How To Care For Your Axe: 3 Easy Steps

How To Care For Your Axe: 3 Easy Steps

Two Gransfors Small Forest Axes, one in good shape, the other neglected.
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.

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 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 your primary cutting tool.

In any woodland where you were working on larger projects that require substantial sections of wood, being able to fell and process both live and dead standing wood is something for which you need an axe (and possibly a saw).

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 still referred to. 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.

Wetterlings Outdoor Axe and Gransfors Bruk Small Forest Axe together on wooden planks
Axes such as the Wetterlings Outdoor Axe (top) and the Gransfors Bruk Small Forest Axe (bottom) come with a factory-finished wooden handle. But this finish must be maintained to protect the wood over time. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

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.

Small forest axe and Scandinavian forest axe in northern Sweden
Well-cared-for axes in use in the boreal forest in the depths of winter. Here they are a critical tool. Photo: Paul Kirtley

How To Look After Your 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 Bruk 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.

Rusty axe head on a Gransfors SFA
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. In the absence of the ideal, anything is better than nothing. A general purpose oil which I have been using in recent years is Ballistol. This can be used on the leather of the axe mask too if needed. It’s also good on wood. As a general purpose non-toxic oil it’s a good one to carry as a one-stop shop for keeping most of your gear that needs it, including all the parts of your axe, in good shape while on a trip.

I’ve also found various gun oils good for creating more of a dry finish on the axe head. When oiling the axe head, 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 off to the extent it will before refitting the mask.

How To Look After Your 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. The factory finish has all but gone and the wood is beginning to crack in places. 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 Your 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 axe in boreal forest in northern Sweden.
An axe proving it’s worth in the boreal forest, in the far north of Scandinavia. Photo: Stuart Wittke.

Let me know your experiences of looking after your axe – what did you get right, what did you get wrong and what did you learn? As always I read every comment…

A version of this article first appeared on the Frontier Bushcraft Blog

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Related Material On Paul Kirtley’s Blog

Axe Choice For The Northern Forest

Tree Felling For Winter Firewood: Axe and Saw

A Winter Camping Trip in the Northern Forest

Bloodvein River Trip – My Personal Gear

A Bushcraft Camping Outfit – Equipment for Living in the Woods

21 thoughts on “How To Care For Your Axe: 3 Easy Steps

  1. Hi Paul.
    Thank you for a very interesting article.
    I do have a question though.
    I have a walnut oil / beeswax mix and have used it on my axe for a while. In your opinion, is this a good long term product to use on the head and handle?

    1. Hi Luke,

      It’s good to hear from you.

      Yes, I think that’s a good one-stop-shop solution for handle and head. You could even use it on the mask.

      BUT a couple of contraindications – 1/ don’t lend your axe to anyone who has a serious nut allergy and 2/ be careful in bear country as it may smell tasty.

      Warm regards,


      1. Thanks for the reply Paul.
        A couple of very valid points to bear in mind there.

  2. Hi Paul,
    Thank you for sharing this article. I just followed those steps.
    But I have a question. Is that okay if I use the Boiled Linseed Oil on the head of the axe?

  3. Hi Paul,
    Another good article as ever. What about using WD40 or equivalent on the blade, it dries ok and doesn’t leave a sticky residue?

    1. Hi Mark,

      WD-40 is a good option for coating your axe while stored at home or before you head out on a trip. As you know, it is very effective in protecting metal surfaces from moisture.

      I tend not to use it on trips, however, as the delivery method is via a reasonably large aerosol can, which I would not want with me on a trip. I prefer to take a small dropper bottle of oil with me on a trip.

      Did you know that WD stands for “water displacement”?

      Warm regards,


  4. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for the blogs and videos, all excellent stuff (music a bit spooky on the fire drill bow vid though).

    Ok, I use WD 40 at home to clean the whole axe, then a thin wipe with olive oil. Seems to do the trick these last three years, and I’m not in danger of bears, only government interference!

    The mask I generally wipe clean after a trip, and treat with a leather feed/restorer type product.



  5. Hi Paul, Thanks for another useful piece of information. I bought a large axe from a farm equipment sale.Unfortunately I think someone may have used it as a wedge as the back of the head is mushroomed slightly. On the good side the whole axe appears to have been coated in some sort of heavy agricultural engine oil. There is no rust on the head and the helve is smooth and split free. The only downside to the engine oil is the strong smell and the “stickiness” of the shaft. I have tried rubbing away at the wood with old towelling, but I think I may have to sand it back.

  6. Hi Paul,

    Thanks, one more tine, for this very interesting article.
    Concerning the oil application, when i re-handle one axe with a new shaft, i try to impregnate it deeply by either soaking the full axe (blade protected with a film or wax) in a bath of boiled linsen oil during few days till one week, or, if i have not enough oil available, i treat the shaft with several generous applications, on few days (one per day for exemple), observing carefully it and checking if the wood is absorbing the new oil input. I repeat said application till i see that wood is “saturated” and therefore can not anymore absorb oil. It is especially easy and interesting to see that on the cross section of the shaft embedded in the eye of the blade.
    Then, after removing the excess of oil, i let it “harden” few more days: the oil is polymerized at the surface but also in the saturated fiber of the wood (at least few fractions of millimetres depth under the surface) for making a bit denser said surface and bringing a quite good water resistance/or render said surface at least partly un-wettable.

    Just some additional remarks, hoping to be useful…

    Warm regards and again thanks for all.

  7. Hi Paul,

    I was wondering if you know about using an axe with a high quality steel in very cold temperatures, I have the Wetterlings bushman axe, and in the leaflet that came with it it said that in the cold winter the forest workers used to warm the head of the axe against their bodies before they used them, presumable because the cold temperatures made the steel more brittle and more likely to chip or fail. Have you ever heard about this?


  8. Hi Paul,
    very good article!
    First Let me to say that I love this tool! Even if I have little use in my environment I own a small forest bruks axe and a scandinavian bruks forest axe!!
    About axe care normally I start with the handle by rubbing a raw linsed oil shorted in half with turpentine; this recipe allow to deep soaking the raw linseed oil into the wood with no stickness at all. I do pass the mix sever times since I see the wood itself stops to absorbing oil and then I remove the excess: I prefer raw linseed oil above the cooked one just because it is more ecofriendly product as there no metal drier in it, but it is just my way to do, only my point of view.
    About the axe head me also using the ballistol oil from some time and it is very good in my opinion.
    On the axe mask I rub a beeswax/linseed oil/turpentine mix and let it dry but if I’m on the rush I go stright with ballistol.

    Warm regards.


  9. Hi Paul,
    I was happy to find this article appear on your blog about the same time I set about to refinish and rehaft my grandfathers old axehead. It is now rehafted, descaled, polished (to a reasonable degree for a tool I plan on using regularly) and am in the process of making a leather mask for it. The only commentary I had is about linseed oil. If left in a cool dry place, it will in fact polymerize after a week or so. As an avid spoon carver, I have finished all of my spoons (a few hundred by now) by soaking for a few days, then allowing to dry for a week or two (depending on the wood type) and then they are ready for use. Just a comment on an excellent article. I read your blog and watch your videos regularly to keep up my bushcraft game and I thank you for everything you do. I hope someday to be able to afford to fly to your part of the world and take a course.

  10. Hi there i gently applied warm beeswax till my hickory handle was full and buffed it off to finish i rubbed linseed oil over the handle left to dry. I have hardly had to touch it over the last few years
    Is there any potential problems i should have considered 1st many thanks jay

  11. Hi Paul

    Thanks for all your work.
    Any soloutions for a loose mask?



  12. Hi Paul,
    I favour food grade coconut oil for my carbon steel knives, tools and leather on extended trips for several reasons. You can eat it, fry, make yummy coconut flavour bannock etc, to save carrying multiple containers of oil where weight is an issue on portages. At most times of the year it will remain as a solid white waxy consistency so less likely to leak in your pack. For a food preparation knife I would not wish to consume small amounts of oil residue from Ballistol, gun oil etc. It melts on your fingers at skin temperature and can be worked into leather very much like nikwax into boots. It also sticks well to cold steel in storage inside sheaths and axe masks. I hope this helps somebody?

    Best wishes, Russell ( in the Peak District )

    1. You make a good point Russell. Thanks for your comments. I personally really like coconut oil and use it in some cooking at home as well as enjoying half a spoonful in black coffee on a cold day in camp. That said I wouldn’t want cocnut oil smeared on my gear when travelling in bear country in Canada or the USA. But, yes it’s another option for people to consider in the right circumstances. Warm regards, Paul

  13. So I’ve applied a few layers of boiled linseed oil (adding 10% turpentine as you mentioned somewhere) to my Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe. I first raised the grain, every day for about 10 days (again following your method). I applied a few coats of boiled linseed oil, every day for a few days, then every week for about a month ( I used very fine wire wool to do this). Now the axe has been in the shed for about three months, and it is still STICKY. I definitely used BOILED linseed oil. Not sure what went wrong. What do you suggest I do next?
    Thanks and looking foward to the upcoming Elementary Course in August (that’s 2019 for those who may be reading this in some far distant future)

    1. Hi J-P, we can talk more on the forthcoming course but it sounds to me like you are leaving too much linseed oil on the handle, rather than removing the excess.

      Warm regards,


  14. Hi, Paul, I keep my axes in my shed rather than in the house, as I don’t want the wood drying out, do you recommend fitting an over strike sleeve to the axe handle??

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