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Viking Axe WIP


Eric McHugh

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Ever since I was able to document "real" Viking axes with Peter Johnsson, I've wanted to make them. I have to admit, many of the techniques and methods have eluded me. At times, I've resorted to more modern construction methods to produce my pieces.

I've quietly been a fan of James Austin's work. I've been reading his blog and watching videos on YouTube to glean any bit of knowledge and learn his techniques for making axes. This axe represents a step forward for me. I utilized many of his techniques and even made many of the tools he uses for the creation of his axes. The first few I made using his methods did not go very well. After heat treat, one of them developed a slag inclusion. Nothing like an invisible flaw coming to the surface post-heat treat to bring you down. Another one, I had problems with the interior of the bit and the body welding. There was a "V" shaped un-welded area (about 3 mm long) that was visible on the side of the axe. While most of the bit was soundly welded, I wanted to make sure the whole thing was welded all the way to the root of it.

 

This axe turned out great. No visible weld flaws on the bit and body. There is a slight hamon from the heat treat, but the welds are virtually invisible.

Not sure exactly where this falls in the Petersen typology, so I'm calling it a G/H hybrid. Typologies are only a guide anyway. Sometimes certain shapes don't fit it exactly.

I'll finish the polish tomorrow. I am intentionally leaving some forge pits and file marks on the piece to add character. Overall, I will give it a higher grit finish and then draw it back to a smooth satin. Some of the pits and file marks will show through the finish.

I plan on hafting it this week with a hickory haft. The blade is 4.5" (11,4 cm). Overall length is 7.5" (19,5 cm). Socket and body are 1018 and the bit is 1080. I'll post more pictures when I am finished.

 

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I don't know a lot about axes. that one looks quite nice, though.

kc

please visit my website http://www.professorsforge.com/

 

“Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” E. V. Debs

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Finished polishing and hafting the Type G/H. I want to name this axe Neckbiter. Not sure how you would say that in Old Norse. Anyway, that is the feeling of this light and agile axe when you swing it. I see a warrior with a shield in one hand and Neckbiter in the other finding a hole in an opponent's guard and then plunging it into his neck. I apologize for the poor pictures. I am in the process of acquiring better photo equipment.


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In many ways, this axe was a leap forward for me. I was able to use more authentic techniques and tools to create this axe. Being able to forge-weld eye socket, body, and bit together, and have it turn out virtually invisible, has been a goal of mine for years. This opens the door to many new options for making Viking axes. I have quite a few projects planned for the near future using these new methods.


Back to Neckbiter: The blade is 4.5" (11,4 cm) wide. Overall length is 7.5" (19,5 cm). Socket and body are 1018 low carbon steel and the bit is 1080 high carbon steel. I used my Rockwell files to test the edge post-heat treat and it comes out between 50 and 55 Rockwell.


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I purposely left some of the files marks in the finish. These files marks are often seen on period originals; and I have to admit, I was not brave enough in years past to leave them on a piece. Now a days, I decided I'm going to make something that pleases and inspires me. Hopefully, others will find it inspiring too. Interestingly enough, it is actually harder to do this finished than just putting a high grit belt on the grinder and removing all the marks. I also left some of the forge pits in the piece. After all, this axe was forged to shape. So once I filed it to the dimension I wanted, I stopped. If there was a pit, well the pit stayed. I hand polished the body to a high grit then drew it back with a scotch-brite pad. The edge was buffed to a near mirror finish to create a pleasing contrast. The edge is hair shaving shape.


When I do a haft, I fit it through the bottom of the socket. I know that some makers make a haft that is wider at the top and slip it through the top of the axe head and slide the head up till it wedges at the top of the haft. I'm not saying this is wrong. No one knows for sure how the Viking smiths did it, but there is evidence that the axe was driven onto the haft then wedged at the top. I personally documented multiple axe heads with Peter Johnsson in Sweden that had the iron wedge with the axe head. Here is a picture of one such wedge:


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I find that using a wooden wedge to spread the haft sideways in the socket and a metal wedge to spread it the opposite direction, creates a wider section at the top of the head that makes it nearly impossible for the axe to come off the haft. On Neckbiter, I inserted a wooded wedge and made an iron wedge similar to the one I documented in Sweden to secure the head on the haft.


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The haft is 30.5" long. It is made of burnt hickory which has been sanded and polished to a smooth finish. It has been treated with linseed oil to preserve it. It has a subtle octagonal cross-section, and an elegant taper from the bottom to where it enters the socket.


Neckbiter is available for purchase. If you are interest, send me a PM or email.


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That one came out beautifully!

 

I've actually spotted a few 're-hafted for display' axes at museums that are upside down because the person doing it assumed they were tapered from the top down like a tomahawk, and made the display haft with that assumption. In fact almost every axe that I have been able to handle and examine from that period has, if a round hole, no discernable taper, or if D shape holed, tapered wider at the bottom than the top. There are some other that I've not been able to tell for one reason or another, but I've never seen clear evidence of a deliberate 'wider at top' tapered eyehole in that period. There's even evidence in the sagas that they were tapered wider at the bottom and then wedged. There are descriptions of axe heads flying off their shafts, not because the haft was broken, but because they slipped, and with a tomahawk style eye hole that's not physically possible.

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Justin "Tharkis" Mercier

www.tharkis.com

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Like I said, I don't think there is anything wrong with the top down method. When I look at James Austin's tremendous work, it is quite clear to me that the method is very historically plausible; but what has left a lasting impression on me is the wedges that were in the box with a number of the axe heads we documented. It was clear to me that they were for spreading the top of the haft; so it is effectively doing the same thing as having a haft that is wider at the top. When I do my axes, I make sure the haft is spreading side-to-side and then the iron wedge spreads it in the other direction. If I do it right, the top is wider than the socket hole. It is nearly impossible for it to slide off.

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On my thread on myArmoury, Travis Canaday brought up an interesting topic on axe construction. It is some food for thought. Here is his quote:

 

 

Travis Canaday wrote: I like that you decided to go with the haft going up through the bottom of the socket. I'm not sure why people assume the hafts were mounted in the "tomahawk" style. If mounted correctly it should be plenty strong. If wood-axes can handle a tree, why couldn't war-axes handle a man or shield? Below I have linked a video that shows some Viking type axes found in Ireland in 2013 with part of the hafts still intact using just a wooden wedge (no iron wedge). This is the only find of it's kind that I am aware of, but I think it adds further support to the idea that many (if not most) Viking axes were mounted in this fashion.

http://www.museum.ie/Archaeology/Explore-Lear...ing-Videos

 

 

 

So, I watched that video, and I decided to contact Dr. Halpin and ask him about the Lough Corrib axe heads. I wanted to know if there were any existing wooden or iron wedges in those hafts. Here is his reply:

Dear Mr McHugh,

Thank you for your email and the very interesting issues you raise. I would think, in general terms, that your theory is most likely correct and I can confirm that there are wedges in the top of the hafts of at least two of the Lough Corrib axeheads. However, they are not iron wedges – they are wooden, as you’ll see in the attached photo. We do have one or two other medieval axes (tools, rather than weapons) with iron wedges. I hope this is helpful to you.

Yours sincerely,

Andy Halpin

 

 

Here is the photo he sent of one of the Lough Corrib axe heads:

 

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So, I know this is a leap but when Peter Johnsson and I were at Husbyborg we saw several axe heads (Type M) that had small iron wedges in the box with the head:

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It is my theory that one possible method for axe and haft attachment was to use wooden wedges to spread the top of the haft parallel with the axe head then use a narrow iron wedge to split the wooden wedge and spread it perpendicular to the axe head. This would effectively provide a wider top of the haft that would prevent the head from coming off.

In addition, I learned from my carpenter cousin years ago, that the way to put a hammer head on a haft is to allow the weight and inertia of the head to drive itself onto the haft; so, when I put an axe head on a haft, I start the axe head on the very top of the haft, then I pound the bottom of the haft on my anvil. After about 5-6 firm strikes, the head has forced itself down onto the haft. I then use a aluminum dowel and mallet to correct any misalignment.

I also try to taper the top of my hafts so that it grows a bit wider where I want the axe head to stop. This is the same principle that we use to wedge a pommel onto a tang. The fit is so tight and secure that I have been able to test cut smaller diameter (6-8") logs in half with the axe and not have a wedge at the top. I did this with Patrick Kelly's Type M to test the blade sharpness, blade strength, and the fit of the head on the haft.

So, you combine a properly tapered haft, a properly seated axe head, and a wedge system at the top of the haft, and I you arrive at what I believe is a historically plausible method for assembling an axe.

Of course, please don't read me to say that this is "how they did it." I'm merely putting forward a theory about one possible method. Like I said, food for thought. I welcome other theories as well.

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I certainly can't argue with the evidence! Well presented, and thank you for the photos.

 

 

I too have hafted them both ways, and I lean towards the wedge for most axes. Oddly enough a few 18th and 19th century tomahawks are wedged as well despite the strongly tapered eye.

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thanks for this information. It is good to know.

 

nice axe, too!

 

kc

please visit my website http://www.professorsforge.com/

 

“Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” E. V. Debs

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Of course, please don't read me to say that this is "how they did it." I'm merely putting forward a theory about one possible method. Like I said, food for thought. I welcome other theories as well.

 

Wise words, as something which is important to remember with all archaeological evidence, presence of something doesn't prove the non-presence of something else. I love studying original artifacts for just the reason that I like to see how they were constructed in period with their tools and materials. I've always loved the dane axes because they are one of the earliest axe forms that are distinctively for battle and not a 'tool' so very elegant yet deadly.

 

EDIT: Hrm somehow the 'quote' broke.

Edited by Justin Mercier

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Justin "Tharkis" Mercier

www.tharkis.com

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