Make a Pick Handle From Scrap Hardwood




About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific...

The same method works for making a handle for an adze, pickaxe, pulaski, or any tool where the head slides up the new handle and jams up on the large end of the handle.

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Step 1: Get Wood

Don't forget firewood!  Check out your woodpile, I bet there's some good hardwood out there that's well seasoned already. Green wood is okay for a pick handle also. Green wood is actually a lot faster to work with hand tools. It will shrink a bit, but that's not a problem, the big blob on the end will keep the head from flying off. Try your park department or trees blown down in a storm.
Orchards prune a tremendous amount of wood from their trees. They all have to pay people to get rid of their wood.

Hickory and its relatives are the strongest woods that grow in the U.S., which is why they're usually used for tool handles. Ash is almost as strong and I happen to have some. Don't use softwood, it just won't last, and you'll get to make another handle. On second thought, go ahead!

If you're in the south or in Mexico, hard yellow pine is plenty strong although it's officially a softwood. That's why they use it to make ladders and floorboards.
In warm areas like that  invasive "ironwood" a.k.a. Casuarina, called "pine" in the Marshall Islands is great for tool handles. Shape it green and wet, it's very easy to work. Then throw it in salt water until it sinks. It'll turn very hard and a pretty red-orange color. The New Zealand Maori call it "Toa" or "warrior" because they make their fighting staves from it.

Here are some tool handles I made on Majuro Atoll. The axe handle and maul handles are ironwood.
I didn't make the small adze handle, but both adzes are cutoff pick axes. The rightmost maul head is breadfruit wood, lightweight so the neighborhood kids could help me split logs. The last photo is my pile of ironwood splitting wedges. Some of the wedges fell in the lagoon and when I found them again they'd turned into super-tough orange miracle material.

Step 2: Glue Up the Handle Blank

I didn't happen to have any hardwood branches or boards thick enough for a this pick handle, so I glued two free ash boards together with yellow glue. I used all my clamps as always.
If you don't have clamps or run out of them, homemade clamps, temporary nails and screws, innertubes, sandbags, innertube lashings etc. also work well.

This handle didn't stay glued very well after I left it out in the rain. So I used epoxy for the next one. I got the epoxy for free from a construction company who were getting rid of extra liquids due to flammable liquid storage rules.

Don't buy anything! Every person and company in the "developed world" has too much stuff
they need to get rid of.

Step 3: Draw the Handle on the Blank

Draw the side view of the handle on the board and saw it out. I used this nice bandsaw. Use whatever saw you have.
Trace the tapered socket of the pick head to get the dimensions of the top of the handle.
The big end of the socket sets the size of the top of the handle.
The little end of the socket sets the size of the rest of the handle. The handle has to pass through that hole in the pick head when you install it.
The handles I made are 36" long overall, make yours to suit yourself.

Step 4: Trace the Socket on the End of the Handle

The whole handle has to pass through the small end of the socket on the pick.
Draw that on the base of the pick handle.
The big end of the handle needs to mate with the big end of the socket.
Draw that on the top of the pick handle.

Step 5: Rough Shaping

This is a 24 grit carbide-chip metal disk from Porter-Cable. A real bargain at $7.
Watch out, it cuts human flesh extremely fast also. Wear a dust mask and safety goggles.

It doesn't matter what tools you use to carve the handle.
Use  your favorite carving tools. A knife, planer, rasp, crooked knife, machete, axe, adze, etc. are all fine.

Step 6: Part Way There

So far so good, the head is sliding over the handle.
If you carve the handle small enough to be comfortable, it'll be plenty small to slide through the head.
Leave the big end big for now.

Step 7: Fitting the Head

When the head gets to the big end, bang the handle on a board as shown to seat it tight.
Then turn it over and bang the base on the board to remove it. Don't let the head pinch you when it falls.
Then look for rust marks to find the high spots.

Step 8: Rust Marks the High Spots

Where the handle touches the inside of the socket, there will be rust marks.
Carve them off.
Fit the head again.
Remove it again.
Carve off the rust marks again.
Repeat until the head is well fitted to the handle.

Step 9: The Head Is Fitted!

If your head is too new to be rusty, you can rub the inside with a pencil, crayon, dirt, etc.
Leave some handle above the top of the head, you don't want the head flying off.

Step 10: Final Sanding

Then I used a flap sander to sand off the marks from the 24 grit, and hand sanded after that.
The handle is done!
Some like their tool handles unfinished. The old wisdom is that it causes fewer blisters.
Picks tend to get left out in the rain, so I'll finish mine with linseed oil.

Enjoy your digging!

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    22 Discussions

    Watch me make

    3 years ago

    If you put the pick on the handle on and hit the part you hid it slides on tight you even have shavings come off the handle


    4 years ago

    Thanks for this !
    It's just what I was just looking for


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Even with the swinging force outward I still have some axes with wedged handles whose heads try to slip down. The only thing that saves it is the handle has a lip  to keep it at the top. Have any problems with that on your pick? I wonder what's a good way to deal with that.

    1 reply

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    You could wrap it with a few feet of baling wire, that works great


    9 years ago on Introduction

     The price of replacement handles is almost the same as buying a new tool sometimes.

    Well worth the effort, nice job.

    1 reply

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    That's may be true but we don't think this is a matter of money. Anyway a custom made handle is something special. Forty years ago I made a new handle for a hammer that was of my my grand grandfather who was a barrel maker. Steel is good, probably puddle steel, the new solid handle too and I think the hammer will do it's work at least for another century if not nuke bombed. Anyway I bought a pretty nice 400 grams german style hammer last week. None of the hammers ever asked me to be fed. If you see a suitable piece of wood pick it up and store it in a dry place. A double handle carbon steel pulling knife is the best tool for handles and similar jobs. Make or buy one it before you need for, it doesen't ask any food either.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Exactly. It is insanely soft despite being a hardwood. I can break a 2X6 with my bare hand.

    Thanks. I obviously spaced out and missed that line.

    I do recommend boiled linseed oil over the plain stuff--boiled has metallic driers in it so that it'll dry in a reasonable amount of time.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    nicely done. I remember a book about a guy that went to Alaska an did this with his tools to save space.

    1 reply

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    That would be Dick Proenneke. The man was one of a kind.

    American Hophornbeam and the various Hornbeams are also good choices for tool handles.


    9 years ago on Introduction

     Nice job! I like that post mounted vice as well... Gotta get me one of those!

    1 reply

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Easy to make, the post is the base of a round cafe table, the vice just happened to fit almost exactly on it.