The Axe Life
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I have a love and adoration for a good axe. Several times in multiple careers have I come to appreciate just how handy a good axe, hatchet or tomahawk can be. I’ve used all three for a wide variety of tasks, including falling trees, splitting wood, butchering chickens, shavings limbs from small trees, and even in wildland firefighting training. The axe and any variant of the axe is an incredibly effective and versatile tool. So much so, that the axe and tomahawk remains one of the oldest serving tools in the United States military. The tomahawk is a part of kit issued with one of the Army’s light armored vehicles, and an axe is found in every Humvee kit.

As a personally purchased item, soldiers and Marines utilize tomahawks and small hatchets not as weapons, but as valuable tools in the field. A tomahawk allows troops to collect wood for a fire to cook over, or to keep warm on a cold night. Troops on small patrol bases often have zero luxuries, and life is very much like it was in the 1800s. An axe, hatchet, and tomahawk are used extensively and because they are so widely used, they must be cared for.

Sharpening

My knowledge of sharpening axes and their associated tools comes from the U.S. Forest Service. While I’ve never worked directly for the Forest Service, I do work with a similar agency who adopted their methods of caring and maintaining for tools. Their methods are commonly capable of being utilized in the field and do require any specialized tools or equipment.

Reforming a Bevel

Now if your axe is extremely dull, and perhaps hasn’t been sharpened in years, you may need to reform the bevel first. This is not something that needs to be done every time you sharpen an axe, but depending on use, should be gauged and done occasionally.

Reforming the bevel of an axe can be done with a bastard file, and a pair of gloves, and that is all you really need. However, if you have an axe bit width gauge and a vice you can gauge the sharpness of your axe a little easier and work a little safer with a vice. Also, if you replace the bastard file with a heavy duty sharpener you’ll make life a little easier. The advantage of a file is it can be used for a multitude of tasks and sharpen a wide variety of tools, a sharpener can only be used to sharpen.

If you are at home, clamp the axe down on a vice for safety and toss the gloves on. If you are in the field do ahead and take a seat. Hold the axe head in your lamp, and place the handle over your shoulder. Always keep one hand on the axe when sharpening. The axe is upside down in this position, but this is a safe position to work. If you have gloves wear them, a sharp axe is a sharp axe, and not something to play with. With an axe, you file into the edge, and if you slip it could be quite devastating.

Now carefully look over the axe and find the bevel angle, the bevel is the edge of the blade and different blades have different angles. You’ll want to hold your sharpener or file at the same angle as the bevel of the blade. You want to lift the sharpener or file at the end of every stroke and avoid a sawing motion. All files and most sharpeners only sharpen in a single direction. Using a sawing motion can damage your blade, and ruin your sharpening device.

As you sharpen you want to move the sharpener in a fan-shaped pattern. It’s also helpful to keep a count on the strokes on each side of the axe. With an axe blade, you do have to sharpen both sides, and the more even the sharpening the better. A sharpening gauge is a simple piece of wood or metal and has a notch carved into it. You measure you blade insert it into the notch, and if it fills the notch evenly and flush it is properly sharpened. If it doesn’t fit, or there is slack around the edge the blade is too dull, or too thin. An axe blade or bevel gauge is usually less than ten bucks, so if you have a working axe it’s a wise investment.

After the rough work with a file or sharpener is done and the bevel is reformed you can start with basic sharpening. A basic sharpening should be done every morning the axe expects heavy use, and is relatively easy to do.

Daily Sharpening

It’s time for a whetstone. A whetstone can be an oil stone or a water stone. Both refer to the method of moistening the stone to remove metal particles. The oil is any whetstone oil, commonly found in hardware stores and can be used for any kind of blade, and water is water of course. These stones have a fine and coarse side. I really like the DMT Diafold for axe sharpening. It resembles a butterfly knife and offers a good sturdy handle. This makes it convenient and comfortable to use, but more importantly it keeps your hands far from the blade and prevents injury. I know a lot of the old school guys favour the Arkansas whetstone and these bad boys are extremely common, and have a solid reputation.

We start with the coarse side and rub in a circular motion, going into the blade. Count your strokes and apply stroke evenly on both sides of the blade. Work one side of the axe until it creates a bur. Then begin working the other side of the blade until you create another burr. Now flip the sharpener over and begin with the fine side. You are doing to do the same process until you have a fine burr. As you are using both the coarse and fine sides occasionally wipe off the stone and apply water or oil. Once you finish with the fine side of the sharpener your blade should be able to cut paper.

Further maintenance

Once the blade is sharpened to your satisfaction I suggest applying some type of protectant to the blade. Something non-corrosive, of course, and something that will protect the blade from rust and aid in wicking away moisture. I suggest something like Tuf-Glide, evenly applied via rag over the entire axe head. After that you apply a protective coating you are ready to go to work. These methods can be used on an axe, tomahawk or hatchet quite successfully. Remember a dull axe head glances off, a sharp one digs in.


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