Near the end of March 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond nearest to where I intended to build my house…. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Lending your ax is asking for trouble unless you also trust the borrower to sharpen it as well as you would….If a man wants to borrow your ax, tell him “No.” If you will not do that, then you do his chopping for him, or buy him an ax, or even give him your wood. But whatever you do, keep your own ax for your own use.
— Dudley Cook, The Axe Book
Walden might have been a little different if Thoreau had asked to borrow Cook’s axe: “Near the end of March 1845, I asked to borrow the axe of Dudley Cook. He built my cabin instead.” Borrowing and lending aside, the quotes of both men speak to the usefulness of an axe, and the importance of keeping it sharp. I’d like to share a bit about how I sharpen my carving axe and why I use it.
The sharpening process is pretty straightforward. I tend to use DMT’s dia-sharp stones for the majority of the process, but oil stones, wet-dry paper, and so on work just as well. For sharpening beyond a little touch-up, I like to hold the axe in a vise that secures it steadily and allows me to use two hands on the stone if I wish.
I lay the stone flat on the bevel and use one of two motions: little circles with one hand while I move the stone along the edge of the axe, or sliding parallel to the edge of the axe while holding the ends of the stone with both hands. In either case, I make sure to keep my hands away from the sharp edge. These different movements create two distinct scratch patterns that make progress more clear as one pattern removes the former. Marking across the bevel with a Sharpie marker can also make progress more clear and help to make sure the bevel is staying relatively flat.
Once a small bur can be felt along the entire length of the edge opposite the side being stoned, I flip over the axe and work that bevel, progressing to finer stones. On my carving axe, there are bevels on both sides, but the left bevel is longer and shallower than the bevel on the right which is shorter and more steep. Together, it is something like thirty degrees. By the way, I don’t worry about a bit of overall rounding of the bevel (not abrupt rounding near the edge) — especially on the right side that simply pushes the chips away.
I usually finish with a very smooth white ceramic stone to polish the edge and remove the fine wire edge. For this, I remove the axe from the vise, holding it in my left hand so that I can see when the stone is flat on the bevel. I begin with the stone contacting the back of the bevel, then lower it until it just touches the edge.
I usually can’t resist the arm hair shave test, but the one that might mean more involves my thumbnail. With very light pressure, I attempt to slide the edge forward along my thumbnail at generally the same angle I would engage it in the wood. If it slides forward at all, the edge needs to be touched up. Dullness or rounding at the edge is causing the edge to slide instead of bite. It should bite immediately with the lightest pressure. If so, the axe will bite where I wish in the workpiece, rather than glancing off annoyingly and dangerously.
“It’s your father’s lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster, but a more elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”
But why do I use the axe at all for sculpting bowls? Why not remove most of the material from the outside with a band saw or some other tool? For me, right now, it is the best, most effective, tool for the job.
First of all, it is fast and versatile. A sharp carving axe can remove a lot of material quickly, big chunks falling away. Removing the bulk of a green log is no problem with an axe and an adze. Then I can ease up, continuing to sneak up on the form, literally feeling things as I go. I can remove another quarter inch here, a sliver there, with this same tool. I don’t know exactly where I’ll stop until I get there.
Plus, it is satisfying and enjoyable to swing an axe and feel the wood give way, to see the fresh new surface revealed. It feels good, like hitting a baseball sweetly or, I completely suppose, certain dance movements. While I won’t be doing any graceful ballet leaps, I plan to continue to enjoy the swing of the axe.