How to paint a custom axe handle (tips and tricks)

Before you begin:

What you will need:
– Quality spray paint (I use Rustoleum Painter’s Touch)
– Blue painters masking tape
– 100 grit sandpaper

Optional:
– Plastic wrap or butcher paper
– Nitrile gloves
– Boiled linseed oil
– 400 or 1000 grit sandpaper
– Spray varnish

Don’t cheap out on the paint:

Do not buy the cheap off-brand spray paint – I have found out the hard way. It might look the same on the shelf, but there is a very noticeable difference in the quality. It will often be flaky, and bubbly. So just spend the extra $3 for name brand.

I typically use Rustoleum Painter’s Touch. It’s available in all hardware stores and comes in a wide range of colors. But you can get even higher quality paint in more distinct colors at art supply stores (but it’s pricy).

I also recommend using the glossy finish paint if you are doing a complex design. It stays cleaner and is less affected by layers of masking tape.

Don’t get the wrong masking tape

You must use blue painter’s tape, and not the basic green. The blue is designed to produce a clean edge.


1. Sand the handle

Use 100 grit sandpaper to prep the area of the handle you are going to paint.

If you are painting an old axe with a well-oiled and broken-in handle: just sand the area you are going to paint. You don’t want to ruin the existing finish, but the paint needs a little texture to adhere properly.

If you are painting a new axe handle: You may just want to sand the entire handle. I like to sand the rest of my handle (that won’t be painted) with 220 grit for a really smooth finish. It’s better to do it now before you paint.

Tip: If you are using the 220 grit sandpaper as well, sand just a little bit past where the paint will stop. A smooth surface at the edge of the mask is key for avoiding the painting running.


2. Oil the handle (optional)

I like to add a single coat of oil so the wood under the paint is a little more resilient. But it needs proper time to dry, so only do this step if you are going to give it the time.

Wipe a thin coat of boiled linseed oil to the entire handle. Let it sit for 5 minutes, and then wipe away any excess with a dry cloth.

The oil needs to dry at least 24 hours before moving on to masking and taping. Otherwise, it can stop the tape and paint from adhering properly.

Note: You should still properly oil the rest of the handle once the paint is done (instructions here).


3. Mask the handle

Mask around the area you want to paint with blue painter’s tape. Even if you are doing a design, start by masking around the full “paintable” area so you can lay down a base coat.

I typically use tape for a few inches above or below the area and then wrap the axe in plastic wrap or butcher paper (rather than taping the entire thing).

Tips for success:

  • Use a single piece of tape to create the mask edge
  • Push down around the edge for the best seal
  • Examine the mask from front and back to ensure it’s symmetrical

4. Apply the base coat

With your axe fully masked, it’s time to add the first layers of paint. Your first layer of paint is going to even out the surface, and ensure a consistent finish.

The key when painting the handle (at any stage), is to spray on very thin coats, multiple times. If the paint goes on too thick, it will create an uneven and weaker finish. Too much paint can also soak under the masking tape causing problems.

If you are just painting a single color – just use the color.

If you are painting a design/pattern – start with the brightest/lightest color first. Or start with white as a prime coat (I usually do).

  1. Spray on a light coat of paint
  2. Wait for it to dry about 20-30 minutes (follow instructions on the can)
  3. Repeat 3-4 times until it’s coated consistently

For the best results: Lightly sand between coats with 400-1000 grit sandpaper to keep the base coat thin, while filling any tiny small cracks in the grain with paint – creating a very smooth even surface.

After your final coat – allow the handle to dry for 24hrs.

Tips for success:

  • Spray about 12″ (30cm) away, quickly and lightly covering the area.
  • Start spraying off to the side of your handle, and then bring the paint to it once you have started. When you first press the nozzle, the spray can be uneven and send out flecks and air bubbles that will impact the finish.

5. Adding Designs and Colors

With your first color or base coat applied you can start to build a design on top. These layers should be much quicker, but the same light coatings should be used.

Note: It’s best practice to let the base coat (and each additional color) dry for 12-24 hours to make sure it is fully hardened. However, if you work carefully and you can add the next mask layer after an hour or two of drying if the paint was applied in thin layers.

You have to think about adding the new colors strategically in the right order to save yourself the trouble.

Apply the colors lightest to darkest

Start with the brightest colors first and add go darker. That way you can just paint over the existing colors, and there are fewer chances to mess up the masking.

You don’t want to have to try and butt up masks against each other. It will result in a more noticeable seem and will open up more chances for errors.

The steps below show how I would approach a multi-color design (like the one in the first picture).

Process example 1:

1. In this example, the base coat was yellow and I covered the entire bottom of the grip.

2. When I added the red, I only masked over the yellow portion, and let the red fade down into where the blue would be. Because the blue is darker, it covers the red just fine.

If I had tried to mask both sides of the red shape at once, and then do the blue/black, it would create a much more noticeable crease – and is much more likely to result in problems.

3. Mask everything that is not going to be blue

4. Once blue is done, add a second mask to frame the thin black line

5. Remove the masks and you are done

Process example 2:

Here is another process you can follow


Optional steps

Once you are done, you can add spray varnish to add an extra layer of protection if you want to help prevent chips.

However, the paint feels better in hand once it has worn in a little. When the shiny layer of the paint has worn off the texture feels a little soft and tacky (which I like).

You can pre-distress the paint if you like with a little 1000 grit sandpaper, which will pull off the shine, add some scratches, and give it the soft feel and vintage look. But it’s more satisfying (in my opinion) to “earn” the wear and tear in the field.

This is a well-worn hatchet handle, and it feels great in hand.

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


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