When I have time, I enjoy restoring old tools back to a more useful and beautiful state. The most fuel, energy, and time intensive part of making an axe from scratch is punching or forge welding to form the eye. When quality antique axe and hatchet heads can be found in scrap piles or at flea markets, restoring an old one is a more economical way to reclaim good steel and get back to work in the forest.
This article will provide a brief overview of the restoration and tuning of an antique hatchet head, part 2 will cover some theory and process of crafting a hatchet handle by hand.
This hatchet head was discovered sitting in a chink between the beams of a very old cedar beam building on a friend’s property. The building is likely the last structure remaining from the days when the property was part of a large farm and orchard. Judging by the use marks, rust and pitting, the hatchet sat unmoved for a couple of decades and before that it served as a splitting wedge for some time after the handle broke off.
The biggest issue for restoration is the heel which has been mushroomed over by blows from another steel tool. Axes and hatchets should never be struck by anything harder than a piece of firewood or the heel will mushroom and the eye will deform.
Cleaning the Eye
The first step is to remove whatever remains of the old handle, in this case a couple of inches of hickory, two bent nails, and a screw in place of a metal wedge. I used Japanese bear claw to pull out the nails and then a couple of sizes of flat faced punches to hammer the wood back down and out in pieces. Because this head is so old, there were thick layers of rust and wood joined together lining the eye, they eventually came out via punching, scraping, hammering, and filing.
It is at this stage of closer inspection that one of the hidden treasures of this hatchet is revealed. Because the front of the eye meets in a “v” rather than a curve, it can be determined that this hatchet was either formed by bending and forge welding, or that it is forged from shear steel and split slightly when it was punched. Because the effect persists at both sides of only one end of the eye, the first case is far more likely. This indicates the hatchet is definitely at least as old as earlier estimates based on the amount and type of rust, and probably even older.
Adjusting the Profile
Cleaning up the damage to the heel was first priority, to determine if the head was salvageable or cracked, and to what extent the final appearance might be affected. Fortunately the hardening was done locally at the edge (differential quenching), another indicator that this hatchet is quite old and hand made, and there were no chips or cracks in the heel.
The next step was to work all the way around the profile, cleaning up the lines and adjusting the geometry slightly for its new intended use. A couple of subtle curves on the bottom reduce the weight slightly and add a touch of class to the piece. The original weight was close to 1.5 lbs, almost the weight of a small axe, after the reduction it checks in at about 1.3, right at the hefty end for an optimal hatchet weight.
Chamfering the Edges
After the profiling, all outside and inside corners are quite square and sharp so a 45 degree chamfer is filed all the way around the top and bottom faces as well as inside the eye. The micro bevelled edges are then cleaned up by drawfiling to match the profile surfaces.
Texturing the Surface
Because of the extreme age of this piece and its exposure to weather over the decades, there are a couple of areas that have deep texture that would require the removal of too much material elsewhere if a filed surface was desired. Instead, I chose to reintroduce texture to the filed areas and blend them back in to the existing surface character.
Shaping the Edge
This hatchet was well cared for in its younger days with careful and restrained sharpening, leaving plenty of steel for future generations to use. This is also a side benefit of sharpening with hand stones rather than power tools. In this stage the profile of the edge is reset, and some of the excess steel is filed away in preparation for new bevels.
Establishing the Bevels
A coarse Japanese waterstone is used to remove steel from the bevels until the pitting is gone, and then diamond stones are used to blend back the bevels into a shape similar to the original design. Finer stones are used until the edge is again sharp and of proper geometry.
Removing the Rust
Because of the hand forged texture of the original hatchet, the decision was made earlier to leave the sides of the head untouched and allow the original surface character to remain. After the shaping is finished, the head is simmered and gently scrubbed for a couple of hours in a solution of vinegar and water and then left to soak over night.
The rust is dissolved away by the vinegar and the surface has a lovely deep gun metal grey finish. It is washed and then simmered in a solution of water and baking soda to neutralize any remaining vinegar and then dried while hot to evaporate any remaining water. A thin coat of 100% pure tung oil is applied and allowed to cure.