Refurbishing an axe head

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

What is a hatchet and what is an axe?

hatchet1-1A hatchet is a small axe of up to about 2 pounds in weight while everything above 2 pounds in weight becomes an axe proper.

Hatchet and axe are important tools for the woodsman, coppice worker and greenwood carver and -worker, although the main tool for the coppice worker, more often than not, is the billhook.

Good hatchets and axes often can be very expensive to purchase new and thus refurbishment of good to high quality old ones that at times can be had at flea markets for little money are well worth the time and effort. At the same time while giving you a quality tool at a reasonable cost it also saves valuable resources.

The proper refurbishment of a hatchet or an axe head is not something to be hurried along by use of power tools, however. And it is amazing to see even so-called experts coming out with the most stupid things imaginable. You look at those articles and videos and wonder “what the heck?”.

Do NOT use angle grinder or bench grinder, especially not for regrinding the edge and never burn out the (remains of the) old handle in a fire. Both of it can and will affect the temper of the steel and could ruin the axe or hatchet head.

Time and again, and only recently in the Bushcraft magazine in the UK, when the talk (and advice) comes to refurbishment of axe heads the use of an angle grinder (and in some cases and incidents the use of a bench grinder) is talked about. This is as stupid as burning out the remains of a handle in a fire. Both will harm the temper of the steel. And I do not care about whatever supposed credentials the author who writes such an article has. The same goes for sharpening billhooks and also knives. A bench grinder or similar is an absolute no go here.

While it is fine to remove any burring over of the back of the axe head with an angle grinder, a belt grinder, or even a Dremmel tool – and even that very, very carefully – to use a high-speed grinder on the edge is a No-No. Even the slightest overheating will change the temper of the blade and make the edge soft and that is something we definitely do not want to happen. Unless, that is, you know how to and wish to re-temper the blade in the end.

The only way to resharpen the edge is by way of hand tools, that is to say by file and by sharpening stones, aka whetstones, or, if you have access to one, a sandstone wheel in a water bath, like the big old whetstone wheels that used to be found in village smithies and on many farms, that needed a second person to turn the handle. And the same, obviously, also goes for the sharpening the edge on a newly forged tool.

But, as said, again and again we see people, even those claiming to be experts, using dry high-speed bench grinders with their harsh abrasive “dry” wheels and then comments such as that one needs to keep quenching the tool in water to prevent overheating. Hello! You heat that steel to such an extent that it requires quenching you have already done damage. So, don't do it.

Most billbooks, hatchets and axes are, in fact, soft enough in the cutting edge to be sharpened by use of a mill bastard file, a fine cut file, and those that are not will have to be done with “stones”, by hand. The only safe and precise way that will ensure the integrity of the steel is maintained. It is not difficult but may take a little while.

I must say that there are times when I cringe as regards to the advice that is being given by people claiming to be expert on the subject as to how to refurbish an axe, a billhook or a knife and of the sharpening of same. It is worrying in the extreme, at times.

© 2017