Canadian Woodworking

Custom Tool Handle

Author: Paul Ross
Illustration: James Provost
Published: February March 2008

Making a new tool handle is an enjoyable process that provides you with the opportunity to further develop your design skills.


Once in a while a tool handle breaks, maybe from excessive blows with a mallet. Or, perhaps you have purchased a tool, but the original handle just doesn’t feel right.

I chose to replace the handle of a small bench chisel. The chisel has a sleeve style fitting as opposed to a tang that is inserted into the handle. I decided to use Jatoba (a.k.a. Brazilian cherry), a very hard and dense timber from South America. The colours range from medium brown to an amazing rich orange and red colour, sometimes with fine black lines running through the wood. It’s a splendid wood for turning, carving or furniture projects, though it seems largely used as flooring.

Common handle styles

Begin roughing with the middle of the gouge

The turn gouge on its side

Use skew for a clean end cut

Size thick end of tenon with parting tool

Shape handle with skew chisel

Round over chamfer on handle with skew chisel

Little to no sanding is required

Use skew to nip off end of handle

You can complete this spindle turning project using three of the four common spindle turning tools: the roughing out gouge, the skew (a turner’s best friend) and the parting tool. The one tool that is not used, but could be, is the spindle gouge.

There is no magical formula for the length and thickness (diameter) of the handle. You’ll want to turn one that suits your particular hand size, and that feels comfortable for you to use. For this project I started with a piece of wood 1 ¼” square and about 6″ long.

• Using a roughing out gouge turn your blank into a cylinder. There will be a fair bit of resistance coming from the square blank of wood. To compensate for this I begin by presenting a very minimal amount of tool to the wood by using the middle of the gouge (on either side of the tool). Once I feel the resistance gone I can present more of the metal on the gouge to the wood. Remember that the flute should always trail the cut. This means that if the tool is traveling to the right, the flute should face the left, and if it is going left, the flute is facing right.

• To obtain a nice clean end on the handle use the skew tool. A parting tool will square the end but not cleanly. Use the toe, or long point of the skew, lifting the handle so that the toe is falling into the wood. The skew does this so well that no sanding is required.

• Before shaping the handle you need to size and turn the exterior tenon on the handle that will fit into the sleeve of the chisel. This is done using a pair of calipers and a parting tool. Begin by sizing the thicker end first and then the smaller end. When these have been calibrated, use a roughing out gouge to bring the remaining wood down to size. Make sure you frequently check the fit to the chisel so that you end up with a snug fit.

• Using the skew, rough shape the handle and then make a clean finishing cut. The skew is an amazing tool in that it can be used to cut in any direction, and on any part of the tool. It cuts equally well using the heel or short end, and it is in this position that I would normally make a planning cut.

• There should be little, if any, sanding required after using the skew. To complete the handle, I put the tenon in a chuck and, holding the body, just nip off the end using the skew. You can leave the handle unfinished, or apply a finish of your choice; mine is Mylands Friction Polish.

Now you have a new handle for a favourite chisel. Of course, once you see how much better a self-made handle is, you’ll want to turn new handles for all your tools.

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