Raw or Boiled Linseed Oil for Axe Handles?
This page is meant to provide you, the reader, with information regarding the whole raw linseed oil or boiled linseed oil debate. I’ll do my best to explain everything. To quickly answer the question, I’m not sure which is better. There is no clear winner. I have my opinion, which I’ll share at the end, but both are great options for protecting wooden handles. I will, however, give you some scenarios in which you might want to use one over the other. So, with all this in mind, let’s get started.
The Linseed Oil Debate
The debate, if you can even call it that, centers around which one is better. In order to decide which one is better, you have to know a little about drying oils and process in which linseed oil is made. Specifically, the process in which boiled linseed oil is made. I’ll cover that in the sections below but for now, let me try to simplify things.
Some people say boiled linseed oil is better because it dries faster while others say raw linseed oil is better because it’s natural and doesn’t contain the metallic dryers found in boiled linseed oil. Essentially, boiled linseed oil dries faster but contains metallic dryers or “chemical dryers”. On the other hand, raw linseed oil doesn’t contain chemical dryers so it’s safer to use but takes more time to dry.
What is Linseed Oil?
Linseed oil is obtained from pressing the dried seeds of flax plants. It’s also known as flax oil or flaxseed oil. Once the seeds are ripened and dried, the oil is extracted by solvents or by pressure. In its most basic form, people use it as medicine, for cooking, and, of course, for sealing and protecting wood products like handles and furniture.
The reason linseed oil is used to protect wood products is that it’s a drying oil, which means it polymerizes into a solid form. It bonds with the wood on the surface. Most of the oil soaks into the wood and what’s left on the surface hardens because it’s exposed to air. Drying oils are good for protecting wood; oils like teak, hemp, walnut, etc. Non-drying oils don’t harden or polymerize when exposed to air. Things like coconut, almond, and olive oil for into this category. Those oils are great for cooking but not so good when it comes to protecting wooden handles or furniture.
Is “Boiled Linseed Oil” Actually Boiled?
No. It’s not boiled at all. Now, I won’t claim to be an expert on this subject. The knowledge I’ve acquired is from a variety of different sources, including Wikipedia and Dapwood Furniture Co. What I’ve found is that “boiled linseed oil” isn’t boiled at all. Rather, metallic dryers, sometimes called “chemical dryers”, are added. The reason they’re added is to decrease the time it takes for the oil to dry.
I can’t find any credible sources which list everything in a metallic dryer. One source says cobalt and manganese while others say lead oxide is added. Whatever the case is, it’s safe to say that metals are added, hence the name “metallic dryer”. But why are they added?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, they’re added to decrease the drying time of the oil. Manufacturers use linseed oil to coat furniture and other wood-related products. Linseed oil is great for this purpose but the drying time is less than desirable for a large company trying to mass-produce furniture. You can shorten the drying time by increasing the heat or by adding metallic dryers. For manufacturers, it makes more sense to decrease the drying time by adding metallic dryers to the linseed oil. So, this is one reason why we have “boiled” linseed oil that contains metallic dryers.
Which is Best? Boiled vs Raw
Like I said at the beginning of this page, I’m not going to choose one over the other. Instead, I’ll give you some examples on why you would want one over the other. After this, I’ll quickly explain which one I recommend and why.
Boiled Linseed Oil
You may want to use boiled linseed oil if you don’t have much time and you’re in a hurry. You can get two or three coats on an axe handle over the course of a day. This depends on the weather, of course. It dries faster in warm climates. So, for example, if you set your axe outside on a warm, sunny, windy day, it will dry faster than it will on a cold, cloudy day. Easy enough, right?
Be cautious about the metallic dryers. I’m certainly not qualified to tell you whether or not they’re harmful so I won’t; just be careful and wear gloves. Apply the oil in a well-ventilated area. By the way, be careful with the rag you use to apply the oil; linseed oil is usually marked with a spontaneous combustion warning. It puts off heat as it dries. Apparently, there is a chance of it catching on fire so be mindful where you put the rag when you’re finished. Please, read the instructions and warnings before using it.
Raw Linseed Oil
If, on the other hand, you’re not in a hurry, raw linseed oil is a great option. The difference in drying time always depends on the heat and environment. It’s different depending on who you ask, too. Some say the difference in drying time between raw and boiled linseed oil is measured in hours while others say its days. If you’ve got 3 or 4 days where you can spend 5 minutes applying a coat of pure raw linseed oil each day, you’re in good shape. Let each coat dry for a day. If it’s still wet when you come back, let it dry more. Give it some time.
For those of you especially concerned about chemicals in boiled linseed oil, I highly recommend sticking with the raw version. Some people even suggest food-grade flaxseed oil. That’s certainly an option but raw linseed oil should work just fine.
I like to err on the side of caution, myself. So, I recommend pure raw linseed oil. Whether the metallic dryers in “boiled” linseed oil are safe or not, you can keep your peace of mind by using the raw version. It’s not like your axe will be rendered useless for weeks on end while you wait for the oil to soak in. No, it doesn’t take that long. Slap a thin coat on the handle each day for 3 or 4 days and you’ll be good to go. Oh, and if you know you won’t be using your axe for a few days, put another coat of oil on it. Apply several coats and let them sink in; especially for new handles. Once you have a good start, reapply a coat once or twice a year for upkeep.
For more information, check out the axe handle guide and watch this video from Bushradical. He applies three different oils (boiled, raw, and mixed) on three new axe handles. It’s really interesting.
Whether you choose boiled or raw linseed oil is entirely up to you. This page was meant to inform you about both sides of the debate and give you some information about each one. You know my opinion now; err on the side of caution and take a few days to apply the raw linseed oil. I’ve used boiled linseed oil though. In fact, I used it on my Husqvarna hatchet and it worked great. I still need to put a few more coats on it but it turned out nice.
By the way, you can pick up boiled linseed oil at home improvement stores and some big-box stores. Raw linseed oil is a little more difficult to get. I couldn’t find it in my area. I check my local Lowes and two Walmarts; all they had was boiled linseed oil. So, I ended up buying this one from Amazon. You can buy larger containers if you want but this 32 oz container will last me a while.