How to Sharpen an Axe Properly
The sharper your ax, the easier, faster, and more pleasant it will be to do your work. Splitting axes or mauls don’t have to be as sharp because they’re meant to split logs and rounds of wood with blunt force, not cut into them. But the rest – hatchets, felling axes, limbing axes, tomahawks and more – have to be sharp to work as well as you want them to. This in-depth article will teach you everything you need to know about sharpening axes, from prep work to proper technique and how to use the tools you have at hand, whether they’re human-powered (such as files and whetstones) or electric, like dremel tools, belt sanders, or even bench grinders. Read on to find out all about sharpening axes!
Axe Sharpening Preparation
When you sharpen your axe, you should wear gloves of some sort. There’s no need to go overboard with thick gloves – in fact that may well make the process more cumbersome and time-consuming. A pair of light cotton gloves will protect your hands and fingers from nicks and cuts, which can be nasty if you make your axe very sharp.
If you’re going to be sharpening your axe in an enclosed space, you should also wear a dust mask. If you plan on using power tools – a respirator and safety goggles or glasses to protect against metal dust are a necessity, not a luxury.
If your axe is rusty, you’ll want to remove the rust before doing any sharpening. You can do that with steel wool, a rust eraser, or coarse-grit sandpaper. Use sandpaper, applying even pressure and rubbing it from the handle part of the axehead to the blade. You can work it with finer and finer sandpaper until it gleams.
Place your axe on a flat surface or clamp it in a vice, if you have one available. Of course, you might be reading this on your phone in the woods, wondering where you’ll find a flat surface to place your axe on… In that case, you can hold it upright as well, standing it firmly on the ground or on a stump. Some people hold the axe in their lap or grip the axehead in their hands. The main thing is to hold it steady as you’re working on it with your tools.
How to Sharpen your Axe by Hand – with a File and a Whetstone
Sharpening an Axe with a File
The file does the initial rough work of shaping the edge and the profile of the axe blade. I like to use any file that is between 8” and 12” (or 200 and 300 mm) long. The best choice is a bastard mill file, as these are made for sharpening blades. Shorter files won’t have their “teeth” set in the same density, and you won’t get as good an effect. You can go with shorter files for hatchets, though.
Unless your axe’s shape is quite deformed, you’ll want to keep the edge of the axe as it is. Most axes have a convex shape of 20º to 30º. Follow the curve of the blade, applying even pressure with each stroke of the file. You can hold your file in the classic way, with one hand. You can also sharpen by gripping the file handle in your non-dominant hand and the tip of the file in your dominant one, and pulling towards yourself in a sweeping motion. That’s called the draw method of filing.
If your axe is quite dull, you’ll be doing a lot of work with the file. When filing the edge of a dull ace, you want to actually curve it away from the file. This will create what’s known as a “burr,” a slight overhang on the edge of the blade curving away from the file. You should be able to feel it with your fingertip or slightly catch your fingernail with it. When you’ve created an overhang – be careful not to change the angle of the blade too much – repeat the process on the other side. Be careful, however, not to curve the edge too far in one direction – to make sure I don’t go overboard I usually limit myself to a few passes on one side, switching to the other after two or three passes with the file.
Keep working with the file until the edge is straight and free of any chips, dents, or other scoring. Remove the burr by making several passes with the file on both sides of the edge, switching sides with every pass. You might still have a bit of a burr on one side or the other – don’t worry about that, you’ll be able to remove it in the next step.
Once you’ve created a proper edge, you’ll want to hone it with a whetstone, also known as a sharpening stone. If your axe already has a decent edge, you can skip to this step without using the file.
Sharpening an Axe with a Whetstone (or Sharpening Stone)
Using a whetstone – also known as a sharpening stone – is how you can make your axe edge sharp enough to shave with. There are several grades of whetstones, here’s a quick rundown:
- up to and including 1000-grit whetstones are coarse and used for sharpening edges that are chipped.
- 1000 to 3000-grit stones are used to sharpen dull edges.
- 4000 to 8000-grit whetstones are used to finish the blade and refine the edge to perfection.
If you’re looking to buy a whetstone, I recommend buying a double-sided one that is 1000-grit on one side and 3000 or more on the other, or 3000/8000 if you want a finishing stone. Your axe doesn’t need to be as sharp and fine as a Japanese kitchen knife, though, so don’t worry about that too much. I use a Sharp Pebble Premium Knife Sharpening Stone 2 Side Grit 1000/6000 Waterstone – it’s cheaper than the big-brand-name stones and works just as well. Since it’s a waterstone, you won’t need any special honing oils to sharpen your axe edge – just water, which is usually found in abundance at home or in the bush. No oiliness to clean up, either.
Anyway, once you have your whetstone in hand and your axe edge coated with honing oil or water (depending on what kind of stone you have), you want to place the stone against the edge. Rub it in circular motions against the edge, applying even pressure and going from one end to another. Repeat this on the other side, and switch to the finer whetstone (or the finer side) when you feel the burr has become a “feather edge” burr to get rid of it completely.
And there you go!
When you’re done sharpening, you can apply a protective layer of oil, beeswax, or even Vaseline to your axe head and edge to keep moisture locked out.
How to Sharpen an Axe with a Rock or River Stone
If you’re prepared, it’s unlikely that you’ll run into a situation where you’ll have to sharpen an axe with a rock or river stone that you find while out in the bush. Life has a way of surprising us, though, and even the most experienced woodsmen can get caught out in a bad situation. You can lose your axe or even your whole pack in a raging river or have it fall down a steep ridge or off of a cliff. An abandoned hut or cabin in the woods, with a rust-covered axe, might be your only refuge and source of survival tools after that. Who knows. In any case, it’s very possible to sharpen an axe with a simple rock or river stone.
Here are the kinds of stones you can use:
- Large, relatively smooth stones that you can place on the ground and, holding the axe in your two hands, grind the edge against.
- Smaller stones, coarser (granite) or smoother (quartz).
- Moderately hard sandstones.
River stones are best for the purpose of sharpening an axe. You sharpen the edge the same way as you would with a manufactured whetstone – after all, what do you think a natural sharpening stone is? Start with the coarser stone, wet the stone and blade, and make circular motions up and down the length of the blade. Then, when you’ve worked it with the coarse stone, move on to the smoother stone. Decently hard sandstone (nothing too crumbly) also works great for sharpening an axe, and can be just as good as the commercial products.
The bottom line is – if you find yourself in the bush with a dull axe, don’t despair! It’s easy to sharpen your axe with a rock or river stone if you know how to sharpen a blade.
How to Sharpen an Axe with Power Tools
Sharpening an axe with power tools is one way of making it nice and sharp quickly. Careless sharpening can, however, lead to deforming and damaging your axe so bad that it becomes practically unusable. If they are what you have and want to use, though, here’s how to sharpen an axe with power tools such as dremels, belt sanders, and angle grinders.
Sharpening an Axe with a Dremel Tool
A lot of people have dremel tools lying around at home or in their workshops. These are great little tools and can sharpen an axe quickly. You can also damage your axe with them, so here’s how to use a dremel to sharpen your axe the right way.
You’ll need an appropriate dremel head – most people use aluminum oxide grinding stones. Wear protective gear – long-sleeved shirt, eyeglasses, and preferably a dust mask if working in an enclosed area. Have a bucket or bowl of water handy to dip the axehead in to stop it from heating up too much and losing its temper, a real risk when using power tools.
Once you’re ready, turn the dremel on and place the head flat against the edge of the axehead, following the bevel of the axe. Guide the dremel along the edge, making circular motions as you would with a sharpening stone. If the metal becomes hot to the touch (too hot to keep your finger on), stop! Let it cool or dunk it in water. Otherwise, you risk the metal losing its temper. That’ll make your axe edge more vulnerable to chipping, denting, and scoring.
Here’s a tip – overheating is usually caused by trying to sharpen a coarser grit with a finer grit. If you’ve got a rusty axe, you shouldn’t start with a 6000-grit sharpening head on the dremel. That will heat the metal up to dangerous temperatures fast. Instead, start with a coarser-grit head and move up to a finer grit for further sharpening and finishing, just as you would with a whetstone. This applies to belt sanders as well.
Repeat the process on the other side of the edge and change to a finer-grit dremel head if necessary. The most important thing is to follow the bevel, or angle, of the edge with your dremel tool. If you don’t, you risk changing the angle of that section of the edge entirely, and that’s an absolute pain to fix. Still, you’d have to try quite hard to ruin an axe edge with a dremel tool, so don’t be too afraid – just be careful.
How to Sharpen an Axe with a Belt Sander
A belt sander is a powerful tool for sharpening an axe. If you’re using one to sharpen your axe, make sure you use protective gear such as gloves, glasses, and preferably a dust mask if doing it indoors.
When you have your belt sander set up and running, you’ll want to grip your axe head with both hands and run it across the sander in a slightly curving motion, carefully following the edge and curve of the bit. Don’t press down too hard, but don’t be afraid to apply pressure, either – the key is to apply pressure evenly, without rushing but without keeping the blade against the sander for too long, either. Smooth passes – keeping the axehead in motion – are key to getting a sharp, even edge. Keep a bucket or bowl of water (or a spray bottle) handy to cool down your axehead and keep it from losing its temper.
Remember – adapt the sandpaper to the condition of your axe! A rusty, dull axe will need coarser sandpaper. Finer-grit sandpaper is also more risky in terms of the axehead overheating. Be careful not to use too fine a grit if you’ve got a dull and rusty axehead. Up to 1000 is generally fine for belt sanders – if you want to get a fine edge, I’d recommend switching over to a finer sharpening stone once you’ve got a nice edge from the belt sander!
Sharpening an Axe with an Angle Grinder
The final power tool we’ll consider for sharpening an axe is an angle grinder. You should fix the axe in place with clamps or a vise. I place a block of wood under the axehead to make following the bevel easier. The procedure is the same as with other tools – follow the angle of the edge as closely as you can, using smooth, steady strokes as you pass the angle grinder over the axe bit. You shouldn’t make several passes on one side in a row, as you run the real risk of messing up the bevel with a tool as powerful as an angle grinder.
Remain focused on the work at hand, and remember to wet the metal often to cool it down.
The Best Way to Sharpen an Axe
I remain convinced that the best way to sharpen an axe is the old-fashioned way – by hand, using simple tools such as a file or sharpening stone. There is little risk of damaging your axe like you might with a power tool, and it doesn’t take much longer, either – if the axe is even somewhat decently maintained, re-sharpening it shouldn’t take much longer than 5 minutes. Some axe users swear by their power tools for honing their edges – and if you want to change your axe’s profile, make the cheeks thinner and the angle of the blade smaller, then power tools will get you there faster. Power tools are fine to use if you know how to use them. It might take sacrificing an axe or two to get the hang of it, though, so don’t use a belt sander or angle grinder on your new Gransfors Bruks maul or grandfather’s American felling axe if you’ve never done it before!
Hopefully this article was helpful – if it was and you liked it, check out the rest of our how-to guides on axe purchase and care. Thanks for reading!