A Complete Guide for Sharpening Axes and Other Tools

There are few things more frustrating than a dull bladed axe. I remember a time when a friend and I were camping in the far north and we were faced with this exact problem.

We were staying at a ranger cabin that was supposed to be equipped with everything that we could possibly need for our 4 day excursion.

They did have an axe, but it was something that looked like it had been sitting unused since the 1960’s. There were clear signs of rust and let’s just say you didn’t have to worry about accidentally cutting yourself with it.

It’s important to make sure your outdoor tools are sharp and ready to take on any job you have in store for them. I know it was one of the first things my father drilled into my head as a young boy watching him work at his woodworking bench in the garage. For my father a dull tool wasn’t much better than no tool at all.

If you’re more of an outdoors type than a hobbyist you might be wondering what sharpened wood working tools have to do with you.

Well you may not be too concerned with how sharp your chisel is, but you do have to worry about sharpening that axe or knife for example.

There are many different tools that are important to the outdoors enthusiast and we’re going to take a look at the best methods for sharpening those various tools in the rest of this article.

Specifically, we’re going to look at axes, hatchets, machetes, knives, and mauls. We’ll also look at sharpening some other lesser known outdoors tools as well as the tools you’ll need to do the sharpening.

First Things First – Protect Yourself

One thing that continues to surprise me no matter how old I get is the lack of precautions people take with their own safety.

Time and time again I’ve witnessed people sharpening their tools without any type of personal protective equipment on when all it would have took them was a couple of seconds.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather wear eye protection than cause permanent damage to my vision. Metal shavings can easily fly off your tools as you sharpen them so it’s essential to take that extra couple of seconds and protect yourself.

At a minimum you should be wearing safety googles and a pair of nice thick gloves. The googles protect your eyes from metal chips and the gloves are a good idea in case your grip slips as you sharpen as they will protect your skin from direct contact with the blade.

Some people prefer a full safety shield to glasses, but that’s really a matter of individual choice. You may want to consider a pair of steel toed boots as well just in case you accidently drop that tool on your feet. 

Also, make sure you have a nice clear area to work in and make sure there isn’t anybody else nearby that could be injured in the event of an accident.

Sharpening an Axe

There’s an old axe in my garage that’s been handed down through three different generations of my family. It was my grandfathers, then my fathers, and now it’s mine.

I plan on handing it off to my son as well when the time comes. This isn’t just a family heirloom though it’s actually a fine chopping tool and that’s because each generation of my family has provided it with the proper maintenance it needs to maintain its sharp edge.

By using similar methods with your axe you can get years of use out of it and you may even end up passing it down to one of your children as well.

Before you begin to sharpen your axe you should start by making sure you’ve cleaned away any dirt or debris and that you’ve removed any rust. Then you need to make sure that it’s held securely in place so that you don’t accidently drop it.

If you’re well practiced at this you may think it’s sufficient to use one hand to hold the axe while you sharpen it with the other, but I prefer to clamp it down with a vice to sharpen it that way I know it’s not going anywhere.

Once you’re axe is secured you can begin sharpening it with a file. You’ll want to move the file several times over your blades edge making sure to remove any chips in the process – these can cause your blade to get stuck as you chop and interrupt the cutting process.

After that it’s time to pull out your sharpening stone so that you can bring that blade to a nice polish. By the time you’re done your axe should be good as new.

Sharpening a Hatchet

A hatchet is essentially a short handled axe that you can wield with one hand. You might have seen one being thrown by a warrior in an old movie about the Wild West to vanquish an enemy and they are certainly good for that, but they’re also versatile cutting tools.

Every camping trip I take I make sure that my hatchet is tied off on my backpack before I go anywhere. They may not be as powerful as an axe, but they’re easier to carry around with when you’re travelling and they get the job done.

Before I set out on any trip though I make sure that my hatchet is sharpened. I typically want the hatchet to be sharper than I would my axe though so it takes a little bit more time. The process is basically the same as you would go through with the axe.

Before you get started you’ll want to make sure it’s free of any dirt and that there isn’t any rust built up from sitting in your garage for the winter. This can normally be avoided if you store it in a nice dry place when not in use.

Again you’ll need a file and a whetstone. As a hatchet is smaller than an axe you can probably get away with securing it between your knees, but I’d still use a vice if one’s available.

If you’re sharpening your hatchet at your campsite the between the knee method will work just fine. By the time you’re done with the file you should have a fairly smooth edge.

Using the stone will just give it an extra bit of sharpness and polish, but you can get away without it.

Sharpening a Machete

If you’re starting to think that there’s a bit of a similar pattern to how you sharpen any outdoor tools you’re likely onto something. A machete can be a bit of a different case though.

It’s a tool with a bit of a macho reputation and for good reason. They’re a mean cutting tool that can be used for all kinds of different tasks. They may have a bit of a checkered past, but when used for their intended purpose they can be vital for any outdoor adventure.

The primary use for a machete is clearing brush, branches, and long grass in your way as you hike through a remote location.

The idea is to cut through that vegetation as quickly as possible so that you can keep moving forward. With that in mind your machete needs to be nice and sharp – normally much sharper than you would need an axe or a hatchet to be.

You can still use a file and a stone to sharpen a machete, but if you’re performing the sharpening task at home you may want to consider some power tools. A belt sander or a grinding wheel are both common options.

The belt sander is probably the better method as it allows for a finer finish and a more controlled process, but some people prefer the raw power of a grinding wheel.

The grinding wheel will bring your machete’s blade to a nice sharp edge, but it can be difficult to work with. Whatever option you use just remember it’s absolutely critical to wear safety glasses when working with these types of power tools.

Sharpening a Splitting Maul

A splitting maul is larger than an axe. Its handle is longer and its blade head is considerably heavier. That means you can get a great deal of power out of each swing and that’s why they’re typically used for splitting large logs that are a little more stubborn.

Splitting wood with a maul is a great workout, but it’s also very tiring. It’s even more tiring if your blade isn’t sharp enough.

A maul doesn’t need to be as sharp as an axe as your own brute force does a lot of the work, but it does need to be relatively sharp of it’s going to be effective.

It’s a little trickier sharpening a maul simply because of its size. You need to take extra care and I prefer to always use a vice to hold the maul while I sharpen it. It’s too easy to lose your grip trying to hold such a heavy tool with one hand and apply a sharpening tool to it with the other.

There are plenty of people I know that like to use a grinding wheel when sharpening a maul, but I prefer to stick with hand tools.

Remember the maul doesn’t need to be as sharp as an axe and it’s much easier to get the blade exactly as sharp as you want it using a hand file. Always try to apply nice even strokes as you don’t want any bevels in your blades edge.

Sharpening a Knife

You’ve probably seen people sharpen knives in some pretty creative ways – I know I have.

They’re easy to hold in one hand and that probably makes them a little easier to sharpen than the other tools we’ve talked about so far. That’s a good thing as I would argue that it’s even more important that your knife has a nice sharp edge than any other outdoor cutting tool for th survivalist.

A knife can be sharpened using some of the traditional methods we’ve mentioned already such as a sharpening stone or a grinding wheel, but what’s great about a knife is that you have so many more options available to you.

This is useful when you’re at a campsite, you realize you’ve forgot that sharpening stone at home, and your knife blade’s so dull it wouldn’t cut butter.

There are plenty of objects all around you that you can use to sharpen a knife. You may have watched a cooking show and seen the celebrity chef repetitively running two knives back and forth along each other’s blades and that’s because this is an effective method to sharpen your knife’s blade.

You can also use any nice smooth stone you find lying around. There really is no excuse to carry a dull knife around with all of these options.

Other Tools to Sharpen

Pretty much any tool with a blade will need to be sharpened from time to time. The methods are usually similar, but in some cases you may have to apply a little more care.

A field dressing knife for example can be a little tricky as can any knife that has a regular blade on one side and a saw edge on the other. Both of these tools have jagged edges that can be difficult to sharpen, but with a little patience you can get the job done.

Final Thoughts

Any type of tool will need to be sharpened from time to time and it’s not a duty you should avoid if you want the tool to be in good working condition when you need it. A dull axe or knife can be very ineffective and leave you feeling frustrated and annoyed.

As a rule you should check the blade every time you use a tool and if it needs sharpening take a few minutes and do it. In the long run it will save you time and contribute to your peace of mind.