Hanging and wedging a wooden handle is one of those topics that are heavily discussed in woodworking forums, on youtube, and in blogs. Advice on how to hang, and in particular – how to wedge – an ax or a hammer appears in a few woodworking books and homestead literature. I have no doubt that the authors of these manuscripts knew a great deal on the subject, but like many woodworking techniques, the advice is stipulated (think about instructions on how to cut dovetails) by personal experience, tradition, mystique, subjectivity and anecdotal evidence. But what about the tool manufacturers? Did they figure it out? Well, I guess they did (although a recent felling ax that I bought lost its grip on its handle within a few days of use).
So, if we wish to learn from the practices of the tool manufacturer and hope that at least they have some solid strategies, I can tell you and will back it up with pictures, that their approach is sometimes inconsistent and varies between different makers and countries. To sum it up, I feel that it is hard to find real empirical evidence to substantiate and guide us on the best method of wedging the handle. But let us at least give it a try.
Everybody whos written on the subject agrees that matching and fitting the neck of the handle as accurately as possible to the eye of the tool’s head, may it be an axe or hammer, is paramount. But as for wedging…there is so much arbitrary information it will spin your head. Yet because the correct wedging of the handle is so critical to the longevity of the fit and the trustworthiness of the integrated tool, that I went on a quest to find, or at least to layout what is out there and what I feel would be a solid approach that will lead to success. I’m still learning and experimenting but I wanted to share with you what I have found so far in hope that this will help you when you decide to hang a handle on a restored axe head or a broken or loosened hammer handle.
The consensus view point
When you walk into a hardware store in the United States to buy a replacement handle for an ax, sledgehammer or hammer, you’ll notice the typical hickory handle comes with two wedges: One is a wide, wood wedge, usually made of Poplar, and the other is a smaller corrugated steel wedge. You will also notice a wide kerf that was sawn into the handle head. This kerf should go down the neck to almost 2/3 or 3/4 of the tool’s eye depth (in this case a sledge hammer head) and terminates near the shoulder where the base of the head suppose to butt against. After the handle is fitted correctly into the head (use a rasp and file to shape it) the wide wedge is driven tightly into the kerf. Some suggest applying linseed oil on the wedge while others advocate the use of glue (Chris Schwarz uses hide glue). Then, after he main wooden wedge is seated and sawn flush with the top of the handle, it’s time to hammer in the steel wedge. Some recommend to insert it in diagonal to the orientation of the primary wedge, while others say it should go across, at a right angle.
While this is the norm with North American tools, this is not the case in other parts of the world. Many of my Japanese tools are hung with only steel wedges, while most of my German, Austrian and Scandinavian tools have a primary wooden wedge and on top of it a round steel wedge in the shape of a stepped hollow cone.
Across the pond, in the British Isles, toolmakers and woodworkers use yet another steel wedge to expand the wood in the eye. This wedge, loosely shaped like the letter “I” is perhaps the most interesting of them all.
A wooden sandwich
In cases where the tool’s head is of light to intermediate weight, it is perfectly ok to wedge it with one wide wooden wedge. A recently purchased round Adze by S. Djarv Hantverk (a Swedish manufacturer), as well as a Pickaroon by Stubai (an Austrian tool manufacture), are hung with the help of a single wooden wedge.
The geometry and wood species for wood wedges
One of the leading manufacturers in Europe, Gedore, uses birch and shapes the wedges at 12-15 degrees. The leading US aftermarket handle makers are using poplar and provides a “sharper” wedge of 10-8 degrees. Often, when I create a wooden wedge, I follow the American tradition of making it narrow, but I prefer to use a harder wood then Poplar such as oak, ash or hard maple.
Stay tuned for my next blog entry where I will show how I hung a handle on a custom made Adze that I bought from blacksmith Eric Dennis.
Below are links to some of the best “how to replace and hang a handle” videos, and at the bottom of this blog is a list of links to places where you can buy hanging wedge sets.
– Yoav Liberman
Youtube how-to videos:
How to replace a loose wooden wedge with a new one.
Here is a very entertaining video that will teach you a lot on how to fit a handle into the eye of the head.
And this one is great video on how to make and install a round wedge.
Wranglerstar, the homesteading youtube star is Hanging out with some tool handles.
Another great video by Wranglerstar on how to rehang an axe handle (Part 1)
This is an informative video on how to hang a hammer head.
On the importance of notching the common steel wedge before you insert it.
Where to buy wedges: