Oil finishes are the preferred method of maintaining and preserving axe and tool handles. Although they provide very little protection compared to other wood finishes they are cheap and easy to use. In this article, I’ll cover both how to oil finish axe handles as well as the pros and cons, additives, etc.
Types Of Oils
The most common oil used for finishing axe handles is boiled linseed oil. It’s cheap and available everywhere. Some people prefer to use raw linseed oil which does provide about the same protection but takes longer to dry. As well it can attract mildew because, unlike BLO, there are no chemicals added to prevent mildew growth.
Another common finishing oil and one of my favorites is pure Tung oil. Tung oil provides considerably better water resistance than boiled linseed oil due its molecular structure. It’s also food grade and doesn’t attract mildew.
Virtually any drying oil can be used. However, no others provide as much protection. Other examples include Walnut oil, poppy oil, safflower oil, etc.
Oil finishes can also be blended with various additives to create different finishes. Some of the more common additives are pine tar, turpentine, and beeswax. Pine tar serves as protection against mildew, acts to aid grip and adds a nice dark color. Turpentine helps with penetration. Finally, beeswax creates a shiny surface finish that fills the pores of the wood. While it adds slightly more water resistance the wax has to be scraped off before more oil can be applied. Otherwise, there will be very little penetration of the newly applied oil.
There are two main application methods. Soaking and brushing.
The idea of soaking an axe handle has been around for a long time but has been gaining in popularity recently. Everyone from high end custom axe makers to youtube personalities are now endorsing long term soaking.
The process is simple. Submerge the entire axe in oil and leave it for at least a week. When an axe handle is soaked the end grain acts like a straw to wick the oil. The longer it soaks the more oil is absorbed. This method produces the highest level of saturation and penetration but can be difficult to do to full size axes. Usually, only the head end is soaked.
Brushing is the most practical method of application. Again, with repeated daily applications being recommended more and more.
This process is equally straight forward. Brush on the oil of your choice, let it absorb for a few minutes and then wipe off the excess. With this method, very little penetration occurs, about an 1/8″, which means repeated applications accomplish very little in the way of deep penetration. Although the handle will slowly become more saturated.
So, what are we really trying to accomplish?
With an oil finish, the goal is to protect the wood from rapid moisture changes by increasing water resistance. The problem is that oil finishes really aren’t that water resistant and they don’t stop water vapor at all. If you’ve ever hung an axe in the winter and had the head come lose in the summer then you’ve witnessed first hand how something as simple as a change in relative humidity can affect an axe handle.
On top of that, an oil finish does nothing to protect from UV damage which is a major source of weathering and is clearly visible in the below picture.
For handles that I really want to protect I use Polymerized tung oil tinted with mineral pigments. The poly Tung still feels like an oil finish but will build up and seal the surface. The mineral pigments provide UV protection. The only downside is the cost.
For every other handle, I use pure Tung oil to avoid mildew growth and oil the handles whenever I remember. Usually when I clean the head and sharpen the bit. That’s it!
As axes become more and more trendy the focus seems to have become chasing that vintage look or “optimum oiling techniques.” Either way, it pays to remember that handles break. Usually from over strikes, run out, or general stress from use. Not once have I heard of a handle breaking due to lack of oil.
There’s an old joke that runs something like this;
A young fellow asks an experienced woodsman to tell him all about his favorite axe. So the woodsman brings over his old axe and explains how it has served him well for over 50 years! He goes on to say that he bought it new when he was young and in those five decades he has only had to replace the head once……….and the handle seven times.