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Doc Green’s Woodturning Site

Making a Tool Handle

Many turning tools can be purchased without handles.  The idea is that the tool will be inserted into a handle, usually metal and purchased separately, having set screws or a collet to hold it in place. Many such handles are available. Another option is to mount  the tool in a wooden handle made especially for it.  

A lot of turners make small, special-purpose tools such as miniature hollowing tools made from Allen wrenches, parting tools made from saw blades, and tiny scrapers made from masonry nails.  This is where the ability to make your own tool handles really pays off because appropriate handles are not always available commercially.

It’s a fairly simple matter to make a wooden handle.  It amounts to turning a spindle, drilling a hole to accept the tool, and then using epoxy to hold it in place.  It is standard practice to add a ferrule, or the equivalent, for extra strength where the tool joins the handle. Wood blanks for tool handles may be purchased or you can use whatever convenient hardwood you have available.  

One advantage of making your own handles is that you can customize them to your liking. The length, diameter, and shape are for you to decide.  Another advantage is that you avoid the expense of buying them and can devote the money you save to another worthy cause, such as buying another tool or an accessory for your lathe.   

For a long time, I was intimidated by the thought of making a tool handle. I was under the impression that a handle would have to be perfect in all respects or it wouldn’t work, and I had no idea how to drill the hole for the tool or how to make a ferrule.  As it turns out, it’s easy, and a handle doesn’t have to be perfect.  

This article explains how to do it.  The details of drilling the hole and making a ferrule are given in two separate articles.  

The Procedure, in broad strokes

(1)  Make a decision on the length and diameter the handle is to have.

(2)  Select the blank you intend to use, place it between centers, and turn it round.

(3)  Drill the hole for the tool.  (See a separate article)

(4)  Place the blank between centers for final shaping, centered on the hole you drilled.

(5)  Apply the ferrule of your choice.  (See a separate article)

(6)  Part off the handle.

(7)  Install the tool in the handle.

Details, details, details . . .

What size?  To state the obvious, the size, type, and application of the tool should be considered.  A handle for a 5/8” bowl gouge needs to be much more substantial than one for a 1/4” detail gouge.  Of course, you can customize the dimensions to your liking.

The longest handle I’ve made is almost 17”, for a 5/8” bowl gouge. The length allows me to pull the handle against my side, a stance I prefer. The shortest I”ve made is just over 5”, for a small shop-made tool used to cut captured rings on a finial.

The largest diameter I’ve observed on the handle of a store-bought tool is 1.75”, and that is tending to be big.  The smallest I’ve observed is 1”, at the small-diameter section of the handle for a 1/4” spindle gouge.  

What shape?  This, for the most part, is up to you.  However, for the greatest mechanical strength, there should be considerable wood surrounding the tool where it is inserted into the handle.  

Select a hardwood blank.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  A blank split (or cut) from a chunk of firewood will work just fine.  The grain should be fairly straight and parallel to the length, and no knots large enough to affect the strength of the handle should be present.

You can use a section of a limb, but you may encounter checks or cracks if the section contains the pith. Small cracks that run along the length of the handle do not affect its strength to any significant degree.

Rough turn the blank.  Cut the blank to a length about 1.5” longer than what you want the handle to be.  Mount it on the lathe, between centers.  True it up and form as large a tenon as you can on the back end of the handle.  Do whatever preliminary shaping you wish, but don’t take it down to the final dimensions. Remove the blank from the lathe.

Drill the hole.  Use one of the methods described in a separate article to drill the hole to a depth of at least 2.5” for a tool 1/2” or larger in diameter.  Less depth is required for smaller tools but, in all cases, more depth adds strength to the junction between the tool and the handle.

Turn the handle to its final shape.  After drilling the hole, mount the handle using a scroll chuck at the headstock and a cone center at the tailstock.  Insert the cone center into the hole drilled for the tool.  This ensures the final profile of the tool will be centered on the hole.

Install the ferrule.  Store-bought handles have metal ferrules, which look good.  However, a string wrapped around the end of the handle and coated with epoxy or CA glue to make a “wrapped ferrule” will serve the same purpose.  For more details, see the separate article on ferrules.

Sand and apply the finish.  It is convenient to apply the finish while the handle is still mounted on the lathe.  My preference is to apply only lacquer sanding sealer because I don’t like a tool handle to be super slick.


Part off.  Turn whatever curve you wish the handle to have on the back end, near the headstock, and part it off.  Sand and apply the finish to the end.

Install the tool.  If the fit is tight, you may need to press the tool into the handle. You can capture the tool between fixtures at the headstock and tailstock and use the tailstock quill to supply the required force.  

The fixture at the headstock consists of a piece of scrap with a concave seat turned in it to accept the end of the handle.  The piece of scrap can be mounted on a faceplate or held in a scroll chuck. For the tailstock, turn a short cylinder with a seat on one end and a tenon on the other to fit into the Morse taper of the ram.  The tenon needs to be only about 3/4” long and fit loosely into the Morse taper.  

If the fit is “too tight for comfort,” you can loosen it up by sanding the interior of the hole using sandpaper wrapped around a dowel mounted on the lathe.  The dowel may be held by a collet chuck, or it may be inserted into a hole in a disk held by a scroll chuck.  This approach may not work for a hole smaller than 3/8”.  In that case, clamp the handle to the edge of a table and use an oversize bit in a hand drill to enlarge the hole.  Then use epoxy to fill the space around the tool.

In my opinion, the glue you should use depends upon the tightness of the fit between the tool and the handle.  If the fit is tight, press the tool into place, then wick thin CA glue around the tool, or skip the glue altogether.  However, if the fit is loose or sloppy, use epoxy because it is gap-filling and very strong.

Apply a thin layer of epoxy to the inside of the hole and let it soak in for a couple of minutes.  Don’t use too much because, when you insert the tool, the epoxy will be pushed ahead of the tool and may form a hydraulic block that prevents the tool from being fully seated. Go slowly when inserting the tool because air ahead of the tool must escape.  Some turners recommend drilling a 1/16” hole to provide an exit for air and excess epoxy.  

And that’s it!

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