Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Illusive Octagonal Knob-End Axe Handle is Reborn

By some freak chance, I came into possession of an old octagonal knob-end handle on a Keen Kutter with a forge welded bit. I have never seen, in person or in pictures, another one like it and I believe it's pretty old, early 20th century anyway. Octagonal handles are still available today, and I suspect they must have been, and even continue to be, somewhat popular but there is virtually no information about them with knob-ends. While knob-ends are not common alone, pictures can be found. However, when combined with octagonal flats they become a creature as illusive as any vintage or antique item gets. In my eyes, this is as good a reason as any to recreate one.

The handle as it came next to a 30"
Now, going back to the House Handle youtube videos, the handles come off the lathe with a big chunk of wood on the bottom below the swell. I can only presume then, this process prompted the invention of the knob-end. I have two theories on what thought processes could have been involved in the very first version. First, why cut or sand that chunk off when you can just reshape it? The knob would do a nice job of protecting the swell if the user should tap it on the ground to tighten a loose head, or perhaps act as a tamp of some sort. Second, the ubiquitous fawn's foot might have been shaped first and then the excess material removed. On a knob-end swell, the fawn's foot is still there and well defined, it just has more material attached to it. I can see someone looking at it one day and saying; why don't we just leave it? It could be that Keen Kutter originated the design and used it as a sort of unique feature to differentiate themselves in a wide array of competitors at the time. The bad news is, it appears House does things a little differently now. My rough handles come with the angle already cut on the swell. I can only surmise that the wood blanks go onto the lathe with this cut already made (or there are extra steps I'm not aware of) because there are tool marks in the end grain, marks that obviously couldn't be there if the handles were turned first and then cut.

The vintage octagonal knob-end
Regardless of the history, the goal was to make one, and I thought, if I had to just make one from scratch I would. I had this NE Old Yank head sitting around, but I only had 30" handles at home and the axe originally came on a curvy 28". In fact, it might have even been shorter once assembled and finished. This is a 3-1/4lb axe on a pretty stubby stick, and such a combination was a common practice during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Old Yank is marked 3-1/4lbs and still weighs 3lbs, 3oz, so even though it's deeply pitted, it's virtually unused. It has a forge welded bit, and considering that it originated in the east, presumably New England, and the style of the handle, it has to be an oldie. In an effort to give it a handle more like the one it came with from the factory, I ordered a rough turned 28" from House. As you've seen in the pictures, the 28s are a different animal and I was excited when I realized there was just enough extra at the bottom to make my knob-end. The pictures tell the rest of the story.
custom knob-end, octagonal axe handle

NE Old Yank vintage axe

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