For quite awhile now I’ve been on the search for a lightweight alternative to my Gränsfors Bruks Small Forest Axe. I did purchase a Wetterlings Wildlife axe two years ago, but I found it rather tiresome to use because the head seemed to be too heavy for the length of helve. Instead of acquiring a more balanced hatchet, I figured I would give tomahawks a look. After much thought, comparing, and hunting around online, I finally decided to purchase a Cold Steel Frontier tomahawk.
Many folks have bought Cold Steel tomahawks and modded them with impressive results, equivalent to higher-end models. But straight out of the box, I was able to do some work on a seasoned Shagbark Hickory log.
Not bad for a factory edge :).
Before I get into the actual mods I made, I would like to briefly discuss the history of these cutting tools. According to the articles Axes in New France (parts 1, 2 and 3) by Kevin Gladysz and Ken Hamilton, published in the August/September 2012 issue of the Journal of the Early Americas, metal axes from the French and Basque were traded to Natives on the coast of Newfoundland and the mouth of the St. Lawrence River as early as 1542…and by the 1550s, the French were almost exclusively trading for furs. These early trade axes weren’t tomahawks, but rather standard axes that the European ship crews brought with them.
As time went on, the French Canadians found that smaller, lighter axes were not only easier to transport over long distances, but they were better suited to “petite guerre” (guerrilla warfare) during the colonial wars and against hostile Natives. A new axe design was developed, called “casse tête”, literally translating to “head breaker”, and the Algonkin gave the name “tamahak” from which the word “tomahawk” originates.
The casse tête pattern features a rounded teardrop eye, narrow blade with a curved bit, and the top of the blade from the toe to the eye is relatively flat and straight. This is probably the most recognisable French trade design, accurately represented on the Cold Steel Frontier tomahawk.
That said, let’s get onto the modifications :).
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the helve of my Frontier tomahawk had near perfect grain orientation, and instead of a shellac or lacquer finish, the helve was coated with a light layer of wax.
First things first, I removed the set screw and tapped off the head. There were a few small gouges in the wood from head being forced onto the helve, but this can be touched up with a rasp or a four-in-hand. The handle itself felt a bit too long for my liking, so I sawed off the bottom 3 inches/ 7.5 cm. I sanded down the rest of the helve first with 150 grit, and then a 220.
To give it a rustic appearance, I applied a light coat of Restor and Finish Walnut stain. It brings out the age and character of the hickory very well. After the stain dried, I finished with some raw linseed oil.
The next thing to do is to remove that ghastly black paint from the head. There are a few ways to do this…you can soak the head in vinegar for 24 hours and scrub off the excess with sandpaper or steel wool, or you can coat the head with paint and varnish stripper. Both methods will not completely remove every speck of paint, so you will have a few tiny spots here and there. If you want a shiny, mirror finish, you will have to spend extra time buffing and using a wire wheel, but if you want an antique-looking tool, either method will work just fine as is.
Apply the paint stripper over all surfaces (you may have to do one side at a time), and wait 15 minutes or so for it to work. **Do follow the directions and wear chemical resistant gloves, I’d hate to think what this stuff could do to exposed skin.**
The paint can then be wiped off, and the head rinsed in cool water with soap to remove the excess paint stripper. Dry it off, and you should be able to see the temper line on the blade. To give the head a patina, I wrapped it in a vinegar-soaked cloth for about an hour. And since I put a nice stain on the helve, it would be a good idea to file down the burrs inside the eye.
With that done, pretty much all that’s left to do is make a leather sheath and sharpen the edge. I chose a basic design for the sheath with a cord wrap to secure it. Adding a welt is recommended.
For sharpening, I just filed a slight convex onto the edge, maintaining the original bevel angle. I refined this with my Arkansas stones, and finished with a strop. As the bevel angle is fairly thin at around 20 degrees, I will probably increase that angle to a slightly steeper convex over time. You will have to test out what works for you. The steel itself is 1055 carbon, so it should be able to hold a decent edge. Lastly, I rubbed the head with candle wax and raw linseed oil to minimise rust buildup.
And here we are all finished, next to the Gränsfors Bruks Small Forest Axe for comparison.
The overall length of my Gränsfors is 19.5 inches/50 cm…my modded Frontier tomahawk is only a hair shorter at 19 inches/48 cm. After initial testing, I noticed that the head would pop itself loose every now and then, so I ended up reworking the top of helve that seats the eye for a tighter fit, wrapping some leather cord just below the head to keep it secured.
Here’s a side-by-side view. As you can see, the Gränsfors clearly has the heavier head and will therefore likely have greater chopping efficiency, even though the bit of the Frontier tomahawk is slightly thinner.
Now, I don’t believe in “first impressions” posts, so time will tell if my efforts were worthwhile, and I will hold off on any further comparison until then.