Illustration by Pete Sucheski
When sharpening an ax, the most important rule is to hone without heating. Abrasive belts do a good job of shaping and sharpening new axes. Compact units from Work Sharp (worksharptools.com) are easy to use and run on 110 current. Each comes with three belts of different grit. Avoid electric grinders, though, as they can heat an ax head enough to ruin its temper. Old-fashioned hand- or pedal-turned wheels, with water to dissipate heat, work better–but they’re scarce.
To touch up an ax by hand, secure it in a vise with the blade horizontal. Stroke a mill file along the blade from toe to heel (click here for a glossary of terms), maintaining an angle of 15 to 20 degrees to establish a secondary bevel, just blunt enough to protect the edge from chipping. File on one side of the edge until a burr forms, then flip the head to file the burr off. Repeat. Next, file a primary 10-degree bevel well up the blade. A whetstone is unnecessary but can remove small irregularities at the edge. Oil helps float away particles so they don’t plug the stone.
Protect the blade with a plastic sheath. Don’t store ax heads in leather, where acids and moisture can reside.