As an archaeologist, I use a trowel a LOT. A few years back, my dad made me a custom trowel with a stag horn handle. I absolutely love that trowel and in the years since, I've made a few others. I get a lot of compliments on these and people often ask me how I made them. The techniques I use here could be used for all sorts of things, including knives, silverware, and BBQ tools. If anyone has suggestions, I'd love to hear them, as I'm sure I'll be making more of these in the future.
I didn't know about Instructables when I made these, so I don't have any in-progress photos. I've tried to recreate the process using Sketchup, but the images aren't that great. However, I hope the combination of images and text help explain everything. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask.
As far as necessary materials and tools, I started with a Marshalltown trowel (the only kind archaeologists use), a section of antler, a drill, a Dremel, a hammer, and some epoxy. Now let's kick this mule!
Step 1: The Virgin Trowel
Let's start with your standard Marshalltown trowel; pointer, edger, whatever.
MAKE SURE YOU GET ONE WITH A WOODEN HANDLE!!! Some Marshalltown trowels now come with a rubber handle. I don't know how to get that off. However, if you have one with a wooden handle, I have a fairly elegant method. Place the wooden handle on something hard and solid, such as an anvil, truck bumper, or slab of concrete. Now take a hammer and smash the wooden handle repeatedly until it falls apart.
Once the wooden handle is gone, you'll see that the trowel's blade and tang are one solid piece. What is more, the tang had gone the entire length of the handle. You'll be able to easily remove the steel ferrule that had capped the front of the original handle. Set that aside for the time being.
Step 2: Preparing the Antler Handle
Next, you're going to find a section of antler that is long enough and straight enough to cover the trowel's tang. For most of mine, I found antlers out in the woods. For the last one I did, however, I used a section of elk antler that was sold as a dog chew toy in a pet supply shop.
At least one of the ends of your antler will be sawed, perpendicular to the axis of your new handle. The other end can be sawed off also. On a couple trowels, I had antler bases, with the "crown" still in place. I think these look really cool and prefer to use them when I can.
Before you cut your antler to length, lay it next to your tang so you get a good feel for how long it should be. Ideally, you'll only want about 1/2" of tang exposed before it drops down to meet the blade. You're not going to want the tang to go all the way down your antler and out the far end, so figure in an extra 1/2" of antler length.
Okay, once your antler is cut to length, measure the diameter of your trowel's tang. Now find a drill bit that is slightly larger in diameter. I would recommend about 1/16" over. So, for example, if your tang is 1/4" in diameter, I would use a 5/16" drill bit. Mount the bit in your drill so that the length of bit exposed equals the length of tang you want buried in the new handle.
Antler cores are very easy to drill. It's not going to take a lot of time or effort. Go slow and make sure you're drilling straight down through the antler. Even a small error in alignment can cause your hole to come shooting out one side of the handle. If you have to back up a little and straighten the hole out, that's okay. It's actually beneficial, for reasons I'll explain later. Keep drilling slowly until all of the exposed drill bit fits into the antler.
This will produce a lot of antler dust, which smells pretty bad. I would recommend doing it outside. Another bit of free advice that I learned the hard way: do not lean in close and blow down into the hole, lest you get a mouthful of antler dust. It's much better to turn the antler upside down and tap it gently on a solid surface.
Step 3: Giving Your Tang Some Hang
This is an important step. Take a file or Dremel tool and grind some angled cuts into the length of your tang. I do six notches, offset in the pattern shown here. I left the little grinding wheels in the picture to emphasize position and angle. When you're done, there won't actually be grinding wheels jutting from the tang. The reason for these grooves is to hold the tang in place when glued there. Like barbs on a fish hook, these make it harder for the tang to "back out" of the new handle. This is also why the hold drilled in the antler doesn't need to be perfectly smooth. The more abnormality, the better, AS LONG AS it doesn't sacrifice strength. This is why I offset the notches in the tang. If they lined up on both sides of the tang, it would unnecessarily weaken the metal.
At this point, you need to decide whether you want to retain the steel ferrule for the front of the handle. I tried it once and wasn't all that happy with the results, personally. If you DO want the ferrule, you need to taper the front end of the handle so that it will slip into the ferrule. Then, before the next step, slide the ferrule onto the tang and leave it dangling there. If you don't want to keep the ferrule, throw it into your neighbor's yard.
Step 4: Attaching the New Handle
Next, get some high-strength epoxy. I've only used J-B Weld's KwikWeld, which works very well. I would assume that many other miracle-bond type epoxies would work. None that I've found, however, advertise steel-to-antler success.
I'm pretty liberal with the glue. I squirt it down into the handle until I think the cavity is about half full. Then I run a couple beads of epoxy down the tang. Oh yeah, I wear latex gloves during this part. When you insert the tang into the new handle, it will force excess epoxy out the hole. Wipe this away with a paper towel or let it fall onto your kitchen floor. I usually "pump" the handle in and out a few times, making sure the epoxy gets into all the little nooks and crevices. Then push the tang all the way into the handle and twist the handle this way and that. Experiment with different positions, assuming your antler isn't perfectly straight and round. Once you get the handle exactly where you want it, prop the whole thing up on a counter or somewhere it won't get bumped. Leave it here for 48 hours, no matter what it says on the epoxy packaging. Don't give it a little twist after a couple hours or even a whole day. JUST LEAVE IT ALONE!!!
Step 5: Finish the Front of the Handle
48 hours later...
If you want, you can leave the front of the handle the way it is, all right angles and whatnot. There are at least three other options, however.
1) If you put the ferrule back on the trowel, spread a thin layer of epoxy on the tapered end of the antler handle. Put the ferrule in place, atop the fresh epoxy. Prop the trowel in place and leave it for 24 hours.
2) You can also just taper the end of the antler down to make it less angular and aesthetically jarring. I'll worn you that antlers aren't like pencils. If you try to sharpen it down to the point where it gradually meets the tang (like in the image), you'll get down into the soft, pithy inside, which is potentially brittle and definitely ugly. If you go the "just taper" route, you're going to want to just round off the edges a little.
3) The third option, which I prefer, is to create a cone-shaped filler of epoxy that fills the gap between the end of the antler and a point on the tang about 1/2" farther toward the trowel tip. I don't really know how to describe this. Just kind of squirt some epoxy around the seam where the tang emerges from the handle. Sort of like caulking a bathtub surround. Once you've got a bead running around the tang, gingerly use a gloved finger to smooth it and make it more uniform. It doesn't have to be perfect; you can sand it a bit after it dries ... IN 24 HOURS!!!
Step 6: Finish the Back of the Handle
Almost done here. In fact, you may be done! If you're tickled pink with the new handle, you might as well leave it alone, at least for now. You can always go back and get fancier. There are a million options for spicing up the butt end of your trowel. If you look at the photograph of two trowels, you'll see that the one on the right has an antler handle that I made. I work in the Mimbres region of southwest New Mexico. I went on Ebay and ordered a miniature Mimbres bowl cast of pewter. It was actually a necklace pendant, but I filed the little loop off. With a Dremel, I made the antler crown concave enough to accept the tiny bowl. Then I just epoxied it in place. You can also use coins, polished rocks, "challenge coins", "geocache coins", or whatever. I'm considering a steel spike for my next one that could be used to break free caliche or fend off zombies.
Thanks for checking this out. I'd LOVE to see pictures of different applications.