We all occasionally have to replace a tool handle, be it an axe, a shovel, a sledge, whatever.

The standard handle materials seem to be hickory and ash. I've bought my share of hickory handles from hardware stores and have no issues with them. I use ash for lathe tool handles and have used it for file handles as well.

Recently I made a hatchet handle out of osage orange (hedge). Historically, osage was used for bows in the southern US, and I've heard legends that an osage bow was worth a horse and a blanket (that's just hearsay, don't quote me on it). It seems to be holding up well, as I would expect from a dense, springy wood. Also, I expect the hatchet head to rust out before the handle rots due to osage's extreme longevity.

osage handle

One website states that hickory and ash are really the only (US domestic) woods worth using. I've thought about trying black locust, also due to its rot resistance and toughness, but this is not readily available in the Chicagoland area. Another forum thread discusses suitable woods in terms of vibration transference. This website also seems to suggest using whatever is available locally and not worrying too much.

So, what other woods are suitable for tool handles based on your experience? Sometimes, you just get better results making your own handles than buying them at the store, so knowing which species work (and which species last under use, abuse, and time) would be very helpful. Note that I am more concerned with "long" tool handles, not so much short ones like one would see on a plane or a screwdriver.

  • Pretty much whatever will stand up to wear and tear on the tool, and ideally soak up some of the vibration/impact if the tool is prone to that. Typically that means fairly dense hardwoods. Rot resistance should never be allowed to become an issue; if it is, you have worse problems than tool handles. One can go overboard; I have a pile of ironwood offcuts which would be very pretty, very durable -- and unreasonably heavy and hard to machine, but that may not stop me. – keshlam Jul 21 '15 at 2:22
  • Aren't rot resistant wood full of natural chemicals? which will rub against your skin. Now hardwood has stuff in it too... and protective coating on the handle too... YSMV (your sensitivity might vary) – LosManos Sep 1 '15 at 13:35
  • I normally use hickory ash and some time locast these woods hold together pretty well – user2119 Apr 10 '16 at 17:00
up vote 11 down vote accepted
+100

One website states that hickory and ash are really the only (US domestic) woods worth using.

Obviously just one man's opinion and a gross over-simplification. It's also inherently misleading because it's light on detail. In reality while hickory is broadly speaking worthy of its reputation as a premier handle wood it obscures certain facts. The first is if you're buying an axe or sledge handle it should be pale in colour because it should be sapwood only. It is hickory sapwood that (usually) makes great handle stock, an important detail that people tend to forget to mention all too frequently.

Any reddish wood in a handle is the heartwood. Now hickory heartwood is fine wood, but not ideal for handles of this type. It would be perfectly well suited to chisel handles, plane totes and knobs, but then so are many other strong, hard or dense hardwoods as traditionally favoured for these.

This website also seems to suggest using whatever is available locally and not worrying too much.

I think this is worth paying attention to as they make many sage points.

So, what other woods are suitable for tool handles.... Note that I am more concerned with "long" tool handles

I hate to say it but it might best be summarised as: forget the species, what's this piece like?

Wood is inherently a variable material, so one piece of hickory (or ash, poplar, oak, willow, yew, walnut, birch, etc. etc.) is not equal to another. And no single piece is quantified by a broad description of the species, no matter how accurate it is in general.

Another consideration: beyond the species, beyond the flexibility or the shock-absorbency of the wood chosen, grain orientation in the handle is perhaps of equal or greater significance. The most obvious aspect of this is the grain should be aligned with the axis of force when the tool is in use (it should run front-to-back in the eye of the tool head) but as well as this for a long haft grain run-out should be minimal or absent. Summarised in this diagram from a US Forest Service handbook:

enter image description here

An extensive guide to axes which includes a section on 'hanging' that you might find informative:
An Ax to Grind: A Practical Ax Manual. The author is firmly in favour of hickory!

  • I was aware of the grain orientation issue and always make my handles such that they fit the "good" grain pattern above. That's an interesting book from the USDA; I'll have to give that one a read. Out of curiosity, what's your go-to in terms of handle material? – grfrazee Jul 21 '15 at 12:52
  • @grfrazee, I really don't have one. I'm still firmly in experimental mode and so far at least I've determined I don't have a preference. For hammers I've used one with a factory hickory handle, and have three, one with the factory oak handle (Chinese made so some Asian variety of oak I guess), one with a factory ash replacement (British ash) and one with a homemade ash replacement. No difference at all in performance or feel that I can notice and all four I finished the same way. – Graphus Jul 21 '15 at 15:38
  • I would think for hammers it doesn't matter too much since the handle is shorter than, say, and axe. Less length means a stiffer handle, this no "room" for vibration to produce harmonics. For what it's worth, one of those links I pastes mentioned white oak being preferred for handles at one point in America's past. – grfrazee Jul 21 '15 at 15:45
  • @grfrazee, re. file or chisel handles, of the ones I've made myself I've tried blackthorn, hawthorn and ash and don't have a preference as far as feel goes. Although I'm less fond of working the ash and if I had to pick one in terms of workability I'd go with the blackthorn (closest in texture to traditional fruitwood handles like apple). I also have one bought-new chisel with a beech handle and two antiques, both with ash handles I think. Again, no preference after the finish was equalised on them. – Graphus Jul 21 '15 at 15:45

Another consideration is the wood's effect on steel. Some woods like oak have acidic tannins in them that stain and promote rust, so oak is rarely used for that reason.

  • Good point. A quick pH test might not be a bad idea. – keshlam Jul 22 '15 at 4:18
  • Good comment, I totally forgot about that aspect. – grfrazee Jul 22 '15 at 12:06

As an overview:

Consider the type of stress the handle will be subjected to. Then the handle's best wood choice will be a function of resistance to the abuse normal use will inflict on it.

Chisel handle: resist longitudinal stress from mallet blows.

Large crosscut saw handle: resist splitting from blade flexing

Axe handle, claw hammer handle: resist crushing and longitudinal shock (splitting)

Long handled shovel - Resist the tendency of the retaining screw to break loose or split the tail of the handle.

So, since no single species of local wood answers the call everywhere, traditionally there was no one best wood for handles. The long experience of others before us shows what works well.

Example - most older quality chisels, made in the USA, have hard maple handles. Rakes and shovels usually had elm handles because of the helical grain. Both hickory and ash were used for axes.

Your osage orange example is what I meant by local woods in the past. It was not easily available in New York State, for example. I live in Southwest desert and it is available here today. Doesn't grow here. 40 years ago I could not buy it anywhere.

Personally, I have to stay away from working in hickory(allergy, go figure), so I've experimented with a few other woods. I have really enjoyed the few handles I've made from local maples. It tends to be exceedingly straight and clear grained. Other good choices (and also another bow materials) are lemon wood and yew. Although, be careful with the Yew dust, particularly the bark, as it contains a few nasty chemicals/toxins.

I agree with @Graphus entirely. Often, it will come down to the particular piece of wood in hand. The clearest, hardest poplar you come across will still probably beat out a twisted, knotty piece of Ash.

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