Getting a handle on things

Once the steel is ready, we need to put a proper handle on our chisel.  While you could make the profile from most anything, only a few domestic woods are really suitable for a bench chisel.  I specify bench chisel because some of the weak but showy woods could be okay for a paring chisel that won’t be hit with a mallet.  But for a bench chisel that will be hit with a mallet, you have to get something tough.  Hickory, and white oak are the most easily obtainable, but I’ve had good success with scarcer woods like persimmon, osage orange, and hornbeam.  For this particular build, I’ll use a hickory billet I split out of a log months ago.  It’s roughly 1 ½” square and 6″ long.


I have two sizes of handle I typically make, both based on a classic Marples profile.  The watershed is at about ¾”.  This keeps the smaller chisels balanced, while providing the larger ones with a little more strength for the pounding they can take.  In any case, we need to start with the most critical aspect first: the interface between the steel and the wood.  If you were able to get the old handle stub out whole, then you can measure directly off of it.  If, on the other hand, you had to take it out in pieces like this one, you will have to measure the inside of the socket.  It can be tricky to do (especially on the smaller chisels), and you’ll need a set of inside calipers to measure the narrow end; dial calipers won’t reach.


Using a sizing tool, cut down to just more than the size you need on both ends.  Then you cut a bevel that connects those two points.  At the very end, I like using a wide scraper because it helps prevent cutting a non-uniform bevel.  At this point, you need to cut and try, cut and try.  A live center is critical here.  Dead centers chew up the end of the bevel too much.  When you rub the socket on the bevel you’re cutting, you’ll see the high spots that are preventing the proper fit.  Cut those back.


Once you get your bevel almost up to the shoulder where the steel and handle will mate, you’ll need to undercut the back of the bevel a little bit so you don’t bind on the interior corner.  Only a smidge is enough.  You’ll probably also have to cut most of the front of your handle to give your tools clearance to work up near the shoulder.  The fit you’re looking for is when you have a little bit of room (wobble free!) between the shoulder and the end of the socket.  When we seat the handle later, that will compress a bit, and if you don’t leave a little room for it to take up, you will splinter off the end of the shoulder.  This one is right where we want it.


Once the steel fits the wood, finish up the rest of the shaping.  Here, you can see the target diameters have been cut in, and now I’m connecting them with a gentle arc.


A quick truing with a skew chisel’s planing cut, and a little sanding are about all that are left once the shaping is done with the gouge.  I rag on some oil and buff in some wax while the handle is still on the lathe.  Rather than part the handle off the lathe, I just stick it in the bench vise and saw the drive stub off, then pare it smooth.  A little more wax, and I’ll call it done.  And now we have a functional tool that, with a little more care this time, will last for years to come.