Sunday, December 27, 2009

Making Handles for New Tools

Wow, the holidays sure are crazy! I've been so busy that I haven't done a post in almost two weeks. Ironically, I've actually been in the shop quite a bit working on several projects. In the beginning I was taking pictures to use for a couple of posts, but by the end, I was so crazed trying to finish up two Christmas presents that I didn't slow down enough to even think about taking pictures. Maybe I'll do a short "final product" post on those gifts...

But today I could relax in the shop, and I used my time to make handles for three new tools my wonderful wife gave me for Christmas: two Japanese milled-tooth files and a Nicholson #49 pattern maker's rasp. Yes!

I dug up some birch for the handles...

...and split it into rough blanks with a hatched and maul.

I cleaned up the blanks with a scrub plane and spokeshave. Then I found some copper fittings to use for the ferrules, and transferred the diameter to the handle stock using pencil graphite.

I carefully (sort of) sawed around the shoulder and then pared the tenon with a chisel. I did the final rounding with the rasp itself - it would have been much easier to use (safer too) if it had only had a handle - hmm...

I don't really have a "design" for my handles. I just make them feel comfortable in my hand. I tend to end up with some variation on a general theme of tapered octagonal prisms.

Here's a shot of the finished handle, with ferrule and final shaping complete. The chamfering of the end was done with a chisel, while the tiny chamfers on the shoulder (not visible in this shot) I did with a knife.

After making the first handle (for the #49 rasp) with the copper left bright, I decided to experiment with giving the next ferrule some patina. My attempt at using heated mineral oil created a mottled look that I actually like very much. It's different than the uniform black I created on the bolts for the turning saw project. I'm not sure if it's a result of using mineral oil instead of linseed oil, or if it has something to do with the copper.

Here are two final group shots:

Oh, and how do they work? Fantastic! Especially the rasp - what a revelation! Thank you for the wonderful gifts Sweetie!


  1. Beautiful work, Dan. Reminds me that I have a drawer full of them that need handles. Probably be less hesitant after I make the first one.

  2. Very nice, Dan. I'm working on my second handle as we speak. The first was for a handmade marking knife, and is still incomplete (and in Malaysia). The second is for a big chisel and is mostly lathe-made (a first for me!).

    It's fun, and I look forward to trying some handles like yours here, with just hand tools.

  3. Dan - Have at it! The files and rasp work much better with a good handle and can keep you from plowing open your palm on an unhandled tang.

    For an even quicker handle, I've seen some people use short sections of tree branches...

    Eric - Is that for the huge flea market chisel?

    It is fun - and deeply satisfying to create the interface between your hand and the tool.

  4. Dan, thanks for posting this. I received a couple of very large Dragon rasps for christmas and did not have any handles for them. I used a piece of walnut I had along with some 3/4" copper endcaps. Worked beautifully.

    One thing I did differently - when I tried to saw the sides to make it octagonal it was not working well. I ended up using a drawknife instead. Not a very sharp one either because I picked it up at a garage sale and have not gotten around to sharpening it. But it worked great!

  5. Skordog - Yeah, I think the drawknife would beat a saw every time! That's pretty much how I did it, only I used a spokeshave instead of my drawknife. I'm glad you found the post useful.

    And thanks, I wasn't familiar with Dragon rasps but I just Googled them and they look very interesting! Might have to add them to my list.

  6. Dan,
    How did you insert the files into your handles?

  7. Tyson - Sorry man, I really should have shown that part. Here's my procedure for “burning in”:

    1. Seat the ferrule with a few hammer taps.
    2. Select a drill bit with a diameter that is slightly smaller than the widest part of the tang that will enter the handle.
    3. Drill through the ferrule and a SHORT distance into the handle (If the ferrule is seated tightly, the drilling is no problem - if it is loose enough to spin you'll have to clamp it or drill it separately from the handle).
    4. Select another drill bit that is slightly smaller than the smallest part of the tang and drill to the final depth of the tang in the handle. This creates a stepped hole, which the tang will proceed to burn into a tapered hole.
    5. Wrap the file/rasp in several layers of heat resistant cloth (no nylon, poly etc.) to protect the teeth, and clamp in your vice, tang up (Keep the cloth at least several inches away from the tang).
    6. Using a torch, heat the tang of the file until a piece of scrap wood touched to the tang will be deeply scorched (don't go for red hot - not needed and can burn too much and result in a loose fit - DAMHIKT).
    7. Working quickly, place the handle over the tang and give it several hard whacks with a mallet. It should seat about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way. Smoke should come out, but stop rather quickly - if it continues to smoke, the tang was too hot.
    8. Remove the handle, reheat the tang and repeat. This time it should seat almost all the way.
    9. You could probably stop here, but I usually remove the file/handle and placing the butt of the handle on the bench, give the end of the file a couple of additional whacks (use a piece of scrap wood to protect the file, and be careful, as the metal of the cutting part of the file is quite brittle).
    10. That's it. Pretty easy and works great. Oh, and the tang will just stretch the hole in the copper or brass ferrule to the final size and shape.

    I’m sure there are other versions of this that would also work, and probably even some without the heating part, but I’ve never had one come loose doing it this way - well, not one that I did correctly anyway (see #6 above).

    I hope that helps. I wish I had taken pictures of that part – maybe I’ll show it in some future post…

  8. Nice. Let me know how you like the birch with time. I really like the one I made for that mortise chisel.

    I don't seem to give much thought to handles for files and rasps, come to think of it. I've used the plastic Nicholson ones with the interchangeable mounts. They work, but they are not as pretty as yours. Just recently, I saw some new wooden ones for sale for, hm, I think it was about 50 cents each. But for reasons still to be disclosed, I passed.

    (I have some interesting stuff of my own about handmade tools to post, but I don't have the time yet.)

  9. Brian - Thanks! I made a batch of birch handles a while back and they are holding up nicely. I'm not sure how our local Alaskan birch compares to what you might find elsewhere. I do know that we have several different species up here. Also, this birch was air dried, which makes it work easier and seem less brittle.

  10. Dan,

    Those caps. Those wouldn't happen to be Copper Caps to cap off a Copper Pipe would it that you drilled a Small Hole in the top to insert the Rasp an files in?

    Just wondering. The projects are GREAT Looking and basic.


  11. Handi - Yup. Easy to get and work with, but brass fittings are fun too. Thanks!

  12. Many years ago, I made a file handle by boiling a nicely shaped piece of marrow bone ( moose, I think) and then tapping the tang into the marrow. Apparently it expands with heat, then shrinks when cooled. It made a very tight fit, has never come loose, and I enjoy using it.

  13. Josh - Cool idea! I've heard of that, but never tried it. Do you know if that is a traditional technique?

  14. Dan,

    Hm. It's been nearly a year since the last post. You still around? Or just no longer blogging? ;)


  15. Sorry folks -- the "tick the box to receive follow-up comments" option wasn't available to me the first go-round...


  16. Gye - Still around, still posting - are you not able to see the newer posts?

  17. Dan,

    Thanks for the reply!

    Big "duh!" (or "Doh!"?) from my end: When I added your blog to the list of pages that open in new tabs when I start Firefox, I apparently used the URL for that specific blog entry, rather than your blog's opening page.

    OK: Well, I guess I have a **lot** of reading to catch up on!

    Glad to see you're still in business! That, umm, explains a lot...


  18. Gye - You *do* have a lot of catching up to do - I've completely switched over to power tools since you were last here!

    Just kidding! Welcome back.

  19. re: "Totally power tools". LOL! Totally had me going, there. :)

    (BTW - I figured out the source of my problem. Last night I came across a note to myself, saying that (because I enjoyed your blog so much!), I'd worked my way forwards through your archives, up to Dec. 2009. I saved that archive page to my browser's "startup tabs" -- and then promptly forgot that I'd done that.)


  20. @Josh

    I've done a similar thing in here in NZ using deer antler. I drilled a pilot hole, then soaked them in water instead of boiling them. Works well.

  21. Dan,
    Any thoughts about straightening out a bent tang? I have a few files where the tangs are slight curved. Is there a way without heating them that I could make them more straight?


    1. Dave - Sorry for the slow response. In my limited experience, the tangs on many files are not very hard and can be bent easily while held in a vise. If this isn't the case, I'd bet you could heat them with a torch, let them cool and they should be quite a bit softer. I think you could get the tang hot enough without worrying about the teeth on the file - it's never been a problem when I've heated them for handle fitting.


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