Whether you’re the proud owner of a new axe or simply replacing the handle, there’s a good chance it’s received a coating of varnish. The wood may look shiny and new, but the haft won’t be as comfortable in your hands. It may also turn slippery when wet, which dials up the danger factor.

Another problem with varnish is that you can’t oil the handle. This is essential to keep the tool in its best condition and stop the handle from coming loose.

If you’re serious about your tools then the varnish is best removed. We’re about to show you how to remove varnish from an axe handle. The process is quick and easy, so let’s jump in.

How do I remove varnish from an axe handle?

To remove a thick coat of varnish from an axe handle, scrape it off using a knife. Next, sand the handle with 100 grit then 220 grit sandpaper, before lightly oiling with boiled linseed oil. If needed, sand any bits you missed and apply another coat of oil.

An infographic showing the steps to remove varnish from an axe

1. Secure the handle

Securing the handle will make your job easier and there are plenty of ways to do this. If you’ve got C-clamps or a vice, then lock it into place at the head.

Don’t worry if you don’t have either of these, you can also plant the axe head into a stump. If it’s still wiggling, then you can drive the head into the wood with a mallet. It won’t move anywhere after doing that.

2. Scrape the handle

If there’s very little varnish, you can skip ahead to sanding it without using a blade. But for anyone else, we suggest using a knife to do the heavy lifting. It won’t get all clogged up as sandpaper does and a knife blade is quicker and saves you money on sandpaper.

Begin scraping off varnish by dragging the knife’s blade down the handle. Instead of angling the blade into the wood grain, hold the knife at a right angle to the handle and scrape. In other words, if the handle was lying flat on the ground, the knife’s blade would be held straight up and down. Hold the knife with two hands for the best control.

This is the same technique you use to thin an axe handle. You may want to thin the handle at the same time if it’s too thick? If you’re unsure whether this needs to be done, check out our guide on how thick an axe’s handle should be .

The varnish will come off easily and it should take more than a few minutes to remove it. Once you’re happy it’s all gone, it’s time to sand the wood.

3. Sand until smooth

It’s usually best to start with a coarse 100 grit sandpaper. This will help to smooth out any blemishes and lines made by the knife. Inspect the handle closely, looking for any varnish trapped in little holes of grooves.

Keep sanding until it looks clean and smooth, then use fine sandpaper to finish it off. Around 220 grit will work great, but a 400 grit will result in a super-smooth finish.  

Paper towels or a clean cloth are handy for wiping off any dust. This will allow you to see if all the varnish is gone. If you use a cloth, make sure it’s completely dry. The last thing you want is for moisture to open up the wood grains. You’ll have to re-sand if that happens.

4. Oil the handle

The final step is to oil the handle. Use a clean, dry rag to apply a light coat of boiled linseed oil to the wood. Allow it to soak in for 2-3 minutes then wipe away any excess oil.

If you notice any discolored spots on the handle, that’s likely to be persistent varnish that wasn’t removed. Allow an hour for the linseed to dry then begin sanding the problem area. Once you’re happy it’s all been sanded off, reapply a second coat of oil. 

Keep in mind that if you’re oiling a handle that hasn’t been attached to the head, don’t apply too much oil near the eye. You can do this after the handle has been attached, causing the wood to swell, and fit tightly into the head.

5. Finish the handle

It’s best practice to continue reapplying oil to help it last longer and for a better feel in hand. If you can, try to oil it every day for the first week and then every month over the first year. It isn’t essential, but keep in mind the more coats, the better the result.

You may also want to add a protective layer of wax to the handle. It’s excellent for keeping dirt and moisture out of the wood. You’ll also notice a difference in handling, with a better grip and also a little softness.

Commonly asked questions

What knife should I use to remove the varnish?

Use a knife with a straight edge that’s at least 4” in length. Using a thick-spined blade is a good idea as it won’t bend when you drag it sideways along the wood. You’ll find a good-quality kitchen knife will do a great job of removing varnish from a handle.

Does my knife have to be sharp to remove varnish?

A knife doesn’t have to be razor-sharp to scrape the varnish off an axe handle. If the back of your knife has straight 90-degree edges, you could spare the blade. 

What if the end of my handle is painted?

If you want to keep the painted section of the handle untouched, wrap tape over these areas before getting started. Scrape carefully around this section, taking care not to remove any paint.

Do I need to use safety equipment when removing varnish?

Safety gloves are advised when using a knife to scrape the handle. Wearing rubber gloves is a good idea when working with linseed oil or other hardening oils. They contain chemicals and metals used as drying agents which aren’t ideal for the skin.

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