I have a few different hatchets from over the years, but the one I’m most partial to (now) is one that belonged to my grandfather, and was made by Plumb for the Boy Scouts of America. I don’t know the exact date this was made, but it looks to be in the 1930-1940 range. The handle is hickory (at least I’m pretty sure it is) and it is shaped so it almost looks delicate, but for those that aren’t familiar, hickory is very strong and has good resiliency.
This is so completely different than the first hatchet I ever had, which was the type where a block of metal was run through a press that stamped the hatchet out, leaving the head and handle, with the latter dipped into some rubber for a grip.
I hadn’t picked up the old Plumb hatchet in a while, and when I gripped the handle, I was immediately in heaven. It fits the hand like it was made for it, and feels great when in use. I also have a Sears Craftsman hatchet (ca 1985) that I bought after we got our house, that was just for small de-limbing and such. I took hold of the Craftsman’s handle, after just holding the Plumb, and talk about worlds of difference. The Craftsman’s was a bulky and thick handle (can’t tell what species) and even though it had a few subtle curves, was really almost completely straight and un-sexy.
Another interesting sidebar is relating to the heads of these two hatchets. If you tap the head of the Craftsman, it has a very bright and ringing “cling” sort of sound. The head of the Plumb hatchet is much more substantial and only sounds a faint high-pitched ring when hit. The crazy ringing of the Craftsman isn’t a huge deal, but it does tend to get a little annoying as it announces every time it hits, including when contacting the wood you are chopping. This is of course just a personal thing, but I am less likely to grab the Craftsman, for a number of reasons that are likely becoming obvious.
I’d noticed the cutting edge of the Plumb was pretty dull, and it was sharpened last at a crazy high angle. Even though this is a striking instrument, it seemed the angle was too steep to be effective. It was obvious to me that there was more metal to remove, than I’d want to attempt with a file, so I gladly took it to my Baldor 8″ grinder. I initially reground the bevel on both sides, matching the existing angle, just so I could confirm my suspicion about it’s bevel angle. I have an old stump in my shop and tested to see how the newly-ground Plum behaved by lightly striking the stump’s rim. It left a dent, but wasn’t very impressive. I wanted to re-grind the bevel, so it would work more as it was intended, but I didn’t want to ruin this family piece.
The Craftsman had a very similar bevel angle, from the factory, so I figured I’d make a test run on it first, just in case I was off base with my ideas. In a couple of minutes, I’d adjusted the bevel on the Craftsman hatchet, and it was amazing just how much difference this made in it’s performance on the stump. With this confirmation, I grabbed the Plumb.
I still had the rest at my grinder set for matching the existing bevel, so with the grinder turned off, I adjusted it to what looked reasonable to my eyes. I forgot to mention earlier that I handle sharpening of the hatchets in some ways just like I do with plane irons and chisels. If I don’t know the existing bevel angle, I always apply some black Sharpie to cover the bevel, so I can know where I am making contact. I applied the Sharpie from the cutting edge, back to where I planned the final bevel to end. When testing to see if the rest is set for the angle needed, I place the tool on the rest, and manually turn the second grinding wheel in the opposite direction it normally runs, and let the tool just kiss the wheel. I noticed the rest was still off, but decided to let my hand-eye coordination see what we could do. Since the original angle was so steep, I knew I had to remove a fair amount of metal (more so on the Plumb, as the Craftsman is thinner towards the cutting edge), and with my hand in contact with the tool rest, basically free-handed a very light pass. When I checked the progress, I saw the grinding wheel was hitting where I’d envisioned, so I made a couple more free-hand passes. I checked the progress between each pass, just to make sure whether I needed to remove more or not. I did exactly the same thing on the other side of the Plumb’s head, and then worked to blend it towards the cutting edge. On my final pass, on each side, I made a light pass that just reached the edge, all the way across the head. A wire edge (or burr) is created on the opposite side, as the edge is reached on the first side. I used the wire edge as my indicator as to whether I’d completely reached the cutting edge, on the second side. I have a nice light near my grinding setup, and with the tool in the correct orientation, it was extremely easy to see the wire edge or lack thereof.
I tested the Plumb’s cutting abilities, in the same way I’d done with the Craftsman earlier, and it was nothing less than amazing! Still, I was a little concerned about the wire edge breaking off, during some chopping, so I wrapped a smallish piece of oak with some 800-grit sandpaper (just what I had close at hand, so not important it is this grit, but I wouldn’t go for anything less than 220-320). I was careful to keep my thumb and fingers, from the hand holding the wood/sandpaper, behind the cutting edge of the hatchet. I also made sure to pay attention to the angle, so I wouldn’t accidentally round over the cutting edge, and after working both bevels for a minute or two, there were no signs of any wire edge.
I find it interesting how it seems that my regular sharpening of my plane irons and chisels, really seems to carry over to everything I sharpen. I’ve gone through earlier periods when I sharpened the irons and chisels freehanded, but didn’t get consistent enough to work solely in that manner. I use one type of honing guide or another, for at least 99% of my sharpening now, but I believe the finger/hand pressure is still developing while using a guide. This hand control seems to carry across to other work, whether it is using and controlling a hand plane, or this free-handed sharpening of a hatchet. So, I say, keep using whatever works for you, and if you prefer to use a guide during honing/sharpening, you are still honing your skills.
Thank you for stopping by and checking out this article. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments, as I welcome them.