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Get A Handle On It! - Part 1

Get A Handle On It! - Part 1

"Without a handle, an ax is only an awkward chuck of steel."  D. Cook, The Ax Book

Many of you have heard our griping about finding proper axe handles to hang on our axes.  Given the amount of time we spend wailing and gnashing our teeth about axe handles we thought we should at least give the subject of handles its due.

In these posts we will explore the anatomy of the handle, the wood used to make them, the importance of grain orientation, handle shape, wedges and finally the eternal debate of whether to use a secondary metal wedge or not.

The first controversy to sort out is what to call the thing that is attached to the axe head?  While we usually refer to it as a “handle” it is also called a “haft.”  Haft comes from “helve” or “halve” which finds its roots in the Old English hielfe itself related to the Old Saxon word hèlvi .  Of course, this being English we use haft and handle interchangeably and as both a noun and verb.  Bonus!

The two most prominent parts of an axe handle are the shoulder and the knob.  The shoulder is wider than the rest of the handle against which rests the axe head.  The shoulder is what stops the axe head from sliding down the handle.  A double bit handle will have a shoulder on both top and bottom.  There are several types of knob ends of which the most common are the swell-end or fawn’s foot.

The most common wood used to make axe handles is American Hickory.  Hickory is used due to its combination of strength and flexibility.  Its strength allows it to take massive shocks without splitting or cracking.  Tennessee Hickory Products has a nice video on its website explaining why this wood is preferred for tool handles.  You can watch the video here.

Other woods used for axe handles include ash, hop-hornbeam (aka ironwood), maple, and white oak.  Since Maine does not have a wealth of hickory handle makers in the Pine Tree State had to use what was available.  The Jacquith Handle Company of Clinton, Maine made their handles out of rock maple. Lemuel Cotton and his family used white oak and maple to make handles in his shop in Hiram, Maine from the 1870’s to the 1940’s.

[The reference to "azure oak" by Cotton is another story altogether!  Stay tuned for a future blog post.]

In addition to the species of wood used for handles there is also a question of whether to use the heartwood or sapwood of the tree.  Heartwood consists of the older, darker center of the tree.  Sapwood is its younger counterpart closer to the bark. 

Over the years there has grown a prejudice against using heartwood in axe handles.  It is thought to be more brittle than the softer sapwood.  In second growth timber, this difference is not borne out from tests performed by the Forest Products Laboratory of U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Hickory sapwood, heartwood or a combination of the two all make a fine axe handle.

Another consideration when choosing a handle is the grain orientation. The grain of the handle should run parallel to the wedge slot.  If the handle is cross-grained it is subject to splitting.

Most of the handles that are found commercially in your local hardware stores are what we politely refer to as “cross-grained cr%p.” 

Here is a poor old cross-grained handle that split right along the grain:

Another consideration when picking an axe handle is to make sure that there are no knots or checking in the handle which also reduces strength.  Choose your handles carefully and if you see a straight grained, knot free handle – BUY IT!

In the next part of this blog post we will tackle the different styles of handles for single and double bit axes, handle length, wedges and enter the debate about using a secondary wedge when hafting an axe.