How to Sharpen an Ax (in the Wild) in 6 Steps


Axe with logs in background

An ax is arguably the most critical tool you can have out in the wild, but it can also be the most useless if it’s not sharp. For some reason, there is a myth that an ax shouldn’t be razor-sharp, but anyone who has used an axe in their lifetime knows there is nothing worse than a dull ax. If you find yourself in the wild on a camping trip with a dull ax, you’ll want to shapen it.

So, here is how to sharpen an ax (in the wild) in 6 steps:

  1. Do an Inventory Check
  2. Inspect Your Ax Bevel
  3. Fasten Your Ax to Eliminate Movement
  4. Use a Heavy Duty Sharpener on Both Sides of the Ax Edge
  5. Use a Dual Grit Sharpener in Circular Motions to Further Sharpen the Ax
  6. Test and Use

This is a reliable method to sharpen your ax, but there are other ways you can take care of it while you’re in the wild. Read below to find out how to sharpen an ax in detail and what other methods you can use while you’re in the wild, all in 6 steps.

Sharpening Your Ax in the Wild

For the record, this isn’t something we promote or support. The absolute best way to sharpen your ax is at home in your garage, where you can fix and secure the shaft on a bench vice. This is the safest way for you to be able to fully sharpen it and track its progress effectively.

Now, if you’ve found yourself having to sharpen a dull axe in the middle of nowhere well, then there are a few ways you can go about it.

Sometimes you’ll know beforehand that your ax needs a touchup so you’ll bring equipment over. Other times it is in the spur of the moment that you have to sharpen your trusty ax. So for the purposes of this article, we will look at how to sharpen your ax in the wild in 6 steps in the following situations:

  1. Sharpening your ax with multiple tools
  2. With more limited tools
  3. With no tools at all

How to Sharpen Your Axe in the Wild with Multiple Tools in 6 Steps

The popular myth that you need to keep your ax or hatchet slightly dull because it is safer that way is just an ignorant statement. First of all, a dull ax is not going to cut through or stick in wood or any other object you are trying to cut. Instead, the head is going to bounce off and harm you or a bystander.

The best and safest practice is to have a sharp ax, able to cut through paper, placed in a leather case, or with a head-guard on.

Now, assuming you are in the wilderness and you want to cut through some wood to create a fire. A sharp ax is going to help you easily pick off dry wood on trees, create thin wood shreds to aid your kindle, and chop through more massive logs for a long-lasting fire.

You know it’s time to sharpen your axe, but you didn’t have time to do it back home with a bench vice, so now you want to attempt to sharpen the edge of your axe in the wild with limited tools.

1. Do an Inventory Check

The last thing you want is to show up to a campsite miles away from the nearest city only to find you have left the three most essential elements at home. Check to make sure you have:

  1. Your ax or hatchet
  2. A heavy-duty sharpener
  3. A dual grit sharpener

For the best result, you should employ the use of both a heavy-duty sharpener and a dual grit sharpener — more on those, the usage, and the specific models you can purchase later.

2. Inspect Your Axe Bevel

Before you start sharpening your ax, you should get a good understanding of how the bevel curves. You are primarily looking for any imperfections, sharp or heightened points, and flat areas.

You need to establish the curve and arch of your ax’s edge so that while sharpening, you move your file in a consistent direction with a fluid-like motion. Make a mental note of where the base of your bevel needs to be and imagine a curved laser that is going to cut a perfect upside-down frown against the very edge of your ax.

Make a note of any areas where you feel you will need to spend more time sharpening and pushing off unto the other side. Consistent sharpening on both sides will leave you with a perfect tip.

3. Fix Your Axe Against Something to Make Sure it Doesn’t Move Around

Now that you have a plan of attack, you can begin to sharpen your ax.

Again, at home, you would have a bench vice to secure your axon, but because you are in the wild, that is going to prove difficult. One effective way is to fix the shaft with your legs. If you have a long ax handle, as is the case with most log chopping axes, you can place the end-third between your hamstring and tightly hold it in place as the head rests on your upper thigh.

This is an acceptable way to secure the ax, but your leg may get tired from gripping the shaft in place as you apply pressure on the edge with your file.

A better way to fix your ax in one place is to set up a ground rig.

  1. Cut two or four wooden stakes, for a longer ax, go with four. Stakes should be slightly thicker than your thumb and around 10 inches long.
  2. Using a knife or the surface of a flat rock to slightly sharpen the tips of your stake, then utilizing the butt of your ax, hammer one stake into the ground.
  3. Place your ax against the stake with the edge upwards at an angle you want to sharpen it.
  4. Find a two-foot-long log as thick as your hand but noticeably smaller than your ax. Place the log against the shaft and fix it tightly in place so that the ax isn’t moving around.
  5. Using your other stake, fix the log in place. If you have a hatchet, two stakes should be more than enough, but for a longer ax, you may need up to four with two on each side.

This is an effective way to secure your ax before you start to sharpen it. If you figure out another safe method to fix your hatchet against your truck or between a tree, then go for it. Just make sure you are safe in the process. On the topic of safety, of course, it’s too much to ask in the wild, but you should have thick gloves and protective eye-wear.

4. Use a Heavy Duty Sharpener on Both Sides of the Axe Edge

Now you’re ready to sharpen your ax. Use a heavy-duty honing steel, like this one found on Amazon.

There are multiple sharpeners in the set you can use to sharpen your ax, and they all come with comfortable grips so your hand won’t get tired or torn while sharpening.

  1. To start, grab a long round sharpener/honer that looks like a metal rod. Start by getting rid of the major folds. Push the sharpener against the edge at the right angle. Don’t apply pressure as you pull back against the edge.
  2. With your preferred bevel angle in mind, move up and down the edge of the ax pushing firmly as you go down and releasing as you come back up. Apply pressure in smooth cycles and don’t deviate from one point while you sharpen. If you have to change the spot, do so at the next push, not during your current one.
  3. Check the opposite edge of the ax with your fingernails. You should feel a slight curve towards the edge. Remember the number of strokes you take on one side to repeat it on the other side for the best edge.
  4. Finally, if available, grab a half-round heavy-duty sharpening file and work the final imperfection on both sides of your ax edge. You can move the half-moon shaped file from side to side to get at all the minor details as you stroke away from the edge.

At this point, your ax is ready for use, but to get that refined edge, you can work at it some more with a dual grit sharpener.

5. Use a Dual Grit Sharpener in Circular Motions to Further Sharpen the Axe

Here is where it gets really fun. With a heavy-duty file, you have pretty much established a visible bevel, and the ax is ready to get that final polish. Using a dual grit sharpener, you can get all the details and finish off strong with a razor-sharp ax. We recommend getting the Puck by Lansky (Click link to see Amazon Listing). This is a phenomenal all-purpose sharpener, and you will see why in a second.

To use the puck start by:

  1. Using the coarse side of the puck, use small circular motions against the edge of the ax. You want to work from end to end, slowly moving around and making sure you maintain the already defined bevel. The trick is to go with the groove instead of working against the ax. You don’t want to be pushing down hard in some areas and lighter in others. This level of precision requires you to be gentle but firm enough to make a difference.
  2. Switch to the other side ad mirror the number of times you circled around the edge with a similar technique. The first few circles will feel awkward until you get the hang of things, so for the first minute or so, switch around both sides until you get into a rhythm and then apply yourself fully to one side then the other.
  3. It may take up to five edge to edge circular grind before you get rid of all the minor scratches and imperfections.
  4. After you’re done with both sides, flip the Puck over to the finer grit side and repeat the above process, checking the edge with your fingernails and gently going over the sides to make sure you get all the minor details. Keep in mind, at this point, your ax is going to be extremely sharp, so make sure you don’t cut yourself and wear protective gloves.

The puck is excellent when you’re out in the wild because it is portable, lightweight has dual grips, and is ergonomically fixed for your palm making it incredibly easy to work with.

6. Test and Use

Once you have removed all the tiny scratches left by the coarse side of the Puck or any dual-grit sharpener, you can test to make sure your ax is ready for use.

At this point, your ax should be sharp enough to easily slice through a piece of paper like a hot knife through butter. Seriously you can try it out! You must keep a leather guard around the edge for safety purposes.

It’s time to put that ax to work.

Now the best way to test an ax is to use it on a piece of wood or whatever it is you need to chop. Of course, this article is all about being in the wild and sharpening an ax while in the elements. So, here is how you sharpen an ax to stay in the true spirit of the outdoors.

How to Sharpen Your Axe in the Wild with Limited Tools in 6 Steps

Ok, so maybe you’re a little bit more hardcore and don’t want to bring a 16 piece sharpener case and a dual-grit file everywhere you go. No problem.

Here is what you need to sharpen an axe in the wild with just a few tools.

  • An 800 grit Japanese water-stone
  • A 1200 grit Japanese water-stone
  • A 6000 grit Japanese water-stone

Or, just get this all in one whetstone, which will do the job nicely.

It may seem like this process is over-complicated, but you really just need a nice set of Japanese water stones. Water-stone kits are excellent when used for sharpening kitchen knives, and they work just as well for axes.

These stones are easily transportable and safer to use than sharpening files.

Let’s find out how to sharpen your ax with three pieces of stone in just six steps.

1. Soak the Water Stones

As the name may suggest, there is water in the equation. Start by soaking all three of your Japanese water stones in water. You want them in for about five or ten minutes.

Soaking the stones will give you a nice surface to work on that is relatively friction-free, making it easy to sharpen your ax.

2. Secure the Water Stone

Next, you want to make sure your water stone is firmly fixed in place. Before you would secure your ax but now you want to fix the large stone and move the ax.

You could bring along a wooden or metal holder with rubber feet that locks the stone in place and fixes the entire tool on a flat surface, like the roof of your car, but we want to limit the number of devices we bring to the wild.

Instead, you can just fix the water stone on the ground by pounding it in a few times. The sludgy flat surface will make it easy to fix against the ground. Your stone must be nice and secure so that you can stay as safe as possible.

3. Start Forming the Bevel

Like before, you want to be able to have a rough idea of how to form your bevel and the edge of your ax. This is easier with less worn and slightly sharp axes and more difficult with thicker axes with a dull wide edge.

Start by using the coarse stone at 1000 grit. This process is best for hatchets and smaller axes.

  1. Grab your axes on its head with both hands. You should have one hand with three or four fingers on the top and the other on the side with one or two going in the direction of the ax itself. Keep the tips of your fingers at least an inch and a half away from the edge. You don’t want to catch a finger against the tip of your ax and the water stone. As you grab the shaft, your pinkies will naturally move off to the sides, and your thumbs will wrap against the backside, holding the ax in place.
  2. Place the ax at an angle against the stone, making sure your thumbs don’t touch the stone.
  3. In circular motions, if you start counter-clockwise, then keep it that way don’t switch halfway through, rub against the 1000 grit stone. Continue this process from one end of the ax to the other continuously and evenly forming a bevel.
  4. Make sure that you aren’t creating a flat bevel, instead focus on a convex tip, which is ideal for chopping wood. This technique is easier for bevel forming for beginners than the previous one with files and sharpeners.
  5. Switch over to the other side and continue to form your axe’s edge.

4. Sharpen

After you form a rough bevel and get rid of the significant imperfections, occasionally checking with your fingernail for curves and bumps.

This is where you really start to sharpen your ax. Repeat the process above until you are satisfied with your ax.

5. Give a Fine Edge

Once your ax is more or less sharp, you can move onto giving it that fine edge. Again, as before, your ax is ready to be used, but if you want to go above and beyond, then grab that ultra-fine 6000 grit Japanese water stone.

Grab your ax as you have before.

This time, instead of circular motions, you are going to go with the grain of the stone in a long straight forward motion. You don’t want to pull the ax towards you as you won’t be able to control the bevel. Instead lightly, in one concise motion, without placing any strain on the ax, allow the head of your tool to guide its way away from your body, giving it that final fine-tuned edge

6. Test and Use

Once again, your ax is razor-sharp and able to cut through paper. You are ready to use it properly.

How to Sharpen You Axe in the Wild with No Tools in 6 Steps

Ok, let’s get down to business now. So worst-case scenario you find yourself in the wilderness surrounded by the dangers of mother nature and your axe is so dull you have a hard time spreading butter. The worst part? You don’t have any equipment, just your ax and whatever you can find around you.

We never advise you to leave on a camping or outdoor trip with your ax if it isn’t sharp, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume this is the case. The question becomes, can you sharpen your ax with no tools? Well, you can!

These are the six steps you can follow if you need to sharpen your axe in the wild with absolutely no tools.

1. Find a Rock

Yep… That’s right. All you need is a rock. You can usually find large solid stones near rivers or lakes. You are primarily looking for a rock with the following qualities:

  • Medium-sized rock, as long as your foot and something that is at least 5 inches off the ground.
  • The bigger the rock, the better.
  • Look for something with a relatively flat top and bottom but with curved edges going around.
  • Avoid extremely smooth rocks. You want something with a little grit to it.

2. Secure the Stone in Place

After you find the perfect rock, you need to fix it on the ground. Grab the stone and slam or bash it into the ground a few times to get it nice and cozy in one spot.

Shake it around a few times to make sure it’s really in there. You could fix it in place with a few wooden stakes.

3. Define Your Bevel

Having no tools against a very flat and dull ax is a pain to deal with, but you can still define a bevel. Again this is one of the most critical parts of sharpening your ax.

Like with the Japanese water stone, you want to grab your ax with both hands. In fact, this method is very similar to the section right above this one, so go back to refresh your memory on how to hold your ax as you define your bevel.

You can’t really aim for perfection here, but you can get a working ax, which is more than you can ask for, given the circumstances.

4. Sharpen

Now, unlike the Japanese water stone technique, you don’t want to go in circles. Instead, you can quickly rub against the stone in a forward and backward motion. Using small strokes, quickly move your ax up and down pushing as you go out and let go as you pull back in.

Continue this method from one edge of the ax to the other all around the surface of your rock. Check the edge with your fingers occasionally and repeat the process on the other side.

5. Give a Fine Edge

Lastly, to get a bit more of an edge, you can grab a more smooth rock, one that fits in the palm of your hand, and using the same technique as with the dual-grit file, sharpen your ax a bit more to get that semi-fine edge.

6. Test and Use

While you can sharpen your ax with no tools, it isn’t going to be sharp enough to cut through paper as before. While the fingernail test could still work, the best thing to do is chop some wood and see how well your ax performs.

In general, you need to be very careful when it comes to sharpening an ax. Stick to using your bench vice and multiple files to sharpen your ax. Of course, if you need a way to sharpen an ax in the wild, you now have three different and unique ways to go about it.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of steps that go into properly sharpening or forming a functional ax head. However, it is doable with a variety of tools and circumstances out in the wild with the right knowledge and preparation.

Related Questions

Should an ax be razor-sharp? The sharper an ax is, the more efficient it will be in accomplishing its job. Razor-sharp axes will save a lot of physical effort to get its job done.

Is a maul or ax better for splitting wood? A splitting-ax and a splitting maul are both effective tools. The heavier splitting ax will be easier to use for more extended periods since the force transferred from the weight makes splitting wood easier.

Jim James

Jim James spent most of his childhood outdoors fishing on lakes in his area. Due to his scouting background, he has always been interested in survival, camping, and the outdoors in general. Jim is a best-selling author and has a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. He lives with his family in Charlotte, NC.

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