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How To Care For Your Ax & Other Wood Handle Tools

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Published on Sep 7, 2012

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Basics of Handle Selection
Hickory makes the best handles for percussion tools like axes. You seldom see any species other than hickory offered by ax-handle companies.

There are several important characteristics you need to look for in a good ax handle. Generally, you get what you pay for, because the higher grade hickory handles sell at a premium over lower grade handles. Your new handle should be of straight grain, second growth, clear hickory. Cheap, inferior handles tend to break, split, and warp. If you are going through all the work of hanging your own ax, you should spend the extra dollars to get a high-quality handle. Some characteristics you need to look at include:

Color: The best handles are from second growth hickory sapwood, all white in color. In lower grades, various amounts of red-colored heartwood are in the handle. Grain: The highest grade does not have over 17 annual rings per inch of radius, a characteristic of faster-growing second growth trees. The orientation of the grain is critically important. If the handle is not straight-grained, it is likely to break. Defects: Various defects, including stain, holes, knots, splits, streaks, and grain deviations all diminish the grade of the handle.

Camouflaged Defects: Many less-than-perfect ax handles, often on bargain or utility axes, have defects that are camouflaged. This often helps make the ax look better, but you should recognize that good looks can hide defects. Some common techniques include staining, painting, or fire-finishing, which hardens and darkens the handle's surface.

Handles come in a variety of lengths, typically from 32 to 36 inches for 3- to 6-pound axes . Often the longer lengths work best for big timber and for splitting wood, while the shorter lengths are superior for smaller timber and general utility work. Handles can be straight or curved (called a fawn's foot). Double-bit handles are almost always straight, but for single-bit axes you can choose either curved or straight handles. My personal preference is a straight handle, usually less than 36 inches long. The handle can be oval or octagonal. Most ax manufacturers also offer axes with fiberglass or other plastic composite handles. While these may be durable and sturdy and perhaps adequate for splitting mauls, they do not provide the feel that a hickory handle offers. You also cannot customize a fiberglass handle. They are not traditional, which matters to me. And besides, they are just flat ugly.

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