When you spend enough time prepping, you will find that many common hand tools we take for granted today take on new life when considering them in the context of a survival situation.
Owing to the importance of building and maintaining a fire in order to stay warm and stave off the threat of exposure, not to mention cook food and boil water, tools that can help us efficiently process wood will be high up on our list of important preps. Perhaps none have more pride of place than the humble hatchet.
Like its larger cousin the axe, the hatchet is one chopping tool that is incredibly versatile and optimized for the task at hand.
From felling small trees and limbing branches to splitting the hard-won firewood of your efforts, the hatchet can handle it, and do it with a size format that is compact enough to make it attractive for travel or inclusion in your bug-out bag.
But to be used to best effect, and safely, your hatchet must be kept sharp, and that means you’ll need to sharpen it periodically.
Whether this is after a practice session, a round of chores on your property or after a lengthy time gathering wood, you’ll need to keep your hatchet sharp so it can do the job.
A dull hatchet will only wear you out, waste your time, and set you up for serious self-inflicted injury. In this article we will provide you six proven ways to effectively sharpen your hatchet.
Power vs. Manual Methods
You’ll find there are many ways to sharpen a hatchet, and other chopping tools. You probably know one or two ways to accomplish this yourself.
Among all the varied methods, we can group them into two broad categories. Manual, or hand sharpening methods and power sharpening methods, ones that require a power tool of some sort.
I can make a case that you should learn to use at least one method from each group, and as you will learn throughout this article they both have pros and cons.
But there is one special factor that remains universal to the employment of power to sharpening methods, and that is heat buildup in your workpiece.
Any powered sharpening method creates tremendous friction, and that friction will result in the steelhead of your hatchet getting hotter and hotter as you continue to sharpen.
If you aren’t paying attention, or distracted by other things on your mind, it is actually possible to heat up the head of the hatchet so much that you affect the temper and potentially even ruin your hatchet. This is the last thing you want to be dealing with in the middle of a survival scenario.
Luckily, it is easy to deal with heat accumulation.
When using a power tool for sharpening, stop periodically and allow the head to cool down, or if you have a convenient container or body of water nearby dip the head of the hatchet into the water to cool it off rapidly before continuing. That is all it takes to beat heat buildup!
Sharpening a hatchet via a file is one of the most effective and the most common methods around. The efficacy of this method is limited only by your selection of files and your skill.
The main advantage to hand filing is that it can be done anywhere, even out in the field away from your bench, so long as you have a good grip and a reasonable way to brace your hatchet.
Some users effectively file their hatchets to restore a working edge by holding it in their free hand, clamping it between their knees or just decking it on a convenient rock or tree stump.
To sharpen your hatchet with a file, all it is required is pushing or pulling the file in a cutting action along the edge, paying careful attention to match the same angle of the bevel.
Depending on the aggressiveness of the file, how much force you use and the state of your hatchet’s edge this could require anywhere from a half-dozen to 24 strokes on one side before flipping it over and repeating the process on the opposite side.
It is helpful to clean the metal bits and shavings out of the file’s teeth periodically before continuing.
As with most hand sharpening methods heat buildup is minimal to negligible, and most files will afford you great feel and control over the process, though you will need a fairly specialized file to put a truly sharp edge on your hatchet.
Not everyone learned how to properly sharpen an edged implement freehand, and even people who have aren’t necessarily great at it.
If you want to save time and frustration, a purpose-made sharpening system, or sharpener, is often the way to go. You have doubtlessly seen a plethora of such systems for sale, and available in every configuration you can think of, and many you cannot.
There are powered varieties and manual varieties, some simple and some complex, that can sharpen a wide array of cutting tools, including hatchets and axes.
Comprehensive systems like the WorkSharp combine the speed and efficiency of power sharpening with error-free alignment guides to take the guesswork and expertise out of putting a shockingly good edge on any tool.
But, as always, it is critical that you are able to align your tool with the sharpening surface correctly prior to beginning. This can be challenging when working with a heavy, chunky tool like the head of a hatchet compared to a pocket or kitchen knife.
The best advice I can give you for using any sharpening system for your hatchet is to work in small steps, or increments, checking for improvement as you go.
If you aren’t detecting any noticeable improvement with the way you have the sharpener currently configured, don’t keep going. Instead, assess, make adjustments and then try again before checking for further improvement.
And, as always if you are using a powered sharpening system, take care to manage heat buildup in your hatchet head.
Whetstones are the most time tested and ancient method for sharpening any edged tool, and many of us doubtless learned to first sharpen our pocket knives by learning on granddad’s whetstone atop his workbench.
Whetstones can work just as well for sharpening your prized hatchet, but they do come with a few drawbacks, namely that you’ll need to use a stone far, far more coarse than a typical course whetstone you would use for repairing the edge of your favorite pocket knife.
The reason why is that hatchets and axes typically have edges that are not super sharp, as they are wide, chunky and designed to stand up to abuse.
Most whetstones remove a comparatively pitiful amount of steel with each pass and this means you’ll be wailing away on the whetstone practically forever trying to restore the profile of your hatchets bevel or edge.
On the other hand, assuming you are just touching up a working edge, or are trying to put on a legitimately sharp edge, whetstones can do it. Progressing through finer and finer grades of stone will eventually produce a hair-popping edge on your hatchet.
Angle or Bench Grinder
Grinders suitable for sharpening hatchets are available in many form factors. Those of us who have experience in automotive work or construction probably have an angle grinder clunking around in one of their toolboxes.
Any well-equipped garage workshop has a bench top grinding wheel. Both will work, but both require focus and a steady hand because this is potentially the tool most likely to ruin your hatchet if you aren’t cautious.
This is because these tools, whatever disc they are equipped with, typically remove a considerable amount of material very quickly.
That being said, they are just the thing when you are working on a badly mauled edge, able to flatten out nicks and gouges, and rapidly reprofile to get the edge ready for finer sharpening.
The trick to making any grinder work for you is to use the lightest possible touch with as fine a grit as you can come up with. You shouldn’t be using any aggressive cut off disc or anything like that.
As with the other sharpening methods shared in this article, make the same number of back and forth passes along the edge before doing the same on the other side in order to keep the edge even.
And take care! More than most tools grinders will impart a terrific amount of heat, and this can quickly ruin the temper of an otherwise salvageable hatchet. Use the lightest touch, go slow, and give your hatchet time to cool between passes or quench it if you are able.
The Dremel tool, or any other brand of rotary tool, is certainly the nimblest and easiest to use of the powered sharpening methods on this list, but it is also the one that will demand the most from the user if you don’t want to waste time and needlessly remove material from your hatchet’s head.
The name of the game with these tools is speed, and most of them have RPMs measured in the tens of thousands, meaning a moment’s inattention or a single slip could see you putting an unsightly gouge in your edge.
On the other hand, they are light, easy to handle, and generally easy to control so long as you maintain a good grip on them. Some even have attachable angle guides that might help with your task.
Because these tools rotate so quickly even comparatively mild abrasive attachments could remove a shocking amount of material and quickly if you aren’t careful.
The best bet is to use the slowest speed that will still do the job, and use an attachment milder than common sandpaper, such as aluminum oxide impregnated polishing or grinding stones.
You might think you don’t have to worry about heat on account of the small size of this tool, but you should know that it will impart a dramatic amount of heat into a small surface area, potentially causing problems for your temper as with any other power tool.
Now as always, be patient, pay attention and cool off your work piece!
The belt sander is a favorite for sharpening hatchets among those in the know. Fast, efficient, and consistent, the belt sander gives you all the advantages you need whether you are using a handheld model or a bench top model.
One potential drawback is that you will really need to clamp your hatchet into a secure fixture if you are using a handheld belt sander, as you’ll need both hands to wrangle this unruly beast.
Despite the requirement for a third hand, the wide, rapidly rotating belt will process the edge of your hatchet evenly and quickly, allowing you to restore a bevel or put a preliminary edge on the hatchet in very little time.
Considering that they work across a larger surface area than the other tools on this list, you must pay special attention to the number of passes you make on each side of the edge if you want to keep it even.
Like the other larger, beefier tools mentioned don’t brute force this one as all you’ll do is create more heat buildup and chew through even more material than is necessary to produce a working edge.
Use light, consistent pressure, and perform the same number of identical strokes at the same tempo on either side of the edge to ensure good results.
A trusty hatchet is one of the best tools to have in the field during a survival situation. For processing firewood and various other chopping tasks hatchets are portable, lightweight and definitely effective, but they will only be as effective as their age is.
A dull hatchet is a dangerous time-waster, whereas a sharp hatchet is far safer and a pleasure to use. Stay on top of maintaining your hatchet’s edge using any of the methods shared with you above.