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Shaping your axes for carving

Shaping axes and scrapers for spoon making and carving

Shaping an axe to carve with is necessary because they really don’t come fit for purpose usually. Today we do the axe. Later the scraper. Here you see two axe types. One is large the other small. The one below is an old and well-used axe used for may aspects of working wood. I have used this type of axe in carpentry and joinery for almost 50 years. It’s used for shaping stake points, scribing skirting boards to uneven floors, cutting wedges for plugs in brickwork, removing excess wood to fit frames in buildings to name but a few tasks. On the other hand the woodsman will trim branches and when you get your chainsaw stuck you will be very glad to have one of these with you too. I have shaped chair and table legs for years using an axe and I have also cut tenons with them too. The Bahco axe is a new-to-me axe reshaped for carving. I have reshaped several recently to refine them for the research and work I am involved in. Mostly that work is to help you so that what I offer is current and doable.

DSC_0037DSC_0039This picture shows the original shape before I reshaped the heel of the cutting edge to get the edge I wanted for my work.

Reshaping the axe is best done with an electric grinding wheel for speed and for ease if you have one. Grinding this way can burn the steel, which then softens it, but regular plunging in cold water every few seconds and as quickly as possible after the grind will quench and harden if needed. Do this as soon as you see a dark line appear along the grind and you can prevent heat build up immediately. You can also file and shape it with a 10 or 12” flat file, but if the shape needs a lot taking off it can be tedious. Shaping is usually a one-shot deal if you get it right first time. Subsequent sharpening can be done with a flat file and honing stones.

In the picture you can see the original drawn shape compared to the reshaped axe. By first grinding to shape you establish the profile you need.

DSC_0032 2Here is the profile of the two bevels on the heel of the axe. They traverses the full width of the curve evenly and equally.

Subsequent grinding on the bevel either side reduces both bevels to then form the cutting edge I make a shorter, steeper bevel on the side of the axe closest to my user hand and a long shallow bevel on the opposite side. This gives me the ability to direct a shallower cut on the face of the wood I am working. After I have reshaped the profile and reground the bevels I use diamond plates to hone the bevels into cambers. This gives me a sharp and strong cutting edge to chop with.

22 Comments

  1. david osullivan on 8 September 2013 at 12:06 am

    is it important to know the type of steel used in manufacture in other words can i pick up an axe at my local hardware store and take it from there?



    • Paul Sellers on 8 September 2013 at 7:28 am

      Not really, you can use almost any axe but size is important. The steel is important and also the process of manufacture. But in what I am showing it’s less critical in the early stages. Long term you will want a nice looking axe of quality, but getting started, choose an inexpesive axe and see if you like axe work. Use it for practice and it will always be a useful axe anyway. I have a favourite axe that’s cost $3.50 new and I still pull it out to use first. Always take an axe outdoors in the woods anyway. You may want to whittle sitting at the foot of a giant tree for an hour’s rest, relaxation and more importantly, re creation!



    • jmpurser on 9 September 2013 at 8:20 pm

      I picked up a hatchet at my local hardware store and when I got it home I found I could “sharpen” it with two strokes of a file on each side of the blade. The metal was that soft. Now that’s fine, it was a $13 hatchet and purchased for gardening and grubbing work I wouldn’t use a decent axe for, and the owner of the shop told me I was getting just about what I was paying for. But I was really surprised at how obvious the poor quality of the metal was. This one was made in Mexico. Shortly after that I got an old Swedish hatchet head off Ebay and the same file would skitter off the blade if I didn’t hold it firmly.

      I’ve got a hickory handle coming for the Swedish hatchet head and the Mexican one is prominently displayed in the “easy to find” area of the garage tool bench where the tool moochers like to prowl.



      • Paul Sellers on 10 September 2013 at 5:36 am

        I think that that can happen so my advice to anyone with a similar experience is to take it back. I haven’t had that experience for many years but you do point out that a good test for hardness is how the file responds to the steel. That’s a good point. Buying a Bahco, you can’t really go wrong and I used one of the leather-handled Estwing for twenty years and it worked fine.



        • jmpurser on 10 September 2013 at 1:08 pm

          Like I said, I paid for the Mexican hatchet after being told by the store owner its quality was reflected in the price. He also had an Eastwing for $30 that I turned down. I got that Mexican hatchet home for about HALF of what a BAHCO would cost me and a third of what that Swedish axe head alone cost. And by the way, I think those BAHCO axes are a very good deal.

          It might help to know that I came home one day to find my girlfriend using my just sharpened pre-Irwin Marples 1″ bench chisel to clear out wood around a nail in the door way so she could pull it out with my 20 oz steel straight claw hammer she was also using to drive the chisel. Domestic tranquility requires me to have some tools I can just walk away from.



          • Brianj on 11 September 2013 at 2:55 pm

            …smart …. Very smart….. Hahaha



  2. Steve Massie on 8 September 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Paul Thank you for showing and explaining what you do with the axe for carving. I just bought a used Plumb axe from a fellow here on a Wood Working Forum I read and participate in for $30 shipped to me. This will be my venture in trying to use an axe for carving and hope it will be OK, Plumb makes good hammers here in the US so hopefully the axe will be adequate. Next I will be getting a #7 sweep gouge and will be good to go.

    I really am enjoying your Blog and Woodworking Master Classes, keep up the good work you and your staff are providing.

    Steve



    • Paul Sellers on 8 September 2013 at 9:15 pm

      Plumb axes always made what we in Britain call ‘plumb’ tools, which means really good tools. When I was a boy in my apprenticeship, Plumb hammers were seen as the best back then.



  3. Steve Massie on 9 September 2013 at 5:20 pm

    Paul one more kind of un – related question to this which I have been meaning to ask you. On your Diamond Stones which I believe are E – ZEE Lap how long do they last or how often have you had to replace. I know you use your’s more than I but am curious. I current use Sigma Power Water stones which are great but trying to sharpen the way you do I have gouged them a couple times, I know it is my technique.

    Again Thank You for al your help !

    Steve



  4. Paul Sellers on 9 September 2013 at 7:17 pm

    Thanks for this John. We should keep up to date on any organisations not keeping quality or indeed raising the bar even. Especially big box stores that put smaller guys out of business and fail to keep the varied stock of quality items and such tactics.



  5. Ben Fisher on 13 September 2014 at 4:35 pm

    Paul,

    I was looking for one of your tool blogs related to axes and wound up here.

    I was looking to get a good axe to play with.

    I haven’t found any pointers anywhere on what would be a good overall length or blade length for an axe used for woodworking.

    My guess is shorter like 12-16″ range and an approx 4″ or so blade length and already curved to the bottom if possible.

    I found two and was wondering what you thought.

    First, this is the Bahco. Is it the one pictured above?

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000VD4QWY

    Then there’s this Husqvarna, which is more costly, but piqued my interest.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B004SN1HGQ

    I briefly looked at Granfors Bruks until I saw the price tag. :O :: faint ::

    -Ben



  6. Ben Fisher on 13 September 2014 at 4:41 pm

    I was looking for pointers on axes.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000VD4QWY/

    Versus:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B004SN1HGQ

    The Bahco looks like yours, I think. The Husq intrigues me. It’s more but not that much.

    Thoughts?



    • Paul Sellers on 13 September 2014 at 4:51 pm

      I use the Bahco mostly, as well as my old ones. It holds a good edge and works fine. They all work.



  7. Jeff Polaski on 27 March 2015 at 1:39 pm

    Well, maybe this can make it into the thread. After much research and seriously considering reshaping an old carpenter hatchet, the Vaughan Broad Axe popped into view. It’s made of what they call “SuperSteel”, which might be high carbon. Shaped like the Bahco, it comes left- or right-handed, with a pronounced bevel on the right side (correct side?), and pretty flat on the side next to the work. I have yet to hold one in my hand, but the description says that the handle is also shaped to complement the flat side being next to the work and keeping my right working hand away from the wood.
    I’d be curious to see how it takes and keeps an edge, but the price (US$35) is comfortabl away from the higher end European axes, and Bahco axes are not typivaly found on the shelves here in Pennsylvania.
    Tired of thinking about it, it’s time to pull the trigger. Those Cherry logs are sitting out there waiting for me.



  8. Rami on 19 April 2016 at 5:01 pm

    Hi. I didn’t quite understand which side is grinded steeper. Can you please explain?



    • Paul Sellers on 20 April 2016 at 7:09 am

      Sorry, Rami, I can’t recall where I said this.



      • rgrifat on 20 April 2016 at 9:10 am

        Hello Paul…
        I quote: Subsequent grinding on the bevel either side reduces both bevels to then form the cutting edge I make a shorter, steeper bevel on the side of the axe closest to my user hand and a long shallow bevel on the opposite side.
        Thank you Rami



      • Jeff Polaski on 20 April 2016 at 11:28 am

        It was perhaps awkwardly phrased. Paul, you used the term closest to the user hand, which almost by definition is the side of the axe closest to the cutting work. I’m right handed, I’d cut a vertical piece if wood on it’s right side as I am facing it, and therefore the flattest edge face would be on the left side if the axe as I am holding it.
        I was very confused for a while until I took an axe in hand.
        Hold or wedge the work in front of me. Use my right hand. Chop cut or pare (nice sharp axe) on the right side of the work that I am facing, so therefore the flattest part of the blade is on the LEFT as I am holding it, so that it goes where I want the work done.
        I bought a Rosselli, which has a thick profile, so I’ve got a lot of grinding to do to get that flat edge. Or, maybe I’ll just split campfire wood with it, being incredibly sharp and durable.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofatuSbGakM

        Watch closely as Jon Mac sharpens the side of the blade that face away from the inside of his right hand wrist. at the very end of the segment, he mentions making passes flat on the blade, so look at which side that flatter side is on: the left side as he’s holding it as I described above.

        Sorry to intrude, Paul, but the folks at Lie Nielson suggested their high speed chipbreaker file ($14!!!), and that’s what I’m using weekly since I don’t use a power grinder. Mind you, it’s impossible to get the complete side of the axe head flat, just the front working part. And unlike my grandfather’s hatchet, it’ll hold a razor sharp edge forever. Same forever as saving up for it, but I wish I had it when I was younger.



  9. Danny Ku on 1 May 2016 at 11:50 pm

    Found an axe named Helko Hunter made in Germany. It looks similar to the Bahco one. Will go for it since it seems to be the similar kind available in Taiwan. An axe was once the least one to get for me because it feels more dangerous and yet I decided to get one and use it. Went to a local shop for a file and an axe. The owner told me that he doesn’t really sell these stuff anymore because people don’t buy/use such tools these days. Woodworking handtools are somehow like pens. People tend to type with keyboards rather than write with pens.



    • Paul Sellers on 3 May 2016 at 9:35 pm

      Yup, sadly! We are making a difference though, so that’s progress.



  10. Justin Yates on 30 July 2018 at 7:40 pm

    You never use a grinder on an axe.



    • Paul Sellers on 30 July 2018 at 8:01 pm

      Yes you do, if you want to.



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