Though axes are durable tools, they require a little TLC on a regular basis. Once you spend money on an ax, you will want to care for it in order to preserve the longevity of your tool from season to season.
An ax has two main parts: the head and the handle. The head, which splits and chops wood, is made from beveled metal, while the handle can be made from a number of materials, including plastic, wood or even rubber-coated metal.
Tim Smith, founder of Jack Mountain Bushcraft School, said that the type of handle you choose for your ax will ultimately depend on personal preference, but wood handles tend to be the strongest and most ergonomic. In order to prevent rot, though, wooden handles should be cleaned of any dirt after use. Wood ax handles also need to be rubbed with boiled linseed oil to retain their durable, protective finishes at least once a year.
“If it’s a wooden handle, keep it oiled,” Smith said. “Rub some of that on there, especially if it’s brand new [because] it’ll probably be kiln-dried wood and it’ll be super dry. If you don’t, you’ll get a dry rot that takes place. Oil gets into the cells of the wood and fills in any gaps.”
Wood handles also may have to be replaced over time. The ax head should be secured snugly to the handle — sometimes, this fit can be aided with pins attaching the head to the handle — but over time and use, the material will wear down.
“At a certain point, you’re going to just need to get a new handle,” said Connor Winn, general manager of The Axe Pit in South Portland. “Some are easier to maintain [because the] heads are fixed mechanically with pins and screws, but at a certain point, you need to buy a new handle.”
Ax heads should be kept dry when not in use. Many axes are made from non-stainless steel, which means they will rust over time. Oiling the ax heads after use will also help stave off rust. Oils like gun oil work well because they dry evenly and last for a while.
The heads should also be sharpened regularly, both for safety’s sake as well as the ax’s effectiveness. All you need for sharpening is a hand file to sharpen the edge and a stone to polish it.
“You don’t need anything electrical. You just need a hand file — or a rasp will do the trick for you,” Winn said. “You can use that for as long as you need to just maintain a sharp edge. The only problem you might have is if you hit a rock and there’s a big gouge. That will require a little more muscle, [but] generally you can take care of everything you need to with a hand tool.”
Winn said he wouldn’t leave his axes in the elements if he could avoid it in order to prevent rust and general degradation of the tool. Smith said, though, that it isn’t a big deal if you keep it out for a little bit.
“We do two-week supported snowshoe trips [and our] axes stay out in the snow all the time,” Smith said. “You don’t need to baby them. They’re pretty rugged.”