A fun and easy way to customise your hand tools
Alright,you've been waiting weeks for that brand new panel saw you ordered to arrive and finally, today is the day. You tear open the crisp new box and unwrap your shiny new hand tool. Smelling the fresh wood, varnish and steel. Now quick, take the handle off and make a new one...? Yeah sure, why not? Customising your hand tools is not only a fun project for any woodworker, but it gives your favourite tools a custom feel and look all of your own. Now don't get me wrong here, remember, if it's not broke then don't fix it. Here's a few examples of some of my own tools that didn't quite seem to fit my hand. You know, as much as you'd love to keep things original for the great-grand children to bring them into Antique Road Show in 150 years they won't be able to say, "Now, if it only had the original handle..." To keep things copacetic for future generations, carefully remove what it is you want to change or customise and put it safely away somewhere for future profit. Now you can go ahead and make your own custom handles.
New Cherry handle on cross-cut saw, original Pax shown on the right
I ordered a Pax Panel Saw a few years ago and when it finally arrived I began to use it. Every chance I had I reached for my new cross cut saw and tried to do what my fore fathers did before me. The only problem was the handle was too darn big; I don't think I have abnormally small hands or anything, it just seemed like the handle for this saw was huge. Perhaps people in England, (where these fine tools are manufactured) have gigantic hands I assumed...no, couldn't be. Was it me? I didn't think so but after some great debating and inner turmoil, I decided I was going to carve myself a new handle. First things first, I removed the original and traced in onto a piece of 1/8" backer-board. Next I carefully wrapped up the handle and put it away. Now with the original safely away I could focus on the project at hand. I went to my off-cut pile and found a great piece of Black Cherry wood that was too small for anything but perfect for this application. I jointed and planned the stock piece now before I started to shape anything, much easier now with the piece still square.
The slot or groove for the blade is also much easier to do at this stage, I had a very fine kerf table saw blade I used for this task. I made up a small cradle out of some plywood off-cuts that held the still square blank at the appropriate angle for the cut. This is the most crucial step I think in the entire operation so reference off of the original handle and match it up exactly. I now reference all of the other important locations onto the blank, ie. screw holes, saw blade shoulder shape etc... I referenced back to the original as well as a beautiful old Disston I have and came up with a shape I liked. On the tight inside curves and finger hole I added, I matched the radius with a few Forster Style bits and on my Drill Press I bore out the waste. Then onto the Band saw I roughed out the shape being careful to meet up with the drill holes from the previous operation. With the rough shape cut out I hold it in hand to get a general idea of the size and shape. I trim a little off here and there, bringing it closer to my own hand size. When I get it to the shape I like it's time to start fine tuning the handle. With a medium coarse rasp I started bevelling the chamfers on the pistol grip area of the handle. Then onto the outer shape and finally the finger hole. Keep in mind to check your progress as you go, holding the grip and analyzing the shape, where it works and where it doesn't. Take off a little at a time; it's easier to remove a little than it is to put some back on. Progress to a file and onto sand paper, 120 to 220and finally finish off at 400 grit. Drill out the screw holes making sure again to reference off of the original and try it for size. I rubbed on a oil and wax finish that seemed perfect for the cherry wood. It's been a little over a year and this saw has become an extension of my arm. It's a perfect fit for my hand and every time I look at it or pick it up to use it I know I had a small part of making this great tool even better; at least it is for my hand.
New Scrub plane tote (on top) compared to an original Veritas Jointer plane tote.
A few months after the challenge of making a custom handle for the Panel Saw, I finally bought myself a Scrub Plane. I ordered the Veritas model manufactured here in Canada. When it arrived I was very impressed by the quality, heft and over-all feel of the plane. All was well in my Scrub plane world until one fine afternoon I was challenged with a 19" wide, rough piece of Mahogany I needed to get ready for finishing. I started with my trusted Scrub plane after which I planned on following with my Jointer then on to my Smoothing plane. The process I've become familiar with when I mill by hand any rough stock I have around the shop. However, on this day the wood won the battle, sweating away for a half hour, (the piece was huge) I began having cramps in my hand. It was at this moment I decided the fate of the original handle that came with my Scrub plane. The next morning I was backing out the long screws of the rear tote and wrapping up the original. In my head I was thinking about the steps I'd taken when I replaced the handle on my trusted Panel Saw. I imagined the process and searched for any flaws in my projected procedure. I traced the original for reference and found a suitable blank again from my off-cut pile in Cherry. I laid out the shape and realized the long machine screws that hold the tote to the plane body are not only drilled down at an angle, I didn't actually have a bit to carry out the operation. My plans foiled, I was back to the drawing board and thinking about my hand cramps. I suppose I could wait and purchase the obviously special-order item I'd surely need to carry out the drilling procedure or....then it hit me, I'd simply re-shape the existing tote. It was already drilled and a perfect size for shaping. I grabbed the tote and with Rasp in hand I started filing, shaping, sanding and sweating. A little off of here, a bit off of there, some sand paper here, a little oiling there. I re-attached the tote and pushed the plane across a rough piece of stock on my work bench. It felt great, finely shaped to suit my hand I looked forward to the next challenge of rough milling some huge piece of lumber off of my wood rack.
Why Stop There?
Making your own handles, totes or knobs is a fun way to customise your hand tools and the worst thing that can happen? You need to re-use the original or simply try again on a new blank from the off-cut pile. This is a great way to use up those odd sized pieces destined for the wood stove, it will enhance your tools and save your hands. This process can be used all around the tool cabinet as well; I had a great sliding bevel gauge but it came with a hard plactic handle that made me cringe every time I saw it hanging there next to my rosewood handled Square or my Cocobolo handled scribing knife. So again, I removed the original plastic handle and using it as a template, I replaced it with a nice piece of Walnut. Now it looks like a fine custom tool I special ordered from one of those fancy tool catalogues.