Decades ago, woodturning tools
came without handles, and turners
would simply fashion their own.
This makes perfect sense, because a
handle that fi ts and feels “right” gives
a turner confi dence. And who better
to custom-fi t the handle than the
person who’ll use the tool?
Turning and installing your
own handles is a great exercise in
designing, turning to fairly tight
tolerances, and drilling wood on the
lathe. To get started, you can buy tools
unhandled (still an option) or remove
their commercial handles (really easy).
Use strong, dry wood
Select stock with straight grain,
especially for the tool end of the
handle (use the strongest grain
orientation for this critical area).
Traditional hardwoods, many exotic
woods, and even local woods that you
harvest and dry yourself are all good
options. Do not use weak woods such
as pine, poplar, butternut, willow,
spruce and fir.
Make sure the wood is dry. If you
have any doubt about the moisture
content, let the handle stabilize for
several days (or longer) after roughturning
and drilling the initial hole.
I make each handle unique, by
using diff erent woods and fi nish
colors, so that I can immediately
identify each tool. I normally start with
stock that’s 1-3/4" to 2" square (Photo
1). The length of the blank depends
on a number of factors, including
personal preferance and the tool itself.
Figure A (below) lists handle lengths
that work well for me. It’s always
better to make a handle too long,
rather than too short.
Every woodturning tool handle
must have a metal ferrule to reinforce
the joint between the handle and
the tool’s shank, or “tang” (Photo
2). Hardware stores and salvage
yards are good sources for ferrule
stock. Copper couplings (used to join
copper pipe and tubing) are some
of the best. They’re available in a
variety of diameters and each one can
be cut in half to make two ferrules.
Choose a diameter that allows plenty
of wood between the tool’s shank
and the ferrule, usually at least 1/4"–if
there’s any question, go with a larger
Make a handle
1. The fi rst step is to drill a 3/8" dia.
x 3/4" deep pilot hole for the tang in
the blank (Photo 3). Note: If the tang
is smaller than 3/8", match the pilot
hole’s diameter with the tang. The end
you choose for mounting the tang
should have straight grain and be free
of checks and knots. Clamp the blank
in a vise and use a hand-held drill.
2. Install a live center with a cone
in the tailstock (see Sources, below). The cone will automatically
center the pilot hole when the blank
is mounted on the lathe. If you don’t
have a cone-type live center, turn a
tapered piece of wood to fi t into the
blank’s pilot hole and protrude about
1/2" beyond it. When you mount the
blank, center the live center’s point on
the protruding end.
3. Turn the ferrule end–or the
entire blank–to round, using a spindle
4. Turn a tenon on the end to
match the ferrule’s length and inside
diameter–go for a driven-on fi t.
Slightly taper the tenon’s end to help
get the ferrule started. Drive on the
ferrule, factory end fi rst, all the way to
the tenon's shoulder (Photo 4). This
orients the ferrule’s rough-cut end
with the end of the tenon. Turn down
this rough edge after reinstalling the
blank on the lathe. If the edge is very
rough, use a mill fi le, off the lathe.
5. For safety, turn a bulb over the
part of the handle that will house
the tang (Photo 5). This provides
maximum strength in the event of a
catch or dig-in.
6. Turn the blank to a diameter
slightly larger than fi nal size. Then use
a detail/spindle gouge to round the
back end of the handle.
7. Turn the gripping area of the
handle into a shape that you like
(Photo 6). Be sure to test the grip with the hand that you will use to control
the tool. As the gripping area nears
perfection, shape the transition to the
bulb to create the optimal feel and
balance, but beware of making any
portion too thin.
8. Finish-sand the handle and
ferrule to 150 grit, with the lathe
running. Turn off the lathe and sand
with the grain to fi nish the job.
9. Remove the tool rest to drill the
tang hole (Photo 7). For round-tang
tools, the hole’s depth should be one
fourth to one third of the tool’s length.
For fl at-tang tools, the hole should
house the entire tang—almost to
the tool’s shoulder. Mount a Jacobstype
drill chuck in the headstock
(see Sources) and install an ordinary
tapered-point bit (other types of bits
won’t enter the pilot hole accurately).
Place the handle’s pilot hole against
the bit, bring up the tailstock, and
lock it. Advance the live center to
engage the center hole on the waste
end of the tool handle. Put on a fullface
shield and set the lathe’s speed
between 400 and 600 rpm.
10. Turn on the lathe and check to
see that the handle runs true. There
should be little or no “ghosting” at the
ferrule end. If you see ghosts, stop
the lathe and re-center the drill bit
in the pilot hole. Once all is running
well, take two simultaneous actions
to drill the hole: Grasp the spinning
handle about halfway back with one
hand while cranking the tailstock’s
handwheel with the other. Go slowly.
If you feel too much resistance, slowly
back out of the hole, to remove chips.
11. If the hole must be made
larger, to accommodate round tangs
that are larger than 3/8" dia., simply
repeat the drilling operation, using
the appropriate larger taperedpoint
bit. Drill stepped holes to
accommodate tools with fl at tangs.
Drill the small dia. hole the full length
of the shank; drill the larger hole only
as far as necessary.
12. Finish the back end of the
handle off the lathe. Simply cut off the
waste with a handsaw and then sand.
13. Set the tool into the handle.
This step is critical. I’m a fi rm believer
in using epoxy to anchor the tool, so
start by pouring a generous amount
into the hole. Drive the handle onto
the tang (Photo 8). Stop about
every quarter of the way to check for
alignment—sighting the tool and
handle much as you would sight a
gun. Look for misalignment left or
right and up or down. Tap the tool
with the mallet to make corrections.
14. My favorite tool-handle fi nish
is the one that comes from hard use:
sweat, dirt, wear–and maybe even a
little blood. A pure oil fi nish is another
option, but any fi lm-forming fi nish
(including wipe-on oil-varnishes) will
make the handle too slick.
(Note: Product availability and costs are subject to change since original publication date.)
Oneway Manufacturing, oneway.ca, 800-565-7288, Live Center with Cone
(#2 Morse taper), #2064.
Packard Woodworks, packardwoodworks.com, 800-683-8876, Jacobs-Style Keyless Chuck
(#2 Morse taper) , #111022.
Fig. A: Suggested Handle Lengths
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker August/September 2010, issue #149.
August/September 2010, issue #149
Purchase this back issue.
Click any image to view a larger version.
1. Choose straightgrained
handle. Use brass,
copper or steel
fittings to make
the ferrule, which
the tool and the
2. Turning tool
either round or
flat. Both types
mount in holes
bored in the end
of the handle.
holes to accommodate
3. Start by drilling a
pilot hole for the
tool's tang in one
end of the handle
blank. Then use a
to mount the
blank on the lathe,
so the pilot hole
will be centered
when the blank is
4. Drive on the ferrule
a tenon to fit. This
ferrule is a copper
been cut in half. If
the tenon is longer
than the ferrule,
ferrule (the other
half of the coupling)
to drive the
first one home.
5. Turn a bulb
the ferrule, to provide
support for the
tool’s tang. Most
of the handle’s
be done with a
6. Shape the
handle to fit your
it feels just right.
Remove the handle
often, to check
the way it feels in
7. Install a chuck in
the headstock to
drill the tang hole.
With the lathe running
at slow sped,
grip the handle (so
it doesn’t turn) and
crank the tailstock,
to carefully drive
the handle onto
the spinning bit.
8. Drive the handle
onto the tang,
using a waste
block to protect
the edge. Check
make sure the tool
and handle remain