Tool Tech from the Saw Shop: the science of choosing the right axe handle.


Vern Burke, SwiftWater Edge Tool Works

Skowhegan, ME

In the process of doing vintage tool restoration, I obtain most of my tools in “barn fresh” condition from a wide variety of sources. I see everything imaginable (and a great deal not) in terms of tool abuse, poorly executed maintenance, and well meaning but ill informed attempts at repair. One of the things that mystifies me the most is the choices people make in axe handles.

I thought I’d seen everything in mismatched and poorly hung replacement axe handles but the one I picked up from the Arundel Flea Market this last Saturday really took the cake. The axe was a very nice, top of the line, and quite hard to find Sager (Warren Tool Co, Warren PA) 3 lb Baltimore Jersey pattern poll axe head, hung on an 18″ hand axe handle. This handle is ridiculously short for the weight of the head and not only makes an axe that’s miserable to use, it makes one that’s dangerous to use. This handle was an obvious replacement at some time in the head’s service life.

So, how do we choose the correct length handle for an axe (or how can we tell a new axe has the right length handle from the start)? The primary key to this is balance.

My rule of thumb is that an axe should balance 4″-6″ along the handle away from the head. Most of the full sized poll axes I do balance toward the upper end of the range, a Snow and Neally 2lb Maine pattern boy’s axe with a 24″ oak handle (I consider this to be darned close to the perfect axe) balanced almost to the low end. The miserably mishandled Sager wouldn’t balance at all, the balance point was somewhere inside the head.

If an axe is balanced too close to the head, it will feel abnormally “heavy” and unwieldy. It will make you work harder to swing it and it will be difficult to control, making it dangerous. In the case of the Sager, there was a very real possibility of missing or swinging through the work piece and the short handle causing the axe head to come right back at your thigh.

The second key here is how much power do you need the axe to generate and is the head heavy enough to do it? The further the arc of swing of the head is away from the body, the faster the head speed and the more power will be stored in the head to be released when the head strikes the wood. A splitting axe will typically be hung on as long a handle as possible to generate maximum impact. A chopping axe will be on a bit shorter handle for more control and less effort.

In the case of the Sager, the overly short handle means that you can’t generate enough speed to use the weight of the head at all, so, in addition to being dangerous and uncontrollable, it also doesn’t gain you a thing. An axe will too long a handle will feel overly “light” and won’t supply proper feedback to the muscles swinging it, leading to serious control issues once again.

So, other than trial and error, hanging axes first and then checking the balance, how do you know what length handle to buy? This table is my take on it:

Poll axe (splitting) 4 lbs + 28″ – 36″ 36″ preferred
Poll axe (chopping) 3 1/2lbs to 4 lbs 28″ – 36″ 28″ preferred
Boy’s axe 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 lbs 26″ – 28″ 26″ preferred
Boy’s axe 2 lb 24″ – 26″ 24″ preferred
Hand axe 1 3/4 lb 18″
Hatchet 1 to 1 1/2 lb 12″

The right handle makes the vintage axe a joy to use :).

Visit me at any of the following locations:

B&G Treasures, 11 Depot St, Norridgewock, ME (Mondays)

Tractor Supply, Skowhegan, ME (Tuesday)

Somerset Woods turnout, Canaan Rd (Rt 2), Skowhegan,ME (Wednesday)

Arundel Flea Market, Rt 1 & Log Cabin Rd, Arundel, ME (Saturday)

Fryeburg Flea Market (Fryeburg Fairgrounds), Fryeburg, ME
(Sundays, Memorial Day thru end of September)

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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