Monday, 3 July 2017

Forging an axe with Nic Westermann

My finished axe head
I first heard about Nic Westermann on the Bushcraft UK website, At the time there were only a handful of people producing greenwood working tools and it seemed like a prerequisite to making them was being Swedish. Nic's spoon knives were starting to create a bit of a stir and he was posting pictures of some fantastic carving axes. Fast forward several years and Nic is arguably the most respected tool maker in the greenwood working community.

The Main Man

Last year Richard and I spent a day with Nic in his workshop forging axes under his expert guidance. I'd met Nic a couple of years previously at Spoonfest and he struck me then as being a very nice and down to earth kind of guy. He kindly offered to let us camp in his back garden the night before so that we could make an early start the next day, so we arrived at his house in Wales at about 5pm. Nic had warned me that I should probably bring some insect repellant as it can get a bit midgey this time of year, advice that I stupidly ignored. I've never really been a victim of insect bites, when those around me have suffered I've always emerged unscathed and felt somewhat smug as if being unattractive to biting insects was some kind of super power. However, I had obviously never encountered the particular breed of insect (which I can only describe as pure evil) that inhabits Nic Westermann's garden. After 10 minutes of struggling to put up a tent whilst performing the insect dance, we ran like a pair of teenage girls being pursued by a rabid mutant dog and took shelter in the car. Nic came to the rescue and kindly let us sleep in the back of his van, which was midge proof and very comfy (though I'm sure that if I strained my ears I could probably hear the sound of a thousand tiny collisions on the side of the van as the nasty beggars tried to break in).

This is what we started with
The next day we woke early, had breakfast in a charming little roadside cafe and then headed over to Nic's workshop. Experience had obviously taught him what was achievable in the available time and so he gave us an overview of the proposed timings of the day that would enable us to forge an axe head each, grind them and heat treat them and hopefully finish at decent hour that evening. Now I'd watched Nic forge an axe in under an hour whilst demonstrating at Spoonfest and in my over-active imagination I could hear the distant voice of Nic a few hours in the future saying something like: "Wow! you guys are naturals, you did that really quickly, we've still got time to do a couple of spoon knives, some gouges and if you keep this up we'll be making adzes before the day is through." I'm such an idiot, did my near death experience after failing to heed Nic's bug repellant advice teach me nothing? Nic knows what he's talking about.

Nic striking for Richard
Nic is a fantastic teacher and coming from two professional teachers I think that is considerable praise. He takes something that is quite mystical by nature and approaches it methodically and in stages that are easy to understand. In fact I think Nic has a gift when it comes to his analytical approach to tool making. This has allowed him to refine his tools and his processes and it is probably what has earned him the deserved reputation that he now enjoys. The day flew by and I think that Nic was genuinely impressed that we had only taken about an hour longer than we planned.

and for me
At the end of the day we had both finished and were as pleased as two very pleased people with scale burns and midge bites up and down our arms and shiny, razor sharp axes. To be honest though there was one drawback to the day. About a month beforehand I had developed tennis elbow and so lifting a heavy hammer repeatedly was quite painful. Fortunately Nic's method meant that most of the heavy work was done by the striker and I would just have to move around different punches and forms, but even this hurt at times. Nic was very understanding though and was always there to step in when needed. He even acted as striker for Richard.

Starting to punch the eye
All in all the day was great fun and a bit of a dream come true for me and Rich. I would love to have a go again and even have plans to set up my own forge in the future. Until then I might sign up for one of Nic's bladesmithing courses with the Greenwood Guild or even try axe making with him again, this time, hopefully, without a dodgy elbow.

Rich grinding the edge profile

The power hammer

Rich's axe (and his grubby hands)

Rich's axe with handle

Mine with handle

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