A craftswoman is only as good as her tools.

In the life of any outdoor worker, the BEST feeling is a sharp implement…cue dirty minds and innuendos. But in all seriousness, it can drive you over the edge picking up a saw that doesn’t saw or loppers that require a twist and flick technique; so here I explain the process of equipment maintenance and the euphoric feeling of freshly sharpened tools! The most impressive practitioners in my mind have two fundamental workshop rules:  1) keep it tidy and 2) keep it fresh, and whether it be the humble billhook or strapping chainsaw, all tools should be looked after. When using a hand tool such as an axe or brash clearer you should have a clean, straight, sharp edge to keep the work easy and efficient. The best way to retain or restore this is to regularly clean the blade and prevent dirt and rust from eroding it.

So first thing’s first, checking the tool and identifying what needs to be done to get it back in shape. Although blade anatomy varies and bevels can change between tools, the edge should be straight and notch free. If blunt, you can run your thumb along the flat of the blade and mentally note where the metal needs to be filed, or if not confident just carefully inspect it by eye. Personally I like to feel where the edge needs working as its more accurate and feels more rewarding when finished sharpening.

Next step is to get your sharpening equipment to hand and secure the tool. Sometimes its best to secure the blade in a vice (e.g. brushcutter blades) but for others you can achieve a nicer edge by holding the handle, looking down the blade, and closing one eye so that you can see where the bevel lies…plus its a bit more comfortable. As for sharpening implements, there are a variety on the market and some are made for specific tools but for the majority a file or sharpening stone will do.

To sharpen the blade, first grind the edge to get rid of notches and dirt. Then use the grinding stone (or whichever implement you choose) to form the bevel by kneading it in one direction towards the edge. If you have honing oil to hand, applied to the stone it can help to remove dirt, reduce heat and prevent excess wear; however it is not essential to use. I usually start on the side easiest to judge by eye (right) then move onto the other side until they match the original bevel pattern. Once done with the stone, you can use a smoother implement (some stones/files have a rough side and smooth side) to remove shards and finish the edge.

Once finished, I like to run my thumb up the bevel at random points of the blade to check they are of even sharpness and angle. You should NEVER RUN YOUR FINGER ALONG THE EDGE; if you’ve done the job properly, this blade will be able to slice through much harder materials than your digits! Finally, just to ensure the blade gets a good service, you can give it a quick spray with WD-40 or other clean oil to keep it from rusting and lubricate the metal. Plus it makes it nice and shiny, adding to your job satisfaction. Most tools either have closed blades when stored or come with a shield but if you lose this you can use a soft cloth to protect it – I use a sock for billhooks as they’re the perfect shape!

You may think this is quite a laborious task and to be honest, we mostly leave it for a rainy day as an excuse to get out of office admin and avoid replying to emails. But when in the zone and sharpening a whole workshop’s supplies, this process can become quite therapeutic and the rewards are endless. Everyone has their own way but if you look after your tools, they’ll look after you!


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