Archive | Handle making

Bowl Knife Handle making

A quick tutorial as to how I fit the handle on a bowl knife;  there are lots of ways to do it and a couple of jubilee clips would do fine, but I like the finish this method gives. It is a bit over the top though, very much belts and braces.

Starting point in this case was cleft dry ash, I left facets on for better grip.

cleft handle

I draw around the blade.

marked out

I cut a rebate for so the blade is inlet flush with the handle.  I found a chisel easiest for this job.


I then screwed the blade in place, notice proper slot head screws, I have a stash of these but they are increasingly hard to find.


I then took it apart, epoxied everything in place.

screwed and glued

When it was set I gave it a quick sand to remove any high spots and started the whipping. First cut off 6″ of thread and put it to one side, you will need it later. It  is a bit fiddly to get catch the loose end, you also don’t want to start to close to the end of the handle. Once you have got a good start of 4 or 5 wraps you can cut the tag end down.

catching the end

I only had very fine cotton so it took a while to  reach the end of the blade,  I then whipped in a loop of the material I had put to one side earlier. after 4 or 5 wraps cut your thread and pass it through this loop, pull on the two ends and your whipping will pass under the  earlier threads, cut the end flush with a knife between the wraps.

catching the other end

I then added a thin layer of epoxy as I was concerned that if the thread frayed it would all unravel. Also want to make sure the thread didn’t come of the front of the tool. The epoxy soaked in and didn’t leave a glossy finish. A coat of oil to seal the wood and it was ready to use.

finished 2

What I do like about this method is that the fixing is very low profile and so less likely to foul on the inside of a bowl in use.




Testing Grain Orientation

Which is the best way to orient the grain?

Which is the best way to orient the grain?


In my last blog post I wrote about grain orientation in carving axe handles, making the assumption that having the rings running parallel to the bit of an axe (1) would be stronger, however speaking to Lee Stoffer about this in December sowed seeds of doubt in my mind. I found lots of research on the effect of sloping grain on timber ( when the grain is not parallel to the to the cut timber) . A figure that stuck with me was that a 10 deg slope reduces shock resistance by 50%. I measured the slope on some handles I had rejected and found a slope of 20 deg. The most applicable research related to baseball bats, this paper suggested that grain orientation makes no difference to strength in non sloping grain. However there was a statistically significant difference when slope of grain was added into the equation. Interestingly the stronger orientation in ash was different to that found in birch and maple. Unfortunately no figures were given. However this research suggests a 25 degree slope of grain would reduce strength by 60-80% ( I am fudging here, toughness, modulus, compression, shock resistance were all measured, giving for a very confusing graph)
The plan was to test some sections at 25deg slope, very much a worst case scenario. the sections would then be tested in both grain orientation. I cut slices 1cm thick from two pieces of ash from my woodpile one with approximately 12 rings per inch/ 25mm and a second with 6 rings per inch. The slices would then be cut to make 1cm x 1cm cross sections. Some 1cm square non sloping sections were also cut to give a baseline measurement.

grain test1

The plan was to compare the strength of these different sections, I was going to support the sections a set distance apart on my digital scales, then slowly press down on the centre of the section and record the maximum weight recorded before the section broke.

grain test 3

Unfortunately the scales bottomed out at 30kg, and at this weight the sections all held. I put them on my belt sander and reduced the section to around 6mm. This thickness meant that most of the samples tested from the slower grown ash broke at around 15kg.
I have struggled how to describe this grain orientation, radially/ Tangentially, Vertical/ Horizontal? Edge and face loading was used in the baseball bat research. In terms of axe handles I think annual rings parallel to the bit of the axe – (1) or perpendicular (2) work well but again a  picture is clearer:

2 and 1numbers added



Put simply, taking 100% to be the non sloping baseline tests.

In slower grown ash: Orientation 1 gave 98% strength, and 2 gave 89%

In fast grown ash: Orientation 1 gave 41% , 2 gave 27%

However the fast grown was almost exactly twice as strong in the baseline tests. So the figures aren’t quite as far apart as at first sight.
The difference is significant though , also the sloping grain samples broke with virtually no warning in the fast grown ash, whereas there was noticeable bending and creaking in the slower grown samples. At 25 degrees slope a handle would have been stronger if made from  the slower grown ash, however as the angle decreases then the point will come that fast grown ash in orientation 1 will be stronger. In a straighter handle the fast grown ash will be stronger in either orientation.The increased strength in orientation 1 also ties in with the baseball bat research I came across.

These results ( see provisos at the end) are interesting, in a curved handle if I can’t use any natural curve in the grain to my advantage then I will be using fast grown ash with the annular rings parallel to the bit of the axe (1) If I wanted a really curved handle and had to make it out of straight grained ash I would choose slow grown ash over fast grown, a chain being only as strong as its weakest link.

This was only meant to be a light hearted test done over the Christmas break, my children helped break the sections . However my training was in similar sorts of research and I am very much aware that the sample size of this test (24) is too small. I hope to continue with the tests to see how repeatable these results are, in the meantime other related issues include:
1.  I have included odd spikes in the data to get averages, these should have been ironed out with a larger data set.
2. It is also very difficult to start with a grain aligned at 0 deg, the slower grown wood had definite twist in it. Again this error should be reduced with a larger sample size.
3. The fast grown ash actually bottomed out the 30kg limit on my scales on half of the aligned samples, I estimated breaking force in these cases.
4. I am not certain that the results from the small sections that I have been testing can be extrapolated to axe handle dimensions, instinctively I would say yes, but at any rate the sections used are not that far off spoon dimensions, which may well be of interest to a wider section of readers.
5 Lastly, is breaking weight/ force a good test to replicate failure in an axe handle? probably the Izod impact test would have been better but beyond me or my young assistants.

Axe handles part 2 – geometry

In the last post I explained my reasoning behind the various ways that the grain can be oriented in an axe handle. However if the handle is straight then it makes no difference and any of the methods I described would work, you could even steam some curved branch wood straight if you really fancied a challenge.

Making axe handles

Aesthetically I prefer a curved axe handle, however when you choke up on a curved handle it also brings your hand closer to the blade, effectively reducing the poll to edge measurement of the axe. I have found that axes with shorter edge to polls to be more accurate and easier to use.  (3) shows this effect well, the curve puts the handle way below the centre line that a straight handle with the same basic geometry would have (1)
The main factor concerning handle shape is the eye orientation in the head. A handle in a carving axe works best for me when it points out roughly horizontally or slightly upwards ( handle pointing upwards is described as open) – this is the my major concern when laying out a handle. (1)
When forging an axe head I tend to orient the eye so it points slightly downwards towards the beard, meaning that a curved handle is needed to accommodate this overriding geometry. A  head that has the eye in line with the edge will need a straighter handle. (2) shows a head that would I think be better off with a straight handle, as it is it has been fitted with a handle that curves the other way, making it point downwards. This type of handle orientation sometimes described as closed.
I prefer a shorter axe handles but like the counterweight effect that a longer handle gives, leaving an oversized bulb to help with the balance, French Clog makers axes take this to extremes. The idea of lead loading to really try and play with the balance point  without resorting to massive bulbs is something I have intended to play with for a few years now.
Hybrid axe handles
I have been testing out this axe I forged recently,  all the roughed out ash handles in the last two posts were carved with it. Although it works well the handle isn’t quite right, I think it needs to be more open.   As I can’t easily alter the eye geometry I am putting more curve in the new handles to achieve this. Of the two roughed out for testing, one basically follows my standard design, the other is a nod to the bulbous French clog axes I mentioned earlier. These are now dry and ready to test, so there will be another instalment when I have some firm opinions on how they are working.

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.


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