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Trying to make new handles for some small axes

 
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Location: Japan, roughly zone 9b - wet and warm climate
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Here's my first failed attempt at making a handle to hang on these old axe heads. The handles on them were very old and broke in use.

I had some persimmon branches from pruning my trees that were big enough to split and rive. Unfortunately I'm starting to think that either
A. Branch wood is no good for this application
or
B. Persimmon wood is inappropriate
or
C. The wood needs to be greener

Though C introduces the problem of shrinking.

I didn't film my second attempt, but I still had enough length on the same handle so I carved out the head size again. It snapped when I was hanging it. The second time instead of leaving a blocky shoulder like in this video, I carved it to taper out to the full size. I got further with the hanging doing it that way, but was still unsuccessful.

So far when I've tried to hang it I get the problem where the head tilts forward, like it's nodding its head. I don't know why or how to correct this.

 
L. Johnson
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A few more notes about errors.

I tried making the wedge space with a chisel instead of a saw. This was a bad idea.

There was a knot near the base of the head tennon. It was one big reason the wood split this time.

I was not hanging the head properly this time. I checked some videos on axe head hanging and did it somewhat more appropriately on the second attempt - using a mallet on the bottom of the handle with the axe turned upside down.
 
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If it breaks while hanging, I think you're right that it was not a good piece of wood. Persimmon in my area is quite resillient and springy, and of moderate hardness and makes good handles, bows, and (traditionally) golf clubs. Your type may be quite different.

Branch wood will likely have lots of internal stresses, and would typically not be ideal for handles.

On a handle with ideal grain orientation that came from a large log, I find a split kerf superior to a sawn one, but on less than ideal wood sawing the kerf is practically a must.

If the head is closing up as you drive in the handle, it could be different issues. The first would be geometry. Driving the handle into a symetrical, double-bit head would present little problem, but the uneven mass on a single-bit head makes it want to tilt due to inertia. This would be exacerbated by a softer wood, which would allow the head to dig in or shave wood off of one side. It could also be, of course, an issue of it simply not fitting properly. A good thing to do if possible, is to make the part that goes in the head much longer than needed so it can be tapered such that at least one head length can fit through the head slightly loose, holding the head in alignment as it is driven on. If that is not possible, I place the head on the ground and hold the handle at the exact angle I want as I drive it in at least 3/4 of the way through before picking it up and driving it home. This is especially important on heads with internal ridges, because once they start, they can not be adjusted later.
 
L. Johnson
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I had to look up double bit and single bit, I thought of it until now as double sided and single sided.

I have some castanopsis logs from a fallen tree on my mountain property. I may try to get some better handle wood out of them. They were trunk wood. The species is related to oaks. Hopefully that will work better than the persimmon branch wood. I am hoping there's enough material there to get one chair out of though... so we'll see.

Thanks too for the tips on hanging methodology. I'll try to keep that in mind for my next attempt.
 
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Quite a few things going on here. Did you notice that the piece broke right off almost in the middle as you were splitting it? At that point the billet was eliminated from possible handle status. There were knots in the piece at both top and bottom. One of the knots is part of why and where your handle split when you tried to chisel in the wedge.

You want clear wood with as straight a grain as possible for making axe handles. That's one thing. You want to saw the kerf for your wedges. Driving a chisel into end grain is a splitting technique, you will split your handle doing that. Your wedge wants to push the handle against the sides of the axe eye, not the ends, so make your cut for your wedge in line with the axe edge, not perpendicular to it. You get much more are for pressure and friction pushing the sides out rather than the front and back. Use hardwood wedges the length of your axe eye front to back and make them three quarters the depth of the axe eye. Cut the kerf just a little deeper than the wedge is long.

An axe handle is a complete thing, not just the part that goes into the axe's eye. Make a handle that fits your hands and flows from the pommel swell up to the neck just below where the head sits, then tapers smoothly into the axe eye. Without the axe head in place, the handle should be a flowing continuum from top to bottom. It's not just appearance, it's functionality and strength. That sharp angular shoulder you made, where you put a tenon on your piece of wood and fit it in the axe? That's a good technique in wood to wood mortice and tenon joinery. But in hanging an axe, it creates stress points where things will fail.
Here's a link to someone who, if you can be patient with his presentation, can teach you a tremendous amount about how to fit an axe to a handle.  


The other thing that was very apparent in watching your video is that all of your tools are seriously in need of proper sharpening. Not intending to be insulting, trying to help you improve your work and avoid injuring yourself. The kind of force you were using with that huge drawknife (I've never seen one with a blade that deep before) is difficult to control and that becomes dangerous. A drawknife should be razor sharp, able to easily shave paper thin curls off of a piece of wood. Same for chisels. Sharp is safe, dull is dangerous. Again, control is the key to safety, and sharp tools are much easier to control, because you can do the task with much less force.
 
L. Johnson
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Thanks for the tips Jordan and Peter.

I've put the project on hold as other things have taken priority. But I'm going to try to use some shiinoki wood. I can't remember the English name for it right now, but it's related to oak and I have some trunk wood that fell on my mountain property.

I really feel a lot of what you both said. Reflecting on failures is super valuable to me. I believe strongly in the iterative process of design: Prototype -> fail -> redesign -> fail -> redesign .... -> succeed.

A lot of the challenges for me are the mixture of language in information and culture in resources for solving these age old problems. And of course I'm trying to learn as I go.

You're totally right about the sharpness Peter. I need to invest some time in preparing my tools. Time is so precious, isn't it? I envy my younger self who had so many idle hours to think and dream...

The drawknife I'm using is totally inappropriate, but it's what I've got at the moment. The tool you have is better than the one you don't (I think that's the adage). The blacksmith that made it for me specializes in hoes. He came to me recently and asked me about it. I think he did a bit more research into drawknives after he forged it for me. We talked about some improvements for when I have him forge me a new one in the future. I'd rather support his business than buy a "proper" drawknife off the internet.



 
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Location: Colorado Springs, Zone 6a, 1/8th acre city lot.
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You've got a fun project ahead of you but it could take a bit to figure things out.

Wood selection. I agree with that you should have known the wood was no good at the point that the split broke off half way through. But really you don't have to get that far into the process. The simple test is one I learned for bowmaking. Get a piece of the wood and break it. If it breaks cleanly like in the video it's no good. If it leaves a frayed end that means it has the fiber strength to make a solid handle.

Have you hafted an axe or hammer before? Like do you have a reference point for what finished product you're looking for? Normally those are slightly oversized and little shavings of wood curl up as you pound the head on. You want the handle to be really tight in the eye even before you drive the wedge in. Again, you want the handle to taper as it goes into the eye, not to have an abrupt, right angle cut. That's a stress point already and no sense making it worse.
You definitely will want to make sure the handle is smooth and you'll probably want a knob at the end of the handle to make it easier to hold on to when swinging. A tool that you'll want to acquire is a cabinet scraper. It's essentially a card of steel with squared-off edges that have then been pulled into a burr edge with a smooth screwdriver or something. It's an amazing tool that lets you sand wood relatively smooth as well as some limited shaping. I'd recommend a set of them  with both squared and curved scrapers. I have a set of three that I think I paid about $10 for.

Your shaving horse looked adequate for the job but your drawknife and technique made me cringe. It's an awfully wide blade which could get in the way for making a tight radius. The handles, however, are its biggest design flaw. You can't get nearly as good of control of blade angle. What a drawknife should have is handles that are at 90 from what they are and are in line with your pulling force. That way you have a long lever that lets you do extremely fine angle adjustments. Once you get the thing sharpened properly you can pull an incredibly fine curl of a shaving with it. And yes, you pull a drawknife. Neither drawknives or shaving horses are designed for pushing. Oh, and drawknives are single-bevel blades. Meaning you sharpen them only on the top side. The only time you touch the bottom (flat) side of the drawknife is flat on a fine sharpening stone.

http://www.woodreview.com.au/news/using-drawknives
  This website seems to do a pretty good intro to drawknives.

I hope you can figure this out. It's an awful lot of fun making your own handles and it puts a personal touch on a tool you use a lot.

I suppose one last thing is which way the grain runs. I think it's best to have the grain running straight front to back. At least I've heard that's best for shovel handles. That does mean that if your handle isn't seasoned all the way and warps, it will warp side-to-side instead of front-to-back. That may or may not be a problem.

I wish you success,
Daniel
Staff note (L. Johnson) :

I've discussed the drawknife already, but a little more information on it.

This design is based on a Japanese drawknife called a "sen". It is not single beveled, but double beveled, and the design of the handle allows it to be used both pulling and pushing. It has some versatility that a western drawknife doesn't but it lacks in efficiency and is incapable of many things.

In any case the blade is way too wide.

 
L. Johnson
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This castanopsis is much much better to work with. I roughed a new handle pretty quickly. I also sharpened my drawknife.

The wood is still somewhat wet, so I left a lot of material in the taper for drying. It hung nicely and straight.

There are a few spots on the handle I'm worried about though... I found a big old woodworm or other larva in the log and ditched it, but there are a few tiny holes that I can't identify. I might just soak it in water for long enough to drown anything that's in there. Obviously ideally I'd choose some stock that has no imperfections... but I'm okay with calling this learning handle number 2 if it fails. There's a lot more material left in the castanopsis log to make into handles.
IMG_20211126_134317062.jpg
Castanopsis had some twist and didn't split so cleanly
Castanopsis had some twist and didn't split so cleanly
IMG_20211126_135030482.jpg
It cleaned up nicely though, after this I was getting tissue thin shavings.
It cleaned up nicely though, after this I was getting tissue thin shavings.
IMG_20211126_142955140.jpg
Showing the taper
Showing the taper
IMG_20211126_150940876.jpg
Finished for now, until it dries some more
Finished for now, until it dries some more
 
Jordan Holland
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Peter Ellis wrote:
You want clear wood with as straight a grain as possible for making axe handles. That's one thing. You want to saw the kerf for your wedges. Driving a chisel into end grain is a splitting technique, you will split your handle doing that. Your wedge wants to push the handle against the sides of the axe eye, not the ends, so make your cut for your wedge in line with the axe edge, not perpendicular to it. You get much more are for pressure and friction pushing the sides out rather than the front and back. Use hardwood wedges the length of your axe eye front to back and make them three quarters the depth of the axe eye. Cut the kerf just a little deeper than the wedge is long.
...
The other thing that was very apparent in watching your video is that all of your tools are seriously in need of proper sharpening. Not intending to be insulting, trying to help you improve your work and avoid injuring yourself. The kind of force you were using with that huge drawknife (I've never seen one with a blade that deep before) is difficult to control and that becomes dangerous. A drawknife should be razor sharp, able to easily shave paper thin curls off of a piece of wood. Same for chisels. Sharp is safe, dull is dangerous. Again, control is the key to safety, and sharp tools are much easier to control, because you can do the task with much less force.



I agree straight grain would be ideal for straight handles, though I think curved grain that matches the curve of a curved handle would be ideal in that situation. Traditionally, kerfs were split. Maybe it was because early on people were much more likely to have a knife or chisel than a saw, but it continued far into the times when saws had been perfected. I imagine they started being sawn pretty exclusively after handles were mass produced from sawn boards, and the grain was not as carefully oriented as a hand-made handle. In any case, a split kerf will follow the grain exactly and the wedge cannot bottom out. I like to sharpen the wedge to a feather edge, and in my mind's eye I picture the fibers of the wedge intermingling with the fibers of the handle, helping to hold the wedge in place.

Traditionally, a kerf is not always made lengthwise across the head. I'm not too familiar with Japanese tools, but I have seen many new hatchets of the variety pictured with actually no kerf at all, and a removable steel wedge driven between the handle and head, oriented cheek to cheek. The Japanese heads' eyes will likely not have a taper made conducive to being wedged the way you describe. I also wonder if, since they were made to be wedged cross wise, it would be much more likely to accidentally split the welds if a wedge were driven in line with the head. Western heads tended to have more substantial polls and rounded eyes. Even some western tools had crosswise kerfs. I recall from some old ads for claw hammers that there was apparently stiff competition between companies to see who could claim to have the most solid system. Some of those involved two or three wedges, some driven crosswise.

I may use a hard wedge if the handle is a relatively soft wood, but I've found that hard wedges in hard wood don't want to stay put. I feel they are also much more likely to break the eye of the axe head. With a soft wood and a hard wood driven together, the softer wood can compress. I think this is also more likely to allow the joint to stay tight in varying weather conditions, because the compressed softer wood acts like a spring and can compensate for slight variations in size. My favorite wood for wedges is typically quarter-sawn pine. The softer fast growth rings are very compressive, and the harder slow growth rings are much tougher and have rosin in them, helping the wedge to bite into the wood and hold. I love Buckin' Billy Ray (who couldn't?), but I believe he glues in his wedges, which I never do. If the head loosens, what are you going to do? Very possibly be making a new handle, because you can't get the wedge out without drilling, and they don't make wedge-shaped drill bits for some reason, lol. I do sometimes use rosin. It provides friction without the permanence of glue (and it's all natural). You also won't see me driving those steel wedges in to hold the wooden wedge in place. If you've ever removed one, you'll know what I mean. If I have a wedge that is suspect, due to a rather obtuse angle or something, I drill a pilot hole through the wedge and handle and install a screw with a countersunk head. A screw can easily be removed.

As for the sharpness of the tools, I think he's demonstrated he knows a thing or two about sharpening from his other projects. Truly hard woods can be a bear to work no matter how sharp things are. Historically, draw knives were not intended for removing paper thin shavings, but for hogging off large amounts of wood in a hurry. For the finer work, they would normally have put down the draw knife for a spokeshave, or something more appropriate. Western drawknives also could have straight handles or double bevels. There was always more than one way to skin a cat, apparently.
 
L. Johnson
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Very nice. Now we'll see how much more they have to dry. There should be enough material to accommodate for shrinkage, but we'll just have to wait and see.

Do you usually cut the kerf when it's still green or after it's about as dry as it will get?
IMG_20211128_104434043_HDR.jpg
Tight fit for now
Tight fit for now
 
Jordan Holland
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If they are still green, I cut the kerf then so they have an extra place for air to circulate and dry out faster.
 
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