The hatchet, the smaller cousin to the full size felling ax, is probably the most important tool that any prepper can have for outdoor adventures, coming in second only to a good bushcrafting knife.
Like all edged tools, hatchets will wear down with use, losing chopping efficiency and forcing you to use more effort and energy to do the same amount of work. Aside from tiring you out, it further increases the chances of an accident.
To prevent such an unhappy occurrence, it is imperative that you keep any cutting tool but especially your hatchet in tip-top shape by sharpening it regularly.
Besides routine maintenance, you might be able mind to restore a badly abused or neglected hatchet that you come to possess. No matter which route you are going, knowing how to touch up and finish an edge on your hatchet using a whetstone is a critical skill.
But with the wide variety of whetstones on the market, available in all shapes and grits, knowing where to begin and how to approach this chore can be a little intimidating for the uninitiated. These days most people grow up never learning how in the first place!
You don’t need to be worried, though, because the process is easy with the right instruction and we are here to provide you with that in this very article.
Table of Contents
The Basics of Whetstone Sharpening
Sharpening with a whetstone is very much like sharpening with any other kind of medium or system. When you have a sharpener that is hard enough to remove steel from a cutting edge it is possible to reshape the edge, restoring its keenness and cutting ability.
You don’t need a power tool or synthetic manufactured sharpener to accomplish that; you can do it with the right kind of rock, the same way that mankind has been sharpening edged tools for thousands of years!
A good whetstone will of course be of the right kind of rock but also exceptionally flat to provide adequate control and evenness during the sharpening operation.
A thorough discussion of whetstone varieties, their advantages and disadvantages is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but if you are interested in the topic it is good information to know.
For our purposes, your whetstones will come in one of three typical varieties. Large, long and flat whetstones that rest in some type of base or securing fixture and are intended for use on a sturdy workbench or table top.
Short, thin and sometimes round whetstones desired for their compactness and portability for field usage; and lastly stones that are somewhere between the two and more of an all-purpose variety.
Any of these will work, and can work well, though it might change your technique somewhat depending on the specifics of your chosen model. You should buy a whetstone according to your budget and whether or not you desire portability.
The larger and stabler the whetstone, the easier the sharpening operation will be, but don’t let that dissuade you from getting a compact one if it will work better for your objectives.
But before we get on to the sharpening procedure in earnest, we must carefully assess our hatchet and determine if it requires regular, routine sharpening, or if it is in need of serious repair.
Attempting to sharpen a badly mauled or neglected hatchet is a waste of time until it is properly reprofiled and refitted, if appropriate, and might even be dangerous in the bargain.
Does Your Hatchet Need a Touch-Up or Serious Repair?
So let’s say you have a hatchet that has seen better days. It only reluctantly bites into wood, if at all, and you have to swing it pretty dang hard to do even that. Maybe your hatchet has just seen some hard use lately, or maybe it’s sat unused and neglected after long abuse until you came into possession of it.
Whatever the case, you must first assess your hatchet for suitability to the sharpening process. It must be noted that typical, day to day sharpening is a far sight less intensive and less involved than a serious restoration job.
Note that a badly abused or damaged hatchet might still be entirely serviceable, and capable of being repaired with relatively little effort, but you’ll need to approach the process differently than you would if you were just setting out to sharpen it.
Ask yourself the following questions about your hatchet and you will soon know whether or not you need to simply sharpen your hatchet or set about repairing it and then sharpening it.
Is the bit in good shape?
The bit is the forward part of the hatchet’s head that terminates in the edge. It is specifically hardened and tempered to withstand the shock of impact against tough, strong wood while also remaining capable of being sharpened to a useful, durable edge.
This is the working end; the part that must withstand tremendous forces day in and day out it is on the job.
Through common use, accidents, missed strikes and the occasional contact with hardened, metal objects embedded in tree trunks the bit can begin to degrade, sometimes minimally but sometimes severely.
This manifests as nicks, chips, dings, dents and gouges out of the edge, and sometimes the loss of trueness.
In this regard, a few minor rolls or small nicks in the edge are nothing to worry about, but if the edge of the hatchet looks serrated or badly crenulated, it needs repair and reprofiling before you can sharpen it.
Is there sufficient life left in the bit?
Over the long life of a traditionally forged hatchet or ax, its head will be sharpened many, many times, and each time this occurs a tiny but meaningful amount of metal is removed in order to restore the edge.
Repeat this process dozens, hundreds or thousands of times and you’ll wind up with a hatchet head that is noticeably shorter than when it emerged from the workshop for that first time.
As the length of the bit is reduced the performance of the hatchet degrades, and more importantly for our purposes that hardened, especially tempered section gets eliminated, until eventually you’ll be left with a little nub that will barely hold a useful edge at all.
If the bit of your hatchet has been substantially shortened from a long life of sharpening and reprofiling, it might be time to retire it instead of attempting to sharpen it for one more go.
How is the structural integrity of the steel?
Consider the structural integrity of the head in its entirety before sharpening your hatchet. Most hatchet heads have a high degree of carbon in them which means that they will rust, and even ones that are made completely of stainless steel can likewise corrode in the right environment or with enough neglect.
If your hatchet has some all over rusting and even some minimal pitting that is not too bad, you needn’t to worry too much though you should get it taken care of.
However, substantial corrosion that features deep hitting, scoring or large flakes of rust popping off with a touch of your finger or a sharp knock means that the structural integrity of the steel could well be compromised and the hatchet may be dangerous in use.
Rust can always be corrected via removal and then lubrication or finishing, but once the damage is done it is done and a hatchet that is too far gone should be retired.
Is the edge badly nicked and rolled, or just a little dull?
When considering the edge of the bit, pay close attention to how the edge looks if it is dull.
You might need to break out a magnifying glass to see, but if you notice thin “glint” along various points of the edge forming a line, the edge is probably just rolled and your whetstone is more than up to the task of correcting this.
However, substantial nicking, even if the nicks are by themselves minor, might be the makings of a very, very long sharpening session on a whetstone to alleviate them, and that is assuming you have a whetstone of suitably aggressive grit.
You might consider gently filing the edge to eliminate these nicks before sharpening in that case
Is the handle secure and in good shape?
Lastly, don’t forget about the handle of your hatchet. If you have a one piece steel hatchet as a popularized by Estwing you probably won’t have to worry about handle integrity or security unless the hatchet itself has been severely damaged or corroded, but for anyone who is relying on a traditional wooden handle, always double check the fitment of the head to the handle and the condition of the handle itself.
A cracked, shivered or otherwise damaged handle demands immediate replacement, and if it fails catastrophically in use could result in a terrible accident to say nothing of destruction or loss of your hatchet head. If your handle isn’t suitable for use you have a little reason to sharpen!
Sharpening Your Hatchet with a Whetstone
Assuming your hatchet is ready for a routine sharpening, simply follow the steps below to restore an edge that would be the envy of any lumberjack of old.
Note that the following steps assume you have either a double-sided whetstone or a pair of whetstones of coarse and fine grit.
Step 1. Prepare whetstones, if required.
Somewhat stones, most obviously waterstones, require soaking or total immersion in water for proper functioning. The water serves as a lubricant that will help ease the sharpening process and remove swarf from the cutting path of the stone.
This might sound like a simple step, and it is, but you should always read the instructions on your whetstone if you are unfamiliar with the sharpening process.
Somewhat stones may require water, oil or nothing at all before they are ready to restore an edge to your hatchet.
Step 2. Place sharpening stone on bench or secure hatchet head to benchtop.
In this step we will get set for a uniform, even sharpening my placing our whetstone on a sturdy work surface, in the case of a larger whetstone with a base, or by securing the hatchet itself to our worktop using a clamp or fixture, in the case of a smaller, field sized whetstone.
If you are using a countertop model whetstone, you’ll be holding and controlling the hatchet head as you move it over the stone.
Most sharpeners in this category are designed in such a way that they will be quite stable all on their own and they should not skit around during sharpening. If they do, there is a problem.
In the case of a smaller whetstone where you need to secure the hatchet head itself, use a C-clamp or some other type of strong clamp that will fix the hatchet head near the end of your work service with the edge exposed so that you may move the whetstone over it.
If you are ever in a field situation without a reliable work surface to operate on, it is possible to safely and efficiently sharpen your hatchet using a handheld whetstone in one hand while holding the hatchet in the other. We will cover that in its own section later.
#3. Perform sharpening with coarse stone.
Beginning with the coarse, or rougher, stone establish a 10 to 12 degree angle on one side of the edge and begin sharpening.
For a countertop stone, you will push the edge of the hatchet over the stone. For a handheld stone, you will push the whetstone across the edge of the hatchet towards the back of the head.
The key is to establish and maintain the angle for each and every stroke working from one end of the edge to the other in a uniform fashion.
Depending on the aggressiveness of your stone and the hardness of your hatchet, along with the condition of the edge itself, this will take a greater or fewer number of strokes. Aim for 20 to 40 strokes per side before flipping over the hatchet and repeating the process on the opposite side.
As always, safety first, especially if you are pushing the sharpening stone across the edge of the hatchet. Make sure your grip and tools are secure to prevent mishaps, and wear gloves if you have any doubts about your ability.
#4. Sharpen with fine stone.
Repeat the process described above, only reversing your stone in the case of a two-sided model or selecting the fine stone if using a set.
Once again, pay close attention to the established angle and maintain it throughout the sharpening process, working from one end of the edge and back. start out using light but firm pressure and gradually decrease the pressure used near the end of the process on each side to raise a truly hair popping sharp edge.
Perform 20 to 40 strokes on one side before reversing the hatchet and repeating the process in exactly the same way on the other side.
#5. Finish edge.
Now that we have created a scary sharp edge on our hatchet it is time to back it off and blunt it a little bit. Sound crazy? It isn’t:
Though it is true that the sharper your hatchet is the more deeply and easily it will cut into wood on a chop you have to keep in mind that hatchets are brute force tools that must repeat this behavior over and over and over again in the course of work.
An edge that is too sharp and too acute is easily rolled or damaged, so too provide an edge that is both plenty sharp enough for the task at hand and durable enough to minimize sharpenings in the field we now want to go back over the edge with our coarse and fine stones just like we did before only this time aiming for a 15 degree angle and using fewer strokes, about half as many as previously.
This will make the very leading part of the edge blunter than the trailing edge, greatly increasing its durability and providing significant resistance to rolling or chipping.
#6. Wipe down and lubricate.
With the sharpening done you can set aside your stones and free the hatchet if it is secured to your work surface.
Using any appropriate lubricant that you like lightly oil the head of the hatchet paying particular attention to the freshly sharpened edge as it will be very vulnerable to rusting.
As always, use great care and do not cut yourself, especially if you have produced a brag-worthy edge on your hatchet! Make sure you don’t get any oil on the handle that is not promptly removed, as this could lead to a loss of control and result in injury or accident.
Alternative Method for Quick Field Sharpenings
Now, the above method works fine when you have a workbench or other heavy duty surface to work from, but what are you supposed to do when you are in the field working with your hatchet?
You might be living, working or surviving in highly all steer conditions, deprived of anything that might help you except your whetstone, your hatchet and your own two hands with whatever gear you might happen to have on you besides.
For exactly this kind of work I like to utilize a two-sided whetstone that is round or a thick hockey puck shape.
Lansky makes one of the very best in their eponymous puck sharpener. This is a marvel for preppers as it features a coarse and a fine side, both of them a little rough and thusly perfect for quickly touching up the edges of brutal, hardworking tools like axes and hatchets.
To perform field sharpening, you’ll follow the same steps outlined above as you would with any other handheld sharpener, but this time instead of making straight passes across the edge you’ll make small circular swirls or figure 8 motions while maintaining the angles described above.
This takes a little bit of practice, but once you have it down pat you will find that it will quickly and easily take care of any inconsistencies, nicks and rolled sections with no fuss and no muss.
Be particularly cautious, however, as the method of sharpening when employing the puck and particularly the way you are forced to hold it means you can easily slice off a fingertip should you overshoot the mark. Go slow, be safe, and wear gloves!
A hatchet is always a worthwhile and faithful tool when in the field, be it for work, recreation or survival purposes but if you wanted to keep on working you’ll need to maintain it and that means you’ll need to know how to sharpen it.
Luckily, properly sharpening a hatchet requires only a good whetstone, a little bit of know-how and enough elbow grease. Use the information in this guide, and pretty soon you’ll be restoring the edge on your trusty hatchet like an old pro.
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.