Questions Answered – Fitting Chisel Tangs to New Handles

Question:

I have many such chisels that I’ve picked up here and there, I’m a passable turner and fancy turning my own handles but tang fitting and step drilling are arcane mysteries to me. Where would one learn such practices?

Answer: 

DSC_0162Right here. I am often asked how to fit a chisel handle to tanged chisel but the problem now is that not all tangs are at all traditional. With the Ashley Iles gouge John just repaired the split handle of,  the tang was parallel and square and was centred in a round, slightly undersized hole in the wood. That being so, the four corners of the tang bite onto the wall of the hole and forcing the chisel handle down onto the tang meant that the tang was force-driven into the walls. It’s a bit crude but it works  fine. You can see the different tang type above here. This has become common in more modern makers but most of the chisel handles that need replacing will be the older abused types from the ages when skill and craftsmanship were respected.

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Traditional tangs will need new handles because of age and abuse in more modern times when people know no different. In times past the blacksmith heated the tang and burned the tapered, tang-shaped hole square into the handle but left the tang 1/4” from the shoulder of the chisel. With the tang slowly quenched and cooled so as not to be too hard, he then drove it onto the tang so the pointed tang was effectively ‘nailed’ into the end of the hole. Now this process is a bit awkward in a woodshop with wood, chips and fluffy shavings and my insurers might find a case for arson in there somewhere. Step drilling on the other hand works differently than both of these methods methods but we end up with a well fitting tang. The important thing here is to get the hole centred in the handle so that the chisel or gouge aligns perfectly from side to side and front to back.  Here are the steps we used to replace Johns handle.

First off we reground the square tang shown above to a more traditionally shaped tapered one. Not conventional but it worked fine.

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It’s hard to drill holes freehand but it can be done. Sometimes I drill freehand and sometimes I take out the risk by jigging up for it. In this case it’s easy. When one of my Dewalt cordless drills stands on its base the bit aligns parallel to the bench top. That means that when I push the drill forward it is drilling perfectly straight. The difficulty in free handing is aligning both vertically and horizontal. Using the bench and the drill means I only have to align one way. Aligning myself from the back of the drill makes it easy to centre the drill into the handle and keep it equal as I enter more deeply.  A piece of one-by in the vise simplifies the job. Anchor it in the vise  so that the end of the board is a couple of inches above the centre of the drill chuck and drill a 1/16th inch hole an inch or so in from one of the outer edges. Now use a brace and bit the diameter of the ferrule or near to using the hole you drilled as a pilot hole to draw the bit into the hole.  Drill from both sides for a clean cut to both sides. Now, down from the top end of the board, saw a kerf into the centre of the hole. This kerf allows a screw through the side to tighten the hole onto the ferrule and the handle being drilled. Drill a 3/16” hole through the side to the saw kerf. Pass a screw into the hole, locate the handle in the hole the full width of the ferule and cinch up the screw. You can see the screw head in each of the images. This should align the handle nicely but check yourself as you cinch the screw. John found it best to pull the drill toward him because he felt he could see the handle more fully. If you can align more from behind the drill and slightly above it so you can see over it you will get perfect alignment.

DSC_0167Now the drill alignment height is perfect we are ready for step drilling a series of diminishing sized holes. The main tang of the chisel at the base and by the bolster will likely be somewhere around 1/4” square or something like that. If that were the case, drilling a 1/4” hole means the corners will bite into the wall of the hole. You must vary these sizes according to the tang you have on a specific chisel. The first hole I suggest you drill is the one that goes the length of the tang minus say a 1/4”. So if the tang is 2″ long drill 1 3/4” .

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The first hole is 1/8”. The next hole is a little bigger, 5/32” usually works. This hole goes somewhere around 3/4 of the depth to 1 5/8”; not hard and fast. The next hole is 3/16” and goes half way at 7/8” and the last one is the size best suited to the thickness of the square of the tang at the base and in my case is 1/4”. This hole goes to a depth commensurate to the length of the thick section of start of the square; usually this will vary  but 1/2” should work.

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Offer the tang into the hole and tap it into place gently to see and feel how it seems to seat in the hole. You may need to adjust the holes in the stepped diameters if the bolster is a long way from seating to the end of the handle inside the ferrule. I like the bolster to be about 1/4”. This then means that the pointed end will ‘nail’ into the bottom of the small dia hole and the square section at the base will bite into the walls. This stops the chisel or gouge from turning in the hole when being worked as a finished tool.DSC_0163

16 comments on “Questions Answered – Fitting Chisel Tangs to New Handles

  1. Nice tutorial for sure, I love to see how others do their problem solving, thank you. I do the same thing essentially, except a little backwards. In some projects where I need a precise hole in a piece, like a handle for a lathe tool, or chisel, I use my bench top drill press. Basically the same process as you are doing with the cordless drill, except, first I drill the holes into a square block that will become my handle. Next I mount the piece on my lathe, using a 60 degree pointed cone in the tail stock, the cone centers the piece nicely, in the headstock I use a 4 prong drive center. I then turn the piece into a comfortable handle.

  2. Thanks for the full and comprehensive response to my query. Fortunately most of my redo chisels appear to be “traditional” tang. Similarly to John above, I believe I can do it all on my lathe, fitting a drill chuck in my tailstock which guarantees centre bore, I can step drill the hole in the blank, then fit a live cone centre and turn the handle. I just needed smarter, more practical people to detail the process for me. Many, many thanks.

  3. I was given a few handle-less gouges as a teenager. They had the tapered tangs-and turn out to have dated from the early 1800s. I had come across some instructions much like yours, so thought, why not give it a try? The wood was scrap ash from a broken hockey stick in the kindling pile. I step drilled the hole with the wood clamped vertically in a bench vise. I also used a sharp cold chisel to raise half a dozen teeth on the edges of the tang to give additional grip. Rather than a ferrule, I decided to use a couple leather washers slipped over the tang first. Part of what I’d read suggested that the washers should be softened in boiling water, as should the hole in the handle, which I accomplished with a teakettle and small funnel. With the chisel clamped in a vise, I drained the water from the handle, slipped the washers down the tang, slid the handle down till it engaged about half an inch short, then whacked it with a mallet till seated. A day or two later after everything dried out, I finished shaping the handles and finished them with tung oil. Forty years on and I’m still using them.

    • Ferrules do add to the life of chisels generally but these chisels and many modern ones like for instance Veritas are made differently. They don’t have a traditional tang drawn out and tapered by hammer they are square and parallel with indents in to increase friction. They also have a broad bolster to distribute pressure over a wide area so that instead of a wedging action that can happen early on with traditional chisels the seat against the bolster. All that to say it should be fine.

  4. This is another great example of the very thorough content of this blog. Every time I have a question, I find a blog entry that answers it with pictures and explanations perfectly. Thanks so much for these posts.

  5. I have some old Stanley chisels which have a bolster (not socket type) and a round tang about 1.25 inches long I do not have the original handle nor does the chisel have any other marking than “Stanley” so I don’t know what the original handle looked like. How would I go about reattaching these chisels to new handles? Thread them perhaps using a threaded insert? Grind the round tang to be a tapered tang with four sites (this would not have much length)? Any suggestions?

  6. Thank you so much for publishing this blog. I bought a set of old Marples chisels that were purportedly used in a ship-building shop; four are lovely but two will have to have their handles replaced as they are split from end to end and missing part of the wood..

    The 1″ chisel is much shorter than the rest; I gather that it is a “butt” chisel that may have been used in tight spaces. Or perhaps it was used to create hinge mortises?

    • No, not necessarily. Butt chisels are a new phenomenon. If the chisels are old it may well be that it was worn down through 50 years of use. Very common. There are other chisel types too. Not hinge mortises either. Pic always help with Qs like this.

  7. It’s nice to know that I’ve inherited such a well-regarded tool. I have managed to purchase a Ward and Payne chisel that is the same length as the others and has a boxwood handle. I am looking forward to using both.

  8. Paul,

    I have an old 2″ Marples gouge, I guess a #7 sweep – needs a handle. It doesn’t have a bolster, the tang is just tapered. (I’m wondering, could it have been a turning gouge? It certainly isn’t ground that way. Sparks like HC steel, not HSS.)

    I’m thinking of drilling out and fitting a coin or other metal disk as a bolster, along with a brass ferrule… what do you think?

    If you have time to answer, thanks!! If not — still thanks for all you do!!

    • Many chisels were made with a tang only and they worked fine because the ferrule was thicker steel and not brass, which tends to be brittle. The new handle was dried way down to near zero mc (moisture content) though it wasn’t measured as such. Heating the wood in a tray of sand on a low heat source for a few hours from underneath works best. Once down the an undersized hole is bored and this can be stepped from larger to smallest. Then the tang is heated to red hot and inserted in the hole to burn the square and tapered hole needed but stops about half an inch from the final seated position. Quench the final heat out and then, with the steel ferrule fitted as tight as possible (so that there is no room for expansion and thereby splitting) the handle is driven onto the tang and wood is compressed between the ferrule and the taper of the tang which keeps tightening until all compression is achieved.

  9. If you drill out enough space inside the handle then Araldite makes a very firm fixing with plenty of time to align the blade . I used wood glue for holding a knife blade once and it made a rusty mess .Araldite sets hard and smooth . My Dad used the hot tang method .

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