Using an axe is hard work, but the jobs always tougher when you’re dealing with a blunt bit. It takes twice the work to get the same results! Taking time to sharpen your axe is well worth the effort.
Every type of axe including felling axes, hatchets, carpenter’s axes, and more benefits from having a sharp blade. The exceptions are the splitting axe and maul which rely on blunt force and cutting with the wood grain to do their job.
If you’re unsure how to bring your weathered tool back to life, then keep reading. We’ve created this one-stop guide about how to sharpen an axe. Whether you’ve got a bench grinder or prefer old-school tools like whetstones, we’ll walk you through the process.
Preparing to sharpen an axe
Before getting started, give some thought to safety. Get yourself a pair of light cotton gloves that are comfortable to work with but protect from unwanted cuts. Avoid thick gloves that are impossible to work with and serve little purpose.
Safety glasses are essential if you’re using power tools. When working inside, use a dust mask to protect yourself from metal dust.
Check over the axe for signs of rust. Be sure to remove any first with coarse sandpaper, steel wool, or rust eraser. Once the rust is removed, try using finer sandpaper for a smoother, shinier-looking tool.
How to hold an axe in place for sharpening
The safest, securest way to keep an axe from moving while sharpening is to clamp it in a vice. If you don’t have one in your workspace then lay it on a bench or flat surface. If you’re outdoors, place it on a solid stump or take a seat and hold the axe in your lap.
How to sharpen an axe with a file
1. Choose the file
If your axe has dents and chips, then and you don’t have any power tools then a bastard mill file is a good option. It’s a great tool for shaping blades, but make sure it’s at least 8” in length and a good-quality brand for best results. Hatchets and smaller axes can be sharpened with a shorter file.
2. Hold the file
Using the draw method, hold the file handle with your non-dominant hand and the end of the file with your dominant one. By pulling the file towards yourself using a sweeping motion you’ll have great control. As a backup option, hold the file handle in your dominant hand.
3. Sharpen the bit
Begin filing, applying pressure, and following the blade’s curve with consistent strokes. Axes are usually a 20-30° convex angle so try to maintain this. Heavily dulled blades will require a lot of filing so be patient.
Once the blade is straight and free from scoring and damage, it’s time to get the whetstone into action. Keep reading to find learn more.
- How to stop an axe head rusting.
- Does a new axe need sharpening?
- How to store an axe so that is stays in good condition.
- How to oil an axe handle for best results.
How to choose a whetstone for axe sharpening
If your axe is in reasonable condition with a decent edge, then a whetstone, or sharpening stone, is your best bet. It’ll take a dull blade and transform it into a razor-sharp beast you can shave with.
Choose a whetstone that will sweep the whole length of the blade in one motion. This will make your life easier and provide better results.
You have a few different options when it comes to choosing a whetstone:
- Diamond stones are the most aggressive type and can be used with water, oil, or dry.
- Waterstones are synthetic and work best with an application of water to the axe before getting started.
- Benchstones or oilstones work well with a thin layer of oil.
The best option will depend on what you’re hoping to achieve. You’ll find that diamond stones retain their flatness for a long time and will remove the most material. They’re handy to have in the bush when you don’t have water or oil nearby. However, they provide a less polished finish.
Waterstones wear faster than other options, but they’ll give your axe an awesome smooth finish.
Benchstones are hard-wearing and come in a wide range of grit sizes. A combination of Crystolon stone which sharpens quickly, and Arkansas or Ascent stones, which produce a fine edge is a good idea.
In terms of grit size, select a whetstone below 1000-grit to remove damage; or 1000-3000-grit if you’ve got dull edges that need sharpening. 8000-grit will finish the job, creating a smooth blade.
How to use a whetstone to sharpen an axe
Before starting, apply water or honing oil to the axe blade or leave dry depending on the type of whetstone you’re using.
Begin rubbing the stone against the edge in a circular motion. Work your way from one end to the other, applying even pressure, then repeat on the other side.
Once unwanted chips and damage have been removed and the burr has become a feather edge, switch to a finer whetstone.
As a protective measure to keep out moisture, apply a coating of oil or beeswax to the axe head.
How to sharpen an axe with a rock
If you’re ever stuck in the wilderness with no way to sharpen an axe, it’s good to know that a rock or river stone will also work. Holding the axe in two hands, sharpen the blade using a circular motion like you would with a regular whetstone.
Look for large, smooth rocks on riverbeds, and be sure to wet the axe and stone before starting. Like whetstones or sandpaper, you’re best to look for a coarse stone to start and then change to a smoother stone to finish.
Although it’s not an ideal way to sharpen an axe, you should be able to fashion a decent blade to get yourself out of a tight spot.
How to sharpen an axe using power tools
Using power tools to sharpen a blade is much quicker than the manual way. But extreme care should be taken as it’s also easy to damage the blade so that it becomes unusable. As previously mentioned, always wear protective gear to help avoid serious injuries.
1. Belt sander
Using coarse sandpaper, a belt sander is effective at fixing damaged and rusted axes. Using fine sandpaper can cause the metal to overheat so you may want to use another tool for end-stage smoothing.
Keep a bucket of water at arm’s reach and apply it to the axe occasionally. Otherwise, the head will overheat.
Turn on the belt sander and hold the axe head with both hands. Run the blade across the sander using a slightly curving motion. It’s important to follow the curve and edge of the bit, applying even, light pressure. To get an even edge, keep the axehead in motion and use smooth passes.
2. Angle grinder
Like with the belt sander, keep a bucket of water on the bench and splash it on the axe occasionally to avoid overheating.
Use a vise or clamps to securely hold the axe in place. Use smooth steady strokes to grind the axe head, making sure to closely follow the angle of the edge. Make 1-2 passes on one side of the bit, then repeat on the other side to avoid distorting the bevel.
If you’ve got a Dremel power tool lying around the shed, it’ll also work well for sharpening an axe. Use the same circular pattern that you would a whetstone, making sure to use a coarse grit sharpening head if the axe needs a lot of work.
What’s the best way to sharpen an axe?
If you’re experienced with using power tools then you’ll get the job done quicker using a belt sander, angle grinder, or another tool like a Dremel.
Power tools also make easy work of changing a blade’s profile and thinning the cheeks. However, it’s easy to mess up your axe so if you’re a beginner, we suggest the old-fashioned way.
Files and sharpening stones are less likely to damage the axe and if the axe is in reasonable condition it won’t take long to sharpen.
Coarse vs. fine axe sharpening – what’s the difference?
A damaged axe with chips, cuts, or rust is best fixed with coarse sharpening which requires a lower-grit sandpaper of whetstone. They will make quick work of grinding down the metal head. Fine axe sharpening is best for an undamaged axe that isn’t too blunt.
Quick tip: Want to learn more about the anatomy of an axe? Check out our guide to the parts of an axe.
Commonly asked questions
Does an axe need to be sharp?
Axe sharpness is more important with some types of axes than others. A splitting axe should be straight but needn’t be sharp. Most other common axes like a hatchet, felling axe, and hunter’s axe need to be sharp to be functional. Some specialist axes like the carving axe and trekking axe must be extremely sharp to do their job.
To test the sharpness of an axe, hold the head between your knees and run a piece of paper over the edge. It should easily slice through.
How long does it take to sharpen an axe by hand?
If you’re sharpening an axe by hand, it should take 15 minutes for a damaged blade and 5 minutes for one that’s well maintained. These times will be reduced considerably if you’re using a power tool.
What angle should my axe blade be?
It is best to maintain the angle of the axe blade that it had when you bought the axe. For older damaged axes, aim for anywhere between 20-30° and ensure it has a convex shape.
How do I keep an axe sharp?
When chopping wood, it’s important to have a block underneath or you may damage the blade. Also, store the axe in a pile with other tools as that can blunt the blade too. Regular maintenance will help keep your axe in top condition.
Maintaining a sharp axe will make life much easier. If it’s your first time sharpening a blade and you’ve got an expensive brand, then you may want to practice on a rusty old axe first. Once you mess up the intended angle of a bit, it’s much more difficult to fix.
Keep in mind, if you’re not confident that you can get the job done, you can always use a professional blade sharpening service. They’ll have your tool razor-sharp in minutes so that you can get back on the job fast.