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How to Replace a Wooden Tool Handle

handleWhat’s the best way to replace wooden tool handles? I’ve got an axe with a handle that’s completely broken off, and a sledge hammer with a cracked handle.

Hammers, hatchets, axes and sledge hammers usually have wooden handles and eventually they all get loose and break in time. That’s why learning to replace wooden tool handles is such a useful self-reliance skill. You really can’t pay anyone to do this work for you, and you shouldn’t. 

Get a new handle, whittle it to fit your tool head, then anchor the handle into the head so it doesn’t move. These are the three steps to tool handle replacement, but you’ll need to understand details for success. 

Hardware stores everywhere sell replacement wooden handles, but when you select one, look for growth rings that extend from the front of the handle edge to the back. Avoid side-to-side grain orientation since this makes for a weaker handle. Grain orientation is not something that tool handle makers pay attention to, so you’ll find a wide variety of growth ring patterns on any store shelf. 

What you might not realize is how easy it is to make a handle from scratch. Easier and better than buying because you have more control over wood quality. Why pay for a replacement handle that’s weaker than something you can make in less time than it takes to travel to the store? 

I was reminded of all this last week when I made a new 18” long wooden handle for one of my 4 lbs. stone hammers. The whole job took less than 45 minutes from rough lumber to installed handle, and the process of making a new handle begins with a table saw. 

Where my homestead is on Manitoulin Island, Canada, ash is the wood of choice for tool handles, but hickory is even better if it grows where you live. Either way, cut a piece of wood that’s as wide and as thick as it needs to be to fill the hole in the head of the axe or hammer you’re making the handle for. As you work, keep that all-important growth ring orientation in mind.

After using your table saw to cut your handle blank to thickness and width, tilt the blade over 45º to saw off the corners of the handle blank. Bringing it closer to an oval shape on the saw means less work to do next with the spokeshave.

Any simple vise works for holding your handle blank while you shape it. Keep an eye on the old handle if it’s around and let it guide you as you shape the new one.

Fitting a new handle to the tool head is the same whether you make your own handle or buy one ready-made. For a detailed, illustrated lesson on the process, download my free, full-color report How To Replace Wooden Tool Handles.

Photo by Steve Maxwell

Steve Maxwell and his family have homesteaded on Manitoulin Island since 1985. You can visit Steve’s homestead online at his Real Rural Life blog.