Sharpening shop tech: 5 axe mistakes.


Vern Burke, SwiftWater Edge Tool Works

Skowhegan, Maine

I’ve been doing a lot of vintage axe restorations and customer axe work the past few weeks, so I thought I’d take a minute and list out the top 5 axe mistakes. Some of these are merely annoying, most are outright dangerous, so be sure to avoid these!

1. Working with an axe with a loose head.

This should be a common sense one, but I get a lot of customer axes in here to sharpen with the heads loose. Flying sharp axe heads are BAD!

Forget trying to shim the handle or add extra wedges. If the handle is loose, it needs to have the old wedge removed, the head reseated, and a new wedge put in.

2. Crazy wedging.

The correct fore and aft wedge for an axe handle is wood, with a small metal wedge at an angle side to side ONLY if the eye end of the handle isn’t as long as the eye.

Back in the day, there were a number of steel main wedge designs, none of which were really great. Never attempt to use modern narrow steel wedges or anything not intended to be a wedge in a handle (I just replaced one that was wedged with square cut horseshoe nails!).

3. Wrong handle size (eye end).

The most important dimension for a properly fit axe handle is the fore and aft length of the eye. If the axe handle eye end is significantly shorter than the length of the eye, attempting to wedge it tight will probably end up splitting the handle. Do NOT ever attempt to shim a too small handle into a too large eye!

4. Wrong handle size (length).

Back in the day, it wasn’t uncommon to see heavy axe heads paired with short handles for “kindling axes”. Putting too heavy a head on too short a handle (such as a 4 lb poll axe head on a 28″ handle instead of the proper 36″ handle) makes the axe hard to control, especially since the tendency is to want to use the shorter handle one handed. Remember, if you have problems controlling the axe, a missed swing with a too short handle means that sharp bit is coming right back at your leg or foot.

5. Abusing the poll.

The poll (back side) of a poll axe is fairly soft steel and should NEVER be struck against anything metal. Abusing the poll results in mushrooming of the poll and possibly even distorting the eye and ruining the head.

If you need to pound splitting wedges, buy a splitting maul or sledgehammer for that purpose!

Be kind to your axe and it will treat you right!

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