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An Ax to Grind: A Practical Ax Manual

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Getting the Hang of It

The length, shape, and mounting of an ax handle (also called a helve or haft) is known as the hang. The hang of an ax is always a matter of personal preference. You must hang your ax to suit you. The cutting edge of a well-hung ax is in an exact line with the end of the handle (Figure 31). If you place the ax on a table so that the cutting edge and the handle touch the surface, the cutting edge will touch at a point one-third from the heel (Figure 32).

Image of an in-line ax.
Figure 31--In a correctly hung ax, the
cutting edge is in a direct line with the
center of the handle (from the
Axe Manual of Peter McLaren).

Drawing of getting the hang of it.
Figure 32--Proper ax-head angle
(drawing by Frederic H. Kock).

In addition to having the blade aligned and set at the correct angle, a properly hung ax just feels right. The head is neither too heavy nor too light, and the handle is just the right length. The handle may be curved or straight, depending on your preference. The handle's diameter should feel comfortable to the grip, and the handle should be constructed from the highest quality hickory. I personally prefer a slim-taper octagonal handle. I get a good grip, or purchase, on the slim handle and it has a bit of flex to it, unlike thicker handles.

Many years ago, before the proliferation of mass-produced axes, most users selected and handled their own axes. Professionals who worked with axes were very particular about the weight, length, design, geometry, flexibility, and most importantly, the hang of their axes. Such attention allowed them to work faster and made the task easier.

Most felling axes and broad axes were not regularly sold with handles until about 1920. The purchaser generally took pride in making and fitting, or hanging, his or her own handle. Many people made patterns of the handle they used on a thin board. Sometimes this pattern was handed down through the family. Some of these patterns still exist and can be found in old barns and workshops.

Throughout history, hickory has always been the preferred wood for percussion tools like axes, mauls, and hammers. In the 18th century, hickory was probably split instead of sawn to obtain a straight and continuous grain essential for a quality tool handle. Surviving handles from the 17th century show that most were straight patterns, without the swell at the end of the handle as is common on both straight and bent handles today (Figure 33, Figure 34a, Figure 34b, and Figure 34c).

Image of ax handles from O.P. Link Handle Company.
Figure 33--Some ax handles available in
1999 from O.P. Link Handle Company
(reprinted by permission from O.P.
Link Handle Company).

Photo of a Modern S-bend broad ax handle.
Figure 34a--Modern S-bend broad ax handle.

Photo of a 19th-century S-bend broad ax handle.
Figure 34b--A 19th-century S-bend broad ax handle.

Photo of a 19th-century dogleg broad ax handle.
Figure 34c--A 19th-century dogleg broad ax handle.

Today, few ax users hang their own axes. Most professionals in ax competitions hang their own axes, as do some professional woods workers and craftsmen.

Most axes with broken handles are thrown out or relegated to a dusty corner of the garage and replaced with a new ax from the local discount store. Often the ax heads thrown into the corner are of much higher quality (better steel, craftsmanship, temper) than most generic axes sold by mass marketers today.

In my opinion, folks who take any pride in their ax skills need to know how to hang and sharpen an ax. They should know how to make emergency repairs in the field, and they should know how to sharpen and care for their axes to keep them safe and tuned for peak performance. The most important reason for acquiring these skills is one of attitude. By hanging and sharpening your own ax, you realize it is your ax, not just a hunk of wood and metal. And you are more likely to take care of the ax and use it safely.

Basics of Handle Selection

Hickory makes the best handles for percussion tools like axes. You seldom see any species other than hickory offered by ax-handle companies.

There are several important characteristics you need to look for in a good ax handle. Generally, you get what you pay for, because the higher grade hickory handles sell at a premium over lower grade handles. Your new handle should be of straight grain, second growth, clear hickory. Cheap, inferior handles tend to break, split, and warp. If you are going through all the work of hanging your own ax, you should spend the extra dollars to get a high-quality handle. Some characteristics you need to look at include:

Color: The best handles are from second growth hickory sapwood, all white in color (Figure 35). In lower grades, various amounts of red-colored heartwood are in the handle.

Photo of a hickory cross section.
Figure 35--Hickory cross section. The outer,
white sapwood makes the best ax handles.
This particular piece is too small and too
riddled with checks to be good handle stock.

Grain: The highest grade does not have over 17 annual rings per inch of radius, a characteristic of faster-growing second growth trees. The orientation of the grain is critically important (Figure 36 and Figure 37). If the handle is not straight-grained, it is likely to break.

Image showing the grain of ax handles.
Figure 36--The grain of ax handles should
run parallel to the length of the handle
and to the wedge slot.

Photo comparing grain orientation.
Figure 37--Grain orientation is important.
The handle on the left has a good orientation.
The one on the right does not, and is more
likely to break under stress.

Defects: Various defects, including stain, holes, knots, splits, streaks, and grain deviations all diminish the grade of the handle.

Camouflaged Defects: Many less-than-perfect ax handles, often on bargain or utility axes, have defects that are camouflaged. This often helps make the ax look better, but you should recognize that good looks can hide defects. Some common techniques include staining, painting, or fire-finishing, which hardens and darkens the handle's surface.

Handles come in a variety of lengths, typically from 32 to 36 inches for 3- to 6-pound axes (Figure 38). Often the longer lengths work best for big timber and for splitting wood, while the shorter lengths are superior for smaller timber and general utility work. Handles (Figure 39) can be straight or curved (called a fawn's foot). Double-bit handles are almost always straight, but for single-bit axes you can choose either curved or straight handles. My personal preference is a straight handle, usually less than 36 inches long. The handle can be oval or octagonal. I special order O.P. Link handles in a slim-taper, octagonal pattern, a design not found in their general catalog but one the company makes for me from the hundreds of patterns they have on file.

Drawing of an ax handle size comparison.
Figure 38--Longer handles with heavier heads
are for big timber. Most choppers prefer
shorter, lighter axes for smaller wood
(drawing by Frederic H. Kock).

Photo of ax handles.
Figure 39--Some ax handles, from top: double-bit
with too much heartwood; handmade 19th-century
single-bit; the next three are new single-bit
handles from O.P. Link--fawn's foot
octagonal, straight oval, and my favorite,
straight octagonal slim-taper.

Most ax manufacturers also offer axes with fiberglass or other plastic composite handles. While these may be durable and sturdy and perhaps adequate for splitting mauls, they do not provide the feel that a hickory handle offers. You also cannot customize a fiberglass handle. They are not traditional, which matters to me. And besides, they are just flat ugly.

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Updated: 4/14/2014
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