For cutting or splitting small quantities of wood quickly, neatly, and economically, there is no better tool than an axe. This ancient tool has maintained its relevance through the ages and today is still a reliable addition to workshops and campsites.
But axes are expected to do a lot of work and can become dull in just a few sessions. As long as you have a couple of basic shop tools, you can sharpen your axe. In less than 15 minutes, you'll be up and running again and chopping wood.
Why It's Important to Sharpen Your Axe
Experienced cooks know that a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp knife. That's because more pressure has to be exerted on the knife to get it to work. With axes, much of the same theory applies.
When splitting a log with a sharp axe, you expect to raise the axe and then swing it down with a certain amount of force. As the axe dulls, you are forced to strike that wood with increasingly more force—until the point where it's more about a blunt force than about a sharp edge cleaving the wood fibers.
When to Sharpen an Axe
Sharpen your axe prior to any wood cutting session or at the beginning of fall or winter. Axe-sharpening should not be only an annual event. When cutting wood, frequently stop and run your finger along the edge of the axe to assess its sharpness.
If you are working too hard to chop the wood, this can physically take a toll on you. A good axe strike should be mostly propelled by gravity, with the weight of the axe head and its sharpness doing most of the work.
Sharpening an axe is dangerous in many ways. Always wear hearing and eye protection. When running the grinder, make sure that you know how to use the grinder and have carefully read the instructions that came with it.
Make sure that you have no loose clothing, hair, or jewelry near the grinder. Wear a long-sleeved shirt, pants, and shoes. Before you touch the grinder to the edge of the axe, ensure that you will not be in the direction of the hot metal filings. Wear gloves when hand-filing the axe. After sharpening the axe, be careful about running your finger on the edge.
Equipment / Tools
- Hand grinder
- Bastard file (metal file)
- Bench vise
- Heavy leather gloves
- Eye protection
- Hearing protection
Indicators of a Dull Axe
Unlike a dull knife, a dull axe can be less noticeable. When cutting wood, so much force is applied that even a dull axe will cut reasonably well. Taking a visual check of the dull axe's edge, it looks rounded and humped. Run your fingers over the edge of a dull axe and it will be smooth. Rust sometimes accompanies a dull axe; but sharp axes, too, can become rusted if not properly maintained.
Secure the Axe for Sharpening
If you have a bench vise that allows access to the axe on both sides, this is the most secure way to hold an axe for sharpening. If not, improvise a vise with available materials. Two bricks on either side of the axe head, each held down by a carpenter's clamp, is one way to hold an axe upright.
Sharpen the Bevel
Turn on the angle grinder. Begin by grinding about 1/2-inch down from the edge. An axe edge will be a smooth bevel that ends in a sharp point. Repeat on the other side.
Sharpen the Edge of the Axe
Move the grinder to the edge of the axe. Change the angle of the grinder to about 25 degrees. When finished with one side, move to the other side.
Hand-File the Axe Edge
Working from above, hand-file the axe edge with the bastard file. File downward.
Be sure to wear heavy leather gloves when hand-filing the axe.
Maintain the File Edge
Tilt the file downward toward the edge of the axe to raise a sharper edge. Keep going back and forth between each side until the axe is sharpened to your satisfaction.
Inspect the Sharpened Axe
The edge of the sharpened axe should feel at least as sharp as the folded side of a piece of paper that has been folded over once. Sharper is always preferable. There should be no nicks or gouges on the cutting surface. If so, apply the grinder to the axe until the nicks and gouges have been smoothed out.