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Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying,
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
We often think of axes as a brutal tool, powering through the wood to smash the tree apart.
Knives are the tool of finesse, delicately slicing their way through the target. Even big ol’ survival knives, compared to an axe.
But that’s not exactly true.
A good, sharp axe saves you much time and effort. You can even shave with one!
A dull axe may eventually chop into a tree, but you’ll get the job done with less sweat and tears by spending a few minutes sharpening the axe first.
I’ve had to heat my home with firewood from my property (even in the wet snow!), so I know full well how good of an investment proper preparation can be!
You want to sharpen your axe.
Though, depending on what you’re using it for, is it possible to be too sharp?
How Sharp Should an Axe Be?
There are competition tree choppers out there who can hew their way through a log in moments. Lumberjack athletes!
They use special racing axes, as sharp as possible.
Should your axe be as sharp as theirs?
You always want your axe to be as sharp as possible.
A dull axe not only takes more time and effort but is also more dangerous because the blow is more likely to not bite into the wood or to do so improperly.
However, you don’t always want your axe’s edge geometry to be as thin as possible.
Well, the point should be as thin, aka sharp, as possible. But depending on how you use your axe, you may want a thicker bevel.
Those competition axes have almost no bevel, but they are completely unsuitable for splitting firewood or chopping through roots.
That’s why double bit axes are a thing, by the way.
One side has a thinner profile, for chopping across the grain to fell trees. The other has a thicker profile, for cutting with the grain to split firewood.
Axe Edge Profiles
The sides of the axe near the edge are called cheeks.
How your axe transitions from the edge to the cheek is very important.
Basically, it should never be concave. That’s for knives, not axes.
So, unless you want to use your axe like a very awkward knife, keep it convex (most of the time!).
However, how rapidly convex the transition is depends on what you’re using the axe for.
Generally, the shallower the angle, the faster the axe chops but the easier it is to damage.
Straight Profile – Carving Wood and Splitting Firewood
Axes designed for carving instead of chopping have a profile that’s as straight as possible along with thin cheeks.
The bevel angle should be about 25 to 30 degrees.
This gives you the most control without deviating when you cut deeper into the wood.
It’s also the least resistant profile to chipping and is more susceptible to damage if you don’t chop exactly straight.
For splitting firewood, a straight profile with thick cheeks is preferred. The angle may go up to 45 degrees!
This turns the axe into a high-velocity wedge to optimally split the log.
Though, you can have almost as much success splitting logs with a thick convex profile as well.
Shallowly Convex – Chopping Softwood
Since softwoods are, well, not too hard, you can swiftly chop into them with a shallow angled edge and a bevel close to the cheeks.
There will be a curve from edge to cheek but it’ll take a while for it to get there.
The starting angle should be shallow, from 12.5 to 20 degrees.
Deeply Convex – Chopping Hardwood
Hardwoods are not only tougher to chop through but are also tougher on your axe.
This means you should move the bevel toward the edge so there is more metal closer to the tip.
Aim for an angle of 25 to 40 degrees and a rapid yet smooth curve toward the cheek.
As mentioned before, a deep convex bevel is good for splitting as well.
Ax Sharpening Techniques
Now that you have an idea on what profile you want for your axe, let’s learn how to sharpen your axe.
You can use these techniques to sharpen any size axe, from a splitting maul to a lightweight camping hatchet.
If you find an axe in an antique store then you can use these techniques to restore the blade to glory.
In fact, you may have to fight me for that antique axe in the first place!
My two recommended techniques are to use files for restorative work and initially shaping the edge (called profiling), and a whetstone for the actual sharpening.
If you’re chopping a tree down then I’d recommend honing the edge afterward with a strop.
I typically don’t bother with a proper hone when splitting firewood, though. I use my pant legs.
Related: How to Sharpen a Pocket Knife
With Whet Stone
You can do this with any whetstone.
I prefer the Lansky Puck. I own several because it has two grits and can fit in my pocket while remaining large enough to be useful.
You can use the Puck to sharpen knives, machetes, and other tools as well. Even lawnmower blades!
You’ll want at least two grits, one coarse and medium.
If you’re carving or speed-chopping, you’ll want a fine grit whetstone as well.
Start with the coarse grit if your edge is rough or chipped.
If the edge is okay, just not sharp, start with the medium grit.
First of all, apply a liquid to the whetstone. Water and oil are good choices.
I use spit.
Hey, I always have a supply of spit with me!
The liquid keeps metal shavings in suspension so they don’t plug up the whetstone and block it from grinding away at your axe’s blade.
It’s best to put the tool in a vise, but since I’m not in the habit of carrying vises in the woods and I’m sure you’re not either, hold the axe tight against your body with the edge facing up.
Hold the whetstone firmly but make sure to keep all fingers and thumbs away from the working edge. You don’t want to slice your fingertips off!
If using a straight stone, move it as if you were using the axe to shave off a thin layer of the stone.
If using the Puck, move the stone in a circular motion. Make sure to overlap the circles!
Work one side then turn the axe around and work the other.
I like to finish with a couple circles back on the original side, to help eliminate a feather’s edge.
You may notice dark metal shavings floating in the liquid. They’ll look like a blob. Those need to be removed.
If you’re using oil then add a couple more drops of oil, spread it around, then wipe off the stone with a cloth.
If you used water or spit then you can wipe it off on your pants.
The dark stain from the metal filings will come out in the wash, I promise!
Related: How to Sharpen a Tanto Blade
A whetstone is good for sharpening an axe in good condition, but what if you need to restore a rusted axe or one that’s badly damaged?
That’s where files come into play.
You will need a vise or clamps for this. Don’t try filing your axe blade without it being held firmly in place.
I prefer clamping the axe to a workbench so the blade is horizontal.
The specific file does not matter that much, so long as it’s in good condition.
Longer is better, though!
Again, keep all fingers, thumbs, palms, and other body parts away from the edge.
The edge will take bits off!
There are two parts to sharpening your axe with a file: Profiling then sharpening.
Part 1: Profiling
As you sharpen an axe over the years, the bevel will get deeper and deeper. Eventually, it’ll curve almost immediately from cheek to edge.
That’s when you need to re-profile the axe.
Remember, clamp your axe tightly and horizontally.
Place your file against the cheek of the axe, near the edge, at a 10-degree angle. This will give a result of 20-degrees when done to both sides.
1/16″ from the edge is a good distance.
Apply enough pressure to keep the file in place then push forward, from edge to poll.
Don’t apply too much pressure; let the file do the work for you.
Lift the file, move it back to near the edge and slightly to the side, then do it again.
Keep going across the width of the blade until you get the profile you want. You’ll have to go back and forth several times.
Remember, a felling axe should be thinner and a splitting axe thicker.
Unclamp the axe head, flip it over, then do it again.
Part 2: Sharpening
Now, let’s give the axe the edge it deserves.
You’ll place the file against the edge itself this time, and at a deeper angle.
Remember that to get the overall angle you apply half that to each side.
Otherwise, this is similar to profiling the axe.
Push the file from edge toward the rest of the axe without pushing too hard into the axe with the file.
Move slightly to the side as you go, back and forth.
Once the edge is almost right, it’s time to start making the profile curved.
Start at the deeper angle then, as you move the file forward, flatten it to the same angle you used for the cheeks.
It takes a while to get the hang of this but a file can take an axe from “blunt rustpot” to “shiny sharp instrument of doom”!
With Bench Grinder
You can use a high-speed bench grinder in much the same way as a file but I actually recommend against its use.
That’s because that much friction so fast heats up the axe head, which can ruin its temper.
Still, properly used, a bench grinder can reprofile or sharpen an axe faster than any other method.
You’ll need a bucket of water as well, to keep the axe head cool.
And don’t forget protection! Eyes, ears, and long sleeves!
Hold the axe horizontally and touch it to the wheel at the proper angle where the wheel is moving away from you.
If you try to sharpen the axe where the wheel is moving toward you, not only will sparks fly into your face but the axe might get kicked back at you.
That would be a bad time.
Bench grinders remove a lot of material very quickly, so use frequent short touches instead of prolonged contact.
Also, dunk the axe head into the water. Frequently. More frequently than that.
You want to keep it as cool as possible.
Also, keep an eye on the cheeks.
Remember, you don’t want a concave profile.
If you don’t pay attention to the angle, you may give the axe a hollow grind! Save that type of edge for your EDC knife.
Follow up with a wire brush or whetstone to remove the feather edge.
A Dremel or other rotary tool is like crossing the file method with a bench grinder.
You need to use clamps or a vise and also be cautious about heating up the axe head too much, though it won’t happen as fast.
Keep some water nearby. Also, don’t wear gloves with this one.
You’ll see why soon.
Chuck an aluminum oxide grinding stone into your Dremel. Start with a coarser grit.
Touch it lightly against the axe. Remember, let the tool do the work, not your pressure.
Move the Dremel in circles so you don’t stay in any one place for too long.
Also, touch your finger to the freshly-ground metal occasionally (not on the direct edge, obviously!).
If it feels uncomfortably hot to the touch then either stop grinding for a while or immerse the axe head in water to cool it down.
As you progress, swap out the coarse grit bit to a finer grit.
With a Rock
Did you know that you can sharpen an axe with a rock?
Of course you did!
That’s all a whetstone is. A fancy rock.
But if you made it into the woods and left your Lansky Puck in your other pants, not all is lost.
You can use ethically wildcrafted free-range stones to do the job as well.
For a more in-depth explanation on how to find a good rock in this knife sharpening article.
The actual act is just like using a whetstone, though you’ll most likely need to use more elbow grease to get the job done.
You can use sandpaper to sharpen an axe as well, though you won’t be able to reprofile the edge.
This method works for knives as well.
You’ll need several grits of sandpaper, some clips or duct tape, and a soft pad.
You can use a mousepad, a square of leather, or another flat object with some give.
Clip or tape the coarse grit sandpaper to the pad. Put it on a flat surface and hold it in position.
Put your axe edge against the sandpaper at the desired angle, push down slightly, then pull it across the sandpaper.
Unlike with a whetstone, where you act as if you are slicing off part of the stone, you want to drag the axe poll-first, so the edge trails behind.
When you reach the edge of the pad, lift the axe and reverse the side.
Don’t roll the edge on the sandpaper!
Swap to a finer grit and do it again, going finer until you get the edge you want.
Then hone the axe and you’re done!
With Axe Sharpening Kit
Honestly, I haven’t found an axe sharpening kit I’ve liked.
Simple tools, such as the pull-through devices for knives, rarely have openings thick enough for an axe’s cheeks.
The ones which do work give lackluster edges with a straight bevel instead of the curved bevel preferred by most woodsmen.
The more expensive axe sharpening kits work better but, man!
For that much money, you can buy a file set, several clamps, and enough whetstones to keep one in a pocket of every pair of pants you own!
If you do want to use an axe sharpening kit then it will come with directions on how to use it properly.
I know some of you may not enjoy reading manuals but you should do so this time.
Regardless if you want to chop down a tree or split some logs, you want to keep your axe sharp.
As sharp as possible.
You can spend lots of money on fancy tools to achieve the perfect bevel at a specific angle…
…or you can spit on a whetstone, rub it on your axe, hone the edge on your jeans, and enjoy the serenity of overcoming wood using manpower and ingenuity.
How do you hone an axe?
I mentioned honing several times in this article.
Honing is kin to sharpening but it’s not the same thing.
Sharpening removes metal to form the edge while honing reshapes the metal that’s already there.
Anything sharp should be honed.
Axes are no exception.
For proper honing, you should use a piece of leather, called a strop.
Impromptu field honing? Canvas or denim pant legs will do.
Place the axe edge against the honing material and push in slightly. Then pull the axe along the leather or whatever, trailing away from the edge.
Remember, no cutting into the material!
When you get to one side, flip the axe over (by the poll, not the edge!) and pull the same length again.
Half a dozen strokes should do.
Should I use water or oil on my whetstone?
There is intense debate regarding whether to use oil or water on whetstones.
I favor water.
Oil is messy. It stains. It’s harder to clean off. It’s harder to transport into the wild. It’s more effective, though some people say it clogs the whetstone.
Water is everywhere. It evaporates quickly. It’s cheap (free if you use spit!). It’s less effective, but you can always apply more.
Supposedly, water on whetstones can rust the metal, but wiping it off the edge then honing always takes care of that for me.
Will the edge of my axe roll over on itself if my axe is too sharp?
You sometimes see advice to leave your axe a little bit dull, so the edge doesn’t fold over when used improperly.
If a strike folds your edge over, then one of three things is happening: you sharpened your axe asymmetrically, your technique is poor, or your edge angle is wrong.
Resharpen your axe, pay attention to the edge geometry, and practice straight swings.