How To Sharpen An Axe – Easy Guide To A Razor Sharp Edge

Maintaining your backpacking axes and bushcraft axes sharp is important for keeping them effective, safe, and dependable.

We’ll see how you can sharpen your dull axe at home by hand using tools such as oil stones, wet stones, water stones, a file, and even a rock.

We’ll also look at how to sharpen an axe with machine tools such as a bench grinder, or dremel tool.

For those lacking basic tools, we’ve included a bonus section of two methods to properly sharpen an axe without tools using a rock.

This DIY approach can come in handy when you are out in the bush, but forgot (or left) your sharpening tools.

Before starting, though, remember this tip: spend an equal amount of effort on both sides of the head.

The reason is that you don’t want to distort the shape of the blade and tilt it towards one or the other side. This can make using the axe a lot more difficult, as you’ll have to compensate in your stroke for the twisted edge.

Recommended Safety Gear

Safety is important when sharpening an axe. You’re working around a blade that could cut you to the bone with one wrong move.

Your hands should not be the testing ground for how well you sharpened that cutting edge.

We recommend you use leather safety gloves and eye protection. Just make sure the gloves are not too thick, as this will make your movements a lot more laborious.

No matter which sharpening process you use, keeping your hands and eyes safe is a must.

If you’re using a dremel tool or bench grinder to sharpen, use ear protection too. When working inside, a dust mask or a respirator will keep that harmful debris out of your lungs.

Cleaning the axe head

Axe-sharpener

Cleaning the head first removes any dirt or rust that makes sharpening the axe harder.

Secure your axe in either a workbench vice, or your lap with the head between your legs like the picture above. Using steel wool, buff away any surface rust and dirt.

You can also use abrasive solutions to clean the rust off. For example, white vinegar or WD40 will eat the rust if given enough time.

With white vinegar, you should detach the handle from the head. Then, fully submerge the head and leave it overnight.

With WD40, spray the head with enough solution so that you cover it. Leave WD40 work its magic for half to a full hour. After using either white vinegar or WD40 use steel wool to remove any remaining rust.

As long as you get most of it cleaned off, you can move on to your preferred sharpening method.

how to sharpen an axe with a file​​​​

what you’ll need

push file method

  1. Secure the axe either in a vice or firmly in your lap.
  2. Use a sharpie and color the entire bevel to use as a guide.
  3. Take a 10-inch mill file and bring it to the blade.
  4. Match the angle of the bevel and the angle of the file.
  5. Push long, continuous strokes 5 to 10 times along the blade.
  6. Perform the equal amount of strokes on the other side of the blade.
  7. If the blade is still damaged, perform more strokes on the blade.

Draw file method

  1. Secure your axe head with a bench vice.
  2. Sharpie the bevel edge to create a guide for filing.
  3. Hold the file with a hand on each edge, with one hand anchored at the top of the axe head.
  4. Match the bevel angle and draw the file across the edge.
  5. Repeat 10-15 times to sharpen the edge.
  6. Repeat the same process on the other side of the axe blade to finish sharpening.

how to sharpen an axe using a whet Stone/oil stone

What you’ll need

  1. Axe sharpening stone (whetstone)
  2. A vise (optional)
  3. Lubricant (water or oil, depending on your stone)

Method

  1. Secure your axe in a vise (if you have one)
  2. Apply lubricant to the coarse side of your whetstone.
  3. Position the head’s edge on the stone while matching the angle of the bevel
  4. Apply moderate pressure and begin working the head in small circles while counting the number of strokes used
  5. Work from one side of the axe edge to the other
  6. A little paste will start to accumulate, do not wipe this off
  7. Perform one complete pass by working the whole side and end at your starting point
  8. Flip to the opposite face and begin working the blade similarly with the same number of circles

After working the axe blade with the coarse side, you can flip the stone over to the fine side and use the same process.

  1. Apply oil to the fine side of the whetstone
  2. Position the head’s edge on the stone and match the angle of the edge
  3. Apply moderate pressure and work in small circles once more while counting the number of strokes used
  4. Start on one side of the axe edge and work to the other
  5. Perform a complete pass by working the entire edge back to your starting point
  6. Work the other face of the head in a similar manner using the same number of strokes
  7. Repeat 2 to 3 times on each side for a finely honed axe edge

After working the blade on the fine side, it should now be razor sharp.

Test the sharpness on your arm hair or run your fingernail against the blade.

If the edge cuts your hair or leaves a notch in your fingernail, it’s sharp and ready for service.

This method works great for sharpening both axes and knives, so if you ever need to touch up a knife blade, you’ve got the skills to take care of the job.

how to sharpen an axe with a Puck

What you’ll need

  1. Sharpening puck (for example, a dual-grit Lansky puck)
  2. Lubricant (water or oil, depending on your puck)

Method

  1. Position the axe handle between your legs with the head resting in your lap
  2. Apply honing oil to the coarse stone side of the sharpening puck
  3. Bring the sharpening puck to one face of the blade while matching the bevel angle
  4. Begin working in small circles down to the opposite side of the blade and back while counting the number of strokes
  5. A little paste of honing oil and metal will form, do not wipe this off
  6. After you’ve returned to your starting point, repeat the same number of strokes on the other side of the head

The edge of the axe blade should now be sharp enough to cut paper. We can now move to the side with finer grit of the stone. The axe will be between your legs in the same position as before.

axe sharpening with puck
  1. Apply honing oil to the fine grit side of your sharpening puck
  2. Bring the stone to the head and match the angle of the bevel
  3. Apply moderate pressure and work the puck in small circles along the edge of the axe blade while counting the number of strokes used
  4. Switch to the other face of the blade and perform the same amount of strokes as the previous face
  5. Repeat 3 to 5 times per face for a honed edge

Your axe is now honed and razor sharp if you’ve used the correct sharpening technique.

The sharpening puck’s fine grit works to refine the edge and turn your axe into an effective wood processing tool.

how to sharpen an axe with a bench grinder

What you’ll need

  1. Workbench grinder
  2. Tub of water
  3. Protective gear (eyes, ears, long sleeve shirt & pants)
  4. Mill file
Sharpening-With-Bench-Grinder

Method

  1. Start your bench sharpener.
  2. Match the angle of the bevel to the grinding wheel.
  3. Use light pressure and grind so that the wheel moves away from the blade, not onto it.
  4. Frequently dunk the head into water to cool it off and preserve the temper.
  5. Grind the other side of the axe blade the same amount as the previous side, making sure to dunk the head often.
  6. Clean up the edge with a wire brush to remove the burr and give the axe a sharp edge.

Bench sharpeners can take away lots of material quickly. This can both be a good or a bad thing, so pay close attention when using them.

After a few minutes of grinding stone, you can take away a lot of damage that would’ve required lots of filing by hand.

A quick touch up with a mill file afterwards, and your axe will be razor sharp like new.

Sharpening your axe with a bench grindstone isn’t ideal, as the heat from grinding can ruin the temper of the axe steel.

Use light pressure and intermittent grinds to prevent heat buildup.

Dunk the head in a tub of water to cool it and preserve the temper.

If you’re not careful, the bench grindstone can also leave your blade with a hollow grind. Be sure to limit the amount of material you take away to a minimum.

how to sharpen an axe with a dremel tool

What you’ll need

  1. Dremel tool
  2. Grinding stone head (typically based on aluminum oxide)
  3. Tub of water
  4. Protective gear (eyes, ears, dust mask, long sleeve shirt & pants)

Method

  1. Sharpie the edge of your bevel to create a guide for sharpening the blade.
  2. Match the angle with your dremel tool.
  3. Use light pressure and grind from one edge of the blade to the other.
  4. Frequently dunk the head into water to cool it off and preserve the temper.
  5. Grind the other side of the axe blade the same amount as the previous side, making sure to dunk the head frequently.
  6. Clean up the edge with a wire brush to remove the burr and give the axe a sharp edge.

Using a dremel tool is a great way to speed up the process. After a few minutes of careful grinding, you can have your axe razor sharp and ready for business.

Sharpening your axe with a dremel tool comes with the same issue as using a bench grinder. If you grind too quickly, the head will heat up and lose its temper.

Use brief and intermittent grinds to prevent the head from heating too much. Dunk the axe in a tub of water frequently to keep the temper intact.

how to sharpen an axe without tools using a rock

Sometimes you find yourself out there in the Amazon without your trusted sharpener to hone that cutting edge. You either forgot or lost it. But nature has plenty of tools lying around, so don’t fret.

Improvised sharpening puck

what you’ll need

  1. A relatively flat rock with a fine grit (a natural hone)
  2. Water (optional)
How-to-sharpen-an-axe-with-rock

Method

  1. Apply water to your rock if you wish for it to act more like a wet stone.
  2. Hold the rock firmly in your hand without exposing any fingers around the sharpening edge.
  3. Use either small circles or sweeping motions along the length of blade while counting the number used.
  4. Use the same amount of motions on the other side of the blade to sharpen it.
  5. Strop the now sharp blade against a piece of leather or pant leg to remove the burr.

This  first method uses a fine, smooth rock to sharpen similarly to using a sharpening puck.

Stones like these are easiest found in rivers. Use small circular motion to sharpen the blade on the wet rock and be mindful to use the same number on the opposite side for an even edge.

Any sharpening edge you’d normally use with a sharpening puck will work just the same with an improvised one.

improvised sharpening stone

what you’ll need

  1. Quartz (found in rivers or with other stones)
  2. Live wood with the bark removed
Improvised-Stone-Sharpening

Method

  1. Take a piece of quartz you found and smash it between two rocks.
  2. Grind the quartz to a fine powder and remove any leftover large chunks.
  3. Take a piece of live wood with the bark removed and wet it.
  4. Add water to the quartz powder and hold it in your hand.
  5. Drag the piece of live wood through the powder to create an improvised hone.
  6. Drag your knife blade across the quartz’ed area on both sides to sharpen it.

The second method comes from Bear Grylls during a survival trip in Costa Rica. Bear smashes a fine course rock and uses live wood to create a sharpening stone.

This method is great for giving your camping knife or sport hatchet a quick touch up whenever you’re in a survival situation.

Now you can return back to woodworking with your sharpened blade.

polishing your Axe Head

What you’ll need

  1. Angle grinder (optional)
  2. Machine sander (optional)
  3. Bench sharpener with buffing wheel (optional)
  4. Sandpaper from 120 grit to  800 grit sandpaper
  5. Clean rag
  6. Wax polish
  7. Light machine oil
  8. Tub of water
  9. Protective gear (eyes, ears, long sleeve shirt & pants)
Polished-Axe-Head

Method

  1. Use an angle grinder/sandpaper to remove surface rust, being careful not to heat the head. Dunk the head in water occasionally if you use an angle sharpener.
  2. Use a machine sander or sandpaper to sand the blade starting with 120 grit sandpaper and moving up to 800 grit sandpaper.
  3. Use a waxed buffing wheel in the direction of the blade or clean rag and apply wax polish.
  4. Take a clean rag and apply a fine layer of light machine oil to protect from rust.

Polishing your axe head is a process that will protect all the hard work you’ve put into sharpening and honing it. Polishing your axe blade protects the edge to help it last longer.

A thin coat of polish will ward off any dirt or corrosion that could hurt the metal of your axe. If you use an angle grindstone, be careful to not heat the head up too much. Dunk the head periodically to preserve the temper.

Maintenance Tips

how to maintain axe

You’ve now got a sharp and polished axe head that’s ready for anything you decide to put it up against.

While even the most durable axe edges won’t stay sharp forever, here’s a quick list of tips to help care for your axe’s newfound edge and maintain the handle wood.

  • Use a chopping block to avoid chopping on dirt and rocks to keep dirt from embedding in the metal
  • Cover the head and carry it in a waxed leather mask whenever possible to prevent corrosion due to moisture
  • Apply linseed oil to wooden axe handles to maintain a protective finish and prevent the handle from splitting, cracking, and drying out

If you have any questions or comments on sharpening your axe, please share them below

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