This article was originally posted here in September, 2010. We pulled it down awhile back and it’s now being reposted. This article will be added to the Premium Pages in a couple weeks.
We have always kept a hatchet and and prybar in our emergency gear but we’ve been looking for a single tool to do both jobs since downsizing our loads. We went back and forth on what the tool’s primary purpose should be and came to the conclusion that, for our application, the new tool must be specifically designed to pry. Being able to chop with this tool is necessary but much less of a priority for us. There are a few “chopping prybars” that fit the bill and one of them is the Becker BK3 TacTool but I am reluctant to spend the $90 to get it. I couldn’t resist the urge to at least try to fabricate one before we bought a factory made version.
My old 15″ Vaughn SuperBar was going to be sacrificed for this project until I learned that they made a 21″ version. The old SuperBar is around 30 years old and has never shown any sign of failure other than some dulling of the ground edges. The Vaughn bars are made in the USA and are a full 1/4″ thick. They’re secretive about the type of steel they’re using but my guess is it’s 5160 with their own special heat treat formula. 5160 is commonly used for springs and often used for custom knives. The cost of the 21″ bar is $15.00. There are some shorter Chinese versions available for $5.00. I’m not sure how a factory can forge a bar, heat-treat it, ship it across the Pacific and then sell it at retail for $5.00. I wasn’t going to find out the hard way so I stayed with the Vaughn brand.
This is a pictorial of the process used to modify the 21″ Vaughn SuperBar into a combination tool.
All the grinding and drilling in this process was done on a non-annealed prybar. Most machete and knife tutorials online require the steel to be annealed (softened) prior to grinding. This is not necessary for this project. Vaughn’s heat-treat reputation is outstanding and it would be waste of time and effort to anneal this bar and try to restore it’s properties in a home forge. There is not much grinding involved and as long as the bar is kept cool you will not alter the factory heat-treat. Keep a bucket of water nearby and only remove small amounts of metal until the bar feels warm to the touch. Put the bar in the water to cool it back down. Drilling this steel is accomplished with a drill bit made with cobalt. A bench grinder, small hand grinder, drill press, circular saw and belt sander were used for this project. If you decide to do this project PLEASE use all safety precautions like safety glasses, dust masks etc. Wear gloves and use safe and proper knife handling precautions as well.
Since this will be a chopping tool, determine which side of the bar will be the chopping edge. I didn’t feel it was necessary to have both edges sharpened and didn’t want to warp the bar so I chose to only sharpen a portion of one edge. I’m right handed and wanted the gently curved portion of the bar to be the farthest away from my head when the bar is swung. A left hander would probably chop with the opposite side of the bar. With a straightedge make a line 3/8″ up from the chopping edge on both sides of the bar.
Set your circular saw to 15 degrees and cut a 4″ piece of 1×6 lumber. This piece of wood will be the grinding fixture. The 15 degree edge will rest on the grinder and be used as a guide when drawing the bar across the grinding wheel. Clamp the bar to the wood as shown with 1/4″ from the edge of the wood to the edge of the bar and your straight line is showing. The chopping edge will be ground in the space between the clamps. A 1×6 board should give you a little more than 4″ of grinding space between the clamps.
Set the wood on the grinder rest as shown and practice drawing the bar across the grinding wheel few times to be sure it moves smoothly side to side from one clamp to the other. Begin grinding the bar taking small amounts off the bar with each pass. Don’t put too much force against the wheel. After a few passes, stop and check to see how hot the bar is. If it feels warm put it in the water bucket. The goal is to keep the bar as cool as possible during this step. If you grind too hard or too long, the metal will change colors. That means that you are annealing the metal… not a good thing, so take your time. Go slow and straight, using the lines you drew as a visual guide.
Keep checking the depth of your grind. The goal is to grind a 15 degree angle from the edge’s center towards the straight line drawn on the bar. Depending on the diameter of your grinding wheel, you may need to unclamp and move the knife down slightly towards the edge of the wood to get a full, flat grind. Once you’ve reached the center of the edge, unclamp the bar, flip it over and reclamp it. Grind the other side of the bar the same way until the grinds meet. Be careful not to grind too heavy now. This is the cutting edge and it needs to be as hard as possible. It will heat up faster because it is thinner.
When you’re done, go outside and give it a try. The photo below shows what the bar can do to a 3″ diameter piece of dry cherry wood. Once you’ve got the cutting edge the way you want it, move on to the next step if you want.
Locate the spot on the bar that you would want to use as the grip. I felt that the bar was a little tall so I elected to grind away a portion so the grip would fit in my palm better. A hand grinder was used for this step, making sure that the metal stayed cool. The grinder was also used to cut the sharpened portion off of the prybar’s right-angled end. The bar was cut right past the “V” notch. This still leaves enough bar to pry with and makes a nice large hammering surface.
Center punch for two holes to use for the handle’s bolts. The drill bit that was used is made with cobalt. It is made specifically for drilling thru hard metals and went thru this bar with no trouble. I had 1/4″ bolts and small washers on hand so I used a 1/4″ drill bit. Use the slowest speed that your drill press has and don’t force the bit thru, use a little bit of oil and let it cut the metal at it’s own pace. Sand all the burrs from the holes and anywhere else that metal was removed.
At this point, you could just smooth any rough edges in this area and wrap the handle with paracord. I had some 3/4″ thick hickory planks on hand so that is what I decided to use for the scales. Clamp them into place on the bar and drill both scales at the same time using the holes in the bar as a drill guide. Counterbore the holes so the bolts are set deep into the scales and rough sand the scales to shape. Remove them and do a final shaping and fine sanding. Paint the bar if you think it needs it. I used a stain/sealer on the scales and a little Gorilla Glue when they were permanently installed. LocTite the nuts. I will most likely use Micarta for the scales if these hickory grips end up cracking or breaking.
This project took about 2 hours to complete. Most of that time was spent doing the edge grinding ,waiting for the bar to cool off between grinds and taking photos. (It took longer to assemble this article than it did to do the project.)
The bar still prys just fine. It passed the “whole-body-weight” test several times with flying colors. We now have an Urban Emergency Tool designed mainly to pry but can also cut, pound, chop, scrape, dig and pull nails. The total cost was about $20.00 (not including the wood, bolts and paint). The drill bit was the only tool that was purchased in addition to the bar. The 1/4″ cobalt drill bit is made by Irwin and cost around $5.00. Both the Vaughn Super Bar and the Irwin drill bit were purchased at Menards.
Vaughn puts a razor sharp edge on both ends of this bar. Since we plan to carry this bar in a backpack or belt sheath, the sharpened edge was removed from the 90 degree end (handle end) so it wouldn’t cut thru the pack or our clothing.
The next project will be a scabbard or carry sheath that will keep the other sharpened edge from cutting anything it’s not supposed to.
We purchased our Super Bar at Menard’s. It is also available thru Amazon: