Maintaining an axe blade is essential. It needs to be kept free from rust, burrs, and nicks. But how important is it to keep the edge razor-sharp? This guide looks at whether an axe blade should be sharp or blunt.

To be clear, a sharp axe has a very sharp edge, meaning it can easily slice through wood with minimal effort. Blunt axes have dull edges that require serious force to cut through wood.

Does an axe blade need to be sharp?

For felling trees or performing other chopping tasks that cut against the grain, it’s best to use a sharpened blade. It’s easier to make deep, clean cuts into the wood with less effort.

A dull bit is okay for splitting logs, as the blade works with the grain. A heavy axe head uses force to break the fibers apart rather than cutting.

  • Maul: Doesn’t require a sharp blade as it uses brute force to split wood.
  • Splitting axe: While a straight edge is good, the bit shouldn’t be too aggressive.    
  • Felling and carpenter’s axes: Sharp axes significantly help with felling and chopping work.
  • Carving axe: Make the edge so sharp you can shave with it.
  • Throwing axe: Sharpen the edge, so it cuts paper without much effort.
A closeup image of a sharpened axe blade
Axes that chop against the wood grain need a sharp axe bit.

What’s wrong with a dull axe blade?

A dull blade wastes energy chopping wood. Instead of combining a sharp cutting blade with power, dull-edged axes need more power to get the same result. Blunt blades increase the risk of muscle strain or injury due to overexertion. It’s also frustrating having to work harder than necessary.

Is it possible to over-sharpen an axe?

There are three scenarios when over-sharpening an axe into an aggressive profile is a bad idea:

  1. Wood splitting: sharp blades are counter-productive to easy log splitting. The sharpened edge will cut deep into the wood fibers, increasing the likelihood of the axe getting stuck.
  2. The blade is weakened: As blades sharpen, they also thin out. This weakens the blade’s integrity, increasing the chances of breaking of chipping the bit.
  3. Safety is compromised: A seriously sharp blade can injure unsuspecting children and animals. Standard blade profiles reduce the likelihood of injury, so keep that in mind before over-sharpening.  
A maul stuck into a round of wood
Mauls don’t need to be sharpened as they rely on brute force.

The pros and cons of a sharp axe

Pros: The main benefit of using a sharp axe is making chopping jobs easier and faster. It cuts through wood quickly without requiring too much force from the person swinging it. For woodwork projects where appearance matters, sharp blades make cleaner cuts, giving your finished work a better look.

Cons: An over-sharpened axe may become brittle over time, leading to breakage or chipping. The blade may also cut too deep into rounds when splitting, causing the axe to bind. 

What is the difference between sharpening and honing an axe?

Sharpening is the process of grinding away metal to form a sharp edge. This job is usually done with a sharpening stone, file, or power tool. Honing refines an already sharpened edge by smoothing and polishing it.

The purpose of sharpening is to create a sharp edge, while the purpose of honing is to maintain the edge and keep it in good condition. Sharpen edges periodically, but hone them frequently.

Commonly asked questions

How do I sharpen an axe?

If your blade has become dull, then there are several ways to sharpen it. Whetstones, files, and power tools all work well on axes. Check out our guide to sharpening axes to learn more.

How to tell if an axe blade needs sharpening

The nail test is a practical method for testing axe sharpness. Rest the axe’s blade against your thumbnail at a 45° angle. If it slides away, then the axe needs sharpening. A sharp edge should also be able to cut paper without too much effort.

You can also look for physical signs that the edge needs some work. Nicks, rust, and imperfections indicate it’s time to sharpen the blade until it’s smooth again.

What’s the problem with using a dull axe?

A dull axe increases the chances it will bounce off the wood, causing severe injuries. Using the tool also takes more effort, so you’re more likely to tire quickly.

Can swinging an axe create frictional heat that affects blade integrity?

Swinging an axe blade into hardwood can cause the edge to heat up. However, axes are mostly tempered to 500°F or higher. A blade won’t get close to this temperature from the frictional force, so the axe head won’t get damaged from excessive heat.

Summing up

Sharpening an axe is essential if you want it to chop through wood effectively. In most cases, a sharp axe will perform much better than a blunt one.

There are exceptions, though. Mauls and splitting axes do their best work with a dull edge. These tools have heavy heads that use their weight and thick cheeks to force their way through wood. Over-sharpened blades cut too deep, resulting in a stuck blade.

Have you recently purchased an axe from the store? Be sure to read our article on whether new axes need sharpening before use.

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