THE SUTTON HOO AXES
MAKING OF THE SHIPS AXES
There is always a mix of excitement and apprehension when I am asked to forge a new style of axe , so when David Pryor, of the Sutton Hoo ships company, emailed me out of the blue this was especially true.
Not only have I had a fascination with all things ‘Viking’ since a very young age, I have also always had an interest in one of the most iconic finds in Britain – the Sutton Hoo Dane burial ship. It’s a little known fact that when growing up I wanted to be an archaeologist , which is perhaps one reason I was drawn towards blacksmithing in the first place, so being given the opportunity to not only be involved in a project of this magnitude but also to create working tools for it was something of a dream come true.
David had asked me to forge two different styles of axe for the carpenters working on the project and I must admit that my first thought was “ how the hell do I make those” ……. The first, a Bearded axe, wasn’t going to be too difficult as I had made similar before, but the Broad or Shipwrights axe was definitely a long way out of my comfort zone (although that was also part of the appeal) and so started the research on how these were made both of the time (c. 720-780 AD) and now.
Just to put my background into context – I have been blacksmithing professionally for around 20 years, mostly making the usual gates, railings, furniture, etc, until in 2015 I travelled to Sweden to attend a course in toolmaking at Gransfors Bruks, under master axe maker Fredrik Thelin. Since that time I have specialised in forging knives, axes and utensils. I am not a full-time axe smith but have spent the last 5 years honing the skills required to forge a wide range of edge tools – axes being my personal obsession !
Having looked into the style of broad axe required, and how they were constructed, I decided to call upon my teacher in Sweden and ask for some advice – the results being a visit to the British Museum, a flight booked to Stockholm and a gathering called of the Norrhälsinge Järnsmides Gille (the North Hälsinge Blacksmith Guild) of which I am a member. It so happened that the Gille Ting (Guild Meet) was in September of 2019 and there were also several international members attending who were interested in helping.
Over the years I have developed a deep love of the Scandinavian countries, in particular Sweden - their vast beauty, their traditional values, their simple appreciation of a complex world – and will take any opportunity to travel and work there. So as I flew down from the Lofoten islands (where I had been teaching knife making), across Norway and into Stockholm my excitement and apprehension started to build. However after a welcoming pint of ale in the ‘English’ pub in Hudiksval (a strange experience I can tell you ……) and a chat with Fredrik we were set to start the build in the morning at the Gränfors Bruks teaching facility. With the team assembled, this was to be a real collective effort , everyone helping in all the different stages but aiming to have at least 6-8 axes complete in the 4 days we had. With hind sight it was a big ask but we managed to complete most of them in that time. The smiths involved were : Fredrik Thelin (master smith, Sweden), Sam Ritter (USA), Emiel Besseling (Holland), Julian Suitor (Australia), Hannes Thelin (Sweden) and myself.
So, how do you make a shipwrights axe ? Well, there are several different ways to forge an axe like this and, after a series of tests, it was decided to make the eye and neck of the axe from mild steel and the blade from a single piece of high carbon steel. Axes from the 7th C would have been forged from a combination of Iron and carbon steel and would probably have been made in three or four pieces, not two like ours. However as we live in modern times, and as the whole project is an exploration into how the ship, and the tools, were made (and not a re-enactment) we settled for the more contemporary process.
The first piece to forge is the eye section, through which the handle will be fitted . This is vital to get right as it determines how the axe sits on the handle and how it functions – it is almost more important than the blade section as it is very difficult to adjust or reshape once forged. Next the blade section is prepared – we used a larger piece of carbon steel which was forged down to the correct dimensions, then a flange drawn out from the centre section so as to slot into the neck of the eye piece. This creates the T-section. As would have the smiths of the time we were forge welding the two components together to make one piece (image 8). Forge welding involves making sure each piece is absolutely clean from scale, fluxed (using Borax as an anti-oxidant), heated to precisely the correct temperature (between 950-1000 degrees C) and then gently forged together to bind the molecules. This is the strongest way to fit two pieces of steel together but also very complex as many things can go wrong ……. and they did !! Actually each one of us ruined our first attempts at welding the sections – but it is often the failures that give us the most learning and we persevered, getting the second attempts correct. Once the sections are welded together then the hard physical work of drawing out (lengthening and shaping) the blade begins – this is repeated heating and forging, heating and forging, heating and forging until the correct shape is achieved. Heat, strike, repeat as we say… ! It can take in the region of 25,000 strikes per day for a smith to achieve what he wants.
The final stages really involve more science than anything else. Heat treating is done by taking the blade section to an even and exact heat (820 degrees C) and then quenching in oil to harden the carbon steel. This also makes the blade very brittle so it is then placed in an oven for an hour at 180 degrees C to temper the steel. This combination of processes creates a blade that is not only hard enough to sharpen but also flexible enough to withstand the forces involved in timber work. Edge grinding, polishing and final sharpening are the last things to be done before a handle is fitted and it’s ready to use (image 11-12). This style of axes is very specialised and is primarily used for finishing hewn timbers and planks. The Sutton Hoo axes are all off-set and right handed enabling the shipwrights control and a high degree of finish.
It is a great privilege to work on this project, especially with such a talented group of smiths, and my thanks goes to David Pryor and all the ships company for inviting me to get involved. A special thanks also goes to Gransfors Bruks company for allowing us to use their materials and facility and to the Norrhälsinge Järnsmides Gille for their support and advice.