Posts Tagged With: custom axe handle

Brute Force vs Finesse: The Art of Working Axes

by Todd Walker

Brute Force vs Finesse: The Art of Working Axes -

Photo credit: Didi Davis

Less than a century ago, woodsmen skilled with an ax could chop wood all day and return to do it again, day after day. They were held in high esteem and highly sought after. Power saws and combustion engines sent yesteryear’s axes to hang on old barn walls. Today the usefulness of axes seems to be limited to splitting firewood… or, for the lumber sexual, as boutique wall-hangers.

How you choose to acquire wood is up to you. However, the steps of cutting timber hasn’t changed. A tree must be felled, limbed, bucked, and hauled. Like other aficionados of working axes, I enjoy experimenting with the potential of our most under-appreciated tool in the woods.

It doesn’t take long for the ax handle to transmit to an inexperienced axman’s brain, and his muscular system, that brute force only dulls the functionality of this tool. Fatigue and frustration are the result. And injury is not far behind. There are no secrets to becoming a proficient axman. However, there are a few techniques and strategies I’ve learned over the years which may shorten the learning curve.

Giving unsolicited advice is not my thing. But if you’d like to continue, here’s my take on thick ax handles, brute force, and working axes.

Heavy, Stupid, and Unreasoning

Watching a beginner axman swing is painful. I cringe when I think back on some of my early ax work. But ax-manship can only be improved through swinging sharp steel on the end of a stick. Like any other skill, practice makes permanent; whether good or bad.

When asked to coach someone new to the art of ax work, I try to convey the two types of force used – finesse and brute force. The origin of the word brute comes from the Latin word brutus, meaning “heavy, stupid, unreasoning.” Set the macho aside in ax work and you get a beautiful, rhythmic relationship between the wood and axman.

Muscling through wood is a white-knuckle affair. I broke my favorite double bit handle last year, not by over-strike or mishit, but by stupidly applying my full force throughout initial contact. The handle was thin, flexible, and a joy to use. Brute force ended its usefulness. It is now taped together and serves as a pattern when thinning down fat factory double bit handles.

Brute Force vs Finesse: The Art of Working Axes -

Bucking eastern red cedar with the tuned handle on my best double bit.

Simply reducing my forward force just before the moment of impact would have allowed the inertia of the axhead to do the work. Giving that extra “push” through the strike does more harm than good. You’ll not only save ax handles, you’ll reduce some shock sent up the handle. A thinner handle flexes to help absorb and reduce the beating on your body. At least that has been my experience. Wielding an ax with brute force is not how the old timers lasted all day, day after day. This type of finesse is seldom mentioned or passed down to inexperienced axmen.

The resurgence of interest in axes is encouraging to see in outdoorsy groups. Axes are chic, sexy, and scary – all reasons we like them. The novice buys a high dollar ax and proceeds to break the fat factory handle, even after adding a bulky leather over-strike collar. Handle manufactures compensate for low Ax I.Q. with fatter handles. And then again, the age of working axes was so long ago that even commercial handle makers have no reference point as to what a handle should look like and feel like in the hands.

Thicker, modern handles are not the cure. Wrapping your hands around these clubs makes the uninitiated think they’ll never break. Stephen Edholm makes a logical argument (from actual experience with working axes) for thinner handles in the video below. Anyone who chopped all day with an ax will echo the same.

No replacement handle I’ve ever bought in recent memory was ready to hang and go to work. To be fair, there may be some turnkey handles out there. I’ve never found them. I either make my own or customize the club-like handles from hardware stores. Then there’s the rare occasion of finding that forgotten ax at an antique store or yard sale grandpa used before the chainsaw came along.

You can see the noticeable difference between the modern and old working ax handle below.

Power vs Finesse

On occasion, I have split toothpicks (Stim-U-Dent – matchstick size toothpicks) with my ax. I don’t say this to brag. It is, however, a lesson in muscle memory, striking where I look, and relaxing at the end of my swing. Knowing I’m not chopping heavy wood, I began to notice that I was unconsciously easing up about halfway into the downward arc of my natural swing. As a result, I’d hit my mark more times than not.

Brute Force vs Finesse: The Art of Working Axes -

Striking where you look.

The human brain is a beautimus, complicated computer. Since few people actually use axes, baseball may help illustrate the point. A pitcher doesn’t aim the baseball as it leaves his outstretched arm. The ball is thrown, not aimed. There’s a significant difference in the two. The same goes for batting. I coached my players to throw their hands at the ball. This is oversimplified. But the brain tells a player when to grip the bat tightly and when to relax the grip. A death grip at the beginning of the swing tightens the muscles in the arms, shoulders, and upper torso causing the swing to be herky jerky. As a result, accuracy plummets since the “flow” is lost. Through years of drills, coordination, practice, and timing, batters learn that aiming won’t hit the target.

I don’t aim my ax. I look at the exact spot I want my blow to land. I then throw my hands through an imaginary plane from my nose to the small target. My only swing thought is “strike where I look.” My natural, controlled swing gets the job done more efficiently. Once you can strike where you look, power will follow accuracy.

Accuracy and Precision

Wasted ax strikes are frustrating and exhausting. Making every blow count takes a combination of accuracy and precision. At first glance, the two words seem the same. But in my world of teaching math and science, they have different meanings. Let’s apply them to working axes.

Accuracy is how close you come to the desired result. Precision is how consistently you get the same result using the same method. Translated to ax-manship, does my swing hit the target and is it consistent enough to repeatedly hit the target?

When bucking, I try to overlap each cut in a three to four swing pattern (depending on log diameter) down the face of the log. This overlapping pattern opens wood fibers to help prevent the ax bit from get stuck in the wood. Repeat this cutting pattern one double bit length wide from the first line of cuts. If accuracy and precision is dialed in, chips the size of the notch will go flying.

Developing accuracy and precision with working axes is like hauling logs, you gotta really want to do it. There’s not a lot of finesse in log hauling.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


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Categories: Doing the Stuff, Homesteading, Lost Skills, Self-reliance | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

How to Handcraft a Custom Ax Handle from a Tree

by Todd Walker

I stand in countless hardware stores mumbling my frustration… “can I get a double bit ax handle, please!?”

How to Handcraft a Custom Ax Handle from a Tree -

Finding a suitable handle for a double bit ax restoration project is like searching the proverbial haystack for that lost needle. It’s a horrible waste of time. I could have ordered a handle from a few U.S. ax handle suppliers. But I’d never made my own ax handle.

Mike, our across the street neighbor and good friend, had a large hickory snap in a recent storm. I loaded my chainsaw and wood cutting tools into our garden wagon, pulled into his yard, and cut the fallen tree into firewood lengths.

One four-foot section at the base of the tree had spit down the middle in the fall. For some reason, I didn’t cut these two split sections into firewood. A few weeks later I’d understand why…

Mike was taken from us. The unexpected, sudden loss of his life nudged me into action. The two uncut sections eventually made their way to my backyard  for a labor of love.

Before the ingenious Paleo person came up with the idea of lashing a stick to a sharp stone, people simply palmed axes in their hands to chop stuff. The invention gave primal man leverage and a powerful mechanical advantage needed to work more efficiently. Later, in the Iron Age, this idea changed the course of human history when wooden handles were attached to metal cutting tools. Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance just got easier!

To make your own ax handle, here’s some stuff you’ll need…

Tools and Material

  • A Tree ~ Hickory was available so I used it. Other suitable trees include ash, white oak, sugar maple, or hornbeam (ironwood). A tree with a diameter of at least 10 inches with straight grain will give you the best chance at finding a billet to use.
  • Wedge(s), Sledge Hammer, and/or Spitting Maul ~ A metal wedge is used to split the round into quarters. A splitting maul can be used if you don’t own a wedge. Wooden wedges can be used after the initial split in the log.
  •  Ax or Hatchet ~ Used to cut the rough shape of the handle.
  • Draw Knife ~ Refines the shape
  • Rasp ~ For removing detailed amounts of wood
  • Shaving Horse ~ Holds stock in place while working the draw knife or rasp. A bench vise will also do the job.
  • Wooden Maul ~ Hitting stuff
  • Pencil and Measuring Device ~ You’ll do a lot of drawing and measuring
  • Fine-Toothed Saw ~ Cutting the slot to accept the wedge and cutting handle to length. I used my Japanese saw from my carpenter’s tool kit.
  • Sand Paper – 80 and 150 grit

Here are the steps used to make my handcrafted hickory handle which holds sentimental value.

Step #1: Split the Log

Lay the log on flat ground. My log was already halved when it fell. With a full round, drive a wedge in the top of the log to start a split down the middle of the wood. Continue the split with another wedge or splitting maul. Once separated, use an ax to cut any wood fibers holding the two pieces together.


Lay the half on the ground (flat side down) and split it into two quarters. Depending on the size of your log, you may need to cut quarters into eighths. Now you have billets with about 4 to 6 inches of bark on the outside of the wedged-shaped wood.

Step #2: Find a Handle

Look at the end of the billets and select one with annual growth rings that run straight through the length of your handle. Avoid billets that have twists and defects (knots).


The growth rings should run length wise on the long part of the rectangle

Draw a 1.5 x 5 inch rectangle on the end of the billet with the growth rings running as straight through the length of the rectangle as possible. The closer the growth rings are to each other the stronger the handle will be.

Baton an ax on the mark unless you're very accurate swinging an ax

Baton an ax on the mark unless you’re very accurate swinging an ax

Stand the billet on end and score one of the long rectangle lines with an ax and wooden maul to start a split. Remove the ax and finish the split with a wedge. Repeat the process for the remaining lines on the rectangle. If all goes well, you’ll have a piece of stock in a rough rectangular shape.

Step #3: Hew the Handle

Stand the billet on a wooden anvil at a slight angle. Begin hewing the form of the handle. Score down the length of the handle in 1 to 2 inch spacing with a sharp ax or hatchet. Then go back and remove the score marks with controlled chopping/slicing motion of the ax. This technique is safely done by chopping with the ax perpendicular to the wood anvil.

Use a small ax or hatchet to remove as much wood as possible on the rough handle

Use a small ax or hatchet to remove as much wood as possible on the rough handle

Work down the billet on all the sides until you have a rough shaped handle. Remember that you can’t add wood back once it’s removed. But the more you take off in this step, the easier your job will be in our next step.


Step #4: Refine the Handle

Sketch an outline of handle shape on the roughed handle. Place the stock in a shaving horse or some type of vise that will hold securely.

Way too much stock left for draw knife work... back to the ax work

Way too much stock left for draw knife work… back to the ax work

Begin shaving off the wood that isn’t the handle (outside the lines). A sharp draw knife is essential. Go with the grain to remove material. If the knife digs into the stock at a sharp angle, you’re going the wrong way. Turn the handle around and work the grain the other way.


Leave the handle portion that fits in the eye of the ax as a rough shaped rectangle for now. Concentrate on material removal on the shaft. The shaft should begin to take the shape of an oblong handle with narrow edges that run the same plane as the ax bit(s). The wider sides of the shaft help prevent the handle from turning in your hand when using the cutting tool.

Step #5: Rasp Time

Once the shaft is close to your finished size, begin removing wood from the head end with a draw knife. Check the size needed by placing the ax head against the end so that it is about a 1/4 inch larger that the ax eye. Place the axhead against the end and draw a line from the inside of the ax eye.

My marker wouldn't fit and draw inside the eye very well so I finished the outline free-hand

My marker wouldn’t fit and draw inside the eye very well so I finished the outline free-hand

Secure the handle and begin removing wood from the head with a rasp. Get the head close to size and try fitting the axhead on the handle. If it goes on the tip of the head, tap the butt of the handle with a wooden mallet or maul until the axhead stops moving on the handle. You’ll hear a ringing sound instead of thud once it’s seated.

Remove the axhead from the handle. You’ll see marks on the head showing you how much more wood needs to be removed for a proper fit. Rasp more off the head end and check the fit again. Take your time and remove small amounts of wood until the axhead fits down to the shoulder of the handle with at least a 1/4 inch sticking out of the top of the ax eye.


To remove the axhead from the handle, I carved another piece of hickory slightly smaller than the ax eye but larger at the opposite end to be used as a punch. Place the axhead on a raised platform so that the handle is off the ground. I used my shaving horse for this task. Drive the handle out of the eye with the wooden punch and hammer or wood maul. You’ll do this procedure several times while testing the fit.

Rasp work in my shop vise

Rasp work in my shop vise

With the axhead removed, begin shaping the shaft and head of the handle with your rasp.

Step #6: Sand the Handle

With the handle close to size, begin sanding to smooth the surface. I began using a broken 42 inch 80 grit sanding belt by hand. I eventually switched to my orbital sander with 80 grit paper to speed up the process. 150 grit finished the handle.


How it feels in your hands is what matters

How it feels in your hands is what matters

Step #7: Cut Slot and Wedge

With a fine edged saw, cut a slot in the head end of the handle about half the depth of the ax eye. I used a piece of scrape leather in my bench vise to prevent marring the sanded handle. Japanese saws are excellent for fine, clean cuts. They cut on the pull stroke.


Make a wedge from a scrap piece of wood. I used a piece of seasoned Tulip Poplar in my shop. The grain orientation of the wedge ran perpendicular to the grain of the handle.

Step #8: Hang the Ax

Time to hang the ax on the finished handle. You should be good at this by now. Whack the butt of the handle with a maul while holding the handle in a vertical position. Smack the butt until you hear that solid ring when the axhead seats on the shoulder.

Look for a small curl or two on the shoulder of the handle

Look for a small curl or two on the shoulder of the handle

Trim any curls off where the ax eye and shoulder bottom out. Check the alignment of the head on the handle by sighting down the handle towards the bit of the ax. The center line of the handle should line up with the ax bit. If not, remove the ax and sand wood from either side to achieve alignment.

Tulip poplar wedge going in

Tulip poplar wedge going in

When everything is in line, drive the wedge into the slot on top of the handle. Add a little wood glue to the wedge. The wedge, properly seated, will expand the top of the handle in the eye to secure the axhead to the handle. Cut the wedge off with a saw and sand the end until 1/8 to 1/4 inch of handle is sticking out of the axhead.

Customized sticker for a custom ax handle

Customized sticker for a custom ax handle

I cut this straight handle at 29 inches. This is a good length for the 3 pound Warren Axe and Tool double bit ax. It’s a custom handle that feels good in my hands. That’s all that really matters.

Step #9: Oil the Handle

Apply a coat of boiled linseed oil to all the exposed wood. Repeat this application daily for one week. Then once a week for a month, and once a month for a year. 

This ax handle started out as the half pictured in the background

This ax handle started out as the half log pictured in the background

My next project is to make a double bit sheath for this special ax. I’ll let you know when it’s done. Nothing beats making stuff with you own hands!

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


P.S. – You can also keep up with the Stuff we’re Doing on TwitterPinterestGoogle +, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook… and over at the Doing the Stuff Network.

P.P.S – If you find value in our blog, Dirt Road Girl and I would appreciate your vote on Top Prepper Sites! You can vote daily by clicking here or on the image below. Check out all the other value-adding sites while you’re there… 

Thanks for Sharing the Stuff!

Copyright: Content on this site (unless the work of a third-party) may be shared freely in digital form, in part or whole, for non-commercial use with a link back to this site crediting the author. All links in articles must remain intact as originally posted in order to be republished. If you are interested a third-party article, please contact the author directly for republishing information.

Categories: Bushcraft, DIY Preparedness Projects, Doing the Stuff, Preparedness, Self-reliance, Survival Skills | Tags: , , , , , , | 25 Comments

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