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How to Sharpen an Axe

Posted by Larry Catt on July 12, 2021   •   axe, bushcraft

How to Sharpen an Axe

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." 

President Abraham Lincoln said it best: The most crucial part about wielding an axe is ensuring its blade is sharp enough. This means that proper TLC is necessary, including protecting your axe, diligent cleaning, and sharpening. 

But knowing how to sharpen your axe requires some research and skill. Luckily, this guide will cover everything you need to know about how to sharpen your axe — including some important care tips and tricks, helpful products, and more resources.

The Essentials: Taking Care of Your Axe

In the Stone Age, the axe quickly transitioned from a simple tool to becoming a religious symbol that signified class, battle, and hard work. Since then, many ancient traditions and cultures also believed that the axe had importance, representing power and fertilization. 

As one of the oldest tools in humankind, there's no question as to why axes are among the most popular in bushcraft. But if you're going to use an axe, it's critical to ensure that you put aside the time and effort to take care of it. 

Without proper care, your axe will dull, rust, and collect dust over time. Dull axes are not as efficient and require more work, so you'll be tempted to buy a new axe every couple of years, which is not a cheap short-term investment. 

Should an Axe Be Razor-Sharp?

Your axe should be sharp even for the intended task. Be careful with superfine or razor-sharp edges. The thinner the edge the more prone they will be to damage, such as chipping or becoming rolled over. An axe head should have a robust edge that will hold up again repeated chopping with little to no edge deformation.

There are tons of ways that you could sharpen your axe. For example, the thin flat cheeked shape is ideal for dead, dry wood. There's also the flat wedge cheeked shape splits exceptionally well with excellent penetration. 

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Whichever shape you decide to sharpen your axe, you must do so at the right angle. That's right: Not only does sharpening your axe require the proper tools and research, but it also requires the precise angle and posture. 

What Angle Should an Axe Be Sharpened?

Some experts say that 25 degrees is ideal, while others say anywhere between 20 and 30 degrees should be good. Most axes have a 30 to 40-degree angle at the end and a 15 to 20-degree angle near the cutting edge. Stick to around a 25-degree angle, and you should be ready to go.

A Step-by-Step Guide: How To Sharpen an Axe

It's as famous naturalist Mors Kochanski says in his book, Bushcraft

"The inexperienced and occasional users who are more prone to accidents in the first place, often fail to appreciate the importance of a keen edge. All woodworking tools, including axes, should be sharp enough to shave with effortless, efficient and enjoyable work."

This renowned outdoorsman knows what he's talking about: Without a sharpened axe, your work will be more challenging, and you may be more vulnerable to accidents. 

However, sharpening your axe needs some preparation, including:

  • Gathering your safety gear
  • Cleaning the axe head of any debris or rust
  • Deciding on your sharpening method and tools

Step #1: Gather Your Safety Gear

No matter how experienced you are, you should always wear safety gear before getting started with axe sharpening. Here are some essential items to start with: 

  • Leather gloves
  • Knuckle guard
  • Safety goggles or glasses
  • Other axe sharpening supplies depending on your sharpening method (which we'll cover in Step #3) 

The fact is that managing this tool carries a level of risk. Axes have a razor-sharp blade and weigh approximately two pounds, so it's easy for this weapon to move around. That’s why you should always have eyes on it and be prepared when sharpening it. 

Step #2: Clean the Axe Head

The head should be of high quality to retain its sharp edge. This, of course, requires plenty of protection and care, which starts with frequent cleaning. Here are some helpful tips and hints when cleaning your axe head: 

  • Use a cloth or paper towel to remove any excess moisture
  • If there is crusted-on dirt, use a wire brush or a knife to scrape it off gently
  • Put oil or grease on the head to avoid rust

If your axe head shows signs of rust, then don't fret too much: You can scrub the area with oil (food grade preferably) in combination with grade 0000 steel wool.

You can usually get rid of surface rust quickly without damaging the blade. For severely rusted axe heads, put the axe in a plastic box where it can be fully submerged. Then, pour white vinegar into the container to cover the entire axe. Let it soak for about a day and a half. Then wipe clean.


Quick Tip: If you don't have white vinegar, you can also use salt and lime or lemon. Coat the axe head with salt and then squeeze the lemon or lime juice over the rusted part. Allow it to sit for a few minutes before scrubbing the rust off.

Step #3: Choose Your Sharpening Method

The fact is that you could read on for hours about the different ways to sharpen your axe. But to keep things simple, we'll start with a few of the most common practices, which require a whetstone, sharpening tools that you can purchase online or in-store, and some helpful methods if you're without tools on the field. 

Method #1: Whetstones

Sharpening stones, also known as whetstones, are rock-like tools used to sharpen the edges of steel materials like axes, knives, razors, and scissors. 


Whetstones come in various sizes and grits, built for a workbench and others for use in the field. Whetstones are unique because they are used with cut fluid, enhancing sharpening and easily removing small pieces and chips. You can use both water or oil as lubricants for whetstones. However, adding oil is the best way to go if you want to prevent rusting.  


Here's how to sharpen your axe with a whetstone: 


  1. Sit down comfortably and securely place the axe's handle in between your knees to prevent slippage with the head pointing up. 
  2. Dip it into water or oil and begin moving in circular motions up, down, and across the blade. 
  3. Place the coarser side of the stone at the edge of the axe so that it's entirely angled against the blade.
  4. Flip the axe to get the other side by placing the handle against your shoulder. 
  5. Repeat this a few times on either side and then switch to the finer grade. 

You can also use other rock-based tools to sharpen your axe, like pucks and sharpening stones that aren't exclusively whetstones. These are typically portable and come with helpful grips to protect your finger while sharpening. 

Method #2: Sharpening Tools

One of the easiest methods for sharpening your axe is to purchase a sharpening tool, like the Guided Field Sharpener or the Multipurpose Tool Sharpener Puck. 


The field sharpener is small, lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to carry around when you're on the field. All you have to do is place it down on a sturdy surface or hold it steadily to begin sharpening. 

It guides you as you sharpen with a five-stage sharpening solution complete with fine and coarse diamond plates, a ceramic hone, and a leather strop for finalization. 

Guided Field Sharpener


Here's how to use this type of sharpener: 

  1. Hold the sharpener comfortably in your non-dominant hand. 
  2. Take your axe and scrape it down the coarse plate away from your body. Repeat this a few times on each side of the axe head. 
  3. Finish with the fine plate, and finalize the process by running the edge down the leather strop for extra smoothness. 

A sharpener puck, on the other hand, is an entirely different shape. It looks a little like the whetstones you might see. They're similar that way, but the puck’s contoured shape makes it more ideal.


Multipurpose Tool Sharpener Puck


Here's how to use a sharpener puck:

  •  Firmly grip the puck or lock it in a vise to avoid accidental slipping.
  • Use oil on the puck if you so choose, which will help polish the blade and prevent rust.
  • Take the puck between your thumb and fingers so that it's supported with the palm of your hand.
  • Move in a circular motion along the cutting edge. Make sure the circular motions overlap. 
  • Maintain a consistent angle the entire time.

  • Method #3: Without Tools

    Let's say you're out on the field and realize that the axe or hatchet you brought is duller than you thought. To complicate matters further, you didn't pack a whetstone or a sharpening tool — so how do you sharpen an axe without a sharpener? 

    The good news is that there are plenty of methods you can use while out on the field to sharpen your axe. Check out some of the options you have: 

    Improvised Sharpening Stone

    The most apparent improvisation to a sharpening stone is using a rock—but do your best to stick to rocks with a flat surface that mimics the look of a sharpening puck. Some of your best options might be sitting by a river, where stones are usually smooth and easy to hold. 

    Once you've got a hold of your rock, treat it as you would a whetstone or puck by placing the handle between your knees for leverage. Circle the rock up and down the blade on both edges. 

    Quick Tip: If you don't have access to any smooth rocks, you may have to do a little work. Grab two comfortably-sized rocks and rub them together until you've created a flat enough surface. 

    Conclusion

    Keeping your axe in good condition is the best way to increase its longevity and efficiency. After all, a tool is only as good as its owner. 

    With some practice, sharpening your axe will become second nature. You'll be able to sharpen it safely and effectively with various tools, in any situation, at home or in the field. 

    But to get started, you need the right axe. That's where Self Reliance Outfitters comes in: As bushcraft experts who also offer high-quality survival products, you can find everything you need for your next outdoor adventure.

    Every product is either produced or vetted by survival expert and Dual Survival star Dave Canterbury (you can even buy original designs, like the American Felling Axe).


    Check out our axe collection today!


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