How to Sharpen an Axe – Belt Sander, File, Sharpening Stones


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 Safety First When Axe Sharpening

Sharpening an axe could be dangerous and cause injury if not done right. Lots of beginners make these mistakes – but you don’t have to be one of them.

The sharp edge of the axe could easily cut your hands, and as there might be metal splinters and coarse filing chips around while you work at getting that perfect edge on your axe, these might easily stick in your hands.

Just like forging an axe, or any sort of axe restoration work – you need safety equipment. Use your head and wear the proper gear based on the work you’re doing. 

While sharpening your axe, there is also to possibility that you might drop it, and although there won’t be any wooden chips around from a target board, the metal filings are even sharper and more dangerous. That’s why it’s always a good idea to wear close toe shoes when sharpening your axes.

We highly recommend that you clamp your axe in a vice where possible to prevent it from slipping and falling.

When using a belt sander, wearing a pair of safety goggles is a must to protect your eyes from flying objects and splinters. As the belt sander is a moving piece of equipment, the normal precautions of not wearing lose clothes while operating this type of machinery should also be taken.

Sharpening an Axe with a Belt Sander

There are many types and models of belt sanders such as vertical, bench, table and hand belt sanders. Lots can work well with Axes, some better than others.

If you know about how Belt Sanders work and are just looking for a quick recommendation, please scroll to the bottom to see our top pick!

Lots of them are similar but some have manufacturer specific options and accessories. I highly recommend you browse around for what fits your price range and work space. As far as I can tell the bench sander is the best option for axes for a 2 main reasons:

-Its easier to build your own jigs and configurations
-They provide a wider and more level surface, leaving less of a job for you hands, eyes and brain.

Here is my best recommendation:

This one is not too expensive and can pretty much take care of any axe you might have. This specific model is even designed to be turned around and used on its back – perfect for axe touch ups.

It’s got plenty of power for being on the smaller side of things with a pretty easy belt change. If you’ve ever used a belt sander before – this one will feel a bit strong for its size.

Don’t get it confused, even though these are marketed for woodworking purposes, they do a great sharpening job on axes and hatchets quickly and effectively.

The clamps that come included are meant to create a sanding platform when turned around (exactly what we are looking for). Although there are much more expensive sanders out there – I’d still recommend this one above most of the others.

Please keep in mind the angle of the blade relative to the belt. This short video explains and shows perfectly how to hold the axe for a quick little touch up:

Not much else to say – this is one of the top rated sanders on Amazon for a reason. Check it out here.

Sanding belt grits have pretty much the same system as good ‘ol sandpaper. The lower the number – the bigger the grains on the paper and the more material it removes from your surface. The higher the number, the finer the grain removing less material from your surface.

Essentially the range of use for any type of axe head is 80-1000 grit depending on the extent of work needed. If you are looking for a real polish you can go even higher!

Here is where it gets tricky..

There is more to modern sandpaper than sand, glue and paper. There is even more to consider with sanding belts as they also have backing considerations.

Sanding belts come in a variety of abrasive surfaces such as the newer Ceramic, Diamond Dust, Zirconia, Aluminum Oxide and Silicon Carbide. Different belts have different material, some mix and match materials searching for that perfect grit and longevity level.

A. Silicon Carbide B. Blue Zirconia C. Aluminum Oxide D. Grinding Belt E. Leather Honing

To the best of my knowledge, right now the Ceramic belts are the best performing as far as longevity and stock removal. They are also touted to be self sharpening. Aluminum Oxide belts you will likely find to be the most common and most affordable, they work well but are more of a general purpose abrasive.

I say go with what you can afford, but keep in mind, paying for a pricier belt that lasts longer might be better then buying a bunch of cheapos. Shop around and check out whats available and the prices before you settle.

One of the main concerns when sharpening with a belt sander is heat build up along the blade edge which can sometimes result in a loss of hardness. Nobody wants that… luckily it’s easy to avoid by taking your time and not sanding for too long at a time.

WARNING: You definitely need a cool down period with any belt sander you use – these are not meant to be used non stop. 

Even just stopping for just a few seconds every 30-45 sec of use will be a benefit. You should also keep a small bucket of water near by for quick cooling.

If your axe is damaged quite a bit such as chipping and gouging or heavily rusted then a lower grit is where you will want to start! This will remove the most material, it will take the rust off very quickly and without much fuss about technique.

When it comes to working out chips and gouges, you have to have a little more patience and sort of plan your moves depending on how complicated the blemish you are trying to remove.

Once you have the edge cleaned up and prepped, it’s time to get to the sharpening.

Depending on the level of degradation seen in the form of pock marks you may still need to stay in the lower grit range for a bit. You want at least a centimeter of clean smooth steel on the edge to work with.

Axe Placement on Belt Sander

Axes generally have two bevels rather than being a flat wedge. Many axes have a 30-40 degree angle at the bit edge, while a half inch or so from the bit it becomes more of a 15-20 degree angle.

These bevels are typically determined by the main task the axe is made for. A wood splitting maul will have less of an angle and less sharpness than a felling axe. The maul is made to split, the felling axe it made to chop.

Once you have your clean smooth edge to work with, begin sanding with a medium grit to work on the initial bevel, this should not take long depending on how damaged the axe was. Another belt that is very helpful is a leather sanding belt. These work as a strop and finishing tool.

These will work to de-bur and polish the edge. You could also just rub it on an old piece of rubber or cut some cardboard with it to remove burs. After this continue moving up in grit until you get the shine and sharpness you are just about happy with.

Then its time to bring the leather belt back and use some honing compound. This will bring your edge to or close to razor sharp, and will also make it shine real nice.

There is a lot to be said about the amount of time and energy saved when using a belt sander. Some believe you get more out of it when its done by hand, along with a stronger appreciation of the axe and your work (if  you have the time to spend) . You also burn more calories doing it by hand! I should start a new diet fad. Sand those pounds away in just ten minutes a day!

*If you are restoring axes for a living or to supplement your income, I understand that time is money and a belt sander like the one above will definitely help you out. However, an axe enthusiast might disagree with your methods.

Power tool integration is sometimes thought of as taking the easy way out when it comes to axe maintenance by the majority of the community. I am here to say – don’t let that hold you back form doing a faster job. If in the end your axe is sharp and ready for backpacking  a bit quicker with the sander, do you really care how it got there? (My vote is for the sander)

If you are interested in more belt sanders, here are some cool ones to check out.

Sharpening an Axe with a File

Most axe files will look like long fingernail files, however instead of sandpaper they are made out of metal. They have a very small, hatch pattern all over it which is made to help get the shavings of your axe blade.

When it comes to purchasing one of these we want it to be as new as possible. This is because the nature of the device itself encourages it to be thoroughly used and damaged over time. Not to mention with it being metal it is prone to rust more often.

There are several brands and if you need one immediately via a hardware store you will not be disappointed, but if you want to purchase one online or cannot find a store near you that sells sharpening files I would recommend the Finder 8” Hand Rasp File.

These files have a reputation of being sturdy and capable of fixing multiple blades before they begin to have any wear and tear of their own. Once we have all the items we can begin to sharpen our axe. Lets take a look at exactly how to sharpen an axe with a file:

Step One: investigate your blade

While this seems obvious, what we want to look for is how extensive the damage is done to the blade. If the axe head is split down the middle there is not much we will be able to do. What we want to look for is how unrefined the edges are. Our blade should be as straight as a rule without any changes in consistency.

If it begins to look wavy or as if it has teeth, then we can began to see if it is just the edge of the blade of throughout. Most axes will only have damage on the edge of the blade head while more recreational or woodworking based axes with have more damage throughout the entire head.

We also want to see if it is more damaged on one side then the other. This is because if it is then we want to also make sure that the blade head is well connected as signs of one sided damage can mean issues with the handle and how it is latching onto the blade head.

Step Two: Let us sharpen

While our blade file looks pretty easy to use there are a few steps that we have to do to make sure that the axe itself is sharpened and the file is ready for reuse when our axe gets damaged.

To begin we want the blade on the edge of the table so that there is a bit of open space with the blade head. Once we do this we will grab our axe file and at first slowly move it from the handle all the way to the blade head.

Once we do this motion we cannot pull and go back and forth this way. By doing so not only do we damage the blade by creating unnecessary friction but we also begin to damage our file as it will collect shavings and begin to deteriorate rapidly.

Once we file it once we will lift out file and start over again. Think of it as performing an oval shape motion over and over again. We will want to do this process for about thirty seconds to one minute before we stop.

Step Three: Clean the shavings.

After we use the file for a certain amount of time it will begin to collect metal shavings. This does not cause a huge problem at first but it will soon become more difficult to sharpen our axe as the hatch pattern becomes less and less effective.

The first thing we can do is lightly whack the file against the table, this will get most of the shavings off of our file. Another step we take after that is to grab a heavy towel and begin to rub off the shavings. Once this is complete we can continue to sharpen our axe.

Step Four: Flip over the axe and repeat step’s two and three

Once we get a general idea of how to sharpen our axe we will need to flip our axe over and sharpen it again. This is to create a sense of balance with our axe as well as make sure it is evenly shaved off. It is always a good idea to file both sides for the same amount of time to help make sure that the axe head itself is even.

While the amount of damage that the axe takes can vary and creating a different amount of time needed to sharpen it, I have found that filing about three to five times a side is just the right amount to get our axe ready to go.

Step Five: General upkeep

As I have written an article on how to make sure your axe is in proper order, we should do these kinds of checks after our axe is sharpened. If you are heavy handed or worried that your filing may have caused the blade head to swivel, now would be a good time to make sure that it is fastened to your axe’s handle.

This is considered optional, however if your axe has gone through extensive damage through use it would make sense to use our time to make sure the rest of the axe is ready to go.

While there are electric power tools that can easily sharpen our axe in a shorter amount of time they have problems. The first one is obviously that they have a higher price point.

Most tools specifically made for this are going to cost you at the very least sixty dollars. This is not including axe accessories or other addon’s that might be mandatory for an axe file. Another complication that arises from electric power tools is that they have a chance of heating up the axe.

While it might not be a problem at first, a heated damage can begin to warp, even splitting itself due to the pressure and head. If we use an axe file, it will take a bit more time but it is much safer as well.

Power tools when used on an axe head will cause sparks to fly, literally. Because of this if you want to use power tools I suggest that you get all the proper safety equipment including gloves and goggles.

Once our axe is sharpened we can use it over and over again, a small price point for a file can help an axe that costs a lot of money have a lot of longevity. It is something easy to do and can add a sense of pride and accomplishment when you are done with your task.

However do not forget that constant care and upkeep can be worth more than filing a damaged blade head from time to time.

This is true for any type of axe, from Brush Axes to Carving Axes.

Sharpening Stone or Grinding Block

Once you have used the sanding machine to create the perfect edge for your throwing axe, use a sharpening stone or grinding block to hone the edge.

Rub on some sewing machine oil or honing oil to the extreme edge of the blade, then rub the tip of the sharpening stone along it, using a circular motion. Alternately hone both sides of the blade to move the burr from one side to the other, and keep on honing until it is nearly gone.

The burr is a very thin, bent end, also called the feather edge. Run your finger along the edge to track its shape, taking care not to cut your finger in the process.

Water stones are made from sandstone or clay and hone more quickly, but they also wear down faster. When using these, use water instead of oil to float away the metal particles.

While it is not practical or necessary to take your sanding machine with you when you go to an axe throwing competition, it could be handy to have a grinding block with you to touch up your axe’s edge if it becomes damaged or distorted during the match.

Sharpening stone
Sharpening Stones

There is no telling where the axe might have landed and what you may have hit, causing damage to the blade and especially the edge.

Check out our full axe sharpening stone overview to help you pick the best whatstone or sharpening puck for your axe.

A new Throwing Axe might also not be sharp when you buy it, as an axe used for chopping wood does not necessarily have to be super sharp. The weight of the axe, coupled with the sheer blunt force of swinging or throwing it is often good enough to split wood or making it stick to the target when you do axe throwing.

Like with any other tool, maintaining your axe and keeping it clean and rust free will ensure that it does its job well and lasts longer. When throwing axes competitively, or just learning how to throw an axe you’ll find that when new target boards are used, the axe will not stick as easily as when you are throwing at an older board that has become softer from axes repeatedly sticking to it, removing chips of wood from it. 

Summary

Taking care of your axe and making sure the edge is always sharp will give you a competitive edge when participating in any axe throwing event. It is definitely better to take a few minutes to keep your tools sharp.

When sharpening your axe, always make sure you follow the basic safety guidelines mentioned in this article to prevent injury.

The most important tools you’ll need to keep your axe in tip top condition are a sharpening stone and a belt sander. Use the belt sander at home to do the rough work of really shaping the blade the way you want it, and carry the sharpening stone with you to keep the blade honed to perfection at all times.

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