An Axe to Grind

photo of Camper's Axe with Rawhide Cover
photo of a pitted but unbowed camper's axe
pitted but unbowed

With the new handle installed, it was time to sharpen. The steel was pitted from its time in the woods, but had plenty of metal and potential. With my new-found interest in woodworking, I’ve been working on my sharpening skills. I’ve tried several systems from wet/dry sandpaper on a glass plate to carborundum, whetstones and diamond plates. They all work, but each are better for some jobs than others.  Sandpaper and a flat, glass plate are a low-cost method for setting a straight, flat edge on chisels and plane irons. Whet stones can really refine an already sharp edge and make it razor sharp. Carborundum (Oil stones) seem more suited to hatchets and axes (call me traditional) so I thought I’d start there. The complex, curved cutting edge can be set freehand, and I wanted to work on those skills.

photo of whetstones
Whetstone progression

The restored axe, while clean and with a new handle, was anything but sharp. Carborundum oil stones are inexpensive and available almost anywhere. I remember them around the house when I was a child and they haven’t changed much since then. I set to work. Setting an edge is challenging, but I took my time and it started to improve. Before long, I had a decent edge. Time to move to the whetstones. I bought a set of Arkansas wood-mounted sharpening stones to work on chisel edges. At 600, 1000 and 2000 grit, they can really refine an edge.

photo of a camper's axe before sharpening
before sharpening

It didn’t take long to progress through each of the grits, and the resulting edge was magnificent. I’m not sure I’ll go to that trouble each time I sharpen this axe, but it’s fun to start there. I’ve since bought a Lansky Dual Grit Sharpener Puck, and with coarse (120) and medium (280) grits it won’t produce the same sharpness, but it’s great for touch-ups in the field and fits in your pocket. The addition of a rawhide blade cover and my axe restoration project was complete.

Sharp and ready for use. We have a lot of Ashe Juniper (“cedar” in Texas Hill Country parlance) and I spend more time than I care to chopping it. I use a chain saw of course, but this camper’s axe will be just the thing for bucking the trunks. There are lots of straight, usable posts if you take the trouble.

photo of camper's axe after sharpening
After sharpening

4 thoughts on “An Axe to Grind

      1. The micro-world is pretty fascinating. What sharpening material would you ultimately have to use to get the axe edge where it would show obvious sharpness under the same magnification?

        1. The axe edge complicates matters because it is curved on multiple axes (no pun intended). Sharpening “freehand” or setting the grind angles by sight and feel, it is difficult to put the same polish on all parts of the curved sections. I suspect a machine (or perhaps a complex jig) that could apply the same grinding motion repeatedly with successively finer grits would be needed starting with 220 and passing through 400, 800, 1200, and 2000. Probably not worth the trouble for the axe’s intended use. Also, it would dull with use and a simple puck might be the only available sharpening system available in the field. Most edges, even those sharpened using systems, show imperfections under magnification.

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