Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Turn Your Hatchet into a Carving Axe

For rapid material removal and sheer joy of use, nothing beats a carving axe.  The axe on the right in the above photo is my grandfathers old camping hatchet.  I have been using this tool since spoon carving first piqued my interest in woodworking nine years ago.  I set up a chopping block in a patch of woods right beside my college dorm room and spent my free time there trying to carve elegant spoons like the ones I saw in Wille Sundqvist's book "Swedish Carving Techniques."  As my knowledge of tool use, edge geometry, and sharpening has increased, I have modified that camping hatchet to make it a more precise and easier to control tool.  With its asymmetric bevels and octagonal fawns foot handle it is now a proper carving axe.

I picked up the other hatchet in the photo a couple of months ago for eight dollars at an antique shop.  It is dull, lightly pitted from rust, and the handle rattles around in its eye.  In short, I thought it would make a good example for a tutorial on tuning up axes.  

I've been carving stacks of handles for the adze prototypes that Pete Galbert and I have been working on lately, so I thought I would start the overhaul by making a nice hickory handle to fit and replace the loose one.

When carving a handle, I like to start with a piece of green hickory, a froe, and a club.  Any chunk of good, hard wood will work.  My other axe has a black locust handle and I carved it from a dry board.  It was more challenging than working with green hickory, which is perfect and buttery, but if all you have is sawn lumber, don't let that stop you.

My handle blank was between 14" and 15" long and much larger than my intended handle in all other dimensions.  The process begins by splitting the blank to rough size, approximately 1 3/4" by 2 1/4".

With the piece split down to size, I move to the shaving horse.  First, I clean up the split surface you can see in the photo and then make the opposite side parallel as indicated by the pencil line on the endgrain.  I will be shaving the blank to roughly  1 3/8" by 2".

My shaving horse is a special beast and I'll be writing more about it in the future, but for the moment just enjoy this glamour shot.

With my piece to rough dimension I use my preexisting handle as a template and trace it on my blank.  Below is the outline of the handle I made.  Print it out and trace it as a rough guide for your own.  A standard sheet of paper was a bit too small for the entire length of the handle so add another inch to the straight section at the top.  The image should fill an entire sheet of paper.

Then back to the shaving horse to cut out the shape.  Because of the curves in the handle, it has to be carved by making a series of stopped cuts with the drawknife, then flipping the blank around and working from the other side to remove the shavings.

With the profile cut out, it is time to thickness the main section of the handle.  A good fawn's foot handle swells in thickness and width at the end.  I like the end of the handle to be about 1 3/8" thick and the working section of the handle to be about 7/8" thick.  I draw lines approximately the same distance from the edges of the blank to leave 7/8" between them.  I stop the lines about 2" away from the bottom of the handle.

Back to the shaving horse to cut down to the pencil lines.

Then I scoop out the excess material between the end of the handle and the end of the pencil line.  This creates the transition from the full 1 3/8" thickness down to 7/8".  The transition is slightly concave, but not abrupt.  One thing I love about my shaving horse is its low profile head.  It is easy to clamp a workpiece in place and then reach over the head to work on the other side.  This allows me to hold the piece securely and to almost never have to push my drawknife.  I hate pushing my drawknife.  This is especially handy for small objects like spoons and tool handles and less significant for windsor chair spindles and crests.

Once the blank is the appropriate thickness I cut away the corners and make the handle octagonal.  If you are new to drawknives and shaving wood check out Curtis Buchanan's video of shaving windsor chair spindles for a brief primer about following the fibers of the wood and shaping squares into octagons with a drawknife.  I also took this opportunity to refine the shape and profile of my handle and clean up any areas of slightly torn fibers with a few licks of a spokeshave.

I finish at the bench vise by chamfering the end of my handle and cleaning up the endgrain.

That's a handle.  I will set it aside for a few days to dry and then toss it in my kiln to finish drying.  It will be bone dry by next weekend, when I plan to fit it into the axe head.  If you don't have a kiln, just store it in a dry place and wait a week or two longer to fit it to the head.

The next step is tuning and sharpening the head.


  1. Hi Tim, really enjoying your blog so far! I built a lathe tool rest this weekend, partly based on the example you showed. So, thanks!
    Your last paragraph moves me to ask a question about drying. I've split and rived a white oak log into about 30 pieces of leg/stretcher stock, and 50 pieces of spindle stock. Hoping to get 4 side chairs out of this stuff. Do you think it's necessary to make a kiln? I was considering just drying it in my attic, which will be around 90-110 degrees all summer, and has a good duct fan pulling air out. Do you think a month or two up there would be enough, or do I need to go the lightbulb kiln route? Thanks again!

    1. I'm new to blogger and didn't realize that email responses don't show up as a reply to comments on the blog. In case anyone else is curious here is the response to Steve's question.


      Thanks for your comment. I use the kiln either to super-dry parts or to speed the drying process for parts that are small. In this case, I am actually doing both. For my chairs I want all of the parts that have tenons to be super-dry (less than 6 percent MC) and all of the parts that have mortises to be air dry. Having the kiln in my shop allows me to take a stretcher out of the kiln, turn it, shape the tenons to final dimension, and then return it to the kiln. It is important to minimize the time that the parts spend out of the kiln so that they do not absorb moisture and swell before assembly. The other thing that can happen is if they are out of they gain some moisture before you shape the tenons and then once the tenons are sized you put them back in the kiln, the part can shrink and be under size. It is a little confusing at first, but once you start thinking of how the dimensions of the wood relate to its moisture content, it all starts to click.

      Your attic would definitely dry that oak. I would start it off some place cooler for a couple of weeks first though. White oak is great stuff, but in my experience, prone to cracking if forced to dry too quickly. Having the kiln in the shop is helpful because it reduces the amount of time each piece spends out of the kiln while you are working on it. I shape one rung or stretcher at a time and then pop it right back into the kiln. Once you have a kiln you'll find lots of uses for it.


    2. Tim, I didn't see an email response,but thanks so much for answering my question! Good luck with your blog--I'll be reading.

  2. Hey Tim,
    Great blog! I like the ability to reach over the head of your shaving horse design. Not a big fan of pushing a drawknife either.


    1. Jake,
      Great to hear from you! I'm glad you found the blog. I've been meaning to start one for a long time and finally just dove in. I'd love to see what you have been up to in the shop. Send me some pictures when you get a chance.


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