I bought a few vintage chisels at an antique store not long ago. They were cheap because the handles were damaged or missing. The original handles were turned on a lathe, but I don’t have a lathe. I decided to make my own replacement handles with just a few simple carving tools. Here is the process.
Choose a chunk of straight-grained hardwood.
This bit of pecan is about 9” long and trapezoid in cross-section, but about 1¼” square at its thinnest. There is a slight curve to the grain, but I think I can curve it right into the socket without compromising the integrity of the handle. The blue-gray color is due to a fungus that attacked the wood while it was still in the tree. It affects the color of the wood, but not the strength, so I decided it would be appropriate for a tool handle.
Use the socket of the chisel to draw a circle at the center of the handle blank.
Then use your preferred heavy-stock-removal technique to pare down to that circle. I like a drawknife.
Here’s the way I do it: cut the corners of your blank to make a square, and then cut the corners again to make an octagon. You can keep cutting those eight faces until you get down to the line. Then cut all sixteen corners, and you’ll be close enough to a circle. I’m down to using a spokeshave at this point. [Edit to add: on later chisel handles, I’ve split out the blank, then planed the whole blank down to a square cross-section. Then I plane down the corners to form an octagon, following the circle on the end of the blank. I think it results in neater work.]
Get it as close to circular as you can, and then use a center-head to find the center.
Put a stick down the chisel’s socket and mark the approximate depth. Transfer the depth to the handle, and then add a second line about ¼” above that first depth line. You’ll start paring the cylinder down to a cone from the second line. (Otherwise, your cone will be too fat and shallow to fit into the socket.)
I stick with the drawknife here, but take smaller bites. Pare down to the center point to make a cone. Try the socket occasionally to see how your angles are. There’s no really precise way to measure here, so it’s a lot of trial and error.
Once you have the angle of the cone approximately right, or once you’re no longer comfortable working with a drawknife or spokeshave, use a rasp or file to continue to reduce the cone.
Here’s how: make a stop by putting a scrap board in the vise. With your left hand (if you’re a righty), hold the workpiece against the stop and rotate it toward you. At the same time, hold a file or rasp in your right hand and push it. It can be a tricky technique to master, but the combined motion will keep the piece nicely rounded. It’s best to put a mark on the workpiece so you know when you’ve made one complete revolution. Keep checking for fit every couple of turns.
Here’s where an old socket helps.
It’s full of greasy grime that comes off on the handle when you stick it in. That grime shows you any high spots on the handle. I imagine that coating the inside with pencil lead or lampblack would work too.
By the way, not all sockets are perfectly conical inside, so you may have to modify your cone to fit an irregular socket. Remember, the wood will compress when you start pounding on it, so there’s no need for the wood to make contact with the socket everywhere. But it does need to make contact all the way around. The inside edge of the socket should not dig into the handle when you push the handle in.
Once you’re satisfied that the handle fits, turn the handle around and start shaping it. You can use a drawknife, spokeshave, block plane, or any combination thereof. [Edit to add: Again, this step is unnecessary if you have planed the whole blank to an octagonal shape to begin with.]
Use the same method you used to shape the first end: square the stock, and then take off the corners to make the octagon. You can either leave the handle octagonical or take off the sixteen corners and make the handle round. I left mine as an octagon, but relieved the edges with a card scraper.
Now I could just chamfer the top of the handle and be done. But since this is a socket chisel, I’d like to be able to safely whack it with a mallet, so I’m going to add a hoop.
I’m used a section of an old ¾” iron pipe that I usually use as a cheater bar. (My father-in-law calls it a “torque enhancer.”)
I use a strip of masking tape to mark for my cut. I won’t miss that ¼” on the cheater bar, right? Anyway, before cutting the hoop off, use a file to smooth off any burrs on the end. It’s a LOT easier to smooth it while it’s still attached to the pipe. The end you smooth will go up. The cut end won’t need to be smoothed since it will seat onto the chisel handle, and any burrs may help keep the hoop on. [Edit to add: It didn’t really work that way, but it was a nice thought.] Cut the hoop off with a hacksaw.
Use the hoop to mark the inside diameter on the end of the handle. Then mark a line around the handle slightly deeper than the hoop. You want the wood to protrude above the hoop a little, so that it will mushroom over the hoop and keep it on. Saw your line around the handle, to approximately the right depth. (You’ve probably noticed that everything is approximate in this project.) I split off most of the waste with a chisel.
To pare down to the line, stick a rabbet plane upside-down in a vise and spin the handle until the hoop will fit snuggly. Don’t pare off too much. You want the hoop to compress the wood a little when seated. [Edit to add: A mill file would also work if used carefully.]
Now, BEFORE you seat the hoop, do your final scraping or sanding on the handle. I used a couple of card scrapers to smooth everything down.
Now the time has come.
Put the chisel in the vise, and put the handle into the socket. Use a small hammer to seat the hoop. Don’t just tap. You’re both seating the hoop and driving the handle into the socket, so give it a few god raps. If the handle survives that, it will probably survive anything you’ll do to it with a mallet. As you rap with the hammer, try to get the wood slightly mushroomed over on the hoop to keep it on.
And it’s done.
I’m leaving this handle unfinished, though I have used Danish oil on other chisel handles. Just don’t use anything that will make them too slippery.
Only here did I sharpen the chisel.
It pares pine end-grain pretty well. I’m happy!
Here is picture of two other chisel handles I made some time after, also from pecan:
The one on the left is a socket chisel, but the one on the right is a tang chisel, which is significantly easier to make.
[Edit to add: Seven years later, the chisel is still in regular use at my workbench. The handle is comfortable and durable, though in retrospect there was no need to install a hoop, as I never hit it with a mallet. A chisel this long is a dedicated paring chisel–and the pecan is very resistant to splitting anyway. But there’s nothing wrong with an over-built tool, and I’m happy with my work seven years later.]