How to sharpen an axe with a file

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3 mins read

You do have an axe, right? Even just a camp axe?
No? Get off your ass and buy one. The axe is one of the most useful tools a man can own. We used it to carve out a civilization in the American Wilderness. The axe plays a big part in folklore such as Paul Bunyan and even George Washington. From cutting down trees for fuel to slaying zombie hordes, every man should have an axe and know how to care for and use it.
Now that’s settled and you bought one and managed to ding up the blade because you took it camping with the Scouts and they spent an evening trying to throw it at the trunks of trees before you realized what the little punks were up to.

Bad axe
Unless your axe looks like this. You might be able to save it with a grinder. I’d also consider your life choices that led you to this.

It’s not a big deal. We can fix it by putting an edge back on with a basic file. Sure, there are kits and grinders and stones that can and will do the job, but those should only be used after you understand what you are doing. Unless your axe is really bad off you should never need much more than a file and some elbow grease.
So, get a pair of leather gloves, a file (more on that in a bit). Optionally, get safety goggles, a dust mask, and a vice. The latter three are up to you but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them.
 
1. Make sure the blade is clean and polished. Depending on the state of your axe, a simple wipe down could be all that’s needed or you might have to break out the sandpaper and give it a quick polish.Mill bastard file
The file should be a 10-to-12 inch bastard mill file. It will be coarse, with single-cut, and slightly tapering. The length is important, not only it gives you more to work with but also the density of the teeth is what is needed.
 
 
 
2. Inspect the bevel on the edge of the ax. You want to match that as you strip off the metal.
3. Secure the axe. A vice would be good here but you can secure it how you’d like. I use the edge of a workbench and press down on the head to keep it from slipping.
Axe in a vice with file
4. With a solid grip on the file, begin working on the blade by pushing it out along the edge. Remember, the bastard file cuts in one way. Move from one end to the other of the axe blade without much backtracking. For this pass you are just removing the bigger problems and burrs so don’t get caught up in making it perfect. Once you’ve made one pass, repeat it with a little more attention to smoothing out that side of the blade. Also watch the angle of the file, keeping it in alignment with the axe edge’s bevel. Make sure the file only has contact on the out stroke and not on the return. You’ll screw up your file that way and won’t do your axe any good.
5. Judgment time. Check that side of the blade. If you like how it’s looking, flip the axe and do the same thing to the other side. If you hit an ugly burr that won’t go away, work it on it on one side until it’s pushed to the opposite side, rinse and repeat until it’s gone.
Keep an eye on the bevel as you work. You want one running the entire length of the blade, not a bunch of little bevels.
The file will need some attention as you go along as the metal shavings get caught in the teeth. A small wire brush will work fine if you can’t just tap it clean.
At this point, the blade should be visibly better. You can test the edge however you’d like, I tend to eyeball it.
Keep working the blade until you have the bevel and edge you like. You aren’t looking for an edge like with a knife. In fact, you want it a little blunt because you are going to chopping down mighty trees as building materials for your log cabin. Or for siege engines like onagers and trebuchets.
If you have a finer grade file or stone you can add a bit of polish to the blade if you want. The important thing is to have a consistent bevel and an edge you want.
6. Finish it off with a rub down of oil. There’s a number of recommendation on that, an easy one is light machine oil, then beeswax mixed oil. I just use light machine oil.
And there you have it. Now your axe is ready to go and you can bask in the pride of taking care of the job yourself with basic tools. Chop some firewood and roast some S’mores with the kids.

16 Comments

  1. Most annoying for me is that the longest ax handle made commerically is 36″. I’d very much like a 48″ handle.

  2. Leo, can’t you custom create one exactly like you want? After all, you have to replace the handle anyway if the darn thing breaks in a weakened spot.

    • That’s outside this article, but yes. There are a number of shops that can customized a handle for you, if you want to pay for it. Contrariwise, you can DIY your own handle. It takes time and some skill, but there’s a number of How-To videos and instruction out there.

  3. I learned how to sharpen an axe without the use of a vice. That was no easy task fro a scrawny 12 year old. Holding that sucker tight is essential.
    Thanks for the article. Very nicely done.

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