Sharp-edged cutting tools each have their own purpose, and the sharp edge will have a geometry to it that is suitable for the purpose of the tool. This is why a sushi knife cannot be an axe, and an axe cannot be a sushi knife. Each one has an edge that is designed around the purpose of the tool. With this in mind, can an axe be too sharp, and if so, how much is too much?
An axe can be too sharp. If you try to sharpen the axe too much and reduce the angle of the bevel, then the edge will become too thin and weak. This reduces the mass of the steel behind the edge, which will weaken it and make it prone to chipping, breaking, or becoming rolled over.
An axe needs to have a robust edge that will withstand the edge being slammed into wood over and over again with minimal deformation of the edge. The way that this is achieved is by shaping the cutting edge of the axe to produce both sharpness and strength. The level of sharpness needed on your axe edge should be appropriate to the tasks you use the axe for.
So whether you spell it “axe” or “ax,” let’s talk about keeping axes sharp and ready for work around the homestead.
What Are You Using Your Axe For?
Different axes have different applications and a corresponding difference in the edge geometry. For example, a splitting axe does not need to have a razor-sharp edge. The edge needs to be sharp, but taking the edge to shaving-sharp would be wasted effort and removing an unnecessary amount of steel from the edge of the axe.
There are a few different varieties of axes, each with a different intended purpose and different sharpness requirements.
- Splitting axe. As we have mentioned, a splitting axe will benefit from a sharp edge, but it offers n benefit for the edge to be overly sharp. This is because the axe is cutting in the same plane as the grain of the wood rather than across the grain. The bevel on the edge of a splitting axe is also more convex than on other axe types to split and push the wood fibers apart.
- A felling axe. An axe that is used to fell trees has a different action and purpose to a splitting axe. A felling axe cuts across the grain of the wood, which requires less of a convex bevel on the axe and a much sharper edge.
- A camping axe. This is a shorter handles axe that is multi-purpose in that it is used to fell small trees, trim branches from logs, and also split smaller logs for campfires. This type of axe needs a moderately convex bevel as well as a sharp edge. The “V” to the sharp edge must not be too flat as this will promote the axe getting stuck in the wood when splitting wood. The edge also needs to be sharp enough to cut cross-grain on smaller trees and branches.
- Bushcraft axe. This is the type of axe that you would carry on your belt in the wilderness. These axes generally have shorter handles and will not be used for any sort of heavy-duty felling work. A bushcraft axe will have relatively less of a convex bevel, and the edge would have a much tighter, steeper angle to the “V” of the edge. This means that the edge on these axes can be taken to a very sharp state. The bushcraft axe is primarily used for light trimming work, processing smaller firewood, and even as a skinner for skinning an animal that you have hunted.
As you can see from the types of axes that we have mentioned, each type of axe has a different edge requirement. Now that we have established this understanding, is it possible to make your axe too sharp?
Can Your Axe Be Too Sharp?
In general, You can take your axe to whatever sharpness level you need it to be, but it is possible to over-sharpen an axe. But we need to justify this statement by defining sharp in terms of an axe.
Your axe cannot be too sharp as long as the correct angle of the bevel of the axe is not compromised. If you steepen the angle of the bevel, then the axe can be over-sharpened.
A splitting axe must not be dull but should be sharp. It is not necessary for it to be hair-splitting sharp, but will taking the axe edge to this sharpness level be a problem? It will not be a problem taking a splitting axe to this level of sharpness as long as the convex nature of the bevel is maintained.
The convex shape is necessary for the proper functioning of this type of axe, and it will probably be the limiting factor of how sharp you can get this axe edge.
A felling axe has less of a convex grind on the bevel and more of a traditional “V” shape to the bevel. As long as this angle is maintained during the sharpening process, it is not possible to make the axe too sharp. The angle of the bevel will prevent you from making the edge too thin as long as you do not change the angle of the bevel.
Camping axes and bushcraft axes have a flatter grind to the bevel than the other two axe types because they have smaller heads and are used for less heavy-duty work. These axes can potentially be sharper than the splitting and felling axes because of the smaller mass in the head of the axe.
However, you should still maintain the angle of the bevel when sharpening these axes to maintain strength in the sharp edge.
What Is Too Much When Sharpening An Axe?
When sharpening an axe, you want to keep the original bevels that have been ground into the blade of the axe. If you grind the bevel flatter, in other words, take the start line of the bevel higher up the blade, it will compromise the strength of the edge of your axe.
Flattening out the bevel will make the axe sharper because the edge geometry will more closely resemble that of a knife. But this action is counter-productive because while it will thin out the edge so that it will become sharper, it also reduces the mass of the steel that is behind the sharp edge.
This has the effect of weakening the sharp edge of the axe and will make it susceptible to rolling over and becoming dull, as well as chipping and cracking when it is struck against the wood it is intended to cut.
An edge that is this thin may be appropriate for a knife, but it is not strong enough for the purposes for which an axe is designed.
For this reason, it is of paramount importance to maintain the original bevel height and angle on the edge of the axe. If you stick to this rule, it is impossible to make your axe too sharp and weaken the edge.
The mistake of over-sharpening an axe is often made by beginner axe owners who do not understand the geometry of the edge that is needed for the axe to perform as an axe rather than a knife.
This does not imply that your axe cannot be sharp. It is still possible to take your axe to the level of sharpness that it will shave the hair off your arm and easily slice through thin paper without compromising the angle of the bevel.
Final Thoughts on Sharpening Axes
An ax needs to have a sharp but robust edge to handle the abuse that generally is synonymous with swinging an axe and slamming it into the wood.
For an axe to be able to handle this type of work, the edge cannot be too thin. This is why the bevels on an axe edge are more obtuse than on most other edged tools. If you sharpen the edge too much by taking the bevels higher up on the axe blade, you will weaken the cutting edge of the axe, and the edge will not be able to withstand the stress of normal axe work.
If you stick to the bevel angles while sharpening your axe, you can still achieve an extremely sharp edge without compromising the strength of the edge of the axe. Sticking to these bevel angles will be the guideline to prevent you from over-sharpening your axe.
It’s important to learn from your own experience, but it’s also smart to also learn from others. These are the sources used in this article and in our personal research to be more informed as homesteaders. 🙂
- “Axe…How Sharp?” BladeForums.com, www.bladeforums.com/threads/axe-how-sharp.1251270/.
- How Sharp Should an Axe Be? www.quora.com/How-sharp-should-an-axe-be?share=1.
- “How Sharp Should Your Axe Be?” Rocky Mountain Bushcraft, rockymountainbushcraft.blogspot.com/2012/08/how-sharp-should-axe-be.html.