How to Replace an Ax Handle

This is a Forest Service technical bulletin it is the best article I have seen on how to replace a ax handle.  In a real emergency knowing how to replace tool handles can be the difference between success and failure.  This is a bit different that what I have done in the past, however I think it is better than my method.


Tools for Rehandling

Photo of a man wtih an ax in the vise.

About Rehandling

Wood handles are common to most trail tools and are the most common type of replacement handle. Hickory makes the best handles for impact tools because it combines hardness and stiffness with excellent resiliency. For bent handles or simple handholds, ash is usually used.

When choosing tool handles, remember that straight grains offer maximum flexibility and strength. If possible, the grain should also be tight and knot-free, and it should run parallel to the wedge slot. Avoid coated handles. Painting or staining can hide flaws in materials or construction.

Image shows that a good ax handle has wood grain that runs parallel to the wedge slot.
Diagram of the wedge slot and
end grain of ax handles.

Fastening Wedges

The best wedges for securing tool heads are hardwood or plastic. Traditionalists swear that wooden wedges are best, but many new tools are equipped with plastic wedges. Avoid metal wedges for fastening heads to handles; these crush and weaken handle wood and make broken handles difficult to remove by drilling.

Sometimes a handle may need only a new wedge because the handle was not broken but loosened. In this case, carefully drill out the old wedge; remove the handle; clean the slot; and replace the handle on the head.

Image of a plastic wedge used for securing tool heads.
Plastic wedges used for securing tool heads.
Wooden wedges are the choice of traditionalists.

Rehandling Procedures

Regularly inspect all tool handles and replace any cracked, rough, or badly weathered handles as soon as possible. When a tool needs a new handle, follow this step-by-step procedure. We have selected ax handles as the example for this discussion, but the technique is adaptable to other trail tools:

  • Clear the eye of the tool. To remove worn or broken handles from the eye of a tool, place it upright in a vise and drill several holes into the wood from the top. These holes relieve pressure on the wood inside the eye so it can be driven out with a hammer and punch. If heads are epoxy-bonded to handles, soak the head in boiling water to soften the bond.
  • Size up the tool and match an appropriate handle to the head. All handles will need some reshaping by hand to fit the head. Be sure that the top of the handle will fill the eye of the tool in both length and width.
  • Saw the handle to an approximately correct length. If the handle was not factory sawed to accept a wedge, remove the head, secure the handle, and carefully saw down about two-thirds the depth of the head.
  • Inscribe two perpendicular centering lines across the length and width of the handle end inside the eye. You will use them as a guide/check for centering the handle in the eye later. Make an additional mark below the head and just above where the handle broadens to denote the final seat for the head.
  • Slowly remove excess material from the handle using a spoke shave, wood rasp, or grinder.
  • Fit the eye of the tool to the handle. Light tapping on the tool head will allow repeated removal of the handle without damaging the wedge slot. Continue shaving and fitting until the head rests squarely 1/4 to 3/8 inch above the final seating mark. Make sure that the head is straight on the handle.
  • With tool head aligned perpendicular with the handle, draw a line across both sides of the handle at the final seating mark. Saw a shallow cut along these lines to create a square shoulder. Fit the tool head to rest lightly on this shoulder.
  • With rasp and sandpaper, uniformly backslope the handle from the perimeter of the handle to where the head finally seats. Carefully smoothing the handle just below the head prevents splintering.
  • Use a long tapered wedge that extends the full width of the slot to attach the head to the handle. Drive the wedge into the slot, and tap alternately on the wedge and the end of the handle until the striking tool bounces off each with equal force. Use epoxy to fill remaining voids between the handle and the eye and seal out moisture.
  • After the epoxy sets, trim excess wood flush with the top of the head. A hacksaw works best here because the blade will not be dulled by the metal, and because the saw blade can be turned 90° on the frame.
  • Remove any varnish or paint from the handle. A light coating of raw linseed oil regularly applied will protect against drying and cracking. Some woods workers recommend drilling short holes in the base of the handle and periodically filling them with linseed oil. The oil penetrates the entire handle through natural pores in the wood.
  • A loose handle can be temporarily tightened in the field by soaking the head in water or linseed oil. The wood in the head swells to accommodate the fluid and fits tighter in the eye. Make permanent repairs as soon as possible.
  • Handles may also be shaved to fit individual grips more comfortably to reduce impact shock and hand and arm cramps. When shaving handles, proceed slowly and carefully; it is better to remove too little wood and have to trim again than to remove too much and have a weak or unusable handle.

Photo of an ax with the handle protuding through the head.
A–Size up the tool head and match it to the handle.
Note that the handle protrudes excessively
long through the head. Scribe it to be cut off.

Photo of an ax with the handle being the correct length.
B–Saw the handle to about the correct length.
The handle has been roughly fitted so the
head slides to within about 1/2 inch
of the final seating position.

Photo showing a lind scribed below the rough fitted handle to denote the final shoulder where the head sits.
C–A line has been scribed below the roughly-fitted handle.
The line denotes the final shoulder upon which the head sets.

Photo of an ax that has 1/8 inch excess handle above the head.
D–The tool head has been snug-fitted to the square
seating shoulder. Note that there is about 1/2 inch
excess handle above the head.

Photo of an ax with a wedge started in kerf.
E–All surfaces just below the handle should be sanded
smooth before the head is placed to insert the wedge.
The wedge has been started in kerf.

Photo shows the alternated driving of the wedge and the end of the tool handle.
F–The wedge has been driven home with the alternate
driving of the wedge and the end of the tool handle.

Photo shows a hacksaw being used to cut off excess handle.
G–Use a hacksaw to trim off the excess handle and wedge
flush with the tool head. Turn the saw blade 90° on the
frame to facilitate the flush cut.

Photo shows a finished mounted wedge on a handle.
H–The finished mounted tool. The handle can be finish-sanded
and oiled with raw linseed oil to protect against moisture.


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