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re-handling an axe - metal wedges truly necessary?

 
pollinator
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I've got a large double bit axe and a new handle for it - I've always planned to follow procedure and do a wooden wedge in the saw kerf with glue, then a perpendicular metal wedge in addition.

I've also seen these metal wedges fall out of axes/hammers just as often as not (granted, those examples were not well cared for); do I really need the metal wedge, or can I go without, if properly fitted otherwise?
 
pollinator
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Maybe not...

There are two reasons why a handle falls off an axe.

1. The handle dries out. A big contributor to this is leaving the axe by the woodstove for splitting up wood. That is fine, but as the axe handle dries out, it shrinks and gets loose. If a person leaves the axe in a bucket of water, it will not dry out and shrink, but rusts the axe. A person can dip the axe instead in antifreeze (glycol) for a few days, then it will stay tight for weeks because glycol does not dry out as fast as water. Redo every few weeks as needed.

2. Using the axe for a hammer. You will not have this issue with a 2 bit axe, but with a pole axe, when a person uses the end of the axe to drive wedges, or as a maul, the hammering causes the eye of the axe where the handle is fitted to expand. This loosens the handle. Axes are not mauls, if you do not use an axe in this way, and keep the wood from drying out, they will not loosen up.
 
pollinator
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Travis

Soak head & handle in oil  (eg. linseed) ??



Rufus
 
pollinator
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Simple answer to your question, is no you don't need those metal wedges. Circles are better but you don't need them either.

Complex is, those metal wedges are a sign of doing it wrong and making up for it with wedges.

I have a large double bit I rehung. I used not only no metal, but thew the ones that came with the handle away before even starting.

The company I got the handle from https://beaver-tooth.com/ their stock is always changing so you have to check frequently if they don't have what you need, and buy fast if they do.
 
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Tell me what you think of this. When making a new handle and shaving to fit, get it really, really dry before installing , so that the wood has shrunk as as much as it's ever going to. This could probably be accomplished by allowing it to sit by the fire for a few days. Once it's that dry, I would think that the moment it is taken out into normal use, it would swell and hold firmly.

One more. What if you made a wedge out of the type of wood known to swell quite a bit when it absorbs water. Make sure that wedge is really dry and then hammered in with some glue. It will immediately swell as it absorbs moisture from the glue.
 
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The professional wood choppers use metal wedges and a pin or a combination of both.

Dad was a country boy and I remember watching him refit heads to long and short axes.

The handle was always carefully shaped ensuring a snug fit and protruded through the head. He then gave it a few good taps on a hard surface to bed the head into the handle, sawed it off slightly protruding. Then tapped it off, did a crosscut slit, tapped the head back on and hammered in one or two metal wedges that had serrations down both sides.

The handle was more likely to break from over zealously chopping hardwood than having the head dislodge.

Like other tools, the major trick to stop failure is care and maintenance - keep dry, oiled, and clean.

Some people store axes, along with spades, shovels, forks and hoes in a bucket filled with sand that is moistened with old sump oil.

You can use wooden wedges, but they're normally held in place by a steel wedge to avoid ongoing maintenance and possible safety issues.
 
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Travis brings up a good point about heat and humidity variations affecting handles.

To that point people have shared stories with me about previous generations of timbermen soaking their axes in various oils during the "off season".

Kinda like the question Rufus posed, and something I've done on the last couple axes I've hung. (Re hung bits off previously failed handles.)

It's an assumption, but I think metal wedges were one response to the effects of those seasonal variations.

My limited experience has been that I can get a lot better at the process of making handles, and that there are many more factors beyond metal wedge or not that affect a given handle's performance.

And sometimes those factors align differently than I expect. An older store bought hickory handle essentially snapped in half within the eye of the axe--wood that throughout the handle appeared in fine condition.
A partially dried mystery-wood, but-probably-hard-maple-handle coated with tung oil, without a metal wedge hasn't loosened in 3 years. And has kinda been abused.

Given that experience, of many a failed handle, I use wooden wedges because it's a little easier to modify the handle and hang when/if I need to. As a novice I personally accept that until my craftsmanship improves handles are disposable items.

As for pretty-certain-ties; oil probably swells the wood, if you can get enough in the handle. Metal wedges definitely expand the wood within the eye, and can also split the handle too.



 
Dustin Rhodes
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I hadn't though to "extra" dry the handle or the wedge before installing - good call Dale!
Also re-swelling afterward with oil of some kind is genius, thanks Travis/Rufus!

Thank you all for allowing me to rest easy not buying these the metal wedges - a single set probably doesn't cost all that much, but over the coming lifetime of my tool use, it will be a substantial savings.

I'll let y'all know how it goes as soon as I have time to get it done (which could be 6-8 months, given how often my day job gets in the way of completing my projects I actually care about).
 
Rufus Laggren
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Just for giggles, does anybody else have to revert to files or rasps when shaping the handle? I think I do at least "ok" with sharpening steel edges (they pass the thumbnail test), but I started to wonder when I had real problems getting spoke shaves and chisels to bite on 4 or 5 axe handles I did last fall. Four new handles were Hickory IIRC; another couple I reused and they were probably 20+ years old - don't remember if I tried an edge on them or not.

I gave up completely shaping the handles along their length, at least for the moment. There was a deadline and I wasn't doing good with the edges, so...  I got some hatchets and axes and a couple hammers and sledges with fat handles. Maybe they get a beauty treatment some day, but for now they do the job. Maybe twig my hands a little more than I'd like.


Regards,
Rufus
 
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re handling instructions
https://tennesseehickory.com/images/RehandlingDirections.pdf
 
Dustin Rhodes
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Bruce - that pamphlet is an excellent find, I added it to my son's future library; thanks for sharing!
 
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The useful information starts at minute 2:45. This is how I hang my axes and hatchets, all are rock solid without any metal wedges. Invest in a bottle of Swel-lock. I've used new handles and reused original handles with the same result.

 
Devin Lavign
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An Ax to Grind is a good resource and a must view for those serious about axes etc. here is the pdf of it http://www.bchmt.org/documents/education/AnAxetoGrind.pdf

For a video about tools from the same source: polaski, mattock, etc...



part 2 of video

 
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I don’t know if metal wedges are truly needed, but can’t think of any good reason NOT to use one. It’s just added tightness, and I’ve never had one fall out of any tool in many decades of such use. What IS incorrect is using a metal wedge to compensate for a poor fit, which I think many people do. Soaking an axe in water may rust it slightly, not a big deal, but the real damage is that by repeated cycles of soaking and drying, the wood deteriorates at the head and will eventually snap. I don’t know of any oil that moisturizes wood in a way that causes it to swell, but oiling any wooden handle is a good preservative measure.
The key to Tightness with an axe head, as mentioned already, is that the handle be bone dry as possible when fitted, and great care taken to shape it as snugly as possible to fit the eye precisely.
Really good quality axe handles are hard to find. Looking at the grain of the wood is critical to knowing if that handle is prone to splitting. The best bet is finding a tree branch that is already the proper curve, and of course a species of wood that is the right mix of hard yet ‘springy’, and then making a blank on a bandsaw.
 
Travis Johnson
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Did you know, back in the old days a logger would make his own wooden handle? It had to be cut and curved just the way he liked it, mostly so that it had some "spring" to it. A logger back then would be appalled by what a bought axe handle consisted of today.

They were so hand-made, that once a logger was accused of murdering another logger and it went to court in Bangor, Maine. The logger was acquitted because the axe used in the murder was not cut and curved the way his other axes were. In logger-axe speak, it is called "how an axe is hung". It was not hung right for the accused murderer, so he was not found guilty in the crime.
 
Dale Hodgins
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So probably not a good idea to use your own axe or gun. When I was involved in online dating, several women wondered if I was an Axe Murderer. I wondered, what century are we in, and more importantly how common is this? You'd think that would put an end to the whole enterprise right there, if even just a few incidents occured.
 
Julie Reed
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“Did you know, back in the old days a logger would make his own wooden handle? It had to be cut and curved just the way he liked it, mostly so that it had some "spring" to it. A logger back then would be appalled by what a bought axe handle consisted of today. “

I do know that, and not only understand the ‘why’ but have made my own handles since forever for that reason (and the additional reason that most store bought handles are shit and cost $20 or more). I have also made handles for both my hay and brush scythes, a very tricky undertaking. I was probably the only teenager in our school who proudly owned both a drawknife and wood rasp. My kids used to find it weird when we would be hiking and I’d stop and study a tree and say “I need that branch!”. My direct ancestors were farmers and loggers, and if that wasn’t enough, I grew up reading John Gould and Eric Sloane (both highly recommended).
 
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