Saw Shop Tech: rewedging loose wooden axe and tool handles.

Vern Burke, SwiftWater Edge Tool Works

Skowhegan, ME

This is one of the most common questions I get asked, how do you rewedge a loose wooden tool or axe handle. There are few things more dangerous than an impact tool such as an axe with a loose handle (picture that sharp axe head sailing off for points unknown, out of control) so I’m going to dedicate this entire post to the subject.

First of all, assuming that the axe handle is just a bit loose, in good condition, and has a wooden main wedge (the wedge lengthwise the eye), the best way to take care of it is not to mess with the wedge at all. Soak the eye end of the handle in boiled linseed oil overnight and many times it will swell the wood enough to tighten the handle up. Note that if the handle has a metal main wedge, it will probably NOT swell enough to tighten up. Do NOT EVER soak a handle in water to try to tighten it! A handle that has been soaked in water will almost immediately come loose again and this will only deteriorate the wood.

So, the handle is too loose to swell tight or it has other issues such as deteriorated wood or unsafe wedging (I’ve seen handles with the ends full of nails trying to tighten them up). The choice is, save the handle or replace? If the handle is too far gone to be safe, drill it out and put a new one in.

Now that we’ve decided to save the handle, here’s a few DO NOTs. DO NOT try to shim a wedge with another wedge to tighten it. Here’s a bad example of that.

bad axe handle wedges

Yup, that’s washers driven in next to a steel wedge.

DO NOT try to use steel cross wedges to split a main wooden wedge to tighten it. DO NOT drive anything else in the end of the handle. These DO NOTs all create serious safety issues that will make the axe dangerous to use!

If the existing main wedge is steel, pulling it may be a challenge. Steel wedges driven flush with the end of the handle are pretty much impossible to pull and will require drilling out the handle. Steel “cap” wedges (T shaped with a cap that covers the end of the handle) can often be pulled but they’re a chore. The steel “cap” wedges tend to rust into the wood and it can be a real wrestling match getting them out (usually in pieces). Be sure to check to end of any handle that has had a steel “cap” wedge in it for deterioration, these wedges tended to trap moisture underneath. Some old fashioned steel wedges had a tail at one end that overlapped the end of the eye. These are the easiest to pull, just pry with a screwdriver under the tail.

If the main wedge is wood and especially if it’s already loose, drilling a small hole into the wedge and threading in a screw to pull on usually works well. If the wedge is still too tight to wrestle out that way, it may be necessary to drill most of the wedge out (taking care not to damage the slot in the handle.

Now that you have the wedge out, it’s the perfect time to pull the handle from the eye and inspect it. Any handle that shows signs of deterioration or dry rot inside the eye of the axe or excessive cracking should be replaced as unsafe. Clean the eye end of the handle and any rust from the eye before reseating the old handle. Place the head on the handle and then rap the end of the handle against a solid surface until the head is solidly seated.

Always rewedge a handle with a wooden wedge. Pick the next length of wedge longer than the eye and then trim to fit. Drive the wedge in to the slot as far as possible with a wooden or rubber mallet, then trim the excess off. A properly fit handle shouldn’t require a steel cross wedge. If it does need one, make sure the steel wedge does not split the handle below the eye. If it does, scrap the handle and replace.

I’ve talked mostly about axes here, but the same instructions apply to tools such as hammers, splitting mauls, sledge hammers, etc. One note about hammer handles, wooden hammer handles that are held in with epoxy are generally not capable of being rewedged and should be drilled out and replaced.

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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