Thursday, April 14, 2011

Double-Bit Axe Restoration – Part 4, by bmatt, an American Bushcrafter in Finland

Today in the News:  Drool.  That's all.  Just drool.  Well, that's not all.  I found an old Snow and Nealley double bit on ebay a week ago. I bid on it for $5.00.  Then I forgot about it.  Then I found out that it someone outbid me and got it for about $6.50.  MOH = Angry/sad/disappointed.

Link of the Day:  I know most of you read Ross' blog over at Wood Trekker, but in case you missed it, he had a great article on axe maintenance yesterday.

bmatt’s double-bit axe restoration – Part 4

With the axe head mostly finished and ready to go, I turned my attention to the handle. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find a double-bit axe handle anywhere here in Finland, so I thought I’d see if I could find a handle meant for another tool which could be used. Fortunately, I found a 35” pick handle made of birch. I was a bit hesitant to try to use a soft birch handle in such a slim eye, but I remembered a trick I used to strengthen another birch axe handle and will do this again (I’ll fill you in next time). Some of the work I’ll discuss this time was done in the barn/wood shed at my grandparents-in-law’s farm for a change of scenery.

I started by using my 3” puukko knife and a Mora drawknife/spoke shave to whittle down the handle to fit in the eye. I made sure to go slowly so as to not remove too much wood, which, as you may have heard, can be taken off, but unfortunately not put back on. Once the top of the handle just barely fit, I turned the axe upside down and gave the bottom of the handle a few light whacks. This seated the head further on the handle. Following this, I removed the head and proceeded to shape the handle better to fit the head (scratches, dirt/rust and signs of compression show where some wood should be removed). I then knocked the head back on to check the fit and alignment. This process of removing the head, shaping the handle and putting the head back on to check the fit was repeated again and again until the head was seated nicely far enough down on the handle and with about 3/8” protruding from the eye. As you can see in the pics, my shaping job wasn’t perfect, but the handle fits the eye well. This handle also needed to be thinned down a bit below the head, so I used a rasp for this. In all, the carving and rasping took 2 hours.

Being a pick handle, it did not have a kerf sawn into it as axe handles do, so I placed the drawknife in the dead center of the top of the handle and gave it a few taps with a hammer. This started the split into which the wooden wedge would later go. Finally, I sanded down the entire handle to make it uniformly smooth (except for the bottom 6 or so, which I left a bit rougher for better grip). I used 100 grit paper for this purpose after smoothing out the rasping gouges with 40 grit and then 60 grit paper. I would say I spent a bit less than an hour on a little extra rasping and the sanding of the handle until it was the way I wanted it.


Starting out as a pick handle, and not an axe handle, I knew that I would probably have to be inventive somewhere along the line when fitting it to the head. The handle was not quite broad enough to fill the entire eye from end to end, so I improvised by driving in long poplar wedges from the bottom which filled the empty spaces entirely. I drove in both wedges at the same time to make sure that the head didn’t tilt to one side. Most likely, I will have to secure these wedges mechanically in some way, e.g. by inserting small nails or screws into the handle to block them from coming out. I’m going to deliberate on how to do this so I don’t mess it up! Hopefully, the whole thing will stay together over time, but the fit is very secure for now, at least.

I took the piece of poplar I used for the side wedges and split out a section to make the main wedge using a small Fiskars splitting axe which was on hand. I used a hatchet, rasp, my Opinel No. 8 and some sandpaper to make the wedge. Using many firm (but not overpowering) blows, I slowly tapped in the wedge and then cut it off flush with the top of the handle with a saw. After this, I cleaned up the top of the handle with a rasp and sandpaper. The final step was to secure the wooden wedge with steel wedges. Just like double-bit axes, steel wedges are very hard to find in Finland for some bizarre reason. Luckily, Mike sent me some from the US along with the axe head. I tapped two small wedges in at an angle and countersunk them just a bit. I would guesstimate that it took about 45 minutes to make and fit the three wood wedges and set the metal wedges (longer than it should have taken, but because I was dealing with a split rather than a sawn kerf for the first time, I had to keep improvising and reshaping the wedge to fit properly as I went along.).


In the next (and probably last) part, I will finish the handle to improve its appearance and water resistance. Then it’ll finally be ready for the woods! Hope you have been enjoying this series.


  1. Before I'd go to that much effort, I'd just have an American fellow ship a proper handle to me. But then, I AM getting rather worthless in my dotage.

  2. Good improv! Of course if you ever need a double bit handle I could send you one. It might take a bit to find one that has decent grain but they are actually rather plentiful around here (they just don't carry ANY small single bit handles that are worth anything).

  3. Thanks for the comments, GS and TWT (and thanks for the offer). The reason I used the pick handle, as opposed to having someone send me a hickory handle from the US, is that I wanted to use materials which will always be available to me here in Finland, i.e. birch. Even though it's not ideal for this axe, it IS what's available to me in my local environment, so it's what I will use. Yes, I bought this particular handle from a store, but it's still something that's available to me locally for free (once I start making handles from scratch). Alternatively, I may try European Mountain Ash for handles in the future.

    In any case, I've found a way to strengthen and harden the wood which solves any issues with the birch. :)


  4. Ah, wonderful! I completely understand. I was wondering though, how hard if birch to work with? We have a lot of river birch in my area (South-East Tennessee) but I have never used any and I wounder if it is as much of a pain as hickory. If it is easier to carve I may switch to it because, lets face it, hickory is like Osage Orange ... strong ... but a severe pain to work when cured. Also, is E.M. Ash what they commonly use here in the U.S. for handles, or is there another species. I can't seem to figure that one out.

  5. TWT,

    Birch is MUCH softer than hickory, so it's quicker to carve. Oftentimes, though, the changes in the wood grain make carving a maddening task, constantly trying to not rip the wood. Using a rasp eliminates this issue.

    I'm not familiar with river birch, but I imagine it should be somewhat similar. Harvest some and see how it works for you. As for switching to birch from hickory for axe handles, I personally wouldn't do it. I can see why so many think hickory is the superior axe handle wood. I love it (well, not carving it), but it doesn't grow here, of course. :( I only use birch because it is easily available here. It certainly does work, but being a softer wood, needs more frequent replacement. I personally wouldn't think the greater ease of fitting the handle to the head would be worth the disadvantages of the wood in use.

    European Mountain Ash is probably the second most common hardwood after birch here in Finland. I have no idea how well it would work for axe handles, but I may try it, because I know that ash was used historically in some European countries. I'll talk to some old-timers here first.

    Thanks for the comments. :)


  6. bmatt,

    Thanks for the tip! I will try a bit of river birch but I guess it's back to the hunt for decent handles.

    Thanks again!


  7. Ah the trusty Opinel Knife. mine has got me through a number of tricky situations when camping. I found this one the other day. not sure i'd ever want to use it though.