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.
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.