How to Fix a Loose Axe Head (And How Not Too)
Through collecting axes I’ve come across lots of funny ways people have “fixed” loose axe heads – but in reality, you don’t have many options of how to do it right.
To tighten a loose axe head, you need to create pressure inside the eye so that the wood handle presses against the inside of the axe head. This can be done with metal wedges, nails, screws, or oils. These fixes are easy and can last for years. But if the issue persists it may be time to rehang the axe.
It’s important to try and fix any wiggle or movement in an axe as soon as you notice it. The more the axe is used while loose, the worse the problem will get. If the head is moving, it will impact the front of the handle – compressing the wood and loosening the head further with every swing.
You can only fix wood-handled axes, there isn’t much you can do if a composite-handled axe if it comes loose.
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Start with Boiled Linseed Oil
Oil alone likely wont fix a loose axe head, but if it’s a very small wiggle it could.
As the oil soaks into the handle it can expand the wood fibres. But it’s best to soak the eye in oil to prevent cracking when installing a wedge as well. This could be any wood oil (tung, danish, etc), but boiled linseed oil (BLO) is the standard.
I typically create a “cup” out of duct tape and repeatedly fill it with oil until the handle stops absorbing it. The end grain at the top of the handle will act like a straw and absorb it quite quickly at first.
But you can also figure out ways to stand the axe so it’s sitting in a container of oil as well.
Metal Cross-Wedges for Axes
Step or Barrel wedges are designed specifically for this purpose. The wedge will dig in and for the wood in the handle in all directions. I like step wedges over barrel wedges, but they both do the same thing.
If you go to the hardware store you will likely only find kits that also include a wooden wedge, but you can buy bulk packs for cheap on Amazon (like this one).
I typically use a #3 step wedge for full-size axe eyes (1/2″ or 15/32″ wide). But there are larger or smaller as needed. You can place a single wedge in the middle, or two edges for extra pressure.
How to install a step wedge:
- Oil the eye with boiled linseed oil to prevent cracks
- Place the wedge at an angle to disperse pressure when installed
- Hammer the wedge in most of the way in
- Use a punch for the final strike to avoid hitting the wood
There are different sizes available depending on the size of the axe you have and how much room you have to work with.
Step-Wedge Size Chart:
|#3||1/2″ (15/32″)||1 -1/16″|
Most axes today come with a metal wedge installed at the factory, which can make it difficult to add more.
Pro tip: If you have the ability, add a notch into the side of your step wedge before hammering it in. This will make it easier to pry out if and when you need to re-hang the head.
Nails, Screws, Coins All Work
If you don’t have step wedges on hand, and so it’s totally fine to improvise. I have seen pennies, dimes, washers, and odd-ball pieces of metal used – and often they do the trick.
Nails are by far the most common filler used instead of a wedge to tighten an axe head. Everyone has them already, they are long, and they can fit around existing wedges easily.
The only downside is a single nail won’t add that much pressure – so often you need to add 2,3,4 or more.
Screws can be used – and are usually thicker than nails (adding more pressure). But I don’t use them because they are harder to get in all the way. You will usually end up with a portion of the screw popping out the top. But, if you have a bench/angle grinder you can take the top off and make it flush.
Swel-Lock Oil Fix
Skip the BLO for this one, but you can apply this in the same ways mentioned earlier on.
Swel-lock is a product designed specifically to expand wood grain. It was designed for fixing things like old wooden chairs but it can do a great job of expanding an old axe handle and tightening the head. See here on Amazon.
There are also instructions out there for how to make your own out of antifreeze – but I’ve never tried it.
You Can Use Water in the Field
You can soak the axe in water for short-term swelling of the wood to tighten the head. This should only be done if you are out in the field and can’t fix the axe properly before using.
When you swell the wood with water the fibers will shrink again as the wood dries, and can lead to more dramatic damage as the evaporating moisture can leave the handle more dried out than when you started.
And if the handle repeated swells and shrinks it can damage the fibers in the wood – making it even more loose.
If you do have to do this in the field just make sure to heavily oil the eye as soon as you return, and then look at any of the other previous mends to do it properly.
Don’t Use Tape
I have got so many axes over the years with duct tape being used in one way or another to help hold the head into the handle.
Don’t do that. It’s not going to work, and it’s going to make everything more dangerous since it becomes hard to tell how loose an axe really is, or if the handle is broken.
If All Else Fails, Re-hang the Axe
You are going to hit a point where there isn’t room for any more nails or wedges. Or sometimes the handle is just shot. That’s when you will need to rehang the axe.
If the handle is in good condition you can sometimes get the head off, smooth out any damage and rehang the head – however, usually you will need a new handle.
I have separate articles on how to remove an axe head and where to get good axe handles.
How to Re-Hang an Axe
The key to hanging an axe head is to shape the handle to fit the eye snuggly, without sitting on a ledge. If the head is sitting on a ledge it will start to loosen the handle again quickly as the wood fibers get compressed by use.
1. Choose a handle: Select a handle that is the right length and width for your needs. The eye (end of the handle) should start slightly larger than the hole in the axe head.
2. Fit the axe head: remove material from the handle eye with a drawknife or rasp until the axe head fits onto the end. It should fit snugly and be centered on the handle.
3. Secure the axe head: Once the head has been fitted a wood wedge is hammered into the slot at the end of the handle (the kerf), pressing the handle against the head locking it in place.
Then if you want, you can do any of the steps from earlier to lock the handle into place even tighter (like by adding metal wedges).
Once you are done, be sure to fully oil your handle (see how to here) and store it properly (full guide here) to keep it strong, and reduce the chance of the new handle loosening.
If I missed something or you have any questions, feel free to leave me a comment below. I do my best to respond to everyone.
About the author:
I’m just a guy who likes axes – as a tool, the craft of restoring them, and the history. I got tired of only finding crap websites, so I set out to build a reliable one myself.
Jim B. – Owner, Creator