On Making New Tool Hafts & Handles

I am certain that I’m not alone in the challenge of cleaning up a space when faced with the discovery of unfinished projects. Yesterday I was cleaning the shop and found the pieces for several repair jobs had been set down (and forgotten) on my workbench. Do we find new “homes” for these items (and risk never getting around to repairing them)? Or do we interrupt our cleaning momentum to tackle these projects? In this instance, I chose the latter.

Two of the neglected projects were similar in nature: replacement of broken handles. A handaxe and a hammer both had suffered catastrophic failure in the eye (the section of handle which is inserted into the head of the tool). The eye is the most common place for a hafted tool to fail, as it is thinner than the rest of the handle and (as I will show you later) sawn in half. Please note: a “haft” is the handle of a knife, axe, or spear. I will be using haft and handle interchangeably in this article.

Often when a haft breaks, fragments of the eye remain in the tool head. They are likely to have small metal or wooden wedges driven into them; these wedges spread the eye’s material, causing compression within the head, which keeps the head from flying off the handle. To remove the fragments, I use a drill to remove as much of the eye material as I can until the fragments fall freely out of the head. If the wedges were metal, save them as they will come in handy later.

Careful selection of the wood to use when replacing your handles is critical. Handles for hammers, axes, picks, and other tools where the impact force is at right angles to the grain need strength, durability, and flexibility. Fortunately, our forebears have gone through the process of trial-and-error for us and handed down some recommendations. In Europe, the wood which balances these qualities best is European Ash (Fraxinus excelsior). In North America, Hickory (Carya glabra, et. al) is king, with European Ash a fading second as ash trees fall victim to the emerald ash borer beetle. Other good options include White Oak, Black Locust, and Beech. In all cases, select wood with tight, straight grain free of knots.

Once you have your wood, cut it down to roughly (but larger than) the dimensions of the broken handle. One easy way to figure this out is to lay the broken piece on top of the wood and draw a generous rectangle around it. A more detailed outline comes next. With the broken handle firmly clamped to the wood, trace around it with a sharp pencil. Pay close attention to the silhouette of the handle, as it is easy to accidentally trace too narrow of a profile. When in doubt, be generous. Also, don’t neglect to draw the missing portion of the eye!

After carefully drawing the silhouette onto the replacement wood, I crosscut saw a series of cuts from the edge of the wood to just shy of the silhouette. Then, using a chisel and mallet, I waste out the majority of the wood to be removed.

After the new handle has been roughly shaped, it is time to start refining it. Firmly clamp the haft in a table-mounted vise. I recommend padding the vise jaws with leather (old belt leather works great) or scrap wood, as I did in the following photos. This will keep the jaws from marring your handle. You can then begin shaving down the belly, back, throat, grip, and end-knob of the haft with a drawknife or spokeshave (or both, as I did).

Your focus at first should be to finish shaving down to your silhouette lines. Remeber to shave with the grain, not against it. After you’ve reached those silhouette lines, now you can start angling your tools to relieve the edges. Round the edges so they aren’t sharp. Take the handle out of the vise, hold it as if you were using the tool; sense how it feels in your hand. If it is not yet comfortable, return it to the vise and shave some more. Also, at this stage, I like to pare the edges of the end-knob. Relieving the end-knob of sharp angles will help keep the end from splitting or fracturing.

Now let’s turn attention to the eye. Reverse the handle in your vise, so that the eye is facing you and you can comfortably look straight at its end. Place the tool head (hammer head, axe head, or other) onto the end grain and trace both around it and also stick the pencil into the eye-hole and trace (as best you can) the interior dimensions. Visually note the difference between your pencil line and the actual shape of the interior of the eye-hole. Remove the tool head and sketch your approximation of the actual interior shape between the exterior and interior lines you’ve already drawn. We’ll call this sketch the “approximate shape” of the eye. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can now erase the interior and exterior lines you drew, leaving the approximate shape as a guide.

Looking closely at the end grain, you can see two rough ovals I’ve drawn. The outer oval is the exterior line of the handaxe head, and I’m paring down to it in the photo. The inner oval is my approximation of the interior dimension of the eye-hole. Ultimately it is towards this inner oval that I will pare down the eye.

As you approach your approximate shape of the eye, periodically take the handle off the vise and try to fit the tool head onto it. As you get nearly to the line, the head will eventually fit just over the edge of the eye. Tapping on the tool head will cause the high points of the eye (sections you need to remove) to become apparent. Put the handle back on the vise, pare some more, test with the head some more, until the head can be tapped about two-thirds of the way down the eye. Remove the head, and set the haft upright on your vise. It’s time to grab a pencil and a backsaw.

Draw a line precisely down the middle of the eye, then saw on this line. Make a cut two-thirds to three-quarters the height of the eye. This split will allow you to drive wedges into the eye, spreading the two halves of the eye, and firmly affixing the tool head to the eye.

Now tap the tool head all the way onto the eye. A small, very sharp chisel will help pare away any final bits of eye which need to be removed.

If you don’t have metal wedges, you can quickly and easily make a small wedge or two out of scrap wood. I like White Oak for this purpose, but any wood of sufficiently high strength would be good. The primary quality needs to be the ability to be driven without splitting. Your wedge should be slightly thicker (about 1/16th of an inch) than the kerf of your backsaw, tapering to a sharp edge, and roughly two-thirds as long as your sawn split is deep.

Now set your wedges into the split, and tap them in with a mallet. Metal wedges absolutely should be tapped in until their ends are flush with the end grain of the eye. It is dangerous to leave them proud. If you are using wooden wedges and you’ve tapped them in as far as they will go but are still proud of the eye, you can trim them with a sharp chisel.

Finish your haft with oil (I like walnut oil) and let dry overnight. I don’t recommend wax, as you really don’t want the tool to slip from your grip.

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