I follow this process for finishing all of my new and restored axes before putting them to use. It creates a durable, silky smooth finish.
This process is the closest way I have found to creating that same feel of a well-used vintage handle (without years of hard work).
Oiling the handle protects it from the elements. This keeps it tight, strong, flexible, feeling great in hand, and look stunning.
Note: If you own a new Gransfors Bruk the handles come waxed. You may not want to oil it until there is some wear (But it’s always fun to jump in and make it your own).
What you need:
- 100 & 220 Grit Sandpaper
Brand doesn’t matter but I like these bulk packs: 25 x 100 & 25 x 220.
- Lint-free cloth or blue shop towels
These are often a better deal in-store (amazon)
- Boiled Linseed Oil
Amazon – You don’t need a lot. I bought a 32oz (1L) bottle a few years ago, and it’s just getting low, and I have a bunch of axes. Brand doesn’t matter – but for this process make sure it’s boiled NOT RAW.
– 400 Grit Sandpaper
– Rubber or Nitrile Gloves
– Duct tape
– Knife (only for removing any varnish)
– Axe wax
Choosing an oil: For anyone getting started I would just go with Boiled Linseed Oil (BLO), it’s the industry “standard”. It’s a hardening oil that has a nice finish, goes on easily, dries quickly, and adds nice color.
I have have a small comparison of other oils near the bottom of the page (here).
WARNING: Rags soaked with boiled linseed oil can catch fire by themselves. Lay them flat and/or leave them outside to dry.
The handle finishing process
1. Clean and sand the handle
Remove any varnish
If your axe handle is coated in varnish, it will need to be removed before oiling. It’s easiest to scrape it off with a knife before sanding.
Just drag the blade of a knife across the handle, and it will pull up varnish in curly strings. If you don’t do this, the sandpaper will get clogged up immediately and it will take you WAY longer to remove. I have a step-by-step article on removing varnish here.
Cleaning dirty axe handles:
Clean the handle if it’s dirty from use so it can properly absorb the oil. Dirt, sap, and pitch, will clog the grain and prevent the oil from soaking in.
You can easily scrape the bulk off with a knife (same as the varnish removal process), or just use the 100 grit sandpaper. You don’t need to get every last particle, just clean off anything thick on the surface.
Sand the handle smooth:
Use the 100 grit sandpaper to smooth rough grain, bumps, and dents. Then go over the handle with 220 grit to give it a silky smooth feel.
A tip I learned from a US Forest service document recommends to leave the bottom of the handle a rougher texture to help with control (100 grit only). Some old-timers would even add texture to the grip with a rasp (I like this cheap 4-in-hand).
I typically sand the entire handle with 220 grit, but it’s something worth considering.
Wipe off the dust left by the sanding, with a dry cloth, or just give it a quick wipe with your hand and you’re good to go.
Note: Do not wet the handle or wipe it with a wet cloth, the moisture will open up the grain and you will just have to sand again.
2. Apply finishing oil to the handle
Pour a small amount of oil on a lint-free cloth, or directly on the handle. Then wipe a smooth even coat across the entire handle. It should be wet to the touch but not dripping.
Allow the oil to settle and penetrate for 5 to 20 minutes before rubbing away any excess oil with a dry part of the cloth.
- Don’t skip wiping away the extra, BLO drys quickly and it can harden into a gummy texture if left on too thick.
- Make sure your cloth is lint-free. Any lint or fibers can catch on the tiniest bit of grain and get glued in place by the oil.
- I suggest wearing gloves as boiled linseed oil contains chemical/metallic drying agents.
- Oil the head as well – boiled linseed oil actually makes a great rust protector. It hardens and creates a much tougher barrier than typical oils like WD-40.
- Heavily oil the eye (check out Step 6 for ideas)
Once done, find somewhere to let your axe dry.
3. Let the handle fully dry
After the first coat is applied, let the axe sit to dry for at least 8 hours, but 12-24 is better.
Leaving the axe in the sun, or near a heat source (like a wood stove) will allow the oil to soak in more and dry faster.
Even though 8 hours is “acceptable”, don’t try and oil more than twice in 24 hours. It messes with the drying times of future coats.
4. Buff and oil the handle repeatedly
Three coats will do, but for the best results, you are going to want to apply 5-7 times, repeating steps 2 and 3 each time. The more coats the better it will look (and feel).
For an extra smooth finish:
Again, this could be done only to the belly of the handle if you want to keep it “grippier” at the bottom.
Before adding each additional coat, scrub the handle with 400+ grit sandpaper or 0000 Super Fine steel wool. This will burnish (polish) the surface and fill any small holes in the grain with an oily dust mixture. As the oil drys and hardens it will create an even smoother finish.
This is a trick I learned working on canoe paddles that I have never seen anyone else mention for axes, but it makes them look and feel great.
This final buffing step may be too slick for some, especially if your handle is pretty thick (see: how thick should an axe handle be) or rounded. If you do this approach, I recommend using a wax or pine-tar to add a bit of tackiness back to the handle.
5. Ongoing maintenance
The common adage for oiling a handle is:
Once a day for a week
Then once a week for a month
Then once a month for a year
Then once a year going forward
Let’s be honest – most people aren’t going to stick with that. I never have been able to.
But if you oil the handle 5-7 times at the start, then once or twice a year – you should be fine.
6. Bonus tips
A few extra (but not essential) tips for the absolute best protection and finish level.
The top and bottom of the handle are spots that should get some extra attention. Unlike the sides of the handle, the top and bottom of the axe have exposed end grain that will act like straws, sucking the oil in.
Soaking the palm swell
On my first or second coat of the handle, I don’t oil the eye (top) of the axe. That way I can stand the axe upside down and pour a pool of oil on the bottom.
Leave it for 30 minutes to an hour and it will soak right down into the grain.
I like to soak the bottom because it helps prevent cracks and splits with impact. I have cracked the bottom of brand new axes just by having the swell hit the ground.
While the axe is upside down you can also pour a little oil around the bottom of the head, so it can seep into any gaps and soak the eye from the bottom.
Oiling the eye of an axe
Oiling the eye is key because it reduces the chance of your axe head loosening because of temperature changes, humidity, or just aging wood.
Note: if the axe head is painted you MAY need to sand the top of the eye to expose the grain (but this is not an essential step).
A great way to oil the eye of an axe heavily is to use duct tape. Form a little cup around the eye and fill it with oil, leaving it to slowly soak in over 24 hours.
- Secure your axe vertically with a clamp or vise
- Put newspaper, a drop sheet, or a bucket under the axe
- Tape around the eye at the top of the axe head, creating a sealed ring
- Fill the tape “cup” with oil
- Leave the oil to soak in slowly
This often makes a mess, so make sure to prep accordingly. Put your axe in a bucket or on something that will absorb any running oil. Check periodically to see if any oil on the handle needs wiping up.
7. Alternate Oils
Any hardening woodworking oil (like Tung, or Danish oil) will work for an axe handle.
One I’ve been loving lately is Danish Oil. It is just a polymerized linseed oil, which means it is both food safe and fast drying. The only other difference is it doesn’t darken the wood as much as BLO ( which could be a pro or a con).
What’s key is just to understand what you are working with. Different producers use different names and processes, so it can be hard to definitively say one type is better than another.
Watch out for the word “finish”, which generally means chemicals have been added. So Danish Oil and Danish Oil Finish are different products.
I recommend just starting with good old boiled linseed oil.
Raw Linseed Oil vs Boiled Linseed Oil
You can use a slow-hardening oil like RAW linseed oil, it just takes more time and more oil.
Since the oil doesn’t harden quickly, it will absorb much deeper into wood – but that means you will need to add a lot more oil to build it up to the outer surface.
A single handle can soak up half a bottle of raw linseed oil no problem and can take days of repeated oiling before it is “full”.
Tip: Leaving the axe somewhere warm (like in the sun) will speed up the process.
Just keep adding more oil until it stops absorbing into the wood, and is still wet to the touch after 12-24 hours. Then wipe it off and leave it for at least couple days to dry out completely.
Note: It can be hard to find Raw Linseed Oil in big box hardware stores, so check your local shops or amazon. But you can also look for Raw Flaxseed Oil which is the exact same thing, but marketed for cooking (and it’s often cheaper).
8. Axe wax for more protection
Waxing your handle after oil is not essential. If you just follow the oiling steps above your handle will already be strong and stunning. But using an “axe wax” does offer additional benefits.
Why use axe wax?
Axe wax adds a hard layer of protection around the handle, sealing the oil in and keeping out unwanted dirt, and moisture. It also adds a smooth but slightly grippy texture that feels great in hand.
Axe wax can also be used as a strong rust protector on the head, and to help moisturize and waterproof leather sheaths and axe collars.
There are axe waxes you can buy, or butcher block wax works as well too. But I always encourage people to make their own. It’s super simple, costs a fraction of the price (by volume) and you can make multiple mixtures for different applications.
I have a guide to my 3 go-to axe wax recipes here.
How to use axe wax
I have a full article that breaks down how to use axe wax on the head, handle, and sheath. But the basics are very similar to the oiling process above.
- Rub axe wax all over the surface of the handle vigorously
- The heat from the friction will soften the wax and help it absorb into the wood
- Let the wax sit on the handle for 1-2 hours
- Use a cloth to wipe away any excess wax
- Repeat 1-2 times as desired
Tip 1: Consider not waxing the eye of the axe so you can still oil it in the future.
Tip 2: Use wax to plug any small holes or gaps in the hang and stop internal rusting.
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 an amateur outdoorsman who loves 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