How to sharpen an axe with a file


How to Sharpen an Axe

When you invest in a high quality axe or hatchet, you want to keep it in the best possible condition. A good axe, when properly taken care of will last a lifetime. In fact, many of us are using axes that belonged to our fathers or grandfathers.

Axe sharpening and edge honing is vital to keep your axe safe and effective. Many injuries occur from an axe head bouncing off a log or a glancing shot. Axe sharpening can be done in the shop or by field sharpening.

If you are new to axes or a casual user, you may have never sharpened a tool before or simply bought hardware store quality axes prior to this, but learning how to sharpen an exe is easy and after a few sessions you will become very good at it. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable and a great way to end a wood cutting session and prep your axe for storage.

Don’t try and use an electric grinder to sharpen your axe, you are likely to draw the temper out of the steel and soften the edge. This can ruin your axe. Instead, use a 10” – 12” mill bastard file. These long flat files usually have a course and a fine side and are long enough that you can use two hands for greater control.

1. Secure your axe. The first step in axe sharpening is to clamp the axe to your bench or in a vice so that it won’t move around while you apply pressure to the file. Most axe bevels are 20 – 30 degrees. If you aren’t skilled with a file or are a novice, it is easier to secure the axe bit at the desired angle and use the file at a right angle to the blade which is easier to determine by sight.

Keep in mind that most axes use a slightly convex shape that protects the cutting edge by pushing the wood away after the initial cut. See the diagram below.

axe profiles


2. When you file a new edge, do not file the cheeks of the bit flat rather, follow the existing bevel. You want to evenly remove a small amount of the bevel as you file the edge so that axe retains its geometry even after many sharpening. If you only sharpen the cutting edge eventually it will become stubby and not split the wood correctly.

3. Protect yourself and stay safe. Wearing a pair of leather gloves will protect you from the file edges and axe edge.


4. Hold the file oriented along the center line of the axe head (or at a very slight angle) and the corner of the cutting edge. File in one direction only and lift the file away from the axe on the return stroke. Filing away from the blade edge and back toward the poll will help to keep the edge from rolling.

sharpening angle

5. To sharpen an axe, you want to create a fan-shaped effect on the cheek of the ax, filing back 20 3 inches. See photo:

sharpen axe into fan edge


6. Clean as you go. The teeth of your file will become clogged with shavings from the axe as you work. Stop often and clean the file with a wire brush or file card.

7. To keep the axe edge even and prevent rolling a burr onto one side, switch edge sides often.

8. After the new edge is established with the file matching the existing bevel or edge angle, use an axe stone to finish and polish the new edge. The axe stone is used to hone the filed area smooth. Use some honing oil for a better result.


Start by using the coarse side of the stone. Move it in small circular motions over the entire edge. Do this until no file marks remain. After you have polished the edge with the coarse side, repeat with the fine side. Then, turn the axe over and repeat on the other side.

9. At this point you may strop the axe with a piece of thick leather to remove any small burr or wire edge that remains. Hold the axe with the bit facing away from you and hold a leather strop at a 45 degree angle over it. Pull the bit toward you and then away from you several times.

10. To protect the newly exposed metal from rust, use a mixture of light machine oil and then rub in a mixture of light oil and beeswax.

Taking these steps to regularly sharpen an axe is the best way to increase your work efficiency as well as stay safe while using your sharp ax.


Featured image courtesy of Gabriel Amadeus


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