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 just re-read the title of this post, and it sounds like I should be a mad scientist holed up in some distant castle, making lots of muhwahahaha types of evil laughter. Ok, so the last part may be somewhat true, but I digress.
After the glue dried, attaching the oak blocks to each leg, I removed the majority of the bubbly polyurethane with a spare cutter for a Stanley No. 45. Since the dried excess glue provides little resistance and easy to remove, using a cutter without a handle can make a lot of sense, and I’d hate to chip a nice chisel’s edge if there is anything hard lurking. I guess I’d rather keep my chisels safe, as they are in a sense called to do “more skilled” jobs, where this spare cutter’s range of work is limited.
I sketched the shaping I planned to apply to each of the oak heads, and headed over to the band saw, which makes short work of cutting curved sections. I have a 1/2″ Wood Slicer blade on my MiniMax-16, so it can make a decent arc, but nothing too tight as all blades have limits. I made a quick cuts on the outside of both heads, working back toward the leg’s thickness, and similarly on the inside surface of each.
I clamped one of the legs up in the workbench, and used a 9-grain Auriou Rasp along with my Lie-Nielsen Boggs spokeshave to blend the outer surface of the leg with the arc cut into the head. This wood was a bit “grabby” when I moved to my spokeshave, so instead of holding the tool with both hands equal distance from my chest, I’d rotate it so my right was closer to the chest than was my left. At one point it was close to being 90-degrees off of the standard axis. This skewing really tamed the wood, and while it might seem a bit odd, you should give it a try when you are having some trouble getting a clean surface from your spokeshave.
I had a small block of Pecan, that I placed between the two upright legs, to get a sense of the progress. I noticed the inside faces of the mating oak blocks came together on one edge, but nowhere else. Rather than just planing these faces and moving on, I decided to re-check the face sides and edges of the legs, for square. I’m not sure if my eye caught something that looked slightly out or what, but my reference surfaces weren’t actually square, even though I was sure I’d tested them religiously. Using my best square, I marked what was low/high, and planed them so they were now square. After testing the mating oak blocks again, the issue was less than earlier, but still needed a little work. While working on the contact areas, I decided to include a slight splay in the legs, rather than having them straight up and down. I grabbed my block plane and quickly had a nice consistent mating surface, when the legs were in their splayed positions.
I clamped the two leg/head sections in my vise, with a small gap between the two heads (taking into account the thickest leather I’d most likely work, and a wrap of thin leather I planned to add to each head), and then measured the length of the block I needed. This was longer than the block of Pecan I’d used for mockup, so I found some alternate wood for the block. It turned out I had a piece of Maple that I’d used years ago for the outside jaw of a clamping device, that had a feature I’d planned to include in this Pony, already existing. This feature was a hole through which the vise screw passed, and I planned to have optional bases I can attached to the Pony, so this was perfect. I measured around the existing hole, so it was as centered as possible, and cut the block just slightly long. This provided me the ability to fine tune and perfect the fit of the block and legs. I made my initial layout marks with pencil, and with everything where it belonged, I scored the exact location with my marking knife. As there was such a small amount I needed to remove, I put the block into my vise, and pulled out this really old and awesome paring chisel. I methodically lowered the excess wood down to my lines, which is a great technique to have in your back pocket.
I presented each leg to the block, to decide where the screws would go in, so the threads didn’t accidentally make their way into the existing attachment hole. Once I had the layout marked, I used an awl to create indentations so the drill bit wouldn’t skate around on the board. With the holes pre-drilled on each leg, it was time to attach the legs to this slightly angling block. As you may have previously experienced, if you squeeze a clamp on two outside boards, centered on an angled core (block), the block may very well slip in the direction it is most thick. To eliminate any chance this might occur at the most inopportune time, I decided the best way to handle these parts, was to clamp the block to a flat surface, and then clamp a leg both to the block and also to the flat surface. I kept the blade of a small square against the bottom of the block, and referenced the bottom of the leg to the square’s blade. With the parts solidly aligned, the clamps were brought to decent pressure, so nothing could move out of place.
I used some 1 1/4″ long fine Kreg screws, which are self drilling, to attach the legs to the block. With the clamps in place, the bottom two screws were the only ones accessible, so I drove those home.
At this point, I removed the clamp that secured the leg to the block, while leaving the other two solidly in place, and drove the other two screws in. Everything looked good, so I flipped the pieces around and clamped the second leg to the group. I repeated the same steps and after the second set of four screws were in, the Stitching Pony was extremely solid. (please note the word I used there; extremely.)
With the two legs attached to the block, I thought it prudent to give this little beast a test. Hmmmm, well, uhm…, I said this was extremely solid, right? Well, it is so solid, that I when I tried to flex the heads away from each other, I got the sense (was that a crack I heard?) that I was going to break one of the legs (or strip out a screw), before it would flex. This design is solely an amalgam of different versions I’d seen over the years, and I’ve never measured any that I’d seen, so I had no baseline how thick I should make the legs. Ok, this is really no big deal. I think this is how I learn best, by doing and finding what does and what does not work. So, what will I do to resolve this issue? I took all of the screws out of the legs, and decided I’d go a little heavier than half the current thickness, so somewhere around 60% of the original thickness. I can’t really tell you why I chose the final dimension, other than that is what looked reasonable to me. I grabbed my pencil and marked both legs, using my fingertips as a fence, so they both were approximately the same thickness. I know I could have picked up my square, and set it to a dimension, and slid it and the pencil along, making the line exactly the same distance from the inside edge, on both pieces. Some work may warrant that type of precision, but the variance in my fingertip approach, is so small as not to matter.
I took the legs back over to the band saw and cut just proud of my marks, resawing both legs. From there it was back to the vise in my workbench, and hand planing the outside face until all the saw marks were gone, and of course keeping it square to both edges. I start with the plane set fairly deep, as you are riding on the tops of little mountains, when you look at the wavy sawn surface from the band saw. This expedites getting the junk out of the way and as I start to see signs that I’m cutting additional fibers (if you ask how you’ll know when you are cutting more fibers, you’ll start to feel the plane becoming harder to push across the work), I wind the plane’s iron back in so I’m taking lighter shavings, and don’t get the iron stuck into the wood. After both legs were again smooth on their outside faces, I again blended the face/head region into a pleasing curve, and sanded all of the hard edges.
I re-attached both legs, with all four screws on each side, and tested how the Pony behaved. This time I could separate the heads enough to slip a double-thickness of leather in between and the Pony held the leather with a decent amount of pressure, without any extra outside clamping. This was a great test, which proved I didn’t need to remake the legs (if they weren’t strong enough to hold the leather) or remove any more wood (if the wood still wouldn’t flex enough to get work between the jaws).
I still planned to add some thin leather to both heads, so they won’t scratch or otherwise hurt the show surface on the work, which will take up a little of the existing gap between the heads. I decided I’d still add a bolt through both legs, that will allow a bit more controllable pressure on the work, as is needed. I chose the placement for the bolt, initially by squeezing the two legs together at different points, using my hand. The location of this bolt is another balancing act. You want as deep a throat as possible to handle a wide range of work, but as you move the bolt farther down from the heads, it’s influence on the heads is reduced. I finally chose what looked like a decent location, and marked across both legs. I set a divider that reached from the edge of a leg, to the approximate center point, and used it to make the initial impression in the legs.
The bolt I bought for the Pony is a 3/8″ – 5″, which has a bit of extra length, as I got it before reducing the thickness of the legs. I planned to drill a clearance hole of 13/32″, but it can be hard to feel whether the center point on the larger bits, is staying in contacting with the small impression. The wood bits I have are from DeWalt and my 13/32″ has a center section that is around 7/64″ wide, so I tossed my 7/64″ bit into my hand-crank drill, and made a hole that was about 1/8″ deep. This prevented the bit from shifting away from my intended location.
The wood I used for the Pony’s legs is extremely hard, which can also translate that it is brittle. I knew this wood would blow out something awful if I didn’t support the rear of each leg, while drilling. I located an off-cut that was thicker than the opening between the two legs, so I held the block against the inside of one leg, while scribing from the inside of the second leg. I grabbed my Lie-Nielsen cross cut saw and sawed down the line, which created a shoulder, deep enough so the support block would make contact all across the area the drill would remove.
I rotated the Pony with it’s support block, and held a Pony leg in the vise, while slowly drilling through the legs. The first hole went exceedingly well, and provided a flawless hole.
As the bit exited the rear of the second leg, even with solid support, it still splintered some. As it didn’t completely clear the wood from the hole either, I used a very thin chisel to reach down through the first hole, to cleanly cut the excess in the second hole. It didn’t take long to clean it up and have the bolt feeding through both holes as intended.
After removing the bolt, I used a card scraper to clean up all of the surfaces, which does a great job if you have a decently tuned up scraper.
At this point, I have a secondary board I can attach directly to the main Stitching Pony, via a bolt through the board and the hole in the block. It’s unclear how much I’ll utilize this aspect, as I can easily hold the lower section of the Pony in the jaws of my vise (at either bench), which is holding the front and rear open face of the lower block, not the legs themselves.
Here is the Stitching Pony all cleaned up, but just waiting for the small leather adornments on the contact surfaces of both heads. I’ll pick up some contact cement the next time I’m out and it’ll ready to rock and roll. At present, I can just slip a thin piece of leather between the jaws and the working leather, if I can’t wait to get after stitching some leather together.
Thanks as always for stopping and checking out the article. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.
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