Winter is the perfect season to evaluate the status of your favorite wooden-handled garden tools, including trowels, hoes and shovels. If the handle is split, has been misused or no longer fits the tool head, it’s time to replace that tool. Pete Cecil, a blacksmith and historic preservation carpenter based in Oregon, offers the following steps for replacing a tool’s wooden handle.
When a handle needs to be replaced, cut off the original handle, flush to the tool head. Then using a 1/4-inch drill bit, drill out a core where you can use a punch to remove what’s left. “The worst thing I’ve seen people do is throw the tool head in a fire to burn out the remaining wood,” Cecil says. “This ruins the temper on the tool itself.”
After removing the damaged handle, select a new wooden one;these can typically be found at a hardware store. Handles are often made of hickory or ash, either as raw wood or with a shellac surface. Cecil prefers the raw ash handles, noting the wood is more flexible, easier to work with and has a nicer feel in the hands. If a shellac version is your only option, you can sand off the coating, first using 80-grit sandpaper and finishing with a 100-grit sandpaper to achieve smoothness for comfortable use.
Use a 4-in-1 rasp to shape the handle so it fits nicely in the hole at the head of the tool. You may have to go over it with the rasp a few times to get a snug fit.
Begin with the tool head and handle face-up on the workbench. Using a wooden mallet, tap the bottom of the handle to seat it in the tool head, using the the weight of the tool to help it fit. “I prefer seating the handle with a wooden mallet because it won’t mar the handle like a metal mallet will,” Cecil says.
Sometimes seating the new handle in the tool head may take more than one try, he notes. If the handle has a spot that’s too tight, remove it from the tool head and use the rasp to file it down a bit more. You can get the tool head off by using the handle’s weight and gravity to loosen and remove it.
Handles have a small slot at the head end specifically designed for a wooden wedge. Drive a wooden wedge in to expand the handle a little bit, keeping the head in place. For some tools, there’s also a small metal wedge that goes into the wooden wedge to expand it even more. Install the metal wedge parallel to the wooden wedge; if put in at a 90-degree angle, it can split the new handle.
After inserting the wooden wedge, use a fine saw to trim away any wood that overlaps from the handle beyond the tool head.
After the tool is completely reassembled, treat the new wooden handle with boiled linseed oil. (Avoid using raw oil, as it will take months to dry.) Cecil suggests warming the handle first by rubbing it with a rag. Friction between the rag and wood creates warmth that will allow the linseed oil to absorb more easily into the wood.
A word of caution: “Rags that have been used with boiled linseed oil are combustible,” Cecil says. “They should not be left in a pail or contained space. I let mine dry out on the gravel in the drive outside the shop.”
For wooden handles that are still sturdy but simply showing their age with general wear and tear, some TLC will make them last for several more seasons. If the handle isn’t broken but the original shellac has become worn by time and weather, or has become dried and splintery, sand the wood and give it a coat of boiled linseed oil. As a blacksmith, Cecil also recommends regular care for tool heads to prevent rust. He applies a floor wax to the metal to help maintain the tool head for up to a year. Gardeners could add 30-weight motor oil as an alternative, he says, but blacksmiths generally prefer the floor wax approach.