Part of the outdoor lifestyle is learning to fix or make things from whatever you have available. For the writers in my audience, this will be a chance to learn something cool that might add depth to your stories.
Tools need to be tough, and they need to last. New skills need to be acquired. The goal of being self-sufficient cannot be attained without knowing the process to get the things you depend on.
Yesterday, a test was laid before me. This hatchet was actually pretty new, and I didn’t expect to loose the handle so quickly, but when it wedged itself into a cut of wood, I had to yank pretty hard to pry it loose, and this busted the fiberglass and resin combo that made up the stock handle. For a $15 hatchet, it didn’t really make sense to spend another $10 in gas going to the closest hardware store. I had a couple options, but I didn’t purchase this thing without considering them ahead of time.
I had a choice at purchase between this hatchet, and a Fiskars hatchet with the wedge-blade. Now, I love my Fiskars splitting axe. They make good tools that last, and they’ve been doing it forever. The company has been in business since 1649, so I’m sure they know what they are doing. But their new axes are made similar to stone axes, in that they are mounted to a handle that wraps around the blade instead of going through it.
The whole reason I was buying a hatchet was so that I could start crafting things like tool handles. I wanted to start with a blade I could make a handle for, so the cheapie wonder seemed like a good fit. I’m sure the blade isn’t that great, the steel is soft, and the handle was probably tossed together at the last minute as something that roughly looks like a hatchet handle, but the blade had an eye like any other axe, meaning that I could carve a new one if it broke, in theory.
I didn’t expect to be doing it so soon.
Firewood and Billets
A billet is essentially a squared-off chunk of wood to make stuff out of. When I cut down the big oak, I spotted immediately how clear and straight some of the pieces were, so instead of burning the whole thing up, I saved a couple slices and split them again into rectangular pieces. I painted the ends to help them dry slowly, and I’ve been soaking them in water religiously every morning since.
The idea is simple. By keeping moisture in the outer layers, the wood can dry slowly and more evenly, rather than the outside drying first and causing cracks in the piece. This process is the simplest means of curing a piece of wood.
Again, I had no idea that I would be digging into this little pile so soon.
The Construction Process
I wasn’t setting out to make a work of art. I wanted to fix my tool. The first step was to get an appropriate blank of wood to carve a new handle from. I should note that I had no idea what I was doing, but I figured I would get started and look up different parts of the process as I needed them.
I started by busting a smaller billet into thinner pieces, and grabbing one that would be large enough after shaving to make a handle with. I figured it was only right that since I was making this for my axe-head, that the axe-head itself should be helping, so I used it as a wedge. Couple slaps with my homemade wooden club, and the billets fell apart easily.
I concentrated on the thickness and overall size of the blank I wanted. As luck would have it, I got the grain right by chance. Everyone knows that trees have growth rings in the wood. The direction these rings are running is important. For a tool handle, the grain runs in the same direction that the tree grows, and you want that to be your long axis, as it’s the most resistant to breaking, but what of the rings. You can see them on the top and bottom of these billets. It turns out that you want to see the little ring lines running in the direction of the strike for an axe. I could have chosen a piece where they were straighter from the billet, but mine were close enough to straight.
Species should be considered also. There is some ash on my property, but I haven’t cut any. I also had walnut stacked up, but it’s not really good for this sort of thing, as it’s too brittle to do the job well. My choice was red oak, and while not the best, it is a solid all-around performer for a lot of things.
Then the shaping began. Most wood-workers will use power tools, planes, chisels, and the like. I used a machete. The best tool for this job from a bushcraft perspective? Of course, a small hatchet. In fact, the issue came up as I said to myself, “Where did I put my? Oh, right.”
That’s okay. I’m pretty good with a machete, so I did the chopping with that. I drew a rough handle shape on one side of the wood and went to work. I started with heavy chops at a stiff angle to the wood. These set little relief cuts. Then the blade is turned, and I chop down the length of the piece, chipping out all of those little bits and roughly smoothing the shape. Don’t chop off your fingers.
After that, I called Mom to see how she was doing, and when the conversation turned long, I put her on speaker and started carefully carving the piece that would attach to the axe-head with a pocketknife. Not too bad, if I do say so myself.
I made some little mistakes here, but all of them fixable. I smoothed the transition to the mounting section with the knife. I also tested the fit to my hand in two chopping positions. Where I hold a hatchet for precision work is that little dip closer to the axe-head. It was a bit thick around my thumb webbing, so I extended that narrow spot. Custom fit handle. Who knew?
I originally sawed off the bottom angle with a handsaw, and later realized that the head is hafted by sticking it on the top and then turning the whole axe upside down and tapping the bottom with a hammer. So I cut again, this time making it flat to around half-way across the bottom.
In the morning, I spent some time refining the shape and smoothing with whittling cuts from my knife. I drilled and beat out all of the fiberglass and resin from the axe-head, and trimmed up the mount to fit snugly. Not so tough. I broke out my handsaw again to cut a slit down the top, and finally hafted the blade to the handle. Once it was in place, it was solidly tight with no wiggle room at all. The slit at the top is for insertion of small wedge to ensure the wood inside the axe-head fits very tightly, forever. I cut such a wedge out of another oak firewood piece, but this time I used the hatchet to do it.
Even before it was finish, I could tell it was cutting better. Maybe it was the grip, or by some gift of Fortune I got something else right with the construction. One thing I got wrong was the angle. For some reason, the axe-head mounted itself at a slight sideways cant. I shrugged and got on with my life. If that becomes a problem later, I can always make another handle, right?
The finishing touches involved drilling a lanyard hole in the bottom, sanding, and applying a coating of oil to protect the wood. I learned something else today, too. Sunflower oil can work for this. I only mention that because sunflowers have been wedging their way into my heart as “my crop” for this farm, and this is just another use. I had a bottle handy, so I used that instead of linseed oil, which would also have cost me a trip to town. I’m sure it isn’t the best oil for the job, but it seems to be soaking into the wood just fine.
Even though the oiling process isn’t near complete, I took the hatchet out to the woods with me tonight and really put her through the paces. Everything seems secure and tough, and I’m hoping this tool continues to last me a long time. Even if it started as a Walmart special.