is fitting wooden handles in tools. It doesn’t seem like much of a skill, seemingly anyone can do it. Few can do it well.

For a long time, I made hammer and axe handles out of handsplit hickory. We’d keep chunks of it around the house just for that purpose, and a hand split handle will outlast a machine made handle a dozen times

Handsplitting hickory may not always yield the straightest handle, but a handsplit handle shaped with a drawknife and rasp and shined up with a piece of broken glass will last about forever if some knucklehead doesn’t hit the handle instead of the head.

Meet my nephiew, the destroyer of axe handles.

Anyway, I don’t want to talk about that anymore.

My regular axe is a relatively modern double bit. It’s been through three handles, all commercial. The splitting axe, on the other hand, is an old single, probably 1920’s vintage, which has been sharpened past it’s temper, and in fact the edge is thick and shaped like a deep wedge, no use for cutting or felling. In fact, it’s less an axe than a light maul, and I like it fine

Except it has lost it’s old handsplit handle. It was one of the best handles I ever made, and it was cracked and frayed by the head so bad it was scary to use.

A friend, several years ago, who understood my feelings about tool handles, handed me one he’d handpicked out of his store stock. “Here’s a nice straight one” Babe said, “I haven’t seen one this nice in a very long time” it did have remarkably straight grain, and it was a perfect size. He taped a basswood wedge to it and sold it to me for seven bucks. It sat in the garage for a while, but since I have a big pile of wood in the back of the shed, I needed my axe back. So I drilled out the old head and fitted the new handle

To properly fit the head on an axe you need to make sure the head fits the wood snugly and completely- a lot of trying and a lot of time in the belt sander are required to make the fit tight but not a force fit. Then you have to fit the wedge- but most people simply drive in the wedge. You can’t do that and make this work.

Sledge and axe and hammer handles all come with a sawn slot to put the wedge in, but if you use the wedge as is, it will only go in a short way, and then you have to use metal wedges to do the rest of the job. The secret is to put the handle in a vise, and use the vice to close the sawn slot, then cut the slot again. Keep doing this three more times; each time you squeeze the slot closed and cut it again with the saw, it makes the slot more wedge shaped. After four times, the slot is approaching the shape of the wood wedge.

When you put the handle in the axe head you will now have a decent wedge shaped slot to put the wood wedge in. I fill this slot with, and soak the wedge in boiled linseed oil. The wedge will now go in tight and hold fast. Once it’s in as far as it will go I soak the head in linseed oil again (I usually use a piece of tinfoil for this, filled with oil and wrapped around the head) and let it stand for four to six hours. After it has soaked like this I use a coping saw to cut off the excess wood, sand it flush on the belt sander, and soak the whole assembly again. The finished product looks like this.

axehead.jpg

The old head never had a metal wedge as long as I’d owned it, and my double bit has never had a steel wedge. Those heads ain’t coming off. An occasional touchup with linseed oil will keep them tight and strong. Linseed oil also makes a good finish for the handle but it has to be left to dry a long time before use.