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Steel Machete
Project Background

In the summer of 2010, my family moved into a new house. During the move, I discovered that my dad had held onto an old broken hickory axe handle that had split near the top. Immediately, my mind went to a video that I had seen recently online of involving the usage of common workshop tools and cheap steel to create a makeshift blade. I visualized my own version of the project using the end section of the axe handle as a machete handle and got to work on a simple design.

I thought that it would be an inexpensive and educational project, so I asked if I could use the broken axe handle and searched through our garage to see if we had any usable steel to attempt making the machete without spending any money. I found a sheet of 1/32-inch steel left over from work that my dad had been working on which I thought would probably end up being too thin, but I wanted to try forming a blade from it anyway. Once I had permission to repurpose the axe handle and use the steel, I traced out the blade shape that I desired onto the steel and cut out the section using my dad’s jigsaw with a metal cutting blade. The sheet was quite thin, so it only took a few minutes.

Using his bench grinder, I formed the blade edge, though I quickly found that the steel was too thin and pliable and wouldn’t support an edge. I had assumed when I began that I’d have to buy something for the project eventually, so I drove over to the Sears Hardware store and picked up a section of 3/16-inch-thick weldable steel. It ended up working perfectly as a blade both in rigidity and ability to shape a tapered edge. It isn’t great at holding a sharp edge though, due to its ductility, which is far higher than in the steel normally used in knife blades, but I was 14 years old at the time and my material options were limited.

I may temper the blade in the future if I get the blade to a satisfactory aesthetic state. I have reground the edge a few times since I began the project, trying to make it look more even and bring the taper to a sharper angle, so I had to restart filing the edge down to a smooth surface each time. Cutting the hickory handle was easy enough to do once it was clamped in a bench vise. Everything that followed, from attaching it to the blade, to dealing with the splitting that the handle ended up experiencing, to shortening it and modifying the fastening method, took years to finally get right.

Improving the machete has been an ongoing project where a few times each year I decide to modify, file or polish something. A few years after I originally fashioned the blade, I also formed a sheath from leather to protect it and those around it. My machete is one of the first hands-on projects that I worked on with real dangerous tools which taught me to use them safely and gave me experience in tool and material selection. As such, I am very nostalgic about it.

Detailed Description

The project started taking real form once I acquired the second blade’s weldable steel. It felt far more suited for a blade than the flimsy steel that I started with. Using sharpie, I traced the shape of my first blade onto the new steel and then again cut it with the jigsaw. This new section of steel was far too thick for the jigsaw to handle for long though, and caused the blade to heat up quickly, ruining the teeth. By hand, I hack-sawed through the remainder of the traced line until I was left with a raw blade blank.

I found that grinding this thicker section was far easier than grinding the thinner sheet even though more material had to come off, due largely to the rigidity of the blank compared to my first blade attempt and the increased thickness allowing for more error in grinding. Using a file for the finer details, I began to form the blade to a more rounded and attractive shape, evening out the errors that I had made in grinding.

Next in line was the handle, which I cut from the bottom section of the axe handle which had a small curve to it that I thought made it more unique and gave it better hand-feel. I cut a slot down its center a few inches deep and slightly wider than 3/16 of an inch into which the end of the blade would be fit. If I had had any prior experience with part fabrication back then, I would have known to undersize the hole slightly and creep up on a thickness that would allow the wood to clamp down on the blade, but I accidentally oversized it, giving the blade slight sideways play.

I was sure that my idea for fastening the blade to the handle was a good one when I dreamt it up, but it truly was not, and it failed quickly. I was hasty and didn’t do much materials research, so I drilled two holes around 1/16 inch in diameter through the handle and machete “tang” and ran nails through the holes to hold the two together. To prevent the nails from slipping out, I bent the end stubs into the wood and then ground them to be flush with its surface. Within days, after I had attempted a few times to chop wood with the machete, the handle began to split along the grain line due to extreme stress concentration, and the nails loosened.

At the time I apparently thought that the best way to prevent the handle from splitting completely was to clamp it together, wrap hose clamp around it and call it a day. This too lasted for a very short period of time before falling off. To repair the damage done by the dangerous mounting system, I pulled out all of the nails, filled the holes with wood filler and gorilla glue mixed with wood powder, sealed the split with just gorilla glue, and then started from scratch with a new idea.

I began by removing the blade and using a hack saw to cut a two-prong fork into its bottom end. The very top of the handle was destroyed by this point, so I chopped off an inch-long section, leaving behind strong material. To compliment the fork in the blade, I drilled out two holes of the same depth as the length of the fork into the handle to accept the fork prongs. The idea at the time was to provide a more solid anchor at one end for the blade’s forces to be transferred through, but it really doesn’t play a role at this point, though it is still technically present in the final iteration of the machete.

Since pins didn’t work to hold it together well, I moved on to using nuts and bolts to hold the blade and handle together. I drilled 3/8-inch diameter holes all the way through both, then on one side I used a Dremel to carve out essentially a countersink to receive the hex-shaped section of flanged nuts, and a larger countersink to allow the flange’s outer face to be flush with the surface. Similarly, on the other side, I carved out sections for the flanges of the bolt to lay flush. After cleaning everything up and blowing out drill shavings, I tightened the bolts as hard as I could to clamp the handle down on the blade, accidentally stripping one of the nuts which I had to replace. I then cut off and ground flush with the handle any parts that still protruded, then I filed them down further to achieve a more finished look.

To test out my new design, I again tried to chop wood with the machete but was cut short when once again the handle split. Determined to once and for all lock the handle down on the blade and give it enough holding power to endure the stress of the applications that a machete is meant for, I added bracing to clamp the split shut. First, I gorilla glued the new split together and clamped it down for a few days in a vise under high pressure to ensure that everything would end up as rigid as possible. I then capped the front and back of the handle with 1/4-inch-thick steel, drilled holes parallel to the blade through the handle and end caps, then ground countersinks into the steel plates to accept hex nuts and Allen socket heads. When those were sufficiently tightened, I ground the nuts, bolts and end caps to be more or less flush with the rest of the handle.

As a precautionary measure, I used the tig welder at my stepdad’s shop to partially weld together the nuts and bolts and prevent them from loosening over time. Thinking back, Loctite would have been a better solution, but I was not familiar with it at the time. Finally, when those welds were ground down to be less intrusive, I was satisfied with the strength of the handle. It has not broken in the five years since I made that final modification to the handle structure, and I hope that it continues to absorb the energy from chopping things without failing.

The machete is no replacement for an axe or hatchet when chopping wood, but I find it more fun to use something you built yourself even if it is a bit less efficient. In 2014, I gave every photo that I had taken at my Boy Scout summer camp to a counselor in exchange for some leather from which I constructed a sheath for the machete. I cut out two sections oversized by 1/4 inch in all directions from the outline of the machete, punched holes through both sections spaced a centimeter apart, and then wove them together using suede cord. Once fully bound, I added rivets to the ends of the cord and through the final holes to prevent the cord from unraveling.

I bought a cheap leather bracelet online meant for leather stamping which had a snap-button fastener that I was interested in using, and I cut its ends off to attach them to my sheath. Four holes were then punched in the sheath and two in each end of the bracelet and then I riveted them both to the sheath. One half of the bracelet folds over the back of the blade once it is sheathed and the button is snapped shut, holding it closed, while the blade’s tapered shape prevents it from falling out of the sheath.

If I make any changes to the machete in the future they will be aesthetic only, and minor, since I like the imperfections that have grown to be a part of it. Finishing the blade will likely involve more filing and polishing of the still rough and incomplete side, possibly tempering it to improve its ability to hold a sharp edge, and cleaning its surfaces. This project has been drawn out over nearly ten years, but I’m in no hurry to get it done. I’m enjoying the process of building, troubleshooting and cleaning it up because to me, working on it is a hobby far more than a means to an end.

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