How to Care for Wooden Tool Handles in 2-4 Easy Steps

how to care for wooden tool handles - Handle Care Gear

Updated: May 2019


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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?

  1.  Well tended handles last longer.  This saves you money and time spent in the long run.
  2.  Smooth, oiled handles feel great in your hands.  Read:  Less blisters.
  3.  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

how to care for wooden tool handles - Cleaning Tools

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

how to care for wooden tool handles - Smoothing Tools

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.

Here’s an inexpensive, decent spokeshave.

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:

  1.  Apply a thin layer of oil with a rag and allow to penetrate for 5-10 minutes.
  2.  Rub the handle briskly with a clean rag until the surface feels dry.
  3.  Let cure for 8 hours or overnight.
  4.  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.

22 thoughts on “How to Care for Wooden Tool Handles in 2-4 Easy Steps”

  1. I’m so guilty of not taking care of my tool handles, but I resolve this year to do it right!
    I once had a grub hoe handle break near the head because of winter drying out the wood.
    Thanks for this reminder!

    P.S. I’ve heard about using a bucket of sand with some motor oil in it to clean and preserve tool heads.
    Just run the tool in and out of the sand a few times.

    1. I know, it’s so easy to put off. I’ve heard that about the sand and oil as well, never tried it though. Sounds like it’s worth a try….Thanks for the comment, Jed! -Matt

  2. Johnny’s Selected Seeds used to carry the Danish oil. GREAT stuff! I used to live across the street from Johnny’s. I could browse the retail shop and find superb deals on the tent sale days. Good memories, thank you, Matt!

  3. Very helpful with good explanation. Never heard of a spokeshave but definitely will purchase one soon. I had read about the boiled linseed from Tried and True but your video did an excellent job of explaining the differences. Now I’m off to work on my dozens of tool handles

    1. Appreciate the comment. Glad it was helpful for you. I recently heard that the edge of a piece of broken glass can also be used to smooth the surface (instead of a spokeshave). Could be worth a try. -Matt

  4. As a professional weeder, who’s in the middle of de-rusting, sharpening and restoring my tools midwinter, this video was so inspiring. I hadn’t quite known how to apply the linseed oil and this helped. Keep making these!
    Hope
    Artemis Garden Consultants LLC
    Amherst MA

  5. Thank you for a great tutorial. I’m a professional gardener and my tools need some care. I am excited to start the season with them restored.

  6. Wonder if you’ve ever heard of “cutting” linseed oil (boiled or raw) with turpentine as a method to have it dry? Thanks,

  7. Great informative video! After gardening for 30 years I’m finally determined to give my long neglected gardening tools some overdue attention this winter. There’s so much to know – what to use on the metal, the wood (in different stages of wear), etc. This video confirms a lot of what I ‘thought’ I need to do & what to use, but greatly clarified what to use, when & why! Thanks from Syracuse NY

  8. Hi!
    I have an old hammer that belonged to my late father. The handle has a bit of worked-in roofing tar and just general grime, though is otherwise in excellent shape. The wedges holding the head on are also in good shape and tight. The head has some smooth and spotty oxidation but no pitting.

    I’d like to clean the wood, but specifically not make it look like new. And can I use a brush-on rust-remover so I don’t have to detach the head and handle?

    Just wondering if you had any thoughts.
    Thanks!
    Jay
    Kenai, Alaska

    1. Hi Jay,

      I’ve had success using brush on rust remover, so it sound like a good plan to try it and avoid disassembly if possible. You probably know this, but make sure you dry and oil the head right after you remove the rust remover. I’ve found that tools that I’ve removed rust with vinegar or rust remover pick up moisture very quickly.

      As for the handle, it’s hard to say without seeing it. If you’d like, send me a photo at thetoolmerchants@gmail.com. Sanding or wire brushing it would be the simplest, but if the tar is already worked in and smooth, roughing up the surface might just make the tar come off on your hands. If the handle is fairly smooth and the tar is not rubbing off, you might just linseed oil the handle and just “lock in” the grime.

      Hopefully that helps,

      Matt

  9. Christopher Arrington

    What are your thoughts on using a lemon oil treatment to perserve wooden handles. Like Formbys or equivalent

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