How to Remove Varnish From Axe & Tool Handles (essential)

A lot of new tools and replacement handles come heavily coated in varnish to keep them looking “nice and shiny” on the hardware store shelf. But varnish on a tool handle feels worse in hand and is actually bad for the tool long-term.

Wood handles should be oiled to keep them strong and prevent them from drying out, cracking or loosening. So to oil the handle, the varnish has got to go.

Fortunately, it’s easy. To remove the varnish, all you need is a knife, sandpaper (100 & 220 grit), and a finishing oil (like boiled linseed oil). 

Summary:
Step 1:
Scrape heavy varnish off with a knife
Step 2: Sand the handle smoothing any scrape lines
Step 3: Lightly oil the handle to show remaining varnish
Step 4: Repeat until fully cleaned and oiled

It really is that simple, but I have some tips on process and finishing if you read on.

Can’t you just sand the varnish off?
You could use 60 grit sandpaper and work your way up to the 100/220 grits, but it’s way more work and uses a lot of sandpaper. The varnish will clog up the grit quite quickly (especially on a long 36″ handle). Using a knife for most of it is faster, easier and cheaper.


Step 1: Scraping the handle

If you don’t scrape the varnish first it will clog up the sandpaper in seconds. Using a knife is faster, cleaner, and uses WAY less sandpaper.

Secure the tool or handle to a workstation so that it’s sticking out and you can work around it. You can use a vise, C-clamps, or if it’s an axe you can just plant it in a log.

Lightly drag the knife sideways down the length of the handle holding it in two hands, with the blade flat towards you. The blade should be perpendicular to the handle. The edge of the blade will scrape the varnish off in strings.

Choosing a knife:

You want a fairly straight-edge blade with a thick spine to not bend when dragged sideways. Use a knife with at least a 4-5” blade (the longer the better) to avoid accidental gouges.

The knife doesn’t need to be fancy or even that sharp. I use mora knives as my go-to shop knives (cheap and effective), but it could even be as easy as a kitchen knife (just don’t tell your wife).

Depending on the knife you can spare the blade and use the spine. It just needs to have crisp 90-degree corners along the back.

Once you have worked your way all around the handle, take the tool/handle and turn it around a few times in your hand looking for any shiny spots you missed, or deeper grooves in the wood where varnish might be trapped.

If you see little bits of varnish, either keep working with the knife or it can be removed in the sanding phase. 

Tips for painted handles:

If there is a painted end on the handle you want to keep, mask the edge with tape before you begin scraping or sanding as protection.

Then start slowly scraping forward from the edge of the tape – pushing the knife away from you. That will give you the best view, the finest edge, and will avoid accidentally scraping over the tape. Take your time around the edge – don’t rush it. 


Step 2: Sand the handle

Go over the handle starting with 100 grit sandpaper, smoothing out any lines or cuts caused by the scraping. The coarse sandpaper can also be used to remove any grooves in the grain that trapped varnish.

Once it’s smooth and even, go over it again with 220 grit sandpaper to get it feeling fine in hand.

Note: Some “old-timers” like to leave the bottom of the handle a little rougher for more grip. So you could leave it sanded at only 100 grit.

Use a dry cloth or paper towel to wipe off all the dust and look for any remaining varnish. Don’t wet the cloth as the moisture will open up the grains and you will need to sand it again.

Important for axes and hatchets:

TRY to sand the top of the handle that sticks through the eye. You want to be able to oil this heavily. Oil at the eye will be sucked down into the wood grain (like little straws) and travel down into the head of the axe. More on this in the last step.

Oil will swell the wood creating more pressure and better hold on the axe head, and make the axe less likely to loosen due to temperature and humidity changes.

It might not be easy or even possible if it’s flush with the top of the head, but it’s best if you can.

If you aren’t sure you got ALL the varnish, you can look again after you apply the first coat of oil. The oil should reveal any remaining spots. 


Step 3: Oil the handle

When you are ready, simply wipe on a LIGHT coat of boiled linseed oil with a rag. You can let it soak for a few minutes before wiping away any excess. You should be able to see any remaining varnish as light/discolored spots almost right away. 

These discolored spots will look like the oil is not absorbing (because it’s not). Often it is only in deeper grain, but it can also be splotchy areas where the varnish was absorbed more into the wood.

Wait 30-60 min for the boiled linseed oil to dry a bit more before you begin sanding again.

Tip: Hardening oils like boiled linseed oil contain metals and chemicals as drying agents, so I recommend wearing rubber gloves. It’s not a big deal if you don’t but wash your hands thoroughly after. 


Step 4: Repeat

Normally you would wait longer for the oil to dry, but at this point, you can sand or scrape any areas still showing varnish to get rid of it.

The oil will clog up the sandpaper quickly, so hopefully, you won’t see much varnish but I usually find a persistent spot or two that I have missed despite my best efforts.

Don’t worry about the sanding making an uneven oil coating – it will all even out once you start oiling again.

CAUTION if you are working on a handle that is not attached. You don’t want heavily oil up near the eye until the handle is installed because it will cause the wood to swell (which helps tighten the hold).


Next steps: Finishing the handle

Once the varnish is gone, you should continue to repeatedly oil the handle for a durable and lasting finish. It will also feel better in hand. 

I have a full step-by-step article on the proper way to oil an axe handle with a couple of tricks I have not seen listed anywhere else.

The common adage for oiling a handle is:
Once a day for a week
Once a week for a month
Once a month for a year
Once a year going forward

Most people honestly aren’t going to stick with that so I have found that at least 5 times is a good realistic minimum, leaving 12-24 hours between coats. But more coats are better.

After you have fully oiled the handle you can also consider adding a protective wax coating. Wax adds a bit of softness and grip that just feels great in hand and keeps out any moisture or dirt. 

We also have an article on making your own tool wax here. I mostly use mine for axes so the article says “axe wax”, but it works for any wood or metal tools.


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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