Updated: May 2018
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Wooden tool handles are easy to neglect. In fact, I’ve never worked on or visited a farm or garden that didn’t have at least one tool handle that needed some TLC.
Thankfully, all it takes is 10-20 minutes with some basic gear and know-how. I’ll show you step by step how to care for wooden tool handles so that they last for years, feel great in your hands, and look pretty hanging in your shed.
First, let’s briefly talk about the why and when of handle care.
Why Care for Your Wooden Tool Handles?
- Well tended handles last longer. This saves you money and time spent in the long run.
- Smooth, oiled handles feel great in your hands. Read: Less blisters.
- It is satisfying to care for our gear.
When is a Good Time to Do This?
- Anytime that you have the time will do.
- At least once per year is a good target.
- Winter can be a good time as there is less activity elsewhere.
- Don’t wait until your handles are cracking!
Now onto the details….
How to Care for Wooden Tool Handles in 2-4 Easy Steps
Step 1 (Optional) – Clean
A dirty handle will make step 2 more difficult. So if there is a bunch of dirt stuck to your trusty shovel, give it a quick wipe with a stiff brush and some water.
Step 2 – Smooth
Smoothing can be done with either sandpaper or a spokeshave. If your handle is in rough shape, you can start with a low grit sandpaper such as 60-80 and finish with 100-150 grit paper.
A spokeshave is a small hand plane used to shape curved surfaces (traditionally wagon spokes). It will quickly shave off the rough surface of a tool handle leaving you with a smooth, finished surface, no further sanding required.
I appreciate this tool because it is not disposable (like sandpaper), and it can be employed for other tasks in the homestead shop, like making your own tool handles.
Side note: If your tool came with varnish and it’s starting to peel or give you blisters, don’t use sandpaper if you can help it! Stripping varnish tends to eat up sandpaper, so go with a spokeshave, drawknife or even a fixed blade knife.
Side note 2: You can also use the edge of a broken piece of glass to smooth wooden handle. This won’t remove any wood, so it’s best for handles that are in good shape already; but it’s a great use of something you already have on hand. Thanks to Emmet Van Driesche for this tip.
Step 3 – Oil
Oil helps to preserve and beautify your wooden handle. Linseed oil, from flax seed, is a great choice for garden tool handles. It is readily available, non-toxic (see side note below), and protects your wooden handle without feeling gummy, as something like mineral oil would.
Application is straightforward:
- Apply a thin layer of oil with a rag and allow to penetrate for 5-10 minutes.
- Rub the handle briskly with a clean rag until the surface feels dry.
- Let cure for 8 hours or overnight.
- Repeat steps 1-3 as desired for increased protection.
Side note: Because raw linseed oil can take days to dry, boiled linseed oil is your best choice. However, not all boiled linseed oils are equal, and many contain chemical, potentially toxic drying agents. If you have some boiled linseed oil kicking around your shop, but aren’t sure what’s in it, use latex gloves when you apply it.
For clean linseed oil that is actually boiled, check out this stuff. It’s non-toxic, safe for skin and good for your cutting boards too.
Step 4 (Optional) – Burnish
Burnishing is essentially polishing, but in my experience it improves more than just the appearance of wooden handles. After burnishing a few of my nicer axe and scythe handles, I noticed that these stayed smooth and crack free much longer than handles that just received oil without burnishing. So, I’ve started doing it to all my handles, and encourage you to do so.
To burnish, rub your handle vigorously with either a soft cloth or fine (000-0000) steel wool. For the ultimate finish, burnish after each coat of linseed oil you apply, or simply burnish after your last coat.
Thanks for reading! For more articles on hand tool care and maintenance, check out our other Helpful Articles.