You’re not going to get some tired quote about Abraham Lincoln sharpening an axe to do the job here.
What you need to know is that a well-honed axe will not only help you fell a tree or chop wood more efficiently, it will be a much safer afternoon of work as well and lengthen the blade’s life.
You have a number of options to get a razor’s edge on your blade and several different types of axe sharpeners to choose from.
Regular blade maintenance is important to keep it sharp, but to also work out any knicks and inconsistencies in the blade. This will help in most applications and styles of chopping. While you can get away with a duller blade on a splitting maul or a splitting axe, you will want a sharp edge on all of your other axes or hatchets.
Preparing your axe
Wear a pair of gloves to protect your hands from nicks and cuts. We cannot stress this enough. When you are sharpening a blade it does not take much to slip and suddenly you are needing some first aid. You do not need a big heavy pair of gloves, but a nice pair of tight-fitting wool gloves will give you the protection and dexterity and control you need.
If you are working indoors or a garage, wear a dust mask. If you are using power tools also use a respirator and safety goggles.
First thing you want to do is remove any rust that may be on the blade using steel wool or sandpaper. Work from the handle out until you have restored the luster of the steel.
This will give you a clean starting point for whatever method of sharpening you use.
Regardless of how you proceed, make sure you are able to securely brace your axe so it does not move or slip while you are working your axe head.
Types of edges
There are two types of edges most people use on their axe and both have different applications.
A rounded bevel edge puts more weight and support behind the edge. This is great for cutting hardwood while a smaller curve or angle will be better for cutting soft wood.
A straight edge has no bevelling to it at all and the trick is to shoot at somewhere between 25 and 30 degrees. A straight edge is best used in a carving axe which often requires accurate technical cuts. Too steep of an edge or and angle less than 20 degrees will hurt its performance.
Sharpening with a file
Files do come in a range of sizes but you’ll want one somewhere between 8 and 12 inches. Any shorter and you lose teeth that will shorten your stroke on the axe, any longer and it becomes a little more cumbersome to use.
If your axe is quite dull or has a chipped edge or is rusty, it is probably best to at least start with a file.
There are two methods for sharpening with a file both require a single motion — no back and forth strokes.The most common is a push method, it’s also pretty straightforward. With the axe secured so it is laying flat — we recommend using a vice — push out with your file at an angle across the blade. For a bevelled edge, start at an angle where you are not quite contacting the cutting edge. Do a few passes, keeping in mind the file removes metal with each stroke. Follow this up on the next several passes contacting the cutting edge this time, still at an angle — keep in mind you want an edge at somewhere between 25 and 30 degrees. Make sure you use even pressure with each stroke. Once you are satisfied, flip the axe over and repeat, creating the same angle on the other side. Continue until you are happy with edge. If the axe is dull it may take a while to get it right.
The other method is a draw stroke. Instead of pushing the file across the blade, you grip the file by both ends and as you apply pressure to the cutting edge, pull the file the length of the blade edge, keeping in mind your optimal angles. You will eventually create a slight overhang or burr, but be careful not to bend the blade too much. Flip the axe over and repeat.
Finish up with a few passes of the whetstone, removing the burr and honing the axe until the blade is the desired sharpness.
Sharpening with a whetstone
There are several different styles of whetstone or axe sharpening stones on the market. They will come with different levels of grit — the smaller the number the larger the grit. Up to 1,000 grit will allow you to remove some imperfections or the burr off blade. The larger the number, the finer the grit and will allow you to do more finishing work to get that super sharp edge. We recommend getting a double-sided stone with different grit levels on each side for convenience.
Using a whetstone is a simple process. Depending on the type of stone you may need to use honing oil or water along with it. Place the stone against the edge and rub in circular motions against the edge along the length of the blade, applying even pressure as you go. Do this on both sides of the axe. Once the burr has been feathered out with the larger grit, switch to a finer grit to completely remove the burr, leaving you with a sharp edge.
Apply a layer of oil, beeswax or Vaseline to the axe head to protect the edge and the steel head from rust.
Sharpening with power tools
Sharpening an axe does not have to be time consuming, there are a few ways to expedite the process by adding a little power to your efforts. There are three power tools commonly used to sharpen an axe: A dremel tool, a belt sander and an angle grinder.
As a reminder, before switching on your tools, make sure you have the appropriate safety equipment as mentioned above — safety goggles and a respirator or dust mask are a must, along with your protective gloves. Also have a bucket of water on the standby to dunk the axe head in if it gets too hot. If you heat the head too much there is the risk of losing the temperature.
With a dremel, having the right head attachment is key, we recommend using aluminum oxide grinding stones. Follow the bevel of the edge in small circular motions, similar to a whetstone. If the edge gets too hot to touch, dunk it in the water and let it cool off. Repeat this on the other side of the axe head, continuing to follow the bevel and the edge of the blade.
If your axe is rusty or has some serious imperfections, start with a coarser bit which will help prevent the axe from heating up too much. Once the rust is removed then switch to a finer grit.
With a belt sander, once it is up and running, grip the axe head tight with both hands. Run the edge of the head across the sander in a gentle curving motion, following the edge and curve of the bit. Apply even pressure making smooth passes along the sander. Again, keep an eye on the temperature of the blade.
Due to the nature of the sander, it is probably best to not use a finer paper than a 1,000 grit and to switch over to a whetstone to finish honing a fine edge.
With an angle grinder make sure the axe is firmly secured, as you would when using a file. As you would with the other power tools, follow the edge and the bevel of the axe as closely as possible. Use smooth, even strokes with the grinder along the edge, but switch back and forth between sides to maintain the bevel.
Sharpening with river rock
If you are out in the bush and lose your whetstone, there are still options to put an edge back on your axe by using stones you find in the bush or a nearby creek.
There are some properties to look for in a pinch including large, smooth stones to place on the ground to grind the edge of the axe against or small stones to use in a similar way to a whetstone — granite will give you a coarser grit while quartz will be smoother. You also want to make sure that the stones are hard in order to withstand the sharpening process and to give your axe an edge.
A riverstone is your best option in this scenario, serving as a natural whetstone.
The best way is often the hard way. Using a file and a whetstone will give you the control to put the right type of edge on your axe without risking the temper of the axe. This gives you a feel for your axe edge and allows you get a razor-sharp edge without damaging the head. Using a file and whetstone will take a little bit of time and extra effort, but it is not a difficult skill to master.
Regardless of the method or what you are using the axe or hatchet for, always start by first showing your axe a little love, it will make your life a lot easier.