Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Beginner’s Guide to Basic Axe Care and Maintenance

Over the past few months I have written a good amount about doing work and restoration projects on axes. I will have a guest post on the subject this Friday as well. In this post however, I want to touch on a few things that the average person can do to simply maintain the axe they already have. I will assume that you have bought a good axe, and will focus on how to keep it in good shape.

In that context, there are three things to consider. The first is protecting the axe from the elements, the second is cleaning the axe, and the third is the all important sharpening of the axe.

Protecting the Axe

Assuming that you have an axe with a wooden handle, there are two parts of the axe that must be protected-the handle and the head. The key to protecting both parts will be to maintain a coat of oil on them. Different people have their own types of oils and waxes by which they swear. Some of the most popular ones are to use boiled linseed oil on the handle and gun oil on the head. I never wanted to bother buying special oils, so I’ve always used just what’s around the house.

What you see in the picture is olive oil, an unscented bees wax candle, and a container of Vaseline. I have been using them for many years now, and they have served me well.

The head of the axe is the easier part to protect. As with all carbon steel objects, the enemy here is moisture. If the head gets wet, it will start to rust. All that is required to protect it is to put a light coat of Vaseline on it and wipe it off. I find that the Vaseline is great at getting into all of the pores, and has good staying power. I have not found the need for any further treatment. The paint that you find on most axe heads is there to protect the metal from moisture. The more exposed metal you have, the more careful you will have to be.

The handle requires two separate considerations. The first one is similar to the head, in that you have to keep it away from water. If the handle stays wet, it will start to rot, particularly in the area of the eye (in the area protruding on top of the head) and on the bottom of the handle, as these tend to be the most porous parts of the handle. The additional consideration is that you also have to make sure the handle does not dry out. A dry handle will shrink, potentially causing the head to come loose.

You will notice that some wood handles come covered with a protective laquer or paint. This works well to protect the handle, but many people do not like the feel of it and sand it off. For bare wood handles, I like to do the following in order to protect them. First, I put a coat of olive oil on the handle and let it get absorbed. I repeat the process until the handle stops absorbing oil. I wipe off the excess. Then, I take the bees wax candle, and I rub it along the surface of the handle. The friction melts the wax enough to let it coat the handle. I use my hand to rub it in. I am sure there are better ways to apply bees wax, but this works well enough. Don’t forget to coat the top and bottom of the handle as well, since that is the easiest place for water to enter.

Cleaning the Axe

Since water is the enemy of the axe, you want to avoid using it to clean the axe. Soap is not a good idea, as it will remove a lot of the oils and wax that you have been applying. To clean my axe, I use the same materials I use for its maintenance.

To clean the head, I apply a good coat of Vaseline, I rub it in well with my fingers, and then I wipe it off with a towel. This removes a good amount of the dirt. Repeat as needed.

Sometimes, the chopping of wood will leave a resin residue on the bit of the axe, which is very hard to remove. To clean it, I just take a knife, and scrape it off. It is the easiest method I have found so far.

To clean the handle, I follow the same process using oil. I put a good coat of oil on it, I rub it in, and then wipe it off. With time, the handle will darken, but that should not be a big worry. If for some reason you want to get it extra clean, a light sanding of the handle will get the job done. Don’t forget to re-oil and re-wax after a sanding.

Sharpening the Axe

When I talk about sharpening, I am assuming that you have a well profiled axe, that is either dull or needs to be touched up. I have other posts on re-profiling the edge but here I am assuming you are starting with a good axe.

The tools you will see used here are a DC 4 sharpening stone (with a course and fine side) and a 8 inch, 200 mm file (I find that how fine a 200 mm file is varies between manufacturers. Anything in the 200 mm to 300 mm range should work.)

For the first step, I will assume that your axe is rather dull. To sharpen a dull axe, I do the following:

Take the head of the axe in your hand. Take the file in your other hand. Start at the edge of the axe, and applying very little pressure, push the file back along the bit. Do that along the whole edge. What you are trying to do here it to actually turn the edge. The result you are looking for is to force the edge away from the file, so that it curves down, creating an overhang or burr. If done properly, you should be able to feel the overhand with your nail or finger. The biggest error that people make is that they are afraid to ruin the edge when sharpening. As a result, they stay away from the edge itself, passing the stone or file over the bit, without actually touching the edge.

Once you have turned the edge and created the overhand, turn the head around, and repeat the process until the edge it turned the other way. Again you should be able to feel the overturned edge with your finger when you slide it over the bit.

If your axe is fairly sharp, you can skip the above step, and move directly to the sharpening stone. The process will be exactly the same.

To use the sharpening stone, I like to position the axe so that I can see the edge. I then take the stone (course side), place it so that it touches the edge, and proceed to move it along the edge in a circular motion (this is how I sharpen my knives as well). If you have used the file, in the above step, you want to use the stone to move the overhang/burr in the other direction. If you are starting with the stone, you want to create the overhang as described above. Do this several times on each side, alternating between sides.

Then, repeat the same process with the fine side of the stone. If your axe is already sharp, but you just want to touch up the edge, skip directly to this part.

What you are doing is to keep that burr/overhand moving back and forth, while progressively making it finer and finer by using finer tools-file, coarse stone, fine stone.

When ready to finish, pass the stone quickly a few times on each side to align the burr in the center. You should now have a shaving sharp axe. At this point you may want to strop the edge, so that any hanging pieces of the burr get snapped off. People like to do that by moving the edge back and forth over a piece of leather. I just do it on my pants.

There are finer ways to sharpen an axe, but I like to do it with the tool I have available with me in the field. That way I am always working with a consistent level of sharpness.

The above steps should keep your axe in good, functioning condition for a long time. A good place to see the sharpening and maintenance process I outlined above is in the video An Ax to Grind, released by the USDA.


  1. Hey,

    Some day you might want to try some spoonful of normal butter / margarine to remove resin, it works nice on hands and on axes. Just smear and then rub it on the resin and wash the goo away.

  2. I like that. I'll give it a try.

  3. I always felt lacquered handles caused you to blister more easily. Oil IS the best!

  4. So Ross are you filing toward your body or toward the eye?

    Thx, great write up!

  5. I start at the edge and push the file back towards the eye.

  6. Nice tips on handle care. I use boiled linseed oil. I'll have to try the beeswax. I also use "Snow Seal" (for boots) on the axe head when out in the field on a rainy day.

    Do you use the grindstone at an angle? That is the thing I've been unsure of since starting to maintain axes.

  7. What do you mean when you say "using the grindstone at an angle"? I place the stone flat on the cheeck of the axe, and then I tilt it towards the edge until the edge starts to bite into the surface of the stone when I move it. I'm not sure if that answers the question. :(

  8. Olive oil turns rancid and oxidizes. If you don't like specialty oils. I would suggest mineral oil. I assume you've got some butcher blocks you keep sealed. Coconut oil does not go rancid and is a good multi purpose product that may be worth having around