Sorry also for the whacky picture sizes.
I told folks a while back I would do a little write up on the process of making an axe handle. I have had a cold of late so I couldn't get around to it until the last few days. Forgive me because I couldn't get the greatest of pictures with one hand in poor lighting, but I will try to remedy that by explaining and answering any questions that I can.
First I shall touch upon the tools I am going to use.
I have various rasps (mostly used in the finishing process, which I am not going to cover here), a side hatchet (for which a thin, sharp double bevel hatchet or small axe will suffice) for roughing out, a pencil for drawing centerlines and whatnot (these help a lot, especially for those new at this), a draw knife which tends to cover the gray area between the side hatchet and the planes, two spoke shaves, one with a convex sole and the other with a flat sole, and several block planes. A carpenters saw is also present but not shown.
A bench vise or a shave horse also makes it vastly easier. You can prop the stave against a short stump and hold it with the abdomen but its most uncomfortable for long periods.
I am making this handle out of sugar maple I got from a neighbor a few weeks back. It was still very green and easy working today.
I sawed and rived it to different lengths for a slew of different handles. This piece ended up being 30" I think, for an old worn out Jersey that I think is around 3 1/4 pounds. Shown with wooden wedge and line scribbled on to mark where I am going to rive off the excess. This piece is straight grained, but I will touch upon the problem in the next step.
Aforementioned problem being that this piece has a slight bow to it. The result is that unless I were to make it with the grain running perpendicular to the direction of force, the grain is not as through running as it should be. The reason why straight grain is better is because the grain has a better chance of being through running in a curved handle, this is why I am often not phased by a double bit handle or straight handle with grain going the wrong way. As a result of this curve, I am not going to take this handle down as thin as I usually would (typically 3/4 of an inch thick for a dedicated chopper, or 7/8 inch give or take for a typical all-round axe).
(concave side is the bark side, convex in the split side. This picture is poor and does not illustrate the curve very well, my apologies)
Now, grain structure aside, of course we want a straight handle. This is not a broad axe and must not be curved away from the line of the head and handle. To "fix" this natural bow, I am scoring and removing the middle of the stave on the convex side, and the ends of it on the concave side. Make sense? Flame me if it doesn't and I shall try again. I am also cutting out the shape or curve of the handle here, by cutting out the shoulder and the beginning of the swell knob. I prefer a straightish handle, as you will see later on.
I hold the stave with one hand (usually gloved, though not in this case) with the end perched firmly on a stump (higher than a splitting stump so as not to force me to bend over the whole time) and wail away. Careful, you are swinging within centimeters of your fingers. Be present.
The general shape is cut out and the width parralel the direction of force is more or less right (sill oversize in way of thickness).
I switch to a draw knife when I think that I don't have much more to hog off. A little finer, though still easy to take too much off. Be careful.
At this point I switch to the planes and spoke shaves. I use the block planes on the side and plane liberally, sighting up the handle OFTEN (this is the most important part of making a straight and true handle, its easy to lose track and take too much off one side). The spoke shaves are mostly to cut curves like the shoulder and the swell knob.
After a good 20 minutes of planing and trimming, I am left with this. Looks like an axe handle right? Still a bit thick on the shoulder at this point. fixed that later
There was some whacky grain on this piece because of the curve. In this shot I am planing in the opposite direction that I normally would at the swell.
Drew a centerline on each side like this so when I go to shape the wood here to fit the axe I hopefully don't take too much off one side and render the handle useless.
Here is the handle mostly done (mostly, still some spots that need to be planed down) along with its eventual mate.
Total elapsed time was a little over two hours I think. When I first started, it would usually take me four. having the right tools and the right "rules" really helps to work faster and without fear of messing up. Very liberal use a block plane for thinning for example, removes lots of wood fast with relatively little risk since it cuts more or less straight.
Any glaring omissions (really, I'm sick and tired and I'm sure I left something out. Ask question)? Feedback? Flames? Have at it. Hope this is helpful to you all.
Does the handle dry for a time now, or do you fit it to the eye while it's still green? If green, do you find it shrinks away from the eye much or does a wedge solve that?
Made me think of the Gary Snyder poem Axe Handles
I love axes. Got into them when I got into bushcraft. I'm not really to the point that I'm making handles for them yet mostly just due to lack of time.
I like old axes, from a geometric stand point as well as steel quality. Most come to me in pretty sorry shape, but cleaning them up is not that time consuming with the right stuff. I actually think that the profile on my wetterlings is better suited to general work than a GB. Some people apparently disagree and grind the crap out of them, adding much more mid hollow and grinding completely flat parralel to the cutting edge. I am a geometric snob when it comes to axes if that is not apparent =). The misinformation (or maybe just lack of any sort of consensus) is certainly in my favor though, my favorite pattern is the ol Maine wedge, which most people think is for splitting and have no interest in.
I made my first axe handle the day before yesterday, and i have some doubts about how to make them correctly, for instance, i fitted the axe head on the handle while the wood was REALLY green, as i did cut the tree that same day, i guessed the wood shrinked because when trying to chop some wood the head would start slipping up the handle.
Also, the wood used is from an acacia dealbata(silver acacia) which is fairly straight grained, strong, flexible and lightweight, supposedly it´s what the australian natives would use for their axe handles or so i read. But im not using a split of a thick trunk, instead i'm using a sapling's whole trunk and shaving it to attain the desired size and shape, but i had this problem, the axe head's eye is kind of a curved triangle and a gap was left empty at the triangle's angle, so i filled it with shavings of the same trunk...that is not good, right?
Another doubt is the wedges to use on the end of the handle, can i make homemade wedges of the same wood or is it better to buy them(i don´t know as yet if local stores sell them, and in any case i want to make all the parts that are makeable myself... )
And also my axe handle is kind of straight shaped, instead of having those typical curves, is that also bad?
Should linseed oil be applied or something else maybe?
Making my own tool handles feels so good! I also made a hoe handle yesterday using the same principles, both tools look really nice as the trimmed silver acacia wood looks really silvery! I hope they will work, and in any case it's a nice trial and error learning process .
Thomas Alexander wrote:I'm still having problems with my axe head slipping up when trying to make firewood,but it seems to be pretty strong wood, however there is a bit of the handle next to the head that already presents a longitudinal crack, about an inch long, maybe that's because i tried making firewood while the handle is still so green? That's cool that wedges can be homemade!! Any info on how to make the wedge? I tried using silver acacia for the wedge too, using little longitudinal splits and shaping them a bit like a wedge, but they would only go into the other wood a little bit and then the top would break, even when using a wooden mallet...i guess that's because both the handle and the wedge are still green?
Ive used my handles green before without having them split or shear or anything like that. I might attribute that to the use of a round piece instead of rivened though. Does the split seem to be like delamination of the grain structure? Making wedges is also very easy. I use 1 piece most of the time, although there is nothing wrong with using 2 or 3 pieces to fill a weird shaped eye. The wedge kerf should run between 2/3 and 3/4 of the depth of the eye, and the wedge must fill as much of that lengthwise, as well as in regards to the wedging action, as possible. you need to hammer the crap out of it to get a good fit, which I learned from time after time of the axe coming a little bit lose.
Years ago I learned that to make a shovel or pitchfork or other long handle that doesn't crack, one cuts the sticks in advance....a year ahead if possible, six months at the very least.
Good thing I'm patient, Alder Burns.
However, my specific question is, what are the best woods to use for long shovel handles? It seems that many trees grow quickly and thus have a less fine grain these days (I'm told this is due to global warming and the increased CO2 in the atmosphere). However, I'm sure real wood-workers will have some good ideas of better species to choose for this application - I know some trees are described as "harder" but when does that make them more brittle, or just containing more BTU's for firewood, but not what I should look for in a long tool handle? Similarly, if I want to plant specifically to "grow my own handles for my grandchildren," what should I plant and how should I encourage it to grow up to be good handles?
I don't want to go to all the work of replacing them with something that will break too easily, but you could buy a whole new shovel for the price of a new handle and that's just *wrong*. I've already got 2 shovel blades in the cue, but I suspect there are a lot more going to the landfill that I could rescue with a little help from some knowledgeable Permies out there.
Hickory is the first that comes to my mind.
I like the heartwood fir chisel handles that see decent mallet use.
I like ironwood (hornbeams and hop hornbeams) for mallets and wedges for felling.
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