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Long long ago around 4500 B.C. In the valley between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers called Mesopotamia, there lived a mixed ethnicity civilization. They are known as the Sumerians. These people were the true founders of metallurgy and metal work. Of course over time the art has evolved with improvements in method, and the use of new ideas.
From there industry took over, and metal forging become a vast topic with many methods, processes, and technologies. This article will not be discussing industrial forging methods but rather will focus on basic hand forging that anyone can do at home in the backyard.
**Skip to the middle of the article to get to the forging process
The methods of a backyard blacksmith don’t stray far from those of ancient blacksmiths. The biggest difference is our options of working materials and tools in making handmade axes.
Finally we arrive at the most important tool of all…the forge. The most common type of forge for hobby blacksmiths is the gas forge, it’s easy and simple. Most are fueled with propane just like your grill out on the deck. You just hook up a tank, fire it up and start cooking.
Propane forges are generally a small tunnel of fire bricks, with various numbers of gas injectors. Here is a popular model with some pretty good reviews.
The good thing about propane is you can control the temperature more accurately, best of all it’s the cleanest option as far as general cleanliness and environmentally. The only issue is the cost, you can burn up a full tank in one smithing session, although ..It is quite easy to just head over to the super market for another.
There is also no need for a blower which is used to build more heat, with gas forges the gas pressure and burning fuel are able to produce the necessary heat. A coal or charcoal forge requires a blower and a chimney, you have to deal with soot and other health concerns.
You also have less control of the temperature. However, a coal or charcoal forge is the traditional way to forge steel. A gas forge only requires some ventilation. It is also very easy to build your own charcoal forge for outdoor work, but that’s another project to discuss later.
Even very experienced blacksmiths use drifts, it makes saves time both in creation and finishing of the axe head. These can be purchased from most blacksmith supply shops and stores online. You can also find vintage drifts on sites like Ebay, some of which were used to make axes before you were even born!
Forging Tools and Equipment
Let’s talk about the tools and other items you will need for your axe forging project.
Of course you will need the most famous blacksmith tool, an anvil.. Or do you? Anvils are great, and have quite the storied histories just like axes do. They are made specific for doing different things with metal, so they are great. However, a hobby blacksmith may have considerations to make.
Many people do not have the space for a large very heavy anvil. It’s the type of thing you only want to move once, and that’s where it stays.
Luckily they make smaller anvils, and there are also some great anvil alternatives that I have seen. One example is a big thick square slab of steel, makes for a great surface to bang steel on, but it’s just flat which can make some angles difficult. My favorite anvil alternative that I have seen is a section of old railroad track, sometimes you can find people selling these which have been shaped to resemble anvils.
They are heavy but not too heavy, offer rounded edges, and the “I” shape makes it easy to work with and move the project around. If you want to keep it more traditional you can find small and medium anvils, a huge anvil is not necessary if you just want to make axe heads or knives. I’m sure there are more alternatives, it’s perfectly fine to get creative. Essentially you just need a hard heavy surface.
You will also need a hammer, I learned from an experienced blacksmith, when working alone an axe head can be done with a 1.5 – 2.5lb hammer with a flat cross peen on the backside. The lighter weight won’t wear you out as quick, but is still enough to work with steel up to an inch thick.
You also want to make sure the hammer you pick has hardened steel faces for longevity, being your first and only hammer it will be doing a lot of work. The flat cross peen works well for moving a good amount of steel, while also providing more control of where it moves to.
Blacksmith hammers comes in all sorts of shapes, patters, styles and materials.Which means they come in all different price ranges as well. Shop around, but keep in mind you don’t need anything fancy to get the job done. I recommend this Estwing 2lb hammer found here.
You will also need some tongs for the job, you may see people online using pliers or vise grips and other things, don’t do that! You are pulling out steel that is between 800 and 1280 degrees. You have a lot of options when it comes to tongs. Axe specific designs do exist, however you can get along fine with just a basic set. If you browse around the web a bit there are many blacksmiths who make and sell tongs for decent prices. Or you could even make your own using some rebar as seen here.
One more very important tool is the eye drift, this is a piece of hardened steel that is the general shape of an axe eye. This is what will allow you to properly create and shape the eye of the axe head. It can be done without a drift but it will not be as pretty.
Protective Gear for Forging
Alright, so we’ve got all of the tools and materials but we forgot something very important. It’s not necessarily a tool but equally important. Protective gear!
I’ve seen some old blacksmiths work in shorts, t-shirt and flip flops, but these guys have been doing it since before I was born. Unless you are that experienced, please wear protective gear. Red hot steel, slag, hammering.. it’s a recipe for disaster.
It’s patience, knowledge, and protective clothing that allow you to become experienced. Hands, feet, eyes, and body are the main areas of concern when working with steel. Hands near hot steel, hot steel and slag falling on feet, flying slag, steel and sparks are dangers to the eyes. Your body is the biggest target which houses the important stuff, likely the least to be hit but the worst to be hit with hot steel.
So, gloves, apron, leather boots and always eye protection! Ray Bowen a Blacksmith that specializes in the French style is located in Atlanta, Georgia. Ray wears kilts instead of pants but as you can see he has all the important safety gear.
A couple other small things you will need are Borax and a bucket of water. The Borax is used during the welding process, the carbonate silicate materials protect the weld from atmospheric gases. The heat melts the Borax which causes a release of gasses, pushing away all other gases and preventing oxidation of the steel. The bucket of water is simply for quenching purposes during the axe making process. Borax isn’t all that expensive, check the current price on Amazon here.
For this article, I will be discussing the folding method of axe creation.
This simply means rather than punching an eye through a chunk of stock steel, we will be folding mild steel around a drift to form the eye, inserting a small slab of high carbon steel between the two ends and then forge welding the layers together into solid steel with a high carbon center. The high carbon center is what allows for a strong edge with good edge retention and adds strength to the axe.
The softer steel making up the rest of the axe handles and spreads the forces of being slammed into a tree. This also in effect reduces the cost of an axe head in comparison to a completely high carbon axe head. I should mention, tomahawks and tactical axes are made differently than a traditional axe. Tactical axes are generally cut from sheet steel, shaped, hardened and sharpened. Tomahawks are generally high carbon steel, and so do not require the high carbon insert. They are simply shaped, hardened and sharpened.
Forging our Hatchet, Lets Go!
You will want to start with a piece of mild steel 11 inches long, 2 inches wide and 3/8th inch thick.
The optimal temperature for forging steel is 1200 degrees Celsius which appears as a yellowish red color. If you heat the steel too much or for too long it can remove a lot of the carbon – which is bad and can ruin the steel. If not heated enough it will be very hard to work with and will damage your hammer.
Once you gain experience you will be able to know the temperature from color alone. Though you can purchase infrared thermometers(check out my favorite here) which are a big help when starting out. You will want to heat slowly to allow the heat to disperse evenly throughout the steel, turning and flipping the steel every few minutes. To keep things simple, just remember that throughout the hammering process you need to keep the temperature fairly consistent by reheating when necessary.
Once your steel is heated properly you can remove it from the forge and begin bending it around your drift. Try to keep the ends nice and even, but don’t worry if they are off a little bit, it will be fixed further in the process during shaping.
Before you close the ends insert your slab of high carbon steel and dump a bunch of borax between the layers. At this point some people will punch two or three holes through the three layers and insert chunks of steel rod. This is meant to hold everything in place better. I think this is a great idea and should be done for high quality axes, it just adds that extra quality factor. But for a first axe or learning axe we can skip that step.
Once your ends are closed down onto the slab of carbon steel and borax – put it back into the forge and reheat. Remove from the forge, sprinkle on more Borax and begin hammering the layers together with rapid heavy hammer strikes. While flipping it back and forth and hammering both sides, be sure to maintain your temperature for this part of the welding process.
This will be a fairly long process and will require several reheatings. This process simply forces the three layers to become one. During this process, the eye you originally created may get a little deformed. This is ok as once done welding the layers together, the drift can be reinserted, giving proper shape back to the eye.
It’s also a good idea to do some of the welding with the drift inserted. Sometimes on older axes you will find that where the sides meet is where it can begun to split. Eventually this split can become a break, so it’s important to make sure the weld of the steel closest to the eye is well worked. Be sure to insert the drift from both the bottom of the eye and the top, to ensure it stays even on the inside.
Once the welding process is complete you can begin hammering out the rough shape of your axe head. You can leave the eye drift inserted to hold the eye shape giving you a better visual for your design.
One thing I forgot to mention – you can start with an idea, or you can just see where the steel takes you.
The shaping process will also take a bit of time and require plenty of reheatings. The shaping will also help ensure a proper weld of the layers. Don’t worry about trying to hammer out a perfect
axe head. It should be rough and will require finishing work. Be patient, take your time and pay attention to your heat levels. Another consideration to keep in mind is the heat build up of your tongs. You do not want them getting red hot.
Once you have your axe head welded and the shape roughed out bring it back to proper temperature again and begin smoothing it out and thinning the edge steel (the blade). Again don’t worry about it being perfect, final shaping can be done with hand and bench tools.
Now that you have a rough axe head you will need to harden and temper the edge which will create a balance between being too soft and too hard. Allowing edge retention while helping prevent chipping and fracturing. This extends the life of the axe.
For hardening you want to heat the edged side of the axe to about 800+ degrees Celsius, allow it to heat up slowly and evenly, flipping and turning it every few minutes. Bring it to an even red glow. This is when the carbon in the steel basically dissolves into the ferrite structure which makes up steel.
Once at this point take the axe out of the forge and dip it in your bucket of water. This rapidly cools the steel hardening it by locking the carbon atoms in closely with the iron atoms. This makes the steel very hard, but it also makes it very brittle. That is the magic of quenching.
If you allowed the axe head to cool slowly, the carbon atoms that were close to the iron atoms have time to pull away loosening the grain and softening the steel (due to the heat).This technique does have its uses; if restoring a vintage axe that has been badly deformed, softening the steel for reshaping and then re-hardening will bring it back to life.
So now you have a very hard, very brittle axe head. This is where tempering comes in. By heating the axe to about 230 degrees Celsius for a few hours it will reduce the stress left in the steel from the hardening process. This does reduce the hardness a bit, but it takes away a lot of the brittleness.
On most vintage axes, if clean enough you can see a difference between where the steel has been hardened and where it has not. Typically only the bit is hardened. You can see in the photo, the hardened area appears darker than the rest of the steel. When you find an old axe rusting away in the woods, it’s usually the hardened end that is in the best condition.
Now you have a nearly complete axe head, it might look a little ugly, but thats what the finishing process is for.
Some people like to leave the axe as is and just put a nice edge on it. This part of the process is where personal preference comes into play. If it were me I would sand it all down nice and smooth and clean and allow it to grow a patina over time which I think looks great. I wouldn’t polish it, but I would shine it up a little bit, the forging process can leave it looking a little rough and black.
I like the nice silver color with a light patina over it. Once you have the overall look where you want it, be sure to check that the eye doesn’t need any smoothing, I like to round down the edges on the bottom of the eye just a tad which aids in fitting a handle and gives it a nice look.
All that remains now is to sharpen the axe head and fit your handle. For more information on sharpening check out Sharpening Axes with a Belt Sander, and for creating a custom handle for your custom axe check out Woodworking Tools and Axes where I discuss that making of an axe handle.
When it comes to steel we have many options today, from the basic carbon steel all the way to alloys with high performance in various aspects of use.
Today many commercial axes are made using various forms of stainless steel, mostly from the 400 series of steels and their Chinese counterparts such as 2Cr13, 3Cr13 and the AUS series of steels.
To be considered stainless, the steel must have at least 12% chromium in it’s composition. The stainless steels are softer than carbon steel but offer much more resistance to corrosion thanks to the added chromium. They are softer due to the 0.3% – 0.4% carbon content where popular carbons steels contain 0.4% – 0.8% carbon.
Stainless steels have only moderate edge retention due to the softness of the steel. In my opinion these steels are fine for general use knives and cutlery but I’d rather not have a stainless steel axe. Though there is 420HC stainless steel with a higher carbon content, adding hardness and better edge retention than your basic stainless steels.
Professional axe makers, and popular long standing axe manufacturers use Carbon Steel which has been the preferred steel for cutting tools throughout history. Granted long ago they did not have many of the alloys we have today. But given we do have them today and basic carbon steel is still preferred I’d say that is a good indicator of what you should use.
Types of carbon steel are categorized with a naming system created by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Carbon steel ranges from 1050-1090 with the last two numbers being the percentage of carbon in the steel 0.5% – 0.9%. There are a few popular alloy carbon steels such as 5150 and 5160. This is essentially carbon steel with added chromium which increases strength but is not enough to classify the steel as stainless.
During what we call ancient times, steel was made in a crucible; they would take pig iron, sand, glass, ashes and sometimes old steel and melt it all together. This was the popular method in Europe. However in the East was a more famous steel called Wootz steel. Made in the same manner but first would heat the iron and hammer out of the slag and impurities before mixing with wood and then melting allowing the iron to absorb carbon from the wood.
This process produced a very strong grained steel which was well sought during those times. Damascus steel although similar which is a process of essentially laminating the steel over itself many many times which produces a tight grain but includes more impurities in the steel. This laminating method produces a very strong and hard steel.
Without carbon all you have is iron. Think about a cast iron pan, if you were to drop it on a hard surface it would mostly likely snap in half or even shatter into multiple pieces. This is due to it’s high carbon content which is in the realm of 4%, where steel is under 2%. Now dropping a stainless steel pan, you will find nothing happens to it. This is because of the lower carbon content, allowing the material to be less rigid and more shock absorbing.
There is a lot of things to appreciate when it comes to axes, especially vintage axes. But when you make an axe for yourself, it comes with so many good feelings. Pride, accomplishment, a connection to our ancestors and more. If you love axes, you should try making one.
Even if you have no interest in blacksmithing, you should do it at least once. Many shops offer classes where you can make an axe or a knife and learn the process from experienced blacksmiths. It’s good knowledge to have. So get out there and start pounding on some steel would ya!