There is hardly a better tool for fieldcraft in a woodland environment than an axe. So varied and so multi-purpose is this tool that you are likely to use it for pretty much everything. Unfortunately, axes can do relatively quickly, and continuing to work and work and work with a dull axe will likely lead to fatigue and then an accident in short order.
Periodically sharpening your axe will make your life easier by all accounts, but a sharpening kit is something that is easily lost or forgotten when heading out into the woods.
Some survivalist types maintain that you can actually sharpen an axe with a suitable rock you find lying on the ground. Is this really possible, can you sharpen an axe with a rock?
Yes, it is entirely possible to sharpen an axe using a common rock so long as the rock is of sufficient hardness to remove metal from the edge of the axe.
Depending on the region where you live or work, there is likely to be a variety of such stones to be found, and so long as you can identify them correctly and find one with a suitable shape, it is entirely possible to employ it with typical sharpening techniques to restore the working edge of an axe.
As you might imagine this is a great technique for any prepper’s survival toolbox, and an excellent fieldcraft skill in general for anybody. Keep reading to learn more.
Most Sharpeners are Actually Rock
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It is a bit surprising to learn how many people feel like they are just out of luck if they left their favorite sharpening system at home, lost it or have otherwise gone without it.
Whether you prefer a high-speed, high performance system like the WorkSharp powered grinder or a guided, can’t-miss manual sharpener like the Spyderco Tri-Angle Sharpmaker, it is easy to lose touch with the old ways that got us to this lofty perch we enjoy today.
For the majority of human history, rocks of one sort or another were what was used to sharpen steel tools.
It didn’t take too awful much experimentation to learn that some rocks sharpened better than others, and then rocks of a particular shape, size and other characteristics in conjunction with good technique which sharpen better than everything else.
Before long, these particular rocks were being harvested, shaped and sold or marketed intended for use specifically as sharpening implements for bladed tools.
In fact, quite a few sharpening stones and inserts in various systems remain natural stone today.
You don’t have to have a diamond grit home, powered sandpaper pulley contraption, or any other modern contrivance to put a good, working edge on your favorite, trusty tool. Don’t get me wrong, all of that stuff is good to have, but not genuinely essential.
With nothing more than some careful searching and a keen eye, along with the correct technique you can spruce up your axe in no time.
A Natural Stone Won’t Help an Abused Axe
Before we go any further, you should keep in mind that this is a sharpening technique just like any other, and there is a big difference between simple sharpening and properly reconditioning a battered axe.
An axe that is capable of being sharpened meaningfully using the techniques we will go over below, with any stone, is one that is still in good shape, and it only dulled from mild neglect or a good day of use.
An abused, beat down axe that has a badly rolled, gouged or chipped edge, or one that is covered with significant deposits of rust, will not be helped by the techniques I’m about to share with you.
An axe that falls into the latter category will need some serious TLC to even be restored to a condition where it can accept a working edge, to say nothing of a seriously sharp edge.
It will need to be reprofiled with a grinder or file, have the rust deposits removed, and then finally have a proper edge restored.
You Can Find a Proper Sharpening Stone in the Wild
No matter where you are in the world and what sort of region you live in you should take heart that there will be at least a handful of stones suitable for use… If you know where to look! Check the list of stones below for good candidates.
Sandstone: sandstone is easily sourced in many regions, comes in a wide variety of consistencies and is easy to shape, or break, if you need to resize it to better fit your needs. Take care with the most of course sandstones since they could leave grooves in your edge.
River Rocks: smooth, round or oval shaped river rocks are in many ways the ideal natural sharpening stone. Easy to handle, easy to align and plentiful in most places with just a little searching and experimentation you can probably find one that works nearly as well as your sharpener you left back at home.
Granite: granite is another quality option for sharpening in the field and many varieties work analogously to a typical course stone found in commercially sold kits.
Quartz: quartz is a great, natural counterpart to granite, and works much like a fine or very fine stone in a sharpening kit. Finding a piece large enough to do the job may be challenging, and it can be very difficult to extract it without breaking it, but the results are usually worth it.
Good Characteristics: no matter what kind of rock is available to you, or what you are looking for specifically, try to choose a rock that is appropriately sized and shaped to make the job easy and efficient.
Preferably the rock will be thick enough to afford you some standoff from the blade so you don’t endanger your fingers. Additionally, a flat or nearly flat side for sharpening backed up by a round or domed side for gripping is ideal.
Proper Technique is Essential
Now that you have found your stone, it is time to get down to the business of sharpening. You’ll perform this task much the same as you would using any handheld sharpener, only you will likely be doing it without the benefit of your workbench.
To begin, look for a suitable workplace that will allow you to deck or otherwise hold the axe head to improve stability.
A large log, boulder or even a tall tree stump works fine. It is possible to perform the sharpening operation totally in hand, but significantly more difficult as it reduces repeatability.
Next, put on a glove with the hand you’ll be using to hold the stone if you have one. If you don’t, take great care to keep your fingers well back from the contact point between the stone and the edge just to be sure.
All you need to do now is stroke the stone across the edge moving from the edge back towards the pole of the axe head or the opposite bit in the case of a double bit axe.
Depending on the condition of the edge and the coarseness of your stone you might need to give your edge anywhere from 20 to 50 passes before flipping it over and repeating the process.
Make it a point to maintain the same pressure and follow the same pattern to ensure uniformity of the edge.
The angle you should maintain when sharpening is always a subject of consternation and debate among users, but for an axe that is seeing heavy use in the field an angle of between 20° and 30° is likely ideal.
Repeat this process several times and your axe should be back in splitting shape and no time!
One thing you might try if you aren’t having any success is repeating the process as above only instead of using a stroke in one direction with your stone you should instead make small swirls or circles back and forth across the edge on one side before doing the other as before.
Some experts maintain that this particular technique helps to reduce the margin of user error and sharpening, and smooth out any irregularities or deformities in the edge.
Sharpening an axe with a common rock is no urban legend, and is actually a technique that has been used for a very, very long time.
Understanding good manual sharpening technique and choosing a rock that is appropriate to the task of sharpening is essential for success. A little bit of homework and practice will yield dividends.