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Although the basis of restoring a vintage axe is always the same, there are many opinions and variations on the procedures, techniques, tools and materials used during the process.
If you asked one hundred axe people exactly how they go about restoring an axe, you will very likely come up with one hundred varied answers. That being said, I will be writing this article based on how I myself go about restoring an axe; which is pretty basic.
The biggest difference in the way I do things compared to many others is that I do not use power tools, I do all the work by hand. I enjoy the work and find it relaxing. A lot about axe restoration is personal preference, the more you do it the more you learn, the more different things you try. Similarly to woodworking.
For any Woodworking enthusiasts, my number 1 recommendation for new projects would be Teds Woodworking Class. I love it.
So, you went to a flea market and for some reason you left with an old rusty axe. You might think it was odd and have no idea why you bought it. I think to some extent axe appreciation is in our DNA. We’ve used them for so long and they have been such a vital part of our success as a species, it would not be surprising if there were some evolutionary link.
It’s such a useful tool, we instinctively feel the need for one, however slight the feeling may be. I know guys that live in the city and have never chopped wood in their lives that have bought an axe.
Once that instinct gets hold of you though you end up like me. Not just appreciation of the tool, but the wood and the steel also, the pattern, the quality, the history and more. Then you end up owning more tomahawks then you ever need for use, and you love every one.
Here is one of my personal favorites found at a flea market this summer. This is an early 1900’s Hudson Bay pattern sold by L.L. Bean of Maine, it was made by Snow & Nealley axe and tool company also of Maine. I have not done any work on it yet, and I may just leave it as is aside from tightening the head. It’s a piece of Maine history, and I like seeing it’s age on it.
You might want to start with something like this. A handmade axe that looks in this condition or worse can usually be had for quite cheap, especially at flea markets and lawn sales. If you are new to the hobby, don’t worry about who made it or what it is, just focus on learning the skills.
Time to take your axe home and assess the amount of work you have ahead of you.
-Does it need a new handle or can the old one be restored to working order?
-How badly rusted is the axe head, will a little sand paper do the trick or will you need something more?
-You should always replace the wedge. Does the axe head itself need work?
-Does it need to be sharpened? Re-profiled?
-Does the pole show mushrooming (we’ll get to that) that needs to be filed back?
-Is there any chips that need to be filed out?
-Plain handle or fancy handle?
-Polished head or traditional patina?
Once the actual restoration is complete there are a number of things you can do to make the axe yours.
The first thing you are going to want to do is remove the axe head from the handle. Depending on the axe this could be very easy or in some cases damn near impossible. Thanks Plumb Permabond!
If you are lucky, the axe is in bad enough condition that you can pull the head off with little effort. But this is not usually the case. Although the head is loose, it doesn’t mean it will slide right off. What happens is over time the wood of the handle and the wedge dry out and shrink reducing the compression of wood against steel allowing a jiggle.
If the drying and shrinking is bad enough the head can be slid off and the wedge removed. However, you will typically find the wedge will need to be removed first. Sometimes if loose the wedge can be pulled out with needle nose pliers or pried out easy enough.
You will usually run into a wood wedge, sometimes there is an aluminum or steel wedge, sometimes there is a wooden wedge with metal staples or round wedges.
I find the metal wedges pry out fairly easily. Wooden wedges however you can’t pry out because they just splinter and fall apart, making your job even more difficult. One of the best tactics is to drill a hole in the wedge, and then insert a screw, you can then tug on it or use a slide hammer to pull the wedge out.
Sometimes you will have to suck it up, drill and chisel the wedge out. Dremel Tools like these come in handy for this task.
You can also make an eye punch – which is a piece of hardwood or metal that fits into the eye of your axe. This is then used to pound the handle out of the axe head. If you are lucky you can find these ready made from days gone by but these days people often make their own.
Now, if you run into Plumb Permabond sealed wedges, you are in for some work. Not only does it help keep the handle tight, it also seals it, helping to prevent drying and rot. This means even if the handle itself is rotted away the wood within the eye is probably like new.
Permabond is a hard rubber like sealant added to the wedge of some Plumb tools beginning in the 50’s. It’s a chore to remove but it can be done. If you don’t intend to reuse the handle you can use a saw to cut it off which can help a little in removal from the axe head.
Ok, so you now have an axe head and an old handle.
The next task is to restore the handle. Chances are the handle is gray and dry, maybe chipped or splintering. I also tend to find paint splatter on a lot of old axe handles which I can’t quite figure out.
So this next step is quite simple – take your handle and sand it down really well. Clean it right up, smooth out any chipping or splintering, remove any paint, varnish, or previous wood sealant.
My favorite thing for cleaning up handles is a diamond grit sanding pad, but regular sand paper works too. You can also use this time to do any reshaping of the handle to create a better fit.
Once smooth and clean, it’s time to give it a drink. The most common sealant used on axe handles is Boiled Linseed Oil, there are some other things you can do but BLO is what is used by 99% of axe enthusiasts. I like to apply the BLO with a rag, I do a thin coat and wipe it several times.
I then allow it to dry and cure for 24 hours before adding a second coat using the same procedure. I like to apply several coats but it’s hard during the Summer here as the humidity Is often very high and beyond two coats tackiness becomes an issue.
[Notice: Any rags used with BLO must not be crunched up and thrown in a corner or in the trash, they must be opened and laid out to dry before being stored or thrown away.
The reason for this is as the drying agents in the oil do their job they generate heat, if too much heat builds it can spontaneously combust.]
BLO is the best option for handles for multiple reasons.
Find out more about the advantages and proper application of BLO in this best oil for axe handle article.
It allows the wood to still breathe and age. This is great for a better grip versus a poly sealer as the oil is absorbed and does not change the texture of the handle allowing your skin to grip the wood fibers themselves.
Where a poly coating drys on top of the wood which would create a smoother surface lacking friction.
Imagine your hands are sweaty, what are they going to slide across easier a piece of smooth plastic, or a board?
Be sure to oil where the eye goes into the head as well, that too needs the protection and moisture. When all is said and done what you should now have in front of you is an old used axe handle that pretty much looks like new.
Now we move on to the axe head, where the real fun begins.
I want to start by talking about finish. Though a polished axe head looks mighty fine, if used outside it will rust up quite quickly. A polished finish is great for axes that are to be seen and not used.
When it comes to restoring an axe for use, it’s good to leave the patina – which is basically a film on the steel created over time through oxidation. Patina is what gives metal objects their “rustic” look. You can fully remove the patina and begin a new patina, but that’s a whole different article.
Before we get into the finish though you should take care of any mushrooming on the axe head, which is basically where the steel has been forced outward and sort of flares out from the edges of the axe head.
I should state, this only occurs from improper use of the axe. Hitting the axe with a sledge hammer or using the axe as a sledge hammer is usually the cause.
Lock your axe head in a vice and use a file to file down the flared steel until the edges are squared off again. I recommend you do this before any sanding or finish work, it just saves a little time.
Though I generally stick to various sanding papers and pads, there are several options for rust removal. One method that is growing in popularity is electrolysis which is a way of removing rust by passing a small electrical charge from a power source through the rusty metal to stimulate an exchange of ions while the tool is submerged in an electrolyte solution.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds. I will explain fully in an article to come. Essentially the rust falls off over time.
If you plan to go with a polished finish, vinegar may be the rust removal route for you. Leave a rusty bushcraft axe head sitting in vinegar for a while, when it comes out it will be rough, clean, fresh steel. This gives you a great starting point to put a shine on it. But this method is not recommended if you want to keep the patina as the vinegar eats away everything on the axe head.
There are also many options for fancy rust removal chemicals with snazzy names, but if you read the label you will find the main ingredient in many of them is vinegar. As such these products produce an almost identical result to plain old $1.99 grocery store white vinegar.
I know several older fellows who swear by molasses which acts similar to vinegar but is not quite so aggressive.
I prefer to stick with manual removal because I can get it to look exactly how I want it without any guess work. I can go with a light cleaning and leave the patina or a mirror finish or anything in between.
It just comes down to sanding more or stopping. I also find it relaxing and in the end it feels like more of an accomplishment because I did it with nothing more than my own effort.
Now that your axe head is all cleaned up it likely needs to be re-profiled, sharpened, or at the very least touched up.
What do I mean by re-profiling you might ask? Basically if the blade or bit of the axe has chips, divots or other abnormalities they can be worked out, bringing the profile of the bit back to what it should be – a smooth usually curved (to an extent) cutting edge.
Re-profiling can also be in regards to the bevel of the bit. Sharpening is making your dull axe sharp again, and for this there are many options, tools, methods and opinions. But for the manual laborers such as myself, files, stones, leather, and sand paper do the job.
I will explain in detail other methods and tools in an upcoming article. [NOTICE: Never use a grinder on an axe head, the build up of heat can ruin it]
For re-profiling and sharpening I start with a small light file. When using a file I like to really take my time and pay close attention to the effect of each stroke of the file. It will help work out nicks and correct the bevel, it is not a finishing tool. It’s the tool that does the heavy work. Once you work out your nicks and have your bevel generalized you can move onto a double grit sharpening puck this Gransfors Bruks Ceramic grinding stone is pretty good.
Using the rough side you begin buffing out any deep file marks or other finer areas you wanted work out. Flip to the fine side and finish cleaning up your file work. When using a puck I usually hold it firmly and make small circles on the blade, smoothing the bevel and bringing the blade to a good sharpness. Once you hit this point you may notice the blade is quite rough and maybe dull in some areas – or even a whole side.
Another option to sharpen the axe is to use a belt sander. This has become more and more popular, here is a review on sharpening axes with a belt sander.
This is due to burls, or metal shards worked over the edge of the blade. These can be removed by simply running the blade across some leather on each side. The burls catch in the leather and break off, while the blade itself remains undamaged.
Because the leather is soft and can only remove the loose steel from the blade, its perfect to put that finishing touch.You can do this several times and it will continue to increase sharpness to an extent. It’s also good to remove the burls before you move on to sand paper, nobody likes steel splinters.
Alright, so it’s pretty sharp now, all that’s left is to clean it up a bit. I do this with a good quality high grit sand paper or sanding pad, I also use a fingernail buffing stick. That’s not something you’ll hear from to many other people but it works wonders. I love the look of a polished bit on an axe head with a good patina.
The polished bit also aids in cutting a deeper cut with the axe as the bit will slide a bit easier into the wood if it is polished.The best polish work makes the best axe for cutting down trees. I don’t feel it detracts from the “rustic” look either. It just gives it a little flare.
So now you have a gorgeous axe head and a beautiful handle, and it’s time for that joyous union of wood and steel that every axe enthusiast loves so much.
But first, you need a wedge, this is where you can throw in a little creativity. You can use a darker wood, a grainier wood, a different color wood such as Osage Orange. They all get the job done but each add their own little bit of personality. I’ve seen another method growing in popularity which is using a normal wedge but them also doing a cross wedge which gives a more unique look and function.
We’ll stick to a normal wedge for this article.
You will need a mallet, I prefer rubber. A hammer tends to split and splinter the wedge so a softer tool is needed. Slide your axe head onto the handle and be sure it’s seated where you want it.
Insert your wedge into the kerf of the handle and begin gently tapping it with the mallet. As it goes deeper you can begin to tap a little harder until it won’t go in anymore. Try to avoid tapping past this point or you might splinter the wedge which leaves blemishes once finished.
Your axe is now ready to work, but it doesn’t look so pretty with the wedge sticking out right? Now you can simply saw off what is showing above the handle, if possible try to leave at least a few millimeters of wood above the axe head.
Once oiled this wood will swell, tightening the axe head as well as locking it in place. But before we get to the oiling, you will want to sand the wedge area and clean it up real nice. Once you have it smooth and looking good it’s time to protect it and seal it even better.
What I normally do is set the axe in the vise perfectly upright and I pour a bead of oil over the entire eye of the axe. The surface tension holds it in place and it looks quite nice, but it will slowly begin to absorb into the wood, and will do this a number of times.
This both protects and expands the wood, making for a very strong and long lasting connection between wood and steel. My very last step is to take a rag and just a dab of BLO and rub down the entire axe, steel and all. You now have a fully restored vintage axe ready for use or display.
Now is when you would apply any decorative aspects you might want. An over strike guard like the one on this 1844 Helko Werk Splitting Maul for instance which is the small metal plate just under the axe head attached to the handle. This guard is intended to protect the handle from..well..over strikes. It helps reduce damage from when you swing and miss.
These can be made relatively easily and can even have ornate designs on them if you so choose. Some people even create custom etchings in the handle and the axe head. One option for designs on the handle is wood burning. You can also burn the surface of a handle and sand it slightly which really brings out the grain, this would be done before oiling the handle.
Honestly as long as it doesn’t hurt the integrity of the axe you can be just about creative as you’d like to be. One idea I’ve had and have yet to try is implanting ornate brass rods into the handle, the same brass rods used in securing knife handles. It would look interesting and I don’t think it would hurt the integrity much if at all if a couple were put in.
I’m also a fan of the colorful wood dyes such as blues and reds, these make good dyes for handles because they allow your axe to be an unnatural color, allowing it to be seen easier when out in the brush. For me though, I generally stick to the more traditional look.
I don’t know why but a good old vintage axe that shows it’s age but is still in great condition is very appealing to me. Some people sell reproduction stickers of long gone axe manufacturers, these stickers can be used in restoring those specific axes to the day they left the factory.
So there you have it, the basics of restoring a vintage axe. It’s not too complicated, the complication comes in the methods used. It takes time and effort, but when you finish your first axe you will find yourself pretty proud. Another thing to remember which I seem to have a hard time doing is always take a before and after picture so you can go back and relive your glory.
Also show you can show off your work to all the guys and girls in the several axe enthusiast groups you recently joined ha!Check back for future articles on different axe uses which will be more focused and in depth in regards to the restoration process and other related topics.