Intro: Make a Prop Fire Axe Out of Plywood
I am in a production of Noises Off and one of the props needed is a fire axe. The proposed solution to this was to take a plastic woods mans axe from The Wizard of Oz and put some red paint on it. The result was… alright… passable perhaps if one is a complete and total layperson in terms of firefighting.
But of course, I married into a family of fire buffs. Some have been firefighters, most go to antique fire truck shows known as musters, and they collect stuff from the fire service. So when I heard the original plan (and later saw the results) I just knew it wouldn't do. Not if I ever wanted to hear the end of it.
Of course I have access to real fire axes which I could have borrowed. But you cannot swing a real axe around on stage. It's simply not safe. So of course I decided to build one. Actually I decided to build two, and I had my reasons, but they are unimportant for our purposes here.
I knew it was going to be wood since I don't have the materials or expertise to make one out of rubber and I already had the wood I needed. So after some debate I decided to cut it out of three-quarter inch plywood. I decided against plank lumber because no matter how I made it either the spike or the handle would lack strength. With plywood and its alternating grain directions, that problem is removed. I probably could have done it with solid hardwood and been fine but a piece large enough would be fairly expensive,and I already had the plywood. Plywood does have some of it's own problems which I will mention later but it seemed the best option for me.
So here are some lists.
3/4" plywood (the higher the grade the better your final product will be and the easier the work).
Paint in black, Brown, silver, and red.
Clear coat to seal it all in.
Tools (these are the ones I used, you could easily substitute others.)
Rotary tool (Dremel) with sanding wheel
Random orbital sander
Sand paper (I never went finer than 120 grit)
Step 1: Design and Cut
Fist you need to decide on a shape. I made fire axes but you could just as easily make a double bladed war axe or even a broadsword.
Remember how I said I had access to real fire axes? Tracing something you already have ensures proper dimensions. Your plywood might or might not be quite as wide as the actual head of a real axe but it's just a prop and it will be close enough that no one will be able to tell the difference when you are done. I used some other plywood prop axes as my template(second picture shows them). They were much cheesier than I wanted mine to be but they laid flat and had an axcellent (heh heh) silhouette. So I traced one of those.
Alternatively you could sketch something out on a big piece of paper (or the plywood itself) until it looked right. If you are going for a realistic feel I highly recommend tracing an actual handle at the very least. Those curves are more complex then you might think.
Then you need to cut it out. I used the jigsaw. Be careful! You probably know this but saws and other power tools can be very dangerous when not used properly. It's also worth noting that a sharp blade (combined with a good piece of wood) will help ensure that the edges stay nice. This is less important for the handle since it will have it's edges sanded off later, but it's very helpful for the head of the axe where nice sharp corners are essential to the finished look.
Step 2: Shaping the Head
A note on sanding: wear eye and breathing protection. Sawdust in the eyes sucks. Sawdust in your lungs does too. Sawdust making your eyes water and your nose run so that when you blow your nose you have mud made of sawdust and snot coming out of your face… well that's just gross. Wear protection! (And while we are at it… also wear hearing protection when using power tools.)
Anyway. On with the instructible!
Oh how I wish I'd had a bench sander. I could have done (almost) all the shaping and sanding with it. And in a small fraction of the time. Sadly I did not so here's what I did.
The blade was first. Since I was working on this part while away from home (picture taken later for illustrative purposes) I did this the hard way. I started with a sanding block and moved on to a rasp when that was going far to slowly. I found it useful to sit on the axe blade-out and work it with the rasp while it was between my legs. Less strain on my arms that way but still very tiring. It was also time consuming and took hours.
Since I didn't want it to actually be sharp I used the layers of ply as a guide and shaped it at a shallow angle until I reached the center layer (and just slightly into it) so there would be a bit of a flat edge which I would round off later. This worked really well. In fact most of my sanding for the whole project was aimed to the center ply.
Next I shaped the point on the back of the axe head. By this time I was at home with access to power tools. So I used my orbital sander. SOO much nicer with power tools. I also smoothed out the blade end because the rasp left it pretty rough.
Step 3: Shaping the Handle
Ok the head is done time for the handle.
First I put a sanding wheel on my Dremel and roughly shaped the edges. My strategy here was to sand down the edges at roughly 45 degrees until I reached about (again) the middle ply. I tried to keep my sanding even all along the handle, but the Dremel is not made for sanding long smooth curves so there was some waviness left when I was done. But this was just step one in sanding the handle, so not to worry.
As I went I would repeatedly feel the handle to make sure everything was as it should be. Anywhere I found a spot that didn't quite mesh with the curves I was forming I hit again.
The next thing I did was sand out a groove next to the head as seen in the third picture. This really helps add dimension and sell the lie that the head and handle are two different pieces. You could trace a line first but I just eyeballed it and went carefully. It need not be a deep groove, just enough to add some depth. It helps if the side next to the head is steep and the one for the handle is more gradual.
Next came final sanding. I used the random orbital sander to smooth out the handle and the the head. Hitting flat edges on the head squarely and making sure the handle was nicely rounded. I checked the handle frequently until I was happy. Taking off a little at a time.
Finally I hit any bits I couldn't get well with the sander, like inside corners, with sand paper and a sanding block.
When that was done I had a very nice wooden axe with smooth flats and smoother curves. There were a few invisible waves still detectable with the fingertips in the handle left over from my uneven Dremel work but no one would ever see them. I was happy.
Step 4: Touching Up the Wood
Ok so it wasn't quite that perfect.
One drawback of plywood when doing something like this is that little bits can break out of the surface layers leaving grooves. Another is that sometimes there are voids in the layers that become clear as you sand away upper layers. (Some lower quality plywoods actually have these on the surface). And as with a lot of wood, you sometimes get knots that fall out. All of these leave holes that need to be filled before you paint.
Get some wood putty. Follow the directions on the container and fill them up. I overfilled them intentionally in case the putty shrank as it dried. Which it did very little.
Once the putty was dry I used a sanding sponge to sand away the excess.
Step 5: Paint!
I painted in several steps.
First I painted the head black. This serves to prime the surface for silver and provides a good backing color to help the silver pop. White might give you a brighter finish but black mimics the opacity of the steel very nicely. I painted the black using a dabbing motion rather than a brushing motion. I didn't want my steel to have brush strokes in it when I was done. Any artifacts or texture left from the dabbing can be explained as remnants of the steel being cast. I filled in around edges with a small brush being careful not to get black on the handle.
Then I painted the handle. One could simply varnish the handle like a real axe would be but I wanted to disguise the layers of the ply which varnishing would likely accentuate not to mention the wood putty would stand out. One could also use several different colors and various techniques to create a faux wood grain pattern. I did none of these things.
I used one color brown and brushed it on lightly. The brushing technique left lines and variation along the handle. The very thing I sought to avoid on the head actually helped me on the handle. That combined with a bit of the natural grain showing through made for a really nice look. I liked the first coat so much I decided to stop there. Only painting again in places that seemed too light.
Then I painted the head silver. Even though I knew much of it would be painted again in red I wanted that red painted over silver just as the paint on an actual axe would be painted over shiny steel. It's a small thing but adds a lot of realism.
The silver took two coats. And again I used the dabbing motion to prevent brush strokes.
Once that was dry it was finally time for the red. I taped off the areas I wanted to remain silver (or wood) and gave it two coats. This time, knowing that in real life these axes would be painted and repainted in the firehouse, I had no problem with brush strokes so I brushed away!
And finally I sprayed on some clear topcoat. I used matte because it's what I use for other projects and thus it's what I had. If I had my druthers though I would probably use something with some gloss, especially on the handle to replicate the varnished look.
Step 6: Final Thoughts? and More Pictures!
I don't think I really need to have a final page but I wanted to say I really enjoyed making these axes. Other than to use more power tools earlier and more often I wouldn't change much about the way I did it.
If you decide to follow my example however you are more than welcome to change your approach. Tell me what you did different (or the same) and how it turned out. I love pictures!
This is also a page to share some photos. My father-in-law volunteers with the Frederick County Fire Museum and the National Fire Heritage Center (which currently share a building in Emmitsburg MD) so I impressed upon him to allow me to take some pictures there with their actual apparatus. I think my axes look right at home. It's worth visiting if you are in the area.
And if you enjoyed the journey, please vote for me in the plywood contest. I didn't make these because of the contest but I'd love a new router table!
Cheers and happy building!