This is 15 tips for making wooden tool handles, and by the end of this post you will know everything you need to know to start making your own. These tips will help you along the way, and you will avoid lots of mistakes. Enjoy.
Making Tools and Woodworking
Tool making is an essential form of woodworking. Even forms and jigs are types of tools, so you are most likely already familiar with toolmaking. You can extend this to making the actual tools themselves, and they will make you a better woodworker.
Anytime you make your own tools, you grow a far better understanding of using that tool then if you were to have purchased it from a store. You know exactly how it’s made, the materials, how it works, and because of all that, how to use it.
For example, if you were to purchase a hand plane from a store and start using it, you would progress at a certain pace. However, if you were to make your own hand plane first, and then use it, you would advance at a quicker pace.
When you make your own tools, you understand them far better. You also have an attachment to them that is difficult to understand if you have not made a tool before. It sounds odd, but making it yourself actually does help you use it better.
Most of this use comes from appreciation, and the time and dedication it took in order for you to produce the tool in the first place. Tool handles are a part of the tool, and executing a well-made tool handle will make your overall tool look even better.
See Also: 50 Awesome Reasons to be a Woodworker
Tips for Making Wooden Tool Handles
The following are a series of tips for making tool handles, and each one of them will help your handles stand out. Here is the list, and I’ll go into each one of them in detail farther down in the post. They are all important, and thankfully they’re also very easy to do.
- Select a Great Wood Species
- Examples of Great Tool Handle Species to Use
- Design the Handle for the Tool
- Make the Handle Strong
- Make the Handle Specifically for Your Hand
- Problems With Handles that are Too Large
- Problems With Handles that are Too Small
- To Scallop or Not to Scallop
- Create Nice Rounded Curves Without Corners
- Make the Tool Handle Very Smooth
- Turn your Handles on a Lathe
- Hold the Handle Often to Access the Comfort
- Apply a Light Finish
- Create a Custom Handle for all of Your Handmade Tools
- Consider a Brand or an Inlay as Your Signature
Select a Great Wood Species
The very first thing that you need to do to make tool handles really well is to select a great looking wood species. The handle is a simple shape, so the wood that you use is definitely going to be the star of the show.
Even with a great design, the wood is still very prominent. Due to the fact that the wood is going to be so important, spend some time and pick out the right species. Tool handles came he made from nearly any type of wood, so pick something that you like.
The wood does not have to be overly expensive either. There are several great looking wood species that make excellent tool handles and they are not expensive. However, given the fact the tool handles are not very large, you can buy pricier would if you choose.
Either way you go, pick out something that makes you happy. You are going to be spending a lot of time with these tools, and in a funny way you will actually fall in love with the tools that you make yourself by hand.
For this reason, and several others, spend at least a little bit of time going over your different options, then selecting the wood species that makes you the happiest. You are going to love your handmade tool handles, so it’s worth the time to get the wood right.
Examples of Great Tool Handle Species to Use
In case you don’t know a lot about wood, here are some great looking wood species that you can use to make handles right now. Most of these can be found in almost any hardwood store, but you can find them all online as well.
Mahogany – Mahogany is one of the best types of wood to make handles, and it comes in a number of different variations. You can find mahogany from Spain, Africa, and even species that call themselves Mahogany but are really something else like Acacia.
The beautiful thing about Mahogany besides the look of course is that it’s not very expensive, and you can find it nearly anywhere. It also works very easily, cuts and shapes easily, and takes a finish very well.
Bubinga – Bubinga is a type of wood from Africa that is pink to brown in color, but subtle enough that you don’t feel like you have pink handled tools. The grain variation can be intense, and several manufacturers already use this type of wood for their handles.
The benefit to Bubinga is that it’s very dense, and also inexpensive. It makes a rugged tool handle that is easy to shape and sand, and explodes under finish. If you intentionally seek out a piece of figured Bubinga, you can have tool handles that are truly amazing.
Padauk – Padauk comes from Africa as well, and when freshly cut is bright orange in color but it tapers out to a deep reddish brown overtime. The wood is easy to machine, not very expensive, and the handles will stick out among others.
This is one of those types of wood that when you show somebody for the first time they are absolutely amazed that nature can produce such a color. For most people, they think wood only comes in shades of tan and brown. With this piece being bright red, it’s noticeably different.
Rosewood – On the more expensive side, Rosewood, specifically East Indian Rosewood is a tremendous choice. It’s going to be much more expensive than the first three examples, but it makes impeccable tool handles.
Rosewood has a high density, but also has a high oil content. This makes the handles very easy to shape, and the oil acts almost like a built-in finish or preservative that keeps them mildly shiny.
The color of the wood ranges from deep browns and almost black, to slight purplish hues, and everything in between. It’s a truly beautiful piece to work with, and really does smell like fresh roses in your workshop.
Whatever would you choose, it will make an excellent tool handle. Even softer woods like Pine can still make great handles. I recommend you choose something a pinch more exotic, but these tips will still work for any common wood species as well.
Design the Handle for the Tool
A fundamental part of making tool handles is the design phase. The entire point and purpose of the handle is to assist in using the part of the tool that does the work. This can be an edge, tip, side, or other part of the tool.
With that in mind, you should structure your entire design process around what the tool actually does, and supporting the natural action of that tool. When you think about your handle in this light, you will naturally make improvements to make it work the best.
For example, if you are making a handle for a chisel that you commonly believe you will hit with a hammer, then you will naturally create a strong area on the handle that can withstand many repeated hammer blows over its lifetime.
In contrast, if you did not think about the nature of this tool before crafting the handle, you may end up needing a new one after the first time you hit it with your hammer. It’s all about the purpose of the tool, and assisting the tool to perform its job.
Likewise, if you have a tool that requires a lot of force to drive through the wood or across the wood, then you may do better with a larger handle. You can get both hands on a larger handle, and that could mean more force when it’s needed.
Begin with the end in mind. Design your tool handle understanding exactly what it was meant to be used for, and exactly how you will use it in the end. If you do this, your tool handles will be very comfortable, and the tools will work very well.
Make the Handle Strong
Also, this is just the things that are meant to happen with the handle, not all the things that woodworkers do with their handles that they’re not proud of. Many times, handles become hammers of their own, so strength is a very good thing.
Thankfully, designing a strong handle is very easy. You can use standard woodworking techniques like laminated wood. You can also use dowels, joinery techniques, and reinforcing pins to make strong handles.
Grain direction is important to you. Think about how wood naturally breaks along the grain lines versus against them. As you design your tool handles, make sure that the grain direction doesn’t provide an inherent weakness in the tool.
Finally, some types of wood or just stronger than others. While you can still make good tool handles out of softer species of wood, for tools that you are going to really beat on, you can do better with a more dense species.
That being said, a way that you can overcome a softer wood species is by extending the portion of the tool that goes into the handle farther than normal. This is often called the tang, and you can drive it deep into the handle for more stability and strength.
Make the Handle Specifically for Your Hand
After you’ve designed a strong handle that is meant for the job of the tool itself, the next step is to refine the design for your specific hand. Always start by making tools exactly for yourself, after that you can look into making tools for others.
Right now, understanding how that tool works in your hand is going to provide you a lot more information and insight than trying to make something for everyone right away. Think about your hand, and that’s the next phase of design.
Most of the time, your specific hand will really have to do with size. We all have slightly different hand sizes, and that does affect how well we use tools. Tool handles that are too large or too small can cause their own problems, but you can avoid that in the design.
Problems With Handles that are Too Large
Getting the size of the handle right is important. It needs to match your hands really well, and feel comfortable while in use. Some tools maybe use for a very long time, so it’s very important that the tool be the right size in order to be comfortable.
That being said, one of the biggest problems is making a tool handle it’s too large. When the handle is bigger, it requires more force to hold tightly. The bigger the handle, the more force is required, and the more difficult it is to hold the tool.
Think about picking up a gym weight. The handles are about an inch in diameter, and you can pick up a fairly heavy weight because you can get your fingers all the way around it. If that same handle or 4 inches in diameter, picking up the same weight it would be much harder.
On tools that require you to hold onto the handles tightly, like chisels and carving tools, it’s important not to have a handle that’s too large in diameter.
Problems With Handles that are Too Small
In contrast, tool handles that are too small also have their own problems. Again, it comes down to designing a handle that works well with your hand size, and creating as much comfort as possible in the design.
Handles that are too small are prone to breaking under force. While small handles are great for delicate tools that don’t require a lot of pressure, they are not good for carving tools, and tools that take a lot of force.
Finesse tools, like a very fine V gouge or sanding implement will do fine with a narrower handle. These tools aren’t meant to be used as bluntly as others, and the light handle can make long-term use of the tool less fatiguing.
To Scallop or Not to Scallop
Another consideration that many tool handle makers have to deal with is whether to scallop the tools to match the profile of your fingers. Scalloping refers to having peaks and valleys that your fingers naturally grip.
While scalloping is good for a lot of reasons, it’s bad for one really big one. When you scallop handle, it forces your hand to hold it one way. If you need to adjust your grip, or grab the handle differently, it can feel very uncomfortable.
The trade off for this is when you grip they handled the right way, it feels incredibly comfortable, even more so than a flat handle. The downside however is that on tools where you like to adjust your grip frequently, the scalloping can become a burden.
Scalloping also add time to your building. If you are making a lot of tools, scalloping every one of them can easily double the amount of time it takes. However, if you are making the handles on the lathe, the time difference is not that much.
The beauty of these tool handles is that they are yours. I personally do not scallop my handles for a lot of the reasons that I’ve already mentioned, but I won’t be using your tools, so do exactly what makes you happy and nothing else.
If that means scalloping all of your handles, then go for it. As long as you’re happy, and comfortable, you will use the tools. That’s the goal after all, to use the tools to advance your craft and make yourself an even better woodworker.
Create Nice Rounded Curves Without Corners
This tip about making tool handles has to do with the corners and the edges. While tools with squared off handles do look pretty cool, they are not super comfortable.
It’s worth the time, especially on a tool used with force, to round the edges and corners really well. You don’t have to make them look like Fisher-Price tools, but round them a little bit more than normal and you’ll be happy.
The nice thing about a rounded corners and edges is that they fit in the hand very well, and they don’t have any sharp areas. Over hours of use, corners that are not rounded become very uncomfortable in the hand.
For most tool handles, anything near a half inch to quarter inch radius is a good place to start with. From there, you can adjust the radius to be more or less depending on your own personal preferences, and how you plan on using the tools.
See Also: A Woodworking Notebook
Make the Tool Handle Very Smooth
We all know that sanding it’s a pain sometimes, but it’s a very important part of the tool making process, and you owe it to yourself not to have crappy tools. This part is very important, because a little extra sanding can mean a lifetime of good use.
Most of the mistakes that people make with sanding have to do with incorrect procedures, and it makes them think that sanding is overly difficult. While sanding isn’t the most fun thing in the world for most people, you can make it a lot easier.
First of all, start with an aggressive grit of sandpaper to remove all of the tool marks, and scratch marks from your handles. For this, I typically start with 100 grand or 150 grit, which tears through these deep defects very quickly.
From there you can probably jump right into 220 depending on the species, and that will make a surface that is very smooth. If you want to go more than that you can, just remember that a finish may raise the grain a little bit, so don’t go too far.
For a most tool handles, 220 grit is a good ending point. Anything beyond that can be washed away with the finish, and over time your handles are going to shrink and swell a little bit just from the natural moisture in your hand from working with them.
Armed with this knowledge, take the time to sand every tool handle down to 220 grit paper, and make sure there are no rough areas that didn’t get sanded. Spend a little extra time on this, then you’ll be very happy with how your tools perform for the rest of their life.
See Also: 17 Important Tips on How to Sand Wood
Turn Your Handles on a Lathe
If you are making a lot of wooden handles, having access to a lathe can be a huge benefit. Not only is a lathe an excellent tool for making symmetrical shapes like tool handles, you can also reduce the time it takes to sand and finish.
The lathe also helps you make your tool handles more uniform, and that’s awesome if you are making a matching set of tools like screwdrivers. You can easily create a template, and the lathe lends itself to duplication very well.
Sanding is a breeze on the lathe, because the tool does all the work. All you really need to do is hold the sandpaper up against the wood, and the machine does the rest. If you can hold the paper steady, you can sand quickly and efficiently.
If you don’t have a lathe, you can still make excellent tool handles. I’ve made a ton of tool handles before I ever got my lathe, though I must confess I don’t make them any other way now. If you are thinking about making tool handles in bulk, I definitely recommend a lathe.
Hold the Handle Often to Access the Comfort
It’s important throughout your handle making process that you take the time to stop and hold the handle in your hand very often. The more you do this the better. Since you’re designing a handle for your specific hand, this is really the only way to see how well you’re doing.
Make it a point to stop after every operation. The big exception being sanding, when you should probably stop several times to make sure it’s going along well. Each time you stop, hold the handle in your hand just like you would if you were using the tool.
Think about the way it feels, and be objective. If the tool needs more work, then do the work no matter how you feel about it. Don’t stop until you’re happy with the results, and the tool feels like a natural extension of your body.
The more time and attention you spend on the fit of the tool and how it feels in your hand, the better you will use it in the future. Comfort, and ease-of-use are probably the two biggest factors and whether a tool is used or not.
If you have a tool that works well, and is comfortable, you will use it more. It doesn’t matter if this tool is your most expensive, least expensive, oldest, our youngest. The comfort and the use are the most important.
Apply a Light Finish
Once you have all of your tool handles made, it’s time to finish them. Don’t skip this step just because you think that they are just shop tools and you’re not selling them or anything. Your tools deserve to look just as good as anything you would buy at the store better.
A fine hand tool that is made well, and finish well just works differently. It’s based on the way that you see the tool, and you don’t want to see the tool as an unfinished project. You want to see the tool as a work of beauty that you created yourself.
In fact, an over arching goal you should have while making hand tools is to produce something so beautiful that you don’t even want to use it. If you can make something so amazing that you don’t want to use it for fear of scratching it, then you are on the right track.
Make tools like that and you will absolutely fall in love with them. They will serve you better, you will understand them more, and you’ll make better projects simply because you have them. Spend time on your tool handles, and they will make you proud to own the tools.
Create a Custom Handle for all of Your Handmade Tools
This next tab is for those of you who are going to take your handle making to the next level, and make handles for many of your tools. In the interest of being cohesive, it makes sense to create a custom handle for all of your handmade tools.
Now, obviously the tool handles are not all going to be the same shape, but they can have something in common that makes them uniform. This can be the type of wood, the lamination, or some other unifying factor.
Decide on this early, and allow it to permeate through all of your designs. When someone looks at all of the tools that you’ve created, they will see a uniform thought process that unites all of the tools as being made by you.
For the same reason that you want to create a tool that’s so nice you don’t want to use it, having uniform handles that match turns all of your individual tools into a set. The set becomes your personal tool kit, and makes it even more valuable.
Consider a Brand or an Inlay as Your Signature
A simple way that you can create a cohesive element in all of your tool handles is to use a brand or an inlay as your signature. This doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, it just has to be something that is unique and recognizable.
One of the easiest ways to do this is with an inlay. Easier than that, is to use a round inlay that you can create simply by drilling a hole. Round inlays are the easiest to do, and sometimes a contrasting dot is all you need.
For those of you that have not done this before, select a dowel rod or metal rod of a small diameter, 1/4 inch or less. Then, select a drill bit of the same diameter. Drill at least an eighth of an inch beneath the surface of the wood, and cut a thin piece from the end of the dowel.
Drip a little bit of glue into the cavity, and press the small piece down into the hole. Since the hole was drilled to the same diameter as the dowel, the inlay piece fits perfectly. Once the glue dries, sand everything flush and you have a very simple inlay.
Your signature can be as simple as one of these dots. However, since they are so easy, you may want to pick a design incorporating a few dots. You can even put them over each other, overlap them, or keep them separate.
If you are going to use a brand, there are a number of great places online that can make a custom branding iron that runs on electric, or you heat with a torch. These are very professional looking, though they are a lot more expensive than inlaying dots.
Finally, you may decide to use laminated wood as your signature. For example, if you were to make all of your handles out of mahogany with a rosewood strip down the middle, that can easily be your signature as well.
See Also: 15 Great Places to Get Woodworking Wood
Your Action Assignment
Now that you know all of these tips on how to make wooden tool handles really well, it’s time to start designing your own set. One of the easiest ways to do this is simply by making a set of screwdrivers.
Go on Amazon and buy a set of long drivers. These are extra long shaft that are meant to be used with power drills, so they are very hard, and they make excellent and screwdrivers once you put a handle on them.
Purchase a set that has several different tips, and you can end up with a set of tools that is very useful in your shop. This also gives you an opportunity to design handles for the specific functions, as well as matching handles with a personal signature.
Make these tools, and enjoy the process. You should have quite a bit of fun in both the designing in production phases. Try to make tools that are so nice you don’t want to use them, and you will end up loving to use them for the rest of your life.
If you have any questions, please Post a Question in the Q&A Forum and I’ll be glad to help. Happy building.
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