Classic Man: "Keeping An Axe Blade Sharp Requires Careful Maintenance"

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Frequently in this space, we will consult a different entry in the 1987 book The Modern Man’s Guide to Life to see how the advice therein has aged. Last week, we discussed bear alarms; today, we’re talking about sharpening an axe.

The very first piece of advice in The Modern Man’s Guide To Life is about how to sharpen an axe. It’s fitting, because it seems like something a real man’s man would absolutely need to know.


Your axe shouldn’t just sit in your garage with your hoe and rake and rusting lawnmower. It needs love:

The blade of an axe should not just chew up the wood it strikes. Rather, it should be able to deliver a clean, even cut, Keeping an axe blade sharp, however, requires careful maintenance—and, especially, regular honing with a whetstone, coupled with occasional filings to remove nicks along the blade’s edge.


Don’t take the easy way out. You’ll need to put in work:

To file an axe, lean it against a log with the edge of the head facing upward. Place the file along the edge and push it down hard. File the entire bit with long, even strokes from toe to heel. Keep the file in light contact with the blade on the return strokes. After you have brightened the entire length of the bit, turn it over and do the other side. Always follow filing with honing.


What the hell is “honing”? Read on:

To hone an axe blade, hold its head in such a way that the handle points up and slightly away from you (see illustration), and stroke the dry stone over the edge of the blade from heel (or bottom) to toe (or top). Then rotate the axe until the handle is turned down and hone the other side from toe to heel. A well-sharpened axe blade will never show up as a bright line when you look directly at it, so don’t be discouraged by appearances.


A primer on axe sharpening happens to be just the kind of thing this book actually gets right. It helps that the axe has existed since the Stone Age, and although it now usually has an iron or steel blade, it’s pretty much the same tool that it has always been. But if this brief overview is not enough for you, please refer to this 1999 text An Ax to Grind: A Practical Ax Manual by retired U.S. Forest Service historical specialist (an axe expert) Bernie Weisgerber for your detailed axe needs. It’s 68 pages long and it has pictures and room for notes! There’s also an hour-long video.

Finally, all your questions about sharpening axes, answered! This skill will no doubt come in handy one day, should you find yourself needing to chop some wood or, you know, magically wake up in the year 1870.


Top image from YouTube; Illustration from Modern Man’s Guide To Life

Adequate Man is Deadspin’s new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.