One of the most important tools you may need if you decide to live off-grid or when SHTF is the ever-reliable ax. A tool that has been used for approximately 1.5 million years by our ancestors, the ax has gone through quite a few improvements, such as the addition of an actual handle and production of better ax heads, thanks to better metallurgy and forging techniques. Sharpening methods have also improved to ensure axes have a longer service life.
In this article, we show you the proper way to restore the more traditional sort of ax our pioneer ancestors used, whether by cleaning and sharpening the head or replacing the handle.
There is some debate in the prepper community as to which is better. You’d think it’s a matter of preference, but it really depends on the application.
A machete is more suited to a tropical environment, as you’ll be using it to clear paths, break open coconuts or cut and trim bamboo for different uses. An ax is more suited to temperate areas where thick-trunked trees are abundant; an ax can be used in the tropics to chop down trees as well. A machete is more suited to cutting a path through dense vegetation, whereas an ax is more intended for heavy-duty chopping, as in the felling of trees or chopping firewood.
Restoring the Ax Head
To make the ax head usable again, it’s often just a matter of removing rust and accumulated debris. You’ll need:
- Plastic tub or similar container
- Electric sander or fine-grit sandpaper
- Protective gloves and goggles
- Steel wool
- Steel file
To restore a rust or grit-encrusted ax, follow these steps:
1. Immerse the ax head in vinegar and let it stand for 24 hours. It may not be necessary to separate the ax head from its handle, so try to immerse only the head unless you don’t mind the handle getting discolored.
2. After 24 hours, drain and wipe the vinegar from the ax head.
3. Scrape off any rust with fine-grit sandpaper or an electric sander. You can alternate this with steel wool to get rid of the most stubborn rust and dirt.
4. Wear protective gloves before performing this step as you can get a nasty cut. Clamp the ax head in a vice, edge facing up. Using a heavy-duty steel file, lay the file against the angle of the edge (usually between 20-30 degrees). Make several passes on each side of the edge with slow but firm downward strokes. Do this to remove any burrs or nicks on the cutting surfaces.
5. As the cutting edges become smoother and shinier, switch to a finer file or coarse whetstone. Perform the same downward strokes and at the same angle. OPTIONAL: If you have power tools, you can use an electric sander to smoothen and polish the ax head before sharpening.
6. Finally, switch to a medium-coarse whetstone. This time, use a different stroke in honing the edge. Stroke the edge with the stone starting from the upper corner of the blade (toe) to the lower corner (heel – see ax diagram).
Repeat this step until you feel that the edge is sharp enough.
Replacing the Handle
The ax handle, also called the haft, can deteriorate with age and heavy use, or even rot away if made of wood. If the handle is made with hickory, then it’s more likely to rot since hickory is susceptible to a certain type of fungus.
Replacing the ax handle or haft isn’t as difficult as it seems. Anyone with decent woodworking skills, the right tools and elbow grease can do it. To remove the old handle and affix a new one, you will need:
- A vice
- Drill with 2.0 mm drill bit
- Hammer and chisel
- Electric sander or sandpaper, coarse and fine-grit
- Store-bought ax handle made of hickory or ash wood; must be unvarnished, at least 18 inches in length
- Hand saw
- Protective goggles
- Rubber gloves
- Can of linseed oil
- Metal punch (optional)
Removing the Old Handle
If the ax head you have is an old one and still has its old handle that needs to be replaced, perform these steps:
- Clamp the ax head securely in a vice.
- From the eye of the ax head, drill holes in the handle. About 2 to 3 large holes will suffice; use a larger drill bit (at least 2.0 mm) to drill out the old handle more easily.
- Using a chisel, gouge out the remaining wood in the eye until the handle comes off.
- Gouge out any remaining wood or debris in the eye with the chisel.
- Using an appropriate power tool or just your hands and fine sandpaper, smooth out any burrs or uneven surfaces in the eye.
Installing a New Handle
You can make your own ax handle, but you’ll need the right tools and more advanced woodworking skills. For this guide, we’ll be using a store-bought handle. When buying a handle, make sure that the shaft is slightly wider than the eye. Choose a handle that’s made of hickory or ash wood, and without any finish; a varnished handle can give you blisters.
To put a new handle into an ax head, perform these steps:
1. Position the ax head on the top of the handle, ensuring that it is aligned with the bend of the haft, then trace the shape of the eye on the top of the handle with a pencil. This will show exactly at which area and how well the eye will fit on the handle.
2. Use a rasp to trim off the excess wood on the handle from the tracing of the eye. Remove just enough wood such that you can push the ax head into the shaft. Use coarse sandpaper to smoothen the wood further, taking care not to overdo this; the haft must be slightly wider but still forcible through the eye. Ideally, the ax head shouldn’t allow more than an inch of the handle to go into it at this stage.
3. Clamp the ax head upside-down in a vice, then push the handle through the eye. Drive the handle through the ax head by pounding on the bottom of the handle (knob) with a mallet
4. Push the handle a little past the point where the handle would be flush with the ax head, by about 5-10 millimeters.
5. Reverse the position of the ax, with the handle clamped tightly in the vice, just below the ax head. Usually a store-bought handle comes with wedges, one large wood wedge and two small metal ones. There’s also a “kerf cut” in the handle, a cut that splits the handle down the middle from the top.
6. Test-fit the wood wedge into the kerf cut. If the wedge is a little too wide, sand it down for a better fit. Once a good fit has been made, apply some wood glue on either side of the bottom half of the wooden wedge.
7. Insert and center the wedge into the kerf cut and hammer it into place. Hammer it in as far as it will go.
8. Once the wooden wedge is seated, use a hand saw to cut off the excess wood protruding from the eye. Some woodcutters cut off all the excess wood and some choose to leave about 1/8 of an inch of the wedge protruding above the surface of the handle. Do as you prefer. Some woodcutters say having a bit of wood protruding confers more hold on the ax head, but this is unproven.
9. As for the two metal wedges, start by positioning one over the wood wedge; place it at an angle of 60 or 90 degrees so it will enter the handle on both sides of the wooden wedge, roughly 1/3 of the way from the rear portion of the wooden wedge, then hammer it in. Position the second metal wedge at the same angle as the first, but this time 1/3 of the way from the front of the wooden wedge, then hammer it in.
OPTIONAL: For more reinforcement, use a punch and the mallet or a hammer to drive each metal wedge a little bit farther into the handle.
10. Take a 180-grit piece of sandpaper and sand down the entire length of the handle. This will prep the handle for treatment.
11. Get a can of boiled linseed oil, wear rubber gloves and dip your fingers into the oil; apply the oil liberally on the handle with your gloved hands. Once you’ve applied one coat, let it dry for 15 minutes. After that, apply another coat, wait another 15 minutes then apply a final coat. Remember to apply linseed oil also on the wood in the eye of the ax head.
Proper Use, Storage and Technique
To ensure that the ax lasts longer, proper technique, storage and of course safety measures when chopping wood are important.
Take note of these tips when using your ax:
- Never use the ax for other than its intended function; i.e. never use it as a hammer.
- Never use a hammer to drive an ax through firewood; this can distort the seating of the handle and eventually cause it to come off.
- Use a chopping block such as a level tree stump or similar surface that is large and stable enough to handle the impact of your ax.
- Use the ax safely away from other people and pets.
- Always handle the ax with a firm grip; don’t use it if your hands are wet or sweaty.
- Never leave an ax lying on the ground; store it properly in a sheath or “bury” the edge in a log.
- If you won’t use the ax for a long time, oil the ax head before storage.
- Never store the ax in an area that’s prone to moisture; mold can set in and rot the wood handle.
Despite the availability of more complex axes made entirely of steel and a mix of modern materials, a trusty old-school ax like our forefathers used still has a place in any prepper’s toolshed. Just like Dutch ovens, wood-handled axes are reliable, easy to use, maintain, store and restore. Don’t write off this useful tool as it can chop firewood and fell trees for making a shelter in better time than a machete, or if you don’t have a chainsaw. Also, never attempt to “repair” a damaged, cracked, split or even a partially-rotted ax handle. No amount of duct tape, epoxy or similar adhesive will ever do to make an ax both functional and safe to use; there is no safer measure other than completely replacing the handle.
The only drawbacks to an ax are that they’re not the best weapon if you need one in an emergency, and they’re not often suitable for more precise cutting work. Still, the ax is a tool you should keep as part of your survival kit; after all, our forefathers didn’t go wrong with it.