There are a couple of ways axe heads can be attached but the most common method uses a wooden wedge to secure it to the handle.
Axe heads stay on with friction. Most commonly a handle with a slotted end (kerf) is shaped and fitted snuggly to the eye of the axe. Then a wood wedge is hammered into the slot, pressing the handle against the head locking it in place. But there is also a slip fit method.
How an axe head is wedge fit or hung
1. The handle is shaped and fitted to the head
The business end of the handle is shaped to go all the way through the eye of the axe (the hole in the axe head) and extend out the other side. The handle gently widens out below the head so it can’t slide any further down. This fitting can be the hardest part of the process.
There is usually a lot of adjusting and tweaking when shaping the handle to get the head seated perfectly centered in all directions (left/right, up/down, and front/back), this process is called “hanging”.
Ever heard the phrase “getting the hang of it”? That refers to the trial and error process of hanging an axe.
These days most mass production axes are seated with a hydraulic press to save on skilled labor time and cost and time. This means the handles only need to be roughly shaped to be fitted, but it can also lead to some messier hangs.
2. The kerf is cut in the top of the handle
There is a slot cut down the center of the handle (front to back), that goes down about ⅔ of the way down into the head. This is called the kerf.
3. The head is seated on the handle
The head is then firmly pressed onto the handle. First by hand, and then snuggly seated by giving the bottom of the handle a couple of good whacks with a mallet.
4. A wood wedge is hammered into the kerf
The eye of the axe head is slightly tapered with the hole at the bottom being smaller than the top.
The wider eyehole at the top of the head leaves enough room to hammer a wooden wedge into the kerf once the head has been seated onto the handle.
The two sides of the handle are pushed apart by the wedge, this puts pressure on the inside of the axe head – holding it in place.
5. The excess wedge and handle are trimmed
The top of the handle can be cut down flush with the axe head and still not budge. Often an eighth to a quarter inch is left sticking out. This is known as being left “proud”.
The benefit of a “proud” handle is that it acts as an additional stopper should the head loosen for any reason. So no chance of the head flying off.
Note: you will sometimes find large aluminum wedges used instead of wood wedges.
6. Oils and cross wedges are used to prevent loosening
Now that the wedge is in, the head will stay on. But there are a few finishing touches used to keep it there.
Oiling the handle and soaking the eye with boiled linseed oil (or similar) will help the head stay fixed. The oil that is absorbed will swell the wood and make it more resistant to the elements. This stops the handle from drying out and shrinking.
Finally, a metal step or barrel wedge may be hammered horizontally across the wooden wedge to force additional pressure on the axe’s eye.
Gransfors Bruks on the left, a premium axe that doesn’t use metal wedges. Council Tool axe on the right has a simple step wedge added. Cracks around the cross wedge are common and are not a concern.
Traditionalists will say a cross-wedge should not be added unless the handle starts to loosen, but is more common than not these days.
Some manufacturers in the past have used epoxy in the eye to seal the head in place. These are an absolute pain in the ass to remove.
The Slip fit method for axes
Slip fit is another traditional method for attaching an axe head to a handle, although it is much less common today. Primarily you will see this with Tomahawks but there are a few European axes (like basque axes) that are attached this way as well.
Slip-fit axe heads also stay on with friction, but unlike a wedged axe can be removed from the handle at any time.
The bottom of the handle is designed to fit through the eye of the axe, so the handle actually just slides down into the axe head, stopping when the wider handle top reaches the eye. The top of the handle is wider than the eye so the axe head can’t come off in that direction.
Once seated and tightened in place, the force from swinging only puts more upward force on the head, keeping it tight.
Wedged vs Slip-fit axes
The design of the eye for each type of axe head is different. So you can’t really use both methods interchangeably (although I suppose you could try).
An axe head will be designed to accept either a wedged hang or slip fit handle. The handles (not the heads) are where you find the big differences.
Wedged Fit axes are more ergonomic and efficient
The curved and shaped handles are designed to be ergonomic, balanced, and maximize efficiency for the axe user, making these axes preferred for heavy and extended work.
The grip end of the handle can have a large swell to help keep your hand locked in place and create a good stopping point if it slips. A lot of modern axes have pretty small palm swells because it takes time (money) to shape, but it makes a big difference to use.
Features of wedge fit axes:
- Handles can be curved
- Large palm swell
- Slender handles near the head
- Most axe head are designed for this
- Difficult to replace infield
Slip fit axes
Since the heads are not permanently attached, you could have multiple handles at different lengths for the same head. Then break it all down for easy packability. These axes generally are better suited for light or part-time work, and great for light use in the woods.
You can see there is a small palm swell that sticks out the front, but it’s limited because it has to fit through the eye of the axe. Tomahawks won’t have one at all, typically just a round tapered handle.
There aren’t many nice slip-fit axes anymore (I don’t own any). Basque (from Spain) is the only one that comes to mind, but there are vintage options, mostly in Europe. Anything you find in North America will likely be a mass-produced tomahawk.
Features it slip-fit axes:
- Limited or no palm swell
- Straight tapering handles
- In field take down
- In-field handle replacement
There are a couple of types of composite handles for axes as well. These are only attached by manufacturers and not repairable by the end-users.
If the composite axe looks like a “standard” axe but with a plastic handle – it’s attached in a sort of similar way. It’s just stuck in the bottom and heavily epoxied. Pretty indestructible.
The other method was popularized by Fiskars and is quite iconic. The handle is actually formed around a solid axe head, in a process called over-molding. Also proven pretty indestructible.