How to Sharpen an Axe

Before and After picture of restored double bit axe.Restoring an old axe can be very rewarding. The axe in the picture to the left was discovered in the basement of an old barn in Michigan.  To restore an axe, you’ll need a few tools and a lot of patience.  This article takes you through the basic steps to properly sharpen your axe; shaping with a flat file, grinding with the axe stone, and stropping with leather.  If you’re patient and take the time to follow the steps outlined in this article, your axe will be shaving sharp.

The bit of the axe is a cutting tool that shears through wood fibers with tremendous force.  You want to keep your axe razor sharp, otherwise you’ll be crushing wood fibers instead of cutting them, and that makes for hard work.  The tools you need for sharpening an axe are basic and relatively inexpensive; a good file, an axe stone, and a wire brush are really all that is needed.

Sharpen your axe by hand.  Don’t use motorized grinding wheels.  A motorized grinding wheel can heat the blade to the point where it loses it’s temper, weakening the steel and permanently damaging the bit.

Tools and Materials

  • 12″ mill bastard file.  Files come in single or double cut.  Get a single cut file, at least 10″ long.  Buy a handle or make one so you’re not holding onto the metal tang.
  • Axe stone.  Look for one that has 2 grits and can be used dry.  You don’t want to be messing with oil or water when you’re out in the woods and you’re axe needs a quick sharpen.
  • Wire brush
  • Leather strop.  Try to find a wide, real leather belt.
  • Beeswax
  • Light machine oil
  • Rags
  • Gloves

Instructions

  1. Clamp the axe to your workbench so the edge of the axe hangs off the edge of the bench.
  2. Put your gloves on so you don’t cut your hand!
  3. Using a pushing stroke into the edge of the axe.  File at an angle, not straight at the edge.  Filing straight on will cause the file to chatter, producing an obnoxious screeching noise.  It also causes a rough uneven file marks.  File at a slight angle toward the middle of the axe.  Follow the rounded contour of the bit.  Don’t file too much away from the corners of the axe, since that’s the weakest part of the blade and most likely to chip off. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOI2bhEjNuI
  4. The file needs to be cleaned frequently to be effective.  Use a wire brush to clear the metal filings by stroking with the rows of teeth.
    Wire brush to clean grooves in file.

    Wire brush to clean grooves in file.

    Push the file for the cutting stroke, but don’t drag the file back.  Dragging the file back dulls the teeth and once it’s dull you can’t re-sharpen it.

    File toward the blade, not away from it.

    File toward the blade, not away from it.

  5. Flip the axe over and clamp it back down.
  6. File the other side of the axe in the same manner described in step 3.
  7. Un-clamp your axe.  Hold the axe with one hand with the axe handle under your arm.  In your other hand you’ll hold your axe stone with your fingers clear of the grinding surface.
  8. Start with the course side of the axe stone.  Use a circular motion into the edge of the axe.  Try to polish out any of the file marks.  You want to make it one continuously smooth cutting edge with no lumps or bumps.  Once a burr develops on the opposite side, flip the axe over so the handle points away from you.
    Course side of round sharpening stone.

    Course side of round sharpening stone.

    Fine side of round sharpening stone.

    Fine side of round sharpening stone.

  9. Use the course stone to polish the second side.  Use a circular motion into the edge of the axe.  Once a burr develops on the opposite side, stop.

  10. Repeat steps 7 and 8 using the fine side of the axe stone.  A very fine ribbon of metal will cling to the edge.  You may not be able to see it.  You need to strop the edge to remove this fine ribbon of metal.
  11. Strop the axe using a leather belt or honing/stropping material.  Hang your stropping material on the wall with a nail.
  12. With one hand hold the bit, with the other hand pull the strop taught.
  13. With the edge of the bit away from you and at 35 or 40 degrees to the strop, pull the the bit toward you with moderate pressure.    Then flip the bit over and push the bit away from you with the edge facing you.  Do this a dozen times.
  14. Once you’re satisfied, rub oil and then beeswax over the entire metal bit.  This will protect the metal from moisture and rust.
  15. Sheath the axe in a leather case so the edge doesn’t get damaged and so someone doesn’t get hurt.
  16. Go try the axe out!  The best way to judge your sharpening skills is by using the tools and learning to feel the difference between a sharp properly beveled axe and one that isn’t.  You’ll save yourself a lot of effort by keeping a sharp edge on your axe.  Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
An old Plumb double bit axe I found in the basement of the barn. Restored to fine working order.

An old Plumb double bit axe I found in the basement of the barn, restored to fine working order.

Cutting up a fallen tree with my restored double bit axe.

Cutting up a fallen tree with my restored double bit axe.

Returned to work on the same farm it was lost and forgotten on.

Returned to work on the same farm it was lost and forgotten on.

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