“Oh no, they don’t make tools like my grandfather’s axe anymore,” says Matt Jenkins. “Sure, I’ve had to replace the head twice and the handle three times, but it’s still the best axe I’ve ever owned.”
Ah, blacksmith humour. Jenkins and fellow blacksmith Karen Rudolph operate Cloverdale Forge, near Selkirk, Man., where they make tools, architectural metalwork, and hooks with their own following on Instagram (#366hooks). And after putting a lot of handles on axe heads, and breaking a few too, Jenkins has some tips.
Out with the old: Unfollow anyone who tells you to burn out a broken handle in a campfire; the heat can ruin the steel, he says. Instead, drill into the wood, avoiding any steel wedges, until you can clean out the rest. Hang on to the steel wedges.
Batter up: Replacement handles should be like Louisville Sluggers, Jenkins says: ash or hickory, with straight, continuous grain running from end to end. Look for handles and wedge kits in cottage-country hardware stores and building centres or online from toolmakers.
If there’s a polyurethane finish on the handle you buy, sand it off. You’ll suffer fewer blisters, Jenkins says, and the poly is really there so that humidity can’t swell the wood on the store shelf. That’s why he likes replacing handles in winter when wood is dry and compact: in summer, it expands and fits even tighter.
Fit bits: Did the old handle feel a little long to you? “Then make it shorter,” Jenkins says. You have the blacksmith’s blessing to customize your axe, as he did with a hatchet-length handle, for example, on a regular-sized axe head. “It’s easier to pack for canoe trips, but I can still cut trees for an emergency shelter.”
To fit the axe head’s “eye” (right), the handle needs to be custom-shaped by putting the head on, removing it, and sanding down the high spots. When you remove the head, look for burnished wood where the fit is overtight. Sand or rasp those parts, a little at a time, until the handle’s evenly snug all around. It can take seven or eight adjustments before the fit is perfect.
Wedge issues: With the head seated on its handle and supported in a vise, drive the wood wedge into the kerf. (If there’s no precut kerf, use a handsaw to cut one.) Jenkins dabs wood glue on the wedge, purists be damned. “Yeah, it’s a belt-and-suspenders thing,” he admits, “but it doesn’t hurt.”
Once the wedge is in tight, saw off the excess handle. Next, hammer in one or two steel wedges, perpendicular to the wood wedge (or angled to fit a narrow eye; the steel wedge should come no closer than about ¼” to the edge of the eye).
Oil’s well: After sanding with 180-grit sandpaper, apply a few coats of boiled linseed or tung oil. Then pack up your grandfather’s axe for a weekend at the cottage. Does Jenkins have a cottage? “Me? No, I have something way better,” he says. “I have friends with cottages.”
Steel wedges come in different widths, so save the originals if you can. If a wedge is too long, you can twist it.