Ax Prep, Sharpening & Care – Part One

Vintage ax head in the process of being restored.  This ax was found in an abandoned house.  It was quite rusted and moderately pitted.  The ax had never been ground requiring significant re-profiling.  Due to the work involved, there was no way to preserve the patina.  The re-profiling was nowhere near finished when this photo was taken.

This is the first installment of a series of posts on my methods of prepping, weatherizing and caring for axes.  You may do things differently but I’ve found this system to work well for me.  I’ve organized the tasks involved in order of what to do as soon as you get your new (or old) ax home.  No matter how well made it is, no matter what has been done for you by the manufacturer, no ax is delivered in a weatherproofed state.  If you want an ax to depend on, for days, weeks, or months in wilderness, under all conditions, the head and handle should be properly prepped and treated to protect everything from water damage.  Water is the enemy of the steel head and the wooden handle.  You’ll have to prepare the ax for serious wilderness use.  In addition, most axes are not delivered as sharp as they should be.  If you own an ax, you should know how to sharpen it and how to keep in sharp – at home and in the field.  You should also know how to store your ax and protect it against rust and developing a loose handle.  Eventually however, a wood handle will work loose.  In that event, you should know how to rehang your ax.  So let’s begin with the tasks of ax prep.

To prepare an ax is a joy.  It’s not something that you do in a day.  It takes time and work, spread out over a couple of days or more.  Your reward is a tool that will serve you for decades without fail.  Folks today are often surprised and disappointed to find out that they have to invest time and sweat before using an ax but this is nothing new.  Until the introduction of the Gransfors Bruks and Wetterlings hand forged axes, no ax was ready to be used as purchased.  It wasn’t until the late 1920’s that one could even buy an ax in the store with a handle.  Until then, when you bought an ax, you selected a head out of a box and proceeded to have it properly ground and honed and then hung it, often with a handle made from a pattern handed down through generations.  The introduction of the “store-bought” ax occurred with the emergence of an urban population ignorant of ax use and care.

Where to start

The tasks involved in head prep will vary greatly depending on the condition of the ax.  It is new or vintage?  Utility or premium grade?  Well maintained or neglected for years? Let’s start with a moderately difficult scenario – a scarred, moderately pitted old ax with a lot of surface rust.   The head was never properly ground by the owner and while the poll is scarred, luckily, it is not mushroomed (I generally avoid old axes that have a mushroomed poll).

Your first step is to clean up the head.  Many old axes and most modern utility grade axes feature a painted head.  I don’t like a painted head at all.  The paint is going to get marred with use and will eventually wear off, leaving little to no rust protection.  Because of this, I always remove any paint as a first step in preparing an ax. It is assumed that this is to be an ax to use, so the old handle, regardless of outward appearance is cut off and removed prior to restoration.  An old handle should never be trusted on an old ax as they are often dry rotted inside the eye.

Handle removal

DO NOT follow the recommendation, often found in the old camping books, to bury the bit of an ax in the ground and build a small fire over the ax head to burn the remaining handle out.  There is simply too great a chance to heat the head enough to destroy the temper.  Instead, saw the handle off close to the head, put the head in a vice and drill several holes through the handle to relieve the wedge.  Next, turn the head upside down to knock the handle out as the eye is usually tapered at the bottom.  I like to rest the ends of the head on two wood blocks to suspend the eye off the work table.  If you cut a groove in one block a half inch deep, to accept the bit end of the head and a channel wide enough to accept the pole end of the head, and of the same depth, it will not move while you are doing the work.  The handle can now be driven out.  Experts typically use an ax drift for the job.  As I don’t have a drift, I use a length of steel rod about six inches long.  Pound the end of the rod with a hand sledge to drive the handle out of the eye and you are ready for the next step.

Head prep

In the case of a vintage ax that was properly ground and well maintained, having surface rust but no significant pitting, you’ll want to remove the offending crud, rust and paint, yet preserve the patina that has developed over decades.  To do this, use the Soda Ash and Battery Charger Method. 

NOTE – This procedure creates Hydrogen and should only be done in a well-ventilated area!  Make certain that it is not done near a flame or anything that could produce a spark!

You will need:

  • 12-volt battery charger with adjustable amperage.  Best would be a charger with a 5-10 amp setting.  
  • Soda Ash (Arm and Hammer Washing Soda is one brand)
  • A large plastic bucket or similar container (large enough to suspend the ax head into the center of the container without being near any of the sides and not resting on the bottom).
  • Six to eight 1/2 x 8 inch steel concrete anchor bolts
  • Steel wire
  • A large diameter stick, long enough to span the width of the plastic container
  • Duct tape

 

 

Instructions:

  1. Fill the container with warm to hot water up to just below the lip.
  2. Add 1/4 cup of the soda ash and mix well with a stick or large spoon.
  3. Arrange the anchor bolts around the edge of the plastic container, long ends down, hanging the “L” over the edge of the container, facing out.  IT IS IMPORTANT TO USE ENOUGH ANCHOR BOLTS TO COMPLETELY SURROUND THE AX HEAD.  This process is similar to the reverse of plating.  The crud being removed from the head is attracted to the anchor bolts, which work as a set of anodes.  Anodes work in line of site.  If you use one or two anodes, they will only remove the crud from the surface directly in front of them.  The more anodes the better the crud removal.
  4. Wrap wire tightly around the inside corner of the “L” bend of one of the bolts, twisting it tightly to make good contact. Run the wire to the next bolt and do the same.  Continue until all of the bolts are connected by the same length of wire, all evenly spaced around the edge of the plastic container.  After the last bolt has been wrapped with wire, leave a length of wire long enough to attach it to a lead on the battery charger.
  5. Use U-shaped loops of duct tape from the outside surface of the container, around the bolt, and back to the outside of the container, to hold each bolt in place.  Run a long length of wire through the eye of the head, looping around the axe.  Twist the wire around itself tightly to make a good contact.  Do this so that the wire ends up coming out the top of the head.
  6. Wrap the wire a couple of time around the center of the stick, adjusting as necessary so the head is suspended halfway down in the water when the stick is resting on the container.  Make sure that a very long length of the wire extends beyond the stick to attach to a lead on the battery charger.
  7. Connect the positive (+) lead clamp of a 12 volt battery charger to the wire that is attached to the connected anchor bolts.  These bolts work as a set of anodes, to attract the particles you want to remove from the ax head.
  8. Connect the negative (black,) lead of the 12 volt battery charger to the length of wire that is attached to the ax head and looped around the stick.
  9. Before turning on the battery charger, make certain that your connections are attached to the correct poles and that the ax head does not touch any of the anodes.
  10. Turn on the battery charger and set it on a 5-10 amp charge for 24 hours.
  11. Check the ax head after the 24 hour period.  To do so, TURN OF THE BATTERY CHARGER and lift the head by the wire looped around the stick.
  12. At this point, any paint on the head should be mostly removed.  If no paint is on the head, most of the dirt or grease should be gone.  What has been removed can now be seen on the anodes.  To remove stubborn paint, lightly scour with a scrub sponge or Brillo pad.
  13. Lower the ax head back into the water and turn on the battery charger again.  Repeat the process and check again in another 24 hours.
  14. Once most of the crud is cleaned, pour the water out and refill the container with fresh water and soda ash.  Scrub the bolts clean of the crud with a Brillo pad and replace in the container.  Reattach the wire to the ax head, making sure it covers a different spot on the head than before. Lower the ax head back into the container and repeat the process one last time to make sure everything is really clean.
  15. Remove the ax head from the container and immediately dry it with a towel, followed by an application of light machine oil to prevent the formation of rust.

 

You should end up with a perfectly clean, paint free and rust free ax head, with the patina of the old steel intact.

If the head is badly pitted, significantly marred, has not been properly ground or requires re-profiling, the work to be done will remove much if not all of the patina so don’t worry about trying to preserve it.  Don’t sharpen the ax at this point as you do not want to be working on a sharp ax if you can help it.  In the case of a painted head, start by sanding it off using 80-grit wet or dry abrasive sheet for fast removal.  I like to start with paper backed abrasive sheets because you can put more pressure behind the stroke.   What can’t be sanded off with the paper can be removed with a 60-grit foam sheet as foam conforms to the surface of the steel better than paper.  Continue to sand the head with progressively finer grits of foam sheet to remove the marks made by the previous sanding, up through 100-grit abrasive.  This sounds tedious but it goes fast.  Then rub the head down with a light coat of oil to remove all of the sanding dust and wipe everything dry.

The next post will cover re-profiling the head and convexing the bit.

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