It’s not hard to paint an axe head – and yes you can just spray paint it as-is. But there are a few additional steps you can take to get the most durable finish.
What you will need:
1. Good Spray Paint
I use Rustoleum painter’s touch, but any of the better paint brands will do. DO NOT use a cheap or “store brand” spray paint, they are inconsistent and flakey. I have tried them before, thinking it wouldn’t be a big difference – they suck. It’s worth the $3 difference to get the good stuff.
Gloss vs Matte
Gloss paint will initially be stronger, but it will all wear off with use.
2. Blue painters tape
You will need tape to mask off the bit (blade) or any area that you want to leave the metal exposed. The blue painter’s tape will leave a much cleaner line than the standard green tape, so I highly recommend it.
3. Axe cleaning supplies
This will largely depend on the state of your axe/axe head. But WD40, steel wool, scrub brush, sandpaper, wire wheel – all usual suspects. You will need to remove any existing rust, sap, or dirt.
4. 100-220 grit sandpaper
Roughing up the surface of the metal will help the paint get a better hold. However, if you use too rough a grit, the scratches will show through the paint. 100 grit works, but it’s more likely to be visible so I might finish with 220. You can just use standard woodworking sandpaper.
5. Dish soap, acetone, degreaser
For the best hold, you need to pull off all the oils and grease from the axe head so it won’t interfere with the paint bonding to the metal. Especially since you will likely use
WD40 (or something like it) to clean your axe head beforehand. But even just the oils from your hands can cause issues.
I tend to use acetone – as I’ve had flash rust when washing with dish soap before. Fun fact – Nail polish remover is just acetone – and it’s the cheapest way to get it (amazon). But you may have it already if you or anyone you live with paints their nails.
6. Optional extras
Wire for hanging the axe head (not string, the fibers can mess with the paint)
Step 1: Clean the axe head
Make sure the steel is clean of any dirt, sap, and completely rust-free – any existing rust can eat away at the steel from under the paint (that’s bad).
For really old heads you can choose to leave or remove a thick Patina. As long as active rust is removed you should be good.
The best way to completely get thick rust and paint from an old head is with a wire brush attachment for a power tool, like a bench grinder, angle grinder, or even drill. The wire brush can get in all the little scratches and pitting. But a handheld brush or sandpaper works too.
You do not need to completely remove old paint, but I would at least go over it with some 100 grit sandpaper to make sure you get anything that’s loose. Either by hand or with a foam-backed handle.
If the head is not on a handle be sure to clean inside the eye as well – this can be tricky. Try rolling some sandpaper into a tube and using that to clean off any interior rust.
Step 2: Roughen the steel
Rough up the exposed metal that is going to be painted with 150-220 grit sandpaper. Just do it by hand, using mixed hand motions (not just one direction).
If you end up sanding the edge of painter’s tape (it happens) you may want to remove the existing strip and apply a new piece to ensure the cleanest edge.
Step 3: Degrease the head
Finally wipe down the exposed steel with hot soapy water, acetone, or a degreaser to remove any remaining oils. Again I like acetone the best, but use what you have.
It’s easier to avoid new contamination if you wear gloves from this point on, but you can otherwise just hold the taped areas.
Step 4: Mask the axe
Cover the bit (blade) or any area of the axe you want to remain unpainted using the blue painter’s tape.
If you are painting an axe that is on the handle, you can cover the handle with newspaper or plastic wrap, but tape tightly around the eye.
Handled axes: try to tape over the end of the handle that is sticking out the eye. This will leave the grains exposed so you can continue to oil the handle properly in the future, which will prevent a loosening of the head.
Step 5: Warm the axe
This is a skippable step. But ideally, you should warm the head right before painting the first coat of paint to around 100F (or as close as possible).
Axe head only:
If you are prepping a loose head you can just stick it in the oven for a few minutes.
Prep your painting supplies and area BEFORE you start heating the axe head so you are ready to go as soon as it comes out.
TIP: Tie a piece of wire through the eye into a big loop before so you can quickly pick it up and hang it for spraying. Don’t use string (like I did below), the fibers get stuck in the paint.
DO NOT put your handled axe in the oven, it will be bad for the handle and could loosen the head. Just put the axe in the sun for a while if it’s hot out, or just skip this step.
Step 6: Hang axe in spraying area
Axe head only:
Use a wire or string to hang the axe head in your spray area – this is the best way to be able to spray all sides at once and create a consistent finish. You could also hang it on a stick or clamp the bit to something.
If you need to lay the head flat to spray – no problem, it will just take more time as you will need to spray each side one at a time. If you do it this way you can skip the heating step since it will be inconsistent.
If your axe has a lanyard hole, you can hang it from there or clamp the handle so the head can be sprayed from all sides. No worries If you can’t do this – just lay it flat and spray one side at a time.
Step 7: Paint the axe
Shake the can vigorously before starting to spray to avoid build-up and inconsistencies.
Spray 3-4 light coats from about 12” away, leaving plenty of time for each layer to dry in between.
The key here is LIGHT coatings. I would rather do 6 coats that are too light than 3 that are too thick. It’s okay if you still see some steel even after a couple of coats.
If the paint goes on too thick it will run or pool, and that will interfere with the overall bonding process (and just not look as nice). Thick paint is also more likely to seep under the painter’s tape. So just build it up nice and slow, giving it enough time to dry between each coat.
Leave between 20 – 40 minutes to dry between each coat. Rustoleum says specifically to do additional coats within an hour of the previous spray or leave it for a couple of days.
You can spray the inside of the eye – or not. I usually only try on one or two coats, but it’s not needed at all.
Step 8: Let the paint set
If you want the best finish I can’t stress this enough – give your axe LOTS of time to dry.
Once you have applied the final coat, let the paint really harden for at least two days before hanging or using the axe. Even laying it on a surface will slowly warp coating, so it’s best to let it dry hanging as well.
Even after hours of drying, laying the head down on a surface can cause the paint to shift and imprint texture (although it will seem firm to the touch).
Boom you are done.
Tip: We also have an article on how to paint a custom handle.
If I missed something or you have any questions, feel free to leave me a comment below. I do my best to respond to everyone.
About the author:
I’m just a guy who likes axes – as a tool, the craft of restoring them, and the history. I got tired of only finding crappy websites, so I set out to build a better one myself.
Jim Bell. – Owner, Creator