Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Plumb Double Bit Cruiser

The bright white cruiser handle as it came to me.
This post follows suit in some ways with my last two posts on the House Handle company and reshaping your handles. By now, after as many handles as I've ordered, HH is aware that I would rather get thick handles I can work on, and when I ordered this cruiser double bit, I got a chubby one for sure. It was also nice and straight with nice grain to boot, so it was ready to work on. I managed to score the little Plumb cruiser head on ebay for nothing when you consider how pricey some cruisers can get and it was already cleaned up for me. On my scales it came in at exactly 2-1/5 pounds and judging by the looks of it, it had hardly been used.

Here I had just begun thinning at the bottom.
Thinning a straight handle is pretty straight forward as you may be able to guess. As always I go to the shoulders first and thin them down to the width of the tool head, maybe even a touch less. I typically then dress up the swell and work in the flair. There wasn't much swell to this handle and I would have liked to have more to work with. Once that's done it's just a matter of stripping off wood until it's as thin as you like. I recently acquired a spoke shave to accompany my draw knife, which makes shaving off wood pretty easy and eliminates a lot of dust. I also got a half round wood rasp which is another good option, particularly for the curves of the swell.

axe refurbishing, rehanging an axe, hang an axe
Here is the finished product save for sharpening.

plumb cruiser, vintage axe
A good shot of the alignment.

cruiser axe size
For size comparison, a full sized 3-12lb with a 36 inch handle.

oak wedge, re-hang an axe, bushcraft
This axe hung really well with an oak wedge made from scratch.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Hanging Your First Axe; Let's Talk About Handles Part 2

In the first part I left off talking about the "first pass" handle from House Handle. When I first discovered the House Handle videos on youtube, I noticed that it would appear as though they remove the handle from the lathe while it is still rough, then finish them on a giant belt sander. It took awhile for the seed to sprout but I began to wonder if I could just get one of those right off the lathe. So, one day I sent an e-mail and asked. Sure enough, they were willing to sell me one. It's not a regular offering, so you may have to contact them yourself if you're interested in one. However, it was clear to me that the blank that they copy from, mounted in the lathe and seen in the video, is an old handle pattern, which means the result should be a correctly shaped handle. While I think that with a little work, you can have a pretty nice handle by simply ordering a regular offering from House, I was ready for something even better. I wrote the previous post to talk about getting the best you can. Obviously, you can just go hand make a handle from a board, and it will be exactly the handle you want it to be, but with this product a lot of the work is done and the template is clearly defined three dimensionally. The techniques I used to finish this handle are the same as those you would use to improve a regular finished product from any handle company. So let's get started.

This image, and the one at the top of the post, show the first pass handle as it came to me. It is shown with another axe just for size comparison purposes. It was plenty big enough to contain a very nice handle.
Step one was to quickly go over it with a draw knife just to take off most of the steps.
finishing and fitting an axe handle
This is after working it down on the belt sander. I use a 2x42 belt sander with 36 grit belts. What I notice from the vintage handle is that the swell has a strong concave curvature three dimensionally into the swell. I use the contact wheel to make sure that my curve stays concave. Often they come convex where the handle curves outwardly into the swell. This is a feature that I try to capture with my work. This could also be accomplished with a curved rasp or 4-way file.
Here it is pretty well smoothed and reduced to its final dimensions. I want a handle with curves and there is a simple way to bring them out in any handle - remove material only from the inside of the curves to get them down to final size. 

Just to illustrate how straight it was, and how much the swell flairs at the bottom. Here you can see how large the "tongue" is, the portion of the handle which is seated within the axe head. One of the first things I do when I get a handle is check the dimensions in this area. How low do I want the head to sit? Can I change the location of the shoulder to get the fit I want? I like to reduce the shoulders down right from the start to approximately the same width, or slightly narrower, than the widest part of the axe head. If you are splitting wood, this ensures that your handle is narrower than the head, making it difficult for the log to damage the handle. So I set the shoulders, then I define them and make sure the handle is even all around.
Here it is hung with a 3-1/4lb Collins Legitimus Connecticut pattern head. I like the head to really be seated down on the shoulder and you can clearly see here how I have "defined" the shoulder - there is a distinct line. This isn't necessary, but dresses up the finished product somewhat.
My custom oak wedge, made from very old rough cut stud material.
This depicts fitment of the head.

Here you can see the alignment of the head and haft.
And the final product.
This last image is a before and after of the House handle seen on the axe in the previous post. The top image shows it as it arrived to me and the bottom shows it roughly thinned and reshaped. This illustrates two of the main techniques I talked about above. First, I removed material from the insides of the curves to make the handle appear more curved - the green lines indicate the areas I'm talking about. Second, the swells are always opposite of what I like and the swell is actually convex creating a bulb effect. The little green arrow shows where there is almost a kink because the shaping is done on a slack belt sander with no concave surface such as a contact wheel. It just doesn't feel right. Because the swell had already been turned down too far, I had to just do the best I could. I did manage to get a nice smooth curve through the handle and into the swell. In the end it's a pretty good looking handle that feels good. I think this is representative of what you can expect with your handles. Good luck and thanks for reading!

Hanging Your First Axe; Let's Talk About Handles and House Handle

collins connecticut pattern
This comes up so often that I think it's time for a post on axe handles for those looking to restore, refurbish, rehang an axe for the first time, or second, or third. If you've taken the time to do any research at all, chances are you have heard of House Handle. They cater to axe enthusiasts. That I can tell, there are 4 to 6 places making handles and you can get most of them in big box stores, or through a retailer of some sort, but none of them will hand pick you a stick. None of the manufacturers ship to individual customers in house (Baker might). Except House. Combine this fact, with the availability of 28, 30 and 32 inch curved handles for full sized single bit axes, and House Handle is the only game in town. These are the reasons for ordering from them, not necessarily the reasons most people think of. But, before I go any further, I feel the number one topic that needs to be covered is expectations.

Grain runs fully across the handle creating weakness.
Why expectations? Well you have to ask yourself what you want to accomplish with your axe. If you've been reading forum threads or watching how-to videos, then the aspect that you probably hear constantly repeated is what you should look for in a handle. Ignoring all those things, if you want a 30 inch handle for your axe you aren't going to find one in a hardware store. If you do, you are lucky and that handle is probably from House - congrats, you get to see your handle before you buy it. If that isn't your scenario then you are going to order one. So with all the talk of what to look for in a handle, you have been unwittingly given false expectations. Why? Because that handle simply doesn't exist. If you don't particularly care about the handle, then you will be perfectly satisfied with what is available and let me tell you, you will have a perfectly serviceable axe, regardless of the "rule" violations that handle may commit in the eyes of certain experts. If you've wrapped your hands around a handle from 50 or 100 years ago and you want to get something like that, then you should accept, before you place your order, that you will not get a duplicate of that handle, no matter how much you pay for it. [Editor's note: I am inserting this exception for the next few weeks when I have my hands on an less known handle maker's product in hopes that I can be proven wrong.] Why will that handle not be perfect? It's simple in my eyes. Wooden handle tools can be described as a dying industry, and when compared to the decades past when hand tools where the only tools, it is all but deceased. Couple that with the American workforce costs, where a person can't possibly charge a fair price for a product with the amount of handwork that went into tool handles 100 years ago, and still pay his employees a living wage. I doubt they can even afford the lathe time, because those old lathes aren't fast - see them in action here. The bottom line is, expect to do some work to your handle when it arrives. In fact, there might even be some imperfections. It's not that I'm saying this is how things should be, I'm just saying, here is what you can expect. Handles might have some slight bend, less than perfect grain orientation, or lack some of the other features that supposedly constitute a perfect handle.

So that covers expectations, now here is how I operate, and how you can get the best available. Again, most of us use House Handle because they will hand pick your handle, and they offer 4 lengths of curved handles for full size axe heads. Why is that second part so important? Well it isn't necessarily, however, shorter handles were very common in the yesteryears of axes and for good reason. Portability is an important factor, but for a lot of people a shorter handle just works better. The "boy's axe" handle is made to fit an axe with a smaller eye so for the most part it isn't a good option unless of course you are hanging a boy's axe. If all you need is the standard 36 inch handle, there are some good options. Baker Tools makes nice handles, but I have contacted them directly and they do not make any other length. Their handles are available in Menard's stores. For me, the only important factors to an axe handle are that the grain runs more or less parallel with the tool head, and that there is as little run-out as possible. I don't aesthetically like the look of heart and sap wood mix, and I'd prefer the handle be straight. And you can ask for all of these things when you order. You must request to have your handle hand picked in a comments box during checkout. If you only order a single handle, and request the add-ons, your handle will be about $15.00 shipped.

The last topic I wanted to cover is the Gransfors, Best Made, Base Camp X, Council Tool Velvicut, etc. handles on higher priced current production axes. I have a couple Gransfors but never touched a Best Made or the others. If you buy a truly handmade or custom axe, expect good things. However, these current production axes are not the standard by which to judge other handles in my opinion. Gransfors and the other Swedish brands are excellent, but they are not turning handles the way they would have been in America during the height of the axe. They actually have very little swell, which is the enlarged portion at the bottom of the handle. It is often referred to as a fawns foot or scroll knob. These other American companies are sourcing their handles more than likely, the same way you and I are - from some handle maker - and you can see those same products hanging in hardware stores. Part of the point I'm making is, there isn't much out there that can be called the best and if they are, I would consider that an uninformed opinion. I think there might be a little mysticism surrounding Gransfors handles and I stumbled upon a video which shows a modern machine making eerily similar handles (clearly in a different country). The shape is somewhat different, but note the unique marks left by a plainer style blade, the consistency this machine is capable of, and the sort of round organic cross section of the handles. Today, a machine that can produce 4 identical, and virtually complete handles in less than 2 minutes would be ideal. 

Here are what I consider to be the best videos available for hanging an axe. Everything you need to know can be learned from them, and you can pick up some very important, often overlooked, tips and tricks if you pay attention to the details.
An Axe to Grind is one of the go-to videos. There are a few things I don't like, but if you watch only one video, this will get you going just fine. 
With an Axe and Knife is great because it shows a hand carved axe handle made by someone who lived by his tools. You have to watch carefully but there are some great tricks. For instance, he doesn't cut the handle down until he is finished hanging - it makes popping the head off for fitting much easier.
Bringing Back an Axe shows good technique for driving the wedge and a couple trouble shooting tips.
BushcraftUSA Bushclass seems to be broken for me, but it's very good and complete.
Pioneer Axe is for understanding your axe, how it was made, and a very brief, but interesting piece at the very end showing them handling their axes - it's much less scientific than it's made out to be sometimes ... by people like me. :)

Now, to make this post extra epic, I wanted to throw in my 2 cents on working your handle. Often when your handle arrives it will be a little too big in most dimensions. This is a good thing. If it's not, well I'm sorry, that does happen and I have actually asked for over-sized handles in the past. Once you know a few dimensions you can get a feel for just how big the handle is, even if it may not seem to be. Keep in mind that there were many, many patterns for handles and lots of folks made their own handles to their own liking. A handle, in my opinion, is all about personal preference. This is why you will notice that I refer to the "rules of axe handles" in quotation marks, and use words like "supposedly" when I talk about them. Sure, there are features that may make one piece of wood stronger than another, that's fine. However, there is no overwhelmingly compelling evidence that one shape - straight, curved, or really curved - is better than another. I do believe that one shape might be more useful for certain types of tasks, though again, not overwhelmingly. And finally, no one can tell you that what you like, just because you like it, is wrong. So when I throw out these dimensions, they shouldn't be considered anything more than guidelines.

In the following image, I have redrawn the diagram apparently used by the Pennsylvania Railroad System to spec handles. They were rail workers - just a guess - so it's safe to assume they may have had special uses for their axes.
Next up are some images of various handles and some dimensions for reference. The dark, 36 inch handle is old, I believe it may be from the early to mid 1900s and is probably a fair representation of the handles found on typical axes of the time.
At the top is my vintage handle, then a cruiser double bit from House, an unmarked head with a House Handle that I did a lot of work to, and finally a Gransfors Bruk Small Forest Axe. Note how thick the new cruiser handle is. You may also be able to see how shapely and sculpted the swell of the vintage handle is.

Measurements for reference. On the Gransfors, though it is a small axe, the swell isn't much wider than the main portion of the rest of the handle.

Here are the other two. I left as much swell as existed on my handle on the left. Where the vintage handle I would say is fairly slim through the swell for its time. Both are still sufficient and feel great in hand, but I just like a large swell.

This best illustrates the swell. I didn't quite develop the flair in mine (center) when compared to the vintage, and you can see the Gransfors is gentle and only slightly wider than the rest of the handle.

So the width of the vintage handle is roughly 7/8ths - just under, which will likely seem pretty slim compared to a handle purchased today.
This image, and these axes belong to a BushcraftUSA forum member, but in my eyes, these handles are the best ever made. They have to be very old and this was an amazing pair to find. Note the size of the swell, and the extreme curve in the lower example. This perfectly illustrates the variety of handle styles that existed and short handles on full size axes.
Hopefully this gives new folks some idea of how to get a great feel from your handles and what to expect when purchasing a stick today. My original intention for this post was to show how I have gotten as close to perfection, so far, as I can. However, this post is huge, so I will write a second part covering my experience with a "first pass handle" from House Handle.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Another Custom Cut Axe

The finished product, sharp and ready for work.
I'm just behind on all this sort of stuff and I forgot all about this one in the project post I wrote a few minutes ago. I already wrote about the other head (pictured below) that I got at the same time as this one, both unmarked heads from the bay. I noticed that this one was in pretty good shape but the toe had been taken down quite a bit. It was cheap, and I am always up for a new project so I placed my bid. I brought out the cut-off wheel and went to work. It's worth noting that all steel heads cut harder than iron heads, so it's important to go slow and avoid generating a lot of heat. I wrap the head, in particular the bit, in water soaked rags which I then clamp into place so that I can dip the rags and the head all together as I go along.

Before and after for this stick.
As with most of these projects, the handle got a lot of work, but since discovering the first pass handles from House Handle, I probably won't mess with trying to find the good shape in a misshapen handle too often from this point forward. I was sent a straight handle with good grain and enough extra wood to dig out something pretty nice, but it still lacks in a few areas. I enjoy working the handles the most, and because of this, combined with my experience with a first pass handle, I've become more and more picky about them. Annoyingly it makes me scrutinize the work I've already done, but I think this is all part of the never ending learning process.

We're dealing with the bottom head in this post.
cutting down an axe
Hacking, cutting and grinding.
A little off the top, a LOT off the bottom. Finished weight; just under 3lbs.
hanging an axe
I am leaning toward hard woods for the wedges and so I make my own - Osage in this case.
The finished product before sharpening and BLO.

Projects, Projects, Projects! And Hammer Hanging Tips

I've been doing so many handles lately that I can't even begin to write a boring blog post about each one. But, I've been busy doing a bunch of cross wedged hammers. Most of them have gone on to their owners so I should be able to get durability reports over time and I look forward to that. Just the same, all indications are that it's a solid technique and not difficult at all. What I have found is that hammers have more apparent taper in the eye, at least ball-peens, blacksmiths hammers, sledges and the like do. Some are extreme in my experience, where the size of the eye when viewed from the top or bottom is actually significantly larger than it is inside and the handle must be whittled down much smaller just to pass through. The result is an eighth inch gap all around the handle, give or take, before it is wedged. I doubt you will find a single hammer like this on the shelf past or present that doesn't have a metal wedge and often larger hammers will have two, or the cone shaped wedge, as well as a wood wedge. In order to fill the eye, it's pretty much mandatory to jam all these objects into the handle. Of course a hammer is small, or more compact than an axe of similar weight and there is less iron to wood contact keeping them together to withstand the sort of abuse hammers are put through. So, it's also mandatory that the taper exist to really lock the stick into place. I just don't like metal wedges. I would venture that they were more common in hammers, even in centuries past, because of the need to really secure a hammer head, and less common in axes. By the same token, how hard would it have been to design an eye punch that only create taper on the sides of the eye and not the front or rear? This would create a solid lock, but require only a single wedge. What's more, every video I watch of blacksmiths working, they are tapping their hammer handle on the anvil to drive the loose head down. Presumably, the amount of heat that a blacksmith hammer is subjected to has the tendency to loosen handles by pushing most of the moisture from the wood and it may be an exercise in futility to think I can overcome this. I can live with that.

As for the technique itself, it's very simple. I fit my handle as usual and when I get it just about to where I like it, I pull it for the last time and check the depth of my kerf. At this point I cut it deeper if necessary. I believe that you want a good third, possibly more, of the head below the kerf. I believe this because I have driven a wooden wedge completely through a handle before and I think, when you consider the taper (which probably begins at the halfway point or so), you want some solid wood inside the eye. Sometimes you see people say you have to have the handle crazy tight as you are fitting it. I don't believe so. For one thing, it isn't possible with a hammer. If you can get the handle through a hammer eye, it will be loose at the top, there's nothing you can do to avoid it. But, you know you can fit the lower portion of the head tight and that will help to support the wood and prevent splitting or checking. There is really no point in cutting the kerf into that good tight wood. The illustration might suggest that you could stop the kerf at the halfway mark, and you probably could, but my theory is that if you get it just a bit lower, the head is supporting solid wood, and also the bottom of the kerf so that you aren't able to split it. I realize this is pretty academic and I want to emphasize that it isn't worth going crazy over - get it close and call it good. There are too many other variables to consider anyway, like how steep your wedge will have to be to make it all work.

Next step is to cut the second kerf. I typically cut it shallower than the first, again, just for a little more support. I then hang the head, drive it down good and tight. I then drive the cross wedge and the important point here is that the wedge must be the same width as the handle, and no wider. Remember that it has to spread later as the main wedge is driven and if it is wider than the handle, it will prevent you from getting a good wedging effect. Drive the cross wedge until the eye is filled front to back.

I use a chisel to split the cross wedge enough that I can drive the main wedge. Turn the tool upside down, rest the wedge on something solid, and strike the bottom of the handle to drive the wedge. Use a wooden mallet and be very gentle to avoid cracking your handle. Driving wedges this way will drive them in straight, and prevent splitting them.

This is a slight exaggeration, but not by much. As you can see, there are going to be gaps in the image to the far left, the eye is simply smaller toward the center. However, it is tight in the lower half and this is where you should put your effort. The middle image depicts the wood bending as the wedge is driven and you can see the obvious stress point at the bottom of the kerf - it wants to split here if you don't get your handle good and tight in the lower half of the eye. This is where the support concept comes in. In the third image the kerf is probably too deep and even with a wooden wedge, if it's thin enough to sneak in there, you can split the handle.
Well those are at least some of my projects. The rough axe handle at the bottom is a "first pass" handle from House Handle and I will be doing a detailed post on that particular stick as well as a few others when I begin to get heads to hang on them. For now, that's just a teaser showing how it came to me, then below that, how it sits right now.