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Turning a Chisel Handle

by Curtis Turner
Round Rock, TX

This article originally appeared in our November 2011 issue of Wood News.

Note: click on any picture to see a larger version.

This is an easy project that can be the foundation for creating an entire set of matching handles. Once you see how easy this project is, you might try your hand at making a matching awl!

I was recently given an old socket chisel that was missing a handle. Before I start a restoration project on a vintage tool, I begin with some research. It is important to know if restoration will affect the value of the vintage tool. Research can also give you clues as to how to replicate or restore the original. The maker's mark was Bailey Sag Harbor Tool, but I wanted a little more information. I contacted Lynn Dowd of Dowd's Vintage and Antique Tools, who is an authority on vintage tools. (See resource listing below.) Lynn confirmed that this 5/16" bevel edge paring chisel was worthy of restoration. He sent me a photograph of handles typically found on this size chisel. He recommended a handle in the 4"-5" range.

With the research complete, I selected a blank from which to turn the handle. In this case, I chose jatoba. This is a hard wood that is suitable for use with a mallet. You should consider how this chisel will be used when selecting the wood. If you are creating a handle for a paring chisel, and the wood will never experience the shock of swift blows from a mallet, then you can expand your scope of wood choices. Woods that make good handles that will be used with a mallet are: maple, hornbeam, mesquite and any other hard, straight-grained wood. My absolute favorite chisel is a Witherby 3/4", which I use for paring. This flea market find set me back a whopping $7! I turned a new padauk handle for it that some would consider rather short for a paring handle. However, it is a joy to use. I don't particularly like long paring handles…but that's my personal preference.

Tool choices

For this project I used a spindle roughing gouge (SRG) to handle the roughing work. I also used several sizes of skews and spindle gouges, as well as a thin parting tool to remove the handle.

Turning the blank

When turning a handle replacement, select a blank approximately 2" square by about 6"-8" long. Mount this between centers and turn down to round. Turn a tenon for your chuck. Then mount the blank in the chuck and true up the blank. Inspect the blank for any defects as you turn. You do not want any cracks, bark inclusions, or spalting in the blank. While interesting visually, these create weak areas and are therefore undesirable in a tool handle.


While the blank is oversized, take advantage of this opportunity to practice with the skew. Any mistakes can be turned away.

Measuring and layout

You will need a few additional tools to help lay out the dimensions of your handle. I used inside and outside calipers, a shop-made depth gauge, and a ruler to determine the critical measurements.

Note: click on any picture to see a larger version.

You should lay out the blank with the socket tenon on the tail stock end of your lathe. More on this later. I started with obtaining the depth and transferring this length to the blank.

Then I took the inside maximum diameter of the socket. I transferred that measurement to the outside calipers.

I parted down to the largest diameter of the socket nearest the handle. Next, I used the inside calipers to measure the smallest diameter of the socket. I was lucky on this chisel. The socket was large enough to get an accurate measurement of the socket bottom diameter. If you are re-handling a smaller chisel, then a bit of trial and error works without resulting to aluminum foil or sand casting!

Now carefully turn the tenon to the required dimensions.

I encourage you to leave the tail stock in place as long as you can. As you are completing the tenon you will need to remove the tail stock. This will allow you to test fit the chisel socket to the tenon. This is done with the lathe OFF! You can rotate the spindle by hand while firmly inserting the chisel. This will leave rub marks which indicate high spots on the tenon. This takes some back and forth testing and removing more wood. The goal here is to sneak up on a tight fit.

Next, you will need to shape the collar or ferrule of the handle. This wood collar is larger in diameter than the outside of the socket opening. You should leave a small amount of wood between this and the end of the socket when pressed on the tenon. You will later seat the handle once it is off the lathe. Therefore, you need a little room to drive the handle into place. This also allows you to re-seat as the wood expands and contracts with changes in humidity.

Custom handle

Customizing the handle to your grip is the fun part of this project. The length, diameter, shape and embellishments are all your decisions. However, if you are attempting to match an existing handle then you will need to measure all changes in dimensions. You can add grooves and use a wire to burn in lines. Note: attach the wire to two wood handles. Never wrap wire around your fingers to burn in lines. Can you guess who will lose in this battle?

You can use a range of tools to shape the handle. I used the SRG, spindle gouges and skews. Try to achieve a clean surface free of bumps and dips. This will minimize sanding later.

The classic question: to sand or not to sand?

I prefer to sand enough to remove any tool marks or imperfections while the piece is still on the lathe. For a working tool, I don't sand beyond about 220 grit. You can sand as fine as you prefer, however, you may lose some grip if you make the handle super smooth. If this is a show handle, then sand to a finer finish. I often use Waterlox or Watco as my finish of choice for tool handles. This can be done on or off the lathe. However, any oil finish is fine. A simple wax finish also works and is easy to replenish.

Removing the handle

Once you are satisfied with the fit and finish, it is time to part the handle off the lathe. I used a thin parting tool to accomplish this. I left enough material on the handle end so I could hand sand the end into a pleasing comfortable curve.

I buffed the handle with the Beal buffing system after the finish dried.

Next time, don't balk at a flea market chisel that's missing a handle. With little work you can put a tool back into service for another 100 years!

Dowd's Vintage and Antique Tools

Curtis was a former President of Central Texas Woodturners , is a member of the American Association of Woodturners , and a member of Fine Woodworkers of Austin . Curtis teaches and demonstrates nationally for Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. He also teaches for TechShop. He owns a studio where he teaches and works. Curtis lives in Central Texas with his wife and four young children. Take a look at his website at .

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