Modify a Tomahawk




So I bought a mass market tomahawk the other day.  I'd always wanted one, then stumbled across a website and discovered they were really affordable.  About $30 shipped.  And several different styles to choose from.  I chose a 'Cold Steel Trail Hawk.' 

It came in the mail and I was shocked at how BORING it looked.  So I decided to make a few changes.  And this beauty was born.

(This is my first 'ible.  Hope you enjoy!)


Step 1: Raw Materials

So here is what I got in the mail.  A 'hawk with a plain handle (I ordered a spare, too).  With the axe head painted black. Like I said.... boring.

First step is to remove the axe head.  On my model there was a small hex screw on the side of the head.  I found the correct hex wrench and simply removed it entirely.  With the encourangement of a wooden mallet, I was able to slide the head _down_ the handle.

Step 2: Remove Paint From the Axe Head

So the first thing I did was strip the paint from the axe head.  I used a gel paint remover I got from the hardware store.  I painted it on then wrapped it plastic wrap.  It was some tough stuff but it all came off with a couple of treatments. 

Careful about this stuff touching bare skin - it burns.   

Once all the paint was loose, I washed it with plain ol' soap and water.

Step 3: Boil Axe Head in Vinegar

Yeah you read that right.  I wanted to treat the head to make it look aged.  After searching around on the internet, one of the simplest and least toxic methods I found was to simply boil it in white vinegar.

I dont have any before pics, but the axe was just a raw metal color.  I boiled in plain white vinegar for 20 minutes and the head developed a black ashy patina.  A word of warning here: boiling vinegar will make your whole house smell like vinegar.  I didn't mind it, but my wife was pissed!

I used an old camping pot that I was retiring anyway. 

Once the head was cooled down I used a regular green dish-washing scrub pad to rub down the axe head.  This exposed some of the underlying brighter metal, especially around the edges of the head. 

You'll also reveal the heat treating marks on the blade too. 

Some other methods include using a 'bluing' or 'parkerizing' finish.  Heck, you could even just paint it any ol' color you want. 

Step 4: Dress Head and Handle

At this point I turned my attention to how the axe head fit onto the handle.  Frankly it was kind of crappy.  The sharp edges around the hole where the handle went had left some marks on the handle.  I used a fine metal file to 'relieve' the edges around the hole. 

I also used a belt sander then some finer weights of sandpaper to reshape the cutting edge.  There are numerous resources on the internet on how to get a good edge on an axe head.  I didnt go for razor sharp - I got to 220 grit paper and it was plenty sharp.

There was also some 'play' in the fit between the handle and the axe head.  So I sanded down the entire handle, removing what seemed to be a glossy polyuruthane coating.   I then further lightly used a rasp and sand paper to make the axe handle seat better in the axe head.

A tomahawk like this does not have a pin or wedge holding the head on the handle.  Instead the handle tapers wider at the top - sort of 'trapping' the head on the handle.  Be careful not to take off too much material so that the head will slide off.  You can see in my pics that the head sits slightly closer to the end of the handle in the finished pic, versus the original placement.

Step 5: Dressing Up the Handle

At this point, I have sanded away the factory finish off the handle.  I used an off-the-shelf wood stain to get the deeper color I wanted.  Two coats.

I also used a woodburning kit to draw a four directions symbol.  But you could draw or carve any design you like. 

I also wanted to have a lanyard hole at the end of the handle.  I went to a hobby store and got some 1/4 inch outer diameter brass tubing. I drilled a 1/4 inch hole, cut a piece of tube to fit.  I used a fine file and then just sandpaper to shape the brass to be flush with the handle. 

Once that was all complete I used wipe on polyurathane to give it a waterproof coating.  Two coats.  I used a coat hanger to hand the handle while I painted it with the poly. 

You could use a wide variety of treatments for the handle.  There are a variety of staining techniques to add color.  Ink washes, paint, etc.  You could even char the handle to get a deep black.  Instead of a poly coating, you could also treat the handle with various penetrating oils. 

Step 6: Put It All Together.

Once the poly is good and cured it's time to attach the axe head to the handle.  Slide the head up the handle till it start to get snug.  To get a tight fit, grasp the handle directly under the axe head.  Then whack the top of the handle with a rubber or wooden mallet.  This will seat the head on the handle.  Further use will further tighten the fit.

PS:  Further mods.

At this point you could add a paracord lanyard to the handle.  Lots of options and varieties there too.

I've also seen folks mod the axe head itself.  You can use various files to make decorative notches on the head.  I also polished the pol - the hammer face opposite the cutting edge.  Many thanks to Cold Steel and the

Thanks for your comments!!  I'd love to see pics of your 'hawk!!



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    18 Discussions


    3 years ago

    Polyurethane is a bad finish for a handle, barring wall hangers. When your hands get wet or you use winter gloves, you'll have a bad grip, and if that hawk slips out of your hand you could end up seriously ruining your day.

    The best finish for a hawk or axe handle is a good penetrating oil. The usual is boiled linseed oil, cheap and easily found in Walmart, Lowes, etc. Tung oil is another option, but make sure you use PURE tung oil and not a blend.

    1 reply
    Rob OSaxyOmega90125

    Reply 3 years ago

    You are exactly right. Looks pretty but as soon as I was actually using it it was a PITA.


    4 years ago on Step 5

    Yeah good thing you ordered a spare handle that first was half heart and half sap wood a couple of hits would have split it easily.

    1 reply
    Rob Ohawkspear

    Reply 4 years ago on Step 5

    Yeah I should have mentioned that. I think its a good idea to order an extra handle. You never know what you are going to get. My 'spare' handle turned out to fit a lot better and be better quality.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    Wow, that turned out VERY nice! *Off to the interwebs to order some boring tomahawks*
    Have you thrown it after your finishing work? How'd your finish stand up to the use?

    1 reply
    Rob OElChick

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Finish held up okay but would get really slick when wet. So that it was difficult to hold on ti. The stain I used had polyurathane in it. I made a second handle with just a simple stain and that worked much better.


    5 years ago on Step 3

    I did the patina with ketchup. Didn't make the house smell like vinegar; made the head smell like a burger. LOL


    6 years ago on Step 6

    Great tutorial and love the way it turned out. Thanks so much for sharing.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    I was wondering, did the boiling vinegar have any negative effect on the pot? Wanted to do this to an axe that i was fixing up, but didn't want to waste a pot to do it. Thanks.

    1 reply
    Rob OOiji

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Hi there. I couldnt tell any obvious changes to the pot. In one sense it was just boiling vinegar. BUT I have no idea what could have come off the head (ie nasty paint-stripping chemicals) and stayed with the pot. I only simply wiped down the head before the vinegar treatment. I used an old camping pot and have retired it from food service.
    Personally, I wouldnt re-use but that it is out of an abundance of caution mixed with the ready availability of cheapie pots and pans. Hit a garage sale, find a junk pot and then you have a dedicated pot you can use for random stuff.
    Good question!!
    Another related question would be fumes. Boiling vineger didnt smell as bad as I feared. BUT i have no idea what fumes might have been produced from the residue of the paint stripper that was on the head. I did this on the kitchen stove w fan at full blast. Needless to say my wife was not at home. Next time I'd do it outside.

    Rob OpixelBoy

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    It's made (or at least imported!!) by a company called 'Cold Steel.' They sell direct from their website, but there are many many online retailers that sell cheaper. And they are always on eBay. This model is the "Trail Hawk" model. I picked it bc of the hammer pol opposite the cutting edge.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Wow! Your tomahawk went from boring to beautiful! That's something to be proud of, and I think would draw the eye of any visitor to your workshop. Nicely done! I wonder if there's any kind of really simple clear-coat you can put over the raw metal to preserve its natural look, but simpler than parkerizing? I also wonder whether or not bluing can be performed on this kind of casted metal. In any case, what you've done is beautiful, and I can imagine creating a nice, small leather sheath, too. Nice work!

    3 replies

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    there are two simple methods.

    petroleum jelly works fairly well.
    the other is beeswax, applied while the metal is warm.

    the jelly just adds shine, and rust resistance.
    the wax will actually soak into the pores of the metal, sealing it against all but the most inclement of weather.

    if you're after a little more color, a few coats of peanut oil to the hot metal will make a wonderful finish.

    * "Hot metal" = too hot to handle without gloves. not so hot as to burn THROUGH gloves. somewhere near 160F give or take a couple degrees.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    should have noted...

    When browning with peanut oil, you're looking to get the steel close to 400F(though it SHOULD work upto 500F+, but leave the windows open), which is just below it's smoke point. Easy to do with an oven :-)

    And since you only need the surface(to about 1/8th inch) to be that temperature, most parts can be heated to that temperature in under an hour. Repeated heatings, and coatings will create a darker finish.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    I've never modified and existing tomahawk or hatchet but I've made quite a few. It's probably not practical in most workshops but another way to put a finish on metal like this is to quench the item in linseed oil. You need it to be "cherry" hot. No idea what that temp would be and if you do it wrong (metal too hot or unevenly heated) you'll mess up the temper and possibly warp the piece but it's another way to add a very durable finish. I know of at least one blacksmith that just uses motor oil. Seems to work fine.