Axe Restoration Project: Part 2, Cleaning
After you’ve removed the head from the helve, the next step is to begin removing any rust and oxidation. If your head has a significant amount of rust soak it overnight in a vinegar bath. Vinegar contains acetic acid which will react with, and break down oxidation. Regular old garden-variety white distilled vinegar from the grocery store will do. To remove smaller portions of rust we’ve heard that ketchup works well. Although leaving a ketchup laden axe around the home or workshop might frighten friends and family members.
If you’re like us, you won’t want the odor of an open vinegar bath to permeate your workshop or studio, in which case we recommend using a tupperware style container with a lid.
After the head has soaked for 12-24 hours it won’t be much prettier to look at, and neither will the vinegar. Begin by rubbing the head with just your fingers. In the best case scenario this is all that’s needed to remove any dirt and oxidation. For more stubborn oxidation, sand the head with a 120 grit foam sanding block.
Pictured above is our Michigan head before, during and after the vinegar bath. In the after photos the head has been sanded with a 120 grit foam block and resubmerged for another hour or so. The darkening along the bit edge shows where the steel was hardened during forging. The line delineating hardened steel from softer steel is called the Hamon Line. More on that in our next installment.
Some axe heads, particularly those that have been badly neglected will need more aggressive, and abrasive treatment. A sanding disk or wire brush attached to an electric drill can be used if needed. Avoid using a bench grinder as they will heat the steel and possibly damage the temper. Electric grinders should only be used for the reshaping of steel, not the removal of rust or dirt.
When you are finished, discard the vinegar as it will no longer be suitable for cooking.
It’s up to you how far you want to go in removing any pitting scratching or ‘history marks.’ These often won’t effect the performance of the axe, but some people prefer to remove them for cosmetic purposes. If you do decide to leave scratches and/or pitting you’ll need to be more diligent in keeping the head clean, dry and oiled as they can begin to rust again.