotsky," from the collection All In the Timing, by David Ives. A major prop I needed was the mountain climber's axe that was buried (smashed?) into Trotsky's skull, killing him on August 21st, 1940. I found a number of tutorials online, but being a stickler for detail, I wanted something that looked more like the actual axe that killed Trotsky.

While time constraints prevented me from getting just the right wig, I did manage to craft a pretty darn accurate version of the axe. Here's what you'll need:

  • A 3" white plastic putty knife
  • A set of plastic nunchucks from Dollar Tree (or comparable lightweight plastic handle)
  • A 1" carriage bolt
  • A strip of scrap plastic (I cut some from packaging I saved from a blister-packed item I bought)
  • A wide plastic hair band (preferably with open lattice instead of solid)
  • 2 part epoxy
  • Silver hammered metal spray paint
  • Drill
  • Focused heat source (I used a propane torch, but you might be able to use something like an embossing heat gun)
  • Wood-burning iron (possibly)

Step 1: Shaping the Blade

I agonized over what to use for the blade; I pictured myself carving it out of styrofoam, covering myself and my workroom with artificial snow for weeks. Then I had a brainstorm! Once that subsided I realized that one of the plastic putty knives I had for home repair was a great fit for the wide end of the blade.

Grabbing my propane torch with my work-gloved hands, I headed out to the safety of the garage, fired it up, and got to work. Using the lowest possible flame I could muster, I held the putty knife at a close, yet respectable distance, heating it slowly. If you move the plastic too close to the flame it will bubble and char, rendering the putty knife useless. Apply heat near where the blade meets the handle, slowly shaping it into the curved end of the axe.

Once you are satisfied with that shape, turn your attention and heat to the far end of the handle. Here you need to create a right-angle bend about 1 to 1 1/2 inches from the end, depending on your particular putty knife and the density of your wig. As you can see, my wig was quite thick, so I needed to make sure enough of the putty knife stuck out above the bend to be seen by the audience.

Step 2: This Is Only a Drill!

Now it's time to break out the old drill and make some holes. In the end of the handle (where it's bent), I made a series of 1/8" holes to use for sewing the axe onto a hair band (not Flock of Seagulls.)

NOTE: There is a larger hole in the handle; I didn't drill that was there when I bought the putty knife.

I then made a 1/4" hole centered in the spot where I will be attaching the handle. This will soon house a carriage bolt that will be epoxied into the handle (SPOILERS!)

ANOTHER NOTE: In these pictures you'll notice the putty knife is already painted.I got excited to see what it would look like all metallic and stuff, but you should probably wait until after you've drilled the holes to paint it. Just sayin'.

Step 3: Glue! Glue! Glue!

Now we get to play with the stinky two-part epoxy! I happened to use Gorilla brand, but honestly any good epoxy will work fine.

Mix a small amount of your epoxy and apply it to the bottom of the head of the carriage bolt. Slide the bolt into the center hole in your axe from the top. Rotate the bolt back and forth slightly to spread the glue don't need a lot...use too much and it will squish out and mar the look of your axe.

Set the axe head aside with the thread end of the bolt hanging straight down for as long as the instructions say it takes the glue to set firmly.

TIP: When mixing epoxy, I like to use wooden stirring sticks like you get at your local coffee house. I mix the epoxy either on a metal lid from a can (I save everything) or in the bottom of a small Dixie cup. That way everything is easily contained and disposable.

Step 4: Get Hammered

Yes, it's finally time to shake that can of hammered silver paint and get sprayin'! To make this process less messy, I put on Nitrile gloves to protect my hands.

Remember: it's better to give your axe head two lighter coats than to slather on one heavy coat; you'll only end up with drips and runs if you lay it on too thick. Give it ample time to dry in between coats, too.

TIP: save your old bread bags (bagel bags work, too.) When painting, poke a hole in the end of the bag and stick your gloved hand through it from the inside, sliding it down to about the wrist. Presto! You now have a free sleeve/arm protector!

NOTE: As I mentioned before, I painted the axe before I glued on the bolt (oops) which is why you're not seeing it in this picture.

Step 5: Can You Handle This?

We need to prepare the handle. Pull off the extra plastic piece so you're left with just the wooden-looking handle. The end of it (which will attach to the blade with the help of the carriage bolt) will probably not be quite flat. I fixed that by carefully heating it with the propane torch and flattening it out on the workbench.

The handle will most likely have a hole on the end; if it doesn't, you're going to need to make one. I ended up enlarging the existing hole using a wood-burning iron with a cylindrical tip. Make the hole just large enough to accommodate the carriage bolt.

Step 6: Glue! Glue! Glue! Part II

Yes, you'll once again need that stinky two-part epoxy. Mix a slightly larger batch than before and slather that gook onto the end of the handle (where the hole is) and onto the shaft of the carriage bolt.

Insert the carriage bolt into the hole until the end of the handle butts up against the underside of the blade. Set the entire unit onto your bench and let the epoxy set. The weight of the blade and carriage bolt should hold it steady, but you can clamp it if it seems unsteady, or if you have cats.

Step 7: Band Practise

The last step to prepping the axe is to cover the ugly end of the handle where it attaches to the axe head. To do this I cut a piece of thin scrap plastic wide enough and long enough to wrap around the handle. Did I mention I save everything? I cut the strip from some old clamshell packaging I had.

TIP: If you use a lot of small plastic sheets in your work, I find that plastic plates are a godsend. You can get them cheap at a dollar store, or in bulk at a restaurant supply store.

Paint your strip with the hammered metal spray, let it dry, then secure it in place around the handle. To be perfectly honest, I used simple clear tape. Keep in mind this is stagecraft; what the audience can't see doesn't exist. Don't kill yourself pursuing perfection - remember the HP Stagecraft motto: Good enough is perfect.

Step 8: Sew What?

Once your axe is all finished, you can finally get it attached to the wig. You'll need a wide hair band with some sort of latticework; that way you have something to sew to.

NOTE: There are probably a lot of ways to attach the axe to the headband; this is the first one that came to mind, and I was in a time crunch. In hindsight, I probably would have done this, then slathered epoxy all over it.

First thing you have to do is decide where on your head you want the axe. I wanted to keep it relatively historically accurate, so I opted for the center of the back of the head. I've seen dozens of other variants, including some that had it coming out the crown of the head. That seemed to be forcing the comedy a bit; speaking as a director, the physicality of the axe is not the main point in the scene, and making it so obviously comical only serves to detract from the scene itself.

Make a slit in the wig where you have decided the axe will be lodged large enough to accommodate the flat end of the blade. Insert the blade end into the wig and turn the wig over so you can see the underside. Don't forget to do this before you attach the blade to the hair band, otherwise you'll never get it into the wig!

Now attach the blade to the hair band by sewing it, gluing it, or whatever method you feel will work. Remember: there's a lot of physicality in the scene, and you don't want your axe breaking off your skull and flying out of the window, incommoding passersby (yes, that's a Monty Python reference.)

NOTE: if you do come up with a different way of attaching, please let us know in the comments - we're always keen to hear from you!

Step 9: Smash It Into Your Skull!

It looks like you're done. Congratulations on your first mountain-climber's-axe-smashed-into-your-skull project! So how do you wear this contraption?

The hair band will not go on top of your head as they usually do; instead, it will grip your head from behind and the tips will be just above your ears. Slip the band on, then fit the wig into place (it helps to have someone else assist you with this part.)

I used a bunch of hair pins around the wig to hold it in place, some of them clipped onto the hair band as well. I really didn't want that axe falling off my head. As it turns out, I went the whole run of the play without it moving much at all.

NOTE: The hair band I had was tortoise shell brown. You might want to paint the tips the color of your wig (Trotsky's hair was salt-and-pepper at the time of his death) in case they stick out a little. Mine didn't, so I left it as is.

I also made my own mustache and goatee out of Fun Fur super cheap from the craft store (a set from the costume shop cost almost $17 and wasn't the right color)...keep an eye open for an Instructable about that, too!

Step 10: Show Us Your Stuff!

Thank you for taking the time to slog through our first Instructable! We learned a lot making it, most importantly: take a lot of pictures of everything!!!

If you give this a try (and we think you should), please post pictures of your results in the comments, along with any suggestions you might have for improvements.

Thanks again,

Andrew S.

H.P. Stagecraft