Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sharpen Like A Painter

As an art major, I learned:
1. The only thing a group of fledgling artists requires for amusement is a camera.
2. It's best to keep classroom blinds closed if your live nude drawing class happens to line up with the windows of the frat house.
3. Start with broad brush strokes, work the entire canvas, and leave the details until last.

So now I have an axe, or rather hatchet, to grind.

Apparently, a quarter century later, I forgot all about lesson #3 and immediately set to polishing the cutting edge of the hewing hatchet I recently purchased on ebay for $25. I did this without first working the entire blade with coarse grit stones in order to establish the correct bevels.

Focus on the details first, and it will take you forever to finish your project. What if Michelangelo instead of first establishing the painting's overall structure with broad strokes, decided to start with God's eyelashes and continue his masterpiece with that level of detail throughout? He'd have been lucky to finish his beard, let alone the entire painting.

Hewing hatchets should have a flat side and a beveled side. The flat side cuts against the workpiece and the beveled side slices the offcut away.

I had noticed a slight back bevel on the flat side and ground some of it away, but not enough to keep the blade from deflecting off the piece of wood I was chopping.

According to Peter Follansbee, who I consulted when my polished, but incorrectly sharpened blade wasn't working well, the back bevel needs to be completely removed. Also, the front bevel should not be rounded as it is on my hatchet; it should either be flat or hollow ground. Peter flattens his with a coarse, diamond grit sharpening plate he bought from Drew Langsner at Country Workshops, and then sharpens the edge with oilstones.

An interesting discovery on my hatchet is the original price found on the bottom of the handle. At just 29 cents, the original owner got a heck of a return on investment.

Given the current state of the economy, maybe investing in hatchets will enable me to retire early. Now that paints a lovely picture, doesn't it?


Shazza said...

Can we start calling you Molly Hatchet now?

Anonymous said...


On this side of the Atlantic, what you have there is a right-handed side-axe.

A left handed one is available for southpaws and is oriented the exact reverse - i.e. the flat side is on the other side (honest!). I'm sure that you knew that.

You are right the flat side needs to be perfectly flat and honed to paper-cutting razor sharpness. For this reason the steel needs to be superior to the average wood-chopper to achieve an edge that lasts.

From it's method of use, consider it a variant of the draw-knife / spokeshave family of tools.

It's an essential tool if you are shaping and hewing Windsor chair components from green wood.


Kari Hultman said...

Shazza, I suppose that's a better name than Lizzie Borden, eh?

Thanks for the comment, anonymous! I spent 2 hours just now sharpening the axe/hatchet according to yours and Peter's specs and it cuts like butter. Flattening the back and and flattening the front bevel really did the trick. I'm anxious to put it to work!

Larry Marshall said...

Anonymous mentions left and right-handed hewing axes. I'd sure like to find a left-handed one at a price like you paid for yours. I've only seen one and the price was off the map, at least my map (grin).

Cheers --- Larry

Anonymous said...


They were never plentiful but extensively used in framing and boat building. Not much scope for a side axe in cabinet-making, I’m afraid.
From what I can make out they have an ancient Scandinavian connection, though probably go back much earlier. There were in fact more varieties of axes than you can shake a stick at.

Don’t know about the States, but there is a new on the internet one made by Stubai advertised in the UK at £30 – but it doesn’t say if it’s available as a left hand version.
Oddly enough, the new versions come with a nail puller on the base of the poll.
Ray Iles has them on his web site in either orientation, (again in the UK), at about £65. This will give you an idea of the ‘new’ price here. I think that Ray will send tools almost anywhere if you give him enough money!

Complementing the adze in board preparation, they were in tended for a slicing cut along the grain, never as a chopper, and I see that this one has a straight handle.

Many old varieties have a user-made Ash handle fitted, cut from a crotch in the tree that is cranked about 60 degrees from the perpendicular and offset (in a RH version, to the right) to allow easier work on the vertical and to give knuckle clearance when preparing boards.

Not really anonymous - never mastered the signing on rigmarole for this blogging thing.....

All best

R Francis said...

You were talking about painters...and then there's the painter Lucian Freud, who starts in a small area and works out. Quite sharp.

And can't you reverse a head on the handle (top to bottom) to make a right handed axe good for a leftie?

Woodbloke said...

...just don't use it for your dovetails!! - Rob

Kari Hultman said...

R Francis, thanks for the reference. Lucian Freud also wiped off his paint brush after every stroke. Now that's patience!

Howard, thanks for the information on side axes. Granfors Bruks also makes axes and replicas of old ones. www.gransfors.com

Highland Hardware carries a large assortment as well: www.highlandwoodworking.com

Larry, maybe you can find what you're looking for at one of those sources.

Kari Hultman said...

Woodbloke, too late! (just kidding...)

Anonymous said...

I picked one up for a couple of bucks at a Western, PA flea market about 4 or 5 years ago. Guy rehandled it but said it was awkward to use.

I didn't know enough about the sharpening (thanks for the correct description), but I did know that he put the handle in wrong with the offset going towards the flat!

Tony Z.

Kari Hultman said...

Tony, maybe you can re-rehandle it?

Re: sharpening
Since I had a ton of steel to remove in order to flatten the back and the front bevel, I used a heavy-duty file, which worked great. Then I switched to finer files, then an 80 grit diamond stone, then an 800 grit ceramic stone and finally, a 2,000 grit diamond stone. Now, it cuts like butter!

Anonymous said...

the introductory post I left a few minutes ago on the KP entry must seem way out of the loop... I missed something in the ethers there...you already know Peter...excellent. I've been out of commission on a medical leave for a bit...will catch up and read more of your blog.
Did Kay introduce us a while back ?
Forgive my fog...must still be under the influence of the anesthesia. Heather

Kari Hultman said...

Hi Heather, I have never met you, but next time you're in town, give a holler! Any friend of Kay's is a friend of mine. :o)

BTW, I checked out your site and your paintings are beautiful!

Woodbloke said...

Kari - "....2,000 grit diamond stone. Now, it cuts like butter!"

Now you've got me really confused! (I know what you mean though) - Rob

Anonymous said...


Re-handling is one of those jobs I'll get to one of these days. Actually when I bought the tool, I knew the handle cast off the wrong way. At home, I got my wife's largest stock pot and got some water boiling and put the tool, handle down in the water. Prior to doing that, I made up a jig to bring the handle to the proper bend. I accomplished what I was after, although in the time past, the handle has returned to a virtually straight bend!

One of these days........!

Tony Z.

Anonymous said...

Love your blog, Kari! I bought an unhandled hewing hatchet off eBay a couple of years ago, since the unhandled ones are cheaper to ship. R Francis is right; whether the axe is right-handed or left-handed is simply determined by which side of the head the handle is sticking out. They're completely reversible.

Now you're obligated to show us what you're using your new hatchet for. Other than butter :)

Kari Hultman said...

Rob, sorry to confuse. :o)

Tony, so that's what pots are for!

Justin, I just ordered a bent knife to try spoon carving and I figured a hatchet would be great for roughing out workpieces. I imagine I'll find other uses for it, though!

Anonymous said...

Is it possible that 29 cents is the price of the replacement handle? Years back I worked with my grandpa, one of the things I had to do was use a hewing axe for debarking fence posts for him and getting the knots off. I am a lefty and got quite good at chopping on the right side of my body while holding the hatchet left handed.

Anonymous said...

To summarize:

What is it used for?

1. Rough hewing/shaping of furniture parts, e.g. legs, and other smaller wooden parts (?)

2. Splitting kindling, etc. clear branches off logs.(?)

3. My grandfather had one and used it sometimes like a slick to slice timberframe tenons to the line. However, that was his preference I didn't see anyone else having one.
Is it actually used in timberframing similar to a broad axe, after all isn't it also called a broad hatchet sometimes.


Kari Hultman said...

Anonymous, I think you are probably right about the 29 cent handle. You are braver than I am with using the hatchet with your other hand, by I suppose you had to do what grandpa told you to do. ; )

Alfred, they do seem to be handy for all sorts of applications--thanks for commenting. "Broad hatchet" also seems like it would apply. I've also seen the term "Side hatchet" which I assume also refers to this tool. They will have one at the Brown Auction in April so I'll be able to inspect it to see if it's the same thing.

Larry Marshall said...

As for whether there's a role for a hewing hatchet in cabinetmaking, I suspect that Follansbee, Underhill and Alexander might have a different view.

Lord, I wish the only difference between left and right handed versions was just the handle. The ones I've seen, though, have an assymetry of the head that makes them left or right-handed. You can see it in the photos Kari posted of her, right-handed axe.

Cheers --- Larry

Anonymous said...


No, really, Justin is right, they are not made right or left handed. If you take the handle out of a "right handed" axe and put it thrugh the head from the oposite side, it's a "left handed" one. I have changed several. I've never seen one that is not reversible.
They are great tools to have and use. They were once used for most of the shaping cuts that we now do on the bandsaw, even for what would turn out to be fine finished work. Practice with a good sharp hewing hatchet and you'll be amazed how close to a line you can work a piece and how quickly the work goes.


Anonymous said...

Kari, this is a wonderful blog, thank you for taking the time and effort to share your work.

I do 18th century living history as a hobby (Revolutionary War reenacting) and am in the process of making a walnut 18th century gentleman's folding camp bed. The bed has tapered octagonal posts for which I've been using an old Greenlee drawknife that I sharpened to 8000 grit on the back and front.

Although it cuts well (what do I know--this is the first time I've used a drawknife) I've since learned that the drawknife needs the same kind of attention that your hatchet required, so your experience with the coarse DMT diamond stones is helpful. I'll have to move considerable metal to remove the rounded back bevel and the rounded front bevel as well.

Have you rehabbed, sharpened and used a drawknife?


Kari Hultman said...

Hi John, where do you do your reenacting? The camp bed sounds really cool--I'd love to see some photos if you'd like to send them: goodwoodworkshop@comcast.net

I have never used my drawknife, but I believe it will work best the way you are sharpening it--with a flat back and flat bevel, not a rounded one. Mike Dunbar would say differently, but I've come to disagree with him after having sharpened my hewing axe.

Some people put a slight bevel on the flat side so it's easier to pull up out of a concave cut. That's if you prefer to use the tool flat side down. Others use the tool bevel down. I imagine it can be used both ways depending on the cut.

Anonymous said...

Is there a place online I can buy a hewing axe?

Kari Hultman said...

Anon, I bought mine on ebay, but you can also buy them from Highland Hardware. They're pretty expensive, though.

Anonymous said...

Googling led me to this post/comment thread.

Most helpful, since I just (yesterday) found a kent pattern side axe.

Note on symmetry - some North European pattern side axes are bearded, and are most definitely left or right handed.