An Axe to Grind

An Axe to Grind

Hi, I’m Bernie Weisgerber, and I’ve got an axe to grind. Today, we’re going to look at axes, but first I want to show you around the ranger station. We’re here at the entrance to the historic Nine Mile Ranger Station. Now the US Forest Service still uses this facility as a working ranger station. It was built in the 1930’s by the CCC. Now, in my job as a historic preservation specialist, I get to fix these great buildings.

Every job should be assessed for safety hazards so you don’t have any accidents. Now in our line of work there’s a couple of items I want to show you. First, would be safety glasses, good leather work gloves, an approved hard hat, and always good stout leather boots. Now before we head up into the woods to start our work, we need to go back into the shop and fix a double bit axe properly.

We’re going to start with a look at hanging an axe, which is putting a new handle in it. This is a hickory handle by O.P. Link, very fine percussion handles. And what I’m doing now is, I’m looking to see if the grain is correct. The grain runs this way in a proper handle. And I want to see how straight the handle is. And this one looks really good. Now this is a double bit handle and it’s a slim taper octagonal. Now, I don’t know if you can see, but it’s got flats cut on it and that helps you get purchase. This on the other hand, is also a 28 inch double bit handle and if you can see, the grain runs the wrong way on it. Now if you picture this with percussion with the grain running that way, it’s going to pop it loose under pressure. This doesn’t have a good feel to it. It’s also got a shellac on it instead of a wax like the link handle, and it’s got heartwood in it and good hickory handles should not have any heartwood, they should only have the sapwood and you can see the transition between the two here.

True Temper Double Bit Axe

True Temper Double Bit Axe

Today, what I’ve got for you is an older double bit western pattern axe and it’s my favorite. It’s a True Temper. It’s seen a lot of use, but I picked this one because it’s still serviceable. It’s worn but still has good life in it. The edge is not ground to radical on it. I’m going to clean up the axe head a little bit before we re-hang it. What I’ve got here is some erasers, I guess, its rubber impregnated with grit. It comes in three different grits. This one’s coarse, this one’s fine, it’s called the wonderbar. They’re inexpensive, they’re great, you just scrub it like that, and it takes the rust off, cleans it up. They’re good for taking pitch when you’re using your axe in the woods. So the first thing we’re going to do is to saw the old handle off at this point right here. To cut it off, I just prefer a coping saw because it keeps it nice and close. Sometimes, it helps to relieve the wedge, the wood wedge that’s down in here, before you drive it out. A good way to do that is to drill it out. Just drill a series of holes down through it. The tools to use on this are drifts or swedges. This one’s for a single bit. You can see the shape of it is like a single bit. And here’s a double bit. Put it right on the top like this. Take a hand sledge, about a two pound, and start to drive it out. There it goes and we’re clear. Now, you’ll read in some old books sometimes, that another way to get the handle out is to put it in a fire and burn it out. Never attempt that. There’s’ too much risk of drawing the temper or re-tempering the edges.

Now, we’re going to hang the axe. Have you heard the expression “Can’t get the hang of it”? That came from this operation. When an axe is hung, if it just doesn’t fit you right, it just doesn’t feel right, then you can’t get the hang of it and that’s where the expression got started.
Now before we hang it, I want to show you exactly where it should go. The axe head should always be right down and you can see this swell right here on the shoulder on the handle. When it’s finished and it’s properly hung, it should look like that; as opposed to if it was only put into the end, notice how far down the shoulder would be at this point.

 

O.P. Link Axe Handle

O.P. Link Axe Handle

So we’re going to cut that much of the top off. Mark it, then cut that off. The primary tool for this is a rasp. Now this is a straight rasp with a file handle on it. Works like that. But this is a really useful tool. It’s called a four- in-hand and it’s made by Nicholson File Company, and what it’s got, it’s got a flat rasp, it’s got a curved rasp, and then it’s got a flat double cut and a curved double cut file on it. It’s a perfect tool to use but when you’re using that tool, you want to be wearing leather gloves to protect your hands from the serrations on the rasp itself. Okay, so it’s just a matter of working it down now. So let’s look at it for fit to start off with here. See where we are with it okay? It’s a little bit too fat, a little bit too long. I’m going to have to take some off the sides here and some in here. Let’s start with the edges. Now a rasp you can use in a back-and-forth motion, although it tends to clog it up, unlike a file, which should never be used in a back-and-forth motion, only pushed away from you. When it clogs up like that, you can take a brush, a wire brush and clean it out. I’m going to work both sides down, and then I’m going to work the cheeks of it down here as well. It’s time to give it a try for the first time, but I’m going to bevel this edge just slightly to help it slide into the eye on the axe. Let’s take it out, start it down in there, get it snug, turn it upside down, take your wooden mallet, hit it good and square. Hold it up in the air like this. You can hear it, you can feel it. I can even feel when it stops, when it shoulders up. You want to hit it good and square so you don’t split the swell out. It’s about shouldered up. Huh, not bad for a first try.

 

Okay, let’s back the handle out a little bit here. You can see right here where it was shouldering up and rubbing. You can see that it was a good tight fit through here. You notice the places where it’s high. So we’re going to take a little bit more down through here, a little bit of the high spots right here, and then I’m going to feather this up so it’s a good comfortable transition there instead of an abrupt transition, because I think this is going to be our last fit. So before we try it again, we’re going to put the curve to the right depth. Now’s the time to do that, because we probably won’t have to take it out again. So get it locked in there real good. Get your saw and you can see it needs to be about yea much deeper, about two-thirds of the way of the depth of the head. Take a look at it here. Yep. Okay, time to try it again. Put it back on. Now would be a good time to sight down it. Looks like the edge is in line, so it’s going on square. Now that we’ve driven the handle all the way home, you’ll notice that the edge is a little bit higher, uneven on this side. If you remember, we just cut this off rough. The important thing I that it’s square here and that the edge is in line with the handle. Take the coping saw again, follow the contour. Be careful at this point so you don’t break it. And there it’s trimmed off perfectly flush. If you look at the edge here, you’ll see that it’s pretty thin. It doesn’t have much for expansion, so in order to get the wedge down in a little bit further, that’s why I’m taking some of the thickness out of it. To drive the wedge home, you need a good stout block or floor and you’re going to set the axe, the butt of the handle, right on that. I’m going to take one extra step that I like to do. There’s this stuff on the market now and you probably have gathered that I don’t like new things, but this is great stuff. It’s called Swell-Lock. Just pour it down in and on the end grain, put it on the wedge, and put the wedge in. This is how you drive the wedge home. Now hopefully, I’ll hit this square on. What you want to do is try and get it so that you’re hitting this square and then just drive it home.

Hanging an Axe

Hanging an Axe

It’s bottomed out right now. It’s not going to go anymore than that. I don’t know if you can hear the difference in the tone, but it’s tight right now. So, now all we have to do is trim the wedge off. So back to the vise. Cover our edge up again. Get our glove on, our coping saw. Notice how much softer this poplar is than the hickory was to cut off. It just flies right through it. Easy on the end here so you don’t split it. Oh, yeah, even worked out. There it is, properly fixed, properly hung. Never, never put the steel wedges in cross grain that you sometimes see like this right here. Why in the world would you want to split the grain which this does, after you’ve just hung an axe? I kind of like to run a little sandpaper over it and clean it up a little bit where we had the rasp, and then run your sandpaper over the waxed surface here, take some of the wax finish off that they’ve put on, get it good and clean and smooth. Do the whole handle like that. This is personal preference, but after I’ve sanded it down for purchase or so you can get a good grip on the butt here, I like to take and rough it up with the rasp or the four-in-hand. So I just take it and run it across the grain like that and the last thing in the step is to oil it with linseed oil. This is pure raw linseed oil. You can use a boiled linseed oil, works just as well. I just happen to like this. It hasn’t been opened for awhile. Take a rag, just put a little bit on it, put it on the butt, rub it on the top real good, and then rub the oil into the handle real good. After you finish, wipe the excess off and be sure to throw your oily rag away. Spontaneous combustion with oily rags is absolutely a hazard. I’ve seen them burst into flames before, so throw it away when you’re done.

Sharpening

It’s time to sharpen our axe now. First let’s take a look at the tools that we use. Primary tool is a file, single cut, mill bastard file, twelve’s, tens, eight inch. You need to have a guard on it and a good handle. An old piece of harness leather with a hole punched in it makes a real good guard. A little block of wood, circular piece of leather, even a piece of fire hose works good. Some handles you drive the file down in. Others have screw thread on it that you screw onto the end. And then there is this kind, which is clamp, and it’ll fit any size file, and you just clamp it down. A file card, an absolutely essential tool for cleaning the filings out of the file. This one’s even got a little pick in the end of it right here for picking pieces of metal that get stuck out. Got to have that.

The stones, traditional axe, round axe stone which is two-sided with a fine and a coarse side. This is real good for carrying in the woods with you. You can put it in your pocket. Here’s a new type of a stone to me anyway. It’s an axe stone and it’s got a groove in the center between the fine and the coarse side and that really protects your fingers. Before we start sharpening, let’s take a look at the double bit axe. One edge is sharpened differently than the other. Your good edge, your chopping edge, is sharpened at the 25 degrees. The other edge is much steeper and a blunter, steeper angle, and that’s your grubbing edge. You cut roots in the ground with it, branches that are near the ground where you might hit rocks and that saves your good edge. This is a personal preference, but the way that I always tell at a glance what my good cutting edge is, I put the trade name True Temper. If you’re chopping right-handed, you hold an axe like this with your left hand here at the handle. Your right hand here. If you’re standing like this and you can read True Temper on it, then this is your good chopping edge. Let’s put it in the little vise I’ve got. It’s good and tight. I do one more thing. I take a little wedge and run it underneath like that to sort of raise the edge up and give it support when I’m filing. Now for safety, always with this process all the way through, both gloves and you have the protectors on the files.

Sharpening Tools

Sharpening Tools

Now the process is to file away from the edge. You always sharpen away from the edge in that motion. Sand the thing I want to stress to you here again is, like with the rasp, you clean it out but you only use the file in one direction and that’s pushing forward. Now as far as the files go, I have two preferences; one is Simonds and one is Nicholson, two good American made files. So that’s the filing motion but there’s a little nick in the edge right here. The shape is good. It needs to have a little bit of rounding to it, but it shouldn’t be rounded off too much. What I would do at this point with that nick in the edge there, is I would true up the edge by running the file this way. And this is how you can straighten an edge or reshape an edge if the edge isn’t correct. It just flattens it out, but it takes all of the nicks out of it. So I’m going for this 25 degrees right here, except it’s a little too thick, see it? It’s too thick back in here. So I’m going to have to file the cheek off right here some. But it’s not a straight 25. It shouldn’t be a straight edge on it. It should have a slight curve to it like that, and you might be able to see that. The finished shape is going to be a half moon like this, with it filed more back here into the cheek. Now remember, I’m not sharpening this. I’m bringing it back. I’m rehabbing this axe and then sharpening it. If you take care of your axe, you can touch it up in fifteen minutes with a file and the stones. But when you’re starting over with one, it takes about an hour to do that.

Axe Stone

Axe Stone

After the filing, it’s time for the axe stones. I’ll use the safe one here. Still use your gloves. This is sharpening oil. Norton, the people that make the stones, also make this honing oil. So we’ll put some on the coarse side. Sort of let it soak in, rub it around. That makes a really good lubricant there. Then what I do is hold it in my hand like this under my arm, and again, you’re working away from the edge but this time in a circular motion with the coarse side. Always away from the edge, into the edge like this. So periodically…that’s looking pretty good actually. You have to take and wipe the grit of the stone and the steel off and then put a little bit more oil on if it dries out. Still got a little bit on there. Come back here. Same thing. Now when you’re finished with the coarse side and you do this side, then you flip it over, and I hold it like this, then you do this side. Okay, like so. As soon as you feel a wire edge, then you go to the fine side of the stone and do the same thing on both sides, and you go from one side to the other and you push the wire edge back-and-forth until it’s real, real thin. Then what I do is I strop it. A piece of wood will work pretty good. Just sort of draw it, strop the wire edge one side to the other across the piece of wood like that. And it’ll break the wire edge off. We’re all the way through the process of sharpening now, but you need to test the edge. So let’s switch to the finished product here. Out of the oven comes the finished one here. Hopefully you can see this is the shape, if you can see the sharpening here on this, this is the shape that I’m looking for in the finished grind. It’s that crescent shape and takes the thick part out. I’ve got the label up on this and this is a Bluegrass. You notice that that’s a perfect fit but if you look at the edge in a light, in a strong light, the sun over your shoulder, and I mean look right at the edge, the very edge, it should not reflect light. If it reflects light, you don’t have a sharp edge, on any edged tool. So looking right straight down at the edge in the light, I see no reflections here. So that means, theoretically it means, that I’ve got it sharp. Now there is a technique where you can use your thumbnail and it should bite in and not slip off for sharpness. But, my favorite technique is if the edge is sharp enough to dry shave the hair off your arm, then it’s sharp enough to use. So, here it goes.

Rehung and Sharpened Double Bit Axe

Rehung and Sharpened Double Bit Axe

Yes, indeed it is. That’s sharp enough for me right there. One last thing you need to do and that’s protect the axe head. What I like to do is put a little bit of lubricating oil, take some beeswax, a little block of it, the oil cuts the beeswax and since I’m working on an unsheathed axe, I should put my gloves on. You just rub it in. Like I said, the oil cuts the beeswax and it gives it a real good sticky coating that stays on it. You wipe the excess off and it comes right off when you go to chop, but it keeps it from rusting.
One last thought on sharpening for you. Let’s go over here. This is a high speed grinder. Do not use these on your axes. It will draw the temper out of the axe, burns the edge, and ruins a good axe. Use a file, and then use your axe stone. If you need to grind, an old petal grindstone like we started out on, is a real good choice if you have one available. What do you say we go to the woods and use the axe now?

The book companion for this video can be found from the USDA Forest Service at “An Axe to Grind: A Practical Axe Manuel“.

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