how to restore an old axe

Ugly Ducklings

Ever since I started restoring axes about five years ago I’ve had the opportunity to restore quite a few. But my favorites to restore are the dirtiest, nastiest, most rusted and neglected axes I can find. Most collectors (and I do consider myself to be a collector) would pass these tools over for those in better condition. But the shiny, unused vintage collector axes, which have a beauty all their own, never really appealed to me. For me, seeing the transformation from rock-bottom neglect to beautiful utility is much more exciting.

I’ve taken to calling these axes ‘Ugly Ducklings.’ Just like in the children’s story, they’ve been cast off and deemed outcasts. But within them lies the beauty, and in some cases, the bloodlines, of a great axe. One of my favorite 'ducklings’ is show above. It was purchased for about $10, and it was badly rusted with deep pitting in the steel. After a vinegar bath to remove the surface rust I found the letters 'SHER’ on one side of the poll. It was a Kelly Woodslasher! The rest of the letters had been eaten away by rust long ago, but I was certain of its maker. The Kelly Axe Co. had a long history as one of the premier axe makers in America, and with the Kelly heritage this axe was certainly worthy of both restoration and use. 

The pitting and markings these Ugly Ducklings carry have a beauty all their own worthy of preserving, and I like the contrast of the craggy, pitted steel, and the shiny surface of the sharpened bit. With a little love and a sharpening stone, I’ve simply added the next chapter as caretaker, and with any luck it won’t be the last. 

Nick Zdon is Best Made’s resident axe and restoration expert. He has taught numerous axe restoration workshops and taught many people how to bring old axes back to life. He can be reached at for questions and comments regarding axes and restoration projects.