Axe Sharpening and Maintenance

Proper axe sharpening makes cutting jobs easier.
By Robert E. Hetchler
December 1991/January 1992
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Be sure to take safety precautions when sharpening and using an axe.

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To most people, an axeee is very basic: It's a stick with a sharp piece of metal on one end that'll chop just about whatever you put it up against. And as with any tool made to do a cutting job, proper use and sharpening will save a great amount of time and effort. Sharpening a new or badly abused axeee should be done in three stages. First, check the axeee to assess its condition. Second, grind the blade down. And third, file the blade and the blade's edge. axe sharpening is both easy and necessary.

Assessing the condition of your axe begins when you pick it up. Take a close look at the handle. Look good? Make sure yours is solid and sturdy with no noticeable crack lines running through the wood. Many accidents as well as unfinished jobs have been caused by cracked or split handles.

Once your axe handle passes muster, inspect the cutting edge. It should flow in a clean smooth sweep from top to bottom without waviness or minor nicks. Nicks do happen but can be removed with several sharpenings. For cutting, the angle from the edge onto the face of the axe blade must be very flat and should extend well back. A short, abrupt angle and a thick blade are great for splitting firewood.

axe grinding is the easiest and quickest way to remove excess metal. But the key words for axe sharpening are slow and careful. "Slow" because a grinder can remove metal from the wrong place or even the right place in a hurry. And "careful" because any power tool must be treated carefully. A grinder can and will remove any object from the firmest grip and deposit it in unfunny places.

The cutting edge should face the direction the wheel is turning. Work the stone across the blade without stopping while it is in contact with the metal. Don't let heat buildup get out of hand — heat can take hardness and strength away from steel. Try to grind as smooth as possible. When the grinding is finished, the filing starts. Filing is done to smooth the grinder marks, flatten the high spots and ridges and create the cutting edge. The file used should be flat and of a reasonable size. A file handle will make the job safer. Care should be taken since the axe will rapidly become sharp enough to cause a major cut. (For safety, the axe should be clamped or held in a comfortable position.) The file should be worked only on the cutting side of the teeth. Dragging the file backward dulls the cutting action quickly. The long, flat surface of the file can be used to create a long, flat surface from the cutting edge onto the blade of the axe. Used from this direction, the file will create a clean, flat surface and can also shape the cutting edge. The sharp edge will bite deeper into the wood if it's followed and supported by this smooth, flat angle. The sharpness of the edge can be judged by looking at it. When viewed directly from the edge, the sides will taper smoothly into nothing. A small, shiny line down the middle means the fine edge is worn away and the axe is no longer as sharp as it could be. Carefully file one side, then the other, until a very thin, flaky edge appears. A few final, very light strokes will clean this away and result in an extremely sharp axe.

A dull or ill-prepared axe can glance from the wood and cause a broken handle — or worse, an injury. A properly sharpened axe will dig in and cut deep. Because of this, safety must always be on one's mind. Plan each axe stroke and backstroke. Never stand or place anything that should not be cut in the area of the path the axe could take. Sharp is as sharp does, and a sharp axe is a cutting tool that will do the job.

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