Of the myriad tasks to be performed on the homestead, there are few I approach with higher hopes, and finish with less satisfaction, than hafting an axe. Luckily, I’m getting better at it. It might even be time to pass on a little of what I’ve learned.
In our disposable society, putting a new handle on an axe is becoming a lost art. While the materials can still be found easily, instructions on the process are harder to come by. The ones I’ve found have been a bit sketchy. They briefly describe a process that sounds easy, but turns out to be a pretty serious chore.
Earlier this week, I broke the head off my trusty child’s ax. I’m not in a position to do without this tool for long right now, with the next firewood cutting season fast approaching. I called Michelle and asked her to pick up a couple of new handles on the way home. I hinted that if she couldn’t find the replacement handles, she could bring home a new child’s ax. They’re useful enough that an extra one on the land would not go amiss. Also, that would excuse me from having to rehaft the old head.
She brought home a handle, so the next morning I set to work.
I put the head in a vise and knocked out the wood in the eye of the head with an old carriage bolt and ball peen hammer. Then came the hard part: hammering the haft into the head.
The problem is that you’ve got a carefully, beautifully shaped piece of hickory that has to be banged into a piece of steel. I used to think that it had to go in “as is;” what saved me is learning that the part of the handle that enters the eye of the head should be shaped with a rasp or knife to fit the eye better. That’s not easy. It’s worth the effort, though, because what happens next can destroy the handle.
Driving the handle into the head is tedious and difficult. It’s all too easy to shatter the handle with the hammer blows required. I’ve learned to shape the top of the handle more severely than I thought I should, to make it fit better. I also grease it up with petroleum jelly. This lubricates the handle, and is good for the ax head as well.
Michelle held the ax firmly, head down on the chopping block while I hammered in the handle. I tend to alternate between tapping the handle butt with my hammer, or laying a block of wood over the handle end and hammering that, to cushion the blows somewhat. If the handle is cut with a parallel face, this is easy. Most ax handles are slanted, which makes this very difficult. I find that I have to aim my hammer blows very carefully to keep from splitting the handle. Any mistakes can be smoothed out with rasp and sand paper later.
Through perseverance and care, and a good deal of solid whacking, the handle will eventually get driven through the head. Ideally, it should come out the other side, but that rarely happens for me; getting it flush with the eye is about the best I can do.
Most handles come with a wooden wedge, which should be hammered into the cut in the top of the handle. I try to be careful to keep this from breaking until it’s driven in well. Eventually it’ll mush up under the hammer blows, and will need to be trimmed off, before the metal wedge is hammered in at an angle across the eye of the head.
I trimmed the top of the handle flush, shaped out any damage to the handle, and smoothed it with sandpaper. After that, I sharpened the blade. For good measure, I gave the whole tool a thin coat of linseed oil, then buffed it out. The result’s not perfect, but I’m getting better at it.