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New life for old axes, mauls

New_Life_for_Old_Axes_MaulsPhotos by Gregg R. Doster

In the horse business, you will go through a lot of tools repairing fences, barns, and cutting up or thinning trees. Wood handles provide the best heft and balance for hammers, mauls and axes, but wood handles also come loose from the tool head at the worst times.

If you do end up losing a handle, you can avoid buying a new tool by just replacing the handle. And with Gregg Doster’s methods and secret recipe below, you may never lose another wood handle again. (Click on the photo for the complete slide show of tips on how to do this project.)

When buying your replacement wood handle, remember: Don’t just grab the first handle off of the store shelf. Look along the handle to make sure it is straight and not warped. The best handles are all made out of hickory. Check the little slot cut in the top of the handle. Make sure the slot is centered in the top of the handle and parallel to the handle.

Be sure to buy extra wood and metal wedges. You may need them.

Picture how the handle might fit the head of your tool. Hopefully, it’s not too big, but close to just right. You will need to shape the handle to fit the head using a wood rasp. You can shave the wood handle, but a wood rasp is easy to use, and the handle’s head will hold better due the rougher surface. It will take you a couple of rasping tries to get the right fit.

Next, cut the bottom off of your existing wood handle under the head (link to axe parts). Clamp the head of the tool in the vice.

Drill down through the wood around the metal wedges. This loosens up wood in the handle, and lets you take it out.

Use a cold chisel and hammer to lever the wood and wedges out. Save the wedge if it is in decent shape.

Take your new wood handle, and use a wire wheel on a drill to clean up the head.

As mentioned before, the handle is slotted for a wood wedge. Hold the tool head and tap on the handle (wearing gloves) and the tool head will slide down shaft of handle. Don’t tap tight as possible the first time. You want to see what happens to the wedge slot. It must NOT be completely closed.

If the handle completely closes, tap the tool head off of the handle and put the handle in a vice. Close the wedge-slot down a little and use a saw to make the wedge hole bigger. When you remove the vice, the hole will have opened up. Goal: Once handle is wedged in the tool head, there will still be room to drive a wedge.

Put the tool head back on again. Bury it as much as you can into the handle.

The tool head is now down as far as it’s going to go. Saw the top of the handle sticking through head so that it is flush with the head.

Take the wood wedge that comes with the handle, and tap it in so that it is just slightly in the slot.

Where the handle comes up through the head you may not have a perfect fit. If you have a little room on the sides of the handle between it in the head, shave a little wedge to use around the perimeter to fill gap if you have to. Sometimes the hole will be slightly flared on the top, and the main wood wedge might not do the job.

Drive the main wood wedge in as far as you can get it. It’ll start to mushroom when it has reached its limit. It will not go any further at this point.

Use a hack saw to saw everything off flush with the head.

Next, drive the metal wedge at a 45-degree angle to the wood wedge so it makes an “X”, not a “plus” sign. If you have room, drive two metal wedges.

Clamp the handle in the vice. You are going to get rid of the shiny surface that came with the handle, which is slippery and dangerous.

Flip your rasp around and use it as a draw knife, holding it at about a 45-degree angle, and pull toward you, which will put some small grooves in the handle. Go over the entire handle, repositioning to get the part that was covered by the vice.

Next, go back over the entire handle with 80-grit sandpaper and knock off the rough surface. The handle is now ready to soak in a bucket of the secret recipe -- 50% linseed oil – 50% turpentine -- for a week. This mixture penetrates the end of the wood grain up into the head and locks the handle right into the head. (When you take it out, the handle will not shrink.)

While the handle is in the bucket, brush the rest of it with a brush full of the solution. Do this twice during the process.

Note: This is a good time to put the edge back on your splitting maul or the axe. Clamp the head in the vice. Use a mill bastard file, and follow the angle of the previous grind. Be sure to file both sides. You can touch up the blade with a circular whetstone. Remember: A dull tool is a dangerous tool because it will deflect rather than bite into whatever you are chopping.

If you want, drill a hole down in the butt of the handle, penetrating up toward the head about eight inches. Fill with linseed oil and plug. This also helps preserve the handle.

Occasionally, wipe the handle with the linseed-turpentine mixture. When you put away the tool, spray the sharpened blade with some WD-40 or oil.

Gregg has installed axe heads on handles for 30 years, and while he has broken handles, using this technique, he has never had a handle loosen from its head.

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