By: Peter Sieling
When was the last time you sharpened your hive tool? Have you ever sharpened it? Some beekeepers prefer using a dull hive tool because it is safer. If you only use a hive tool for prying bee boxes apart and loosening and lifting frames, then a dull tool is safer. If you spend a lot of time scraping propolis and wax off frames and cleaning frame rest rabbets, you should at least try a sharp tool.
In Cub Scouts, we learned that a sharp blade, used properly, is safer than a dull blade. After 50 years, I still believe that. A sharp hive tool cuts through wax and propolis in light and easy strokes. A dull tool requires brute force. It may skip out of the cut and unexpectedly skid over the surface. A dull tool will cut into flesh as easily as a sharp tool when it slips.
With practice, sharpening a hive tool takes five minutes or less. You can restore the dull edge in seconds with a rock.
Hive Tool Styles
One of my beekeeping supply catalogs shows eight different hive tools with a wide price range, but they mostly fall into two categories – flat and L-shaped. They all have “nail puller” holes – almost worthless for pulling nails but good for hanging on the wall. The flat style tools have a chisel end for prying apart hive boxes and a lever end for lifting frames straight out of the box. I prefer flat tools for removing frames, but if you drop one between the frames, it will fall all the way to the bottom board. The L-shaped tools work best for scraping off burr comb from top and bottom bars and cleaning the frame rest rabbets. Buy one of each. They aren’t expensive. Better yet, buy two or three. Hive tools are frequently misplaced or lost and a screw driver is a poor substitute.
A new hive tool has been dipped in paint. If it hasn’t, paint it with a bright color to make it easier to find when you drop it in the weeds. If the paint covers the tool blade edge, scrape or wire brush it off the tips.
I keep both ends sharp on my L-shaped hive tool and use it mostly for cleaning and scraping. I use a dull flat hive tool for prying and frame lifting. If you have one hive tool, you may prefer to leave the prying blade dull.
There are two steps to sharpening any blade. First, shape the primary bevel, either with a bench grinder, a file, or progressively finer grades of sandpaper (starting with 100 grit and working up to 325 grit). The flat, prying end is shaped like a chisel with an angle similar to plane irons or knife blades: 25° to 30°. The angle isn’t as important as it is for a hand plane. You can do it by eye. The L-shaped or scraping blade angle can be less acute: 30° to 45° or even more. Hive tools come with the primary angle already ground, so unless yours is very dull or nicked, you can skip the first step.
The second step is honing a secondary bevel, also called a microbevel, approximately 3° to 5° less acute than the primary bevel. Use a sharpening stone, or finer grades of sandpaper (400 to 600 grit).
The prying blade is ground and honed on both sides. The scraper blade is ground and honed on one side. But the quality of the edge is only as good as the back side of the lade. Hone the back surface of the blade as smooth as possible. If the blade is nicked or pitted, hone a
microbevel to the back side.
You can hone the blade several times before the primary bevel needs to be reground. It’s time to regrind the primary bevel when it takes longer to hone a fresh edge than to grind and hone an edge together. If you have to hone for four or five minutes, go back to the grindstone.
Once the scraper blade is sharp, you can form a microscopic hook on the blade’s edge, turning the hive tool into a cabinet scraper. To draw out the hook you will need a piece of steel that is harder than the hive tool. You can buy a burnisher from woodworking suppliers, but the shaft of a drill bit or a screwdriver shank will work almost as well. Put a drop of oil on the edge. Hold the burnisher perpendicular to the sharpened edge and draw it back and forth using moderate pressure at an angle that will bend a microscopic burr over the edge (see diagram). Five to ten strokes from one end to the other are adequate. You can feel the hook by drawing your finger perpendicularly across the blade edge.
A scraper with a hook works well for bare wood and brittle wax and propolis, but in warm weather it might clog. Remove the hook by stroking the back side of the edge with the shank of a drill bit.
Don’t throw it in the tool box to rattle around with metal objects. Treat a sharp hive tool as you would treat a knife.
Peter Sieling writes, keeps bees, and sharpens hive tools at his shop in Bath, NY. His books are available at www.makingbeehives.com.
A sharp hive tool cuts cleanly with less effort and is easier to control than a dull tool. When pulling a hive tool towards yourself, use two hands on the hive tool and anchor the hive in place by pushing against it with your body. When scraping one handed, never place your free hand in the trajectory of the tool. Reach across the hive with the free hand and pull the hive tool away from your free hand.
Manmade abrasives are harder, sharper, and more uniform than any naturally occurring products. They are also expensive. You can buy water stones, ceramic stones, or diamond stones in multiple grits that can range from 220 for rough honing to 2000 or even 4000 for polishing (the higher the number, the finer the polish). If you are a serious hand tool woodworker, the expensive sharpening stones are great and save time, but, at the other extreme, I can hone a razor sharp edge with a carefully chosen stone from my driveway. That’s sharp enough for a hive tool.
Sterilizing Hive Tools
Some beekeepers sterilize their hive tool by placing the ends in the smoker or playing a propane torch along the ends. That’s good for hygiene but bad for the tool. The hive tool’s cutting edge is very thin. When placed in direct flame, it will heat up long before the rest of the tool, annealing the edge. Fortunately there is a large temperature difference between killing spores and removing temper. With a propane torch, run the flame from the center of the handle out toward but not including the ends – the steel conducts the heat out to the ends. You are aiming for a temperature between 250 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to barely sizzle when dipped in water.
When you dip your hive tool in a smoker, you’ll lose the temper on the edge, but unless you pump the bellows like a forge, the next time you grind an edge will most likely remove the annealed edge.
Better yet, scrub the tool in a bleach solution. The bleach will kill everything except foulbrood spores – those will wash off in the scrubbing. Don’t forget that sterilizing your hive tool is worthless if you don’t wash everything else that comes in contact with the next hive – your hands, gloves, bee brush, etc.