Lacquered vs Bare Wood Axe Handles and the Demise of Turney Wood Products

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Remembering Turney Wood Products and the sinking of the USS Utah. By U.S. Navy photo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Some things you just love so much that you expect they will always be there, and in this case it went beyond that. I didn’t even know they were gone.

I used to write quite a lot on Hubpages, until they got scared of Google and starting messing with me and telling me what I ought to do. I don’t work for them any more, and I don’t work for Google either. I’d rather just say what I think. One thing I said there, that got the most attention from fellow axe users, or at least people who thought they were such, was that if an axe company sells you an axe with a lacquered handle it’s evidence they don’t know what they’re doing.

Here, in detail, is why I believe that is so. The steel in an axe is only half the axe. Good steel is pretty common these days. We have better steel today than in any other time in human history, and since axes are still relatively cheap you can expect that the axe you will buy is ordinary carbon steel. Not laminated “Damascus type” steel or carbide steel or stainless steel, but good plain carbon steel — the best idea anybody ever had where axes are concerned. Don’t worry so much about the axe head, it’s probably fine. Worry about the handle. Good handles are rare.

(If you need a good handle today, check out House Handle Company, in Cassville, Missouri, the Union half of the Confederate Ozarks. For fifty cents more they will sell you a handle without lacquer; and for two dollars more they will hand pick the best they have. For another $1.50 they’ll hand shave a handle to octagonal, the best for grip. I will forgive them for fighting on the Yankee side.)

As much as manufacturers have progressed in the art of making the axe head, they’ve declined in the art of making the handle. The handle is extremely important and transmits the power of your swing to the bit of the axe, either effectively or ineffectively. One of the terrible things that happened since industrialization took over the axe industry is that axe makers now nearly exclusively use kiln-dried wood for axe handles. Kiln-drying makes changes in the handle wood that aren’t desirable. Compared to air-dried wood, kiln-dried wood is more brittle and has less “life”, a quality you only appreciate if you use an axe a lot. With an air-dried handle, some of the power of your swing stores in the wood as it flexes and that flex amplifies the effect of your swing and absorbs some of the rebound shock that ruins your hands. It’s an art. Swing too hard and you’ll shatter a kiln-dried handle, while an air-dried handle just hums. An effective swing is somewhere around the shattering point, and an air-dried handle delivers power more effectively, something you’ll have to try yourself to prove. You won’t find air-dried handles in stores, but you can make them yourself. Should only take a couple of years to learn the fine points of that.

Modern axe handle manufacturers usually ignore all these things. No company uses split wood any more, because all the manufacturing equipment depends on saw blades. Saw blades plow through the wood grain, regardless of direction. You can’t make a good archery bow from sawn wood unless it’s perfectly straight grain, something that in practical terms no longer exists. The same limitations apply to axe handles. If it’s sawn, it’s not as good as it could be. Sawn wood splits more easily than cleaved wood. Faults are built into it, even if the manufacturer uses the best materials available.

Most don’t. In older times, people chose ash over hickory, and hickory over oak, and looked for the best trees of any of those preferred woods when making handles. Now, companies look for wood without too many knots, and class all those woods together. If you don’t know ash from oak when you’re buying a handle, you can get screwed. Oak doesn’t last long. Hickory is better than oak, but not as good as ash. Takes an expert to tell the difference, and when a company lacquers the handles it makes identifying the wood much more difficult.

Red oak’s open pores are a sign of poor quality to those familiar with handle woods. White oak checks (splits) too easily to make good handles, so you shouldn’t find white oak in that application at all. HIckory is good, but only if the handle is entirely sapwood. Most of a hickory trunk is sapwood, with a small core of darker and punky heartwood. There’s no strength in hickory heartwood, which is dead and soft. If you see dark heartwood streaks in a hickory handle, it’s no good, just a handle with a built-in fault. Lacquer covers up that fault and makes it look pretty. Ash is by far the best wood for handles, and the best ash with straight grain and no faults will last a very long time if not abused. You can tune an ash handle by shaving it down, choosing a stiff action or a flexible strike. Lacquering handles turns everything the same color, and it’s tough sometimes to figure out exactly what people are selling, because of that lacquer disguise. Usually a handle is labeled “Hickory” but it’s probably oak. If a company sells ash handles, they usually label them as such, because ash costs more. You won’t see either open pores or streaks of dark wood in ash. It’s light in color and oddly fibrous.

Just to explain the fantastic qualities of ash, if you cut an ash tree, for firewood, you need to carve it up and split it the same afternoon. Otherwise, it won’t split. When It’s green, it’ll split with a maul and some wedges or just a splitting maul if you’re good. Wait until tomorrow, and if you try to split it, you have a bundle of ribbons fighting your every move. Hickory is almost that bad, or almost that good, depending on if you want firewood or handles.

These different types of woods fail in different ways. Red oak shatters. Hickory lasts longer than red oak and might partially crack before failing. When it goes, it goes all at once. Ash has such a tightly locked grain pattern that it outlasts either of it’s best competitors. Ash might break, eventually, but to actually sever it you’ll have to bend and twist and probably chop the broken handle. That’s an excellent safety feature which prevents flying axe heads, as well as a mark of extremely tough, light and durable wood.

My personal opinion is that axe companies use these different woods indiscriminately and lacquer the product they make because nobody in the executive branch of the company ever used an axe for more than three minutes. They believe it’s fine. It’s not. The quality of the handle makes more difference in the way the axe works than the quality of the steel does. Cheap steel is good enough for most work, although if you want a racing axe you need to shop for something better. Lacquered handles just make the manufactured product look uniform in quality. There’s no uniformity, under the lacquer. The lacquer just sells axes.

In a practical sense, lacquer on a handle is a bad idea anyway. It does preserve the wood to some extent, by keeping external moisture out. Lacquer also sticks to your skin when you grip it, and in minutes of reasonable use will tear the skin off your hands. Try it, if you don’t believe me. I recall a story . . . .

I was working on a maintenance crew years ago and a young fellow hired on to work with me who clearly didn’t have a lot of experience with hand tools and thought that maintenance work would be a nice job for the summer. Heehee! Most people never liked to work with me because they had to actually do things and keep up. In the early afternoon of his first day of trying this, he suddenly dropped his shovel and rushed up to me with open palms as though something horrible had happened. I glanced at his hands as I worked and saw that he’d torn some blisters loose. Apparently he’d never done that before. Maybe he’d never had blisters before. Instead of calling 911 or sending him home, I said, Yep, you get used to that, and then you get calluses. It’s true, calluses aren’t a bad thing. When I first moved away from the Ozarks, the oldtimers I met when I visited would always check my hands for calluses and snicker if I had none. Calluses are good things, they give you beautiful hands with skin like leather. But, even calluses won’t hold up to a lacquered axe handle. They’ll rip right off, and they’re hard to rebuild.

Bare wood slides, and the more you use it, the slicker it gets. You’ll need a flare at the butt of the handle to prevent it flying out of your hands. That’s the reason axe handles flare at the butt. I don’t recommend any oil or finish other than hard use and sweat. There’s enough grease in sweat and enough grit in calloused hands to produce a fine polish. The result will save your hands trouble over the long term.

Today, if you want that sort of handle, you’ll probably have to make it yourself. I’ve tried several ways of making handles and eventually settled on cleaving the wood, then drawshaving and scraping with a cabinet-maker’s scraper, to form the handle. That leaves some troublesome burs in the wood, and a follow-up with fine sandpaper gives the handle a softer feel and evens out the rough spots. The fuzz the sandpaper leaves behind quickly disappears when you actually use the axe.

I doubt very much that any axe company CEO or product designer ever did any of these things. They just thought all woods are pretty much the same, and lacquer makes them look good. If you want the best handle, try an Amish hardware store like Lehman’s. Amish people still make a living by using hand tools and you could find some unique products designed for that market. I used to buy unfinished hardwood handles from a hardware store in Arkansas, handles manufactured by Turney Wood Products. That was back in the 80’s, and soon after that I started making my own handles and tweaking the process a bit higher, no longer depending on manufactured handles. Turney discontinued the bare wood handles for awhile, but put them on the market again when too many axe owners complained about the “improvement.”

Today I was looking online for a link to Turney Wood Products and couldn’t find one, not even a phone number, so I called up the hardware store that used to carry their handles and asked what happened. Well, Turney apparently went out of business about the same time I learned the handle trade myself. What a shame that is, it’s like the shift from carbon steel knife blades to stainless steel knife blades, a detriment to everyone whether they know any better or not. The hardware store where I shopped, no longer carries bare wood handles. Oddly enough, the guy I talked to knew exactly what I what I was talking about. Nope, we don’t carry bare wood any more, just the lacquered stuff. I think maybe he’s the same guy who said, “Yan’t whut?” when I came in to ask for a fifty pound sack of blacksmith’s coal, and had to show him where in the warehouse it was. It’s the end of an era, or actually twenty years past the end of it. I should read the newspaper more often, I guess.

Now I’m sad.

Jimmy Two Hats

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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