Thursday, February 3, 2011

Making an Axe Handle with Hand Tools

Recently I came across four moderately used axe heads. Two of the heads were from light camp axes and one, though a beard had been cut into it, still showed the Wetterlings head stamp. I decided to make a handle for the Wetterlings first since I use axes primarily as woodcarving tools. The axe heads were dull and rusty and required a general cleanup and sharpening.

Though I own a few power tools I seldom use them anymore. Instead I use hand tools because I’ve come to despise noise and have grown tired of clouds of wood dust and wearing respirators and goggles. Despite some claims to the contrary hand tools don’t really slow you down. On the contrary, they help provide a tranquil working environment and allow you to understand the properties of wood in ways you’ll never appreciate if you always rely on electrical power.

I used a branch of Texas Persimmon, Diospyros texana, for the handle. The locals call it Chapote (chah-poh-the) which is an Indian word. The chapote branch was dry after a couple of years on a shelf in my storage building. The stockman pattern pocket knife is in the photo for size comparison but later on I’ll show you how I used that knife.

First I determined which end of the branch would take the axe head and then traced the pole diameter onto that end to serve as a template for how far I needed to carve. I used a Wetterlings carpenter’s axe for the initial shaping on the chapote branch. When possible I prefer using a heavier axe for woodcarving because the weight does most of the work and I don’t have to expend much energy in the actual cutting. In order to keep a flat cutting plane it’s important to mark (indicated by red lines) exactly how much wood you intend to remove. To keep your carving straight always take off wood along the red lines leaving a V or pyramid shape in the center. After you’ve completed taking the wood off along the lines you can then square off the top of the pyramid the length of the branch. This will ensure a nice and straight cut that doesn’t wander or corkscrew down the branch. I use this same method when I do the initial shaping on my selfbows.
After obtaining a rough width of the handle using the carpenter’s axe I switched over to a smaller camp axe to carve out the actual haft. I could have used the camp axe for all the work but when one does a lot of woodcarving with hand tools you learn to conserve energy. The heavier axe will actually conserve more energy than the lighter axe, but the lighter camp axe conserves more energy when performing detailed work. Note that I did not carve up to the template line but instead left a little room. I’ll work the wood down with more precise hand tools.

I am a lover of the crooked knife and hook knife. Please refer to my YouTube video for details on the crooked knives and hook knives I make:

I’ve grown so accustomed to carving with crooked knives and hook knives that I seldom use any other kind of knife. Besides, South Texas woods are exceedingly hard and Scandinavian grind knives that are so popular in the northern latitudes for various bushcraft projects don’t produce anywhere near the clean cutting or shaving actions of the chisel beveled crooked knife and hook knife. With my knives I can cleanly shave super hard woods like Texas ebony, mesquite, uña de gato (cat-claw) and the rock-hard guayacan that would resist and dull a more traditional type of knife.

I keep my knives razor sharp. Crooked and hook knives enable you to use the more innervated bicep muscle as opposed to the triceps and thus you can maintain extremely precise control of your carving. With my crooked knife and hook knife my skill levels far exceed that which I believe I would have been able to obtain with conventional bi-beveled knives. Or at least that’s been my experience. To each his own, of course.

After using the hook knife and crooked knife I took the handle down a bit more with a Nicholson #50 rasp. This was not a required step and I could have skipped it but I enjoy using a rasp and part of the fun is getting to switch out my tools. I might, for example, use three or four different axes when I work—not because I have to but just for the joy of it.

This is where I’ll use a pocket knife as a scraper. In the above picture I’m using the sheep’s foot blade on a stockman pattern pocket knife. When I make selfbows I prefer the spay-point on a trapper pattern pocket knife. Because the sheep’s foot and spay-point blades have flat edges they work particularly well as impromptu or detail work scrappers. Perhaps it’s best to us an inexpensive pocket knife when using it as a scraper since the blade will dull. Afterward I’ll sharpen the blade and it’s ready for my next project. By-the-way, the above pocket knife is a Magnum Bonsai from Böker.

Next, I made a shim from a paint mixing paddle. In the past I’ve made them from scrap wood lying around my workbench. It’s important to make sure the wedge is long enough to allow you to have something to tap on when inserting it into the haft. Some people make a longer wedge and then tap it in and cut it. I’ve done that too but in this case I more-or-less finished it, although after inserting it I did have to trim it about a quarter inch.

Finally, I used a coping saw to make a 1 inch deep notch where the expanding wedge will be inserted after the axe head has been tapped into the handle. You’ll note that I have worked the haft down to the template line and have been carefully checking the haft by inserting it into the axe head every couple of minutes. This is where you can mess up your work. If you are impatient you can overdo the reduction process and the haft will end up too loose. Also, you might actually split the wood at this point and be left with a nicely carved piece of firewood. My point is that you must go slow and be methodical in your work. A lot of woodwork is about learning patience and being able to adjust your plans to fit your needs when things don’t go exactly as you had hoped. Become proficient in altering the game plan and still ending up where you wanted to go and you’ll have mastered both woodcraft and carving.

Here’s the finished product. I coated the handle with Tung oil and exactly an hour and a half after I started the project I was using the axe to carve a new spoon. The handle is exactly eleven inches long (13 inches overall) and was left full enough to accommodate my hand. As you might have noted on the other axes pictured above I usually have to wrap the handles in order to fit my hand properly. When I make my own handles I can custom fit everything to suit me personally. I consider that a great advantage. One more note: I’m making a simple leather sheath and I’ll post that picture later. Because the axe has a beard it is light and comfortable to use for detail work. I’ve got another piece of chapote like the one used in this handle and I plan to make another handle for the other camp axe I acquired.         


  1. I greatly enjoyed your article. It has given me inspiration to try making a mesquite handle.

    1. Mesquite should make a good handle. May I suggest you get a piece with mostly sap wood as opposed to one with a lot of heartwood. The sap wood is more forgiving and should make a better handle. Good luck. Let me know how it goes.

  2. I definitely agree with you about hand tools; they create a relaxing environment and let you get to know the wood better. I was wondering though about the orientation of the grain. I've always been told that the grain must run in the direction of the force that is going to be applied to it. Thanks for the great article!

    1. Yes and no. For rough carving it is better to cut in the direction of the grain. But in some applications (like making the bowl of a spoon) you must carefully cross the grain. This is much better done with moist or green wood. Also, remember that some woods are much more brittle than others.