Tom McFadden

P.O. Box 162 - Philo, CA 95466 - (707) 895-3606   -


Making Chisel Handles

There is quite a bit of time involved - I think about three hours per chisel. The first thing I do is clean the chisel up. I do that with fine sandpaper and steel wool. If somebody has pounded on it with a hammer instead of a wooden mallet and mashed up the tang or the top of the socket I do my best to take care of that damage with the grinder. Next I get the wood for the handle out, joint and plane it, then rip it to width and cross cut to length. Tang style firmer chisels and gouges have a square tang that tapers from the bolster down to nothing. I make a tapered hole just the right size for the tang in one end of the handle and put it into the lathe. I have already used a tubing cutter to cut a piece of brass tubing for the ferrule, and filed the burr off of both ends of it. I turn the chisel end of the handle down until the ferrule just fits - I want to have to pound it on. The upper end of a tanged firmer chisel or gouge needs to be protected from the mallet, with either a leather cap or a brass ring made the same way the ferrule was made, and the upper end has to be turned down to accommodate one or the other. For leather caps I make three leather "washers" from heavy harness leather and glue them onto a dowel turned on the end of the handle blank. The leather gets turned and sanded later, the same as the body of the handle. Socket chisels and gouges require the same treatment on the upper end, but no ferrule. The chisel end of these handles needs to be turned to a taper that matches quite exactly the taper on the inside of the socket. I try to make them go very nearly to the bottom of the socket because I think that the more wood in there the better. I try to make the handle flow very neatly from the outside of the socket into whatever detail I want the body of the handle to have. With the handle fitted to the socket, or fitted to the ferrule and the tang, and a leather cap or a brass ring fitted to the upper end the prep work is done and I am finally ready to turn the body of the handle. Turning chisels are attached to their handles with a tang too, but the tang is different from those on firmer chisels and gouges. One difference is that there is no bolster on the tang and no leather cap or ring on the top end. This is because turning chisels will not be driven, they will just be held in the hands of the lathe operator while the turning lathe does the work. Another difference is that the tang, except in the case of small turning chisels, is not square where it meets the handle; it is rectangular in section and then tapers to the end. This means that the round hole which I make for the tang must be enlarged to a rectangle - I do that with hand chisels. When that is done I turn the end down to accept the ferrule and am then ready to turn the body of the handle. Turning the body of the handle usually goes quite quickly; some get turned in a chuck and some between centers. Then comes sanding down through 7 grits of sandpaper, from 80 to 320. The end gets cut off or trimmed up and sanded as well, usually after the handle has been driven onto the chisel itself. Next I put masking tape on the chisel and the ferrule and spray a coat of polyurethane varnish on the handle. After that dries overnight I sand again, by hand, with 320 grit paper and spray on the second coat of varnish. When the masking tape has been pealed off the chisel is finished and ready for grinding and honing. When that is done it is ready to go to work in its new home.



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