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Making axe handles

 
Eric Callahan
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Location: Maine
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I posted this on a few other forums and thought it might be useful to some folk here. I like axes. A lot. I have around 45 vintage American axes of different patterns. Handles run at least 10 bucks a pop and the majority of them are crap for one reason or another, so I started carving my own not only for frugality but for a better quality handle- in terms of strength, shape and thinness. I hope somebody can find it useful.

Sorry also for the whacky picture sizes.

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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.

http://s213.photobucket.com/albums/cc31/aguineapig/?action=view¤t=Picture952.jpg

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).

http://s213.photobucket.com/albums/cc31/aguineapig/?action=view¤t=Picture979.jpg

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.
 
Kari Gunnlaugsson
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Excellent! Beautiful! Thanks so much for posting.

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


 
Eric Callahan
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Im usually not patient enough to let it dry completely. Sometimes I will saw the wedge kerf and leave it for a few weeks. What I usually do when I fit a handle green is leave the wedge a little proud, only like a quarter inch or something. That way you can tighten it later without a metal wedge. Another trick I learned is to use a flat peen hammer, or an old cold chisel with the end ground to like a 1/8th inch flat to push the wedge in beyong the flush point (this is really handy and I find myself using it a lot).
 
Mark Larson
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Location: Conroe, Tx
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Figured you may like this video.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPgESIYOVGI

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.
 
Eric Callahan
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Great video. Ill probably never own a designer axe, what with the abundance of vintage ones around here, but a really nice look into what goes into making them. I have a couple of old Maine made axes that I can tell are sandwichs like the one in the video, there is always a little parting in front of the eye on those. I love me some axes, got around 45 axes and adzes. I told myself I had enough at 25 but I cant pass up a good deal, especially on Maine made steel (or northeastern for that matter).
 
Mark Larson
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I hear you. I am planning on picking up a Council Tools Velvicut Hudson Bay this year at some point and perhaps that new Wetterlings. Other than that I think I am going to start looking again at vintage tools. There's just something about them. I don't mean just axes but tools as a whole. I tried a lot of the second hand stores and pawn shops around here but stuff was either so far gone it was worthless or it was junk that wasn't worth buying. A guy you might want to check out on youtube is Skogkniv. He has some really nice axes and he does a lot of restoration. Looking at all his toys over on BushcraftUSA is what originally got me into axes.
 
Mark Larson
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Location: Conroe, Tx
 
Eric Callahan
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My username at BCUSA is Aguineapig. I got into axes in 08 after seeing some on there. You might recognize some of my pics from there.

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.
 
Eric Callahan
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These axes were both covered in grime, with a bit of rust and pitting and the bigger one was fairly mushroomed. Now they are two of my favorite axes. they just need a little work and dignity given back to them.

 
Mark Larson
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Ah ok! I've seen you post before. I sent you a friend request on there.
 
Alder Burns
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Do you all have trouble with handles cracking, especially when working with green wood? 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. Thus, it's good to have some sticks in storage for when a handle is needed. Cut and trim roughly to size, and leave the bark on. Paint the cut ends, and any branch stubs or other places the wood is exposed with oil....old motor oil is the tradition but I imagine any oil will do. Then put them aside to dry slowly in the shade and out of the weather. The point is to get the wood to dry out very slowly through the bark, and it will shrink evenly without cracking. Perhaps an axe is short enough that cracking isn't a problem? I've only ever made one axe handle, and that was from a piece of already dry lumber.
 
Eric Callahan
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Almost every how-to Ive read on making handles says to season the wood in some form, whether rived into quarters or eighths, or whole the in round. I was never patient enough to wait, so I found that splitting and leaving the piece over size for a couple weeks usually gets the worst checking over with. Almost all of my handles were made green and Ive only had a problem with checking on maybe 2. The bigger problem was warping, I had to keep them straight for a few months until dry enough to gain some rigidity. I also keep mine in a consistent enviroment so they arent exposed to huge variations in humidity etc. Ive been working with some 2 inch milled oak stock that is still wet in the middle despite being left for about 2 years and kept out of the elements, so I would tend to say it would take too long for me to wait until its completely dry. A couple weeks seems to work for me.
 
Thomas Alexander
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Those are beautiful axes!
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 .
 
Eric Callahan
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I always focus on getting the wedge tight across the short dimension. if there are gaps lengthwise, while its not ideal, it shouldnt be a big problem if you keep it tight the other way. I always used rivened wood because you get a good grain orientation most of the time, which is conducive towards a strong springy handle. Ive never used a small round, but it will work until it breaks if nothing else. Let me know how it holds up. I have round wood mallets that havent broken, and british ship masts were round so as to be equally strong in each direction (at least I think they were). I make all my own wedges, as long as its dry it will work. I prefer harder woods because I can drive it deeper into the wedge kerf, but some old timers use softwoods like pine or popal and than oil it to swell it. I prefer a tight fit without any soaking of any kind. Handle shape is very much personal prefernce. Straight handles are fine, I prefer a straight of offset handle in that the line of the handle grip passes much closer to the bit, which gives it a better feel and more accurate in my opinion. The slimness/thickness and general shape is more of a preference still. It must provide a good reference to where the bit of the axe is though, and while your body can become familiar with most any shape, some shapes seem to work better than others.
 
Thomas Alexander
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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?
 
Eric Callahan
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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.
 
Thomas Alexander
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The split in the wood seems to run parallel to the grain structure, but i can't tell for sure if it's delamination because i'm really new at this, but all in all it seems to be a pretty straight grained wood. Thank you for the tips on wedge making! I'm finding it really hard to shape the wedges without a vise and a drawknife , so i'm starting to consider looking around for wedges in town, or maybe i should get some tools!
 
Clifford Gallington
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Thank you for taking the time to put this presentation together'
I am going to have to give this a try
 
Jay Angler
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Alder Burns said,
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.

Thanks J.
 
Alder Burns
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Woods do differ dramatically in qualities and appropriate uses, and this not only by species but influenced also by climate, environment, and age of the tree. Generally trees that grow slowly....such as those crowded together or on a marginal site, will have finer growth rings and be stronger and more durable....the challenge here is to find one long and straight enough for a handle. For tool handles I have had the best results from hornbeam (Carpinus), followed by oak, hickory, and pecan.
 
Chadwick Holmes
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Good man!

Yes the hand,Es being made are not the right shape and size for a hand, and often poor grain choices are made.

I like the negative rake angle you have on the head to handle!

Keep it up!
 
Chadwick Holmes
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Alder, you like hornbeam for axe handles? I think it doesn't flex enough for striking tools, you must have iron hands!
 
Peter Ellis
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Hickory is a long time preferred choice for handles, especially for impact tools. Ash has adherents for long handles on rakes or shovels, but can be brittle for impact jobs. Pretty sure I have heard some positive comments on Osage orange for tool handles also.

Hickory is the first that comes to my mind.
 
Chadwick Holmes
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The nice thing about hickory is that the young wood, (sapwood) is springy and flexes, while the heartwood is tough and less giving.

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.
 
Alder Burns
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I've used the hornbeam for shovels. Partly it was because it was the only likely thing around.....not as coarse-grained as oak and less likely to splinter. Oak is the only one I've ever used for an axe.....
 
Chadwick Holmes
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Oh, you had some serious tough guy points going there! I shiver thinking of felling with hornbeam, the shock would run me over!
 
Jay Angler
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Thank you everyone for your input. I've heard of ironwood, and I think there is a Pacific Northwest version of it. I will do some research (it can be tricky as "common names" don't always line up across North America with Latin names). Alder makes good points about choosing a tree that's been growing in less than ideal situations. I will check our forested area for likely candidates. They use yew for bows and it grows here. Would it have the springiness needed for percussion tools? (or maybe too much??) I've got at least one ax head that is handle-less. The two shovels were long-handled, but in the short term I could install a short "D" handle on one of them until I've got the materials for a good long handle, properly and slowly dried.
J.
 
Chadwick Holmes
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There are in fact a lot of things called ironwood, that's my fault.

Do use breathing protection when working yew, as the dust and particles are not great for lung tissues.....
 
Alder Burns
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I do not think there is a hornbeam or hop-hornbeam (Carpinus or Ostrya) native anywhere in the West. My earlier posts were referring to when I was living in Georgia. I have just put my last good Georgia oak stick into service for a pitchfork handle and now I don't know what to do for my next handle! There is oak near me, but it is slow growing and crooked. I'm thinking I should let some of the long, straight sprouts that come up in the centers of the fruit trees (like apricot, plum, pear, or apple), that I might otherwise prune out or top, go ahead and grow out for a few years for this very purpose in mind. What do the expert woodworkers here think of fruit-woods for this purpose?
 
Chadwick Holmes
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I am a big fan of fruit woods for many purposes, they mostly have nice tight grain without the porous rings that add to the roughness, if treated right have good spring and decent strength. Be careful that they don't get brash, that is the one thing they tend to do, so dry fast-ish at room temp. However you shouldn't have brash branches the way you are describing growing them.
 
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