Saw shop tech: When to restore or replace vintage tool handles.


Vern Burke, SwiftWater Edge Tool Works

Skowhegan, ME

In vintage tools, as with almost everything that falls under the umbrella of “antiques”, there’s a lot of argument that tools are “ruined” by altering the “as found” condition of them. I’ve talked previously about restoring the actual tools themselves for use, I’m going to talk here about what to and no to do with handles.

The first thing is simple. Any tool handle has to be SAFE (unless you’re just planning to hang the tool on the wall and admire it). The best looking vintage axe handle is worthless if it’s dry rotted inside the axe eye. If you’re chopping a tree and you break an axe handle and send a 4lb head with 2 razor sharp bits flying out of control, someone is getting hurt. Do NOT hang on to even a questionable handle for the sake of keeping the “antique value”.

Do I ever put effort into salvaging an old handle that might have problems with it? Sure! I recently overhauled a 3 1/2lb poll axe, nothing special but it was set up as a splitting axe with a 28″ short handle. This length of handle is nearly impossible to find with the large eye size of the full size poll axe and I wanted to keep this as a splitting axe vs changing it to a full length 36″ handle. In this case, I removed the old (and rotten) iron wedge, removed and reseated the handle so the head would set a little lower and allow removing a small amount of deteriorated wood, and rewedged it.

Second, the handle has to be solid. Handles with excessive cracking that can’t be stabilized with glue and handles missing pieces are candidates for the trash can. It doesn’t matter how nice and rare your vintage saw is, if the handle falls apart while you’re using it, it’s worthless. Saw handles with missing pieces and broken horns, split chisel handles, hand plane totes with broken horns, old tool handles that have been chewed by mice, they all need to be repaired before using them.

I recently had to tell a customer I couldn’t do anything with an old family heirloom high carbon steel kitchen knife. Too many years of use with loose rivets had caused the handle to partially split and the wood was so deteriorated that it wouldn’t hold glue.

Finally, the handle MUST be finished to stand the environment that it’s going to be used in. You might be able to get away with a handsaw with only a trace of original finish that is used only in the shop but a 1 man crosscut saw used outdoors in the rain, snow, damp, and temperature changes will be destroyed in short order without its finish.

For my tool handles, I used an old school boiled linseed oil finish that closely replicates the look of the original with a modern acrylic clearcoat instead of the original varnish, shellac, or lacquer. This gives a handle that looks almost exactly like the original except with a much more practical finish.

In short, don’t worry about preserving the “antique value” of a vintage tool you intend to use. Stay true to the original appearance but make sure the handle is safe, solid, and well protected.

Visit me at any of the following locations:

Elm Plaza, Waterville, ME (Mondays)
Tractor Supply, Skowhegan, ME (Tuesday and Wednesday)
Arundel Flea Market, Rt 1 & Log Cabin Rd, Arundel, ME (Fridays)
298 W Front St, Skowhegan, ME (all other days)

If you’re looking for a special tool, please drop me an
email and let me know and I’ll restore one just for you!

SwiftWater Edge Tool Works provides mobile sharpening services across Maine and mail in services around the world for handsaws, carbide blades, planer knives, hand planes, chain saws, knives, scissors, hair clippers, router bits, and almost any blade!

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