Posts Tagged ‘Gransfors Bruks’

Ax Prep, Sharpening & Care – Part Three

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Long Lasting Protection for Head and Handle

Good Wood

















Step One – Weatherproof the eye of the ax

Before you address ax handle prep in any way, you’ll want to seal the junction between the head and handle, in order to protect it against moisture.  This will prevent the wood from shrinkage and swelling at the eye and keep everything tight.  No matter how snug the fit is here, moisture can enter the unprotected wood.

For this job, you’ll need to dip the ax, head down, in a 50/50 mixture of boiled linseed oil and kerosene.  The kerosene works to thin the oil for improved absorption.  A good layer of this oil inside the crevices between handle and eye makes the head far less likely to come loose due to the swelling and contracting of the wood caused by changes in temperature and humidity.

To begin the process, give the head a heavy coat of petroleum jelly to prevent the boiled linseed oil from coating and discoloring the ax.  Coat the first three inches of the handle (below the head) as well (this will prevent the wood from absorbing the boiled linseed oil).  Take care to not over the gap between head and handle at the top or bottom to allow the boiled linseed oil to soak in.  Now, place the ax head down in a bucket of the oil/kerosene mixture, making sure that it’s deep enough to cover the entire head and about an inch of the handle.  Leave the ax in the bucket overnight, which is long enough for the wood to absorb the oil completely.  Then remove the ax from the bucket, wipe the head  and handle clean and rest the ax head down on a piece of waxed paper or aluminum foil.  A lot of the oil will drain out of the head/handle joint over the next few hours and you don’t want to get it everywhere.  Check the ax occasionally and if you see a puddle, wipe it up.  After an hour or so, wrap the handle in a paper towel and turn the ax right side up to allow any oil to drain out of the bottom of the head.  Once drained, wipe everything dry.  Depending on the humidity, the oil will fully cure in a week or so.


Head protection: Left to right: 1) Ballistol Sportsman’s Oil spray, 2) boiled linseed oil/kerosene mixture, 3) Petroleum Jelly, 4) raw linseed oil (food-grade flaxseed oil) and beeswax compound, 5) Ballistol liquid (either version can be used)





Step Two – prep and protect the handle –

Time spent prepping and sealing the handle will make a real difference in how long the handle lasts and how comfortable it is to swing.  No ax brand I know of delivers their products with this job done completely (or at least to my satisfaction).  Let’s look at the handles provided by the manufacturers of modern axes.

Most “hardware grade” axes are delivered with varnished or polyurethane coated handles.    These hard, slick coatings must be removed as they make for a blister causing ax.  Some makers, such as Council Tool, offer their axes with lightly waxed handles.  This is a far better finish than the slick, sealed finishes.  However, most factory waxed finishes are too light to offer much in the way of real water resistance and even if the wax were heavily applied, it does little to prevent the wood from drying out.  The ideal finish should offer good long-term water resistance and condition the wood.  The only finishes I know of that do that are oil finishes.  Oil keeps handles in top shape, resists moisture and allows you to feel the texture of the wood without causing blisters as you swing the ax.  Though oil finishes offer good protection most of the time, if you carry your ax in predominantly wet regions, you may want to apply an  oil/beeswax mixture to the wood.  The wax offers better water resistance than oil alone.

Gransfors Bruks stands out for being the first modern company to fit their axes with linseed oiled handles.  From the beginning, company owner Gabriel Branby made a commitment to provide his axes with straight-grained, hand-rubbed, oil finished handles.  The result of Branby’s raising the bar on ax handle selection and finishing is that it forced competitors to improve their products as well.  Today, all of the boutique ax makers provide markedly better handles than they did a decade ago.  Still, even the boutique axes, including Gransfors Bruks, require additional weatherproofing work on their handles.  Here is what I do –

a) Smooth out the Grain

If the handle has been coated with any sort of hard or gloss finish, it must be stripped.  Use 80-grit emery paper (wood sandpaper).  This sanding will also remove any surface finish left by the boiled linseed oil.  (If you are working with a boutique ax, you won’t need to sand anything so your job will be much easier just go straight to the section on “Handle Finish”.)

When done, wet the handle thoroughly with water and let dry.  This will raise the grain of the wood.  Sand the handle again, using 100-grit sandpaper, to smooth the raised grain.  Repeat this wetting and sanding until the grain can no longer be felt after the handle has dried.   These steps will ensure that if the ax is wetted in prolonged rain, the handle will remain smooth and not produce blisters.

b) Give the handle some purchase

Give the bottom six inches (or up to the bend of the handle if it’s curved), a final sanding with 60-grit paper to provide a slightly coarse texture for the grip hand.

c) Burnish the cut ends

Finally, sand the cut ends of the handle (the eye and the handle bottom) up through 220-grit abrasive until polished smooth.  Now the handle is ready to accept a  new finish.

d) Apply a finish to the handle

Even if I plan to use an oil/beeswax finish, I start by giving the handles several coats of raw linseed oil (food-grade flaxseed oil).  Warm about four or five tablespoons of the oil in an iron vessel until it just begins to smoke, then rub it into the handle with a rag.   Do not immediately wipe off the excess oil.  Allow at least an hour for the oil to fully soak into the wood.  Before applying the next coat, wipe the handle down.  At least three or four coats should be rubbed into the handle, repeating the applications over the next couple of days.  Once the handle begins to take on a soft sheen, you’ll know that it has been fully saturated with the oil.

e) Protect the cut ends

Handle treatment is not done until you’ve sealed the cut ends of the handle. This step is important.  On many old axes, you’ll discover that the ends are often checked and cracked.  That’s due to water penetrating the fibers of the wood over time.  No amount of oil or wax will do the trick here.  You’ll want to completely seal the ends with an impenetrable finish.  For this purpose, I use Tried and True Varnish Oil.  This product is a completely natural linseed oil and pine resin varnish.  In Europe it’s known as hard oil.  The formula is actually coachmaker’s varnish, a product dating from the 1850’s.  Varnish Oil produces a highly durable finish that soaks deep into the grain of the wood to seal completely, leaving a flexible, semi-gloss sheen.   The maker claims that Varnish Oil is for indoor use only but I’ve found that it works fine for this purpose.  The stuff is expensive ($18.00/pint) but is applied in very thin coats, so a little goes a long way.  At the eye, I use a foam brush to apply a coat thick enough to fill the spaces between the eye and the head.  On the bottom, I apply a thin coat.  Allow the oil to absorb for an hour before wiping completely dry and buffing with a soft cloth.  Let this cure for at least 24 hours, then burnish with #0000 steel wool.  Repeat at least three or four times for full, long-term protection.

Handle Protection: Left to right: food-grade flaxseed oil (raw linseed oil), Tried and True Varnish Oil (Coachmaker’s Varnish) and Howard’s Butcher Block Conditioner (a semi-soft, food-grade mineral oil and wax blend).















Oil and Beeswax – the magical mixture

After the handle has been completely protected with an oiled finish and the ends sealed with varnish, you may want to protect it further for use in very wet weather.  This is where an oil and beeswax treatment comes in.  I use this wonderful mixture for so many things.  It is valuable for protecting ax heads and carbon steel knife blades from rust and for treating leather knife and ax sheaths in addition to using on wood handles.  To make the compound, place a beeswax disc (the kind sold for lubricating wooden drawer glides) in a half pint, wide-mouth Mason jar and add raw linseed oil to cover by more than double.  Heat the mixture in a microwave oven on medium power until liquefied and stir well.  Let cool until the compound hardens to a paste that is softer than the consistency of shoe polish.  It should glisten with the oil when your finger is rubbed over the surface.  However, it should not be so soft as to be more oily than waxy.  If you don’t like the consistency after hardening, just reheat, add more wax or oil as needed, microwave on medium, blend and cool again.  Oil and beeswax paste can be stored indefinitely.

To apply to wood handles, I reheat the compound until liquefied and rub the hot mixture into the wood.  This insures complete absorption.  For subsequent coats, just apply it in the solidified state to the handle and rub it in.  Just one or two coats do the trick.

Note: I’ve experimented with Howard brand Butcher Block Conditioner on handles in place of my homemade compound with good results though the product doesn’t have as much body.  It soaks into the wood readily and is easy to apply.

Handle maintenance

After this initial prep and treatment, wood handles should be oiled at least twice a year or more if you live in an arid climate.  If the ax has been carried for long periods in rainy or wet snowy conditions, allow the handle to dry for several days before re-oiling.  To clean a dirty handle, sponge it with a mixture of Murphy’s Oil Soap and water, allow to dry, then reapply the raw linseed oil.  Reapply a coat of varnish to the top and end of the handle occasionally.

Step Three – Protect the ax head –

The chief enemy of an ax head is rust.  Protect it by applying a coat of the magical mixture.  First, rub the ax head with a light machine oil (I use Ballistol), then heat the linseed oil/beeswax compound to soften it and apply a coating to the head.  Upon cooling, the wax will harden a bit, leaving a protective coating on the steel.


After you’ve worked so hard to get your ax in shape, you’ll most likely want to hang it above the fireplace like a trophy fish.  And no doubt it would look great there, especially in a log cabin.  However, you DO NOT want to store your axes indoors in a dry location.  The constant lack of humidity will cause the handle to shrink enough to become loose.  It’s best to keep axes in a shed or garage, protected from moisture but still subjected to humidity and changes in temperature.

In closing

There will be some who won’t go to all this work for an ax.  Axes are not valuable to our daily existence like they once were and do not merit the same kind of care they were given in the past.  Yet, there still exists a small cadre of serious ax users that use and depend on their wilderness ax.  And there are the cabin builders and other craftsmen who use fine axes to shape wood.  These folks always take the time to properly prep and care for their axes.  If prepped correctly and cared for, a fine ax can be passed down for generations. Yours could too.

Ax Prep, Sharpening & Care – Part Two

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Re-profiling the Head, Convexing the Bit & Edge Honing

File marks on a vintage Plumb ax head, circa 1950. This old ax was found in new, unused condition.


Before putting an edge on an ax, you should always check to see if re-profiling is necessary.  Re-profiling means to change the shape of primarily the cheeks, that part of the head, just forward of the eye, down to within a half-inch of the bit., when viewing the head from above.  In my poorly drawn example below, you can see that some axes can have a very thick profile while other are quite thin.  Some may be very convexed and some may be ground nearly straight.  The profile of the head makes all the difference in how an ax performs. The most common issue you will encounter is that the cheeks of the ax are too thick, even if the general shape is good.


Ax Profile Grinds


Sharpening an ax without first thinning down the cheeks makes for a dangerous, inefficient ax because the resulting edge will be stunted, making it likely for the ax to bounce out of the cut when chopping.  If any thinning needs to be done, you should endeavor to create a proper ax profile.  This is one part of the re-profiling task.  The other is to convex the bit into the edge.  For now, we’ll look at getting the profile in order.

Does your ax even need re-profiling?

Today’s boutique axes are carefully ground for a specific use and usually do not need much in the way of re-profiling.  True, their edges may be delivered less than sharp but the profiles are generally good.  So, if you go the route of purchasing a boutique model, you will save yourself a lot of time and energy.

However, if you are dealing with a utility grade or vintage ax you may find that the profile will need some work.  Vintages axes in particular were often left quite thick as it was assumed that the new owner would grind the ax according to its intended use.  I’ve found a number of old axes that were never ground before the edge was sharpened.  These are problems can only be corrected by re-profiling.  What if the ax has been ground too thin?  An ax that’s too thin doesn’t throw chips well and sticks with every chop, requiring a tug to free it.  This is not only tiresome but will eventually result in loosening the handle.  Such an ax may be used for limbing but it will never be a good splitting or chopping ax.  Remember – you can always take steel off the head but you can’t add it back on!

To determine if an ax needs to be re-profiled and how much work needs to be done, you’ll need an ax gauge.  Bernard Mason included a full-size template for an ax gauge in his book Woodsmanship (A. S. Barnes and Company, New York, NY, 1954.  The illustration was also reproduced in the USFS Manual An Ax to Grind by Bernie Weisgerber (document No. 9923-2823P-MTDC, July 1999) on page 35.  I’ve included the illustration here but note that it has not been reproduced in the size to be used as a template.


Illustration by Frederick S. Kock, from Woodsmanship by Barnard S. Mason, A.S. Barnes and Co., New York, 195



















Ax Gauge in use. While the cheeks of this ax have already been thinned down considerably, further work needs to be done according to the ax gauge. The bit should fit into the gauge, up to the point of the opening.















I cut my gauge out of chipboard, a thick, sturdy cardboard found at any hobby or scrapbooking store.

When checking an ax at this point, you simply want to determine if the bit will fit entirely into the gauge.  If the cheeks are too thick and prevent the ax from fitting entirely into the gauge, re-profiling is needed.  If the cheeks are so thin that the ax does not “fill out” the cutout of the gauge, it has been ground too thin.  If the difference is slight, don’t worry, the ax will likely be a good one.  If the difference is significant, well – you can always find another ax!

The proper ax grind

The goal of re-profiling is to produce the classic fan grind illustrated here:

On a full-sized ax, the top of the fan grind begins at a point approximately 3-inches back from the cutting edge down to within a half-inch of the edge.  This is to allow for properly convexing the grind into the edge.  As the 3-inch depth is relative to a full-sized ax, it is of course, proportionally smaller if the head is smaller.

Re-profiling – 

There are a number of ways to re-profile an ax.  The time-honored, traditional method is to use an old-fashioned pedal grindstone like the one pictured below.


Illustration by Frederick S. Kock, from Woodsmanship by Barnard S. Mason,   A.S. Barnes and Co., New York, 1954

Good luck finding one of these nowadays (and having the room to store and use it)!  Let’s look at other options –

The  modern, fast and efficient way to do the job is to use a belt sander.  The Edge Master’s Pro Knife Sharpening System and the Work Sharp Knife and Tool Sharpener are two examples of belt sander sharpeners.  The belt cassette of the Work Sharp device can be rotated into “grinder” position to be used hand-held, with the ax placed in a vice, making it very handy for this kind of work.

When sharpening with a belt sander, be sure to keep the ax moving so that you do not risk ruining the temper.  Just don’t let it rest in one spot for too long and always remember to use light pressure.  While you generally do not want to apply enough pressure with a belt sander to create a shower of sparks, note that with the Work Sharp Knife and Tool Sharpener, sparks will always be generated when using the coarse and medium grit belts on carbon steel.   No matter the brand of belt sander, when you are re-profiling, check the edge frequently with your bare hand to see if the edge feels warm.  If it does, stop and let the blade cool down before making another pass.  You do not want to generate enough heat to risk ruining the temper.  It is best to have a can of cold water handy to dip the head into when it begins to feel warm to the touch.  To lessen the chances of ruining the temper, it’s best to do most of the re-profiling with the single-cut mill file and only refine the profile with a belt sander.

Of course, you can use hand tools only.  This will certainly take a lot longer but will never endanger the temper.  Keep in mind that hand work can be quite a job if the ax is tempered quite hard.  A vintage Plumb ax I own proved soft enough to easily re-profile with just sandpaper.  I started with 80-grit and worked up through 600 grit in just over half an hour and was done (I ran a file over the vintage Plumb ax shown at the top of this post to see if the temper was like that of the other I own and it was just the same).  Based on my experience with these two Plumbs I am of the opinion that the company tempered their axes rather soft.  By comparison, the vintage Harrold ax I restored is one of the hardest I’ve worked on.  A file slid right off the bit leaving hardly a mark.  To speed up the process I had to use a coarse diamond hone to thin down the edge.  Yet, as hard as it was, I still managed to refine the convex with sandpaper – so it can be done.  Let’s look at the tools I use for the job:

Re-profiling Tools: Top to bottom and left to right: 1) sanding block with mouse pad glued to the surface with Barge Cement. This one is used with sandpaper of various grits, 2) sanding block used with leather for stropping, 3) set of flexible diamond hones (coarse, medium and fine), 4) single-cut mill (ax) file (the filing grooves are only in one direction).  The file is resting on a 5) file cleaning brush, 6) Gransfors Bruks diamond file, and 7) Gransfors Bruks standard ax file.
















The best tutorial over re-profiling using these tools and method can be found here.

Though the video is about sharpening, the methods described can be modified just a bit for re-profiling.  NOTE: I just cannot get an ax sharp enough for my liking by using this method.  I think that perhaps I put too much pressure on the sanding block or something.  As a result, I use a different method to hone the edge (I’ll get into that later).

To begin, modify the tutorial by making straight strokes with the mill file, from the bit towards the poll, rather than at an angle. Keep the strokes flat at this point and DO NOT follow the curve of the convexed edge (if the ax has one).  Tilt the handle of the file up and off of the bit while making the stroke, filing the flat of the blade using the coarse side of the file.  Begin at at the center of the head, at the top of the convex “roll” (1/2 inch forward of the bit).  Push the file toward the poll, ending your stroke at a point 2 1/2 inches back, to create the apex of the fan.  You will immediately see the high spots that must be thinned down in just a few strokes.  Do not file the flat of the blade farther back than the top of the fan or the ax will stick in the wood and will be weakened due to being too thin.  The shiny, newly filed metal will serve as your guide, marking the boundary of the grind.

Once the outer edge of the grind has been established at top center, move to the outside edges to work on the rest of the fan.  I find it easier to switch at this point, from straight strokes to filing at an angle.  Remember to tilt the tail of the file up and off the bit.  File in opposing directions, starting with the coarse side of the file.  Then follow with up with the fine side.

Ax Re-profiling









Although the Gransfors Bruks ax files are much more expensive than a mill file, I prefer to use them for this purpose.  The short length of these files limits waste removal to a distance of three inches, which is just right for the job.

I find it easiest to clamp the ax to the edge of a work table to keep it steady using one bar clamp on the back of the ax head and two on the handle.  After working on both sides of the head, check the bit in the ax gauge to see if more filing is required.  Once the ax snugly fits the gauge, the filing is done.

Smooth everything out –

Once the fan grind has been created, clean up the rest of the head if it is significantly scarred, battered or pitted.  Ignoring the bit (you’ll work on it later), use both sides of the mill file to smooth everything out, taking care to preserve the makers stamp.  Your goal here is to reduce the appearance of pitting and other damage and square up the poll if need be.  Do not attempt to file deep scars completely out as you could easily alter the shape or weight of the ax!

When satisfied, go over the filed surface (including the fan grind) with 80-grit abrasive paper, followed by 100-grit paper and a 100-grit foam pad.  The paper will quickly smooth out any offending rugosities while the foam conforms better to minor indentations.  Now, return to the fan grind and use the sanding block as in the tutorial, working through the grits until you end up with a satin finish on every part of the head except the bit.  NOTE:  If the ax is not significantly scarred, battered or pitted, you can limit the filing and sanding to the area of the fan grind.  Now you’re ready to start on the bit and edge.

Take care of any chips –

If the edge has suffered a chip or two, these need to be removed before you try to convex anything.  Start by filing each chip out with the mill file.  Just file the spot flat.  When the edge is sharpened, any small flat spots will have been curved into the bit and will be unnoticeable.  If the chips are larger, you do the same thing but beware!  If you file away too much metal you can go beyond the hardened bit and end up with an ax that won’t hold an edge (I would pass up any vintage ax that is found with a deep chip).  Once any chips have been filed out you are ready to convex the bit.

Convexing and blending the bit into the cheeks –

All axes should have a convex profile.  But what about the bit and how it is shaped?  Some, like the Swedish boutique axes, terminate in a convex.  Most others terminate in a “V “bevel.

A beveled edge.

A convexed edge. This ax was never ground so the cheeks have not been thinned. You can see that the resulting edge is much too thick and needs some work.

To create the right profile and edge, the goal is to blend the bit into the newly thinned cheeks in a smooth, uninterrupted convex profile and then work on whatever edge you desire as a last step.  For this task, I use the plastic backed diamond hones.  The thin plastic backing makes it possible to flex the hones slightly, which helps to develop a curved bit profile.  Work through the hones from coarse to fine, following the instructions in the tutorial.  You should end up with an unpolished convexed surface, from the cutting edge to the beginning of the fan grind.  The convex is not done yet though!  It requires further refining and to do that, I use a different method, requiring another set of tools.

Refining the bit and edge honing – 

I use the following tools for this job:

Bit Refining/Edge Honing Tools: Top to bottom and left to right: 1) Paddle hone, 2) Stropping compound, 3) mouse pad, 4) sandpaper and abrasive foam pads in various grits, 5) Ceramic hone (mine is from a Spyderco Triangle Sharpmaker), 6) Gransfors Bruks double-sided ax stone, 7) Eze-Lap diamond “stone”.  All tools are resting on 8) a large piece of leather, about 3/32 inch thick that I use in place of a mouse pad.
















The tools are used in this order:

  1. Sandpaper.  In grits varying from 80 grit through 600 grit paper (you can go further, with 600 grit or above bur remember, it’s an ax not a surgical scalpel).  The sandpaper is laid upon either a mouse pad or if like me you use too much pressure, a leather pad.
  2. Eze-Lap diamond “stone”.  The purpose of the stone is to create a small “V” grind at the edge.  This results in less sharpness but makes the edge far more durable.
  3. Ceramic hone.  Diamond sharpeners do not polish the surface of the edge and that is important to achieving maximum sharpness.  The very hard ceramic serves to finish and polish the edge.  (The Gransfors Bruks stone is used for field sharpening.  In use, you start with the coarse side of the stone, followed by fine side).
  4. Leather paddle strop loaded with polishing compound.  Even a highly polished edge must be stropped to remove the tiny burr that is the result of sharpening.

A great tutorial over refining the bit can be found here (the ax tutorial begins two minutes, twelve seconds into the video).  In order to establish a convex grind, I modify the tutorial by starting with 80 grit sandpaper to quickly develop the convex profile.  The key to the system is using some sort of resilient backing for the sandpaper so that it conforms to the curvature of the edge and creates a convex profile.  Usually, the backing is a thick foam computer mouse pad.  Note that if you apply too much pressure to the tool being sharpened you can quickly dull the edge.  This is because the resilient mouse pad allows the sandpaper to rise up over the edge which will quickly dull it.  If like me you find that you use too much pressure, switch to a smooth square of leather about 1/8 to 3/32 inch thick.  Leather is far less resilient than a mouse pad but will still do the trick.  Once the ax fits into the gauge move on to finer and finer grits of abrasive paper to polish the surface of your work.  I usually work up through 600 grit paper and then finish by stropping the edge (see below).

The micro bevel, field sharpening and stropping – 

The main reason that some like the terminal convex edge is because it’s sharper than one that is beveled.   I generally prefer a convexed edge modified by terminating the convex with a  small “V” bevel as it improves durability.  Note that if you field sharpen an ax with a purely convexed edge, you’ll actually create some sort of bevel in the process.   This video shows how field sharpening is done.  Note that the instructor is using a properly thinned and convexed ax so is nothing more needs to be done.  That’s the beauty of purchasing a fine boutique ax to begin with.

The profile of the vintage Harrold ax I’ve been restoring is good according to the ax gauge.  The edge has been given a small “”V” bevel for maximum edge retention.














Stropping –

Finally, I polish the edge further by stropping it with a paddle strop loaded with polishing compound.

When  the edge of a cutting tool is sharpened, a burr is created along the very edge.  This burr is like a very thin, flexible flap of steel,  When you sharpen one side of the blade the burr flexes to curve over to the opposite side.  When you sharpen the opposite side, it curves back to the side you are not working on and so on.     The video above is about honing the edge using only sandpaper and it generally works well.  However, this method produces a very long burr which I do not like.

Holding the ax in one hand, edge away, I start by pushing the paddle across the curved surface of the convex, avoiding the very edge.  The surface of the convex will quickly develop a high polish.  As soon as the surface begins to really shine, begin to strop the edge.  Stropping will remove the burr created by sharpening and will polish the edge smooth.  Now, wipe the head down with light machine oil to remove the filing and sanding dust and you’re done!

You should end up with a properly thinned and convexed ax that is quite sharp. NOTE:  you often hear folks speak of an ax being razor sharp.  I’ve done it as well.  And of course, some axes such as the Gransfors Bruks models do come razor sharp.  But shaving sharpness depends on the thinness of the bit and hardness of the steel.  The Plumb ax pictured at top is just not hard enough to develop such a degree of sharpness.  And while the Gransfors axes are indeed razor sharp, they accomplish that by being too thinly profiled to be a good all-around ax.  Also – axes do not have to be shaving sharp in order to do the work they are intended for.  They are chopping tools.  If you run your fingernail over the edge, it should bite into the nail and not slip off.  That’s sharp enough for ax work.

Once the re-profiling is done, only the edge of the ax will need to be touched up using the mouse pad/sandpaper method and the stone and strop.  In just a few minutes your ax will be ready to use again.

Ax Prep, Sharpening & Care – Part One

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

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




  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.