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Turning Wood: Socket Chisel Handles

Here’s a 1-2-3 system for getting a perfect fit.

By Tim Heil

High-quality socket chisels—such as the Stanley Sweathearts and Lie- Nielsens—are making a big comeback. Why would these companies choose the socket style? Well, it’s all about you, the user. If you’re not satisfied with a handle’s shape, you can change it. If you want a different wood—no problem. The handle of a socket chisel isn’t glued or fastened to the tool, so you just remove it and make your own. Truth is, woodworkers have been doing this for years. In the age before plastics, when a wood handle on a socket chisel split or mushroomed, replacing it was easy. But not all were fixed. Today, there are loads of wonderful old socket chisels going for a song, merely because they have busted or missing handles.

I’m a turner with a thing about handles—I just love making them. Screwdrivers, awls, ice cream scoops: If it’s got a handle, I’ve got to make my own.

When I first turned handles for socket chisels, I would make a few crude measurements of the socket and just go at it. If the taper on the handle’s shank wasn’t quite right, I guessed where it was off and tried again. While this method works OK, I’ve since found a measuring system that’s much more reliable. Following these steps, your shank should fit tight right away.

First, turn a cylinder that’s an inch or two longer than the length of the handle you’re going to make (of course, the full length includes the shank). Th e narrow end of the shank will most likely be a small diameter (anywhere from 1/4″ to 3/8″), so I prefer using a cone-shaped revolving center in the lathe’s tailstock. Th is gives me more room to maneuver the parting tool when cutting the shank’s taper.

1. Chisel sockets come in many different sizes, so you’ll need to take some measurements before turning the handle. Start by cutting a piece of notebook paper about 4” square. Roll it up around a pencil.

2. Push the paper cylinder all the way into the chisel’s socket. Let go of the paper—it will unroll to form a cone. The cone will be exactly the same shape as the socket.

3. Stick one or two pieces of tape on the cone to hold its shape. Mark the cone at the end of the socket. Remove the cone from the chisel.

4. Set a divider to the distance between the pencil mark and the end of the cone.

5. Mark this distance from the tailstock end of a blank you’ve roughed out.

6. Set a caliper to fit the cone at the mark you drew at the end of the chisel’s socket. This will be the major diameter of the handle’s shank (the part that fits into the socket).

7. Turn the blank to the major diameter, just to the right of the pencil line. Rough out the rest of the shank’s taper.

8. Reset the caliper to fit the end of the cone. This will be the shank’s minor diameter.

9. Turn the end of the shank to the minor diameter, leaning the parting tool at about the same angle as the rough taper. Cut a straight taper between the major and minor diameters.

10. Check the fit of the shank in the chisel’s socket. First, coat the inside of the socket with chalk dust. Then turn off the lathe and pull away the tailstock.

11. Push the socket onto the shank and twist it a few times. If its taper is correct, the full length of the shank will be coated with chalk. If it’s not correct, only the high spots will be coated.

12. Once the taper is correct, lengthen the shank about 1/8″ to the left.

13. Shape the rest of the handle as you wish. Stop the lathe and remove the handle from time to time to test how it feels.

14. Part the handle from the blank using a spindle gouge. (My gouge is very short, from turning so many handles!)

Test the fit

If all has gone well, the shank should perfectly fit the socket. Just to be sure, perform a simple test. Rub a piece of chalk on the inside of the socket (Photo 10). Turn off the lathe, pull away the headstock and push the socket onto the shank. Twist the chisel a few times and remove it (Photo 11). If the fit is correct, most of the shank will be coated with chalk; if it’s not, the chalk will show you the high spots that need to be removed. If the fit is too loose, your best bet is to cut off part of the shank and start over from the beginning. Don’t worry—the turning
goes pretty quick.

Once the fit is OK, lengthen the shank by about 1/8″ (Photo 12). (Notice the small gap between the end of the socket and the end of the shank on the handles shown on page 30.) This gap allows you to drive the shank tight into the socket. The end of the handle shouldn’t butt up against the top of the socket. If it does, the handle could split when you strike the chisel.

Turn the handle to any shape you wish (Photo 13). Th ere’s really no right or wrong here; traditionally, chisel handles came in many different shapes and sizes. If your work
requires you to strike the chisel hard, you may want to put a ferrule on one or both ends of the handle to prevent it from splitting. Turn off the lathe from time to time and test how the handle feels. When you’re done, part off (Photo 14). To install your handle, just drive it into the socket with a mallet. With a tight fit, there’s no need for glue. When you apply finish to the handle, don’t put any on the shank. If the shank is too slippery, it won’t stay seated in the socket.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker February/March 2012, issue #158.

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