When Axe Handles Break . . . .
Two things have caused most of the broken axe handles in human history:
- Overshooting the target and smashing the handle.
- Getting an axe stuck and trying to lever it loose again.
If you crack, split or break a handle doing either of those things, the only safe solution is to replace it with a new handle. Since that can be a difficult afternoon’s work, many people have tried other solutions such as wrapping the handle with tape, pouring epoxy glue into the socket of the head, and numerous other foolish things that don’t work. The first rule is: replace the handle.
Sometimes — if the handle is only loose in the axe head — you may be able to tighten it up with a new wooden wedge and steel wedge, but the chances are that if you’re having trouble you’ll continue to have trouble until that new handle is fitted properly in place.
If you own a standard axe, a replacement handle will probably be available at your local hardware store. By that I mean a real hardware store, not the kind you find in a mall. There will be lots of pipe, rolls of fence wire, and probably the place will smell like feed and fertilizer. Somewhere in there they’ll have a rack of tool handles.
Ash or hickory make the best handles and few store clerks will know what kind is in stock. If you have a choice, get ash. Hickory is more prone to shatter, although it’s a tough and durable wood. If you have a choice between finished handles and unfinished handles, get the unfinished. Lacquered handles are not any better and blister hands much more quickly. If the company put lacquer on the handle, they probably didn’t know much about handle making. Instead, they know how to market substandard work by disguising faults. Not many companies regard the word “hickory” as anything more than a marketing ploy. A handle labeled hickory might be hickory, ash or red oak. Of the three, ash is the best from kiln-dried stock. Kiln-dried hickory often includes streaks of dark heartwood, the softer and punkier part of hickory. In an unfinished handle that’s easy to spot, but dark lacquer blends the streak of heartwood in. Lacquer also fills the pores of red oak, disguising it to the average buyer, who will wonder why it shattered the first time they landed a hard swing.
Air-dried handles are more flexible and shock-resistant but also require more attention and you’ll have to make them yourself. Turney Wood Products of Harrison, Arkansas, still manufactures true hickory handles of good quality and without lacquer, although kiln-dried. Turney did try the mass marketing approach many years ago but responded to the outrage that poured in from customers and brought back the unfinished raw wood handles all the professional users wanted. An expert can tell by looking whether it’s ash, hickory or hickory with a built-in heartwood fault. Ash is the best, with a grain that locks up immediately after the tree falls and won’t split cleanly ever again. Split a piece of dry ash and it becomes a mess of interwoven ribbons of wood. Ash fails by slow degrees and never shatters. Hickory resists failure but does split after a hard struggle. Oak shatters so easily that if you make your own handles you realize there’s just no point in using it.
While you’re there in the hardware store, get a couple of wooden handle wedges and twice that many steel handle wedges. They come in different sizes, so don’t be shy about bringing in the old axe to match up to parts.
Out with the Old
I’d say that knocking the old handle out of the axe, no matter how busted up it may be, is the worst part of this job if I didn’t know what a bear it can be to put a new handle in. So just deal with this part first.
- A strong bench vise
- A saw
- A hammer
- A cold chisel
- Two sections of mild steel rod, one a quarter inch diameter and another a half inch diameter
- A wood rasp
- A file
Saw the broken handle off close to the ax head. Clamp the ax head in the vise. If there are wedges still in the top of the handle, knock them out with the hammer and cold chisel.
Open the vise again, turn the ax head upside down, and start with the largest diameter steel rod that will fit in the socket. Begin tapping the handle out, carefully. It should be easier to knock out from the bottom, and determined tapping ought to break it up. Getting frustrated and driving the rod into it like a nail won’t help. Attack different parts of the handle, not just one spot.
Things not to do:
- Do not throw the ax head in a fire to burn out the old handle. That ruins the temper.
- Do not try to drive a chisel or screwdriver through the socket. It will get stuck.
A Trick to Try:
Soak the ax head overnight in a bucket of water and then let it dry for a day. The water will swell the wood, but when it dries it will be looser than before.
If any bits of handle are jammed in the corners of the socket, use the smaller rod to punch them out. Make sure the socket is clean before you try to fit the new handle.
Keep the ax head upside down in the vise while you check to see if the new handle fits. If it goes into the socket cleanly and easily, take it back to the store because you almost certainly got the wrong handle for the ax. A new handle has to fit tight, and from the manufacturer it should be just a little too big for the socket. It should have a saw kerf in the end, cut across the longest axis, and the wooden wedge you bought should be just a little shorter than that slot. The wedge will go in that slot eventually, but not quite yet.
The sides of an ax socket are not parallel. Towards the top, the opening widens. When the handle pushes through, inserting that wedge expands the handle to fit, so it can’t back out. If you trim the handle down so far that it goes in the socket easily, that fit won’t be solid. Use the rasp to carefully trim the end of the handle down until it matches the bottom of the ax head socket. This will take awhile, but the more careful you are and the closer you get the handle to perfect, the longer it will last. Once the top of the handle has that exact fit, shave the sides of the handle down so you have a perfectly parallel section long enough to go completely through the socket.
This takes a lot of careful work and repeated testing. Every time you reach a snag in the work, pull the handle out to look for high spots and level them off a little more. If you’ve done a perfect job, when the top of the handle protrudes from the top of the ax the fit should be snug, without any sideways slop. The ax head should bottom out against the flared shoulder of the handle.
In the days of independent town blacksmiths, finding a way to permanently fix a tool to a handle was like finding the Lost Dutchman gold mine. If you did it and you patented the concept, you’d be rich.
We are still working on this problem. The best solution so far is the system of double wedging that originated sometime in the 1800’s. I admit that the accuracy of that history is questionable — I read it somewhere in a stack of old blacksmithing magazines from that period. Whenever it first was used, it’s still the best answer we have and every major manufacturer of tools today fits wooden handles to steel tool heads in the same way.
If you have excess handle protruding above the top of the ax head, saw it off as close to the steel as you can get. If the handle is fitted to the head tightly, that open saw kerf will probably be closed. Line up the edge of the wooden wedge with that kerf and tap it in with a hammer. Use light taps or you’ll break the wedge. Once you get it started, you may want to lay a bead of wood glue on either side. I’m not convinced that helps a lot, but it may make things tighter for awhile. It at least causes no harm. Drive the wedge as deep as it will go. The wedge will expand the sides of the handle to fit the sides of the socket. If you accomplish that without using the full length of the wedge just saw the waste part of the wedge off.
The genius of the steel wedge, the revolutionary method that is our best answer so far to the problem of handles that come loose, it that with it you can expand the handle head lengthwise as well as to the sides. There’s no kerf to help you start it, so place it in the center of the handle head and tap it in like a nail. It will split the wooden wedge in half and expand the handle in that second direction. Drive it in with a cold chisel or punch at the last, so the head of the wedge is just beneath the top of the handle. This helps keep the steel wedge in place.
You could try epoxy on the steel wedge, and many so-called permanent handles do use a poured epoxy system, but in use you’ll find that permanent fixes aren’t so permanent, and a few hundred solid strikes will knock most of them loose. Depend on the wedges, not on glue, and remember to check from time to time to make sure they aren’t working loose. If you catch them in time you can tap them back into place and they’ll be good for awhile.
Rare Tools Need Rare Handles
If, like me, you actually use tools most people think of as antiques (instead of hanging them on the wall) you will have to make your own tool handles from time to time. If, for example, you try to fit a chopping axe handle from a modern manufacturer to a broad axe head forged in 1900, you’ll have to rework the handle to make it fit the socket. It will fit badly, and the head may not be aligned correctly with the grip unless you have the wisdom to check that beforehand. Many of the old hewing axes were designed to be used with offset handles that are slightly curved. Substituting straight handles puts your knuckles in harm’s way — even though that may be tricky to visualize, a few strokes with the wrong handle will convince you.
Handle making is a fine art, every bit as demanding as the crafting of a fine bow. None of us were alive in the days when manual tools were the way we affected the world. Today what is available is the equivalent of “one size fits all.” Two hundred years ago, every tool matched the person. If you learn how that works, you’ll understand that John Henry didn’t beat the steam hammer by strength alone.