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Handle Repair Day:

Wood Handled Tool Maintenance and Repair

Years ago I mentioned that we had taken a day to clean up and repair all the wood handled tools in the shop, particularly hammers as blacksmith shops tend to have quite a few. But we also worked on garden tools and tools of other trades. I suggested that everyone should set aside one day a year to do the same. In some shops this may only take a few hours. In those shops with a lot of tools it may take several people all day or more. Time passed and I made the suggestion as the subject of handle replacement and repair came up. We have now set the last weekend of January or first weekend of February as anvilfire Handle Repair Day and put it on the calendar as a reminder to all. Spring time seemed the best as many of us are hobbyists or seasonal smiths.

Every workshop no matter what type has numerous wood handled tools. Even machine shops. These handles wear, get chipped or broken from abuse, age and weather. All of this results in unusable or unsafe tools. Like other tools and machines these simplest of tools, hammers, sledges, shovels, axes, fuller and flatters need maintenance occasionally. Inspecting and doing what is needed should be planned on an annual schedule OR as-needed.

We recommend inspecting at least once a year then repairing, sanding and re-varnishing all handles that need it. If you prefer oil finishes that is up to you. However, oil finishes require more maintenance and should be reserved only for your most used tools. Those that sit on shelves or hang on racks aging and weathering are best preserved with a good varnish. Many of my unused tools needed new varnish after sitting in a forge shop environment for 5 years.

Those of us that have significant collections of tools also need to paint the metal parts to prevent rust. Generally a tool like a hammer that stays in use will wear off most paint as well as rust or can be protected with a light coating of oil. But steel tools that are stored on racks for years at a time should be painted. Besides hammers this also include the hot-work tools in a blacksmith shop (tongs, fullers, drifts). You can paint the entire metal portion or paint all but the working surfaces. But the working surfaces should have a thin clear coat of lacquer or varnish as well. It will rapidly wear off in use (if and when the tool sees use).
Sandy and Becka
Our "crew" Sandy and Becka with 40 plus hammers, sledges and other handled tools after sanding, cleaning and painting. A full afternoon's job. Many of these still need working surfaces dressed but the rust has been slowed for now. Most of these had gone through handle tightening and replacement several years ago.

Inspection and Preparation:

Prior to the appointed day one should inspect the tools and purchase needed replacement handles as well as supplies such as sandpaper, varnish, tape and spray paint. A needed handle list requires type, size/weigh of the tool and dimensions of the eye. Handles can be obtained locally or from on-line tool and hardware suppliers. Purchase only the best. Your labor replacing handles is much more valuable than the little gained purchasing cheap ungraded flea market handles.

  • Spare and replacement handles.
  • Sand Paper
  • Varnish and or Linseed Oil
  • Glue (Elmer's Casein/Milk or Carpenters)
  • Electrical Tape
  • Hardwood scrap (old handle material) for wood wedges.
  • Wedge kits, hand made, purchased or recycled metal wedges.
  • Hack saw and new blade
  • Punch (1/4 to 1/2" - 7 to 13mm) to push out tight parts.
  • Vise-Grips or Channelock pliers.
  • Heavy Vise, anvil or sturdy bench.
  • Scraper, draw knife or spoke shave.
  • Half round rasp and coarse file.
Broken handles that need replacement are obvious. However, some that are merely cracked may be repaired instead of replaced. This can be a significant cost savings and is appropriate on light use hard to fit ball peen and planishing hammers. You will have to judge others.

Loose handles are harder to detect unless they are in regular use. A loose handle that is not damaged may be saved by re-wedging. Loose sledges are a serious safety hazard and should be closely inspected. Their straight parallel eyes make them more prone to slipping off.

Some classes of blacksmiths tools are allowed or suggested to have loose handles. These are punches, flatters and fullers. They are often loosely handled with recycled ill fitting handles. It is thought that by being loose they will transmit less shock to the worker if miss-struck.


To repair a loose handle you can occasionally just add a second metal wedge. But this is rare. In most cases you need to remove the metal wedge and loose pieces of wooden wedge. To remove the metal wedge some wood needs to be cleared around it and Vise-Grip pliers used to worry the wedge out. If the wooden wedge pieces are not glued in they may they fall out. At this point the handle may (should) pull out fairly easily.

Dress the shank of the handle so that it can go a little further into the tool. Saw the wedge slot a little deeper using a hacksaw. Make a replacement wedge from a piece of fine grained hardwood. Old handle works well for this. The wedge should be sufficiently long to stick out of the handle about an inch and a little thicker than the original.

While the handle is out of the tool dress the edges of the eye hole just enough to take sharp corners off. These are often sharp and scrape or cut the handle as it is installed.

Apply wood glue to the fit of the handle and insert firmly. Drive the handle as far as it will go using a wood mallet while supporting the hammer over a hole in a swage block or gap in a vise. Apply glue to the wooden wedge and drive it in. If it splits and spreads use more small pieces of wedge to finish the job. If there are gaps in the handle fill them with wedge as well. The handle should be tight with the wood wedges alone.

When the glue has dried use a hack saw to cut off any extra handle to within about 1/16 to 1/32". Drive in the metal wedge perpendicular to the axis of the wooden wedge. Grind or sand the remaining handle flush to the end of the tool. Apply some linseed oil to the wood in the eye.

Nicks and Cuts: Handles often get nicked by glancing past a nail head or punch shank. These nicks can weaken a handle to where it may fail or in the least leave splinters that could cause harm. Sand them out and inspect again. Splintery cracks can be glued prior to sanding so that less material is removed. I often tape these areas after varnishing to reinforce and cover possible splinters.

Removing tight handles for replacement can be difficult if you've never done it. The first step is to saw the handle off nearly flush to the tool. A hack saw works best for this. Then while supporting the tool over an appropriately shaped hole drive the remaining handle out from the bottom through the top. Often this requires using a punch to drive out bits and pieces at a time. Try a flat ended punch that just fits if you have one. If not, start at the center and try to drive out the metal wedge. Try not to damage the wedge too much as you may want to reuse it. Sawing off the handle often lets you recycle it.

Fitting NEW handles requires patience (and a little practice). Most replacement handles will not be a perfect fit and are often not even close. Using a scraper or knife edge, or a rasp reduce the handle end to fit the eye. Then make a section a little thicker than the tool that is this same size. At the end of this there should be a gradual taper that can be forced into the eye later. Look at the shape of new handles and copy it to the size needed. If you use a rasp be sure to leave enough material to scrape or sand the wood to a smooth fit.

If you have had to extend the fit of the handle saw the wedge slot to about the depth where the handle is expected to stop when driven in. You want the slot close to the bottom of the tool but no further. This is a guessing game as you only have one chance to drive the handle on. There is no removing it for a refit unless it is way to large. I often test the handle to about half way, remove then trim if necessary.

While the handle is removed inspect the bottom of the eye. These often have sharp edges than need to be removed. I often use a Dremel tool to lightly grind a very slight taper and a chamfer on the hole. This will help the handle seat and reduce cutting where it seats. This is also a good time to dress the tool in general as it is easier to handle on a belt sander.

To reassemble follow the instructions above for refitting loose handles. Apply glue, drive the handle in firmly as far as it can go. Saw off extra if it extends more than 1/2" (13mm). Apply glue, drive in the wooden wedge. Trim and drive in the metal wedge(s).


Hammer Wedges
Wedges from

There are proprietary steel ring wedge systems on the market that as supposed to be much better than plain wedges. I suspect they work quite well but have never used them myself.

I almost never use the wooden wedge that come with handles as they tend to be too soft and splintery. I make my own from fine dense hardwoods like walnut or maple. These can be sawed out of an old piece of handle using a hack saw or on a band saw. The grain must align well with the length of the wedge. Sand the sides if they are not smooth.

When replacing a number of handles I recycle old metal wedges as well as forging my own. When I hand forge wedges I cut small teeth out of the corners so they cannot back out of the wood. Between these and using glue the handle will be very permanent.

About Taped Handles

It is common to find old hammers with friction tape (rubber filled cloth) either on a chipped or cracked neck or handle. Crisscross patterns on the handle were also common. These are poor repairs and bad practice and are often covering unrepaired breaks in the handle.

Remove old tape. Clean the wood of tape residue. This may require using solvent.

Look for cracks and nicks. Flexing the handle helps open hard to see cracks. Make repairs as stated above and varnish.

If the neck of the handle has been nicked or cracked it should be protected by a few wraps of plastic electrical tape. This will protect from further nicking and if a slender handle such as a ball peen or chaser hammer it can protect the user in the event the handle cracks again. The grip of the handle should be left bare, oiled or varnished as preferred by the user.

Fitting the Handle to the User

I am an oval handled tool user. Over the years I've used almost nothing but commercial oval handles as they came on tools. It is what I grew up with and I am used to.

However, many smiths shape handles to fit as they like. Some prefer rectangular, some flattened with round edges, others semi half round. The old time smiths method of trimming the handle is to char the surface in the forge fire then scrape with a knife or scraper to remove the char and wood as necessary. The char scrapes very easily and may be repeated as necessary.

Some smiths like a long handle, others short. I prefer a medium length with a swell at the end so that I know I am close to the end. These are preference you will need to explore over time. Some posts on the subject follow:

Handles: Good idea, I think I'll join you on "Handle Holiday". There should probably be some kind of appropriate music and a parade for this as well huh?

As we're talking about handles, I was curious, do you varnish the grip area of your hammer handles as well? I find that if there is any kind of finish on the grip of my hammers I will get a terrible blister on the bottom edge of my hand that will quickly turn to a thick callous that itches like crazy! Now I have a scar there from repeated callousing but, the skin will still split sometimes after an all weekend session. I have kind of thick hands and find also that I have to "adjust" the factory handles and replacement handles on my hammers.

The first thing a smithing mentor of mine told me was that when I hold a hammer in my hand the two middle fingers should comfortably come around the grip area and touch the base of the thumb when the handle fits right. So when ever I get a new hammer or handle the first thing I do is take it to the belt sander to fit it to my hand. I always take the majority of material off the thickness (side to side) rather than the front and back, although if the grip has any swell in the back it has to go first or it aggravates my carpel tunnel. When I'm left with the bare wood grip I just rub in some coal dust, or fine gravel dust if it's around, on it as I'm working.

I tried a hammer with some deep hand carved checkering on the grip but, I found it really tore at the skin after a short time.

I was also going to mention I made a special "ergonomic" replacement handle for my friend who is a silver smith. It seems he likes to sit at his bigger anvil sometimes for close up work that is just about high chest level for him. If he uses a standard handle he finds he must hold his arm up at a 90° angle for a long period of time, usually until it is almost falling asleep.

To allow him to keep his arm at a lower angle and tucked into his side as he wants, I forged a piece of bar stock to fit the eye of the hammer and then single pointed threads on either side to allow a "clinching washer" and 3/4-16 nuts on top and bottom to hold the head in place. Then I bored the handle out hollow and turned a 4 pitch right and left thread at the grip to act as a knurled. Then we heat and bend at the upper 1/3, were the shaft is still solid, to about a 30 degree. angle.

To finish it off he dipped the grip in vinyl tool dip until it was thick enough for his likening and called it done. He says it works good except he's going to try putting some wooden slab grips on it as the "tool grip" feels like it is starting to slip.

As its been said many times before, the only thing traditional about a smith is the constant innovation used to get the job done.

- Merl - Monday, 01/26/09 23:10:30 EST

I too reshape all my hammer handles. I also use beeswax to increase the stickiness of the handles as this reduces grip requirements. Reduced my tennis elbow issues, and allows me to grip with the thumb and little and ring finger as the first two finger are damaged.

ptree - Tuesday, 01/27/09 07:36:05 EST

Hammer handle day cartoon

Hammer Handle Cartoon
Inspired by our Hammer Handle Repair Day.

By The Great Nippulini and Jock Dempsey

References and Links

2009 - 2010 Jock Dempsey,

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