Restoring the Family Axe: Part 1

Over recent years, there has been a growing fascination with vintage axes. Many folks have refurbished these rustic tools to their former glory days as a way of saving money instead of purchasing a high-end axe, or simply for the fun of it. Call it “Buschraft recycling”, “historical preservation”, or what-have-you,  the efforts are almost always rewarding.

In the beginning of January, I was very excited to receive the family axe, passed-down to my possession.

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It’s a 3.5 pound Connecticut pattern felling axe. I sawed-off the helve because the wood towards the eye shrank significantly, partly due to the fact that it was coated with lacquer. The handle was also not proportional to the axe head (by my standards) being a bit too short at about 76 cm/30 inches.

Upon closer inspection, I noticed 6 ridges in the eye, 3 on each side…presumably this helps give a tighter fit to the helve. There was some rust pitting on the bit, but it seems to be minor and shouldn’t effect the structural integrity. If anything, it makes the axe look a bit antiquish. There also doesn’t appear to be a maker’s mark anywhere on the head – no numbers, symbols, letters…nothing. Sometimes, the manufacturer’s brand may be hidden under a layer of rust. But if you don’t see a mark after you clean up the rust, don’t worry – apparently, it is not uncommon to find an unmarked axe head every now and then, yet this does not mean that the axe is “poor quality”. Also keep in mind that corrosion and wear can obscure a mark beyond legibility.

To get the last bit of handle out, I first made a few holes at the top of the eye using a hand drill and improvised a drift out of a piece of Black Cherry. After a lot of pounding with the drift, I didn’t seem to be making much progress. The wood was stuck in the eye and not budging. After some thought, I figured I could remove that obstinate chunk by hammering it out from the other end. So I took out my coping saw and removed the protruding wood from the bottom. I made another drift as the other one was quite beaten up, and starting pounding from the lower end of the eye to the top. That did the trick ;).

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Now that the wood is out, the next stage is to remove that rust in a vinegar soak.

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I let it soak for about 24 hours, and as you can see, most of the rust is gone. I used the steel wool to scrub off the rest. The darkened metal on the bit is the tempered steel.

Now we move on to the sharpening process…it will take a lot of work with this axe because the edge needs to be re-profiled. There is also some damage at the toe that I’ll need to take care of.

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I’ll be using a single-cut mill bastard file. I don’t have access to power tools like a belt sander, so this will take a long time. The key here is patience and consistency – luckily I’m one of those folks with a good degree of perseverance, and often I’ll be so focused on the task that I don’t notice the hours slipping by. ***As a safety note, I strongly recommend wearing work gloves…it’s just too easy to slip and cut yourself.***

The first part of the process is to remove the thickness of the bit just behind the edge. This is a necessary step because it allows you to thin out an overly thick bit to improve chopping efficiency. This axe appears to have phantom bevels…the toe and heel ends of the bit are slightly thinner than the middle part. Therefore, I’ll need to remove most of the metal from the centre of the bit to keep things even. The finished edge will have a slight crescent shape.

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I have no idea what this tool is called, but it came in handy for measuring the thickness of the edge as I filed. I also kept my Gränsfors on hand as an edge guide to compare to. I’m aiming not for a 24 degree bevel angle, but slightly above that to 26 or 27 degrees, to better suit the edge for chopping hardwoods.

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After truing the damaged toe and thinning the bit on both sides, I changed my filing angle to thin the portion just before the edge and then transitioned this to sharpen the edge itself.

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After almost 5 hours of filing, we are ready to move on to the stones. Both of these are Arkansas stones, one is soft (medium grit), the other is hard (fine grit). Instead of sharpening the axe on the stone, I like to hold the stone and sharpen the axe, using circular motions, starting just at the back of the edge bevel and transitioning to the edge itself.

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Time for the strop :). This is one I made from a large Birch Polypore (aka “Razor-strop” fungus). I like to wipe the slurry from the stones onto the surface of the strop because it helps polish the edge, a bit like honing compound.

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The edge is now hair-popping sharp, good enough for me :). Notice the slight crescent shape of the bevel – the thicker the centre of the bit, the more pronounced the crescent shape should be. With this axe, I also had to file back the bevel by the toe in order to compensate for the damage.  Newer axes tend not to have phantom bevels, and therefore the edge bevel does not need to be crescent shaped because the bit thickness is even.

Now all that’s left to do is make a sheath, hang the axe, and give it a test run in the forest :D. Instead of purchasing a handle, I think I’ll try making one from scratch…we’ll see how it goes. Part 2 to follow when the axe is finished ;).

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