Home Knives & Blades A Guide to Axe Safety and Maintenance

A Guide to Axe Safety and Maintenance

man with an axe chopping a tree in the forest

Felling a tree, splitting firewood, pounding wedges, removing limbs – the uses for an axe are countless.

During my time as a logger and trail maintenance pro, my trusty single-bit was a constant companion.

My years of day-in, day-out experience have taught me a few simple guidelines to make the most of this classic staple of the woodsman’s life.

Axe Safety

How to Transport an Axe

Axe and shovel securely strapped on the side of a vehicle

It’s easy to ignore proper transport techniques, which is why you should be deliberate about them. Negligence and failures in situational awareness are frequent contributors to accidents and injury.

When transporting an axe in a vehicle, take a moment to secure it. In the unlikely event of an accident, anything in a vehicle has the potential to become a high-speed projectile. If your vehicle has a locking toolbox, it will make an excellent home for your axe. There are also custom mounts available for long-handled hand tools as well.

Note: The proper term for the cutting edge of an axe is the “bit.” However, for purposes of clarity in this article, I have used the alternate and commonly-accepted term “blade.”

When carrying an axe over a long distance on foot, keep its blade covered. There are a variety of inexpensive covers available for sale, and it’s a preventive safety measure too effective to ignore. 

If you’re transporting an axe over a long distance or uneven terrain, there are a couple of carrying methods by which you can decrease the risk of accident or injury.  

  • Avoid the temptation to carry an axe over your shoulder, as it’s a good general rule to keep cutting surfaces at a reasonable distance from your face and head. 
  • Carry your axe by the handle with your hand choked up just below the head, with the axe blade facing downward. 
  • As with all tools, you should carry it on the downslope side of the trail when hiking
  • If you’re traveling a longer distance and won’t need to use your axe regularly along the way, you can strap it to a backpack. With the axehead securely covered, strap the axe head-down using at least two exterior pack straps. The blade should be facing to the rear.

How to Use an Axe Safely

Lumberjack with a large axe holding tree trunk
Always remember to go through the mental checklist listed below.

When preparing to use an axe, situational awareness is vital. You are about to swing a sharp, heavy piece of steel at a high rate of speed. Take a moment to think about what’s around you, above you, and beneath you. Follow these steps to use an axe safely:

1. Ensure the Area is Clear

A good rule of thumb is to hold the axe horizontally in one hand with your arm at full extension, then double the distance from your body to the far end of the tool. This radius is the distance you should maintain from others when using an axe.  

Clear your work area of tripping hazards and overhead hazards.

2. Consider How What You are Cutting will Respond

It’s also worth your while to consider the effects of your cut. Chopping logs, splitting wood, and felling trees are all actions which release kinetic energy. 

A mental checklist of the following questions is a key element of situational awareness when preparing to use an axe.

  • Is the thing you’re cutting under tension?
  • What will happen when that tension is released?
  • What will happen when that tree falls?
  • When is that limb severed?
  • What will happen if your cut is inaccurate and you miss what you’re swinging for?

3. Wear PPE

In your final preparation, before using an axe, put on personal protective equipment (PPE). Foremost among this gear is eye protection, which will shield you against flying wood chips. I also recommend gloves to enhance your grip.

4. Assume a Proper Stance

Place your feet in a wide stance for stability, making sure that your feet are not in the path of your swing. The vast majority of axe-related injuries occur to the feet and lower legs. You can protect yourself from these common accidents by simply paying attention to your foot placement in relation to the path of your swing.  

5. Call Out Before You Cut

Finally, before you begin, loudly announce, “Swinging!” to alert those nearby of your intentions to use the tool.

Related: Best Axes for Splitting, Felling, and Camping

Axe Sharpening and Maintenance

A man in gloves sharpens an iron axe with a whetstone
Sharpening with a whetstone

How to Sharpen an Axe

As with all sharp-edged tools, such as knives and saws, an axe is safest when it’s sharp. A sharp tool is much more likely to do what the user intends for it to do, and this predictability of use is a good thing.

A dull axe may be prone to glancing blows, in which the edge of the axe bounces off the target. A sharp axe sinks into the wood as intended.

Sharpening an axe is a relatively straightforward procedure, although it takes some practice to perfect the technique. Follow these steps to ensure a safe experience and a sharp axe.

1. Wear Gloves and Safety Glasses

First and foremost, it’s essential to wear the proper protective gear while sharpening. This process involves moving one’s hand toward a sharp surface and grinding away fine metal shavings. Heavy leather gloves and eye protection are therefore essential.

2. Stabilize the Axe

The trickiest part of sharpening an axe is stabilizing the tool. To sharpen safely and maintain a consistent angle, you’ll want to make sure that the axe is immobilized. The best way to do this is to clamp the axe head into a vise. In the field, or in the absence of a vise, you can lean the axe head against a rock or large stick and hold it down with a boot. This is obviously a less-than-ideal configuration, but it’s worked for me in a pinch many times. 

3. Select the Right Sharpening Tool

My preferred tool for sharpening an axe is a mill bastard single-cut file. This type of file is coarse enough to get the job done quickly but fine enough that it likely won’t need finishing work.  

Most single bastard files have a narrow, pointed end called the tang, designed to fit inside a handle. At the opposite end from the tang is the blunt end of the file, called the tip.  

4. Sharpen the Axe Edge Thin to Thick

You’ll want to sharpen your tool edge thin to thick and tip to tang. This means you will begin each file stroke at the thinnest part of the axe edge and move toward the thicker part; you are sharpening into the blade. It should be clear now why you need heavy gloves for this process! 

Here are some general guidelines for the sharpening process:

  • You will lead with the tip of the file to ensure proper contact between the cutting teeth of the file and the surface of the axe head: thin to thick, tip to tang.
  • You’re looking to hold the file at an angle of approximately thirty degrees, and you will want to maintain this angle carefully throughout each stroke of the file. This is a skill that comes with lots of practice. 
  • Each stroke of the file should begin at one tip of the blade and finish at the far tip so that the entirety of the blade is covered with each stroke. 
  • Use an equal number of strokes for each side of the blade to ensure even wear on the tool.   

How to Maintain an Axe

Man's hand polishing the axe handle with cloth
Oooops! Forgot my gloves during the second coat!

As with any tool, an axe will benefit from light, routine maintenance. After each use, use a damp cloth to wipe away any dirt and debris from the head and handle.

How to Remove and Prevent Rust on an Axe

The greatest threat to any metal tool is rust, which causes pitting in the steel of the axe head and generally decreases its lifespan. It’s an excellent general rule to deal with rust early and often. 

Apply a small amount of WD-40 or similar lubricant to any rust spots on the axe head and buff them away with fine steel wool. With gloved hands, use a cloth or shop towel to apply a fine coating of WD-40 to the entire surface area of the axe head before storage. This will prevent rust by protecting the steel from ambient moisture during storage.  

How and When to Oil an Axe Handle

Axe handles may be manufactured from a variety of materials. Synthetic handles are pretty stable and require very little maintenance beyond a regular light cleaning.

In the case of wood handles, however, more thorough maintenance is required. You’ll want to protect and preserve the wood in the axe handle.

Linseed oil is an inexpensive, widely-available natural oil that has been used as a simple wood preservative for centuries. Using gloved hands and a shop cloth, give your axe handle a very light coating. Make sure to cover the entire handle, including the bottom tip and the exposed grain around the fitting wedge where the handle fits into the head at the top of the tool. Although it’s not imperative, you won’t do any harm applying a second coat once the first one absorbs.

It’s only necessary to oil the axe once a year.

When and How to Change the Handle

Wooden handle axe lying on wooden table

Fitting an axe head to its handle is referred to as “hanging” the head, and it is a periodic necessity throughout the tool’s life. Wood shrinks and expands with moisture and temperature and wears away with use.

If the head of your axe is loose enough to wiggle with your hand, or you notice the position of it changing, even slightly, as you use it, it’s time to consider re-hanging it.

Never use an axe with a loose head!  Also, avoid the temptation to drive nails into the end grain of the handle where it fits into the head in an attempt to jury-rig a wedge.

1. Select a Good Handle

The first step in hanging an axe head is selecting a good handle. When choosing one, take a look at the end grain of the wood, where it will fit into the head. You’re looking for straight grain that runs parallel to the axe head. This will decrease the likelihood of breaking the handle by applying pressure across the grain.

2. Fit Axe Handle into Axe Head

Next, insert the split end of the axe handle into the axe head. Use a wooden mallet to lightly tap the head into a snug fit. There should be a bit of the handle protruding through the top of the axe head. Before you apply wedges to finalize the fit, take a moment to ensure that the head is positioned correctly.

Rest the axe horizontally, blade facing down, on the ground, a workbench, or other flat surfaces. It is here you will need to learn a bit of specialized axe terminology. The topmost point of the axe blade is the toe, and the bottom of the axe blade is the heel. For a full-size axe, the blade of a properly-fitted head in this position should rest on the flat surface at two-thirds of the blade’s distance from the toe.

For a picture worth a thousand of my words, check out the official guidance of the U.S. Government on the subject right here.

3. Secure Head in Place with Wedges

Once the head is in its proper position, use wedges to secure the head in place. This is a two-phase process.

The first of these phases is to insert a wooden wedge, which comes packaged with most axe handles. Insert the narrow side of the wedge into the space between the two halves of the axe handle, as depicted here. Apply a thin coat of wood glue to each side of the wooden wedge, then pound it tightly with a mallet or hammer. Allow time for the glue to dry. This first wedging step applies outward pressure along a perpendicular axis to the axe head.  

At this point, there should be an excess length of handle and wedge protruding beyond the axe head. Using a hand saw or reciprocating saw, cut this off so that the end of the handle is flush with the axe head. 

After doing this, you can proceed to the second phase of the wedging process, which is the insertion of metal wedges. This step intends to apply wedging force outward on an axis parallel to the axe head.

There are a variety of steel wedges available in different shapes and sizes. Round wedges can be pounded directly into the center of the axe head, like so. You can pound straight wedges perpendicular to the wooden wedge. Be sure to pound the wedge in until it’s flush with the surface of the wood; a nailset may be useful here.

Conclusion

With proper care and maintenance, a good axe will serve you well for many years. Know your tools and make it a priority to use them safely and responsibly. With practice, your familiarity and skill with your axe will increase, and your confidence will grow along with it.

Related: Best Survival Axes and Hatchets

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