I’ve broken my share of ax handles. A couple of real bad swings can reduce a wooden haft to splinters. At best this means a trip to the local hardware store for another handle. Worst case: You’re in the backcountry and are forced to lean sticks against a rock and jump on them to chop them.
Here’s how to make your own axe handle. If you do it right, it’ll be tougher and fit you better than any store-bought handle.
The first thing you will need is a good chunk of wood. It needs to be straight-grained and free of knots. Also, the growth rings must be oriented so they’ll run the correct direction in your finished handle. (See plate 1.)
Hickory makes a good handle and your easiest option might be to find a board with the right grain and go to work. But the best wood I’ve found for a handle is Osage orange. It’s ultra hard, extremely tough, and resilient. It’ll outlast a Hickory handle three to one. Osage, also know as hedge and bois d’arc, is found all over the eastern half of the U.S.
Wood needs to season before it’s suited to be an ax handle. Find a piece of wood that’s been cut or dead for at least a year. If you live in an Osage-deprived area like I do, you might need to contact a buddy who has access to some wood and twist his arm.
My favorite tools for the job include a farrier rasp, a medium cut cabinet file, and a cabinet scraper. A band saw makes rough shaping easy, but you can get the job done with a hatchet and rasp if need be.
Your first task is to reduce the wood to a plank roughly one and a half inches thick, four inches wide, and thirty two inches long. (These dimensions can be adjusted if you want to make a handle for a smaller camp axe or hatchet.) Make sure that the growth rings are oriented correctly (Plate 1). If your wood is in log form, cut it to length. Then, using steel wedges, split your plank out a bit oversized. Trim to size using a hatchet or band saw. Alternately, and with great care, you could cut your plank out using a chainsaw.
Next you will need a pattern. Any axe handle, new or old, that feels good in your hands makes a good pattern. (It’s okay if it has a head on it). Lay your pattern on top of your plank and trace the outline, staying just a shade wide. Trim away everything outside the lines. You should end up with a roughed-out axe handle, one and a half inches thick.
Now it’s time to fit your axe head to the handle. Clamp the handle in a vise, head up. Place the ax head on top of the handle end. Make sure it’s oriented perfectly, then reach inside the eye with a sharp pencil and trace the inside of the eye head onto the top of the handle end. Remove the head.
Draw another line an eighth of an inch outside of your traced line. Using your farrier rasp, reduce the wood to the outside line, and far enough down the handle to accommodate the full depth of the axe head. Now, using the fine-cut side of the rasp, reduce the top till the eye of the axe will just barely start over it. Tap it onto the handle until it stops then remove it. You will see marks on the wood where the head stopped, showing you where wood needs rasping away so the axe head will fit on a little further. Repeat the process until your head fits all the way onto the handle, with a quarter inch of extra wood extending above the top of the head.
Take your time with fitting the axe head. Work slowly and strive for a perfect fit. Make sure that the head stays in line with the handle—it’s easy to lose track of the rest of the handle while you fit the head. The last thing you want is a crooked ax.
Once your axe head will slide stiffly onto the handle, the hardest part is done. Set the head aside for now and start shaping the handle, removing wood until the handle feels good in your hands. If you have big hands, leave the handle heavy. If your hands are small, make it more slender. Either way, make it graceful. If possible, keep a handle that you like close by to use as a reference. Take your time with this. I usually shape a handle until I think it’s done, then spend a day or two looking it over and handling it occasionally. Invariably I find things to adjust, spots to thin, angles to change. After a while, your handle will feel perfect in your hands.
Sand it well, starting with 80-grit paper and working up to 320-grit. Do not sand the wood that fits inside the head. Spray the handle with a good polyurethane finish. Once it’s dry, affix the axe head permanently to the handle.
To do this, use a band saw or a hacksaw and make a two-inch-deep cut down the top of the handle. (See plate 2.) Make the cut as straight and perfect as possible. Next, fashion an Osage wedge the same width and depth as your cut, and about 3/16 of an inch thick at the top. Mix up some 30-minute epoxy. Put a thin layer inside the axe head, and on the outside of the wood that inserts into the head. Slide them together, tapping the head firmly onto the handle. Apply epoxy to both sides of your wedge and pound it into the cut atop your handle. This will wedge the handle really tightly into your axe head. The wedge may split as you pound it in—that’s okay. Seat it as deeply as you can. Make sure that the head stays seated firmly on the handle while doing this.
Once the wedge is seated, clean up excess epoxy and set the axe aside. After the epoxy has cured, use your saw to cut off the top of the handle and wedge about 1/8th inch above the head. Clean up the rough edges with sandpaper and give it a blast of polyurethane.
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