It isn’t as hard as you might think.
Forgive the black splotches on the picture. I stole it from my Instagram account and the camera on my phone is busted up a little from work.
People, normal people, don’t generally think of cutting their own tools from the side of a tree. But this is exactly how most of the world operated until about 200 years ago. The industrial revolution brought a lot of good to the world, but it’s also been the cause of a sort of social amnesia. We’ve forgotten a lot of the basic skills that our ancestors depended on, and we’re quickly running out of grandparents who remember how to perform these skills.
Making an axe handle will take around 3-4 hours the first time you do it, and it gets faster as you go. That’s using hand tools. With a skillsaw and a belt sander it goes even quicker. I did a couple videos on YouTube about the process, so if you prefer you can watch me there. Please subscribe while you are hanging around.
Using some oak staves that I had put up over the winter, I started crafting a new handle for one of my axe heads. Any chunk of wood will work. Hickory is the de-facto choice for manufacturers, but that doesn’t make it the only wood for the job, and it’s hardly the best. Most hardwoods will work, but favorites are white oak, ash, hedge (also called Osage Orange), yew, locust, maple, or whatever hardwood you have available. Softwoods and evergreens are probably best avoided for heavy-duty tool handles, and bows for that matter.
Grain orientation is something you will hear people talk about a lot as well. In general, for hickory I agree with them. The tree rings should run lengthwise in the direction of the axe head as closely as possible. For other woods, like oak, I’m not so sure that is the best choice, or that it even matters that much, but I won’t open that can of worms right now.
Next you need an hatchet or other cutting tool. If you are getting a blank of wood from the lumber store and you have a capable saw, you can also draw a pattern on the board and cut it out pretty closely. Leave yourself some extra room where the axe will be hafted.
To use a hatchet (you may want to draw a pattern here as well) the wood is scored with deep cuts and then stripped off. I do this many times in the video. The little gouges keep the wood grain from running out, and the chips peel away. A draw knife can also be used for shaping. Anything you can do to get rid of wood fast. Even a chisel and a mallet. Cut the rough shape out a tad larger than you would like the final piece, as there will be some mistakes along the way that are only fixable by removing more material.
Once you have the basic shape, shaving and rasping take precident. I fit the old axe head near the top of my handle and made a basic pattern. I then cut away the wood carefully for several inches, trying for a fairly straight column of wood with the proper profile. To do this, I used a rasp, which is basically like super coarse sandpaper. It also resembles a cheese grater. Keeping the strokes smooth, and moving along the whole length that you’ve allowed for the haft will keep the wood fairly straight and even. It does need to be a little thinner at the tip, but the transition should be very gradual and visually almost nonexistent. The axe head is going to need to slip down this length, so keeping everything as straight as possible is helpful. That should be your goal.
The basic program is this. Put the axe head above the area you are cutting, see where it needs to be trimmed, shave that down a bit, and then repeat. It sounds like a lot, but when you are doing it, it isn’t so bad. Just remove a little at a time and don’t get in a rush. This step can easily take as much time as the rest of the handle finishing, so allow for that.
Once the head with barely slip over the end, you are halfway there. If the head sticks, you can turn the whole axe upside down and hit the bottom of the handle with a mallet, and the head will jump onto the axe tightly. I will do this until I see the wood start to shave around the axe eye, then remove the head and shave those areas down just enough to smooth the crease, and repeat. Again, it takes some time, but getting it right is kind of important.
Once everything fits, the next step is the kerf. A slot is cut longways on the haft-end of the handle, about 2/3 of the way down the area that will be inserted into the axe head. You will need a narrow wedge as well. I make one in the video with my rasp and a thin piece of walnut. Clamping helps.
Put the axe head on one last time, and really tap hard on the handle to drive that little sucker home. Ideally, there should be a little axe handle poking out the top of the head. You DON’T want it flush at this point. You can take of the excess later with a hacksaw or pull saw if you like. Then the wedge is inserted into the kerf, and driven down into the top to secure the handle.
People have different strategies for this. Some oil the wedge to lube it up before driving it in. Some use nothing. The problem is that the wedge is going to naturally want to back out. I like putting a little wood glue on the wedge, either Titebond II or Titebond III, This acts as a lubricant while driving down the wedge and then locks it in place after drying. It’s just my choice. I’m sure there are axe people out there who would consider this a sacrilege, but it works for me and keeps the head on my hatchet quite well.
But the process isn’t over there. I’ve continued shaping and honing the handle. I haven’t gotten to sandpaper yet. My thing is to get it hafted, do a little chopping, see how it feels, and shave it thinner if there is still too much hand shock. Wood is wonderful that it flexes under stress, so by thinning the top half of the handle a little over time, you can add more flex which absorbs the shock of hacking wood. When it’s thin enough to be comfortable, I’ll sand her down good and give a thick coating of sunflower oil to seal her up. Most use boiled linseed oil or tung oil, I’m just weird.
For removing a tiny amount of wood and smoothing the surface, a spokeshave might be the best tool, but I use a pocket knife. Set your knife at 90 degrees to the surface, and drag the blade across the wood. Little peelings will shave off the wood. Actually, you can remove wood quite quickly by doing this, but it’s very controlled and you are only removing a fraction of a millimeter with each draw of the knife. You can also use a file or sandpaper. Just depends on your preference.
The hardest part about all of this, truly, is sitting down and doing it. Wood shaping is one of those skills (actually about 10 different skills depending on what you are making) that you can’t learn by reading about it. Grab a hunk of wood and turn it into something. That’s how you learn.