Introduction: How to Turn Tool Handles
Words and photos: Richard Raffan
Tool handles are all turned in much the same way, regardless of length. These examples, made of well seasoned horizontal scrub, are for woodcarving gouges. Many handles do not require a ferrule to prevent the tool splitting out of the handle under pressure, but such handles seem to miss an essential element visually, so you might as well fit one on aesthetic grounds. And if a handle does start to split, a ferrule will hold it together, possibly for decades, certainly years. Ferrules can be purchased, but it’s easy to make your own from short lengths of brass or copper tube. Plumbing off-cuts are ideal and short lengths shouldn’t be too hard to find.
You can hold the tube in a vice and cut lengths of 20mm to 25mm using a hacksaw, but I prefer to use a bandsaw, holding the tube in a carrier to prevent it rolling into the blade (photo 2).
Step 1: Ferrule Finetuning
Rough ferrules can then be mounted in a chuck, here in some long-nose jaws (photo 1), and turned using a HSS (high speed steel) skew chisel or scraper with the lathe running at about 1200rpm. I true each end much as I would a wood blank, starting with the skew chisel long point.
Then to round the rim and chamfer the inner lip, I use the bevel side (photo 2) easing the tool slowly but firmly against the metal. The inside needs to be chamfered so it doesn’t catch on the endgrain. Most handles are in the 30–40mm diameter range. The exact diameter should depend partly on the size and purpose of the tool, and then on the size of the hand which will use it. I like mine around 38mm. Commercial turning handles are typically 35mm–40mm and carving chisels 35mm.
Mount the blank between centres and true it to a cylinder, and true the ends. Then mark the length of the ferrule from the end of the blank (photo 2), using a pencil or skew chisel long point as shown here.
Step 2: Tenon Turning
Set calipers to the internal diameter of the ferrule and turn a tenon using a beading and parting tool or small skew chisel flat on the rest for a peeling cut (photo 1).
This is best done in two stages. First cut a slight taper so the ferrule just fits over the end (photo 2)...
...then turn the remainder of the tenon to the diameter of the burnish mark using the peeling cut (photo 3).
Before fitting the ferrule, use the long nose of the skew chisel into the corner, cutting across the fibres so if they are pushed up when you drive on the ferrule they will break away rather than build up against the bulk of the handle (photo 4).
Remove the handle from the lathe and drive on the ferrule, using another ferrule if the tenon is longer than the ferrule you’re fitting (photo 5).
Now, as in photo 6, turn...
...sand (photo 7) and finish the handle in preparation for drilling the hole to accept the tang.
Trim away any wood proud of the ferrule (photo 8). Many modern turning tools have a cylindrical or rectangular tang, whereas most other tools have a tapered tang. Cylindrical tangs are glued into a hole drilled using a similar diameter drill. For a straight tang that is rectangular or square in cross-section, use a drill slightly less than the maximum diagonal of the cross-section so the corners of the tang will bite into the side of cylindrical hole. Holes for tapered tangs should be stepped so the pointy end is supported and kept centered as it is knocked in.
Step 3: Drilling for the Tang
Drilling can be done on the lathe. For a small handle like this, mount the drill in a Jacob’s chuck in the tail-centre and, with the lathe off, seat the drill tip in the cone left by the tail-centre.
Mark the depth to which you want to drill with masking tape on the drill bit, then hold the handle as you wind in the tail-centre to drill the hole (photo 1).
An alternative and better method for longer handles is to mount the drill in the headstock and reverse the handle, using the cone left by the drive centre to centre the handle at the tailstock end. Then, again, hold the handle as you wind in the tail-centre (photo 2).
Finally, grip the handle by the ferrule using some long-nose jaws and tail-centre support, and turn the end of the handle (photo 3). Carving tool handles like these should have domed ends which are less likely to split under the mallet. To fit the blade into the handle push the two together, then grasp the handle firmly and strike its end sharply with a mallet. You do not need to have the tool edge against anything. A few blows with the mallet should snug the tang shoulder up to the ferrule.
Richard Raffan is a Canberra based woodturner and author. Learn more about him here.