Edgewise About Axes

Axes come up more than a little here on BFE Labs, and rightfully so: There are few tools that can do what an axe does, much less do it well. While there are myriad opinions about proper cutting tools for the backcountry, and everyone seems to have their own take on a solution, BFE Labs take is that (generally) the best cutting tools are a knife and a hatchet or pack-axe. My preference is for a small-medium knife, and a long-handled hatchet (short axe?) around 15 – 20” overall length. For me this axe is idealized by the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe, but there are many good options out there, and folks of different size and need will benefit from axes of different sizes.
What is inescapable with axes and hatchets of any size is blade geometry and sharpening. Without good geometry, and a good edge, no axe of any size is worth a good-goddamn. Unfortunately, many, many, axes on the market at present have truly horrible geometry. Most axe and hatchet like objects for sale are garbage for a variety of reasons, the leading being their geometry.

Growing up ranching, my family depending on wood for about 80% of winter heating. We cut a lot of wood, and did a lot of it with axes. Common practice, a few times each fall and through winter, was to make an all day foray to find or fall timber, limb it out and cut it to length for hauling to the homeplace to saw and store. I continue to spend a good amount of time every fall and winter on the ranch helping with this process. Consequently, I’ve had an axe in my hands for many-dozens of hours every year, since I was eight years old. At this point, I am somewhat opinionated on axes. Although my opinions are driven by my experience, in one small part of the world cutting a limited type of timber, I’ve tried to expand my knowledge by seeking out diverse materials and trying my ideas on them. Drawn from all that, what follows is my belief in shaping and maintaining axes/hatchets for general backcountry use.

To begin we need understand the pertinent anatomy of the axe & hatchet. These are, for the most part, common terms/definitions of the parts of an axe/hatchet, but some variation may be encountered between here and elsewhere. That is no great matter, as this merely serves to create a commonality of terms between this article and the reader. This is a basic primer on the bits and pieces of the axe/hatchet, and the listed elements (by any name) will be fairly universal to all such tools.

The basic axe/hatchet is comprised of a steel head, mounted to a handle inserted into the “eye” (a hollow hole in the center of the thickest part of the axe head). In a single bit axe/hatchet (also called a poll, or pole, axe) the eye is in the rear of the head, whereas in a double bit axe it is in the center. The only other real anatomical difference is that a double bit, obviously, lacks a poll.
The poll of the axe is the generally heavy backside, behind the eye, which adds weight and can be (although it really shouldn’t be) used for hammering.
The shoulder of the handle is a slight widening of the handle prior to the tang that is wedged into the eye of the axe.
The bit of the axe is the portion of the blade forward of the eye.
The cheek is the side of the axe, forward of the eye, and behind the bevel.
The heel is the very bottom corner of the bit.
The toe is the top corner of the bit.

Now, there exists a wide variety of axes, and they can be made to do a variety of things. There are dedicated cutting axes for various timber, in addition to specific splitting axes, and even more axes that aren’t really either but suffer from such poor geometry that they make better splitters than cutters. Obviously a specialized axe such as a carpenters axe, carving axe or broad axe should be reserved for its intended tasks, or the user will be fighting somewhat of an uphill battle trying to make it work for more generalized tasks.
In choosing the geometry for a field axe, I tend to go for a general shape with a lighter, thinner (through the cheek) head with keen bit geometry, for best results. You can split with a hatchet or axe that also cuts well, but you cannot cut/chop well with an axe that is so thick it only excels at splitting. Secondly, an axe that is too thick, preventing the bit from biting well into the wood, is dangerous, as they are more prone to glancing off the material being cut, possibly hitting you.

To the Left a Top-Down View of Poor Geometry – To the Right, Good Geometry

In my view, a good axe will have a smooth, slightly convex, “bevel”. I put bevel in quotation marks as this is not the distinct, hard angled shift of a knife bevel as we have come to know it – On an axe there will be an obvious transition from the cheek to the “bevel” but it is not a distinctive or crisp bevel, nor should it have a secondary (edge) bevel, as we are used to on knives. (Depending on the wood in your area, and what you find yourself processing the most of, you may want to go for a slightly thicker (more convexity), or slightly thinner (less convexity), variation on what is illustrated here. My preference remains for the middle-ground described here.)
This Gransfors Small Forest Axe is a fine example of this desired profile (both in bevel and overall geometry), but if you look at any good axe such as Snow & Nealy, Wetterling and the like, you’ll see the type of profile I’m talking about.

Left to Right: Estwing Hatchet (good geometry), Handforged Tomahawk (fair), Antique Hatchet (horrible), and the very-fine Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe.

I am not a fan of the only slightly tapered (or not tapered at all) head with a bevel ground onto it like a knife. In my experience they do not work well at all and I avoid them. A hatchet/axe should have (looking down from the top, as if at the eye) a taper, preferably slightly concave, toward the edge forged into it, and then a smoothly transitioning “bevel” to the edge. This shape without any hard angles is less likely to wedge into the wood on a deep stroke, and less likely to glance off the wood and cause injury than a thicker profiled tool.
The exception to this is a traditional tomahawk, or anything similar that narrows considerably just ahead of the eye – With this you also shouldn’t have the concerns about thickness hampering the cut, so long as the transition from the cheek to the bevel is smooth, free of hard angles that like to drag or catch.
It is should be noted here that many modern “tomahawks” feature distinct secondary (edge) bevels, and many of them are also hollow-ground. For a fighting weapon this is probably fine, but it will not do for a woods tool. Hollow-grinds bind even worse than flat grinds, and secondary edges promote further binding. The edge of an axe/hatchet should be “zero beveled”, with a slightly convex bevel that smoothly (continuously) tapers from cheek to edge. The same rules apply to the geometry of the edge as to that of the overall head, if it is flat or hollow ground it will stick (and break easier), but if it is too bluntly convexed it will not bite as deeply and can glance off wood dangerously. The shape of the forward area of the above (in top-down profile) illustrated axes of good, fine or fair conformation is a good example of the proper bevel/edge.

The cutting edge of the axe should have a bit of curvature to it from toe to heel. This presents the center of the bit further forward to focus energy in the beginning of the cut. Usually, on a well made axe, this isn’t an extreme curve, as too much curve results in a lot of functional edge being kept out of every cut. However, any amount of curve is usually enough to encourage most people to go nuts on it when they sharpen it. They’ll sharpen following that curve, working it from heel to toe and back again. In the long run what this does is make the curve more extreme by rounding the top and bottom corners back. The more rounded they get, the more curve there is, and the more curve there gets to be, the more radical the sharpening.
This is further compounded by the fact that the ends of the edge dull at a different rate than the center which provides most of the cutting, and thus the corners of the bit are thinner, and more easily worn away by over-sharpening.
The rounder the bit, the less effective cutting edge there is. Also, the geometry of the edge becomes less functional, as it will be much thicker on the top and bottom than in the center of the edge, further hampering effective cutting.
When sharpening your axes/hatchets you must be careful not to over-sharpen the top and bottom of the edge. When I sharpen I work almost straight across the bit, where most of the sharpening actually takes place on the most used parts of the edge, across the center of it.

At Left, Poor Geometry from Sharpening as Indicated – At Right, Correct Zone for Focusing Sharpening Effort

Many writers offer the advice of sharpening a “fan” or “half moon” bevel, as illustrated – This is fine.

As you repeatedly sharpen an axe, focusing on the center of the bit and not overworking the toe and heel, you’ll end up with a bevel that looks more like this anyway. With axes that need a lot of reworking this is the profile I usually go for, for simplicities sake if nothing else. So long as your geometry remains good, you’re fine.

I am of the elbow-grease school of axe sharpening to a great extent. I believe (because I have seen) that more damage can be done to an axe or hatchet by a careless hand with a power tool, than pretty much any other activity. For most touch ups my regular tools for sharpening are an axe file, and a “puck’ style axe hone. I will on occasion use a belt sander with a fine belt, to make such touch ups, or with a progression (coarse to fine) to make major alterations in the geometry. As with all tempered tools, care must be taken with a power-tool, not to get the piece too hot, as too much heat will take the temper out (or put in softer/harder spots). If it is gaining color (blue, straw yellow, etc) while you are working it, you’ve ruined the temper. If it’s getting so hot you need to dip it in a water can, you’ve ruined the temper. Power tools can also over-do your job for you, taking away too much material too fast.
Learn to use hand-tools. They take longer, but they give you more control and precision over what you are doing, and will prolong the life of your axes and hatchets. Also, if you are in good habits regarding the maintenance of your tools, you will rarely have to invest major effort into resharpening your axe/hatchet, as you will never allow it to become so extremely dull.

My favored tools for sharpening axes/hatchets are an axe file and a round, dual-sided, axe hone. An axe file is merely a mill bastard file with a handguard to protect you from the edge. Some companies make axe files with a guard in place from the factory, Gransfors makes a nice looking one, but any mill bastard will work. I simply use a heavy piece of leather or kydex slipped onto the tang between the file and handle.

A Pair of Mill Bastard Files, With and Without Kydex Handguard

Round axe hones are a dual layer carborundum stone, one side coarse, the other fine. You can use just about any hone to work on your axe, I simply favor the round hones as they are easy to pocket and thus easy to carry in the field. Gransfors and several companies make such hones, and any of them should work.
The sharpening process with these two tools begins with the file. First you must secure your axe against a work bench or other surface so that it will not slip, and you have both hands free to run the file. Securely clamp the handle to your work bench, or lean the axe head against a felled log with a stake driven behind the poll to hold it firm, leaving the majority of the bit exposed so that it may be worked.
Gloves should be worn when sharpening the axe, as you will be working your hand towards the edge, not away from it.
The file cuts in one direction, and that is on the push stroke not the pull. Pulling the file back across the bevel of the axe will fill the file teeth with metal faster, and dull the teeth faster as well. The appropriate stroke is to push across the bevel, then lift the file to return.
With an axe that already has a good profile, you should use that profile as a guide so as to maintain it. With a severely damaged axe, or one of poor geometry when new, that you are trying to return to shape you are going to have to work it to the necessary profile and you can begin with less care (as you have a long way to go).
If repairing a slightly nicked or chipped edge, sharpen it exactly as you would a perfect edge. Once the burr of the nick or chip is cut off, leave the damage in place rather than trying to sharpen it out as you would in a knife. Over time, you will sharpen out the nick, and it will not hamper cutting performance to leave it in place if the geometry behind and edge around it are otherwise in good form. Trying to sharpen out nicks and chips will reduce the life of the axe significantly, taking away more material than necessary to do (for minimal advantage in performance), as to move the edge back significantly means reprofiling the entire bevel to match. Just sharpen over the damage and press on.
Work the entire surface of the bevel, focusing your work towards the middle (working towards the heel or the toe begins to add too much curve to the profile as discussed earlier). Whichever side of the axe you begin on, work until you turn a wire edge, then turn it over and repeat the process. Once you have turned the edge on the second side, its time to move on to the hone.
Begin with the coarse side of the hone, and work evenly in circular motions across the entire surface of the bevel. Repeat on each side of the axe, changing when the (hopefully reduced) burr has turned, then switch to the finer side of the hone. Using the fine side of the hone you should be able to remove the burr completely, leaving a keen edge, which should bite into a fingernail and not slide across.

There is a lot more to know about axes, and how to work with them, but unless you can select one of good geometry, maintain that geometry and keep a keen edge on it, you won’t get too far. Poor construction and poor edges encourage poor technique and put the user at greater risk.

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2 responses to “Edgewise About Axes”

  1. fidalgoman says:

    When I was a kid we heated with wood. We used a chainsaw to cut into blocks and an axe to split with and delimb fallen trees.

    My Father had a couple of double bit axes he called falling axes I used for splitting the blocks and kindling.

    They were great on hardwoods but could get stuck on the douglas fir that was so plentiful in the region. I also had several wedges and a mall,

    One thing I will say is they were of a quality you seldom see in stores today. They would take a razor edge with just a few licks of a file and that’s how I liked them.

    I don’t think they came cheap either. I wouldn’t mind having a pair like them again.

    Though I’ve never used one the Gransfors Bruks axes look to be of fine quality as well

    • BFELabs says:

      Most older axes are of much superior quality to the common, particularly hardware store and big-box store, axes of today. The Gransfors Bruks are indeed very fine, though they come at a price, I consider them to be among the best available. Tools that, if treated right, will serve your grand and great-grand descendants.

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