Archive | Handle making

Axe Handle

Some of my earliest ever blog posts concerned axe handles and handle geometry; surprisingly on re-reading them I was not cringing as much as I though I would, I still stand by pretty much all I put those posts. However, after starting to sell heads it seems to be time to put up a post detailing how I put a handle on an axe.

I will give you the dimensions that I have used on this head- which is a prototype for the lighter head that I alluded to in my last post on axes. However I would strongly advise that nobody sticks slavishly to them, this handle fits my hand and my swing. Your hand size may well vary as will the optimum swing for you. I have quite a few axes and have tuned the handles so they all swing the same, this makes it easy to swap on for another in the middle of carving and be able to work accurately right away, without having to dial in on each axe. My heads are not cheap and I assume anyone that buys one will have an axe already, as long as you like it I would recommend making a handle for my head that will mimic your original one.

The other thing I always advise people that buy a head from me to do is to make the first one out of green wood- the reasoning being unless you are really experienced at hanging axes you are likely to a) not do a fabulous job b) spend ages doing it, especially if it is seasoned hardwood c) want to keep it on using it, despite a) and because of b) .

So, make a crude handle out of greenwood- you know it will eventually shrink so you can’t get attached to it, it will be easy to shape and it will give you a chance to dispassionately swing your axe head, make some spoons ( or whatever takes your fancy)  and know what you want to change. Either way the processes are the same.

This was my starting point.

Rather than carve out a green handle each time I have accumulated a selection of handles that I can try out on the head- the long wedge secures it. My best guess was fitted, although I knew it would be too long. The one above it was more curved, the one above that considerably less. The two billets for the handle were split from some fairly small diameter ash, – it had been cut a few year ago and had been in my workshop over a year but had been kept in the round albeit with a huge split down it, so was pretty dry but still quite nice to work.  I marked out the blank I wanted to cut from it, this was split out with a froe- and I managed to get a hammer handle out of the waste on each side.


I then used the axe to hew it to a rectangle, it quickly became apparent that the handle I had selected didn’t suit so I fitted another. I like quite a large palm swell on my axes, this does mean that the blank you start from needs to be quite thick.  The squared off blank  was  380 x 75 x 42mm

I then drew out the profile I wanted, and cut it to length, a couple of stop cuts make it easier to shape the end. An axe is not the easiest way to do this,  band saw and linisher is probably the quickest option, but all the time I was learning about the axe I was going to handle ( and admittedly the more I used it the less options I had to change the design of the handle which is why I recommended carving some spoon banks rather than jumping straight into the final axe handle)

You need to allow a bit for shrinkage- only a few mm if the wood is quite dry as this was but if it is green it is surprising how much it will shrink, which is what happened to the temporary handle I am using- it was prefect in the hand when green but ended up too thin when dry, so was consigned to my test handles box.

I then draw on a centreline- and take it down in the other plane. I also do some rough shaping of the corners especially on the butt- I feel it makes it less likely to split if you don’t expose a mass of flat end grain.

At this stage I let if bake under the windscreen of my van for a week. I weighed it and have checked the weight loss periodically, when stabilised I  could carry on. This happened  in 4 days, it being uncharacteristically sunny in for this time of year in Wales.  Also if possible I like to do my woodworking on a Monday, after a few days out of the forge my hands tend to be clean enough not to make a complete mess of the pale ash. I have marked out again where I expect the head to end up, you can see there is quite a lot of excess- this is intentional and makes fitting the head easier.

I carved down the handle to get the head started, until the handle is protruding it is better to knock it on like this. Use a wooden mallet and make sure you have the corners removed on the butt so you don’t chip off any sections of short grain.

Next you want to check the alignment as it goes on, it is in theory pretty obvious where you need to remove material to sort out issues but I find it much easier to mark it out the areas I need to remove material from whilst the head is still on, mistakes can be made and you can’t add wood. In this case the head needed to be rotated a few degrees around the handle, I marked the area, on this side above the lug, on the other side below. The block I am holding is used to remove the head at this point, it is a loose fit in the eye but almost round at the other end. A few gentle taps and you can feel the head moving out, this is pretty safe although I would advise taping up the edge. However even with the head taped up there are dangers.

You really don’t want to hold it like this. I once made this mistake when knocking out a hammer handle, one huge blow on the tool and the handle went flying out and hit the floor, the handle removing tool was driven deep into the eye and wedged in. Unfortunately it had also caught the web of skin between my thumb and forefinger. I was now trapped, had to go next door with a hammer head dangling from my hand and get them to drive a drift in from the other direction to free me,  luckily only lasting damage done was to my pride.


To start off with you want to make largely straight cuts, go a little at a time and keep checking the eye is going on straight, rationally and also that the edge is following the centreline of the handle. You should reach the point when the end sticks out pretty quickly. Don’t worry about a perfect fit at this point, all you are really aiming to do is get the eye on straight- you will remove this section finally.

You can now knock the eye out much easier- I still tend to hold the head a make a series of progressively heavier hits until it starts moving.  You can then make adjustments and knock it back on like this.  You can see at this point the head has to move up well over a centimetre.  If you hold the head and knock it up the weight of the edge will tend to make the head rotate so the beard is moving closer to the handle. You can steer the eye on to some degree like this. The wedge I use will expand the handles thickness,  so it is OK to make the handle a bit thin, however do be careful of to much off the width as this is not really something that you can correct. It will still stay put but an air gap top or bottom doesn’t inspire confidence.

As you start blending in where the handle meets the lugs I find you need to make a cut that scoops out a slight concave, a draw knife will tend to cut in too deeply, I find the much maligned thumb push prefect for this, as it tends to cut the right shape naturally, admittedly this is a better shape for rounded lugs- pointed lugs would benefit from a more complicated V – cut out, in practice though this feel fine in the hand.

As the head progresses up the handle you can see the points of contact as the head marks the wood, I remove these each time the head goes up the eye as it is tapered in this direction. for greater clarity I rubbed some black ( moly) grease inside the eye before as I approached the final fit. This gave me an idea of the amount of contact I had achieved.

This was pretty good, as the wedge would take care of the other end. I then trimmed the end down and  cut the slot for the wedge. Here you can see the concave section I was talking about, not very easy to do with a drawknife. I have actually shaped the handle at this point, but would recommend cutting the slot before final shaping- you can then put the handle in a vice with no fear of marking the handle. I saw slowly and make sure to go right down the centreline, aiming to cut to between 2/3 and 3/4 of the length of the eye. I make a cut as this stops the handle splitting to accommodate the wedge, these splits become apparent when you take the handle off (which is the point of this method of handling- or at least having the option to)

Shaping the rest of the handle is next, or should have been.  I tend to rough out the four main flats with a drawknife.

I then refine with a knife and even spoonknife for the concave sections.

I like 12 sided, octagonal looks good but can feel a bit sharp, with 12 sides you can keep the facets crisp but still make a comfortable handle.

The optimum circumference of the handle is dictated by the size of  your hand. I used to play a lot of badminton, all quality rackets were sold in different grip sizes but players still would fine tune between this sizes with wraps. If you have gone to small on your axe handle wrap of suede is a great way to build up a grip. It is personal preference but a starting point is your fingers just touching your the ball of your thumb. There is a good case for saying that as you are going to be moving your hand up and down the handle of the axe as you carve that the circumference of the axe should be constant along its length. In practice I think this looks a little odd so do opt for a slight taper. When you are holding an axe short you tend to grip it looser than when you are holding it long and doing full blooded swings anyway.

When I am happy with the handle I will cut the wedge ( although there is no reason why you couldn’t do this after cutting the slot ) I used some dry oak, and roughed with an axe and finished with a knife. I have never measured the slope of a wedge, aiming for about 6mm where it will be cut off. I make sure the width of the wedge corresponds to the width of the eye not the handle, which despite your best efforts may now be slightly undersize.  As a test I drove the wedge in then removed it.

You can see how far the wedge went in as the oak has been grooved by the pressure from the ash. You can also see how the head has now been expanded to make nearly full contact along the eye. When forging these heads I also reverse drift to put a slight taper in that the wedged section can expand into, in this way the head can come loose but still not fly off. however to be really safe I also leave about 5mm of handle exposed, you can see how the head has formed a step here- this is a measure of how high wedging forces are. Don’t oil a wedge with BLO, this just lubricates it to the extent it pops out like an apple pip between your fingers as you try and drive it in, comical the first time, but ultimately a little frustrating. I then lined up the wedge with the slot and drew a pencil line at the point that the wedge would bottom out. I drove the wedge in again then trimmed it and bevelled the edges hopefully to stop it splitting. at this point you can drive it in a bit further if you wish as it is more rigid being shorter.

I find this style of wedging really useful, having it long allows me to take up any slackness, but it is simple to put the wedge in the vice to remove it ( and yes you can just see that I cracked this in two, a first for me, I will probably replace it when I take do finally take it out) When the pencil line reaches the handle you know it is time for a new wedge rather than trying to drive it into the bottom of the saw cut.

Earlier on I mentioned making an axe swing the same as another one you have, one way of looking at this is comparing the orientation of the handle to the eye. On my axes I like the eye pointing up slightly as this tends to make them slice as opposed to chop.

If you come to fit a head it is useful to know the orientation of the eye to the edge- this will effect the handle shape needed to give the swing that you want to achieve. I try and forge my heads so the eye is pointing straight backwards, but they do all vary a bit. If you buy a head from me I will send a tracing showing the eye orientation of your head, here is how I check- with the drift it was made on.

A lot of this is down to personal preference, I  simple formula I have found that works aesthetically  when marking out a handle is to divide the section behind the lugs into thirds and aim to put the point of inflection ( where the bends change direction) at these points. I have also found that having flare on the top of the butt 30mm further back than the one at the top feels better.

I tend to use ash, but most hardwoods are suitable, carving axe handles are pretty under stressed. As to oiling the head- some thinned Boiled linseed oil is my choice, then when that has dried a top up of neat BLO whenever the handle looks like it needs it.  Apologies for the  length and depth of this post- I was going to provide these instructions to all my customers that have ordered axe heads but it seems easier to put it up here.



Keeping the elephants away – part 2

I have now processed the results of my sets of experiments and even found time between grinding to conduct a new one. To recap though, I wanted to see if there was anything you could soak a loose axe handle in to swell it sufficiently to fix it.  I tested Veritas chair doctor glue, Water, PEG, Boiled linseed Oil and thinned BLO

I will start off with the Veritas Glue- This worked to a degree but running any glue that is thin enough to penetrate between the handle and axe would also work. I could find no evidence of the wood actually swelling, but then I was not using the glue as intended. You can see from the picture that the glue did not penetrate very far and rusted the socket. Gluing is not a method I can see myself using as I like to be able to disassemble my axes so leave a protruding wooden wedge.


Water-An average of 4.1g soaked into the wood. This swelled the wood massively, but in drying the wood had been crushed by the swelling and were so loose that they could be rocked in the socket. You can see the constriction here. So not a long term solution but in an emergency it will temporally secure a loose head. It was interesting to measure the differential expansion coefficient- this came out at 2, the Ash moves twice as much tangentially as radially.



PEG-  This didn’t work as hoped. The wood swelled, but as it dried it shrunk back, it was slightly looser than before. Ideally PEG should be applied to wood that is green and if using dry wood it is recommended the wood is soaked for a few days to rehydrate it, this allows the PEG to penetrate the wood better, it was very viscous and the amount absorbed by the wood was less than for the thinned Linseed oil at 1.8g.  I don’t see that soaking a loose head in water for three days and then soaking it in PEG a realistic idea. I wouldn’t like to leave my axes submerged and rusting for the best part of a week.

BLO- The immediate swelling I expected to see did not occur, however as the oil cured it should gain weight by oxidation- in theory a weight gain of 40% is possible in raw linseed oil, somewhat less in BLO due to the added driers. A gain in weight suggests an increasing in volume that I thought may give rise to the swelling that I was hoping for, so I have been recording weights for the last few weeks.  This was not found, despite using scales that weighed to one hundredth of a gram, no consistent weight gains were recorded. Changes due to humidity were recorded in all samples and it was found that these changes were less in the BLO samples- the oil reducing the flow of water vapour from the air to the wood.

Thinned BLO- Broadly the results were the same as BLO, I found it interesting though that significantly more oil was absorbed even taking into account that some of the initial recorded increase in weight was just the white spirit used to thin the oil 2.1g of thinned oil went in equating to 1.7g of BLO as opposed to 1.2g of BLO if it is not thinned ( It should be pointed out that it is likely that the BLO I was using had some thinners in to start off with, but I was amazed at how much thinner the oil was with 20% whites spirit, I would guess that there was 5% or less thinners in the ‘neat’ BLO).  This seemed to evaporate off quite quickly. It does seem to be worth thinning BLO not only will it penetrate deeper but more goes in as well. However in splitting the samples open at the end of the tests it was apparent that not all the white spirit had evaporated off- it could be smelt easily. It can be seen how the Thinned BLO penetrated the ring porous sections of the Ash.

So not the set of results I was hoping for, but I remembered reading that wood treated with BLO resisted compression better as the fibres were filled and less likely to collapse. Perhaps this means that if the wood gets wet and swells it will resist being crushed and then shrinking on drying as seen in the water samples?  Also the Axe will transmit force to the eye- these concussive blows may dent the wood allowing the head to come loose.  However in the axes I have used it tends to be periods of storage that cause heads to loosen rather than use, but then I forge my heads with a larger contact area than many reducing the pressures on the wood.

I didn’t have time to run a series of tests to see how the samples fared against compression over time, but I did set up a test imitating the concussive forces that an axe or hammer might impart to a handle.

Not the clearest picture I am afraid but we used a bar of steel that was held a set distance above the samples ( by the box section that also guided it down onto the target peg)  We dropped this three times onto the samples radially and tangentially then measured the degree of crushing.   We tested BLO samples against some control samples I had kept for such eventualities.

In these samples we found that they were crushed much more radially- the growth rings more readily crushed into one another, not really a surprise if you have every tried pounding ash splints.  Tangentially  however the depth of crushing was roughly half.

In BLO loaded samples this effect was not seen, the tangential crushing was reduced slightly, meaning it was slightly stronger. However the real surprise was the radial strength this was now equivalent to the tangential strength.It seems that the BLO filled the pores of the ring porous ash and reinforced it at this weak spot. No statistical difference was seen between the thinned and uncut BLO despite the thinned seeming to have penetrated more readily.

So what did I learn? Well..

Soaking in water is as bad as thought.

PEG and Chair Doctor glue don’t work.

Boiled linseed Oil didn’t work as expected- there is no point soaking a loose head and expecting it to swell and tighten up; however the wood does seem to be slightly more resistant to moisture after oiling so will move less after treating. Ash will also see an increase in compressive strength after treatment that may help it to stay tight in a head. Thinning BLO allows more to go in, reducing the soaking time needed. Probably better to use it neat for a final coat though. BLO is not the cure all that I hoped it to be, but out of all the samples tested is was the best.

As many of you will know Don now does the IT support on my site, and is very knowledgable on the subject of Linseed oil, we have been communicating over the last month or so, it was he who confirmed the idea the the oil should gain weight as it cures. I initially found great comfort in this, I had made an axe stand from some oak years ago and as some of the sapwood had rotted, so I poured litres of BLO into it, the idea being that it would soak into the punky wood, cure and harden it. It didn’t work like that, 15 years later bits still flake off and leave oily smears as it still hasn’t fully cured. I had increasingly found that this stump wasn’t so easy to lug about and had been putting it down to encroaching old age, so the idea that the stump was still getting heavier as the oil cured was encouraging. With these results though I am afraid I have had to revert to the previous theory.




Keeping the elephants away


A man boards a train, and finds himself sitting in a compartment opposite another passenger who is reading The Times. Every time the other finishes a page, he tears it from the paper, rolls it into a ball and throws it from the train. Perplexed, the man asks what he is doing.

“Ah,” says the man with the newspaper. “A trick I learned in Africa. Keeps the elephants away, don’t you know.”

“But there aren’t any elephants around here!”

“Yes. Works well, doesn’t it!”

Nearly twenty years ago when I was an Artist Blacksmith I found myself in Paul Zimmerman’s forge in Germany, I was impressed as to how well seated his hammer heads were compared to mine, and was told that every Christmas they would soak all their hammers for three days in linseed oil, this would swell the wood and hold the heads on. This made a deep impression on me, not in the least that Christmas was the only time they took a break long enough to complete this process.

When I returned from this trip I set up shop more professionally, soaked all my hammers and have not suffered loose heads to the extent that I used to; forging hammers have a tough life, they often get hot from contact with hot steel, often enough to expel uncured linseed from the heads. But in my new shop the process seemed to work and I have used the same process on Axe and Adze heads with similar success. Or have I ? my new shop is much less damp than my old one, maybe the heads would not have come loose without a soak. In a similar vein I have heard and repeated the idea that soaking a handle in water is a bad idea as the fibres will try to expand greatly to the extent that they will become crushed and on drying the handle will be a worse fit than before.

Is this true though? can the fibres expand and become crushed at the same time? Yet another version I have heard is that in Japanese woodworking if an irregularity is found in the socket of an axe head the corresponding area in the handle is peened down and then carved to make as good a fit as possible, the handle is then fitted and water poured down the handle/socket junction. This soaks and expands the compressed wood which then pops back into place locking the handle on. Yet would soaking the handle not make it swell, compress the fibres and then contract on drying and come loose? It is said that if something is repeated eleven times on the internet it becomes irrefutable fact, but it is hard to know which facts to believe sometimes.

Heads coming loose on axes and adzes, especially where the contact area is relatively small because the eye socket is quite short- such as the Chineland pattern axes is something that comes up fairly frequently, even in my workshop I have had students bring along such axes for attention.

A slight window in my schedule gave me the few hours I needed to finally put in the time to continue a series of experiments to address some of these questions. I had made a tentative start over a year ago and then as ever work took over. But I am finally on track again. The full cycle of these including wetting and drying cycles will take around a month to complete and will be quite long winded. I will document results as they progress partly because I am uncharacteristically excited by this and want to share the results, also there is quite a lot to get across and it seems to make sense to break it down a bit.

To start off with though I  had, last year,  rough turned some ash blanks in the workshop, these were now skimmed in my metal lathe to be an accurate fit in some 25mm tube I have.

These  blanks were then cut into sections as were the tubes. They were then weighed and measured ( unfortunately my lathe was cutting a very slight taper) then driven into the tubes with a few very light taps of the hammer. This replicates an axe/adze/hammer handle as it would be fitted in my workshop. These tubes were then left over a radiator in my home and tested again. Unsurprisingly they had come loose to varying degrees, again replicating a common problem.

The next stage was to soak these test pieces in various solutions to try and fix them, I used the following:

Water- will it get even looser after drying?

PEG – polyethylene glycol- this was used quite commonly in the woodturning community a few years back but seems to have fallen out of favour somewhat now, it was quite hard to source. The idea is that the PEG will saturate the wood like water but will leave a waxy residue in the wood, reducing shrinkage, and in the case of woodturning it will lubricate the tool cutting it leaving a finer finish, check out Wiki for its other common uses.

Veritas Chair doctor glue- ‘ If a chair has a loose rung an injection of Chair Doctor Glue will first swell the rung and then bond it in position. The secret is the low viscosity. It soaks into the end grain, swells the wood then ‘freezes’ the wood in its swollen state as it cures. A film of dry glue is left on the walls of the wood cells preventing contraction. ‘ – sounded like it was worth a go, so a bottle was purchased.

Boiled linseed oil- My usual choice, rather than test different types of BLO I also tested a sample cut with 20% white spirit to thin it, hopefully allowing increased penetration. Accepted idea is that the oil penetrates and wets the fibres which then swell, and stay swollen as the oil will not evaporate out of the wood.

I used two samples in each solution- trying to match one loose and one tight fitting in each pair. They were left to soak for three days, replicating a German blacksmith’s Christmas break.


I didn’t soak the Chair doctor glue pair- just added some to the end grain at the end of the three days- these seemed to glue solid into the tubes.

After the soak weights and measurements were again taken, but the most obvious thing was that the water and PEG soaked pairs were now rock solid in the tubes and the protruding ends were noticeable oval. However all the BLO samples were as loose as when they had gone in, the oil actually made them slide in and out of the tubes easier. At this point I did wonder if all the time I had spent soaking tools in BLO had been a complete waste of time, maybe the only effect was to reduce the rate at which moisture could pass in and out of the wood as atmospheric conditions changed? Still I wanted to complete the experiment and see how the water and PEG samples dried so have been completing the weights and measurements on all the samples over the last couple of weeks as they dry or cure,  I should have final results completed by next weekend, so far they have surprised me.



Detail knife handle

After reading a request by a customer for information on how to fit these blades I remembered that I haven’t ever shown how to fit small straight blades so put this together today. As it was spur of the moment thing whilst waiting for some Twca Cams to anneal I didn’t have my camera with me or a finished detail blade but used my phone and found a blank that had been used for hardness testing after heat treat- hence the small impressions on one face.

I used some birch for this handle, it wasn’t fully dry but had been in the workshop for a few weeks in a 1″x 2″ section which is turned out well, dry enough so that it will take a good finish but still enough moisture that it didn’t crack and will tighten onto the tang as it dries later. Ash is also good as is elm, harder woods such as yew seem to be prone to splitting.

I took the pictures for this sequence as I did it, it was all by eye, not marked out on a table. This really can a very quick process. If when you get the handle on it doesn’t line up well split it off and have another go,  you may only be 10 minutes in.

As I general rule I make a handle one finger width wider than my palm. So I cut the birch to length and shaped one end, leaving the other end largely untouched. Then lined up where I wanted the blade to be.

I then marked where I wanted to drill the hole for the tang.


Rather than drill immediately I then used a bradawl to start the hole to be certain the drill wouldn’t wander. I chose a drill bit to give a hole slightly undersize.


The hole was drilled in a press but you could do it freehand, main thing is to be certain that the orientation is good left to right, up and down there is more leeway for error in this blank.  Make sure you drill the slightly deeper that the length of the tang. I then put the drill bit in the hole and used this as a guide to see how well it all lined up. As I have done it this many times is was fine, but if it wasn’t the idea is that you have left enough excess wood in the butt end of the handle to bring everything back into line.


If you are using a cordless drill after drilling you can put it in a vice, put the handle back onto the drill bit and spin the handle slowly whilst holding a marker to the other end, it should scribe a circle with the middle being your centre. This trick works well for lots of instances where you need to drill dead central. As it was all I needed to do was mark the centre on the butt and draw on the rough outline of the handle.


I shaped the handle, including cutting the face that the tang was going into, I left the butt unfinished. The blade was then put in the vice protected by a wrap of cardboard and then it was tapped gently into place.


When I was happy with that is had gone in OK I cleaned up the Butt, no point getting it perfect then marring it by  hammering on it.


Finally I gave the handle a coat of oil and as I wanted to use it for something ground the point to a pyramid to make a bradawl.




“Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”

Vince Lombardi Jr.

I heard this quote from a very talented local carver. This crystallized my ponderings on perfection and why I had disliked it so viscerally when applied to craft. If you believe the last thing you made is perfect, then that’s it. Your work is done and there is nowhere further to go. The flip side though is that it can be hard not to see fault in everything you do and get overwhelmed by it; often in the past I have driven home thoroughly disheartened by a tiny aspect of a tool that to my eye ruined it completely. And the next morning struggled to find this terrible flaw.

I like this quote, find it reassuring, thank you Grant.

Last post showed the axe I forged on a course, I was really pleased with it; however when I came to try it out I felt that the handle was too long, using it at full length made it feel a bit floaty and imprecise, as I suggested at the time it is a bit light for its size and a longer handle didn’t really cure this. So I used it to  carve another, by the time I had finished the new handle I largely come to grips with the old one, but this one feels right immediately, not after 10 minutes use so it is a step forward.

I have also included a picture of my hammer handle one week in; I took it to Barns where I was running an axe making course, really impressive set of axes came out this time, hopefully I will get some images of them to share soon. I had a fair go with it then and then and did a short run of  axes back at my workshop; managed to drop a red-hot head on the handle and burn a notch in right at the weakest point, the handle isn’t really right on this either; it feels great when I hold it at full length and I get the impression that vibrations are not transmitted up a thinner handle. However at times I really like to choke up on a hammer and when I do this I am gripping the a section that is too narrow for my hand and this can cause real problems. I’ll probably keep the handle for another hammer and make a new one. You can see why I love ash though, it starts off looking very bland but very quickly the porus grain fills and it takes on a whole new character, there is a difficult teenage period when the ash grain is neither clean or fully filled and just looks dirty but with hands like mine it doesn’t take that long.


Axe and hammer a week later


And the new heads, a few subtle tweaks and variations in the designs, a more boldly incised pattern and new, hopefully superior steel, it forges nicely and as far all the readings tell  me the heat treat has worked well, but I won’t know for certain until I put a handle on one and see how the edge holds up in use. But which one? always in the past when I make a batch there is one that to my eye stands above the others, this batch I am still undecided, really I want to try them all.


First three

Axes and Adzes, Again.

I had a great day last week with Richard and Jules Heath, they came to forge axes. It has been a while since I have taught axe making in my workshop, concentrating on larger groups at the Green wood guild in London, and a new adze course at Westonbirt, see my courses page for details. This time they were aiming to make a head each in a day, this seemed easy enough so I decided to forge an axe alongside them. On a course I will typically start off a head to give everyone an idea of what we are doing but rarely finish them off; and if I do try they often end up going wrong as I am actually concentrating on my students 6 axes rather than my own.

This time though I decided to make a much more extreme version of my carving axes. The blank was around 2 oz heavier but the techniques for forming the eye, lug and throat of the axe were identical. My blank was on the right.


Next we marked out where the eye will be slit; this is done cold. I have been in two minds about this for a long time, it is much more accurate to mark out cold but I do think that it is shame that the first forceful blows on the steel of the day are not done under heat. However accuracy is so important at this stage that it overides my aesthetic concerns.

marking out

Finally into the forge.

first heat

And slitting the eye, Jules was concerned that his tennis elbow would preclude his ability to make an axe, but as you can see from the picture both of his hands are taken up, I am striking with the sledge but Jules is definately in control of the preceedings.

eye slitting

When it came to forging out the my axe I tended to use the powerhammer to speed things along. I am drawing out the lugs on the eye.

cheating on the powerhammer

Back to the sledge and drawing out the blade on Richard’s axe.

flareing the blade

At this stage we run out of pictures and jump to their finished axes, I carried on completed forging on mine whilst they were doing the heat treat and some of the grinding.

Here we have Richards head.

Richards axe

And Jules’.

jules aze

I great day that I throughly enjoyed, Jules and Richard are well known green wood workers and I always find that these skills transfer well to forge work. It was really liberating making an axe alongside them, I decided to have a play and see how far I could draw out the edge. The past year has been focused soley on production and I enjoyed making this so much that the next day I went on to make a couple of rounding hammers, I had used tools like this to finely control the flow of the steel to get the maximum edge length from a relatively small piece of steel; it ended up a fraction over 7.5″ and  1 1/2 lb ( 675g)

When I came to make the handle I fitted one of my temporay handles using a long wedge and carved the handle for the axe head with the axe head, wordplays like that in action please me immensely. On a more practical level whilst it would have been quicker roughing out with a drawknife (or bandsaw and linisher if I was really willing to sell my soul.)  it was really useful to try out the axe and see what I liked about it and what needed changing, the handle I had put on turned out to be too curved so I altered my design to account for this, also the head felt a bit light considering how much potential edge could be used to hew with so I put a longer handle to allow it to feel more powerful if need be. I only made the head as an exercise to see how much edge I could tease out of the blank but ended up really liking it however I still feel that anything over 5 1/2″ inches on a carving axe is overkill.

handle underway


However there are certain features that I like about this axe that will subtley show themselves in future, less extreme runs that I produce. The handles on the hammers I made very thin, I wanted to see if this would help reduce the shock back up my arm when working harder grades of steel, will be interesting to see how they hold up; they certainly won’t look this white for long. I doubt I will ever put them into the mix of my teaching hammers as they would easly break with a misshit. Also I tend to purposely make teaching tooling with a bit less care than this; it is not that I want my students to use inferior tools (and most of the differences I am talking about are asethetic not functional) , just that I know that the tools are going to get a fair beating and I find it very hard to let go of a tool that I have lavished alot of attention over. It would not be fair for me to be wincing every time a student slightly mishits a tool and marks it so I make sets up that are a bit more robust and rustic than these.

axe finished

Axes, adzes and reamers

It feels like most days I receive emails asking when I will start making axes again, finally I have some news. Firstly though a quick update, two months ago I crushed my thumb in some machinary and it has been very slow to heal, I am still having to bind it up with duct tape at work and it has slowed me down considerably. It was quickly apparant that production work would be too taxing so have been concentrating on making, then testing new tooling and refining a few designs, some new, some old. I have also finished off an order for Lie-Nielsen, tools for another course that Peter Follansbee is teaching. This has meant that my website has run dry and wait lists are very long but I am back into production now and stock should filter through to the site in a couple of days.

Some of my tooling has been aimed at refining the way I forge axes, originally the idea was that I could make them quicker, but as soon as I tried them out it became apparent that I can now forge more accurately and cleaner than ever before, I could rush through and do them faster but I have decided not to take this route, the end result is that axes aren’t actually coming out any quicker but they are the best I have ever made, I am also testing better steels so the edge holding is going be enhanced. I decided to reinforce the point that these aren’t bashed out at speed by putting some subtle decoration on them. So far I have made a couple with handles and masks and another pair as heads only. The finished ones are quite extreme, rather closed eyes necessitated very curvy handles, I got a bit carried away on the paler one and ended up putting more of an adze shaped knob on, but it feels good in use. The wedges have been left long but I would expect to trim then down after a few weeks use.  The next pair of heads were more conventional and will be fine on straighter handles. It was great to be forging axes again, and a joy not to have my eye on the clock all the time which often happens with pure production runs.





One thing I have found with axes is that they are pretty forgiving when it comes to handles, after a few minutes you can get used to quite different handle geometries. It should be said though that I go to a lot of trouble to make sure all my own axes swing the same, this way I can swap straight from one to another without any break-in period needed.

Adzes however are very different, get the handle to edge geometry just a few degrees out and they really won’t work well. This was brought home to me a while back when I steepened an edge that kept rolling, when I got back to the bowl I was working on it was immediately apparent that the edge now held, but the geometry was wrong.

Paul Hayden runs chair making courses at Westonbirt and over the years I have known him he has bemoaned the fact that it has become more dificult then impossible to get an adze out of the box that is suitable for hollowing chair seats. His brief was quite specific and I came up with a design that seems to tick all his boxes, except to my eye the aesthetic, but that should progress in later versions. These carve beautifully on a  fairly short, straight handle, used two handed. Very different to the bowl adzes I am used to, the inside bevel though is not ideal, as it is not so easy to sharpen. Next versions will explore if an external bevel can carve as smoothly.

Finally I have made the tooling for these reamers for Barn, they seem to work well but when I go down to London to for an Axe course this weekend we will spend some time testing and refining grinds.


Then, as I said a short run of spoon carving tools to go to the States, handle making underway.


And the finised batch, with the two pattern handle tools in the foreground


My next priority is to get fully back into production to stock this site; however as time presents itstelf I will be doing some limited runs of axes and later adzes, these will be done on my terms, so no special orders will be taken. This current batch is already spoken for and when I have decided how I will be sellling later batches and finalised specs I will update again here. So, progress of sorts!


Aspiration vs Perspiration

This post is about the motivation behind my toolmaking. First and foremost there is the need to provide a living for my family and however idealistic I may sound later on there are economic realities that can’t be provided for by the feelgood factor of working with your hands. However, if money was my sole concern then I probably would be an accountant not a craftsman.

When making a tool the aim is to make the best that I can, no concern about time taken or price, it can take years to get a tool to a point that I am really happy with it yet still some tools stall at this point as it becomes obvious that they are going to be too expensive regardless of how good they are; I won’t reduce quality to come in at a certain price point.

In Maine this year I used a wonderful shave horse that Lie Nielsen had made, asking when these would be in production I was told a familiar story, they were too expensive to make, still with the way Green woodworking is taking off in the States it wouldn’t be a great to surprise to see it back in production in the future.

As to processes, my first love is to forge steel. It is important for me to do this rather than grind it or have it lazer cut. In the past I have been selling blades only and will continue to offer these but recently have been completely finishing more of my tools. My preferred method with handles is to cut them green, although some finishing needs to be done when the wood is dry.  As an example I will take you through a knife I took on as a commission a few months back, contrasting it with my preferred methods of making carving knives

This knife was full tang and not really suited to forging so I drew out the outline on a piece of steel and cut out the shape.



I drilled some holes to take to balance the knife a bit better, as this is not something I do very often I ended up not being very happy with the hole placement near the front of the handle, so filled them with weld, unhappy with the welds another bar was marked out and cut, the blade pictured will probably end up as scrap.


The scales ( wood either side of the full tang ) needed to be bone dry, a pair were cut from Yew and a pair from Spalted box.  I was unsure if the box would work but it was my preferred option, they were cut oversize, then dried, finally they were flattened on a sander to make a good fit on the tang.


The blade was heat treaded and ground, the box scales survived drying with only minor warping and cracking the latter fixed with super glue.  Everything glued up using some cool mosaic pins that I dug up.


Finally it was sanded and oiled, it came out well I think, but there are lots of makers that can do this sort of work and for me was very time consuming, largely due to my inexperience in using these methods of construction. The price I charged for it compared to the lost production time meant that this knife actually cost me £1200- which made it abundantly clear that I can no longer take on one off commissions!


This is the way I prefer to work- steel is cut roughly to shape


It is then forged to size, in batches- this I find tricky to get right, if the batch is too large I will damage my elbow as I like to forge hard and fast and the steel I use is very tough, too small a batch is not efficient 20 in this size is about right I feel. You can see how effective forging is: the blades are bigger than the blank ( well obviously they can’t be but you get the idea) compare this to all the wasted steel on the stock removal knife.


Then handles, green ash, cut to length, split with a froe and in this case roughed with an axe. IMG_7900

Final shaping is done on a shave horse although some cleaning up was done with a knife.



I like 12 sided handles as octagonal tends to feel too sharp to most people meaning that the corners need to be sanded down. The contrast between forged steel and crisp shiny bevels play well against carved handles, I have also been experimenting with different woods and staining as the aesthetic is important to me; a tool that lifts the spirits inspires you to do better work.


It is also deeply satisfying to use and develop my own tools to do the woodwork with. I could use my powerful linisher to rough out and finish handles at a good speed, but it would be noisy, unpleasant work requiring ear, eye and lung protection. The way orders are stacking up it seems likely that I will be either outsourcing my handles or directly employing someone to make them. I want them to be made this way, if a job is being created it should be one I would want to do myself. It would be disingenuous of me to embrace and promote the dust free ideals of unplugged Green Woodworking and then employ someone to rip out all my handles on a linisher.

A few provisos about the video-  The quality is poor as our camera is ancient. No power was needed so I set up at home, which made a pleasant change. My starting point was split wedges of ash. In this instance all shaping was done on the shave horse, as the ash was  pretty dry I could crack off large sections early on when shaping with the drawknife, it is pleasing working this way as it tells me exactly which way the grain is running. In the second sequence my new drawknife, code named PMPY,  allows me to cut the facets and deal with any unruly grain without having to flip the blank continually. It actually works slightly better with slower deliberate strokes,  but being videoed made me nervous and I worked it backwards and forwards a lot quicker than normally. You can hear how tough trimming the end grain was with a knife, if it is green it is quicker to do it like this, but when it is this dry it would have been better to clamp it vertically in the shave horse and use a drawknife. My much admired shavehorse was made for me by Lee Stoffer although some features were used from Peter Galberts designs, I love it, but a bit more fine tuning will improve my posture and comfort.


This post has been much longer than expected; I touched on batch size but will next time talk more about jigs and quantity production, hopefully soon!



Twca Cam Handle

I get asked about these often, they really are very easy so just a few pictures, as my spoon blades are are forged with a round tang as well this method is directly applicable.

Roughen the tang section that you want sunk into the handle with coarse paper. All the blades are left with the final polishing compound on as this protects against rust but a wipe down with some solvent will help to keep thing clean during the handling process.


Drill a hole that the tang will fit into. I get it as straight as possible but if it is slightly out of line would advise rotating the blade until you get an orientation that suits you , I have heard from some people that a leading edge is desirable, others have said trailing.

I always seal the handle with oil first that way any excess glue won’t stain the handle.  Then mix up some epoxy and dribble it into the tang. let it settle to the bottom of the hole for a few minutes.


If you judge it perfectly when you push the handle in you will get a nice fillet of epoxy showing. Remember it does soak into the wood and shrink slightly on drying so if you wipe it off flush you will probably end up with a crater when it is set. if you have put to much in wipe it off with a tissue as it goes in.


Check you you are happy with the orientation, the put aside to set. Another coat of oil and you are done.


I am off about to leave for Barn’s  Green Wood Guild to teach a course,  hopefully there will be time to put together a quick video on how I sharpen and explain the edge geometry on these curved blades.


Knife handle making – using dowel

I have been trialling this method of knife handle making for a while now, the dowels will be for sale on the site soon but for the moment any Sloyd ( small/ standard/ laminated)  blade will come with one for free. The straight edged blade is another pattern that I used to make that may well make an appearance on the site. I would advise taping up the blade for safety, I haven’t for clarity.


I make them in a couple of sizes, a smaller dowel still will be needed for my detail blades, still working on those. This is the sort of fit that we are after. It is possible that the slot might be a bit tight on some blades. My approach ion the workshop would be to grind the tang down to fit, but another option is to sand or carve down the inside of the slot until the blade goes in without spreading the arms of the dowel.



Drill a suitable hole, 10mm in this case, in an oversized piece of wood, I used cherry. You want a few mm protruding from the handle at this stage. If the dowel gets stuck you can put the blade in and rotate and whilst gently pulling. Check that the blade is roughly in line with the handle, if it isn’t try rotating the blade or dowel, if this doesn’t help then your hole isn’t straight and you need to start again. When you are happy with the alignment mark the blade and dowel so they will go back the same way ( I know that if the tang was perfectly straight and the slot centralised this wouldn’t be necessary, but it doesn’t hurt)


When you are happy with the fit, glue the dowel in place, use enough epoxy to get a good joint but not so much that it fills the slot for the blade. Wedge the end of the dowel open with a scrap of wood, best to make it narrower than the dowel or it might get glued to the sides of the hole.


Sand down the tang of the blade, this will make a better key for the epoxy. You can see that the shoulders on the blade are not aligned, the shoulder at the spine needs to be recessed into the handle, leaving the edge shoulder will be slightly proud.


When the glue is set the blade is held in a soft jawed vice ( or a standard vice and the blade wrapped in cardboard. The handle is hammered onto the tang, it should only be a tight fit as the shoulder is being driven in, if it is tight earlier on then it is possible some epoxy has got into the slot; heat the tang gently over a flame and try again the epoxy should soften enough to allow you to get the blade in, it will grab as it cools, so pull it out and and sand off any epoxy stuck to the blade. You should end up with a flush shoulder like this, the handle is left oversize to reduce the chance of it splitting, but if you are worried you could remove some of the wood with a needle file or alike.


Check the alignment of the tang, and mark the centre lines of the blade.


Pull the blade out, if it is stuck you can hammer carefully on the front face of the handle whilst holding the blade in the vice. I then roughed out with an axe, using the x as the centre for the butt of the handle.


I then shape finally with a knife including both ends of the handle, and give the handle a coat of oil to stop the glue staining the wood. Then run some epoxy into the slot, let it settle to the bottom , push the blade in and ideally you should see epoxy drive out of the slot just as the blade goes up to the shoulder, if glue comes out too early I pull the blade out and wipe some epoxy off the tang and try again. If there isn’t enough I either add more to the slot or if it is nearly there run a bit into the gaps down the sides. Wipe with a tissue to get a neat fillet. The woods don’t match that well in this case, but the joint is sound.




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