I’ve been using quite a few different types of hatchets / axes lately, and many of them feel decent enough in my hand, but one of the older handles is top notch for me. The range of handles are from a number of makers that even the casual user would likely recognize, but the one that stands out for me, is a hickory one in my old Plumb hatchet. Other than the handle on my older Sears hatchet, which is fairly round in cross-section and unfortunately feels like it would be in a lower quality hammer, the rest have some aspect of similarity. These all have a cross-section that is somewhat oval (a bit flattened) or perhaps even leaning towards teardrop in shape, which I find much better than a round cross-section, at least for a hatchet/axe.
The handle in my old Plumb hatchet is much more “delicate” in grip girth, but it has been up for the task. I’ve used this hatchet for a number of years, and it was my grandfather’s before it made it to me, and it’s still rocking the original handle. Pretty impressive for a slim little handle!
When I find something that both feels great and works well, I take as many notes as possible, to help determine what it is that lends to the overall excellence. If applicable, I’ll replicate the design to see how it behaves, and how much time it requires to make by hand. This new version can end up as a replacement for the original, if needed, as long as it feels good in the hand. You never know when you might swing and unintentionally damage a handle, no matter how long its previously lasted.
I made a simple pattern for this handle, using a previously used Priority box from the Postal Service, as the box was of decent size.
I measured the dimensions of the existing handle, and found an off-cut in my bin that was close enough to call a match. I honestly didn’t know what type of wood I’d chosen (not 100% sure even now), as the majority of the piece had a dark colored and very rough cut exterior. I used a pencil to trace my pattern onto my blank, and quickly cut it out on my bandsaw. This was the only piece of powered equipment I used to make this handle. After cutting the blank close to my pattern lines, as well as then diving in at the pommel, and cutting a very light taper to create some swell at the end, it was obvious the grain was not nearly as straight-grained as the original hickory version.
From this point forward, I used a draw knife, my flat and curved versions of my Lie-Nielsen spoke shaves, a carving knife I made last year, along with a couple of chisels and scrapers (one was a purpose-made card scraper, but even though the other was a bit makeshift, it worked wonderfully for very light cleanup).
I find I have a tendency to work much more cautiously when performing the first of a given process, and with finding the blank lacked pure straight grain, I made sure I didn’t bite off too much with the drawknife. Even using the drawknife with the bevel down, as I did on this handle, you could dive into the grain, splitting away so much wood that you’d ruin the planned shape. On this handle, I also wasn’t sure whether I might end up going with an octagon faceting rather than the continuous curve of the original, but as I gradually approached the final dimensions, I decided I’d stick to a good likeliness of the original.
After using the scrapers, I applied a coat of Watco’s Danish Oil in the natural color, which provides a small level of protection as well as enhancing the wood grain. I also decided to sit the handle outside on the hood of my car, during the midday sun, to see if it would get a sun tan. Some woods are known to change in color, with direct sun light exposure, but I’m not sure whether this unknown species really changed all that much, if any. I took before and after photos, and it wasn’t completely obvious to my eyes.
I hope this might spur some of you to try making a handle or two for yourselves, and you might just find you can tweak them so they fit your hand better than anything you’ve ever purchased.
Please let me know if you have any questions or comments. Thanks for stopping to check out this posting!
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I was brought up around all sorts of crafts and the outdoors. Woodworking and leather crafting seemed to be interwoven into my genes, but really didn’t have much in the way of knife making, although my dad did make a knife or two in his younger days.
I’ve seen some of my buddies making wooden spoons, which for any of a million reasons seems to hit a chord with something deep inside. Rather than buying some of the necessary knives for spoon making, I thought why not see if I could make a decent knife that might get me closer to making spoons.
I initially took an existing X-acto blade and created a handle in which I could house it, which was sort of like making a knife, in some small way. After a few other iterations, adjusting the blade types on each one, I decided I wanted to try making one that was a bit more substantial.
I bought a sheet of metal that was around 1/8″ thick, with which to create the blade on this knife build. I drew out the shape of what I wanted, and then marked it onto the sheet of metal, and used a cutoff wheel in my Dremel to trace most of the shape and then a Milwaukee Sawzall for the majority of the through-cutting on the blade. I finished up some of the connecting cuts with a hacksaw, so I had the most control over the blade as it broke away from the blank.
I took my blade over to the grinder and set the rest so it was 90-degrees to the wheel, as initially I only wanted to clean up the surfaces, removing any jaggedness or ridges. As the blade was still full thickness all the way to where the cutting edge would be, there was less chance of drawing out the temper as long as I didn’t linger.
Next it was time to start working on the bevel(s) for the blade. I began by testing a completely free-hand presentation of the blade to the wheel, but this felt like it was still out of my league (even though I’d free-handed a couple of hatchet heads with decent success), at this point.
I’ve owned a Tormek wet grinder for around 8 – 9 years, but I’d decided I wanted to give my newish Baldor grinder some work, even though I knew it would require a much lighter touch as well as closer attention. One of the things I’ve always loved about the Tormek is the adjustable metal frame on which the accessories ride, and I know some will install the same in front of their dry grinders, so they can use the same gear. One of the Tormek accessories that came with my kit, the SVM-45, is made for sharpening knives. I decided to see if there was some way I could use this jig to make my grinding on the knife blade better. As it turned out, I was able to set my grinder rest at the correct distance away from the wheel, and then keep a ledge on the jig against the outside lip of the rest. This gave me a solid pivot that allowed me to quickly create a good bevel on each side of the blade, with a geometry that looks good to my eyes.
I used a flat diamond Dia-fold hone for the first stage of sharpening, which is pretty easy, as the grinder creates a hollow bevel. The hone just needs to stay in contact with the very edge as well as the other side of the hollow, which most people will feel, or learn to feel in short order. After I had the full length of the cutting edge, on both sides, showing a consistent surface from the hone, it was time to stop. Next I used a 4000-grit Japanese water stone that is about 4″ long and 1/8″-3/16″ thick, and with it soaked in water, use the same motion on the blade. When the edge on both sides is changed, and consistent, it’s time to again stop. The last step I use is a piece of hard wood, about 6″ long x 1″ wide x 1/4″ thick, with some of the Tormek honing past spread over the wood. The wood is then used just like the previous hone and stone, and should result in a completely polished cutting edge. Depending on your steel, this will be shaving sharp or close.
I used a piece of Avodire (white mahogany) as the knive’s handle, which I shaped so it felt good in my hand, and was large enough to contain the tang of the blade. I decided to split the handle on the band saw, and then I marked around the tang on one side.
I used my Lie-Nielsen No. 71 to remove enough wood from the first side, so it was half the thickness of the tang. I mimicked this procedure on the inside of the second half of the handle, and obtained a very nice fit. I roughed up both sides of the tang, to make sure the glue would have the best chance to create a solid bond. I mixed up a fair amount of epoxy and spread it on all inside surfaces, to make sure everything would end up bonded tightly. I used a couple of clamps to keep a consistent pressure across the handle until it was fully cured. I used an X-acto knife to trim away any epoxy that ended up on the outside of the knife’s handle, and then followed up with a very light cut with my spokeshave.
I recently purchased some Birchwood Casey True-Oil, and wanted to use this as the finish for the handle. I found during some experimenting, that using a paper towel to apply this finish, ended up a much thicker application than was needed. Instead a small piece of linen material was the optimum application tool, as it kept the oil very thin, which was perfect. I applied two coats of True-Oil, which ended up providing some good protection, but didn’t get so built up that it was slick in the hand. After the oil dried, I used some 0000 steel wool to make the surface feel as nice as possible, without loosing control.
I decided to take a leap and do a little bit of file work on the back of the blade, as I’d always thought about trying this and this seemed the perfect opportunity. I found some aspects were easier to accomplish after I got going, so this may just be something I’ll do on any knife I make. I used a small conical diamond Dia-fold file as I liked the look and feel of the recess surface. I made five divots on the back, which has some personal reasons I’ll keep to myself at this time.
Yesterday, my best bud was in town, and we had the chance to mess around with a couple of the knives I’ve made, as well as a few of my hatchets (the Plumb, the Sears and the Gransfors Bruks – large carving version). I found a dead ~4″ limb on one of our Osage Orange trees, which I was able to pull down. After cutting a couple of 12″-18″ pieces from the long limb, we used the hatchets to remove some of the bark until we were down to the brilliant colored heartwood.
Now that we were at the heartwood, we used the knives to work on some paring cuts and different hand positions. One of my knives has a single bevel, while the most recent knife has a dual bevel. My buddy was having a little more difficulty using the single-beveled knife, which wanted to dig into the wood rather than providing the easy control of the other knife. As he mentioned the issue, I looked over and knew exactly what was up. My buddy is left-handed, while I’m right-handed. Why is this important? When I used the older knife, the bevel was on the downward facing side of the blade, which allows it to start down into the wood, and swoop back out easily. For my buddy, the flat side was down, and if it even just barely dives into the wood, it will want to keep going deeper. So, if you make yourself a knife, for the most flexibility, make it with a bevel on both sides of the blade. If you decide to make it with a single-bevel, make sure it is on the correct side of the blade, so it is against the wood when you are holding the knife in your most comfortable position.
I also made a hand-stitched leather sheath for both knives, which protects the knives during transit as well as protects those around the sheathed knives. You can use some cardboard, wrapped around the blade a few times, followed by some strong tape, if you just need to provide basic protection to the knife’s edge.
I was nicely surprised at how well the knives behaved, and mostly with the newest knife. It held its edge nicely, even while we were working on some really tough mostly-dried Osage Orange. The surface on the Osage Orange looked completely polished and felt almost waxy. This knew knife was a complete success for both me and my bud.
Thank you for checking out this article and please let me know if you have any questions or comment.
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