Thoughts from the Saw Shop: Misconceptions about restoring and maintaining old tools.


Vern Burke, SwiftWater Edge Tool Works

Skowhegan, ME

“Refurbishing an old axe is much cheaper than buying a new one. All you need is about $2000+ worth of shop equipment and the space to keep it, and you can have a good, solid axe for $3.”

I just ran across this comment on a YouTube axe video and it had me shaking my head. Of course, the video had me shaking my head too. Using an electric angle grinder to polish a vintage axe head and multiple metal wedges in a new handle are just simply atrocious things NOT to do.

It amazes me the people who think you have to have a building full of expensive equipment to work on vintage tools. The old timers would have laughed at anyone who couldn’t maintain their axe with just a good file or two, a selection of hand oil stones, and maybe a foot treadle or hand cranked wet grindstone. So, if the people who used axes all their lives day in and day out maintained them that simply, why can’t people manage it today?

For the same reason, we get garbage like this video. It gives me nightmares to think of someone grinding on a vintage axe head with an electric angle grinder in a silly attempt to “polish” it. Driving steel wedges as the main wedge in a wooden axe handle is one of the primary reasons I have to drill out and replace what should be perfectly good handles when I can’t pull and rewedge a loose handle because the steel wedges have rusted inside the wood.

The answer to this is that people don’t want to bother to take the time to do things the right way. It takes a bit of effort to get set up with the appropriate hand tools and practice learning how to maintain an axe with them. It also takes a bit of time to set up a vintage axe head the right way rather than just do a quickie hack job on it with an angle grinder.

In most cases, I use the same vintage hand tools the old timers used to do the job. My best oil stone is at least 150 years old, my anvil (for straightening bent blades and setting teeth, etc) is a 100+ year old family heirloom, etc. I set the teeth on a modern weed whacker brush saw this week with a vintage manual saw set that I rescued from antique shop and restored that must have been at least 100.

So, what’s the take away from this? Misusable modern power tools + no training + not willing to spend any time on it will almost always create a substandard result. If you care about your vintage axe, saw, or other tool, either get the right tools and educate yourself how to care for it properly or trust it to a sharpener (like myself) who does.

And if you see an angle grinder hanging on your sharpener’s wall, run away.

Visit me at any of the following locations:

Elm Plaza, Waterville, ME (Mondays)
Tractor Supply, Skowhegan, ME (Tuesday)
Arundel Flea Market, Rt 1 & Log Cabin Rd, Arundel, ME (Fridays)
298 W Front St, Skowhegan, ME (all other days)

If you’re looking for a special tool, please drop me an
email and let me know and I’ll restore one just for you!

SwiftWater Edge Tool Works provides mobile sharpening services across Maine and mail in services around the world for handsaws, carbide blades, planer knives, hand planes, chain saws, knives, scissors, hair clippers, router bits, and almost any blade!

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