Tuesday, October 11, 2016

How I Sharpen An Axe Or Hatchet

Axes were always a big part of my life growing up. My dad raised beef cattle, so we were always either expanding the pasture and hayfields a bit around the edges, or working to keep the forest from reclaiming them. Sometimes, this meant cutting trees with the chainsaw and then limbing them with axes. Other times, it meant using the axes to grub out sprouts and saplings that were invading the field edges. We cut some timber in our woods, too, using the axes the same way there, plus using them to split firewood, as well. Most of the axes that I remember when young were about half worn out, but Dad was so good with them, that it didn’t seem to matter. I was probably in my teens before he got two or three new ones. We used nothing but double-bitted axes, incidentally.

Dad showed me early on how to sharpen tools, so even before I was big enough to off-bear at our sawmill, I’d pass time there by keeping Dad’s axes sharp. He had a round carborundum stone (maybe five inches across) with a coarse side and a fine side. You could sharpen the axes dry, but we always preferred to put a little water on the stone every minute or two to keep the stone from loading up with ground metal and stone dust, making the stone less effective. You’d use the coarse side in a circular motion until it was sharp. Then you’d switch to the fine side to polish it and perfect the edge a little. (I don’t recommend the little “pucks” sold to sharpen axes today, unless they have a holder to keep your fingers away from the blade, otherwise, I think they’re dangerous.)

I didn’t have “hair” on my arms then, but I had some peach fuzz. During the summer, when I was off from school, it mostly disappeared though, as I used my arms to see if the axes were sharp enough to shave. (Can you imagine modern mothers allowing such “dangerous” practices? I never cut myself once, though.)
One blade was saved for chopping and was kept a little thinner, so more time was spent grinding away on the blade body, further from the edge. The other blade was kept for grubbing and was left a little thicker, so it would be stronger and more resistant to chipping, should we hit a rock. I never bothered trying to sharpen out nicks on either bit, though, as that would have required removing too much metal. They wore off with use anyway. I always sharpened the chopping blade first, since it was the most important. The sharpening angle was steeper on the grubbing blade but, if I had the time, I’d even get it to where it would shave.
Those old axes may have started out with either curved or straight edges but, by the time I was old enough to pay any attention, the edges were VERY curved and Dad sharpened them from corner to corner. Not surprisingly, I did the same.

By the time we got the new axes, I was the official axe sharpener. Dad ran the chainsaw and kept it sharp, but he never needed to sharpen an axe anymore. The new ones were strait-edged eastern style, so we could use the heel of the bit as a pickeroon or log hook if we wanted, to move or roll logs. Being “the man in charge” of the axes, I decided to sharpen them “my way.” That meant that the stone never touched the last quarter-inch or so next to the toe of the blade. That way, the blade would never get that rounded look that had a tendency to make the axe glance back at you endwise, if your stroke wasn’t centered well enough. It you always stood correctly, in relation to the swing of your axe, there was no problem; but I figured why not alleviate the problem altogether? I kept the heel as thin as I dared, and as square as possible, so it would dig into the wood easily when moving logs, and I usually kept it sharp clear to the corner. Still, I tried very hard not to over-sharpen the heel, so it wouldn’t get rounded.

Generally speaking, on the chopping blade, I spend a WHOLE lot more time honing on the metal BEHIND the edge, rather than on the edge itself. That helps keep the sharpening angle lower and helps prevent you from having a chisel edge. Just like sharpening a saw, you need to stop the second the shine on the edge disappears.

I think I saw an article somewhere once that listed 12 different ways to sharpen an axe. I’m sure some of them left something to be desired. I’ve ground axes on grinding wheels and belt sanders a few times, mostly when salvaging used axes that I’ve picked up (old axes usually have better steel). You can’t grind too much at a time, though, or you’ll draw out the temper.

A couple times after Dad passed away, I got lazy in zero weather and didn’t build a fire to keep my axe warm. As a result, I busted a pretty good chunk out of one blade on both axes. The missing chip was so big that I couldn’t even continue grubbing with those blades, so I had no choice but to grind them. Otherwise, I still use the old round stone that Dad used. Not only does it do a perfect job, it’s outlasted a thousand files. Sometimes, the old ways are still the best. © 2016


Sunnybrook Farm said...

That is good to know since I have little experience with double bit axes. We just had the single ones for splitting and I suspect that my grandfather had left the others behind when he retired from farming by the time I came along. I have a double now that I use for cutting limbs as it saves a lot of chainsaw work. I like to hear the ax ring when working the limbs off of a tree trunk. I bought mine back in the early 80s and finally put a plastic handle in it which works good though I don't like the looks of it. I see old ones for sale now and then but they are rounded like you describe and mostly used up but I did find a strange one that I bought though I have no use for it other than to look at it. It is what I would call a half size as the blade and handle are about half the size of a standard. I can't figure why anyone made a small double bit like that other than for a kid but if you need a small ax then you probably don't need one.

Gorges Smythe said...

This might clarify things a bit, SF:


Sunnybrook Farm said...

Yes that look very close to it only someone has a thinner handle in mine that I wouldn't trust with too much of a swing. You are very knowledgeable on axes!

Gorges Smythe said...

Thanks, SF. I almost literally grew up with an axe in my hand. Sadly, I STILL never developed the talent with one that my father had. He could split huge chunks of firewood with just an old worn-out axe. I needed sledge and wedges or a splitting maul!