How to replace an Axe Handle
Few people trust themselves to fit a new handle, or haft, to an axe. But if you have a reasonable amount of woodworking experience, and follow these directions, it should be a fairly easy thing to do right.
Be careful to buy a good quality haft. The haft should be made of well-seasoned or very carefully kiln-dried wood. The grain should be straight and run the length of the handle. Any wild grain or grain runout will essentially pre-program a break at the weak point. Ash and hickory are the woods most often recommended, and white oak is normally used on Japanese axes. If you would like to make your own axe haft, which really is not difficult with a draw knife, use only dry, well seasoned wood.
Wood for the haft should be as dry as possible, and if possible drier than would be normal given its normal storage space and in use. So the new bought axe shaft should be left for a least a week in dry air, in a centrally-heated room for instance. Or it can be placed on or near a radiator. After the head is installed, the bigger the increase in humidity from the place the haft was dried, and the humidity where it is then stored, the tighter the head will be. If the ax is stored in a place dryer than when the head was installed, the head will come loose as the handle dries!
Axe hafts are usually machine made and so you can see that all the handles are made to the same dimensions to fit a certain kind of axe head. But with hand-forged axe heads the eye, or hole, formed by hand and eye, is always more or less different. That means that the haft must usually be worked to achieve a proper fit. When the haft is inserted in the head, it should fill it out as much as possible, but an extremely fine fit is not necessary.
Photo to left: the preliminary fit for a haft to a Japanese axe head. The haft and the wedge must be removed before the final installation.
To remove all or part of an old haft from a head is easy. You just drill holes into the top until the rest can be driven out with a dull chisel or a drift.
To put a new haft on an old axe head, the dimensions of the new shaft should be slightly bigger than the hole. This is important because old heads and new hafts seldom fit exactly. Mostly you see this in the width to length rations in the oval, round or triangular hafts.
To shape the haft to fit the eye, there are a number of methods. The easiest and most effective is to use a rasp. If you would like to use a drawknife or a spokeshave, even better! Hold the end of the haft, well centered, against the bottom of the eye and from the other side use a sharp pencil to trace the contours of the hole onto the end of the haft. Then remove just enough wood so that you can push by hand the head onto the shaft. The pencil marks only help a little, mostly you have to work by eye, and trial and error.
Now you should use something to drive the shaft into the head. Axe manufacturers have special presses that are not available to us. So some other suitable tool must be found. For hatchets and small axes, the shaft can be driven in with a suitable mallet. Fix the head over a solid wooden surface so that the hole stays open. If you have access to a good woodworking bench, the bench dogs and vices can be used to exert enormous pressure on the shaft and head. We recommend that you press the shaft past the point where it is flush with the top of the head. Ideally is should stick out at least 5 - 10 mm, and certainly far enough to fix it very firmly into the socket. One can always saw off a bit of the shaft if it sticks out more than a few millimeters! The idea behind this is that the endgrain of the wood where it sticks out will swell a little more than the part inside the head, providing additional holding power. Make sure the haft is properly aligned with the shaft.
Left photo: Driving the haft home with a hammer.
It is important to wedge the top of the haft in order to expand it into the roughly conical shape of the hole in the axe head. To do this a metal wedge will be driven into the endgrain of the haft. With larger axes, this is often done in two steps. First a wooden hardwood wedge is driven in. When a wooden wedge is needed, the shaft must be slotted with a hand saw before being pressed into the head, to provide entry for the wooden wedge. The slot must be cut in the middle of the long dimension of the oval, but not too deep - always at least a little less than the width of the axe head so that solid wood is left where the haft enters the head. A little waterproof glue is always a good idea to reinforce this joint. Good axe manufacturers also use glue. Finally, drive in a metal wedge at a 60 - 90° angle to the wooden wedge. Do not cut a slot for the metal wedge! Metal axe wedges come as simple wedges, in the form of a cross, and as circles - they all work just about as well.
Left photo: Hafted splitting axe with wood and metal wedge.
Advice for safe use
Before every use, make absolutely sure that the head is securely fixed to the haft. A loose axe head is dangerous! If the axe will be stored for a while, oil the head to prevent rust.
Never use a hammer to hit the back of the axe head, and never use the axe itself as a hammer. This will distort the hole, and can cause the head to loosen.
Use a chopping block that is big enough and firmly planted enough to handle the work you are doing. Keep other people safely away from the work area.
With Hickory wood, which is often used for axe hafts, it can happen that the wood has been infected by a kind of fungus that destroys the cell structure of the wood. This problem is unfortunately impossible to detect from the wood’s surface. So pay extra attention when using a hickory haft for the first time! The haft can break immediately! This kind of fungus damage can be easily diagnosed by the spongy structure of the break, very sharp and abrupt, that doesn’t travel up and down the grain structure.