How To Sharpen An Axe With A File

Sharpening an Axe

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Sharpening an axe is fairly simple once you’ve learned how to do it. There are different ways to accomplish this task, but using a file is my preferred method.

While a bench grinder or Rollock tool may be faster, not everyone has one. A file is relatively cheap and easy to use. That’s precisely what this page is meant to teach you; how to sharpen an axe with a file.

There are a few things I want to show you before we begin. One of them is the angle of the cutting edge. By the way, knowing the parts of an axe will help you to understand better what I’m talking about in this guide. The other thing I’ll cover is the two different ways to use the file.

The Shape of the Cutting Edge

When sharpening your axe, there are two basic shapes you want the cutting edge to look like when you’re finished. One is called a rounded bevel edge, and the other is a straight edge.

Each has its pros and cons, and each one outperforms the other in different ways. Whichever edge you choose, it works best if both sides are approximately the same in length and shape.

For example, if you put a rounded bevel edge on your hatchet, ensure both sides are the same; don’t make one side rounded and the other straight. Also, the cutting edge should be around 1/4-inch in width and span from the toe to the heel of the bit.

Rounded Bevel Edge

Rounded Bevel Edge
An example of a rounded bevel edge.

As shown in the picture above, a rounded edge is slightly curved. This puts more support behind the cutting edge. This is the type of edge I suggest most people use, at least to begin with.

A rounded bevel edge is great for cutting hardwood or even frozen wood. A rounded bevel edge with a smaller curve or angle is better for cutting softwood.

Straight Edge

Straight Edge
An example of a straight edge.

A straight edge is exactly what you would imagine; completely flat sides meet to form an edge. You want to be careful not to make the angle too steep. Something between 25° – 30° will suffice. A straight edge is more appropriate for a carving axe. Also, making the angle less than 20° will result in poor performance.

Supplies You Will Need

The most obvious things you’ll need are the axe and file. With a little patience, you can sharpen your axe with just a file – nothing else. On the other hand, there are a few other devices that will help you along the way.

First and foremost comes in the form of a bench vise. A bench vise will keep the axe from moving while you’re working on it.

Hatchet in Vise
A hatchet in a vise using non-marring jaws (the green objects).

Should you use a bench vise, I recommend getting some non-marring jaws to prevent damaging the head or handle of your tool. You can see them in the picture below; they’re the green nylon blocks on the vise.

The ones in that picture are from ATLIN (click here to see them on Amazon). So far, I have no complaints. They work exactly as described.

Don’t worry if you don’t have a vise. An alternative to a vise is C-clamps. Again, use some type of insulation between the contact points of the clamps. If the camp is too right, it can damage a wooden handle.

Last but not least, you can always use one hand to hold the axe and use the other to work the file. This is why using a file to sharpen an axe is my preferred method – you don’t need expensive equipment.

The last item I recommend is a sharpening stone. I use a Lansky Puck (link goes to Amazon) because they’re effective and easy to use. This isn’t a requirement, but it will help finish your cutting edge.

Ways to File Your Axe

Now that you know about straight and rounded bevel edges, and you’ve got all your supplies ready, it’s time to put an edge on your axe. There are two basic ways of doing this; the push file method and the draw file method.

I’m going to assume you know the basics of a file. If not, I recommend brushing up on some of that information. In short, a file only cuts in one direction.

Typically, that is in the direction of the file if you were holding it by the handle and pushing it away from you. Hence the term “push file.” Also, most files have two sides; one is coarse while the other is fine. That’s not always the case. There are plenty of differences when it comes to files.

Push File Method

The push file method is most commonly used for sharpening axes. The process is fairly simple; push the file over the bit to create a sharp, cutting edge. It’s hard to put into words.

Use the file to create the new cutting-edge. Each stroke of the file will remove some metal. Do your best to keep both sides even. Watch the video above for more information and a better understanding.

Draw File Method

The draw file method is slightly different. It, in my opinion, allows you to put more force on the file which allows you to remove more metal per stroke. To do this, hold the handle of the file in one hand and place it on the poll of the axe.

The rest of the file should extend beyond the bit of the axe. With your other hand, press the file against the cutting edge. At this point, you’ll want to pull the end of the file down, filing the cutting edge of your axe.

Hatchet Cutting Edge - Shavings
Metal shavings indicate the edge is sharp enough for small pieces of metal to bend over.

I know it’s hard to see in this picture, but there are small metal shavings on the end of the cutting edge. Once you’ve reached this point, the angle on each side is sharp enough that the metal begins to bend over.

That’s what these shavings are. Once you’re finished filing, you’ll likely still have some metal shavings on your axe. You can remove the shavings and finish the cutting edge using a sharpening stone.

Remember, do your best to keep the angle between 25° – 30°. Anything greater won’t cut very well, and anything less will break easily. This applies to the rounded bevel edge as well. Make sure both sides are the same.

Sharpening Puck

Lansky Puck

You don’t have to use a whetstone to finish sharpening your axe, but it helps. Using a sharpening stone is yet another skill set I recommend you learn. Typically you would maneuver the blade over the stone.

That’s not too difficult with a knife, but with an axe, it can be a hassle. Many people, myself included, use a “Lansky Puck.” With this device, you can bring the stone to the axe.

Rotate the puck clockwise over both sides of the cutting edge. Be mindful to spend the same amount of time on both sides to ensure it’s even. This will remove the metal shavings and finish putting a nice, sharp edge on your axe.