What is the proper sharpness for an axe?

Discussion in 'Axe, Tomahawk, & Hatchet Forum' started by sar5, Feb 6, 2012.

  1. Shotgun


    Feb 3, 2006
    I usually sharpen to 1000 grit.
  2. Operator1975


    Sep 24, 2010
    Ah yes. The double bit question. Isnt really a matter of question, but more a matter of need. The double bit was not popular in europe due to the use and size of the product(timber). In america, it made a comeback due to one simple reason. The trees were bigger than in europe, and guys did not want to huff it back to camp for a full on resharpening. Loggers told blacksmiths, and hence the double bit wasnt reborn I would say, but yet more realized I guess. You take a logger in the pacific NW of the USA, travel say a mile, makes 50 swings, and has to have a resharpen? Just think about that for a second. Hell most people would claim welfare if you ask this of them, this guy probably has a shack and 2 kids - and it doesnt matter what it takes, he will provide, but he needs a sharp axe to do so. These are the guys i think about when I get my hands on an old axe.
  3. bearhunter


    Sep 12, 2009
    that is fantastic operator...! well said...
    thanks...:) wouldnt it be nice if folks really understood "why"...?
    nuff said i suppose...
  4. thunderstick


    Jan 15, 2007
    If its very hard wood it will chip a razor edge which is why you don't use a razor edge on splitters. Axes tend to stick more with razor edges than convex edges. Tough twisted grain wood can sometimes absorb multiple wedges before they split. If the wedges are razor edged they will curl on such wood. I have split enough wood over the years with different profiles to have proved this out.
  5. Square_peg

    Square_peg Basic Member Basic Member

    Feb 1, 2012
    I've never curled an edge splitting wood in 40 years. I've had hard wood reject all but the sharpest axes and wedges.

    Our splitting experiences differ.
  6. thunderstick


    Jan 15, 2007
    Splitting experiences can differ depending on the area you live and the local hardwood types--so most likely that may be the case. It can also make a difference how dry or green the wood is when it is split--depending again on the hardwood type. Certainly in our area it is not uncommon to need to use multiple wedges to split some of the hardwood pieces of large diameter. We had one stubborn piece a few weeks ago where we buried 3 wedges in a line trying to follow the most natural crack run. The wedges were driven down flush to the top of the piece before the wood began to split well between the wedges. When splitting a number of pieces of wood like that the wedges will mushroom on the top from the sledge blows and will need dressed occasionally on the bottom as well. If you use a wedge with a wider angle you can make it sharper without weakening the edge--but I would not consider this a razor edge due to the wideness of the angle.

    Perhaps the point we might be miscommunicating on is that I am using a finely honed cutting/chopping axe as a baseline for the "razor edge." With a splitting axe/maul/wedge I want the steel to widen quickly behind the point to support the edge and to keep it from sticking. That edge can be somewhat sharp providing it has a convex profile to the edge or a wide angle behind it. If it is too dull it will bounce off the wood rather than penetrating it. Often when sharpening I may make it as sharp as possible and then lightly file or stone the very edge to knock it back a little so it does not stick, curl, or chip in knots. This theory essentially mimics the thought behind a working double-bit having a razor edge for cutting and a stronger convex edge for splitting, grubbing, or cutting knots.

    In summary its always best to adapt your profile to what suits your local species.

    In general though the statement below is accurate relative to my experience: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Splitting_maul
    The original maul resembles an axe but with a broader head. For splitting wood, this tool is much better than a typical axe. The weight of it is more advantageous and due to its width, it is less likely to become stuck in the wood. The wedge section of a maul head must be slightly convex to avoid jamming and it cannot have the elongated "hollow ground" concave-section that a cutting axe may use.

    I find this discussion intriguing as I like to hear the experiences of others even if it seems to differ from mine as I might pick up some finer point I overlooked. Based on your comments of 40 years experience I might also do a bit more experimenting.
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2012
  7. getridone

    getridone Banned BANNED

    Dec 5, 2011
    I find this topic very interesting, in Old Ways of Working wood by A.W. Bealer, on pg. 43 he recounts a story about Bryan Owle, who grew up near Cherokee NC sometime before WWII...."His secret was in his precision which allowed him to throw out chips as big as a dinner plate and an inch thick. His blows were so accurately placed that his cuts looked as though they ad been sliced with one stroke of a giant razor." He was using a double bit, 6 lb axe. I've cut several large trees down with single bit axes and my chips were pathetically small, my tool obviously not sharp enough. The days of the skilled axemen seem to have gone by.
  8. Square_peg

    Square_peg Basic Member Basic Member

    Feb 1, 2012
    That was always my thinking until I ran into London Plane. It's used as a street tree here in the Northwest. I've had the occasion to remove a few for neighbors in recent years. Darndest stuff I've ever seen. [​IMG]
    The leaves look like a maple but the seeds form a ball like a sycamore. The bark scales and flakes off.

    The grain is the coarsest most intertwined stuff I've ever seen. I could hear it laughing at my 10 lb. maul. Repeated full round house swings would bounce right off like nothing. And I'm a 250 lb. construction worker who knows how to swing HARD! I often couldn't get a wedge to stick in it well enough to hold by itself.

    The only thing that would penetrate it was a very sharp axe or hatchet. I abused an old axe for a while until I decided to re-grind a wedge with a super sharp hollow ground edge. Multiple wedges in a line wouldn't split it. There were a couple rounds that I had to take a chainsaw to just to rescue my wedges. But I finally found its weakness. A hollow ground wedge placed near the edge so that it could be chased through the piece with a small sledge. In truth I was actually cleaving several inches of it before any splitting began.

    Even one of my cross pattern wedges that come to a point wouldn't get purchase in that stuff. I'd get one in about an inch or an inch and a half deep and then it would shoot right back out. I cut scales into one of those wedges with a cutoff wheel to help it hold on.

    I saved some of that wood and have made a mallet out of a piece. Tough as can be. I also carved a bowl out of a piece. I still have some pieces in the shed that might become hammer handles or mallets one day. I wish I'd kept a piece long enough to make an axe handle. There's just no way a proper handle made of that stuff would ever split. Next tree I get I'll save some longer stuff.
  9. coloradowildman

    coloradowildman Gold Member Gold Member

    Oct 28, 2009
    That's been my experience too. The only time I've ever curled edges has been during bucking when I hit tiny pebbles embedded in the wood, an occasional knot during freezing weather or hitting an old nail embedded in a tree/log. It's only been the nails that have done serious damage to my bits. As for the question of razor sharpness, it's not only a US Forest Service standard, but all the old woodsman's books talk about keeping their axes this sharp as well (or as close to it as possible in the bush). At the risk of offending some folks (but no disrespect intended), intentionally using dull axes is not something experienced bushcrafters and woodsman would ever do unless it was a survival situation. Dull axes glance off and are dangerous, just like using a dull knife can be more dangerous. There is lots of misinformation out there simply because true axe use is only recently starting to come back after being away for 60-70 years. People have been buying dull axes for decades now thinking that's what's normal when it's not. When axe use was mainstream, an axe was bought and then profiled for the intended use, and if that involved bucking and felling it was made razor sharp like a knife with a convex edge. I carry a ceramic sharpening rod in addition to a file when I'm out bucking lots of logs and regularly touch up the edge of my axe to make my work easier and safer.
  10. thunderstick


    Jan 15, 2007
    I went out and put some fresh edges on some wedges and will need to give them a whirl in some gnarly twisted grain wood. I'm open to experiencing and improving technique.
  11. Steve Tall

    Steve Tall

    Aug 28, 2010
    from Peter Vido:

    Our primary splitting tools are 3-1/2 to 4 lb. axes, not mauls. We use a maul only occasionally, but one with a 6 lb. head, not 8 lb.

    These choices are the results of gradual and continuous learning (we are still only students rather than an "authority"), though "our recipe" is by no means universally applicable. We have no experience with eucalyptus wood; it may well be that it requires a heavier tool. The toughest-to-split species we used to encounter in these parts was elm; 30 years ago, there were still some of the old ones left standing -- but dying rapidly by then. Many had very tight and twisted grain; most mauls (or wedges) would just bounce back before penetrating.

    Perhaps it was then I came to appreciate a 'sharp edge' even on splitting tools, and have maintained them as such ever since.

    Many people do not bother putting blocks [of firewood] to be maul-split upon a block and they regularly drive their edge against/into the ground, dulling it. As such it is still "okay" for some wood, although the tight-grained pieces will require a heftier swing.

    It must be these strong (but less wise) folks that came up with some version of that now commonly perpetuated 'maxim': "You don't want a sharp ax for splitting wood"; or, "A splitting ax should not be sharp." Well, that, in my view, is a myth, or to perhaps put it more accurately, a misrepresentation or misunderstanding of the concept of "sharpness".

    By a 'sharp' splitting ax (or maul), I do not mean one that has a thin (meaning readily penetrating) profile. Instead, one with 'fat cheeks' seems preferable. But I want the very edge to be finished so it does not reflect light (when looked at straight on). Beyond that 1/16 - 1/8" zone it should, of course, have more of a convex profile than a general purpose ax, or certainly one meant for felling, hewing, carving.

    We do have variety of splitting mauls (and wedges) and back in "the elm days" I was still fool enough to swing one of those steel-handled "Monster Mauls"… Yes, it "works" -- and we have friends who swear by it. I also know a commercial firewood producer -- a husky man -- who uses an 8 lb. maul and claims that he can split wood faster with it than a hydraulic wood splitter (which many people have gravitated towards these days).

    However, the local old-timers' technique -- of twisting the splitting ax just as it enters the wood -- has far more appeal to me. It takes a bit of practice initially but makes a 3-4 lb. ax capable of equaling an 8 lb. maul in output -- and with considerably less energy expended -- which is the reason that our 8 lb. mauls have been collecting dust for years.

    -- from Peter Vido's latest blog post
  12. gomipile


    Apr 17, 2010
    I prefer single bit, since I need to use the hammer poll fairly often. Double bit is fun for straight-up felling, though.

    Oh, and on topic, I like 40 degrees inclusive at the apex, fully convexed. I use a Lansky lawn and garden stone("canoe file") instead of a file.
  13. thunderstick


    Jan 15, 2007
    I find this interesting as posted on Gransfors website.

    The sharpening of an axe is done in several steps, depending on how worn down the axe head is and the type of axe. With a Splitting Maul you may stop at the shaping step. With a Carpenter’s Axe or a Forest Axe you have to go through all the steps if you want to have a good cutting tool.

    1. Shaping. If terribly damaged, you can use a file or a power grinder to reestablish the original edge bevel, the curve of the edge and bevel face. Do not overheat the edge, which will cause it to lose its temper. Cool often! If the bevel face is straight (Carpenter’s Axe, Carving Axe and Broad Axe), the total bevel face should be in contact with the stone or the file. When filing, use a flat fine cut file. Keep the axe head in a vise to allow you to file with two hands. Bear down the file against the sharpening bevel, with some of your fingers on the tip of the file, as you push the file away from yourself with firm and even strokes. Lift the file off the sharpening bevel on the return stroke. Keep free of filings.


    The Gransfors instructions are Just sharpen with a file to the original bevel on a maul.

    I also the splitting comparison (below) was interesting between a cheap Canadian tire maul and wedge versus the hollow ground Gransfers maul and their slim wedge. The result again is that in hard knotty wood the convex profile prooved superior.

    However both Granfors products, are of slim in cross section, and the maul actually has a hollow grind to the head. It is a lot thicker than a felling axe, but still the hollow grind tended to bind on the really knotty and wet woods. The cheap versions from Canadian Tire were flat with a hint of convexity and had better splitting power and thus on really hard to split wood, the cheaper versions tended to work better, especially when a lot of force was used.


    Again, for clarification my comments are relative to splitting only. Cutting and chopping tools are razor edged or they have little use from me.
  14. thunderstick


    Jan 15, 2007
    By a 'sharp' splitting ax (or maul), I do not mean one that has a thin (meaning readily penetrating) profile. Instead, one with 'fat cheeks' seems preferable. But I want the very edge to be finished so it does not reflect light (when looked at straight on). Beyond that 1/16 - 1/8" zone it should, of course, have more of a convex profile than a general purpose ax, or certainly one meant for felling, hewing, carving.

    This I agree with.
  15. trailmaker


    May 15, 2011
    Yeah I think the old 6 and 8 pound mauls don't stick mainly because of their overall profile, not because of a dull edge. Every splitter I have seems to work better when sharp.
  16. Blackfeather


    Mar 3, 2010
    I'm going to agree with the hair shaving edge, it my experience it's been best for any work I do. I only have one axe, and I use it for splitting rounds as well as kindling. When it needs sharpening I always run a file first to check, then I use a belt sander and some 600 grit by hand. Works well for me. I swing quite accurately, likely due to my sword experience, so I rarely have an issue with misses, poor angle, or deflections. When I do it's because I'm rushing or tired and need a break. So my edge will last quite a while. I don't split much anymore though, unless my cute lady friend down the road needs help, so my experience is limited...

    I also think the double bit axes are amazing, I have one for camping that only has a half handle and it really does the job with fire wood.
  17. Square_peg

    Square_peg Basic Member Basic Member

    Feb 1, 2012
    We had an acre of elm out back when I was a kid. That's all me and my brothers did all summer was split elm (OK, not all summer - maybe just a couple days a week). That's what I learned on. The nightmares had mostly subsided - until I ran into that London Plane. [​IMG]

    I couldn't count how many elm stumps I dug out. And if you didn't follow the roots down at least 18"-24" they'd sprout right back up with a vengeance.
  18. Square_peg

    Square_peg Basic Member Basic Member

    Feb 1, 2012
    Thunderstick, I bet we're not so far apart as it might seem from an internet conversation. The slightly concave final bevel that I want on a wedge is subtle. But for me it helps the wedge take purchase in hard woods. Have a look at one of my wedges below. I grind it on the bench grinder with my thumb held against the edge to gauge the heat. I finish it off on a whetstone and then with either a few strokes across a steel or a few seconds on a buffing wheel with some tripoli compound. It'll shave when freshly sharpened.

  19. thunderstick


    Jan 15, 2007
    Your wedge profile looks about identical to mine--except mine don't have the slight concave on the final bevel. I can see now where this slight concave could help to keep a wedge from bouncing back out. I'm going to bevel one like that and put a razor edge on it and see how it works compared to my other wedges. I still have some big gnarly pieces on my woodpile.
    Your picture "splains" it well. :)
  20. thunderstick


    Jan 15, 2007
    Well I have done a bit of experimenting on my wedge profiles and have concluded that a sharp edge that is laid back for the 1st half inch before it transitions to the main wedge thickness does work well to get your wedge started. You can actually start the wedge without having an axe or maul kurf first if you use light accurate blows. The fact that it tends to stick does help to prevent it from bouncing out when you start to really drive it. So I would modify my previous statements to say that I would prefer the typical wedge profile but with the first half inch slimmed out and sharpened as Square Peg describes.

    I would say that same profile worked well for my mauls also because once you passed the slim part the larger wedge area still prevented binding. My most efficient general splitter is the 36" Fiskars super splitter as it has the precision of an axe and the wedge shape of a maul.

    Then I took a general purpose profile axe that I usually use for light splitting and laid the edge back about 3/8" and got it sharp. It would tend to stick more than before if swung straight down as it now penetrated more deeply. However when using this axe with sharper profile if you gave the handle a right or left twist at impact it would seldom stick that it could not be fairly easily removed. One you got the twist down for the profile it cut more deeply without binding so tightly as to be problematic. In fact once I got the timing of the twist down good for this profile I could split some fairly large pieces by working my way in from the edges.

    Next I took a slim profile 30" chopping axe and tried to split with it by experimenting with the wrist twist. Obviously if you don't use the twist you simply sink the axe and stick it. Once the twist was gotten down it helped to prevent binding but if you swung hard sometimes the twist still would not separate the wood enough and it would stick. A general purpose axe profile is definately superior for splitting and can still be fairly efficient for chopping. The double-bit shows it value as an all-round axe in this respect when using both a chopping and a splitting profile.
    Square_peg likes this.

Share This Page