Welcome... and Warning:
Because I seem to have “an ax to grind” with many folks (some fellow ax nuts, some nuts in other ways), perhaps I ought to apologize beforehand for any ego-harm some of my comments (plus unintended prejudices and bias) in the discussions below may cause.
Rest assured, however, that my intent here is to elevate the potential usefulness of an ax – one of the tools which, as the future unfolds, I believe we will be glad that we know how to apply seriously and efficiently.
At the same time I wholeheartedly welcome constructive criticism, of course.

February 16, 2011

"Weak" handles

Much of the handle-related discussions (at least in the forums I have read) concern grain alignment. Yes, that is a pertinent strength-related issue, and I certainly agree that the closer a handle maker can come to the vertically positioned and continuous grain, the better.

However, I want to present an additional question – one already partially addressed in my views pertaining to handle dimensions. To frame this question within the context of a discussion about axes, it may go something like this:

How weak can an ax handle be (and still prove itself useful)?

Here is another true story:

The exact year when I made the handle in the photos (above and below) has now faded from my memory, but it was sometime soon after we obtained Keeping Warm with an Ax (by D. Cook) which puts it about 15 years ago.

Note that the handle is relatively straight near the bottom end (already Dudley Cook’s influence?), yet I also wanted to retain that “head slightly back of the line of grip” feature which many old axmen incorporated into their single bit handle design. The easiest way to accomplish this, and still end up with a through-running grain (which most single bit handles do not have nowadays) is to find a naturally grown piece of wood in already that shape.

Without exception, every instructional source on ax handle making I’ve come across suggests that you begin by selecting a piece of straight grained tree trunk, 8 inches (20cm) diameter or larger, split out the billets, season them, etc.

Well, mindful that (sometimes) “rules are made for fools”, I stuck as much as possible to the continuous grain concept -- but in every other aspect broke the rules. That handle is made out of a non-seasoned branch less than 3 inches diameter from a white birch tree which I had just cut for firewood. It had exactly the curve I was looking for, so I shaped it still green, fit that 1¾ lb (800g) Sandvik head to it, gave it a coat of boiled linseed oil (cut with a little turpentine) and began to use it – carefully at first. I liked that handle instantly. At its slimmest section it is 18mm thick, by the way.

About two years later, during winter, I lost that ax in the woods. There it laid for a season and a half, in snow, wet leaves and snow again. When I found it the following spring, some fungus was beginning to make a Slow Food meal of it. (Note the surface wood deterioration below the head on the side which had been touching the Earth.)

As some of you may know, white birch (Betula alba) is not a particularly weather resistant wood; in fact, some would say it is absolutely “no good” in that respect. Having once been oiled, and already seasoned before being lost did help its survival – but some damage was there to stay.

Nevertheless, we’ve used that little ax rather extensively ever since. Occasionally, it has (again forgotten) spent an additional night under the stars...

The chief point of this story: A functional ax handle does not always need to be made of what is considered first class wood. The handle being discussed here has 3 major knots (seen from both sides) and 2 minor knots – a flaw that every handle-making how-to source would consider a serious no-no. In addition, white birch is considerably weaker than ash or sugar maple, never mind hickory.

Admittedly, a 1¾ lb head on a 24” handle (which probably started as 25”) is not a serious tree-chopping or firewood splitting ax – and thus does not need to be excessively strong. However, we do not baby our axes (as might some weekend campers with their $100 hatchets) – and this little “orphan” has done its full share of what I’d expect of that size of an ax.

To be continued...


  1. A question regarding handles.... I recently acquired some sugar maple from a neighbor who lost one on a windy day. I've made some handles and they have held fine. The question I have is about the grain density, The space between the grain lines is enormous, think like 1/2 inch. Will this result in stronger or weaker wood?

  2. AnonymousJuly 31, 2011

    I came across the axeconnected blog while trying to find a quality axe that is designed properly. I read this post ("weak" handles) and I now have a question that will not stop bugging me, regarding that homemade handle. I would like to know how well the axe performs with that design of handle.

  3. If by "design of handle" you are referring to the off-setting of the head somewhat backwards -- that indeed is a nice feature (but more realistically achieved when you select a piece of wood which naturally grew with the desired curve; commercial handles with this feature are practically non-existent). The bottom half of this little axe's handle is rather straight -- just as we like it. All in all this has been one of our favoured axes -- and I believe it is because of its handle, rather than the head... And, by the way, it is after all these years and its spell on the forest floor, still "on duty".

  4. later than Clinton to Benghazi on this but I'm just wondering if that handle is still holding up?
    Recently got my GW on and fell (felled??) a black cherry. Top of the trunk has the just right shape. Glad to see I'm not crazy in thinking I could use it.
    (btw I still might vote for her anywho).

    1. Ashley VidoJanuary 31, 2016

      Yes, that handle is still holding up! The head has become loosened a couple of times, and with each successive tightening, the head is dropped a couple mms lower on the handle. So that head/handle combination may not last for too many more years, but the handle could still be used for a head with a smaller eye.
      Black cherry is a strong wood, albeit prone to cracking. You should have no problem using it for an ax handle if it is cured slowly and oiled well; minor checking, like small knots, just adds character!