Oil plays an important part in the maintaining your axe handle. But in terms of protecting and preserving wood, not all oils are created equal. As wood dries, it shrinks and cracks. This is especially concerning when dealing with a handle made from wood. You don’t want the handle to shrink or crack, much less fade into a dull gray color; not that the color is all that important. So, the role of an oil is to soak into the handle and keep it from shrinking, cracking, or otherwise deteriorating.
As the oil soaks into the wood, it polymerizes into a solid form. This process accomplishes two things. First, it protects the wood from the elements. Second, it expands the wood; this adds pressure between the wood and metal in the eye of the axe head. The added pressure helps to keep the head of the axe securely attached to the haft, or handle.
In this guide, I’ll quickly go over some of the best oils for wooden handles and at the end, I’ll give you step by step instruction for applying those oils. Oh, and if you’re here looking for a quick answer; I recommend raw linseed oil. If you care to stick around, I’ll explain why in the sections below.
The Best Oils for Axe Handles
So, which oils are the best? That’s a loaded question with much debate. For years, people have been treating wood with drying oils such as tung, hemp, walnut, teak, and linseed oil. Whether it’s for the handle of a tool or furniture, these are great options. The important part is that the oil hardens – a process known as polymerization. Non-drying oils like coconut, almond, and olive oil aren’t as useful in preserving wood because they don’t harden when exposed to air.
It’s hard to say definitively which oil is best for preserving wood but linseed oil is the most popular (click here to see it on Amazon). It’s cheap and dries quickly, too. I spent some time reading forums and searching the web to see what other people use and almost everyone recommends linseed oil.
The debate is over whether to use boiled or raw linseed oil. I’ll cover this topic on another page but in short, boiled linseed oil contains “metallic dryers” and it dries faster than raw linseed oil. Some people are concerned about the metallic dryers being harmful or dangerous. Instead, they use raw linseed oil which takes more time to dry.
If you’re worried about metallic drying I recommend using raw linseed oil. If you’re not concerned and don’t have much time to wait, boiled linseed oil will dry faster.
How to Treat Your Axe Handle with Oil
Once you’ve selected a nice drying oil for your axe handle, it’s time to apply the oil. That’s what we will be covering the sections below. But before you start applying the oil to your handle, there is just one more thing we need to do…
Step 1. Prepare the Wood
The first step in treating your axe’s handle is one of preparation. Remove any varnish from the handle. Some companies make a habit of coating the handle with a varnish finish. In some cases, varnish can be dangerous because the slick surface makes the handle difficult to hold on to.
To remove the varnish, take the cutting edge of a decent knife and drag it down the wooden handle; this should remove the varnish. Once finished, the next thing is to gently go over the handle with some fine sandpaper. Anything around 200-grit should work fine. We’re not trying to reshape the handle or anything. All you want to do is knock down small edges and rough spots. The goal is to expose the fresh wood. Once finished, use a paper towel to remove all the dust.
The next step is to gather some safety equipment. Use common sense when applying the linseed oil. You may want to use some gloves and eye protection; working in a well-ventilated area helps, too. You’ll be putting the linseed oil on a rag to spread across the handle. Use an old, clean rag or disposable shop towels. Once you’ve gathered all your supplies, let’s get started on step 2.
Step 2. Apply a Thin Layer of Oil
Once the varnish is removed and you’ve sanded the handle and removed all the dust, it’s time to apply a thin layer of the linseed oil. Pour some of the oil on to a clean rag. Using the rag, wipe the handle until the wood is noticeably darker in color, covering the entire handle with the linseed oil. Make sure to cover both ends of the handle as these areas will soak up a lot of oil. Once the handle is covered in a thin layer of oil, let it dry.
Step 3. Let it Dry
This step can be easy or difficult depending on how patient you are; leaving your axe to dry under the sun on a windy day will help speed up the process. Also, the dry time depends on whether you’re using boiled linseed oil or raw linseed oil. Raw linseed oil will take more time to dry. Read the direction on the container of whatever type of oil you’re using; look for suggested drying times.
Step 4. Wipe the Handle & Repeat
Once the oil has soaked into the handle, the outer layer will be mostly dry. Take a clean paper towel and wipe the handle to remove any excess oil. At this point, you’re off to a good start but you’ll want to repeat this process until you have at least three coats of oil on your handle. To clarify, you don’t need to resand the handle. Simply wipe the handle with a paper towel and apply another thin coat of linseed oil. Do this at least three times. The entire process may take a couple of days.
Step 5. Use the Axe
Now that your axe handle is preserved with several coats of oil, you’re ready to use it. The handle should feel soft and comfortable. Also, as you use the axe and grip the handle, it will develop a nice shine. This is normal and its a great way to distinguish whether or not a tool has been taken care of. Don’t stop here, though. In order to maintain the handle for years to come, you’ll want to apply a coat of linseed oil at least once a year.
Maintaining Your Axe Handle
To keep the handle is good working order, apply at least one coat of linseed oil per year going forward. Simply take a paper towel and wipe the handle to remove any dirt or dust, then apply a thin layer of linseed oil and let it dry.
Aside from oiling your wooden handles, try not to leave your tools laying outside and keep them out of the dirt. The better you treat it, the longer it will last.