We have all been in that old, familiar situation before: You are out in the field, maybe on a job, maybe on a recreational endeavor, and you are missing that one tool you need to perform some task.
One of the worst tools to forget if you are out camping or working in the woods with an axe is your sharpening stone. A dull axe is dangerous and makes work harder, and it’s a great idea to touch it up regularly while you work. Some of the old timers have asserted that it is possible to sharpen your axe in the field using nothing more than a rock; is it true?
Yes, it is entirely possible to meaningfully sharpen an axe with a rock, if you have the right kind of rock and use good technique. The only thing required to sharpen any steel tool is a material capable of abrading / removing said steel. All kinds of stones have historically been used for the purpose, and you can get these stones in the wild for the same task.
As it turns out, this is a job that is both easier and more nuanced than you might be expecting. At any rate, this is a great skill for any prepper or camper to know, and a fine inclusion to your “cool uncle” or “cool aunt” bag of tricks. Keep reading to learn about the fine or details of sharpening an axe with a rock.
Anything that can Remove Metal can Sharpen
Before you doubt the efficacy of this trick, I would remind you that all that is required to sharpen any bladed implement is a surface that is capable of abrading, or removing, metal from the edge.
Obviously, there are many more variables and characteristics than that when it comes to picking out an effective and efficient sharpener, but that is the prime consideration.
Keep in mind that sharpening stones were exactly what they say they are for millennia: stones, rocks!
It was very recent in human history before we could make use of powered grinding and sharpening machines, diamond particulate homes, industrial synthetic sapphire, and all the other wondrous sharpeners that we enjoy today.
For the longest time, if you wanted to sharpen an edged tool you needed a suitable stone for the purpose, and many people still prefer natural stones for their sharpening characteristics today.
And though the variety and type of stone that is available in any region or biome varies based on location, topography and the prevailing geological characteristics, it is all but certain there will be at least one or two types of stone suitable for giving your axe a nice field touch-up.
Finding the Right Rock
All you need to do is find the right rock for the purpose, sometimes easier said than done.
If you are the kind of person who commonly makes use of edged tools in your line of work or just once a hedge against loss and better overall readiness in case of emergency you would be wise to learn what kinds of rock that work for sharpening are common in your region and where is easiest to acquire them.
Consult the short list below for some common rocks that will take care of sharpening duty:
Granite – Granite is a relatively common rock that is easy to find and mountainous regions. Granite makes for a nice “coarse” stone capable of removing a lot of metal quickly.
Quartz – Quartz is another common stone that makes a great compliment to granite because it will remove less metal per pass on average then will granite, serving as an excellent fine finishing stone.
Sandstone – Sandstone is plentiful, easy to access, and easy to shape when required and comes in a wonderful variety of types, or for our purposes grain and grit. Particularly coarse sandstones should be used with discretion because they may be too rough to produce even a working edge.
River stones – The old timers know that smooth, flat bottomed river stones are among the very best for field expedient sharpening. Easy to handle, efficient and effective, these make an excellent replacement for a dedicated sharpener.
Whichever stone you choose, or come across, try to procure one that has as flat a surface as possible, at least on one side.
This will be the side you actually place in contact with the edge of your axe and it will afford you the best possible results and the best control. If you can find a stone that has a rounded or domed side opposite this or otherwise provides you a safe, secure grip so much the better.
Now that we have our stone in hand it is time to get to sharpening.
Field Expedient Sharpening Procedure
With our axe in need of sharpening it is time to get to work. First things first, I’d recommend you protect your hand that is going to be holding the sharpening stone since you will be moving at the stone across the edge of the axe, not the other way around.
Don’t get complacent just because you think your axe edge is dull and you won’t cut yourself. I have a friend who is missing a significant chunk of his thumb because he got careless during this operation!
If you are able to find a convenient flat surface that you can brace the axe head against, something like a stump, heavy log or anything else, then use that to gain stability.
If not, all you can do is choke up on the axe so that you are gripping the axe head with your non-dominant hand and holding your sharpening stone and your dominant hand.
Since you will likely not have access to a proper bench and vise or clamps for the purpose you might have to experiment with different positions and postures to find one that will afford you the best control and consistency.
Once you are set, simply run your sharpening stone across the edge of the axe towards the back in a filing motion. You should be aiming for a 20° to 30° angle on either side.
Give the edge approximately 20 to 50 strokes on one side before flipping the axe over and repeating the process on the other side of the edge.
Try to be as consistent as possible and use the same amount of pressure and the same pattern of strokes for this process. This will produce the most consistent edge achievable under the circumstances.
Alternately, some people report success using a circular motion going back and forth across the edge. This is especially worthwhile if you can procure a good river stone for the process.
Whichever method you choose and whatever stone you are using, take your time, pay attention to your grip and focus on consistency and before long you’ll have a working edge again.
Stones Likely Cannot Restore a Badly Mauled Edge
I should point out that this field expedient method using natural, found stones is unlikely to repair a badly damaged or mistreated axe.
Once the edge becomes so blunted that it becomes indistinguishable with the rest of the bevel you will probably be spending way too much time and effort trying to restore that badly blunted edge.
Likewise, if your axe is in such a poor state of repair that it is badly rusted with nicks, chips and gouges in the edge it will need remedial care before you can depend on this method to restore it to working order.
Natural, field-procured stones can indeed be used to sharpen an axe. This method works best when you have an edge that is in pretty good shape but is definitely losing its bite, one that a quick bout of TLC is all that is required to improve its performance once again.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.