How To Care For Your Axe: 3 Easy Steps

by Paul Kirtley

Two axes.  One well-maintained, the othe poorly looked after

The axe on the left is the author’s and has had 10 years of solid use. The axe on the right is the same model – a Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe – but only a year old. The difference is down to care and maintenance. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

An Axe – Worth its Weight in Gold:

Many people spend more on a good quality bushcraft or survival knife than they do on an axe.

In an environment where an axe is important it is often as valuable as, if not more valuable than, a knife. For example, in the northern, or boreal, forest where trees grow slowly and the wood is dense and knotty, an axe is extremely valuable and your most important tool.

In any woodland where you were working on larger woodcraft projects that require bigger sections of wood, being able to fell and process both live and dead standing trees is something for which you need an axe.

Building outdoor camp furniture

Larger woodcraft projects such as making camp furniture often require the use of an axe. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Parts of an Axe Which Require Care

A good axe of a traditional design has several components made of materials which require some maintenance. If you look after your axe, it will give you many years of service.

A good quality traditional-style axe will likely have a wooden handle, or ‘helve’ as it is sometimes known. As with any wood that is kept or used outdoors, it needs to have some protection from the elements, most notably water. When you buy a new axe it comes with a protective finish on the handle. This finish is often made from linseed oil and beeswax.

A good axe will have a head made from high quality steel. The head will be tempered so that the bit of the axe is tough, not easily chipped and able to attain a very sharp yet resilient edge. This quality piece of steel will also need some protection and care to keep it in prime condition.

The third component that we need to give some consideration is the mask. This is what some people might call the sheath but is more appropriately called a mask. A mask on a traditional-style axe typically will be made of leather. As with any leather item, it will need protecting from the environment to keep the leather in good condition.

How to Look After the Axe Head

Keeping your axe in prime working condition does, of course, include keeping it sharp. I’m not, however, going to cover axe sharpening in this article. What we’re concerned with here is how to keep your axe in good condition and protected from the environment.

The axe head of a good quality axe such as those made by Gransfors Bruks is typically made of steel that is not stainless. That is, it will quite easily rust if allowed to remain damp for a period of time. This would obviously have a detrimental effect on both the finish and ultimately the longevity of the axe head. So, we must protect against moisture.

A rusty axe head

Most axe heads will rust if not protected from moisture. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

The easiest way to do this is to oil the axe head. Some oils are better for this than others. But in the absence of the ideal, anything is better than nothing. Personally I find a gun oil which is designed to dry once applied is the best option. It remains on the axe for longer. Also, since it dries it doesn’t make the inside of the mask oily. Nor does it transfer on to other items of kit while packed in a rucksack.

First remove the mask then apply a thin layer of oil all over the metal of the axe head. Remove any excess with a cloth. Leave the oil to dry before refitting the mask. If there is some rust already present, apply some oil and use some wire wool to remove the rust and work oil into the area. Wipe the area clean then apply oil to the whole axe head as above.

How to Look After the Axe Handle

The handle of a traditional-style axe will typically be made of wood; these days this will most likely be of good-quality hickory. Hickory is a very tough and resilient wood but will still last much longer with a protective finish.

Poorly maintained hickory axe handle

This hickory axe handle has been exposed to the elements for an extended period of time and the factory finish has all but gone. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

We want to retain, if not improve, the finish that the axe handle comes with. While we can completely replace the factory finish on a wooden handle and replace it with a higher-quality finish such as traditionally used on gun stocks, this is not necessary for keeping the handle in good condition.

With axes such as those by Gransfors, maintaining the finish of the handle is a case of simply applying a coat of boiled linseed oil from time to time. Please note that it must be boiled linseed oil, not raw linseed oil. Raw linseed oil will not dry; at best it will remain sticky.

Boiled linseed oil can be bought from DIY/home improvement stores quite readily. First make sure the handle is free of dirt then simply apply the boiled linseed oil to the existing finish. To do this take a rag, pour on some of the linseed oil and rub this into the handle. Alternatively use a small paint brush to apply the liquid.

Once you’ve coated the entire handle reasonably liberally, take a rag or some kitchen towel and remove the excess. This should now be a thin layer of linseed oil left remaining on the handle. This can then be left to dry. This simple process provides another very fine layer of finish to the handle and increases its level of protection from the elements. Over time if you keep adding single layers, you will build up a very good and resilient layer of finish on your axe handle.

Warning: Please note that rags or pieces of cloth soaked in linseed oil can spontaneously combust if left scrunched up and should not be left indoors. The potential for serious fire is well-documented. The best solution – where safe to do so – is to burn the rags. The second-best solution is to leave them hanging outside, unfolded to dry before disposing of them.

How to Look After the Axe Mask

If you have a mask that is made of leather it will need to be cared for. You must remember that the mask is designed to protect you and your other equipment from the sharp edge of the axe bit. The mask must retain its original good fit. You do not want the mask to become loose or to fit sloppily. Therefore, you shouldn’t apply any treatment that will soften or allow the leather to stretch beyond its original size and shape.

There are a number of easily available products that can be used to treat your axe mask. Personally I use Nikwax Aqueous Wax. To apply this to the axe mask removes the mask from the axe and use the applications are to apply a liberal amount to the mask, not forgetting the welt. Leave the wax to dry, then rub it in with a damp piece of kitchen towel or cloth. This last action creates a shine and protective finish.

Look After Your Axe and it Will Look After You

If you follow the above simple steps to look after your axe and apply them on a regular basis, your axe will stay in top condition for many years to come.

Paul Kirtley using an axe in the boreal forest

In the boreal forest, an axe is your most valuable tool and is best kept in top condition. Photo: Stuart Wittke.

I hope you find this information useful. Please let me know in the comments. Also, please let me know in the comments if you have any other axe care tips.

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Paul Kirtley is owner and Chief Instructor of Frontier Bushcraft. He has had a lifelong passion for the great outdoors and gains great satisfaction from helping others enjoy it too. Paul writes the UK's leading bushcraft blog as well as for various publications including Bushcraft and Survival Skills Magazine.

 

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

sargey

Excellent advice as always. Cheers paul.

That Mr Mears bloke once said, Bushcraft is about looking beyond the obvious and seeing the possibilities.

Given the popularity of things like the gransfors small forest axe, there is a real propensity for mix ups at large gatherings of Bushcraft minded folk. Like at the BushcraftUK bushmoot.

In order to overcome this, and being an urban bushman, I go foraging along the bathroom windowsill. Here you can often find axe maintenance materials growing naturally. These materials include cotton swabs, nail varnish remover, and bottles of nail varnish (select manly colours only). Use the nail varnish remover and cotton swabs to clean sap and oil off your axe head. Then paint the head with nail varnish. All my personal Gransfors are done in a manly burgundy nail varnish. This not only protects the head, but means that my tools are instantly recognisable, even from a distance when some chuckle-brother neophyte numpty has decided to help themselves to it.

Cheers, And.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi And,

:) Good tips indeed. That’s definitely a novel approach and one that I’m sure works in differentiating your axes from those of other mooters. I can’t recall ever having seen an axe-head painted this way.

Do you have any trouble with your nail varnish chipping? :)

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

sargey

oh, and oiling the helve. ikea chopping board oil works a treat too.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Good extra tip. I’ve not tried it. What’s in the oil?

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Mark

With Linseed, the old recipe for applying is:
Once a day for a week
Once a week for a month
Once a month for a year
Once a year for life

Great article Paul, thanks
>;o)

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Yep, that’s a great old adage Mark ;)

Reply

Timmy

a very good article. Now I realise that an axe is kind of just like a knife in the aspects of caring for it apart from the bigger handle made of a different material if the knife handle is plastic. Also, in the last photo, what are the glove that he’s wearing? i’m looking for a pair that are warm and still look natural and have a good grip.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Timmy,

Thanks for your comment.

The gloves I’m wearing in the photo are Hestra Falt Guide Gloves.

I discuss them in more detail in the following article. Have a look to see if they are what you’re looking for:

http://paulkirtley.co.uk/2011/winter-clothing-northern-wilderness-extremities/

If you have any questions, just get in touch.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

jomo

making sure the ax handles grain is correctly aligned and contains no heartwood is also important, if the grain is horizontal when lying the ax on its back then it is prone to breaking. The same goes if the rings are larger, indicating fast growth, avoid these small details and you will have yourself a fine ax handle that will last you many years, and if anyone is interested in a very good ax documentary then ‘an ax to grind’ on youtube is a fantastic and fascinating video. these problems are unavoidable when buying axes online as i’ve discovered :(

Reply

Paul Kirtley

That’s very true Jomo – best to choose your axe right in the first place if you intend to make it last a lifetime.

It seems the alignment of the grain is not as critical with hickory as with some other woods such as ash.

What type did you manage to break?

Thanks also for the heads-up on the USFS video.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

sargey

nail varnish chipping!? not yet! :)

here’s one with a new helve and a new nail varnish
http://i4.photobucket.com/albums/y147/sargey/sargeys%20knives/PA120014.jpg

ikea chopping board oil is a basic mineral oil.

cheers, and

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hey, that’s really quite striking! :)

Thanks for sharing.

Reply

Bart Leenders

Hi Paul,

Great article Paul!

A bushcraft instructor ones told me to sand the axe handle with 150 grind sand paper. Then work it with 400 or 600 and repeat the process 3 – 4 times.
Finaly a treat with linseed or warm olive oil gives a smooth and very good looking handle. And reduces blisters too.

Cheers, Bart

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Bart,

Nice to hear from you! Yes, my axe handle has been re-finished too. First I scraped off the factory finish, then I raised the grain; then scraped again. I then raised the grain once more and scraped to remove it. Then heated-up boiled linseed oil with some turps (10%) in it to thin it, so it soaks in better. Then repeated layers of heated-up linseed oil. It’s a great finish and one I still add to every year. No blisters either! :)

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Dave

Awesome Artical Paul.
As always i love Axe talk ;-)
Great advice on getting & keeping your Axe in tip top condition !

Cheers.
Dave.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Dave,

Thanks for your feedback.

How are you getting along with your Wetterlings?

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

sean

Great article Paul, and well written,

I really like this article because it offers great advice on an aspect of good axemanship that is often over looked. I have a friend who has the same gransfor axe as mine – it’s completely wrecked – badly chipped, wood becoming rough and very blunt – I wince inwardly (and stand well back) when he recklessly flails his axe about : ) One time, while camping, he asked for a loan of my axe “because it is nice and sharp” – “No way!!” I replied, mentally, to myself and away I went to busy myself with some spurious axe task that supposedly needed my immediate attention. Phew…

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Sean,

Glad you liked the article. In my view, you’ve got to look after your tools. And if you really value them, you will.

I don’t lend my axe out either! :)

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

sargey

the old wives tale about keeping axes indoors, drying out the handles so they start checking and the heads come loose. it really does happen. i’ve ruined a couple of helves this way.

cheers, and.

Reply

Jason

Hi Paul,

Great article, thanks. Not sure if they sell it in the UK, but I’ve found Boeshield T9 to be superior to gun oil. It is a paraffin-based lubricant used to prevent carbon steel marine equipment from rusting in salt-water environments. Excellent stuff.

Cheers,
Jason

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Jason,

It’s good to hear from you.

Thanks for your comment – good tip! I wasn’t aware of Boeshield T9 but I’ve searched and it seems it is available in the UK, particularly through bike shops.

I’ll be looking out for some to try.

Thanks and warm regards,

Paul

Reply

ruud

bought a Wetterlings a few weeks ago, chopped down a couple of trees that needed to be removed (gardenscaping on a big scale), lovely! :D Since I haven’t used axes a lot in the past, I’m quite obsessed about keeping it in top shape. Looks like I’ll have quite a bit of work with cleaning the axes of my friend who has a huskyfarm in Sweden, he uses them constantly and doesn’t really take the time to clean them properly after use. I’ll send him a link of this article for sure :)

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Ruud,

Thanks for your comment and for sharing this article with your friends. It’s good to know that people are finding it useful.

Which model Wetterlings axe did you buy?

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Ruud

A bit late… I own the #118, sold here as the Bushcraft Axe. It is what the Small Forest Axe is at Gransfors.

greetings

Reply

Charlie

Great article

As a new owner of a Gransfors splitting maul I was to eager to use it and split some wood that was probably to wet and now I have tree sap on the handle.

Any suggestions on how to remove this ?

Charlie

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Charlie,

Thanks for your comment. It’s good to hear you enjoyed my article.

The splitting mauls are great. It’s incredible what they will cleave like a knife through butter.

As for removing sap, I would try dabbing it with a bit of turps on a rag.

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Roger

Thanks for clearing up a few questions with this great article. I recently bought a Wetterlings axe. Great axe but the handle does not appear to be treated.
Thanks again
Roger

Reply

James Gohl

So, now I know how to care for my axe… Thanks. So, how about something about the anorak tou’re wearing in your photo. That’s the thing I’m interested in. I like your articles a lot..

Reply

Stephen Walker

Hi Paul
Another very interesting and well written article.
I do love my axes and I’m sure this will keep me focussed on good care.
Not sure about the nail varnish but it does make the axe stand out. Will it catch on?
Do you think that the factory grind on a eg Gransfors Small Forest is the optimum for ‘general purpose’ use?
Cheers
Steve

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Steve,

As always it’s good to hear from you. Thanks for your comment on this article.

I always use oil and that, for me is the most important regular maintenance to stop the axe from deteriorating significantly in any given period of time.

I think nail varnish is probably better in general for axes which are used relatively infrequently and to keep them in good condition in between uses. As for whether it will catch on, I think it depends on the colour of the nail varnish….

I’m pretty happy with an off-the-shelf Gransfors Bruk SFA in terms of the bevel/edge. The finish on the handle bothers me a LOT more. I’m sure they used to be better….

That’s nothing a bit of re-finishing work won’t resolve though.

My oldest and most used SFA is a little less fine in its edge than a new one but that’s down to wear and how I sharpen it. The steel is very good quality and will withstand chipping even with a fairly fine edge.

I think I should have some axe sharpening notes/videos in the pipeline for 2014….

Take care,

Paul

Reply

Scott Johnson

Very helpful article! The axe is such an essential tool in the outdoors!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Thanks Scott. Yes, you’ve got to look after your important tools.

Reply

Zed Outdoors

I am on the verge of buying myself a small forest axe so is a timely and fantastic article on the care of the axe itself. The only thing thats putting me off buying the axe just yet is knowing how to use it without injuring myself, seen too many photos of people with nasty injuries of not using them properly …I dont wanna be one of them :-) Thanks as always for sharing these tips Paul ~Peace~

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hey Zed, good to hear from you. Thanks for your comment – it’s good to know that this will help you with your bushcraft journey.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

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