How to Sharpen an Axe – DIY Guide to a Razor Sharp Edge

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How to Sharpen an Axe

An axe is an indispensable tool in backpacking and bushcrafting kits.

In fact, we always tag one along whenever we step outdoors, be it hiking or peak bagging or back country camping.

No modern day schmancy folding knife/hatchet can replace a sturdy axe for us.

It might be primitive. But it’s a no-brainer choice. And some of the newer models are extremely light and compact enough to be attached to a harbinger loop, making them easy to carry as well.

Equally important, is the sharpness of the axe blade though.

Irrespective of whether you are using a forest or bushcraft axe and cutting across the grain of the wood, or a splitting axe and going along the grain, a dull blade won’t cut the mustard.

It’s prone to deflections, rebounds and things that you can do without.

In fact, a lot of the dissatisfaction that woodworkers and survivalists have with their axes can be associated with dull blades more than the functionality of the axe itself.

Today, we will run you through ‘Axe Sharpening 101’.

With some simple DIY techniques and tools that can easily be sourced, you will learn how to keep your axe blade in top shape.

The Tools You Will Need

If you have an axe with an edge that looks as blunt as a hammer, then it is recommended that you sharpen it at home. Because it’s going to take some work.

But at times, you might discover in the field that the axe blade needs some love.

We will address both scenarios and list out some basic tools that you will need for the process.

  • Safety Goggles
  • Ear Muffs
  • Thick leather gloves
  • Respirator or Dust Mask (Mandatory if you will be sharpening the axe using power tools)
  • Bastard File
  • WD40 or White Vinegar
  • Steel wool
  • Sandpaper (Coarse & Fine Grit)
  • Vice
  • Sharpie to color the bevel
  • Whetstone
  • Lansky Puck
  • Bench Grinder
  • Dremel tool
  • Puck-like rock (In the field when you don’t have access to tools)
  • Quartz
  • Sewing Machine Oil
  • Wax Polish

That’s not by far, the most exhaustive list of axe sharpening tools.

Some like to use a grinder with a buffing wheel to polish the edge after it’s sharpened.

But even if you do not have access to specialized tools, the above mentioned ones will get the job done.

Prepping the Axe For Sharpening

Grab the axe and take a good look at the axe head.

Does it have a smooth and even bevel? Is the edge damaged with nits or is rusted considerably?

Rust can be removed with an anti-rusting solution like WD40.

If you wish to go the non-synthetic route, then household white vinegar works equally well.

The caveat is that Vinegar takes at least 12-15 hours to completely remove rust. If you don’t have that kind of time, go with WD40.

White Vinegar Method:

  1. Take a large plastic or metal bowl.
  2. Detach the handle from the head and place the head in the box.
  3. Fill the box with white vinegar so that the entire head is submerged in it.
  4. Allow it to rest for a day.
  5. Remove and wipe it with steel wool or a steel sponge.

WD40 Method:

  1. Spray the axe head with WD40.
  2. Let it rest for at least half an hour allowing it to soak completely
  3. Use steel wool or a sponge to wipe off the corrosion.

If the edge is damaged considerably, then you will have to re-profile it using a bastard’s file.

For polishing the edge after cleaning, you can sand it with a coarse-grit sandpaper and hone the finish using a fine-grit one.

Understanding the Shape of Your Axe Head

It’s important to understand the shape of your axe head to be able to sharpen it effectively.

Some types of axe heads have a more pronounced convex edge than others.

The cutting axe for example, has a thin bit and a tapered edge which allows it to cut through lumber across the grain without exerting pressure on your arms.

The splitting axe on the other hand has a wedge shaped axe head which is a lot heavier because it has to split the logs vertically along the grain.

And if it’s a shaping axe, then it has a flatter curve which is easier to sharpen because the bevel is smoother by default.

The thumb rule is to always follow the curve of the blade.

How to Sharpen an Axe With a File

A simple 10 mm file is one of the easiest ways to put a razor sharp edge on an axe.

And the entire process is so easy that you can do it at home or in the woods or even when you are snoozing on a hammock. (Maybe not)

  1. Clamp the axe in a firm bench vice, or in your lap if you are sharpening it outdoors. Ensure that it’s secured firmly before you start working with the file.
  2. There are two ways to clamp the axe, horizontally and vertically. Clamping vertically allows you to file one side of the edge at a time, often giving better results. Clamping horizontally makes it easier to use the file. You can use the method that you are comfortable with.
  3. Use the sharpie to color the bevel edge. This allows you to maintain an even bevel when sharpening.
  4. Match the angle of the bevel to that of the file.
  5. If you are using push filing, then push against the edge making long strokes, removing a layer of metal evenly until you have a sharp edge. Repeat on the other side.
  6. If you are using draw filing, then match the bevel and draw it across the edge. It usually takes 10-15 strokes on one side. But may take more depending on the how blunt the edge is.

You have to be really careful as you work your way towards the edge of the blade. Even a tiny lapse in your grip can result in a cut to the bone. This is where cut resistant gloves come into the picture.

How to Sharpen an Axe with a Whetstone or an Oil Stone

An oil stone or a whetstone or a sharpening stone, whatever you want to call it, is an easy tool to sharpen an axe. It’s got a coarse side and a smooth one and we are going to be using both sides to sharpen the edge.

However, the type of stone (not the grit) should depend on the type of edge that you are trying to sharpen.

For flat edges, like a shaping axe, a soft whetstone, like synthetic water stones work best.

If you are looking to sharpen a curved edge, like that in a splitting or cutting axe, then a whetstone with a harder matrix, like Norton’s India Stone will be better suited for it.

That doesn’t mean that you cannot work with a soft water stone for your cutting axe or with an India stone for your shaping axe. It’s just that harder stones wear out slowly allowing a more even bevel.

You can use both water and oil as your lubricant. But use lubricant sparingly as it reduces friction between the stone and the edge of the axe thereby reducing the efficiency.

  1. Soak the whetstone in water for 10-15 minutes. The stone is porous and you should see some air bubbles as it absorbs water. Once this stops, it’s time to get to work.
  2. Place the axe head on the stone so that it matches the natural angle of the bevel.
  3. Now make circular motions ensuring that you cover the entire axe head. You will start to notice a silvery slush starting to form on the stone. Do not wipe this off. If the stone appears too dry and a grey powder is forming instead of a paste, then apply a wee bit of water on the stone and continue sharpening.
  4. Keep checking the edge. You don’t want to overdo it.
  5. Once you complete a side, flip it over and work on the other side.

Honing the edge

Check the edge of the axe. It should be pretty sharp already. But we are going to hone the edge a little and make it finer.

To do this, just flip over the whetstone and repeat the same steps as above. Always keep the whetstone slightly wet and make circular motions.

That’s it. You just have just put a razor sharp edge on your axe. But we are suckers for perfection.

Stropping (Optional)

If you are like us and you hate leaving things to chance, then you can strop sharpen it using the inside of a piece of leather. Or this stropping block from Amazon.

Stropping removes the tiny, imperfections in the finish that are caused when the edge is sharpened using the whetstone.

  1. Take a leather belt and place it on a table so that the inner side is facing upwards.
  2. Place the edge of the axe on it and work away from the grain of the leather making long strokes.
  3. Cover the entire edge of the axe and make three to four passes on each side.

How to Sharpen an Axe With a Puck

Field sharpening is a reality that most of us have faced. You cut down one tree too many and your axe blade starts to feel heavier. It takes more effort than normal.

Telltale signs that it needs some quick sharpening.

The Lansky puck is a compact dual-grit sharpening stone that can be tucked into a tiny pocket in your backpack.

It works pretty much like a whetstone. Only, this one is designed for portable use.

Here’s how you can sharpen your axe while you are in the field.

  1. If you have an axe head that is really blunt and dull, use the coarse side of the puck. If the axe is in reasonably good condition, then use the finer grit side to sharpen it.
  2. Add some water or some honing oil if you have it to the side that you will be using. If you don’t have either, use good old spit. Yeah, it works.
  3. Sit in a comfortable position and hold the axe head so that the handle faces towards your body.
  4. Place the puck against the edge and match the angle bevel.
  5. Now make small, concentric circles in a clockwise direction and cover the entire edge.
  6. If you are a beginner, it is recommended that you count the number of strokes that you make on one side of the edge and make the exact number of strokes on the other side as well.
  7. Flip over and repeat.
  8. Try the old fingernail test to check for sharpness.
  9. Once you have sharpened the edge using the coarse side of the puck, work on it with the finer side to hone the edge.

A lot of people ask us why they have to use some type of lubricant while sharpening with a puck or a whetstone.

The constant abrasion that occurs when the blade and the stone rub against each other dislodges tiny metal particles and pieces of the stone. This can get trapped in the pores in the stone causing it to get clogged.

A clogged stone is inefficient and can result in dull edges.

How to Sharpen an Axe with a Bench Grinder

If you have a bench grinder at home, then sharpening the axe becomes really simple. It will speed up the process for sure.

However, it’s not the most ideal sharpening tool, especially for someone who’s not used to it.

That’s because it can damage the edge if you are not careful while using it.

You want to hold the axe firmly but use very little pressure when pushing against the grinder. Also, keep checking the edge every few seconds to prevent overdoing the grind.

Sharpening your axe with a bench grinder

Keep a tub of water handy because there will be a lot of heat buildup. And excessive heat can also damage the temper.

If it gets too hot, just dunk it in the water to cool it down. Wait for a few minutes and continue again.

  1. Wear your protective gear including a dust mask and the goggles.
  2. Firmly mount the grinder on a level surface so that it doesn’t moonwalk when powered on.
  3. Power it on.
  4. Match the bevel angle and place it against the wheel. Always remember that the wheels must go away from the edge and not towards it.
  5. Keep checking the edge and once you have the desired sharpness on one side, flip over and do the other side as well.
  6. Use a wire brush to remove any burrs and have a smooth edge.
  7. Even better, grab a mil file and have a go at the edge once you are done with the grinding.

How to Sharpen an Axe with a Dremel

The dremel tool is a portable version of the bench grinder. It is compact, easy to hold on to and easy to use as well.

You will need a grinding stone bit, which is an aluminum oxide bit that will be the abrasive in this case.

Like we mentioned earlier, there’s always a possibility that you might overdo the edge and leave it hollow or heat it up too much to damage the temper.

So, keep a water tub close by, dunk it into it frequently and make intermittent passes only when the edge has cooled down.

Go slow until you get a hang of it.

  1. You can use sharpie to color the edge, or not.
  2. Grab the axe head firmly. You can also clamp it in a bench vice if need be.
  3. Place the bit against the edge and match the bevel angle.
  4. Be gentle as you move the dremel against the edge and cover the entire edge.
  5. Make long passes from one end to the other
  6. Check the edge for sharpness and repeat on the other side
  7. Use a wire brush to clean the edge and remove tiny burrs

How to Sharpen an Axe With a Stone

You were just throwing things into the backpack and you forgot to pack the Lansky puck and now you are stuck with a dull blade in the middle of the woods.

Yeah. It happens. No need to fret though.

When things don’t go as planned, you improvise.

You need to find two different stones to sharpen the axe.

A smoother, flat one, with a fine grit typically found on riverbeds and a coarser one like quartz, which is also found on stream beds along the side in striations.

Sharpening an Axe in the Field

It can be distinguished easily by its appearance which is transparent and colorless.

We work with the quartz first.

  1. If it is a large shapeless crystal, then just break it into smaller pieces that are easier to work with.
  2. Wet the quartz crystal slightly or soak it some water for 10-15 minutes.
  3. Place the axe head on the ground firmly, place the crystal against the edge and match the bevel angle.
  4. Now make small overlapping circles to cover the entire edge.
  5. Flip over and repeat.
  6. If the quartz starts to peel in dry flakes, add some water to keep it wet.

There’s another method that was popularized by Bear Grylls in one of those crazy survival shows on TV. That involves using powdered Quartz and a piece of live wood to create a makeshift sharpening stone.

In our opinion, that’s just too much work for something that can be accomplished much easier.

Just use the crystal and you should have a sharp edge in minutes.

Now we will redo the same process with the smoother, finer grit stone.

  1. Apply some water or use spit as lubricant.
  2. Keep the axe firmly grounded so that it doesn’t wobble.
  3. Hold the rock, place it against the edge, match the bevel as best as you can and make long passes to cover the edge completely.
  4. Flip over and repeat on the other side.
  5. Lastly, use a piece of leather or rough cloth to strop sharpen it and remove any burrs.

Polishing your Axe

Once you are done with the hard work and have an axe that cut through wood like a knife through butter, then you’d want to ensure that you maintain its efficiency for as long as it’s possible.

Polishing it is one way to do it.

A coat of polish does a lot more to the axe than make it look good.

The smoother surface penetrates and releases a lot better from the wood. That translates into less effort every time you put that axe to work.

Secondly, it deters rust. That alone should be reason enough for everyone to polish their axes after sharpening them.

There are many ways to polish an axe. Some yield better results than the others. There are also varying degrees of polish. I’ve found that I like this one the best.

Some people like a mirror finish to their axes. That takes a lot of work.

Others are happy with a more subdued gloss.

Nevertheless, here are some ways in which you can polish your axe head.

Using Power Tools

  1. An angle grinder fitted with a flap disc or even fiber gives your axe a thorough scrub, making short work of rust. The temperature rule applies with this. Keep water close by and use it if you find the axe head overheating.
  2. Anything that’s still left over on the surface can be removed with a sander machine. Start with 120 grit sandpaper and progress until your desired finish is achieved. Some stop at 800 grit sand paper. Others go all the way until 1500 or 2000 grit to achieve the perfect mirror finish.
  3. Attach a buffing wheel on the angle grinder, add some wax and hold the edge in the same direction as the wheels.
  4. That’s it. By now you have an axe with a lightning sharp edge. Give it a coating of machine oil or honing oil and you are done.

Manual Polishing

If you are after a mirror finish and you don’t have the above mentioned power tools, then it’s going to be a lot of elbow grease.

  1. The vinegar bath that we gave the axe head earlier should have removed all surface rust by now. But if it is still rusted, then use sandpaper to remove it completely.
  2. If the axe head is now smooth enough, with zero milling marks or pits, then it’s time to sand it.
  3. Start sanding with 180-grit wet sandpaper and work your way with higher grits until you achieve the desired finish.
  4. For a mirror finish, you’d normally have to sand with 180, 220, 600, 800 & 1500. Like we said earlier, that’s a lot of elbow grease. You can skip some of these grits if you feel that all the scratches from the previous grit have been removed.

Axe Maintenance 101

All said and done, someone wise once said that an axe that’s well cared for is worth its weight in gold.

And it will give you years of hassle free service.

Our axe has bailed us out of more precarious situations than we can list over here.

Be it chopping down dense, knotty wood which would have made the best hatchet or machete weep, or while processing dead trees in our woodworking projects, the axe has been there and done it.

That’s because we always maintain it in pristine condition. It’s not as difficult as it is often made out to be.

We will divide the axe into two parts, the head and the handle.

  • Caring for the Axe head: If you have a quality axe, the head is most likely made of heavy duty tempered steel. Oil it after you use it to prevent moisture damage and use a waxed leather mask to cover it. There are many varieties of oil that can be applied on it. But since you’d be keeping it covered in a leather mask, opt for gun oil. It dries quickly after application and ensures that the inside of your mask doesn’t get all sticky.
  • Caring for the handle: Most modern axes have a wooden handle made of hickory. And with the constant onslaught, the handle will also undergo a lot of wear and tear. Oiling it helps maintain the integrity of the wood and also the finish. Boiled Linseed oil is one of the oldest, tried and tested options. Dries in a jiffy. Is not sticky to the touch. Just use an old rag to apply a generous layer of oil, remove any excess oil and leave it to dry.
  • Caring for the leather mask: Almost forgot didn’t you? If you have a full grain leather mask for the axe head, then it deserves an equal amount of care to keep it in its original shape. Use any leather wax that doesn’t stretch or shrink the leather. If exposed to water or moisture, dry it completely and reapply the wax to prevent fungus.

To sum it up

We hope that this simplifies axe sharpening for you.

Some may find this to be quite a long read. But we assure you that we’ve covered every possible way in which you can bring back that dull blade to life.

If you have anything at all that you’d like to add to this, then please share it with us.

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