How to Put a New Handle on a Garden Tool

Items needed include vise, torch, hammer, hacksaw, new handle and ferrule, and five minute epoxy glue.

Items needed include vise, torch, hammer, hacksaw, new handle and ferrule, and five minute epoxy glue.

Last year I needed a full-sized four tine cultivator and of course the handle that came with it was a total piece of crap. It lasted most of the season before it broke and then I got by without it. This year I’m trying to get some cover crops started in new parts of the natural farm here, so I need it. Took me about an hour to fix it and I will explain here how I did it, but first you will have to listen to me for awhile.

So many hand tools today are just total crap, you have to be very cautious when you buy them. I’ve been fooled many times, have bought mattocks thinking that they would be serviceable and then found that the first time you apply leverage the blade bends. Yes, it is true, many farm and garden hand tools today are not even tempered steel. Most manufacturers do not expect people to actually use them. Handles, even on good steel tools, are almost always just a shitty piece of work. Even the handles that carry a lifetime guarantee are garbage. I used to work at Sears and Craftsman tools do carry that lifetime replacement warranty, or at least still did when I worked there. But! the garden tools had flimsy fiberglass tube handles that snapped under the first strain. People bought them and brought them back for exchange the next day and then went to Ace Hardware to buy an Ames product that would hold up. Lifetime guarantees are useless if you can’t get the work done.

I do not recall what company made the four-tine cultivator I bought, but when it broke it was obvious that the handle was turned from defective wood. The base under the ferrule was actually full of dry rot, and although I would give the maker a firm piece of my mind for doing this, it was far too late for that. Either I gambled on a new tool or I put a new handle on that one. So this spring I went back to Headley’s DoItBest Hardware in Greencastle, Indiana, and bought a new handle, without even mentioning that last year they sold me a piece of shit. Generally they are trustworthy people. They did not have a handle designed specifically for my tool, but they had shovel handles that would work, and I went through the entire selection on display, discarded all that had the grain running off to the side (those will split) and all that had knots included (those will break) and all that had any streaks of punky heartwood (those will break too). One out of six available was clear straight grain, and I even took the ferrule off later when I got it home, to check for dry rot. Was a good handle.

But of course, handles never actually fit the tool, and you do need to know how to fix that.

Do not buy a handle that is bored out larger than the tang of the tool you are installing. That won’t work out even if you fill it with epoxy glue to seal the gaps. It’s the wood that gives the handle strength, not the glue. So, if you’ve chosen the right handle, the tang will be larger than the hole. That is good.

Do not just set the tool tang in the socket and drive it home with a hammer or by banging the other end of the handle on something hard. That will work for awhile but the fit will loosen and you will soon have a tool that is constantly coming apart.

Here’s what you do, and this is what old blacksmiths would do back in the day when people had to rely on hand tools and most people actually knew what the hell they were doing. Well, except for the epoxy, which they did not have then. Epoxy is an actual improvement.

You fit a larger tang to a smaller hole with fire. Fire has been very popular among craftsmen since the stone age but people today have forgotten how to use it properly. Oh, the first big mistake people make is something I almost forgot to mention, because when you break a handle the tool bit is still stuck in the broken part and is probably impossible to knock loose, this one was. Possibly this will be the first time the tool ever actually wanted to stay in the handle, but tools are like that. The common method people use is to toss the whole thing in a fire and burn the old handle out. People where I grew up would do that with axes and with anything and then after a lot of work and finding out the tool didn’t work the same afterwards, they would buy a new one. Total waste of time. Fire destroys the temper of tempered steel, this is called annealing, it makes the steel soft and bendy. So you do have to remove the old handle manually, and it can be difficult.

I clamped the ferrule in my ancient blacksmith’s vise that someone years ago painted blue for reasons I don’t understand, and cut the ferrule loose with a hacksaw, in a spiral cut, an inch at a time. When I got the ferrule off, the wood came off easily. You can see those two pieces in the photo here.

Next problem was the tang. In this case the tang was about four inches long and was a folded piece of forged steel rod. I can totally understand why this is efficient for the factory to produce but there are actually better ways to forge a tang. In the old style, the tang would be a single piece with a squared cross section, forged to a tapered point. It would be slightly irregular with bumps and small distortions and hammer dents, because those irregularities give it better grip. With a tang like that, you can heat it and drive it into the wood hot and it will stay there.

With this tang, the end of it was actually slightly wider than the shank. That is not actually a good thing. The tang at its broadest point was also twice the diameter of the socket drilled in the handle.

Do Not! try to bore out a handle socket with a drill bit so you can fit a tang into it! That is the wrong way to go about this.

One of the neat things about steel, and steel is a most wonderful material in all sorts of fascinating ways, is that it doesn’t actually conduct heat very well. You can heat the tip of a steel rod to cherry red or above, and the steel just behind the tip will be relatively cool. This leads to all sorts of fascinating possibilities that modern smiths and cutlers seldom exploit. In this case it lets us use the tip of the massive clumsy tang as a boring tool. Heated up at the tip only, with the handy modern propane torch, the tang will bore its own hole that precisely fits. Took me four tries to bore this hole four inches deep. Just heat the tip of the tang, press the handle onto it. You’ll see smoke and the handle will creep forward if you apply steady pressure. Don’t leave it there to cool or it will lock into place. Pull it off again, reheat the tang, and keep doing this until you get to the depth you actually want. Then pull the handle off again, because these are modern times and we have epoxy glue. Do not twist the handle at all, during any of this boring procedure, or you will be creating a larger socket than you really need. That does weaken the handle.

In the old days, with a forged tapered tang, you’d just heat the tang to cherry red and sink it in until it was set at the right depth and leave it. The char and the cooled resin from the wood filled any slight gaps and served as a very good glue. Today with tangs that aren’t properly forged, we need epoxy. Five minute epoxy is good stuff and I love it. Mix a small amount and use something like a nail to pick up a glob of it and dab it into the handle socket. Mix some more and repeat. Do this quickly so it doesn’t start to set up before you add the tool to the handle. When it’s starting to get a little sloppy, set the tool tang back in the socket until it is tight, tap the other end of the handle on something solid to set it firmly, then mix some more epoxy and fill any gaps in the ferrule with it. Epoxy is a wonderful gap-filling compound. It’s wise to either wear goggles or be sure to turn away from the tool when you are setting the tang in place, because it could spit a droplet of glue at you. Epoxy in the eyes can blind you in under a minute, read the instructions on the glue package if you don’t believe I’m serious.

That’s all there is to it, if you’ve done this properly you now have a better tool than you originally bought. The original temper is intact and the handle is better. There’s no reason to dent the ferrule or insert a screw unless the ferrule is also a poor fit. Doing either of those things will not keep the tool bit in place. If you’ve done it right you are now good to go.

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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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