Sharpening Traditional Broadheads
By: Dale Karch and Todd Smith
Sharpening broadheads is a misunderstood, but necessary art.
The guy behind the counter hands you your first pack of cut-on-contact broadheads. First there's the blank stare... the deer in the headlights look. Then you see a glimmer of the light flickering on as the realization sinks in.
"You mean I have to sharpen 'em?"
This is a valid question that we get all the time. It makes sense too, if the only broadheads you've ever been around are the 'razor-sharp right out of the package' kind, then why would you have to sharpen them? The truth of the matter is, 95% of all cut-on-contact broadheads need to have their final edge sharpened by the bowhunter before they are taken into the field. The good news is, with the sharpening aids available to all bowhunters today it's not difficult to do. Read on and we'll describe some hand sharpening techniques as well as introduce you to some of the more popular tools and accessories available for sharpening traditional broadheads.
Safety first. Use extreme caution whenever working with broadheads.
They are extremely sharp and may cause serious injury or death if used improperly or carelessly.
Hand sharpening without sharpening jigs and aids is demanding but also gratifying. Many bowhunters take pride in the fact that they can sharpen broadheads well this way. Before starting the sharpening process, mount all your broadheads on your arrows and make sure they spin straight and are installed correctly. As you go through the steps of sharpening, you'll need to continually check the finished edge for sharpness. How you test for sharpness is up to you. In bowhunter education courses we teach a technique of stretching rubber bands across a small wooden frame from both directions to create an overlapping pattern. Then we push the broadheads through. If they cut the rubber bands easily, the broadheads are sharp. Most archers simply see how well the broadheads shave the hair off of their arms. We do not recommend this as the potential for injury is too high. Some folks carefully rub the edge of their thumb sideways across the edge. (Not along the edge! If you do that you'll cut yourself for sure.) In time, you'll acquire the knack to know, by feel, just how sharp the edge is. Once you think it's sharp try the rubber band test.
Now, let's sharpen some broadheads.
Well-designed, quality broadheads will be easy to sharpen. Take a close look at the factory grind. This is the angle of the grind on the broadhead right out of the package. It should be a smooth, straight, gradual grind terminating to a nice 'almost sharp enough' factory edge. Broadheads with grinds like this will be easier to put the final edge on. As we mentioned in the last column, another key to good broadheads is having the steel tempered hard enough to give you strength, but soft enough to allow you to sharpen them with a file. We recommend giving your broadheads the file test. Make a pass or two along the bevel of your broadhead with a good quality file. If the file skips off the broadhead and doesn't bite into the steel, the steel is too hard for file sharpening. This is not necessarily the end of the road for that broadhead as there are diamond hones on the market that can sharpen nearly any steel no matter how hard it is. Still, for the bowhunter who wants to be able to re-sharpen broadheads in the field, they must pass the file test.
Two and four blade broadheads first. For smooth stock removal, we recommend a bastard file. For home sharpening a 10-12" file is suggested. For 'in the field' sharpening get a 6-8" model. Buy only high quality files, this is not the time to scrimp. Right-handed bowhunters will normally hold the arrow in their left hand and sharpen the broadhead with a file held in the right hand. Some people chuck them up in a padded vise and there is even a tool on the market called the Arrow Grabber that you hold in your hand and it supports the arrow and broadhead while you work.
A bastard file and Arrow Grabber are valuable broadhead sharpening accessories.
We always file from the back of the broadhead toward the tip. You can sharpen from either direction and there are arguments that defend both schools of thought. Still, sharp is sharp, so file in whichever direction you prefer.
The object is to follow the primary angle of the main bevel, removing the same amount of steel from both sides until you have a very thin, razor sharp edge. Before you see the final razor edge, you will see what is called a 'wire edge'. This is the result of removing stock evenly from both sides of the broadhead. The wire edge is a sign that you're doing a good job and you're almost there. When the wire edge is removed properly, a sharp edge is left behind. It's a good idea to count the number of strokes you make on each side. Push firmly but not too hard. You'll be able to feel when the file is removing steel. You may want to take a marker and color in the factory bevel. Then when you start making passes with the file you'll be able to where you have removed material and you can adjust your angle as needed as you go to match the factory angle. Once all of the ink is removed, go to the other side and repeat the process. Many bowhunters believe in and use the coarse, 'file sharpened' edge that you'll have at this point and this is as far as they go. To really finish the edge though, some sort of stropping is still necessary. You can use a piece of tooling leather, a hard Arkansas stone, or even ceramic crock sticks for this. Smooth, steady light pressure is the key here. The closer the edge gets to final sharpness, the lighter your strokes need to be. When you're finished stropping, test for sharpness. If they pass inspection, they're ready to hunt.
Three-blade broadheads like the Woodsman are actually quite simple to sharpen if you follow some basic guidelines. The nice thing about three blade broadheads is you always work on two blades at a time so the blades themselves act as guides helping you maintain the all important, consistent angle. For these 3-blade broadheads it's best to first mount them to your arrows and use the shaft as a handle to pull the broadheads across your sharpening tool. Start with a 12", quality single cut bastard file. This file will be wider than the two blades of your broadheads so you can remove material from both blades at the same time. Don't press too hard! This is the mistake most people make when sharpening broad heads. Light, steady pressure consistent throughout the stroke is the key. As mentioned before, you may want to use a marker to cover the factory bevel and help you gauge how much material you have removed. If you mark over the bevels and only remove enough material to remove the ink, then go to the next two blades, then to the third set, you should have removed almost the exact same amount of material from each blade. This leaves you ready for polishing. The polishing step is best done on a fine diamond sharpening surface like the JewelStick® Diamond Bench Stone. Remember light controlled strokes. Now your three-blade broadheads should be ready for hunting, but you may also want to strop them lightly on a piece of tooling leather at this point. This final stropping action will align the microscopic steel particles taking your edge from sharp to 'scary' sharp.
Three blade broadheads like the Woodsman are quite simple
to sharpen if you follow some basic guidelines.
If you did everything described above correctly your broadheads are ready. If not, you might be thinking that the process is easier said than done. You would not be alone! When sharpening anything, maintaining a consistent angle is the key. This is where most people run into trouble and this is exactly why there are so many excellent sharpening systems and aids available on the market. Some of the most common are: The KME Knife Sharpening System, 3Rivers CC Sharpener, Lil' Shaver, and the Hollowground Sharpener.
For fast and accurate sharpening, you can't beat using a sharpening jig.
The Lil' Shaver is another tried and true unit. It's a jig with three angle choices built into it. Clamp your mounted or non-mounted broadhead into the jig. A file on a positioning block does the cutting. Slide the jig arm through the locating hole of the jig body and push the file against the broadhead from one side to remove stock. Then take out the arm, flip the unit over, re-install the arm and stroke this other side of the broadhead until a sharp 'file sharpened' edge results. This jig sharpens all two or four-blade heads. The file that comes with the kit is aggressive and removes stock quickly. The LIl' Shaver is another good choice for re-shaping blunt factory grinds or reestablishing a good primary angle on dull broadheads.
The LIl' Shaver is a jig with three built-in angle choices.
The Hollowground Sharpener is a bit unorthodox but very effective. Instead of flat, it uses two round files to sharpen and they actually create a slightly concave shape to the edge. Quite a few archers put faith in this hollow ground edge and it is a strong seller. The kit includes a ceramic rod for polishing the final edge. For the fans of hollow ground edges, this sharpener is a good choice.
The Hollowground Sharpener uses two round files to sharpen,
creating a slightly concave shape to the edge.
Have you got all that? Good! But wait, there's more. Now for the rest of the story. For broadheads that have good factory grinds right out of the package, or for broadheads that you've used a sharpening aid to revamp the edge, here are a couple of tools that take you to 'hunting sharp' with the greatest of ease. They are the AccuSharp and the 3Rivers CC Sharpener. Both of these sharpening tools utilize carbide teeth to actually strip metal off of both sides of the blade bevel at once. Especially if you already have a wire edge established, these tools will remove that and align the entire final edge resulting in a sharp, ready to hunt broadhead in a matter of moments.
The AccuSharp has a comfortable handle and a safety guard to protect your fingers. Operation is simple. Hold your arrow on a hard surface and draw the AccuSharp from the back of the head to the tip. Repeat as needed with less pressure each time until you are satisfied with the edge.
The AccuSharp offers simple operation as well as safety features.
The 3Rivers "CC" (Ceramic-Carbide) Sharpener also uses carbide teeth, but with this tool you hold the unit on a hard surface and draw the broadhead through and between the teeth allowing it to remove metal on each pass. As always, use less pressure as you continue. Once you are satisfied with the edge, stop. The "CC" also has the advantage of a ceramic surface that can be used like a crock stick for finally polishing of the edge. You may even alternate at the end of the process between the teeth and the ceramic stropping surface until you reach ultimate sharpness. This sharpener is one of the handiest tools we've ever found for broadhead and knife sharpening. They're small (approx 3/4" x 3"), lightweight, and sharpen edges perfectly! Keep one with you at all times when hunting for fast field touch-up of broadheads and hunting knives.
Small and lightweight, the 3Rivers "CC" Sharpener provides two
sharpening surfaces... one carbide and the other ceramic.
As you can see, broadhead sharpening is a bit of an art. A very straight forward and necessary element of bowhunting with cut-on-contact broadheads. It's an important skill to learn, and whether you hand sharpen with a file or take advantage of some of the many time saving commercial sharpening systems available, always make sure your broadheads are, 'hunting sharp'. We owe it to ourselves, to the animals, and to the great sport of bowhunting. Yes, you'll have to touch up those edges yourself but after a bit of practice and with the right tools, you'll have no problem at all sharpening traditional broadheads.
Dale Karch & Todd Smith
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