Handles, Helves, Hafts: call them what you will.

I have recently been fitting more handles on my axes. An accountant would recommend that I cut them out on the band saw and then rip them into shape on my belt sander. But I enjoy carving them by hand and it allows me to try out my tools, and although slow the process is much more productive than just making shavings which I sometimes end up doing when testing.
I like curved handles aesthetically and tend to forge axes that need curved handles, it seems a shame to forge a flowing axe design then put a broomstick of a handle on it. However as I will explain in the next post there are times when straighter is more suitable.
Carved axe handles

Axe handles


If you are going to make a curved handle then the issue of grain orientation is going to come up. The most elegant solution is to find a branch that perfectly matches the curve of your intended handle (1).  No short grain, but the ones I have made in Hazel have been a nightmare to carve as the grain reverses in really unexpected places. It is pleasing though to be able to place the pith dead centre in the both ends of a handle.
I have, however not got easy access to much woodland and have already cropped most of the likely looking branches, single curves are easy to find (2) but finding the perfect double bend for my preferred handle shape is not an easy order,  not to mention the horror of finding the rotted remnants of a knot at the apex of one of these all important bends.
So, a nice idea, and viable if you are only looking to do a few, but no longer my preferred method.
Another intriguing way of guarding against short grain is to steam bend straight grained wood, not something I have tried, and although it seems easy enough to get a single curve, my preferred form would, I think be tricky.
For the past year or so my approach to the issue of short grain in largely straight grained wood ( I have been splitting billets out of larger logs of ash and elm) has been to try and minimise it by lining up any curve in the grain with the curve in the handle as best I could and accept that there will be shorter grain in some sections (3), I have yet to have a handle start to split let alone fail on me. However as I have been tending towards more extreme curves it has been apparent that I am going to be limited by the short grain.
At spoonfest last year I watched Jarrod carving a spoon blank from radially split wood and realised that this is a much better solution. So I have roughed out a few and it seems to be the answer,  the short grain issue is reduced and the profile seems easier to carve as well. (4) have yet to try these out but I forsee no problems.  However to use the wood I have efficiently I expect that I will use both orientations of grain, using my original grain orientation on the straighter handles.
I always carve my handles in two stages, I rough them out when green , leaving them oversize to allow for shrinkage or possibly bowing – this seems to happen more often in curved branch wood blanks than from straight grained wood. When I am sure they are dry I will rough fit the head, making sure I am happy with the handle orientation as it goes on. Then with an axe I will hew down as close as I can get to the finished size. Next I with a knife I will clean the faces, the bulb on the end and put on the facets, this can be tough going in seasoned ash.  I have now settled on 12 sided handles, still crisp facets but not so defined that the corners feels sharp.
Next I will saw a slot and make a wedge from Oak, I am not overly concerned about the Oak being kiln dry; I leave my wedges long and expect to be able to tap them in or pull them out if I want to take the head off. A couple of coats of Linseed oil and it is ready to use.


Tyntesfield Tool Making 2 – The course.

The course went well. We had two forges, two anvils and six students, I decided that we would have Dave and Tom making axes using the coke forge, and Dick, Angus, Mark and Peter making adzes on the gas forge, it sounds unfair but as the gas forge holds the steel at a constant temperature it is possible to have more than one adze being heated at once, in the workshop I will typically run three blanks in the gas forge, this way as soon as I have finished forging one blank I can pull another one out and immediately start on that, there is no down time waiting for a piece to come up to heat, having many irons in the fire. At Tyntesfied we ran one axe in the coke fire against two adzes in the gas forge.

I broke the process down into stages and demonstrated with Rob striking for me. Next, everyone paired up and would forge to the same stage, then the director and striker would swap places. This way everyone got to experience every process, and if all went well I wouldn’t have to take over at any stage.

Although the starting stages of making an axe and adze are identical they obviously diverge at some point and generally Rob looked after Dave and Tom on the axes and I concentrated on the other two pairs on the adzes. I took some photos but they were totally eclipsed by this set that Peter took.

adze blanks

Scoring an adze blank so the slitting set would locate accurately in the centre.

Axe blank being slit with the new set

Axe blank being slit with the new set

adze split

Adze completely slit, the bolster allows the set to go all the way through without driving the sharp edge into the face of the anvil.

Rob looking after the axe boys.

Rob looking after the axe boys.

adze part forged

Adzes part forged, nice and even eyes which makes everything so much easier throughout the whole forging process


Forging out the lugs on the eye of an adze between top and bottom fullers, the drift is inserted into the eye other wise it would be squashed flat. Tne handle is about to come out if the fuller, a more wedges needed obviously.

Spreading the blade out on an adze with a handled fuller.

Spreading the blade out on an adze with a handled fuller.

Adzes heating in the gas forge.

Adzes heating in the gas forge.

Quenching ( hardening) in oil.

Quenching ( hardening) in oil.


Adzes showing temper colours and ready for the final grind.

Adzes showing temper colours and ready for the final grind.



Although I did help out at a few stages some of the adzes were completely untouched by me, so brilliant efforts all round, it was quite an effort to transplant all the equipment needed to a Marquee 170 miles away but the results, as you can see were definitely worth it.

Tyntesfield Tool Making 1 – Preparations.

I spent the best part of a week getting ready for an axe and adze making workshop I was running ar Tyntesfield for the Sommerset Bodgers. Originally I was asked just to make axes,  however some pictures I posted recently of adzes made on a course at my workshop had over half the participants jumping ship and wanting to make adzes. In a way this is more difficult as I need to teach making two different tools rather than one, but then with Rob along to help out it won’t be so difficult to split the group. Adzes are quicker to forge, but take longer to do the final finishing which may help to spread the load, or, if I don’t get timings right make for a big crush to get to the grinder. One thing is certain though, as I already have one set of tools for making axes and one for making adzes I needed to make less extra tooling up for the course. There are going to be 6 participants so I will need multiple sets, luckily not six, as everyone will pair up taking it in turns to strike for their partner.


blacksmith tools

Firstly the starting point.

From the left:

1. A section of  EN9 Tool steel that I will make a fuller for, this will be for spreading the steel in one direction to shape it, the action is similar to that of a rolling pin on pastry.

2. A chisel that was hurriedly rolled up to make into a gouge at a show, this needs flattening and resharpening as it will be needed for marking the steel stock prior to slitting it.

3. A Large sledge hammer head that I want to reshape, in axe forging a find weight is really important, especially as I tend to use heavy drifts, a light hammer really struggles with these.

4. a section of silver( tool) steel that I will make a slitting tool with, this isn’t really thick enough and will be upset under my power hammer to increase the section width around the eye.

5. An axe eye drift that has suffered over the summer show season, just needs reshaping and smoothing.

6. Adze eye drift that needs similar work.

7. A section of mild steel that I will use to make a couple of pairs of tongs up with.

8 and 9  A section of  EN9 Tool steel that I will use to make a fuller tool that will fit in the anvil that is available at Tyntsefield. The section next to it is a failled axe head in mild steel, this will be the section that fits in the hardy ( square ) hole of the anvil.


blacksmith tools

I started with the tool steels that needed forging first, I was in a real hurry and kept telling myself not to dwell on aesthetic beauty in these tools. as it was they turned out even and went quickly, but in forge work this often goes hand in hand. from the left:

1. The marking chisel

2. The silver steel slitting sett.

3. EN9 fuller top tool

4. En9 Fuller bottom ( anvil ) tool.

Blacksmith tools

Then on to the tongs- these were a joy to forge, mild steel is so much easier to forge than tool steels, especially by hand, and tongs do need a fair amount of hand forging, although a lot of the heavy work can be done under the power hammer. In woodworking terms you could compare the tongs to fresh birch, the tool steels to seasoned ash.

1. These will be used for gripping inside the eye of an axe or adze.

2. A pair that can be used to grip rectangular or square section steel. These work best over quite a narrow size range so I have lots of tongs in different sizes, these are going to be sized to hold the steel bar that the adzes will be forged from.


Blacksmith tools

And the finished set.


2. Drifts were easily smoothed out.

3. Fuller  (bottom) tool fitted to my anvil, will be a loose fit in the Tyntesfield anvil  ( a few wraps of duct tape cures many problems and this will not be an exception)

4. Chisel – has been heat treated and sharpened now.

5. Hammer – With a very rough handle fitted, despite saying that weight was important I decided that this could afford to lose a pound or so as it was nearly 7 pounds, made sense not to forge the pein on in this instance as the goal was to lose weight not preserve it. Cut away with an angle grinder and shaped on the linisher.

6. Fuller tool- this has a very small radius and will shape the steel quickly, these are not swung but struck with a sledge hammer, so the handles can be even cruder than the hammer.

7. Slitting tool, similar useage so similar handle, I had been told that you should leave the heads loose on tools like this to reduce the chance of breaking the handles, but after spending the summer continuously correcting wobbling heads I decided to fit them more securely, not a great loss if the handles do break.

8. Tongs for holding an axe or adze securely from the poll, allows the blade to be inline with the tongs which makes it easier to keep things straight and balanced.

9. Tongs for holding adze stock these will either hold across the flats of the bar, but as I have forged the jaws into a right angle section they will hold much more securely if rotated 45 deg to hold across the corners.

And that is hopefully all the extra tooling I will need for the course, its not finished to the level of my usual work, but I am happy that they will do what I need them to.



Spent some time today trying out the new tooling, also got the blanks for the course forged to size under the power hammer. From the left-
1. My new favourite hammer! Is a nice weight to use, 6lb with the handle. Cross pein prooved to be very useful.
2 Tidied up the last axe I forged this summer at the European Woodworking Show, guest striker was Joe, Anna Casserley’s partner, was complaining of being bored so Rob gallantly stepped aside.
3. Adze stock, still needs to be cut into sections.
4. Axe stock
5. Axe I forged,  trying out some of the new tools, and a new blank shape.
6.  New blank shape, was testing this size out, makes for a very wide eye so will make the handle fit very solid, but on balance it was too wide and thin, unnecessarily difficult to forge, not a section I will be using on the course this weekend.
7, 8, 9 Last year I made all my axes at shows from a large piece of tool steel. Next year I hope to be making them from Mild steel with a section of tool steel laminated in,  this is technically more difficult to do, but the forging will take less force as mild steel is much easier to work.  Expect these to take the same amount of time but should make for a more impressive demonstration.   Downside is that I expect the failure rate to be higher. If we get the chance over the weekend Rob and I will try one out to see how realistic it is to make these in the field.
course tooling 5



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