Hafting an Ax

By , March 11, 2013

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.

newly hafted ax

The newly hafted ax, ready for a few more good years of hard use (Photo: Mark Zeiger).

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.

4 Responses to “Hafting an Ax”

  1. Linn Hartman says:

    Sounds like a fun way to spend a little quality time with the wife. Don’t get caught by the old saying “when I nod my head you hit it”. Have a good day!

  2. Don says:

    That’s not how I was taught to do it. My father taught me that you shape the receiving part of the handle such that it fits hand-tight about halfway into the head, then you turn it over, holding the ax vertically, just below where the head will seat and hit the other end against a flat log. If the head doesn’t slip all the way down with 3-4 raps, then pull it off and use the rasp or file again, and repeat. When you’re finished, the end should be just a little lose, the base of the receiver should be tight, and a few metal or wood wedges spread the gap at the end, tightening the whole thing.
    Works pretty well on my double blade, but I have to admit, the single-blade heads can be a bit balky because they aren’t balanced.
    That’s probably why my father always preferred the double (that, and that it was probably a hundred years old when he taught me this in the 70’s so it’s probably better steel :^).
    Anyway, don’t know if that gives you any other ideas.

    Oh, and I heard somewhere that it helps to make sure the hickory is nice and dry before you do this, like putting near a stove or something to help take any moisture out of the wood. That way, when it’s exposed to the elements (like out in the wood shed), the wood will expand a little bit, making it fit even tighter. I’ve never done this, it’s too darned humid in south Texas, but it sounds somewhat reasonable.

  3. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Don,

    This is very close to what I do, except that I take less wood off the handle (probably my biggest mistake). The tapping you describe is how I was taught to seat a loose head, and I didn’t include in my essay that I alternate between doing what I’m “supposed to do” (the hammer taps) and trying to drive the handle in as you describe. It would work great, if I shaped the handle as thoroughly as you were taught.

    As the chore wears on, there are a couple of other methods I use as well, a shameful mixture of frustrated boredom and magical thinking that I will not detail here.

    I need to be more confident about paring down the handle. That’s been really hard for me.

    I’ve heard of the humidity angle. The handles generally are very dry to begin with, and no doubt soak up a little moisture, as they’re stored outside in a temperate rain forest. Some people soak the ax head-down in a bucket of water to expand the wood, but I won’t do that. It seems like a recipe for rusting the head, and as you can see in the photo, the old head I salvaged for this tool is rusty enough without that little trick.

  4. Mark Zeiger says:

    Linn, we’ve been married over 30 years now–probably because we’ve never tried that method! Voice communication is the rule between us.

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