The Best Axe Sharpening Technique – How to Properly Sharpen Your Axe

A tool is only useful if it is kept in good working order. The same is true for your axe: you cannot cut wood if the blade is not sharp. Axe sharpening is a vital part of its upkeep and can ensure your tool’s longevity and effectiveness. A dull axe can also be a danger to you or those around you. A dull axe head can bounce or glance off the log you are cutting and cause you injuries. If you want to know the best axe sharpening technique you can do at home, follow these 6 simple steps.

a sharp wood splitting axe

6 Steps to Properly Sharpen Your Axe

#1. Safety Protocols for Your Hands and Face

a sharp axe in a log

You should always use and handle tools in a safe manner to avoid any injuries to yourself or others. When it comes to sharpening your axe, you should wear a pair of thick, leather gloves to protect your hands and fingers from getting cut by the axe blade. Keep in mind that the file you will be using is abrasive and could cause minor injuries to your hands. Axe sharpening is similar to sanding so be sure to wear safety goggles and a dust mask during this process to avoid any metal dust in the air.

#2. Clean Your Axe Head of Dirt and Rust

Begin this process by cleaning your axe head of any dirt, rust, or other contaminants. The best way to remove this debris is to use a rust eraser or steel wool. You could also take this time to polish your axe and give it that “fresh out of the box” look. To polish your tool, choose a piece of coarse-grit sandpaper and rub your axe with a firm, steady motion. Start from the hammer end and move downward toward the blade. Repeat, as needed, with a finer-grit sandpaper for an improved look.

#3. Clamp Your Axe in a Vice

a rusty old vice clamp

Sharpening any tool requires exerting some force onto the object. It can be dangerous and inefficient to attempt this without first restraining the tool in some way. To sharpen your axe, you should securely clamp the object in a vise. If this is your first time axe sharpening, clamp the tool blade up and slightly angled. It will be easier for you to maneuver the bastard file and maintain an even edge on the blade. If you are more experienced, you may want your axe to have a finer edge.

#4. Choose Your Bastard File

Different axes have different edges, e.g. some are beveled, some are not. Most axes can be properly sharpened using a 10 to 12 inch bastard file. The file should be coarse, single-cut, and taper slightly from grip to end. Using this file will give your axe a durable edge that is sharp enough to fell trees, chop wood, or split logs.

Before you start filing your axe, you should inspect your file for clogged file teeth. You can clean your bastard file using a file card or a small, wire brush. Your file may also become clogged during the filing process. If, on the downstroke, the motion of the file feels jumpy, or something other than smooth, you should stop filing your axe and check your file. Filing with a clogged file will keep you from forming a smooth edge on your axe.

If you bought a new bastard file for this project, you could dust the file with a soft chalk to help prevent clogging.

#5. File Your Axe

a man sharpening an axe

To get a smooth, even edge, you should match the axe’s existing bevel, or slope. Most all-purpose axe’s are somewhat convex, at a 20 to 30-degree angle. Inspect your axe’s bevel before and during filing to make sure you are following the natural curve.

Hold the bastard file in your dominant hand and stand with one foot in front of the other. Push the file in a steady, downward motion. Files only cut in one direction: on the down stroke. You should not drag the file back and forth on your axe.

It could damage your file and that precise edge you are working on. To keep the file from rocking back and forth, lead the file in slow, careful strokes. Make multiple passes on each side of your axe’s edge. To make the curve, file in a fan-shaped motion by starting your strokes in different places.

Take care during this step as you will be filing toward the ever sharper axe edge. You could easily cut your fingers or hands if you experience a lapse in attention. Those heavy gloves suggested in the Safety Section will come in handy here!

When you feel the burr or small, metal fold at the top of the edge, you have reached your desired angle. Continued filing on that side will not make your axe any sharper.

#6. Switch Sides and Repeat

File the opposite side of the axe in the same manner described above. Once you feel the burr return to its original side, you are finished.

Putting It All Together

Keeping your tools sharp and in good working condition could extend the life of your tools and make your weekend yard work much easier. For a proper axe sharpening technique, you should secure the tool to a bench or in a vice and scrape the axe head with a bastard file. Move in a downward motion and follow the axe’s natural angle. When you feel the burr, switch sides and start again. Becoming a pro at axe sharpening takes time and effort. Following the 6 simple steps described above should make the process a little easier.

Do you have a favorite axe sharpening technique? Or have a tip we may have missed? Tell us about your axe sharpening stories in the comments.

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

Pamela M. Slocum