Forgotten Handles

Do a good turn for your hands

By Alan Lacer

Skew with Custom Handle

In our obsession with lathes, wood, chucks, tools, and jigs, we often overlook one of the central players in woodturning: the turning tool handle. Although the cutting edge of the tool is the business end for the wood, the handle is the business end for the turner. Handles-what we turners must constantly grip-provide the necessary leverage to remove wood and control the magic imparted to the tool edge.

Not too many decades ago, turning tools came unhandled or were offered as an option to the factory ones. To me, selling a woodturner a handle is like shipping cheese to Wisconsin or televising Ivy League football games in Oklahoma-something wrong here.

Handles of the same size and wood appear neat and orderly and pack well as a boxed set. But in practice, I've learned that different tools call for different sizes and especially lengths of handles.

I love how a custom handle feels and works in MY hands: fit to my grip, my turning style, and a length that gives me proper leverage. Plus, I want each handle to have its own distinctive look so I can find it in a hurry when my shop is buried in shavings. There also is a safety factor: I set my tools deeper than on many commercial handles. With my own handles, I'm comforted that the tools don't blow out of the wood, bend at the tang, turn in the handle, or fall out of the handle. Here are the steps to make your own handles.

Wood selection

You can hardly go wrong with traditional furniture hardwoods including maple, walnut, oak, yellow birch, ash, or cherry. I've also turned handles from Osage orange, hickory, mesquite, most fruitwoods, dogwood, beech, elm, honey and black locust, and hornbeam. Popular exotic woods include cocobolo, kingwood, Blackwood, tulipwood, goncalo alves, purpleheart, and zebrawood. Select stock that has straight grain in the ferrule area and back to at least one half the length of the tool. Handle stock should be air-dried for at least 6 months; this strategy avoids drying checks and the ferrule falling off after the wood has dried thoroughly. The turning stock dimensions have several variables. First, the diameter is a function of grip and hand size as well as the lathe tool. I usually start with 11/2" to 2"- squares.

For length, there are variables for each tool type and width. For example, a 3/8" detail gouge should have a shorter handle than a 5/8" bowl gouge. The table on page 59 shows some lengths that work for me. Use the table as a starting point. If you try other lengths, think long. Woodturning is a game of leverage-shorter handles reduce leverage and possibly control.

Select ferrule material

I've had success with copper couplers (usually cut in half), copper reducing bushings, steel pipe (not black iron pipe for plumbing), stainless steel and brass pipe, and brass nuts. For most tools, the ferrule should be at least 3/4" in length. You'll want a minimum of 1/4" of wood between the inside diameter of the ferrule and the tool steel. If using pipe, choose one that has at least a 1/8" thickness. While holding in a chuck, face off one end to fit snuggly against the shoulder on the handle's tenon. A high-speed steel (HSS) roundnose scraper does the job nicely. If using brass nuts, turn the tenon large enough to thread the nut onto the wood (about 1/4" larger than the inside diameter of the nut). After threading on the brass nut, many woodturners turn away the flats on the brass nut, creating a rounded ferrule.

Turn the handle

Mount the handle between centers, using a cup drive center. The cup drive allows you to remove the handle numerous times to check for feel and balance-and to have the piece recentered each time. I normally place the ferrule end at the lathe tailstock end.

After turning the stock round, fit the ferrule. Why now? If you blow this critical step, you still have unturned wood to relocate the ferrule. When fitting the ferrule, calculate the length and rough diameter. With outside calipers, measure the diameter. Then add at least 1/8" to the diameter. At the tenon end, cut a 1/4"-long taper. Remove the handle from the lathe and test the fit-the ferrule should just start onto the tenon. Remount the handle on the lathe. To achieve a tight fit, carefully reduce the wood as described in the photo above right.

This is a great exercise in creeping up" on the size. You'll quickly learn that each cut produces a 2X result: If you push the tool in 1/16", you remove 1/8" in material. The shoulder should be slightly concave to allow for a good seating of the ferrule. With a parting tool, reduce the diameter just in front of the shoulder; this prevents curls of handle stock from wedging against the shoulder and preventing a solid seating of the ferrule. After you're satisfied with the fit, drive on the ferrule with a dead-blow mallet. A spare ferrule will help coax the ferrule into position. Once seated, face off the ferrule's outside edge with a roundnose scraper.

Turn the handle

The goal is not so much a thing of beauty but strength and good feel. Comfortable shapes can be everything from a simple cylinder to multiple concave areas to beads, tapers, and rises.

I prefer to make each handle unlike others that I own, which helps me to quickly spot a tool. Small beads, grooves, or burned lines customize a handle.

Because the area behind the ferrule is a stress area, do not reduce this area less than two thirds the maximum handle diameter. Keep it hefty. A roughing gouge, skew chisel, and parting tool are excellent tools for turning handles. After turning a rough shape, remove the handle from the lathe and begin "feel" tests. For a good fit, remove the handle at least three or four times.

When the shape feels right, complete the turning with a couple of steps. Determine the end-point of the handle, leaving about 1/2" of waste. If your tool has a tapered tang, turn the waste at the end point to a diameter matching the tang-hole diameter.

Sand and finish

For a slip-free grip, sanding and finishing should be minimal-and certainly not highly polished. When you reach 150-grit smoothness, stop sanding. I seldom apply finish to my tool handles-the oils from my hands develop a wonderful patina. If you're compelled to apply a finish on the handle, a drying-type oil (boiled linseed oil or pure tung oil) is best. A film-type finish will make the tool too slippery and eventually wear off. When completed, remove the handle from the lathe. Avoid the temptation to cut off waste and lose the centers at either end.

Drill the hole

Mount a Jacobs-style chuck in the headstock. I have had the best luck with regular machinist bits with a 60 taper. For a round shanked tool, match the rod diameter with the bit size.

For the tang-type tools, I drill two hole sizes-a smaller one the full length and a large one about halfway. These are calculated by measuring about 1?2" from the bottom of the tang to determine the smaller diameter and about 1?2" from the top of the tang to establish the larger diameter. This method provides plenty of wood-to-steel contact, but reduces the chances of splitting the handle.

When drilling, step through a succession of smaller to larger holes, which reduces the heat and effort to drill end grain. Drill the full length of a tang and between one-fourth and one-third of the length of a round-shanked tool. Place the ferrule end against the bit and center the other end into the point of a tailstock center. Turn on the lathe and observe if the handle is centered. If you see a blur or ghost at the drilling end, turn off the lathe and reposition the drill tip.

When you are satisfied with the centering, run the lathe at a speed that is under 600 (if your lathe has no indicator of speed, run at the lower speed range). Then grip the handle with one hand while cranking the tailstock wheel with your other hand. Periodically release your grip to check alignment. You can make small centering changes by tapping the handle near the ferrule.

If you feel excessive resistance to the drilling, stop and clear the chips. After drilling about 2" deep, the tailstock is no longer necessary and you can freehand the drilling. When finished drilling, cut off the waste and hand-sand the end.

Mount the tool

For a round-shanked tool, clean the steel with lacquer thinner and rough up the mounting surface with coarse sandpaper. Place slow-set epoxy into the hole, being careful to allow enough space for the shank (about 1?2 to 1 teaspoon works for me). Rest the tool's edge on a soft waste block and tap the handle end with a dead-blow mallet.

To keep the installation centered, check alignment about every 1". If the alignment drifts off course, relocate the tool in the handle. If you must live with something less than dead-on center, a slight upward angle is better than a dogleg to the right or left. If the angle is severe, scrap the handle and start anew.

Tang-type tools require a different approach. When drilling, plan for wood-to-steel contact, but rely on epoxy and wedges for rigidity and support. Use a toothpick to work epoxy around the sides and into the hole. Then put the tool edge into the waste block, and tap with a deadblow mallet. Check alignment about every 1". Just before driving the final 1/2", push wedges into the hole above and below the flat tang. Finally, drive the handle home to a point at or near the top of the tang.

For a pleasant detail and more support, fill in the "half-moon" areas above and below the tang with the waste material from the end of the handle. From a cylinder the diameter of the drilled hole, cut a segment slightly larger than the half-moon area.

Test-fit to be sure the segment does not just drop down into the opening, then sand off small amounts until it is a tight fit. Place epoxy in the opening and drive in the wedges. Remove excess epoxy with lacquer thinner or acetone.

Parting thoughts

Now you have something that is truly yours-personalized and customized to your needs. I find that if I take care in the making of my handles, I am more adept and confident at using them.

This article originally appeared in the
American Woodturner Winter 2004 Vol 19, No. 4

Detail Gouge with Custom Handle

Ferrule Material

You'll often find ferrule materials at hardware store and salvage yards. Shown are thick-walled brass and copper pipe, brass nuts, stainless-steel pipe, copper couplers and reducing bushings. Salvaged ferrules from factory handles also are candidates.

tight-fitting ferrule

For a tight-fitting ferrule, turn a tenon slightly larger than necessary. Cut a slight taper on the last 1?4" of the tenon. Twist on the ferrule. When your remove the ferrule, the indention cut on the tenon will serve as a gauge for the true tenon diameter. Finally, carefully reduce the diameter as necessary.

Thick Walled Pipe

Grip thick-walled pipe or copper reducing bushings in a chuck with small jaws, then face off the end with a high speed steel (HSS) round nose scraper.

clean up copper and brass ferrules

To clean up copper and brass ferrules, turn with high-speed steel (HSS) gouges or scrapers. I often finish with light filing and sanding to clean up the surface.

After threading a brass nut onto the wood

After threading a brass nut onto the wood, turn it round with a high-speed steel (HSS) gouge.

detail makes the handle distinctive

Adding a small bead or other detail makes the handle distinctive-and easy to identify among your other tools.

detail by burning lines

With copper or steel wire, add detail by burning lines into the handle. For better control, use a skew chisel to cut a groove to fit the wire.

additional detail and support

For additional detail and support with tang-type tools, add small wedges matching the handle wood species. These are cut from a cylinder that matches the diameter of the tang hole. Sand the wedges on their faces to a fit that is to be driven in.


  • Parting tool, 13"
  • 1/4" and 3/8" Detail gouge, 12"
  • 1-1/4" and 1-1/2" Roughing gouge, 16"
  • 5/8" Bowl gouge, 16" to 18"
  • 1/2" Skew chisel, 14"
  • 1-1/4" Skew chisel, 16"
  • 1/2" Roundnose scraper, 14"
  • 1-1/4" Bowl scraper, 16"