Since I don’t use factory made drifts to shape the eyes of my tools, they don’t take factory made handles, which means that have to make every handle that I use.
Making and fitting a handle to an eyed tool such as an axe or hammer is very simple, many of my own tools are nothing more than a stick that has been jammed in the hole and maybe a wedge to hold it in place (or the wood mushroomed over to stop it from coming out).
First off, material choice. For long handled axes then ash, hickory and elm are the most common choices, all being tough and elastic. For short handles such as this adze, you could use pretty much any hardwood as strength isn’t likely to be an issue. I’ve used ash here because I have it and was making a bunch of larger axe handles at the same time, something with a little elasticity is good for impact tools such as these as it doesn’t transmit shock to the hand like a harder wood such as oak does. In practice, you won’t notice much difference really.
Secondly, grain orientation. I you look at old school books on woodland work and tools, axe handles are often made from radial splits of a log. That gives the most handles per log and the growth rings run across the handle giving a lot of flex and shock absorption; just think about a wooden archery bow, that is how they are arranged.
If you have a curvy handle like most modern axes (based on 19th and 20th century American shapes) then that orientation will be weak as the curves truncate the grain; this has led to the belief that the grain has to run vertically through the handle. If your handle is straight or the curve follows the grain of the wood, then it really doesn’t matter which way it goes, so long as the fibres run the full(ish) length of the handle.
People will debate this fact all day long but frankly there are more important things in life! For a short handle like this adze, it really doesn’t matter in any case.
Ok, on with the making.
Having selected my piece of wood (ie dry, well-seasoned native hardwood with no splits or cracks), I saw it off to a couple of inches longer than I need and draw around the inside of the adze eye on the end. Then using axes and drawknives (or an angle grinder and belt sander!) I shave the end of the wood until it just begins to fit into the eye. I shave from just a bit further than the head will take up and to a very gradual taper.
Once the first few mm are going into the eye, I drive it in with a hammer. As the handle goes in, a burr is created and when the handle stops moving (or the burr is threatening a split) I check the alignment of the head. With a deep hollow adze like this, the angle is less critical than an axe (and harder to photograph!). [I could write a whole article trying to illustrate how to adjust this alignment in the head fitting!] At this point I remove the handle by driving it out with a blunt bar of steel.
The wood that was inside the eye will be black and compressed from the fitting (if it is clean, then I took too much off and is less than perfect fit). Assuming that the head didn’t go all the way on in the first fitting, the wood further along is removed gently until the burr is levelled; being careful not to cut away any of the blackened area or undercutting during the burr removal. Drive the handle on and see where it sits. This process is repeated until I have 1cm of handle poking out of the top of the head.
Now that the head is on I begin shaping the handle. I always use a piece of wood that is larger than I need, so if the head refuses to go on straight, I can just carve the handle straight instead. First the profile shape of the handle is drawn on the side of the wood and carved out OVERSIZE by whatever means I am using. Then I do the same to the top view; this is my chance to straighten things up if needed.
If I’m teaching, then all of the carving is done using axes first, then drawknives and finally spokeshaves/rasps and scrapers. If I’m making handles myself, then its bandsaw, angle grinder with an Arbortec Turbo Plane and then a belt grinder with various belts.
Incidentally, I normally remove the head before shaping the handle as it tends to get in the way. Once the handle is shaped it’s smoothed down with scrapers or a non-woven abrasive on a revolving wheel; it’s messy but fast and leaves a nice smooth yet grain-textured finish that doesn’t raise splinters when wetted.
Before final fitting I cut a slot into the end of the handle, to a little past half the depth of the eye. Sometimes I use a chisel cut into the end once the head is on rather than sawing, this gives an easier entry for the wedge as well as alleviating the need for a dead straight cut (when teaching).
Wedges can be made from anything that is harder than the handle itself, in this case I’m using oak. The wedge needs to take up whatever slack is in the eye. So if the eye is very tapered and there is a lot of slack, then the wedge wants to be fairly thick; if the head is tight and not much gap at the top, then a narrower wedge will do.
In either case it shouldn’t be much longer than the depth of the eye and should be wider than the length of the eye. With the head driven on, the wedge is placed in the slot and hammered until solid. When teaching I get people to rest the end of the handle on the anvil and tap the wedge in until the axe bounces.
If doing it myself, I hold the handle just below the head in mid-air and strike the wedge until it stops moving; I don’t teach that method as it requires a strong grip to avoid risk of injury and firm strikes to ensure the wedge is properly tight. I put a drop of superglue on the wooden wedge to make sure it stays put.
I don’t normally fit a metal wedge as well as the wooden one. If I’ve fitted the handle properly then the metal wedge isn’t needed for tightening and if the handle works loose later in life (which it could do if stored in a very dry house or the wood fibres have compressed through unusually rough use), then there is still space for a metal one to go in.
With the wedge fitted, it is trimmed off, along with the back end of the handle (which can get damaged in the fitting). Finally the handle oiled up with Danish oil. I usually sharpen the edge before final fitting to make life easier. In which case, that’s it, job done.
One shiny new adze ready to carve a bowl!
This is the last part of our series on making an Adze by Dave Budd, you can read more about him and see his work on his website DaveBudd.com
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