There’s something especially satisfying about making or modifying your own tools, but it’s even more fun to do so while helping one of your kids build her tool collection.
This 1 1/4″-wide Buck Bros. chisel was given to my oldest daughter a year ago. The handle it came with is obviously a replacement, so I’ll be giving this chisel its third handle–at least. While not poorly made, the handle it came with was much too thick for my daughter’s hands (or my own hands, for that matter). Also, if you look carefully, you can see that the handle is not straight but is canted to the left a little bit.
Fortunately, with a little care and the right materials, tang chisel handles are relatively easy to replace.
The first step is to remove the old handle.
First I sawed the end off the chisel with a hacksaw. Normally I use a regular handsaw to saw wood, but I didn’t know exactly how long the tang was, and I didn’t want to risk hitting the tang with my good saw. As it turned out, I estimated correctly. But I’m glad I was cautious anyway.
After sawing off the top, I split away as much of the old wood as I could with an old chisel I keep around for use when I might hit metal. With some of the wood split away, it was easy to pull the remains of the old handle (ferrule and all) off the chisel.
The next step is to select an appropriate piece of wood for a new handle. There are many good choices of wood species, but in my opinion, the best handle woods are very hard and difficult to split. Domestic woods such as hickory, hard maple, elm, and pecan are especially good choices. I have lots of dry pecan wood on hand, so that’s what I used. I began with a straight-grained blank that was about 1 1/8″ square and about 4″ long.
Using a hand plane, I tapered it slightly on all sides, but I left it significantly oversized in thickness. It might seem like it would be better to shape the handle completely before installing it, but are two good reasons not to. First, it will actually be easier to shape the handle after it’s installed because I will be able to grip the chisel’s blade in the vise which I shape the handle. Second, and more importantly, the tangs of these old chisels are not precisely machined. They are often a little crooked or otherwise irregular in shape, so a dead-straight handle may still go on crooked in the end. (See below.)
A traditional part of some tang chisels is a leather washer that is compressed between the handle and the bolster (that’s the swelling just above the tang that supports the handle). The leather washer acts as a shock-absorber when the handle is struck, and it also provides just a little wiggle room when we install the handle.
From a little scrap of leather, I cut a small square. I used a leather punch I had lying around to punch a hole in the middle, but it would have been just as easy to use scissors.
After pressing the washer onto the tang, I used scissors to trim it to the width of the bolster.
Now, with the handle blank roughly dimensioned, it’s time to drill the hole for the tang. I might more precisely call it a series of holes because, as you can see, the tang is not straight but tapered. We will use several size drill bits to make a stepped hole. In the end we will literally be driving a square peg into a round hole, which if done correctly will create enough friction to keep the handle on permanently.
I began with a drill bit that is the same dimension as the very top of the tang. I held the handle upright in a vise and just eyeballed a straight hole with my handheld electric drill. After drilling down about 1/2″ into the handle with it, I stopped and switched to another, smaller bit.
I suppose I could have done this more precisely on the drill press, but that really wasn’t necessary. If the hole ends up being not quite straight, that’s okay. The handle blank is oversized, and we can correct for a wayward hole as we shape the handle.
The ideal situation is to be able to press the handle on with just hand pressure until it is about 3/8″ or 1/4″ from being fully seated. This tang is a little longer than my smallest drill bits, however, so I ended up using a small pipe reamer to open up the hole. I also used a chisel to square up the very top of the hole in order to fit the tang more precisely.
At this stage–before seating the handle completely–take a careful look at the handle in relation to the blade. If the handle seems to lean one direction or another, rotate it on the tang until you get the best alignment.
With a chisel, it’s always good for the handle to be canted up slightly toward the bevel-side of the blade, so err in that direction if possible. Remember what I said about not worrying about a perfectly straight hole? This is why. You can actually use a misaligned hole to your advantage.
Now stand that chisel up in the vise and give the handle a couple smart whacks with your mallet. If you’ve done your work right, the handle will go on tight without cracking.
Even with your best efforts at alignment, the handle will probably be skewed slightly in one direction or the other. In the above picture, you can see that the handle shows just a little twist in relation to the blade, probably due either to a twist in the tang or in the handle hole. But it doesn’t really matter. We’ve planned for this.
Now comes the fun part–in my opinion, anyway. Stand the handle up in a vise, and use a spokeshave (or a rasp and file) to shape the handle however you want. I like an octagonal handle that swells a little at the end, which is a traditional shape for chisel handles that aren’t turned.
After squaring up the handle by eye and tapering it down toward the bolster, I sketched an octagon on the end and used the spokeshave to shave down to my lines.
At this point, it’s important to trust your hand even more than your eyes. While a visually pleasing handle is a bonus, it’s not your eyes that will be using this handle. It’s your hands. So if it’s comfortable to hold, that’s all that matters.
With the facets cut on the handle, I turned to relieving the sharp edges on the end, which is one of the most crucial parts of the shaping process. In use, the heel of your hand will often be pressing on the end of the chisel handle, so it’s imperative that the handle not cut into your palm. I used a spokeshave to cut generous chamfers all around the top of the handle, but a rasp and file would work just as well.
When is the shaping work finished? When your hand says it is.
After the spokeshave work, I went over each facet with a card scraper to remove any tearout. I also used the scraper to break all the sharp edges. I find that the facets help a lot with gripping the chisel in use, but sharp edges are still uncomfortable, so a balance between facets and rounded corners is best.
A light sanding and an application of paste wax complete the project. Now I can sharpen the chisel and put it to work.
My daughter had tang chisels in two sizes, both of which needed handles. So now she has a pair of useful chisels. These vintage chisels take a wicked-sharp edge. With care, they should serve her well for the rest of her life.