How to Sharpen an Axe in the Field
June 13, 2013
An axe is one of my favorite pieces of kit to bring into the woods. That being said, it’s the one piece of kit I’d like to have but just doesn’t make it out on all of my trips. If I’m backpacking (peak-bagging), day hiking or hunting, an axe isn’t generally going to come with me; but if I am backcountry backpacking, base camping or setting up a bush craft/minimalist site, an axe is one of my “must have” tools. Now I’ve come across a kind of “urban myth” that axes don’t need to be as sharp as knives! I’ve also heard that they’re more dangerous when they’re sharp because of miss swings. I’ve often found a friend’s hatchet or splitting axe in such disrepair that you wouldn’t be able to spread butter with it. I think a lot of this myth has been perpetuated because a large section of people nowadays have no idea how to use an axe properly or safely. The number one rule for using an axe is to have it properly sharp! If an axe isn’t sharp, it won’t “bite” in the wood and that is when an axe will bounce back or deflect. Follow these simple steps to bring an axe from completely dull to shaving sharp with hand tools.
First off, do a simple inventory of what you’ll need to sharpen your axe. I usually bring the following:
- The Puck
- Heavy Duty Sharpener (only if I expect to really damage the edge)
- An axe (in this case a splitting axe, which has a more obtuse bevel than a felling axe)
What you'll need to start sharpening
If you’re sharpening an axe at home, I suggest clamping down the axe for safety. When you’re in the field you don’t have that luxury so let’s take some time to show you how to hold an axe when sharpening.
Two safe axe sharpening positions
Sharpening an axe is a lot like knife sharpening. Being able to find and then hold a consistent bevel is important for successful results. I find that axes can be a bit easier to sharpen, because you tend to bring the abrasive to the axe, where in knife sharpening you bring the knife to the abrasive.
If the bit (another name for the edge) is nicked and damaged I suggest starting with the heavy duty sharpener or even a bastard’s file. A bastards file is simple a file that is neither coarse nor fine, hence the name.
A heavily damaged axe bit
First inspect your axe bit to see if the bevel needs to be re-profiled or not. If you’re happy with the look of the bevel then you’ll simply be matching the bevel with your tools. If your bevel is too obtuse and thick, I recommend using the Heavy Duty Sharpener or a bastard’s file at a more acute angle for a thinner bit.
If you’re not worried about marring the finish of your axe, I also suggest using a Sharpie to color in the edge to help you keep a consistent and even bevel. If you’re thinning your bevel, draw your ideal bevel on the axe bit and follow the angle that matches your markings.
Using a sharpie to color the edge
The first step in the axe sharpening process is to find the bevel angle on one side of the axe. Then, while matching the bevel angle, start pushing the heavy duty sharpener against the edge at the proper angle. Make sure to push against the edge and not pull into it, much like when knife sharpening. Try to keep track of the number of strokes so you can match your efforts on the other side of the bevel.
Finding the bevel with the Heavy Duty Sharpener
Now repeat the same process with the heavy-duty sharpener on the other side of the bevel.
Once you have removed any nicks and visible damage from the edge, check to see if your edge is sharp. Even with a bastards file or the aggressive Heavy Duty Sharpener your edge should be workably sharp. At this point, we will just be refining the edge that we already established with our coarsest tool (the Heavy Duty Sharpener).
The Heavy Duty Sharpener did a great job cleaning up the edge
Now that we have established our bevel, removed damage and formed an edge, we can move onto our next tool, the Puck. If I was at home in the comfort of my workshop I would probably use a Lawn and Garden Sharpener, and then move onto the Puck. But, because the Puck is so portable and it has two grits it’s really an outstanding field sharpening tool by itself.
Starting with the coarse side of the Puck, match the bevels angle on one side and start sharpening. Use small circular motions and working the whole edge. Count how many strokes you use on one side of the bevel, so that you can mirror your technique on the other side of the bevel. After finishing the first side, switch to the other side.
Using the coarse side of the Puck
This process can take some time, just work one side of the bevel then the other. Repeat until you have removed all the scratches from the Heavy Duty Sharpener. This may take 3 to 5 alternating strokes on each side to accomplish.
Now it’s time to turn the Puck over and repeat the process with the fine grit side. Make sure your edge is sharp before you move onto the finer grit. At this point your axe should be able to cut paper.
Starting with the fine side of the Puck
Using small circular motions match the bevel and start removing the scratches made by the coarse side of the Puck. Take your time. This is the last stage of sharpening and to get a really great edge you need to stay consistent.
Sharp enough for you?
Now you have an axe sharp enough to mangle paper. I suggest testing it out on a piece of notebook paper. The best way to do that is to grip the axe head between your knees edge side up then press a piece of paper against the edge. It should slice clean through the paper. There you go, a properly sharpened axe. Be Smart, Be Safe and Stay an Edge Above the Rest!
Jun 9th, 2014
Should either of these sharpeners be used with some type of lubricant (water or oil), or do you get better results using them dry?
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