Making a Hatchet Handle

The second half of the antique hatchet restoration project. There are several important points that are often overlooked when choosing or crafting an axe or hatchet handle. Though not a thorough treatise on the subject, this post will briefly discuss some axe and hatchet handle design theory and recommended dimensions, and provide an overview of the process used for this project.


Hatchet Handle Theory Part 1: Dimensions

When comparing the cross-section and dimensions of pre-1980 axe handles and their modern counterparts, one notices immediately that the older handles have a much smaller cross section and are flatter in shape. The thinner handles allow for more flex and shock absorbing as well as a more relaxed and forward-angled grip (something like a samurai sword) which leads to better control and stamina. The flatness of the oval also contributes to much greater feedback and accuracy in use. These handles were developed and used by lumberjacks and wood workers who used them all day, day-in and day-out.

One possible reason handles have become larger is that lower quality wood (in terms of grain straightness and alignment) can be used with less risk of breakage. One survey found full sized axe grips from pre-1980s Canada averaged at 16x33mm, where post-1990 versions came in at a hefty 26x39mm (note that most of the increase is in width, moving towards a circular cross-section). As an interesting comparison note, a quick sample of historical tanto fuchi averaged at 20x34mm.

It seems that the historical tradition with centuries of research and design supports a thinner and flatter handle profile. Weekend users may never notice the difference, but why not make a proper handle that would facilitate comfortable, accurate, all day use if required?


Hatchet Handle Theory Part 2: Offset

For many uses of an axe or hatchet, accuracy and control can be improved by raising the head in relation to the handle, effectively moving the cutting edge closer to the centre line of the handle.

For larger axes this may mean sweeping the whole handle downwards towards the straight section of the grip, but for a hatchet it can be accomplished mainly by bringing the grip straight out from the edge side of the eye and sweeping from the poll side of the eye down to the intended grip width.


Hatchet Handle Theory Part 3: Material

For proper axe and hatchet use, most any tough, well-seasoned hardwood will work well. Though the industry has its favourites, the direction and orientation of grain (as well as geometry and dimension) is of far more importance than the specific species.

The main points on grain are that it should run straight and along the handle shape (especially in the top third of the handle where the most force is encountered), and that it should run between the edge and poll when viewed from the top of the eye. Splitting the rough blank rather than sawing is one way to ensure the general grain direction is aligned with the handle in the proper directions. Knots should be minor and cracks and checks avoided.


Hatchet Handle Theory Part 4: Curve

A recurved grip portion at the bottom of an axe handle has become ubiquitous over the past century in North America, but prior to the mid 1800’s straight handles were the standard for most of history. There is a school of thought that deems the overly curved versions less accurate than straighter patterns, maintaining that the curved section magnifies any wrist movement and doubles the accuracy error. Dudley Cook explains it in detail in the book, “Keeping Warm with an Ax, A Woodcutter’s Manual” (1981).

“The most baneful defect of the modern single-bitted ax handle is its short bottom curve. The lower end is the grip where the chopper guides the ax. The grip portion bends from the adjoining shaft of the handle by about 10 degrees. Unfortunately, this pretty little curve magnifies the effect of wrist pivoting…”Dudley Cook, The Ax Book: The Lore and Science of the Woodcutter

Based on the evidence of hammers, this theory seems well grounded, ie, if curved handles were more accurate, we would see the majority of hammers with them. One theory is that the recurve was developed to allow fellers standing on springboards to reach deeper into the undercut when bringing down massive redwoods by hand. This aspect of handle design is a contentious topic in some circles, and the conclusions must therefore be left to open-minded testing, consultation with those who do use axes daily, and then finally personal preference.


Hatchet Handle Construction

The outline for this process is fairly straight forward, beginning with the selection of a blank with the correct size and grain orientation, splitting and rough shaping with a hatchet, planing to dimension, carving to shape, smoothing, and finishing. The best wooden tool handle finish is 100% pure linseed, walnut, or tung oil, and an axe head should be soaked in one of these after mounting to swell the wood pores and tighten the head up further. These drying oils will slowly cure inside the wood pores, making the swelling permanent (unlike water or a non-drying oil which will require regular re-soaking and can cause structural damage to the wood cells).

For this project, the goals are to keep the handle light and flexible, maintain a historical style that compliments the head, and to create a well-rounded tool to meet the client’s task requirements. After modification, the head is right around the sturdy end of optimal weight for a hatchet at about 1.3 lbs and a handle length of about 14-15″ will compliment it well. A slim, straight grip will help increase endurance and comfort, minimize repetitive strain injury, and facilitate use upside down to drive in wooden tent stakes.

The wood of choice is black walnut, chosen over other hardwoods mainly for the dark aesthetic, with a custom finish to prevent the purple hand-stains some people get from raw walnut wood. Using a technique called fukiurushi, natural Japanese urushi lacquer can be wiped onto wood in very thin layers to seal the grain and surface without taking away the tactile feel of the wood. The rich tones it imparts will compliment the walnut and offset the steel tones nicely.

Island Blacksmith: Antique Hatchet Remade
The restored hatchet head. Read about the restoration process here: Case study: Antique Hatchet Restoration
Island Blacksmith: Antique Hatchet Remade
Round one, with a hatchet to remove as much wood as possible without tearing out any of the final material. Splitting the blank to start aligns the grain with the direction of the handle.
Island Blacksmith: Antique Hatchet Remade
Round two, with a kanna (wood block plane) to thin and flatten the sides and outline the shape as much as possible.
Island Blacksmith: Antique Hatchet Remade
Round three, with a kiridashi (carving knife) and nomi (chisel) to fit the eye and add the final details to the shape. Fitting the eye before final shaping allows for adjustments to align the handle accurately with the head’s position.
Island Blacksmith: Antique Hatchet Remade
Round four with a fine rasp and then sandpaper to refine the surface and final details.
Island Blacksmith: Antique Hatchet Remade
Round five, applying several thin layers of fukiurushi and curing each layer for several days. Natural urushi (made from the sap of a specific tree) applied in this way does not form a thick layer on top of the surface but becomes part of the surface, allowing the wood texture and grain to come through while imparting a lovely warmth and glow.
Island Blacksmith: Antique Hatchet Remade
Round six, once the urushi has fully cured, the head is installed permanently and wedged in place. Soaking the (unfinished) top of the eye in 100% pure natural tung oil swells the grain and cures inside the wood cells to lock things in place. A cotton string wrap sealed with urushi adds a visual and functional detail to the end of the haft.

Read about the process of restoring this hatchet head here: Antique Hatchet Restoration

Purchase online: Antique Hatchet (Remade)


1. Dudley Cook’s axe manual was originally published in 1981 as, “Keeping Warm with an Ax: A Woodcutter’s Manual” and re-released in 1999 as, “The Ax Book: The Lore and Science of the Woodcutter”. Read a review here:
oldjimbo.com/Outdoors-Magazine/Dudley-Cook-The-Ax-Book-and.pdf

2. Read a more in-depth analysis of historical and modern axe handle design here:
axeconnected.blogspot.ca/2011/02/devolution-of-axe-handles.html
axeconnected.blogspot.ca/2011/02/straight-versus-curved.html

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