Sorted through my pile of staves today, looking for a good piece to use to cut out a blank for my next axe handle. Since I’ve been cutting planks with the chainsaw, I decided to rip a board out of the stave rather than hacking it down with my hatchet.
Now, for those of you who know a little bit about tools. Yes, I am most certainly using oak to make this handle. And not that “good” white oak. This is a species of red oak. In modern axe-handle parlance: I’m committing the ultimate sin. Well, second to ultimate. Ultimate would be using pine. I’m not quite that audacious.
Why am I using oak? Firstly, to make a point. I carved my first bow out of oak (which everyone says should fail) and did a horrible job tillering it, and it has yet to snap on me, or even lift a splinter. No backing, no nothing. My hatchet handle is oak and has outlasted all of my tool handles so far, save for the Fiskars axes. Oak (even red oak) is a pretty durable wood, and I want to test it in a pretty demanding use as the next handle for my boy’s axe, which I use for felling, limbing, bucking, and chopping.
I’ve also managed to destroy two hickory handles on my axe, both within a couple of days worth of actual chopping time. If the oak doesn’t hold up, it’ll make itself known very quickly.
People have traditionally made stuff out of what was found in their immediate surroundings, but they also traded. The famous iceman was found carrying an axe with a bronze blade that is believed to have originated in Italy. Trade has been around for a long time.
For a special tool, special provisions were made. The native people of the area in which I live prized hedge as a bow wood, and there are stories of native peoples traveling 200 miles to find a straight trunk of this species that could make a durable bow.
BUT. I’m sure that many people over the years have used more common woods for hammers and axes, both in a pinch or because they couldn’t be bothered to find a suitable chunk of hickory or ash and then wait forever for it to cure. (My staves have been drying for months, and that still probably isn’t’ long enough)
In short, I want to see what this red oak can do. It’s a hardwood, and a pretty tough one from my daily interactions with it. Where it lacks in certain areas of flexibility and physical strength it may make up for in other areas. Much like a super-hard steel that will fracture with a well placed strike, I believe that hickory may fall short in the long run.
Now, plenty of people use hickory, and they have good results with it, I guess. I’m someone who occasionally over-strikes the target area, and for some reason my handles just keep busting up at odd times. I’m not going to keep trying the same thing and replacing wood handles only to break them. It’s time to rethink this.
And in case you are wondering, I miss with my hatchet too. I also bang on wedges with it and hammer on anything that isn’t steel. It’s been used to pry tree trunks apart. I’ve yanked it when stuck in directions that I probably shouldn’t. I’ve done everything to break it, and still the handle stands, even if the head has popped off the end 3-4 times. I slip it back on, pop in another wedge, and it just keeps going. My hatchet isn’t safe due to babying. I’m far more reckless with it than I am my axe. Post note: the hatchet came with a fiberglass handle originally, which I managed to break in the first week of using it.
So I’m going to test this little theory. I took one of my big staves off the pile.
Normally, I would strip off the pith and the softwood with my hatchet, but I wanted to try the chainsaw thing, so I instead ripped a board from the widest part of the hardwood on one stave. I didn’t snap a pic, but I got a four or five inch wide board about an inch thick from it. I then drew the shape of my new handle design with a pencil and used the jig-saw to cut it out.
That would be the top handle in the image above. I have straightened it here or there by removing excess wood with my hatchet, and I smoothed the edges off with a rasp. It’s still very rectangular and will take some time for me to cut the tongue and the kerf, but it’s in my current projects pile near the door (right beside the machete, which is nearly edged now).
Other modifications. You can tell from the picture that this will be longer than my previous hickory handle. I purchased that handle at ACE, and while it worked well enough, I’m a pretty tall guy, and a stock 28 inch haft just isn’t comfortable for certain kinds of chopping, even for a boy’s axe. The new handle is set to be hafted at 31 inches, giving me a bit more reach.
I’m planning an equally thin handle, so I went ahead and cut it thin. I’ll still need to remove some material from the sides, but front-to-back, it’s about the same as the last one.
I’ve modified the angle at the grip, bowing it a considerable amount more than the store-bought blank was. It’s hard for me to explain the reasoning for this, because pictures don’t match what I see in the field. It’s supposed to add power to the swing. I don’t get that, but whatevs. For me, the important thing is the snap point and the placement of the axe head. With more arc in the handle, it can sort of “reach around” a log to bite it on the opposite side. Also, the snap point in the swing changes, so the axe will hit top speed slightly earlier in the swing arc. For me, this balances my cut and maximizes my swing potential closer to where I physically land my strike, instead of past that point. This is just what it feels like, I’m not basing it on actually testing, just my subjective observation.
I’m also not rushing straight into carving it and getting everything hafted. As I’ve said, the stave has only been sitting a few months, and oak can take up to two years to fully cure. By cutting the blank, the process will accelerate, but it still won’t be fully cured for a while. I’m good with that.
I’m also not in a rush because I’ve been doing my axe-chopping with a Fiskars axe, and the thing is very forgiving of mistakes and mishandling. Every time I land a strike improperly, I tell myself, “That’s a broken axe handle. Ten bucks.” The time spent working slowly and carefully to finish my new axe handle will also give me more chop time with the fiskars to refine my technique.
With it getting dark so early now, that means about once a week for a couple of hours. I’m also not going to alot a ton of time to the axe handle or the machete. Those are night projects when I need to chill and mill for a while, not stuff that I’m going to spend every waking minute focused on.
Anyway, to the haters and naysayers, we’ll see. And if this oak handle serves me half as well as I’m hoping it will, I shouldn’t need to re-haft my axe again this winter. But time will tell.