2016 November 7    Tools   Handles

Introduction


The first article was about re-handling a sledge.  The handle was a recycled store-bought one.

This time, I decided to make a handle from a tree branch.  There was an old 4-lb hammer head sitting around, and I got tired of it getting in the way. 

For generations, farmers often made handles out of saplings.  A tree branch is basically the same thing. 

Let's see how it worked out!




Disclaimer


I have no idea if this type of handle will be as durable as a regular one;  I'm just tellin' ya how I made this.  The result may or may not be safe. 

Even with a store-bought handle, no one can foresee what every single piece of wood is going to do in every situation!  Wear eye protection and preferably one of these when you're hammering on stuff.

Also please read the Disclaimer page.


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In This Article


Selecting the Wood

Seasoning the Wood

The Tools!

Rough Shaping

More Shaping

Wedging & Finishing

Durability

Conclusion




Selecting the Wood


Tree branch handles have the grain in concentric circles, centered around the pith. 

I used white ash for this handle.  Ash trees in North America are getting wiped out by the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB).  Many ash trees won't leaf out anymore, but they're not brittle yet.  A lot of them are being cut down now, before they turn into widowmakers.

For the branch diameter, I figured on about 1.5 inch.  Much more than that, and the pithy center gets too large. 

I tried to pick a clear section without knots.  There were still knots. 

For any project like this, it's important to avoid branches that were outside on the ground for a while.  I learned this the hard way.  Wood rot fungus weakened the grain.  It looked OK from the outside;  you generally can't detect this until you examine a broken piece.  Look carefully at the way the grain separates.  I should have done that before making a handle out of it.

Also very important:  the branches should be green, up until the time they were harvested.  If they were dead, they could be brittle.  A green branch should still have pliable twigs on the end.  If the twigs are brittle, the whole branch could be brittle, too.  A dead "seasoned" branch would be OK;  it's just that weathering and wood-rot fungus could make it unsuitable for a hammer handle.  This is why I say green branches.

One way to test it, if the branch is long enough, is to saw off an extra piece and try to break it across the grain.  Wood that has fungus will break like cork;  good wood will splinter, and also be difficult to break.

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Seasoning the Wood


Before you harvest wood, order some good paste wax.  Be ready to work it into the end grain.  Apply a thick layer.  This will greatly reduce end-grain cracking as the wood dries. 

Fresh-cut wood will shrink as it dries.  Not a huge amount, but it would be enough to make a hammer head loosen.  I roughed-out the oversized blank, then seasoned it for a while before doing much shaping. 

Pieces of wood 12" to 14" long season quickly.  It could be ready in a month or two. 

A 24-inch length can take much longer, maybe a year.  A branch might not take as long, since it's thinner.  I don't know for sure.  Wood loses most of its moisture out the end grain, but not all.


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The Tools!


There are many possible ways to carve and shape wood.  I've found that a combination of tools is the most efficient. 

The most important thing I've learned is to get all the tools together ahead of time.  I can't even describe how wasteful it is to go hunting around for stuff you need, not knowing where anything is, etc. 

This is not a complete list of all the different ones you could use.  Here are a few that worked for me:

File - smooths out the rough, bumpy areas left by a wood rasp.  I didn't much like the new Nicholson 4-In-Hand files, so I tried a Corona 4-in-1 and liked it much better.

Random Orbit Sander - this is sort of cheating, but it works.  80-grit sanding discs are a good place to start, then do the fine removal with 150 or so.  This was the only power tool that I used for shaping, and it wasn't strictly necessary.  Awesome, though, because slipping with a power sander is not as dangerous as slipping with a sharp edge.

Sandpaper - 120 or 150 grit, then 220 for a smooth finish.  Exact grit size is not critical here;  close is good enough.  I actually used 80 then 150, then 220, but the 80 was for doing a lot of bulk shaping with a power sander.  Sheets of sandpaper, worked by hand, were a helpful part of this project.

Whittling Knife - Some people can make almost anything out of wood with one of these.  Somewhat tiring method for big projects, but OK for this one.

Wood Chisel.  The 3/4" is the one to get if you want just one size. 

Wood Rasp.  This, and a file, were the two most useful tools for this project.  Great for shaping the eye portion of the handle. 


Don't forget some way to saw the wedge kerf.  A hobby saw or even a hacksaw can work.


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Rough Shaping


First I rough-shaped the piece so it didn't look like a round tree branch.  At first the shape looked OK.  Later I realized it was still chunky.  It takes quite a while to pare down the handle to a good, comfortable shape. 



This would have been easier if I'd kept a store-bought handle nearby, to compare the progress every so often. 

The slowest and most important step is to form the end.  That's the part that fits in the hammer eye.  Proceed slowly.  Removing too much here will wreck the whole handle.

Some people make the handle friction-fit;  you would use a hydraulic shop press to seat the handle.  If you do it right, you can still wedge the handle after it's pressed in.  This is what some hammer factories do.  Just don't try to force an oversized handle with a shop press...

Try not to leave spaces where you can see light around the end as you test-fit it.  It might be possible to use shims if that happens, but I haven't tried that.


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More Shaping




For shaping the end, I think I started with a small pocketknife.  Then most of the shaping was done with a combination wood rasp and file.  Don't make the wood mirror-smooth; it helps to have some "grip" so it stays seated in the handle.

Hammer handles are often thinner at the middle.  Sort of hourglass shaped, but not quite that extreme.  This narrow portion doesn't transmit as much jarring and vibration. 

This is the phase where the tree branch starts to look more like a real handle. 



Right after this, I used a random orbit sander with 80-grit.  


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Wedging & Finishing


You probably know the basic idea here:  saw a kerf (slot) in the end, fit the end through the hammer eye, then wedge it so that it can't pull back through.  A properly-wedged handle will not loosen or wobble, not even a little bit.  (Yes, the wood has a small crack radiating from the pith...) 

Some people put glue on the wedge;  others put linseed oil, others nothing.  I have no idea how much of a difference it makes.  I do know that it helps to soak the end in linseed oil, after it's been seated and wedged.



Just remember, I wedged the handle before doing the rest of the shaping.  If you think you won't mess up, obviously you could shape the handle first, then the end.

Don't forget to order some wood handle wedges before you get to this step. 

It's customary to apply the first coat of boiled linseed oil to the whole handle when you install the wedge.  I waited, because the handle needed more shaping and sanding first.

I also really like this wood finish for handles, though I've never heard of anyone else using it for that.  Smells better, seems to give the wood even more of a glow, and it dries grippy (beeswax).



I know, this handle is not perfectly shaped.  It's kind of rustic.  A lot of extra shaping and finishing could still be done, but hey, it's a tree branch. 


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Staining Ash Wood


Tool handles made from ash tend to be pale.  They don't acquire that mellow, golden look that you can easily achieve with hickory.  Or, if they do, it takes a really long time.

I tried staining the ash handle with a popular brand of wood stain.  It didn't work very well.  The wood stain went into the porous areas but didn't affect the rest of the wood.

Best bet:  wood dye.  This will color all the wood, not just the porous grain.  Next time I would just order a kit of 5 primary colors and mix my own tints.  I would go for something golden-tan or brown, to look like a vintage handle.

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Is The Handle Durable?


It's a tree-branch handle.  It even has the pith.  Can it possibly be any good? 

Overstrikes break handles because the handle stops suddenly, while the hammer tries to keep on going.  There's an instantaneous, massive strain to the handle. 

A tree-branch handle might not take overstrikes very well.  Some uses will probably never cause overstrike.  If you pound 40d nails, you'll probably overstrike sooner or later.

Make sure not to leave the handle out in the rain, not even once.  That weakens a lot of tool handles.  It's not just the expansion and shrinkage of grain;  it's also that mold and mildew can get in there and attack the wood fibers.  A wood-rotted handle will fail, overstruck or not.

One more thing:  knots.  You're not supposed to have knots in a tool handle.  Breaks often start around knots.  My test handle didn't break yet, though.  As I said, I'm just telling you how I made this.  It could break tomorrow or next week, or never.  So far, though, it's had a lot of use and it's still in great shape.



Conclusion


This has been a look at making a handle from a tree branch.  It doesn't have to win any design awards, but if you do it right, the handle may be able to last for years.  So far, this hammer has done a whole lot of pounding and the handle is still solid as ever.

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