Whether you enjoy the outdoors, go backpacking, practice prepping, or simply need a cord of wood for the winter, the axe is an ever-present tool. A fine quality axe is as close to a life-long investment as there is. But how do you sharpen your axe the right way? How do you keep axes strong, safe, and reliable?
It can be hard to find a simple answer to how to sharpen an axe online. To a degree, every axe worker has their own method. But some easy tips will go a long way toward improving your sharpening skill. Read on for all the answers you’ve been looking for–and maybe a few extras! Below, we’ll cover the ins and out of axe sharpening.
Determine Your Type Of Axe
The first thing to do before sitting down to sharpen your axe is to determine what type of axe it is. The way to do this is to observe the edge and sides (or cheeks) of the axe.
Generally speaking, axes fall into three broad categories. You’ll be able to tell what type your axe is by looking down at the axehead from above. The three axe profiles range from deeply convex (bowing out from the edge) to narrowly convex (less bowing but still pronounced, to straight (a roughly triangular axehead).
Deep Convex Profile
Axes with this profile are the heavy-hitters of the axe world. They are meant to chop hardwoods and other dense trees that can be difficult to cut with other profiles. If the axe head has a roughly bulbous flaring-out profile before the cheeks come together at the edge, you likely have a deeply convex axe.
Deep convex axes are also excellent for splitting wood. To get the most out of your deeply convex axe, you’ll want to bevel the edge as close to the tip of the axe as possible. This means sharpening it at an angle between 20-degrees to 45-degrees. The edge will be short, steep, but smooth.
Shallow Convex Profile
Axes with convex cheeks or sides that are not so dramatic are called shallow convex axe heads. These axes are best for chopping softwoods and all kinds of evergreen trees.
Seen from above, a shallow convex axehead will show the cheeks widening slightly as you approach the edge. Then the bevel will drop off and meet at the edge. These axes give off a graceful, lengthy profile, and the sharpened angle should be from 12-degrees to 20-degrees.
Straight Axe Heads
Unlike convex axes, these tools are wedge-shaped and usually meant for lighter-duty jobs. The cheeks are flat, and they stay flat until they meet at the edge. There, the angle to keep sharp will be anywhere between 20-degrees to 30-degrees.
Straight axes are ideal for precision tasks and carving wood. The straight edges deliver a precision cut with low resistance. If you’re looking for an axe that’s better for chopping firewood, always look for a wedge-shaped axe with wide cheeks. Wide cheeks will give you a steeper bevel angle for more chopping force.
How Sharp To Keep Your Axe
Many people wonder how sharp they should keep their axes. There’s conflicting information online about this topic too.
The answer is as sharp as possible. If you keep your axe–regardless of the profile–dull, you’re risking injury. It might seem counterintuitive, but dull axes can cause a lot more trouble than axes with super-sharp edges.
You want the edge of your axe–the point at which the cheeks meet–to be razor-sharp. However, there’s a right and a wrong way to do this.
The solution to sharpening your axe the right way lies with the profile. If you have a deeply convex axe, you should sharpen the point without trimming away any of the cheeks. The goal is to maintain the unique cheek shape while aiming for a sharp edge. The way to do this is by varying the bevel angle.
Axes with fewer convex edges require sharp edges, just like convex axes. The only difference with narrow convex or width-shaped axes is, the bevel angle will be lower. In other words, the cheeks will taper out to the edge more gradually.
Five Methods For Sharpening An Axe
Hopefully, by now, you’ll know what type of axe you have and what it’s best used for. Now let’s cover the five most popular ways to sharpen an axe.
Before you sharpen an axe, it’s a good idea to wash the head. Remove visible rust and buff away the surface, so you know exactly what the axe looks like and how sharp you need to get it. You should also have a vice handy. If you don’t have one, don’t worry. You can work in your lap with a solid grip on the axe.
There are two ways to sharpen an axe with a hand file: a push file or a pull file. Make sure you know what kind of file you have before commencing the process.
With a file, you’ll need a vice. Secure the axe horizontally to the bench.
First, determine if the bevel (the angle between the cheek and the edge) needs to be reprofiled. If so, use a long file and place it on the cheek at a 10-degree angle to the edge. You’ll get a total of a 20-degree bevel when you file each cheek.
Put the file an ⅛ of an inch from the edge, then pull or push your file with moderate pressure.
After the pull or push, lift the file from the axe and place it in the first position again. Try to keep the file off the edge as you continue down the cheek. Do the other side.
Now that you’ve profiled the edge, you can start sharpening. Place the file directly on the edge and now pull or push the file to fit the bevel you want. This will be a deeper angle than when profiling.
Continue across the edge, moving an inch at a time with slow, moderately stiff pushes or pulls. You want to remove all the rust from the edge. It should look shiny and metallic again.
Sharpening pucks like the popular Lansky model are used by professionals all over the world. They fit in a pocket and, with a little lubricant or water, serve as excellent portable sharpeners.
You need to be in a sitting position to use a puck. With the handle between your knees, place the axe head in your lap. Apply water or oil to the puck. Lift it to the edge of the axe and match the bevel angle to the edge of the puck.
Proceed to press the puck against the edge in small circular movements. You shouldn’t contact the cheeks of the blade at all.
Count the number of circles you apply on one side. After the edge is sharp enough to cut paper, repeat on the other side. If your puck has a dual-grit function, it’s now time to switch to the fine grit. Repeat the circular motions on each side of the axe. Repeat at least twice.
Be careful with bench grinders. They can remove a lot of material from the axe quickly if you’re not careful.
With all your safety gear in place, position the bench grinder, so the wheel moves away from the blade. Position the axe head, so the bevel angle is in line with the wheel.
Apply light pressure to the wheel as you continually move the axe head in and out from the wheel. Keep some water nearby to cool the axe off and preserve its temper.
Once the edge is sharp enough to your liking, apply a wire brush or fine-grit sandpaper to clean up the surface.
Bench grinders aren’t ideal for sharpening axes because they can ruin an edge in a second. If this happens, there are still hand-filling solutions to save an axe.
If you’re out in the woods and you desperately need to sharpen your axe, never fear. A large, flat stone will do in a pinch. Just apply cool water to the rock surface before you begin. Stones near rivers and streams are generally the best for this kind of operation.
This will replicate the effects of a whetstone. Position your axe so that the cheek is in line with the angle of the rock. Avoid contacting the edge itself until you’ve first sharpened the bevel correctly.
Once everything is correctly in line, press the axe in circular motions across the wet stone. Count the number of circles you perform, then replicate it on the other cheek.
Take a walk through your local home improvement store, and you’ll likely see a big section of handheld axe sharpening kits on sale. These tools are popular because they promise a one-and-done approach.
Sharpening kits essentially fit in your hand, and they’re meant for you to drag them gently across the axe edge. Wearing gloves, place the tool over the edge so that the sharpening stones are in line with the bevel angle.
Simply drag the tool across the axe, being careful not to apply too much pressure. (Always apply less pressure than you might tend to apply.)
We recommend using another method to sharpen your axe unless you’re already an expert sharpener. Why? These sharpening kits tend to damage edges with overuse, and they’re hard to manipulate if you want a specific bevel edge. Opt for a file set instead. With a file, you get to control every angle, and you’ll get a better view at the edge as you sharpen it.
Last Thoughts: Safety First
Before exploring a new sharpening technique, everyone needs to consider safety. Axes might seem like big, hefty old-fashioned tools, but they’re precision instruments with razor-sharp edges too.
The first step for how to sharpen an axe is wearing a pair of heavy-duty gloves. Leather or composite materials are up to you. Just pick a pair that are pliable and gives you enough dexterity to move around the blade swiftly.
Also, don’t forget eye protection. You don’t want wood chips flying into your eye when cutting, and you certainly don’t want grinding materials injuring you when sharpening.
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