Manufacturers often make their axe handles thicker than they should be. This can reduce the power in your swing and result in hand strain. Thinning an axe handle is well worth the effort and no expensive tools are required to get the job done.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through how to thin an axe handle. Before getting started, you may want to check out our article on what thickness an axe handle should be. After all, you don’t want to make changes to an axe that’s already the right proportions.

What do I need to thin an axe handle?

To thin an axe, a plain-edged knife will work well. Although any size will work, a straight blade that’s roughly 6” is ideal. The bit doesn’t need to be razor-sharp, but if it’s too dull, then your job will be made harder.

The benefit of using a knife is that it’s easy to scrape the whole way down the handle’s side in one go, resulting in fine, consistent lines. It’s also great for removing varnish. If your blade isn’t really sharp, it’ll mean more work though.

If you don’t have a decent knife lying around, you can use a belt sander, rasp, or spokeshave. Each tool has its advantages so keep reading to find out which is best for your axe.

How to thin axe handles   

With a knife

Hold the knife in your dominant hand with the axe secured firmly in a vice. If you don’t have a vice handy, you can swing the blade firmly into a stump. If it’s still moving around, use a mallet to bash the head further into the wood. Any movement could affect the final result so make sure the tool is firmly held in position.

Begin scraping off paper-thin layers of wood 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.

Give each side of the axe equal attention so that you get an even result. Continue scraping until you’re happy with the profile and girth of the haft.

Pros and cons of a knife: A knife provides a smooth finish, but you may also want to use fine grit sandpaper to finish it off. 

With a rasp

A quality rasp will make easy work of removing material, so it’s a great option if you need to do a lot of thinning. Really thick handles like those on a Hultafors are good for rasping, then finishing with a knife blade.

Hold the rasp in your dominant hand with the axe secured firmly in a vice. You can also swing the blade firmly into a stump to keep it in place.

As you file down the wood, start near the head of the axe, working on getting the profile right, then work your way down the handle. You can take off a lot of wood quickly so don’t go too aggressive. Try to push the file forward in a diagonal motion, slowly working down the handle’s length.

Once you’re happy with the thickness, use a knife or sandpaper to finish it off.

Pros and cons of a rasp: If you’re looking to shape the axe handle so that it has beveled edges, or a flat side then rasps are great for this. You get excellent control of how the handle is shaped. For super-fast reducing of axe handles, consider using a Japanese saw rasp that tears through wood and never clogs.

With a spokeshave

A spokeshave is a woodworking tool that is excellent for shaping and smoothing wood. It has a handle for each hand which is connected to a blade that makes light work of thinning axe hafts.

You should use a spokeshave the same way you’d use a knife. Keep in mind this tool will remove wood quicker than a knife and requires a little more skill. You’re best to practice on some other bits of wood before getting started on an expensive axe. 

Pros and cons of a spokeshave: Great control allows for controlled thinning, but it requires more skill to get a smooth, even result.

Related reading: What’s the best wood for an axe handle?

Commonly asked questions

How do I check if an axe handle is too thick?

We’ve previously mentioned our guide to proper axe handle size, but you may prefer a more subjective way of testing. To do this, you can test the bend in the haft by driving the axe head into a wood round so that it doesn’t move. Now use two fingers to push against the cheek of the axe head and see if there’s any handle bend. An overly thick handle won’t have any bend, which isn’t ideal. Once you’ve thinned it down, you should be able to slightly bend it.

Can I use a drawknife for thinning an axe?

A draw knife is fine for working on the eye of an axe, but it cuts too deep for thinning an axe handle. As the direction of the wood grain changes in a handle, you also risk catching an edge and damaging the wood.

Can I use a belt sander to thin an axe?

Using coarse grit paper on a belt sander will allow you to thin wood handles. They’re great for achieving perfectly shaped oval and flat-sided handles. It’s easy to mess this up though, so this option is best for experienced users.

Summing up

Take a look at old photos of lumberjacks and you’ll notice their felling axes have thinner handles than most of the ones sold in stores today. In some cases, you may want to thin your axe if it’s too big. This will give you better control of your swing, providing more power and accuracy. You’ll also be able to swing for longer without straining your hands.

A knife or rasp are both useful tools for thinning an axe. The more experienced woodworkers may prefer to use a belt sander or spokeshave, but they won’t provide a huge advantage over simpler tools.

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