Choosing the right wood for an axe handle is essential, whether you craft it from scratch or buy it store-bought. Durability, flexibility, aesthetics, and shock absorption vary greatly depending on the materials used.
This guide looks at the best wood for an axe handle. Make the right choice and you’ll get a durable tool that’s comfortable in hand and won’t need replacing in six months.
What is the best wood for an axe handle?
The best types of wood for an axe handle are hickory, black locust, ash, birch, or Osage orange. They provide an unbeatable combination of strength to take the strike impact along with shock absorption and flexibility to offer powerful splitting and chopping.
Experienced axe makers will usually choose hickory as their top choice for wooden handle making. Its long straight grain provides incredible strength, meaning it won’t split or crack easily. The wood is also shock resistant, a valuable strength for an impact tool.
Impact Bending testing performed by the USDA rated the below varieties highly:
- Bigleaf Shagbark
Hickory has a reddish medium brown heartwood and pale-yellow sapwood. Most agree the wood looks impressive as a handle.
If you’re making your own handle, then remember hickory is tricky to work with. It takes patience, and sharp tools are a must.
2. Black locust
Black locust is a water and rot-resistant wood that’s strong and flexible. Use it to make full-sized axes that are unlikely to splinter or shatter. For axe handles, it’s one of the best materials to use.
If you like a thin axe handle then black locust is ideal as it is a little heavier than other popular varieties. Keep in mind the wood is quite stiff and can feel hard on the hands, but that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
Ash is a great backup if hickory and black locust aren’t available. It is a common choice for axe handles.
While ash won’t match the strength of hickory, it’s easy to find and impressively shock absorbent.
This wood is light and provides impressive “whip” during swinging. Ash has a straight grain, and its medium texture makes it easy to work with.
Yellow birch is a popular choice of wooden handles in Scandinavia. It is a cheap material that provides moderate strength.
Birch is less durable than ash or hickory as it may shatter on high impact. Use it for hatchet handles that won’t take the extreme impact of large splitting and felling axes.
5. Osage Orange
Osage orange is an extremely hard wood that makes excellent handles. It may not be as popular as some options on this list, but custom axe makers in North America often use it.
While young Osage orange is yellowish in color, it transforms into an impressive brown shade as it matures. Another advantage of using this species of wood is its bend strength.
Hophornbeam, or ironwood, is an intensely dense wood that won’t split easily. However, it has pitfalls. The wood transfers too much shock into the hands on strike and hafts are often slippery due to the wood’s grain structure.
If you’re making a DIY handle, hophornbeam can be challenging to find as a suitable-sized, straight piece of wood. It is also considered difficult to sculpt into the final shape.
7. White oak
Seasoned white oak is a resilient, tough wood that is a popular option for handle makers. Similar in strength to ash, oak has the added benefit of a coarse grain, making it easier to grip.
Avoid red oak for any impact tool, as it is much less durable. The wood is also porous, which lowers its water resistance, making it unsuitable for wet conditions.
White oak is a challenge to work with so if you’re making the haft yourself, be sure to use sharp tools. Dull edges will split the wood, damaging it beyond repair. A plane that isn’t razor sharp will skate over the surface instead of shaving it.
Oak looks impressive and can range significantly in color. Browns, reds, and whitish beige are all possible.
Walnut is easy to work with and looks impressive. It gives a beautiful finish to any handle, offering eye-catching light and dark brown shades.
Walnut is a brittle wood variety and is prone to breakage. While we don’t recommend it for full-sized axes, it’s useful for smaller axes up to 20″ in length.
9. Sugar maple
Sugar maple, or hard maple, is an affordable wood that is reasonably strong and shock resistant. It won’t match up with hickory, so we suggest limiting its use to hatchets.
Anyone with an old maple tree should check the variety. Sugar maples are much denser than other common species like bigleaf.
If you want a nice-looking axe handle, then it’s hard to beat cherry wood. It ranges from blonde to reddish brown and has a lovely grain. Cherry is also easy to work, has a reasonably straight grain, and is readily available.
Cherry lacks the strength of many other hardwoods, so forget about felling large rounds of seasoned redwood or splitting large ironwood rounds. Instead, it makes a good camping axe that’ll dazzle and impress fellow campers.
European beech is solid and flexible enough to be used on handles of striking tools. Allow green wood to air dry for at least one year, preferably two, before using it.
Beech is not as springy and strong as ash or hickory, but it makes decent handles for hatchets, boy’s axes, and throwing axes. Experienced axe makers generally agree it is a better wood than oak for handles.
12. Red elm
If you can get your hands on red elm, then it’s great for crafting handles. Keep in mind the elm tree population is decimated in North America due to Dutch elm disease and other pests. Getting a blank with a straight grain can also be challenging with elm.
How did we compile this list?
- Personal experience: We’ve developed our favorites after making and breaking many axes over the years. Hickory and black locust are our picks, as they’re a complete package.
- Quantitative data: Most websites mention Janka hardness ratings in their wood handle reviews. While it’s worth considering, Impact Bending testing is a better way to measure how wood takes impact stress. We took the results from the USDA’s tests as a guide. They dropped a 50-pound hammer on wood samples, measuring the average height it took to break the wood. You can download a pdf of all their results to learn more about the study.
- Other data: Factors like the availability of tree species and anecdotal evidence on forums like BushcraftUSA were also considered.
Video of best wood types for axe handles
Check out this video if you prefer to learn by watching.
Commonly asked questions
Can I use softwood for axe handles?
Avoid using softwoods like cedar, spruce, and pine to make any size axe handles. The wood is too soft and will break on impact. Soft hardwoods like bigleaf maple or poplar are fine for making axe wedges but aren’t suitable for handles.
How do I find suitable wood for an axe handle?
Selecting the right log for an axe project can be time-consuming, and patience is required. Look for a straight one, preferably from a low section of the tree trunk. It should be free from branches, twists, or burls.
Can I use greenwood for an axe handle?
Greenwood should never be used for axe making. This freshly cut wood contains water and will shrink and warp as it seasons. Even a tiny amount of water loss will cause the handle to come loose at the eye.
What should I consider when selecting the best wood for an axe handle?
Strength, flexibility, and shock absorption are the most important factors to consider when choosing wood for an axe handle. Price, appearance, sustainability, and availability should also be factored in. Always think about the type of axe the handle is for; large felling axes and splitting mauls should only be made with the toughest wood, like hickory.
The best wood for making high-quality axe handles must be strong, have low vibration, and provide a little spring. Hickory, black locust, and ash are all excellent options for any axe size.
Other wood varieties work well for smaller camping axes, carpenter’s axes, and any other hatchet that won’t take a heavy-duty pounding. Birch, Osage orange, hophornbeam, and white oak should also hold up to any punishment it receives.
You may also like to check out how to rehandle an axe if your old one is broken.