You should look after all your tools, but you should definitely look after your axe. A dull axe isn’t just an annoyance, it can be damn right dangerous.
If a dull blade does not lodge for a clean cut, but instead glances off the piece of wood you are aiming at then some serious accidents can happen.
Look after your tools and they will look after you.
Yes, you can.
In this article I will discuss the ways in which you can sharpen a well-maintained axe and keep it in good shape.
However, you can find any old axe in a shed and bring it back to life. If you do find a rusty old axe there is an initial step you will have to take before sharpening it.
You will need to remove the rust and polish the whole axe head. A rust eraser is the best option to do this, but steel wool will work too especially if the rust isn’t too bad.
Once you have gone over the axe with a rust eraser, then use extra coarse sandpaper, sanding in a motion from the axe end to towards the blade. Then repeat this process with fine sandpaper, and then extra fine sandpaper.
Once you are happy, then apply some metal polish, which you can reapply after the sharpening also.
Always follow the advice you are given with the sharpening tools.
In general, consider wearing protective or leather gloves, safety googles to protect your eyes from fragments and dust, and wear a dust mask especially if you are using power tools.
It can be hard for beginners to know when to stop and turn the axe over to the other side, to work on. To get an idea on this, you need to keep an eye on the BURR.
When sharpening one side you will create an overhang of sorts on the other side. You will be able to see this or carefully feel for it. Once it is noticeable, then stop and turn the axe over to ensure an even and sharper blade.
The goal is to remove any dents, chips, scoring, basically any imperfections of the blade. Once you have done that, how sharp you want to take the process is down to you.
The sharper you want it the more regularly you will have to maintain it. Remember you are likely using it to process wood for fire, or to build shelters, you are not trying to mimic a samurai sword.
There are many different ways of sharpening an axe and I will cover the main ones below. It is a good idea to try them all out, to get an idea of which method or methods you prefer.
This is my least favourite method, but it comes first because my list is in alphabetical order ha-ha.
Presuming you are well versed in using an angle grinder, and have access to one, then it is a very quick way to sharpen an axe.
Put the axe in a clamp or vice, and maybe use a block of wood to elevate the angle of the blade.
Then you simple run the grinder along the face of the blade at the angle it is at, back and forth, then turn over, and do the other side, then repeat until done.
Angle grinders are very powerful, so make sure you regularly turn the axe over to do both sides, otherwise you might go too far and it will be near impossible to get the original curve and angle of the blade back.
Firstly, you will probably need a range of good quality sandpaper, with a range of grits. If the axe has a lot of dents, you will need a coarse sandpaper. If you just need to keep it razor sharp, then you will need finer sandpaper.
The key to keeping a sharp axe is to use sandpaper that is suitable, to make sure the axe doesn’t get too hot and loses integrity.
Place the required sandpaper on the sander and turn it on. You want to get tight hold of the axe head with two hands and point the blade at the required angle at the sander.
Then press the axe to the sander, starting at one end of the blade, then smoothly rocking/rolling the axe to the other end in one motion.
Keep rocking back and forth, and turn over when needed to the other side, to ensure a smooth, sharp, and even blade.
This sounds stupid but don’t put too much pressure on the sander, or too little pressure either. Just a nice firm even pressure, which allows the sander to do its thing.
Keep checking the blade and if it is getting too hot, then give it time to cool down, have a bucket of water handy, or run it under tap water.
You can buy proper grinding stones for your Dremel, with different grits. From coarse (for major work), to fine (to get a really sharp blade).
I always prefer to buy branded products from the same manufacturer. Which ensures a good fit and consistent quality.
Put the grinding stone on the Dremel and turn the Dremel on. Place the stone flat against the angle of the blade and do small circular motions from one end to the other, before turning the axe over to do the other side.
It is important that you use the right grinding stones for the right task, don’t just buy a super fine one and think you can just leave the Dremel on it until the axe is done.
The reason for this is the Dremel will heat up the blade of the axe, and if it gets too hot the axe with lose its structure and it will become brittle.
When using a Dremel, keep checking the surface of the blade to make sure it is not too warm, or regularly cool it off in some cool water.
However, if you start work on a damaged axe with a coarse grinding stone and work your way down to a fine grinding stone, this helps prevent the build up of heat, and you will end up with a very sharp axe.
You can use any file really, but there are files that are specially designed for sharpening. I do like to use my tools in multiple ways, but tools always preform best when doing what they are designed to do.
So, if you can get your hands on files specially designed for sharpening, then you should do so in my opinion.
The easiest method is to sit down with the axe supported with your leg, with the blade pointing outwards for safety. Whilst maintaining the angle of the blade, file in a downwards motion, towards the blade and then past it.
Only file one way, do not file back up. This is inefficient and may damage the axe and/or the teeth of the file.
Another way is to set the file in a fixed and secure position, for example in a clamp. Then you run the axe against the fixed file. Either way is acceptable and works, so experiment and use the one that suits you the best.
As with most thing you get what you pay for with files. Yes, you can pick up some cheap ones from places like China but they aren’t going to last the same as long established company from the USA or Europe.
What you are looking for is a file with a comfortable handle, and the file itself should be as long as possible.
The longer the face is, the more teeth can be packed onto it, and you will be able to get a long smooth motion going, which will ensure a nice even blade.
If you have a new or well-maintained axe then one fine file will do you, if you are restoring old axes or are putting them through a lot of work, then you might need a range of files to enable you to get rid of things like chips, before working on the true sharpness.
If you are at home and you are a regular axe user then you will likely have a range of sharpening tools handy. Even if you are away camping or at a bushcraft basecamp you will likely remember to take a whetstone with you.
However, it is always handy to know how you can use things found in nature to help you do your tasks.
So, if you find yourself in an emergency situation, a survival situation, or you just want to learn a new skill. Then you can use rocks to sharpen your axe while out and about.
The best stones to use are river stones as the process works better if the stone and the blade are wet.
You place the stone at one end of the blade, press down, and make small circular motions along the blade, until you get to the other end. Then turn the blade over and repeat.
You will have to find different stones for tasks.
If the blade needs a lot of work, then you will have to start with something like granite which is coarse, then move to finer and smoother stones like quartz to finish the axe off and make it sharper.
However, because you are in the wild you might not find exactly what you will need so you will just have to work with what you find.
A whetstone is basically a stone that mimics sandpaper. This means you can get different stones to finish an axe blade to how you like it.
You can get coarse grit ones and super fine grit ones. I increase the usefulness of a whetstone by getting double sided ones. This means each side is a different grit, which gives you more options.
If you regularly maintain your axe blade, then you will only need fine or super fine grades. Coarser grits are only needed if you are rejuvenating an axe that has fallen into disrepair.
The process is pretty easy. Clean the axe head with water so it is nice and clean. Do not dry it as the blade will need to be wet to allow the Whetstone to work properly (the clue is in the name WHETstone).
Sit down and get in a comfortable position. Place the axe flat on your leg for support, with the blade pointing outwards for safety.
Then place the whetstone on the blade, then use a circular motion and rub the whetstone along the face of the blade.
The range of whetstones vary but the lower the number the coarser it is. As I keep my axes in good condition, I need whetstones to sharpen dull edges and then finish the blade with a fine whetstone for a really sharp edge.
To do this I have a double grit whetstone which is 3000 grit on one side, and 8000 grit on the other.
If you have an axe in bad condition, then you will probably also need a whetstone with 1000 grit or lower for the initial sharpening.
There are many ways to keep an axe sharp, some ways are more expensive than others, and some will suit your personal circumstances more than others.
However, you end up doing it, the most important things is that you do something, and you make sure you keep the axe sharp enough to be able to do the tasks you want it to do.