If you regularly use an axe, you’ll find at some point that you’ll need to learn how to replace an axe handle. If you break the handle, you may be tempted to replace the axe, but replacing the handle itself is actually a simple process and one that will allow you to get plenty of more use out of your favorite tool. In this guide, I’ll walk you through the process and explain just how easy handle replacement is.
Removing the Old Handle
Before you can install the new handle, you need to remove the old one. Basically, for this step, you’ll need to cut the old handle off right below the eye, driving the wood out in the same direction that it was inserted. Make sure that you wear eye protection during this process.
Once the handle has been removed, now is the time to clean the axe head and closely check it for any flaws, before you install the new handle.
Fitting the New Handle
The next step is determining how the new handle will fit onto the head of the axe. If you shove the handle into the eye of the axe does it slide to the shoulder of the handle? Are you feeling some resistance because the handle is a little larger than the eye?
In order to get the handle fixed onto the head you’ll need to know how much material needs to be removed. You can figure this out by using a piece of paper and placing it over the eye. Next, rub the paper with your thumb. Old dirt and oil from your hands will show the edges, giving you the shape that you want for the replacement handle. This clearly shows you how much bigger the new handle is than the eye.
Begin by removing a little material, slowly, using a rasp or draw knife. Continue this process until the handle begins to fit. Once the handle can fit into the eye just a little, you’ll want to turn the head upside down, hammering the haft’s bottom using a hammer or wooden mallet. The axe head should slowly begin to move up the handle. Expect it to stop going at some point.
The next task is getting the head off the haft, which can be accomplished in a couple of ways. The first method you can try is hitting the head of the axe with a dead blow hammer or a small mallet. You’ll strike the bottom until it slides off the handle. Another option is clamping the head in a vise, then placing a drift on the helve, followed by hammering the drift until the shaft slides out.
Once the handle pops out, you’ll notice some dark spots on the wood. This will show you where the helve is rubbing against the eye. This discoloration is totally normal. Basically, the dark spots need to be removed in order for the head to continue to move down towards the shoulder. In some cases, you’ll find that the insides of the head are clean, which can make it tricky to see where the eye is rubbing. However, in most cases, the axe will have some rust inside, so you’ll be able to identify the spots easily.
Begin removing the wood that’s below the rubbed spots. You can do this in a number of ways. If you’re new to the process, then the best and easiest option is to use a four-in-hand or a wood rasp. If you have experience, then you can try a variety of sanding methods.
Many pros recommend using a five-inch disc that will chuck into a drill and can be combined with sandpaper with a sticky back. Eighty-grit is ideal for heavy-duty removal, yet one hundred and twenty grit will work the best for wood removal. Begin right below the bottom of the rub line, sanding toward the shoulder.
If the handle you’re using has more of a pronounced shoulder, then you can sand it off in order to create a wedge effect as the head slides down the shaft.
Keep working on getting the head down the helve until you’re right by the line. Once the head is at the right point, you’ll notice that a portion of the handle will protrude from the top. Here, you’ll trace the top of the eye using a pencil before you prepare the handle for the kerf cut.
This step will take plenty of patience. The work here will be slow going, however, it’s necessary to take your time here in order to avoid damaging your axe and to ensure the proper fit.
Prepping the Kerf
Once the head has moved far enough down the handle it will be time to ensure the wedge and kerf cut are ready. You can remove the handle and check out the pencil line from the last step. If you were to make a cut using this line, the top of the haft would rest flush with the top of the axe eye. Some people like the handle to slightly protrude around a quarter of an inch. Take a ruler and measure this length above your line, creating a new cut line. You can use a coping saw to cut the line to make it simpler, allowing for a more accurate kerf depth.
The cut down the centerline of the handle is called the kerf. This is where the wooden wedge will be driven. Once the helve has been cut, take a look at the depth of the kerf cut and what its relation is to the line where the head stops. Most people prefer the kerf to be around 2/3s of the depth of the head in order to promote a stronger wedging. Be sure to mark each side of the kerf at the correct depth, cutting to that line. You can use a saw that’s slightly wider for this step since a wider kerf is preferred over a narrow one.
Installing the Wedge
Correct wedge installation can make the entire handle replacement process, or break it. Because of this, it’s very important that you take some extra care here. The majority of the time the wedge that comes with a handle will be the right size. You’ll size up the length of the wedge in relation to the length of the eye, marking the length where the wedge will fill the eye completely. You will then start trimming any excess material either by using a belt sander or with the help of a coping saw.
The next step is measuring the depth of the wedge in relation to the depth of the kerf, then drawing a line across. This will be the line that sits flush with the handle if it bottomed out.
you can use some wood glue on your wedge to prevent the wedge from backing out. However, it can make it difficult if the wedge ever needs to be replaced. There are pros and cons associated with using glue, however, many people have found that using the glue works the best. You can now pound the head of the axe back onto the helve, clamping it in a vise. Make sure you evenly apply a layer of glue on each side of the wedge, then hammer it using a wooden mallet.
Once the wedge has been installed you’ll need to give the glue a couple of hours to dry, then you can trim off any excess wedge that’s close to the haft using a coping saw.
Oiling and Sanding
Now you’re ready to oil the handle. You can use one hundred and twenty grit sandpaper, sanding the haft by hand. Doing so will smooth it out, will remove oil from your hands, and allows oil to be easily absorbed into the wood. The type of oil you use is entirely up to you, but linseed oil can be a great option since it’s very effective and affordable.
Wear some disposable gloves and pour a little oil into your hand, rubbing it liberally over the length of the handle and the head. Allow it to dry for several minutes and then remove any excess oil with a paper towel.
Now that you have a new handle for your axe, you’ll want to put it to the test. You can do so by seeing how your axe performs in a variety of conditions.
Learning how to replace an axe handle consists of many steps, but it’s a fairly simple process after you’ve done it the first time. If you want your new handle to last, then make sure you store it in a dry warm place. However, make sure the location isn’t too hot or dry since this can cause the handle to shrink. In wet weather, your handle will be susceptible to rot, and the head can develop rust over time. Always take the time to properly store your axe. Doing so will significantly lengthen the lifespan of both the axe head and the handle, saving you the time and work that comes with restoring your axe to its former glory.