A Quality Axe Can Last a Lifetime of use with proper care. But there are three things you should never do with your axe.
#1 Never Use it to cut anything harder than wood
Axes are designed to cut, chop and split wood. Hitting an axe against metal, rock, ice, antler or other materials harder than wood is a bad idea. At best it will quickly dull the axe and at worst it will crack or chip.
I’m not talking about specialty axe purpose built to strike a given substance such as an ice axe or pick axe.
While you might never have been tempted to try to chop metal with your axe, trees in residential areas or on farmland sometimes have nails or fence wire in them that the tree has grown around. So if you’re working on wood that has been around a fence or that you suspect have nails or screws in it, take special care and perhaps don’t use your favorite axe.
If you are splitting wood or bucking a log on the ground be careful that if you miss you don’t end up striking a rock or other hard surface. Old dried pine resin can also be very hard and it is best to avoid hitting it if possible.
Ideally you’d keep your axe free from water and moisture but if you’re out in the bush with your axe sometimes that can’t be avoided.
The good news is if your axe gets wet it isn’t a big deal.
The key is drying it off and giving it some extra care at the next opportunity so that it doesn’t start pitting.
A carbon steel axe head like those found on quality axes will rust if exposed to moisture for an extended period of time. Even stainless steel will rust if exposed to water for long enough.
A thin patina on the axe head is fine, but pitting is not. In order to prevent pitting it is important to dry it off and give it a coat of oil after it it has got wet.
Another thing to keep in mind is to avoid exposing the wooden handle of the axe to water, particularly for prolonged periods of time. Water softens wood, makes it susceptible to warping and weakens it. If wood is soaked in water it expands and then contracts as it dries. If your wooden axe handle gets wet, dry it off at the next available time and treat it to a nice coat of linseed oil.
One way you can prevent the handle from absorbing a lot of water is to cover it with some beeswax.
#3 Never Use the Poll as a hammer
If you’ve seen many old axes or hatchets you probably noticed that some of them have a “mushroomed” poll. This is caused by using the poll of the axe head as a hammer, often to pound metal wedges. At best this is unsightly but at worst it can crack the head or deform the eye of the axe and loosen up the handle.
Is using the poll to pound wooden tent stakes or polymer wedges okay? Yes. But I you should never use it to pound metal.
There are exceptions, such as a maul, which has a splitting axe head on one side an a sledge hammer on opposite side of the head. If the axe poll is hardened and designed for use as a hammer, then feel free to John Henry away. But if not you should never use the poll of an axe as a hammer.
#4 (Bonus!) Never Subject an Axe to Extreme Temperatures
Some things to keep in mind when it is below freezing is that even striking wood with an axe can cause issues if it is cold enough. Steel gets more brittle when it is very cold. If you are splitting wood when it is below zero, it’s a good idea to warm the axe head up by leaving it in a warm place prior to going outside or holding the head (safely in a sheath!) under your armpit to give it a chance to warm up.
While not ideal, the axe head simply getting below freezing is not the issue so much as taking a frozen axe and hitting something with it.
On the flip side, a rule of thumb is to never heat the head of an axe up so much that it is too hot to hold. Apart from being dangerous to yourself, it could ruin the heat treatment on the axe or burn the handle. This is just a rule of thumb. Few heat treatments are below 350°F / 176°C. So realistically the only way you could get the axe head that hot is by using a grinding wheel/belt improperly or putting it in a fire. Note that the cutting edge of the axe is narrower and as a result will heat up faster than the rest of the axe head.
Never doing these three four things to an axe helps ensure it will always be there when you need it! Axes are tools meant to be used and by providing a little care for them they will help take care of you. Stay safe!