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.