Restoring the Family Axe: Part 2

Now that the axe head itself has been refurbished, all that’s left is to fashion a sheath and hang a handle. My personal goal for this project was spend as little money as necessary. My leather supply was low, but fortunately it was just enough to get the job done. I don’t have rivets, so I decided to make a simple stitched sheath.

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Measure twice, cut once ;). When making sheaths for edged tools, it is important to include a welt for safety purposes, both for the user and the tool itself. It protects the blade from cutting through stitching and becoming exposed, and it saves the edge from being damaged by rivets.

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Here’s the completed sheath – the strap came from an old mess kit.

For the helve, my search led me to the local hardware store, but I was very disappointed to find that almost every handle (except one at 28 inch/71 cm for a boy’s axe) was cross-grained. They were also heavily coated in a shellac. I do know that there are reliable online sources for purchasing axe helves, but then again the forests here offer a variety a hardwoods from which to construct a suitable handle; among the choices are American Ash, American Beech, and a selection of hickories.

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This Shagbark Hickory provided me with deadfall from which to create a helve, though it didn’t turn out the way I expected. I’m not sure what I did wrong, but no worries, I would just have to search a bit harder for a suitable handle. I finally found a good selection of axe handles at another hardware store out of town for reasonable prices, and so I bought a 36 inch/91 cm helve that fit my hand comfortably and had decent grain orientation. It is fairly straight with a slight fawn’s foot at the knob.

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Yes, there is some heartwood, but in my experience, this is not much of an issue. The helve on my Gränsfors is almost completely heartwood, and it has never cracked or split on me. The USFS does not require their axe handles to only have sapwood, and heartwood is not considered a defect.

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I prefer to “pick and choose” by going to a store rather than buying an axe helve online because you never really know what you may get. You may receive a spectacular handle, but then again, you may get a cross-grained, misshapen piece of junk. Some websites do offer a “hand-picked selection” option, though you’ll be paying premium, and combine that with the shipping, and you’ll be spending a considerable amount of money. I paid $15.

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This handle was coated in shellac, so the first job is to remove it. You can use a coarse grit sandpaper, but using a knife speeds up the process much quicker and doesn’t leave heavy marks. Simply bring the blade perpendicular to the helve and push down. With a light, you should be able to tell the difference from the bare wood and the shellac. After I scraped it off, I sanded the helve first with 40 grit sandpaper, and finishing with 100 grit.

The wedge slot also needed to be a bit deeper to accommodate the wooden wedge, so I carefully sawed about an inch/2.5 cm further. Next comes the tedious process of shaping the cheeks to fit the axe’s eye. I used an old Simon’s four-in-hand rasp. After about seven test fittings, I got the head seated on the helve just above the shoulder. There was an inch/2.5 cm or so of wood protruding from the eye, so I carefully sawed-off 3/4 of it to leave 1/4 inch remaining. You can cut it off flush, but this method gives some added security because it allows the extra bit to mushroom out above the eye.

Now it’s time to hang the axe :). I carefully poured a touch of linseed oil onto the end grain at the eye and down the wedge slot. This allows the wood to expand while also helping the wooden wedge slide in easier. I don’t have a wooden mallet, so I used the poll of my Gränsfors as a hammer, carefully pounding in the wooden wedge. Sometimes, it helps to hold a flat piece of wood on top of the wedge as you hammer so that it does not split. The entire wedge made the fit, so I did not need to saw off any excess.

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And here it is, all finished with a coat of linseed oil, project completed :D. Final overall length is 35 inches/89 cm.

Over the next week, I will continue to put on a layer of linseed oil everyday until the helve doesn’t absorb it anymore. I must say this was quite a fun experience, though I could not have done it without the information provided by the USFS, Ross Gilmore at Woodtrekker, and a few forum friends, you know who you are ;). Thank you all, this axe will certainly come in handy for heavy-duty trail work :D.

 

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