Why no wedge?  Keep readin'.

  2016 November 6    Tools   Woodcraft & Woodworking


This is the first in a series on making tool handles.  Not because it's groundbreaking or unheard-of to make them, but because it's a vital part of making things.  That, and it's a great way to improve some basic woodworking skills.

If you work in metal, stone, leather, or wood, then you know that a good, solid wooden handle is the foundation for many of your tools.

The re-handling of tools and the making of handles can be an art in itself.  In the days before pattern lathes, handle-making was a craft that required great patience and skill.

Re-handling a hammer with a store-bought handle can be sort of an art and a craft, too... although here, I didn't exactly use a good handle.

Let's see what happened.

There will be film pictures to go with this series, maybe.  We'll see where it goes.  I'm having some fun with this.


A loose handle can lead to problems.  Eight-pound hammer head flies off, and you could have a grave situation on your hands.  This article is not telling you to copy the methods described in it!!!! 

Wear eye protection and a hardhat when you're hammerin' on stuff with big iron.  Especially if you're uncertain of the handle...

Also please read the Disclaimer page.

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In This Article


The Old Days of Handles

The "New" Handle

Seating It




It's an eight-pound sledge, with traces of red paint.  It's sort of a brick-red, like the walls of some long-gone factory from the Second Industrial Revolution.  If the light is not perfect, it doesn't even look brick-red;  just sort of a chocolatey rust-brown. 

There are a lot of sledge hammers out there without handles.  Get yourself a vintage sledge, re-handle it, and have something that will last for many years of use.

Not all the vintage ones are made of American steel, but many of them are.  There were a lot of good, old brands like Stanley, Plumb, Woodings Verona, Warwood, and a host of others I can't think of offhand.  Some of the companies like Stanley are still making tools, but not in the USA; it would be nice to see them made here again. 

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The Old Days of Handles

Historically, making tool handles was very labor-intensive.  They had no electric planers, table saws, band saws, or mass-produced wood rasps.  It was a whole different realm of hard work. 

After felling, cross-cut sawing, and riving the wood into blanks, it would be all hand-work to shape the handle.  This was a job that actually required substantial wood-carving skill.  The finished product had to be uniform enough that they could sell them repeatably.

It was so much work to make a proper handle... that many farmers didn't.  Instead they would go out back and cut a sapling.  Hickory, elm, ash, ironwood, even maple or locust.  They'd whittle down the end just enough, and jam it in 'til the hammer wouldn't fly off.  (Sometimes it did, at the worst time.)  They might affix it with a metal wedge they made at home;  or not. 

They'd use the handle 'til it broke, then cut another sapling. 

Later, the pattern lathe and the duplicating machine made handles more plentiful.  A whole handle-making infrastructure evolved. 

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The "New" Handle

So I didn't have a spare handle, and I didn't feel like driving to the store for a new one. 

I just happened to have a short section of an old, weather-worn sledge handle.  Broken off, because it was left out in the rain a couple times.  As usual, the break happens where the handle meets the hammer.  Moisture settles in there and weakens it. 

The rest of it should still be good, though.

Alas, no wedges.  Somewhere I'd read that handles could be friction-fit, so I tried hammering it in there.

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So I thought the handle would loosen quickly.  It didn't.  No wedge, not even seated properly:  that handle was stuck there.

Believe it or not, that handle would not budge.  Even after more than a year of frequent use.  That's American hickory.  This is one reason why I like wooden handles better than fiberglass.

Thing is, though, you can't rely on a handle that's not wedged.  Too great a risk.

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Re-Setting the Handle Correctly

Later I decided the hammer was not safe without a wedge.  It was a lot of work to dislodge that handle, but it had to be done so I could re-do the whole thing.  (Get one of these mallets for this job;  otherwise you will ding up your nice antique sledgehammer head by pounding on it with a steel hammer.)

Although I've seen the 4-in-1 file recommended by others for this task, I've actually been using this type of file for many years.  I still have one that I used for a couple decades, but it got so dull that I finally had to order the Corona 4-in-1 file that's shown here.  Based on what I've seen, it's decent, but it's not as good as the old USA Nicholsons. 

Using the wood rasp portions, I removed more material from the end of the handle.  Then I cut the wedge kerf, seated the handle, then wedged the end using a piece of elm as the wedge material.  The wedge was sort of uneven;  one end of it cracked the handle a bit as it was hammered in.  Not that badly, though.

It's a good idea to apply boiled linseed oil to the end-grain.  It helps seal the wood fibers against moisture and also against drying out and shrinking.  If you can clamp the hammer upright so it doesn't fall on your foot or something, you could build sort of a cup around the end of it with tape, then just put a whole bunch of linseed oil in there.  Let it sink into the wood grain for half a day, or more if possible.

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This story began as a "how not to install a hammer handle".  Then I decided to do this the right way.  Even though the hammer didn't seem to want to fly off, it's better not to risk it. 

One more time, I would not recommend just jamming a handle into a sledgehammer head.  If you've got tools sitting around with rickety or no handles, it makes a lot of sense to order some proper hickory handles and some wedges (that seller also carries the wedges).  Set aside a weekend or evening and install 'em.  Then you won't have to spend hours hunting around or going to the store next time you need a tool. 

You can always cut a straight wooden handle down to whatever length you want.  If you're blacksmithing and you don't have someone else to act as a "striker", it's convenient to use a short handle on the sledge. 

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