Sit. Rep. #99: Axe & Hatchet Sharpening II

Sharpening an axe or hatchet with a hand file.  Part II.

Timber Gadgets has a good site

Notes and thoughts before we get started:  I was taught to file at 90 degrees from the bit/blade of the axe.  I will show you below a better and safer method.

There are several methods of sharpening an axe – this one below is very good.  It is simple to implement and do in the field.  An entire troop can do every axe and hatchet they carry with only 2 or 3 new pieces of equipment.

Most axe heads are made of medium carbon steel.  This medium steel is heat-tempered to diminish the risk of breakage and splintering.  That is a good compromise of being able to sharpen and still hold an edge for a good amount of work.  If you are careful you should be able to keep an edge for many cuttings.

Keep your equipment out of the dirt.  Do not oil the files. Oil or paint the axe head after sharpening and after use to keep it from rusting.  Reminder: Keep the handle out of the sun when not in use.

5- Safety measures & equipment:

When you set up your axe yard to sharpen your axe, make sure that the area is well marked for no one to enter without your knowledge and permission.  The perimeter should be larger than your reach plus your axe handle x2.  To be clear, the radius of the axe yard should be twice as large as your axe handle plus your arm’s reach.  If you do not have rope, twine, or surveyors to mark off your axe yard; then have a Safety Officer that is outside of that axe yard area that monitors and stops intruders.

Your axe should be stable and not able to move while you are sharpening.  Clamp, vise, log & pegs, or have someone holding the axe handle to stabilize the axe.

Leather Gloves are a MUST!  Hint; protect your hands.  Eye Protection is a MUST!  Hint; protect your vision.  Be SAFE!

5B- A sharp axe, knife, and hatchet are safer than dull ones.  Why?  You may question.

A: You will not have to use force to do the job.
B: The work will be easier.
C: You will use less energy and not become as tired.
D: The job will take less time and you will not become as tired.
E: You will get on with the work at hand and there will be less mental stress… that means less frustration.
F: You will be using force to get the job done and that gives you less finesse to show off.
G: Less chance that the axe will bounce off of the wood and ricochet to hurt you.

Marking 1/2″ across the head…

6- Tools needed:

A: A Bastard Mill File: 8, 10, or 12 inches with handle – note: the longer the file — the deeper / coarser the filings. we will use the flat side (I like a “double cut” vs a “single cut” file)
B: A short fine file or whetstone (file card to clean the metal shavings from the files is also helpful)
C: Leather strop or a course canvas strop
D: A base or vice/clamp to hold the axe.  Secure firmly so that the axe does not move while being sharpened.

This is an old axe head that I am trying to rehab.

7- We are going to make a 25 degree flat grind.  It is both simple to file and very effective in cutting wood.

Take a Sharpe, pencil, or soapstone and draw a line 1/2″ or 12mm back from the bit (cutting edge) and shaped like the bit.  Now your axe head should almost look like a crescent moon between the mark and the bit.

I can not tell the difference between working from the toe-to-the-heel or from the heel-to-the-toe.  Choose what works for you.

My personal technique varies a little depending on where I want to remove the steel from.

1/2″ (12mm) mark

8- The file handle under my left hand and I semi-circle the file in my right hand to match the curve of the blade.  My left hand barely moves.  I do not grip with my left hand but it acts as a pivot point for the file.

8B-  Again the file handle in my left hand, but this time it moves almost as much as my right hand.  I tend to slice across the axe bit at about 45 degrees.  My left hand is both pivoting the file and moving at the same time.  My right hand does the same motion as before.

Here is a video link to Axe School: A Beginner’s Guide to File Sharpening an Axe.

Note: he violates his own safety rule… be careful.  You can bump into the video to about 7 mins. and skip the intro.

9- Do both sides of the axe.  You should try to get a perfect inverted “V” on the bit and all across the bit.  (Ignore the last 1/4″ (4-5mm) on the toe & heel).  Get a magnifying glass & look at the sharpened edge.  You may see or feel a bit of a burr.  Even if you do not see it – it is there.


Notice the gloved hand. The motion is across the bit and into the bit at the same time.

Take your fine file or whetstone and dress both sides evenly.  Now the burr should be minimized or maybe gone.

10- You can get a really sharp edge with a whetstone or fine file.  But one step further insures a razor edge.  Dress the edge of the bit a few more times with a leather strop on both sides.
Note: Take your time.  This is a good rainy day chore.

Getting there…

11- Clean your file, stone, & strop.  Oil or paint your axe head where raw steel is showing.

Semper Paratus,

Creative Campfires by Thomas Mercaldo

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