Making Mortise Chisel Handles

Copyright 2001, 2002 by Jim Wilson
(Click images to enlarge)

Mortise Chisel Handles (Ash)

I turn many of my mortise chisel handles from ash, which is an excellent wood for them. I also make them in walnut, purpleheart, maple, cherry and several other species. See this page for a complete list of available woods.

These stout handles are seven inches overall in length, with 3/4" long shoulders for the ferrules. The ends are turned to a press fit in the ferrules. A stepped hole is bored for the tang, but you could get away with a simple 1/4"-3/8" hole (7/16"-1/2" for the larger 3/4" and 1" chisels).

Handle profile

This is my favorite profile, which I found by trial and error. I tried about a dozen different variations, until one felt just perfect in my hand. It is about 1-3/4" at the thickest point and 1-1/4" at the narrowest. The handle for the 1" mortise chisel I make is even beefier, about 1.9" thick down to 1.5".

The rest of this page outlines my process for creating these handles. I encourage you to try it. They are not hard to make, and it is especially rewarding to use a fine tool when you have had a part in making it.


Starting With the Wood...

Ash Handle Blanks   Cut 12/4 or 8/4 stock to length, bandsaw it into 16" lathe blanks, and mark centers.
Rough the blanks to round in the lathe.   Blanks roughed round
Two handles per blank   Turn the handle profiles (two to a blank) and sand them smooth.
Cut the handles to length (a little crosscut sled that the ferrule necks rest on makes this easy).   Turned Handles
Size for Ferrules   Chuck the handle in lathe, turn ferrule necks to size, and bore the tang hole. Turn the necks at the ends of the handle a couple thousandths of an inch larger than the inner diameter of the ferrules. I do this step on a metalworking lathe.

The Ferrules

Rough cut ferrules   Cut the ferrule blanks and de-burr. The ferrules are made from alloy 330 brass tube, 0.065" wall thickness, available from the big supply houses, like MSC or McMaster-Carr. Some places call it pipe or tubing instead of tube, and the material might simply be called "yellow brass."

The top ferrule is made from 1-1/2" OD tube; the bottom is 1-1/4". On 1" chisel handles, I use 1-1/2" ferrules top and bottom.

Ferrule Chucks

I made some simple expansion chucks of ash to hold the various sizes of tubing. The pin in the foreground is tapered. Tap it into the center hole of the chuck to lock the ferrule blank in place. These expansion chucks are held in a 3-jaw chuck mounted on the lathe. The marks on the chucks match the numbers I have stamped at the jaws of the 3-jaw chuck, so they always get mounted in the correct orientation.

Chuck Ferrule into lathe Close-up   Chuck the ferrule into the lathe, face the end, and slightly chamfer the outside edge. Cut a shallow taper inside; this helps during assembly.
Bevel edge of Ferrule Close-up of bevel   Flip the ferrule, face the other end, chamfer inside, bevel outside.
Finished Ferrule Close-up of finished Ferrule   File smooth and sand for satin finish. I use 3M abrasive pads instead of sandpaper.

Install the ferrules

The necks on the ends of the handle are just slightly larger than the inner diameter of the ferrules (about 0.001-0.003" oversize). The shallow taper on the inside of the unchamfered end of the ferrule allows it to fit over the end of the handle, so that it may be driven to the shoulder with a mallet.

Insert the handle into the ferrule and, with the ferrule resting on a hardwood block, strike the other end of the handle with the mallet. The top neck may be 1/16" to 1/8" longer than the top ferrule. To fully seat the ferrule, use a hole in the hardwood block, bored a little larger than the ferrule's inner diameter, but smaller than its outer diameter. The ferrule's chamfer will center the work in the hole, and the ferrule may be driven all the way to the shoulder.

Apply the finish

I vacuum seal the handles with an oil modified polyurethane designed for hardwood flooring, thinned about 1:1 with oderless mineral spirits. It is resistant to alcohol, water, sunlight and abrasion. To seal the handles, I submerge them in the finish inside an airtight chamber and draw a vacuum, which removes the air and some of the moisture from the wood and replaces it with the finish. This gives a very deep penetrating finish that will withstand a lifetime of heavy use.

Just about any decent finish will do -- shellac or an oil-varnish blend, whatever you like. You don't have to vacuum seal them. Commercially made tool handles are often simply sprayed with a coat or two of clear lacquer.

Acknowledgements

As is often the case, much of this process arose via trial and error. I owe a special thanks to Jim Thompson for sharing his invaluable experience and sage advice when I first started making these chisel handles, and to Steve Knight for providing the inspiration to begin making them.

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