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Import trade tomahawk

Updated: Jan 22

Brass, dovetailed steel, tomahawk
Antique brass and dovetail import tomahawk

The first time I saw a brass and dovetailed tomahawk I was intrigued. I was on a scout trip out west as a teenager at a hooky roadside attraction that the driver stopped at on our way to Philmont Scout Ranch. In front of a mock tipi an old man in machine sewn buckskin had laid out a blanket with exhibits of native American trade items, all new and shiny, some still wrapped in plastic and their protective layer of grease. Some if not all was actually for sale he told us through his toothless grin, in what was probably the most authentic wild west swindler/trader kinda way.

I naturally gravitated toward the tools and weapons on the blanket. I had already started blacksmithing and casting my own tomahawks by this age and jumped at any chance to get close and personal with my obsessions. While the majority of what he had was junk I spotted the brass and dovetail tomahawk and fell in love. I was intrigued by the woodworking technique employed to hold the hard steel and soft cast brass body together, simple and elegant.

The rest of that trip was filled with thoughts of how I could make one. Later many attempts were made with varying degrees of success, jump 20 years and I looked into having a run cast at a foundry of my own design (how I ended up getting my bronze foundry side job). But they aren't as simple as they look and I was never happy with my results to labor ratio.. then one day I found the exact cheap import tomahawk the old man had had and I knew what I needed to do.

These modern imports are readily available and a bane to the authentic living history and reenacting community. My first attempt at modifying one was a great success, while not a perfect copy for some construction issues inherited from the original casting it got accolades from historians and collectors alike for filling a void in the current reproduction market for an authentic passing brass and dovetail pipe tomahawk. To better showcase the amount of work researching and modifying (reenacting term, defarbing) goes into one of these transformations it was suggested I make a WIP of my techniques.

The first order of business is to look at originals. These were mass produced in Europe for the North American fur trade and imported by the barrel full. They have been found archaeologically from Quebec and the Hudson River in New York to the Rocky Mountains and even south into Mexico. There are many different patterns attributed to different manufacturers but here we're looking at examples made in Britain between 1760 and 1830. One piece cast brass body and pipe with a dovetailed steel bit. Tear drop shaped eye and tulip pipe bowl. Simple neo classical architecture with engraved line, rope and floral motifs. Flat topped with slightly drooping heel, square choil mid molding at the transition of the eye and the blade.

Of course I should have taken a before photo but the catalog listing above shows what I started with. There's lots of extra material, terrible mock engraving, incorrect moldings and non period shape to contend with that's all knocked back on the grinder. Some things I can not change but I do everything I can. As always I work by eye keeping my knowledge of the working properties of the materials at the forefront of my mind as I bring the shape and form inline with the originals.

Once the majority is ground I come back and hand file all surfaces. Refining the lines and architecture and imparting a hand worked filled finish with first a rough rasp and then a double cut fine file.

The lines and rope work are done by hand with chisel engraving

Final clean up with the double cut file

Detail photo of the historical filed finish. Look close and you can see the individual hammer strikes in the rope work engraving, same as one the originals.

Jump start of an age patina

Sand and strip the handle so it fits the head correctly and then I fill the old smoke hole with a piece of bamboo skewer

Finish and patina

I then install a buck skin gasket

And hammer everything together

Drill a new smoke hole through the pipe bowl to meet up with the stem hole in the handle.

And finished!

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