Build An Ark: Re-helving an Axe Blade

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Re-helving an Axe

Well I decided to re-dress an axe today (found a cheap one) and I thought it might be usefulto publish a step-by-step guide for anyone who has never tried. Well here goes!

Here’s an old hatchet that’s a good candidate for some TLC. Cost less than a beer from a carboot.

What’s wrong with it? Well the blade is covered in rust and the blade edge is nicked anddoesn’t cut evenly.

Worse though is the fact that there is some severe haft damage.

A dent and crack this bad could cause the haft to snap in use and the head to fly off. Not the safest thing.

So, first job is to get all that paint and rust off and see what we have. Now on a quality oldhead, I’d hand rub back. This though is a cheap “user” of a hatchet, so we’ll give it a quickclean with an electric sander. I like to do this with the old haft in or to the bare head. Anyslips could damage the new haft.This is what we end up with………..a nice 11/4 lb hatchet head.

Now that I can see what we have, I need to re-profile the blade. There are a few nasty dingsand the profile is too thick. So I clamp the blade upright in a vice (between a couple ofsheets of leather to stop marking the blade). I hold a file haft in my right hand and the top ofthe file between my middle finger and palm of my left hand. I then file off one side of theblade dropping my left wrist whilst filing to create a slightly convex profile. Turning the axefrequently I sight along the blade edge to make sure its straight and in line with the “eye”. We end up with this.

Okay, tricky time. We need to get that old haft out. Not normally a problem, but these daysthey often fill the eye with some sort of acrylic gunk. The problem with this is that you can’tsee what’s underneath it. So, is the head loose? Yes – haha, I’ll just tap it out. Nope, not a chance. Its not that loose.So, saw the haft off flush to the head and turn over. Try to tap out from the haft side. Youknow what the inside of an eye is shaped like right? Its like a funnel with the spout end wherethe haft comes out (wider at the top than the bottom). So trying to pull a haft out rarelyworks. The haft is wider below the head so the head can’t drop down the haft. Its straightwhen you put the new haft in, but then you drive wedges in to widen the top of the haft so itfills the funnel shape. So the head can’t fly off the top because of the funnel shape or slipdown because of the widening haft. However cut off the haft and you can often drive thestump out the wide mouth of the head (the top).Not in this case though. So, goggles and gloves and I drill through the haft half a dozen timesgoing VERY carefully in case there is a metal wedge. There isn’t and the haft drops out.

Fantastic. Now we are getting somewhere. Right, next job. Fit the haft. I’m using a storebought hickory haft and its too big to go through the eye at the bottom of the head. This is a good thing. Using a sharp knife I SHAVE sliver of wood off the haft until it will just passthrough the narrow eye. I measured the depth of the head before I started and added about ½” as I want the haft to project a little. A quick rub of sandpaper (easier now than later) and the haft is ready for the next stage. I’m going to need a wooden wedge next. Out to thewoodpile and find a nice bit or dry oak (your wedge must be seasoned or it will split). Now I have measured the length of the eye and reckon for a little head like this a wedge about ¾” wide will do. I make it much longer than I need – you’ll see why later. I measure the width ofthe eye and select and iron hammer wedge the right size (No 2 in this case). Okay, I have allmy parts assembled.

Next stage is to saw a slot for the wedge. Clamp the haft vertically and using a tenon saw, cut a slot into the haft for 2/3 of the depth of the head. It should look something like this.

You'll notice the line is just off straight. I find this helps stop splitting later.

Next, fit the head snugly and, using a block of wood flat to the top of the wooden wedge, drive the wedge gently but firmly in place.

Using your saw, cut the wedge off parallel to the haft. Then take your soft iron wedge and tapit in at 45 degrees to the wooden wedge in the centre of the haft. Make sure your head doesn’t move whilst wedging.

Well, we are nearly there now. A final sand of the handle, then an oil soak. Lay a piece of cling film twice the length of the axe down. Cover in a double layer of kitchen towel. Soak the towel in linseed oil (or whatever you use). Put the axe on top, wrap the towel around the haft and cling film round the lot. Leave for 24 hours or better yet longer. The oil will penetrate the wood, swelling the grain for a tight fit and protecting from drying out.

Remove all the cloth, wipe down well and sharpen and that’s it, a nice little camp hatchet.

Given that we have left a quarter of an inch of the haft “proud” from the head, next time we need to re-haft it, all that’s needed is to hook the metal wedge out with a flat headscrewdriver or knife blade, saw off and tap out the loose haft – no glue, no resin. The nicepart of this job is that a haft costs $1 and a soft iron wedge a few cents. A rough hatchet canbe picked up for 50c in a car boot sale. Buy 2 or 3 hafts and a box of mixed wedges andyou’ll be out $5. You also can have a few tries at re-hafting and I’m fairly sure by the thirdgo you’ll get the knack of it. If you get it sooner, you have some spare hafts!

I own and love Gransfors Bruks, Roselli, Wetterlings and even have a Lee Reeves Axe on order. However I also know I can buy a beautiful 19thC hand forged axe head from a car boot for $2 and have something just as effective. Go on - have a go

Hope that’s useful.