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Forging a tomahawk my way, WIP

Alan Longmire

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After I posted the pile of hawk heads I've been working on I got several requests for a tutorial. I've been meaning to do one for years now, so last Saturday I took the camera out to the forge and documented the process I use to make a wrapped construction hawk head. The particular shape this order called for is not my usual, but you can see what I do and make your own modifications to suit your taste.


Basically, I take a strip of low carbon flat bar and wrap it around a mandrel, then forge weld a high carbon bit in between the sides of the strap. This is a historical method. Think about why the wrapped hawk is made the way it is. It's a method left over from when steel was expensive, so you used a non-hardenable metal for the body and welded in a piece of harder steel to act as the edge. Think about where the weld lines will be in that case - on either side of the edge. If you just wrap a piece of high carbon and weld that up with nothing in between, where is the weld line? It IS the edge. Not an ideal situation.


This is just one way of making a tomahawk. It is not even the only historically accurate one, it's just the one I usually use and as such am the most comfortable with. I learned this method from Nathan Allan, Melvin Lytton, and Hershel House in a class at Conner Prairie just outside Indianapolis, Indiana in 2000.


Materials list:


For the body, 12 inches of 1 1/4 inch by 1/4" mild steel or wrought iron. I have some lovely blanchard-ground 1018 from Aldo I use.


For the bit, enough 1 inch by 1/4 inch 1084, again from Aldo.


Tools list:


Forge, anvil, hammers, vise, tongs, and tomahawk drift. Edit: The original makers of the drift are back in business! Go to http://www.imountainforge.com/ and get the TD-1 drift. The ones from other suppliers use these as the pattern for their own castings, so the shrinkage factor can cause problems if you are using the handles from Dunlap like I do (see page three of this thread for handles).




The tongs I typically use, from left to right: Off-Center Products 1" V-box, Sam Salvati 1/4" blade tongs, Hawk head pincer tongs made by a gentleman from Chattanooga whose name escapes me (EDIT: the gentleman in question is Jack Walker. I won this set in an iron-in-the-hat at one of his demos in 2012), my own hawk tongs, and a set of flat-bit tongs.




The first thing I do is prepare the bit steel by forgeing a full flat taper edgeways. It's the same as forging a flat-ground single bevel knife blade, except I take it as sharp as I can get it. This is to ensure there are no gaps between the body and the edge when I weld it up.




You can see in the pic above how thin I forge the back edge of the bit steel.


Next, I forge a flare on one end of the flat bar. I use the cross pein hammer for this to spread the end out to around two inches wide and sharp on the end, carefully shaping with each heat to keep it flat on top and fairly straight on the bottom. If I were making a head with a curved lower side I'd leave the bottom edge curved.


After the first heat:




After four heats the first side is done:




Repeat this on the other end of the bar, making sure you flare it in the same direction as the first end. Don't laugh, I've done them in opposite directions when I'm tired and in a hurry!


Here's what you should have at this point:




More to come...


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Now, I mark the bit steel and cut it to size so it will fit exactly between the sides of the body.


Measuring the bit so it will fit deep in the body:




The bit after it's been cut and lightly ground:




The next step will make your life easier. When you bend a flat strap double, the edges of the bar will flare out. So, I forge a shallow legthwise groove on the INSIDE of the middle of what will become the eye to make sure it's straight when it's wrapped over on itself. You can do this on the step if your anvil has a step, on a V-block, over the vise jaws, or in a swedge block if you have one.


Suddenly, color!




Next, heat up the center of the bar and wrap it around the big end of the drift a little larger than you want the eye to be. If the ends don't line up as in the picture below, now is the time to fix it by hammering on the bend with the edges on the anvil until they do line up. After that, forge the side together on the drift...




Or squeeze it together in the vise if it fits.




If you use the vise make sure the jaws are not sharp, they'll leave a nasty mark.


When you're done it'll look like this:






Up next: welding it up...

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Start at the eye. This is because it's the hardest place to get it to stick. It is VERY important not to touch the eye with a hammer from now until you're ready to drift it out at the end.


Flux well, and use a fairly flat-faced hammer. I like a rectangular face for this step. I also hang the eye over the far edge of the anvil because I have a double-horned anvil. If you have a single-horned anvil, use a block in the hardy hole or hold it by the eye.


The first weld:




Remember the eye is tapered at the weld and hold on the edge of the anvil accordingly.


Weld up the body until there's about 1.5 inches of the edge left unwelded. This is for the bit.


Once you've got the body welded up, get the edge end hot and clamp it in the vise edge-up. It is helpful to use the vise for this step as insurance that you won't split the weld when you drive the bit into the gap between the cheeks of the body:




Now to weld the bit. Remember it's high carbon and will not take the heat the body will. It will also weld at a lower temperature, so be careful not to burn it. I have a pile of heads with burned bits under the forge, once that happens you have to start over again.


Lay the head in the forge on the flat so the bit will not fall out. If you're worried you can cut little barbs on the back of the bit, but I generally don't do that. Just be gentle and careful until you get the first weld to take.


In the fire: Note this is a coal forge using the chambered fire technique in which you pile green coal over the top to make a cave for concentrated heat.




I left out a few photos of the welding of the bit since I work alone and there's a lot going on at this point. So, once the bit is welded in, on the next few heats concentrate on clsing up the gap behind the bit, working from the center to the edges to squeeze out the flux and scale inside. Use a slightly domed hammer face to help the squeeze-out action.


Here it is before closing the gap:




And after the gap is closed.




At this point, start welding on the edges of the head to even it up and close any remaining gaps. Be careful not to bend it into a potato chip here. I leave it pretty thick so lateral bending is minimized:




Now you should have a nice hawk head preform:




From here you can shape it with a curved lower edge if desired. This one has to be straight with a notch, so that is my next step.



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The edge is still around 1/4" thick, so now is the time to start shaping the head into its final form.


Since this one has to have a straight lower edge with a notch, I start by forging the notch over the far edge of the anvil. Do this at a full welding heat and watch for the weld to start spiltting at the eye. Keep the flux handy because if this happens you need to fix it as you go.


Starting the notch:




Here's the result:




Switch ends and work the edges and faces, keeping things straight and flat. Heat is your friend! Near-welding heat every time. Work out the bit end now, thinning it down to around 3/16" to 1/8" depending on how good you are at keeping things flat and hammer-mark free. After a few heats, here's what it looks like:






Once you have the blade shaped the way you want, it's time for the truly butt-clenching part: drifting the eye... :ph34r:

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Drifting the eye is the most dangerous step in the whole process. If your weld is going to fail it will do it now. To stack the odds in your favor, don't ever hammer on the eye until after drifting to make sure all you have to do is true up the shape. DO NOT try to stretch the eye with the drift, the weld will split. You can forge the eye ON the drift to stretch it a little, but don't try to just drive the drift in further than it wants to go.


Here's where we are from the top of the head:




You can see in that picture I don't need to do a whole lot to it.


Start by setting the vise to act as a stop for the drift:




Next, bring the eye to a full welding heat, and carefully tap the drift in until the eye cools below bright yellow. It will take two or three times doing this until the drift is all the way in. DO NOT cool the drift in between heats, you want it hot to prolong working time and the drift itself is cast ductile iron, which does not take quenching well at all.


Once it's in as far as it will go (rewelding the eye if it start to split, IF you can), Use the drift as a handle and sight along the blade in all directions to make sure it's all lined up the way you want.




You will see I got the blade twisted to one side:




Fix this by heating the eye and inserting the drift, then GENTLY hammering it back straight.


Looks good here:




And this way:




And once off the drift, the finished eye:




Compare this to the first pic in this post. I didn't do a whole lot!


From here on out, all you have to do is finish it. Normalize three times and set it aside until it's time to grind.

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Next, a few notes about tooling.


Here's my hammers, showing the faces and peins.






A correctly ground pein for spreading out the flat bar is not sharp, it's a gently rounded narrow flat with a good bit of side-to-side rocker to avoid deep dings.




This process will blow molten flux everywhere, so wear an apron unless you like holes in your clothes:



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Someone is going to ask about pipe hawks, even though this one is not going to be a pipe. If you don't have a lathe, here's how I do it (using a stunt bowl previously forged).


I use 1" black iron pipe. First, block one end closed or you'll get some vicious burns from the hot air coming up the pipe. Use a spring fuller or guillotine tool to neck down the pipe about 1.5 inches from the end, rotating the pipe with each blow. This will take a few heats.






Then forge the new bowl into a taper on a swedge block or half-round groove, or the anvil step if all else fails.




And presto, here's the bowl ready to be cut off the pipe after it's ground smooth on the slack belt.






If you're doing this, attach the bowl to the head by drilling out the hole and threading it with a tap. I usually use 1/4-20 or 3/8-16 depending on the size of the neck, witha matching threaded hole in the back of the head. You can get a closer fit by drilling out the hole in the bowl to the exact thread diameter and filing the base of the bowl where it meets the head into the same half-round profile as the back of the head, then using a threaded stud in the head to seat the bowl. Braze with flux-coated phosphor bronze rod or jeweler's hard solder, don't use any kind of soft solder. It simply will not hold.


Once it's on, drill a hole through the stud with a 1/8" or 3/16" bit and you're good to go.


Or you can turn the whole thing on a lathe, but I didn't have one of those for years and most of you don't either.


Up next: Finishing. It may be a while, like maybe tomorrow, so if you have questions about the forging part ask away.

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Fantastic tutorial Alan, very much appreciated. You have answered a lot of the questions I had about making a hawk this way. Thanks again for taking the time and sharing the info


"Old dogs care about you even when you make mistakes" - Tom HALL - Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon wine.


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You're welcome, Rob!


Now then, on to cleaning it up!


Tools used here: something to remove the scale. This can be an overnight soak in vinegar followed by a good wire brushing, but I was in a hurry so I just used a knotted wire cup brush on an angle grinder followed by a quick swipe with a 36-grit cup wheel, aka snagging wheel on a larger angle grinder.




Now we're ready for files or belt grinders.


If you use files, and I did this completely with files for years before I'd saved up for a KMG, use the biggest ones you can find. I like 14 to 16 inch files for this step. My arsenal includes a 16" Nicholson mill bastard with one edge ground smooth, and 14" Simmonds Multi-Kut also with one edge ground smooth, and a 14" no-name long-angle lathe file. Lathe files have a much steeper tooth angle and have both edges ground smooth, and really hog off the steel.


I do have a KMG, however, so I used it. Saves about a day. So, here it is ground to final machine finish, in this case with a 3m Trizact A45, which corresponds to around 240 grit.






Now we need to clean up the notch. I do this with the 16" mill bastard with one safe edge, pictured below:




After squaring the notch:




Here it is with another one to show the difference between the grinder finished notch and the filed notch.



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Now to clean up the lower edge by drawfiling. I started with the 16" mill bastard, followed by a 6" mill bastard, a 6" mill 2nd cut, and finished with a 6" mill smooth, pictured below. This leaves it ready for hand polishing with paper.




And now I'm ready to start the filework that defines the piece. Here it is after finishing the lower edge, side view:




First, here's the concept drawing to show what I want to accomplish. Some of the lines are filework, some are engraving. The motifs are early 1800s fur trade stuff, and no, I can't draw so pay no attention to the beaver...




I begin with defining the blade from the head with a vertical cut, again using the 16" mill bastard with the smooth edge establishing the shoulder of the cut. This is all standard or push filing, not drawfiling.




Once I have a shoulder to work with and guide the files, I can use the lathe file or the extremely aggressive Multi-Kut to deepen the shoulder and blend it into the blade proper:




Now I drawfile the blade to both blend the shoulder cut and to flatten it. While it looks flat off the platen of the grinder, it is not. The shiny parts near the edge are low spots from the grinder.




Here it is after all the low spots are gone. This was done mostly with the 16" mill bastard and the 14" multi-kut. After those establish a true flat, I go to the 6" files I used on the bottom edge of the blade to get it ready for hand sanding.



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You can see the edge steel in that last photo above. Cool, huh?


Now I need to establish the rear shoulder, exactly the way I did the front.


First few cuts:




Finished and drawfiled:






Next, I lay out the triangular field behind the shoulders. I have just eyeballed it up to this point, except for when I did the rear shoulder on the other side. The shoulders have to line up when seen from the top or it looks bad. I use a plain old sharpie, and mark the center of the eye with a dot, then connect it to the top and bottom of the shoulders.




Again using the 16" mill bastard with the safe edge to establish a line, I start cutting it in. Since this is a curved surface, I have to roll the file forward to follow the curve, taking down the background evenly from the triangle to the edges.


One side done:




The other side getting there:




And after a LOT of fiddly work with increasingly smaller files, including needle files, the cuts are leveled out where they cross and the triangle is done:




Note that at this point it's all been just files, no sanding.



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Now it's time to start the jimping, or fancy filework around the edges of the eye and out onto the blade. To do the eye, you need a way to hold it by the blade at a good angle for filing. I came up with the idea of using an agle vise bolted to a piece of angle iron which is clamped in the big vise when I was filing octagonal bowls of pipe hawks so I wouldn't have to file at funky angles and risk getting it wonky. It works well in this application too!




The files used here are a 1/8" chainsaw file, a 6" extra slim triangular file, and a 6" XXslim trianglar file with one side ground smooth. This is because if you try to get a sharp notch with a regular triangular file you can't. The angle of the V is actually flat or rounded because of the way the files are made. If you start the cut with a regular triangle file and take a few strokes on each side with the safe-face triangle you get a true sharp V-notch.




Alternating the chainsaw file with the triangular files, about four strokes of each gives you a nice egg-and-dart molding effect:




Looks good from the top, too!




I can't get to the back of the eye with it in the angle vise, so it's back to the regular vise to finish up the eye.



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On to the blade!




Both edges worked...




And now I'm ready to start hand-polishing with paper.


I use silicon carbide wet-or-dry paper from the auto body shop. You need to lubricate the paper for it to work properly. I have used water, Windex, and WD-40 in the past, but a tip from another maker turned me on to using synthetic motor oil. Get the thinnest viscosity you can find, in this case 5W-20 fully synthetic. It just seems to leave a smoother finish with fewer swirl marks.


I start with 220 grit wrapped around a length of 1" x 1/4" mild steel bar. If you need to keep the lines sharp, use a single thickness glued to the bar. I like to soften the edges a bit, so I just wrap a full sheet around the bar and let the cushion effect take care of the rest.


Here it is after 220 grit to remove the drawfiling marks:




I go on up to 400 grit. When you're hand polishing, use the paper as though it were free. Don't hesitate to tear off the worn paper to get fresh grit, especially during the 220 stage. Towards the end of the 400-grit stage, let the paper get worn, it leaves a nicer satin finish. Speaking of which, it's finished!






Now it needs to be hardened and tempered. That will have to wait until next week, I'm afraid. Taking it to 400 grit before heat treatment means easier cleanup after quenching. Oh, and at this point, the edge is just a hair over 1/16" thick. It will be gound sharp after tempering.


Total time invested in this particular head, from the first photo to the last above: about twelve hours spread over three days. I have not yet cleaned up the inside of the eye, so that will have to wait until next time.


Any questions, feel free to fire away. I'll be on the road tomorrow and part of Friday, but I'll be back at work on this head Saturday if all goes as planned.


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Fantastic tutorial.


Thank you very much for sharing it.

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Great demo. I have never done the file work. Just been happy to get it welded and cleaned up. I used to take tomahawks from Dixie Gunworks, opened up the blade and weld in a bit. A lot of them were pretty stinky anyway.

If you run, you will only die tired.


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I looked at your demo again. Great work and an insprition to us all. All of the fiddly details add up to one great piece of art.. Are going to do any carving on the handle or use curly maple?

If you run, you will only die tired.


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Thank you, gentlemen!


Gerald, that means a lot coming from you! You're welcome. ;)


Gene, these will have curly maple handles. I doubt I'll carve them, since I'm not very good at carving much more than simple moldings. There may be some brass tacks or something. I haven't even decided on the engraving pattern nor run it by the client yet, so there's no telling how it's going to end up! :lol:

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Since you did touch on pipe hawks, let me ask you a question.


From historic examples, what do you see most with pipe bowls; integral, brazed, or threaded?

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Don, the early ones (1740-1760) tend to be dovetailed or brazed or both, the 1760-1830-ish ones are usually integral or brazed, and threaded ones are more common after around 1790. Then there are the cast iron ones post-1830-ish.

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Nicely done! I am totally steeling that simple trick for laying out the triangle with the single point. why have I never thought of that!


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