About 6 years ago, I spent a couple of months putting together a set of straight sided firmer chisels for my period tool kit. I had a set of 12 chisels from 1/16″ wide up to 2″ wide. I replaced all of the handles on the chisels with period appropriate tapered octagonal handles made from beech. I even did a video on making the handles for those chisels, which you can watch below if you’d like.
I sold that set of chisels last year when I was thinning down my tool collection, but I did keep a few extras that I had laying around to use for a tool kit that I use for period woodworking demonstrations. Recently, I decided to replace the handles on those chisels with similar tapered octagonal style handles. These days, I prefer a slightly different style of period handle that is more of a curved tapered octagon with more even facets. These are the style of handle that my carving chisels have.
So to start the process of making a new handle for the chisel pictured above, I created a template of the shape from a carving chisel with a similarly sized blade. The curved profile is quite subtle, but very noticeable in the hand compared to a handle with straight tapered sides. The blank that I used for the new handle was left long and planed to a perfect square cross section the appropriate with of the pattern. Alternatively, if you are not confident in your ability to bore a plumb hole in the end grain of the handle blank, leave the blank over sized and adjust it after the chisel is fit to the handle. I show you how to do this in the video at the bottom.
I drill the handle for the tang of the chisel in two steps. The first step is to drill a hole the full length of the tang, or about 1/16″ deeper, with a small drill bit. Something about 5/64″ or so is about right for this full depth hole. Then I switch bits for one that is about as wide as the midpoint of the tang and drill about half way as deep as I did with the first bit.
Once the holes are drilled, they need to be tapered to accept the tapered tang of the chisel. Over the years, I’ve seen lots of recommendations for how to accomplish this. Everything from chiseling the taper (I don’t know anyone who can do that reliably) to heating the tang red hot over and over and slowly burning the taper into the handle. I suppose that the chiseling technique might work if you’re really good with a really small chisel inside of a mortise that you can’t see into, but I’m not that person. And while the burning technique might work just fine, I have two major problems with this method. First, I can’t imagine that repeatedly heating the tang to red hot can be beneficial to the temper of the chisel. I also can’t imagine that repeatedly charring the inside of the handle can be good for the integrity of the wood. Second, I’ve split open dozens of old chisel and gouge handles over the years looking for evidence that this technique was used, and I’ve not once seen any evidence inside of the split open handle that would lead me to believe that burning in was a common practice. I will continue to have an open mind about it, but until I see an original handle with visible evidence of the tang being burnt in, I will remain very skeptical of this method.
Instead, I use a method that I think is pretty unique today (though I believe it may have been very common in the period). I use the tapered tang of the chisel itself as a reamer to ream out and taper the hole in the handle. By clamping the chisel in the vise and using the chisel’s tang to ream the hole, the taper of the tang fits the hole perfectly every single time. The trick is not to go too far. You want to ream only deep enough to establish the matching taper in the hole you bored, but not all the way to the bolster, or the fit will be too loose. I typically try to ream so that the chisel gets tight about 1/4″ from the bolster. The handle will be driven on the rest of the way later.
With the hole reamed, I mark the outer limits of the chisel’s bolster on the end grain of the handle as a guide to taper the handle down to. I then remove the chisel for shaping the lower portion of the handle. The cardboard pattern is used to transfer the shape to the faces of the handle, then I turn the square blank into a tapered square handle by removing the wood outside of the layout lines. I used to establish the taper by planing it in (see the video below), but I’ve found that using a chisel or drawknife is much faster. By leaving the handle blank extra long, there is plenty of extra wood to allow holding the blank in a bench vise, shaving horse, or between centers on the lathe.
After shaping the primary tapers at the bench vise, I moved to the shaving horse so that I could hold the stock on its corners for shaping the tapered square into a tapered octagon. I used to be very meticulous about marking this out in pencil so that I got really precise facets. These days, I’m usually too lazy to do so, so I just eyeball it. The facets come out a bit less perfect this way, but I get done much faster. I also don’t fret about tearout or other imperfections. These handles are pretty quick and dirty for the most part.
With the bottom portion of the handle shaped, I cut the handle to final length, align the chisel with the handle, and drive the handle home until the bolster contacts the handle. Then it’s back to the shaving horse to shape the upper portion of the handle. The shaving horse holds the chisel surprisingly well while I use the spokeshave to finish tapering and cutting the facets on the upper portion of the handle.
After finishing up the octagon, I use a chisel and rasp to round up the end of the chisel to make it more comfortable to push when paring. On my old chisels, I left the ends of the handles with just a chiseled bevel and a flat end. I thought this would provide for better registration of the mallet when chopping. And it did, but it made paring with the chisels less comfortable. The rounded end is much nicer to hold in the hand. I finished up with a bit of scraping and that was it. No finish. Over time, these handles will take on a nice patina and being finish free, they are not the least bit slippery in the hand.
Here’s the old video I did on making handles similar to these.