Story and photos by Terry O’Loughlin
Some saws and planes come with uncomfortable or otherwise unsuitable handles, while the blade or the rest of the tool is of good quality. Plastic handles on saws and planes mostly fall into the uncomfortable category. With tools acquired second hand, there is also the possibility that handles are damaged.
Making your own handle allows you to fit it to your hand and to your style of woodworking. Lets face it: how many of us have average size hands? To begin with, I find the usual thickness of 22mm (7/8”) to be a little small. For my hand, 25mm or more makes for greater comfort. Making your own also means that you can shape it to your own aesthetic, and this makes the tool more personal.
I have made drawings of various styles of backsaw handle, one handsaw handle, and a pair for planes. These are provided as examples*, but feel free to adapt as you wish. The open handle on the small dovetail saw on the far right above is a traditionally based design with the lower joiner removed. This saw began as a gents saw, but replacing the handle with a pistol grip type made it far more controllable.
For a small saw such as this, the extra strength of the closed type handle is not required. You should also note that the part of the saw handle covering the blade is sized to accommodate the screw holes in the blade.
Photo 1 Photo 2
Making a saw handle
First select a piece of suitable hardwood and plane it to the thickness you want. If you are replacing a broken original, trace its outline onto your timber (photo 1). If you do not have a sample you can use one of my shapes or draw your own shape and if necessary, stick it onto a piece of thin board such as 3mm MDF and cut it out as a template (photo 2). Trace the outline onto the timber (photo 3). With Forstner bits in the drill press, it is possible to drill the tight inside curves of the outline (photo 4). Then with a bandsaw, jigsaw or coping saw, cut the remaining parts of the blank.
Photo 3 Photo 4
Fitting the saw handle
Place the blade over the handle as it will finish, hold it firmly and draw the outline of the rear of the blade, square the end across the top and bottom of the handle and carefully mark the centres for the screw holes.
Mark a centre line around the front of the handle from where you have squared across on top to the other line below. Now with a hacksaw or Japanese pull saw, cut to the squared lines. There is probably now a triangular area where a straight sawblade cannot reach.
On commercially made handles, the cut tends to be much deeper to accommodate the bend at the back of the blade, and shows below and sometimes above. This is not necessary—here’s how you can achieve a neater result. With a hacksaw holder of the type that has the blade protruding (photo 5), it’s possible to work the cut down to match the outline of the rear of the blade. If this is a backsaw, you will need to work a recess to fit the back. Mark on the front where the back will come down to and using the sawn line as a centre, start by drilling a hole the thickness of the back from the front to the back of the sawn line. Then do the same vertically from the rear of the cut. Saw down diagonally to the edges of the holes and chisel out the waste.
Screws look better if the heads are countersunk. To line up both sides of the handle, begin with a small drill bit (1.5mm or 1/16”) and drill through from the marked hole centres. Using the small holes as centres, with a Forstner or brad point bit, counter bore on both sides for the screw heads. Then drill for the shank of the screw using a twist drill bit. Now test the handle and blade for a fit. Continue sawing and chiselling until the holes in the blade accurately line up with holes drilled in the handle. Test with the screws in place. Now you can remove the handle and apply your desired finish.
The first steps in making plane handles or totes are the same as for saw handles. Select your wood, trace the desired shape and then shape the wood with your preferred method.
Drilling attachment holes
On the side of the blank, carefully copy the centre line for the screw from the original handle and square it across the top and bottom. Starting at the top, accurately align the drill press with the line, and begin by drilling the hole for the nut. Depending on the brand of plane, this is 74 about 11mm or 7/16”. If anything, drill less deep than you require to house the nut at this stage. It is an easy matter later to drill a little more so that the nut finishes flush with the top of the handle (photo 6).
Then drill a clearance hole half way through for the threaded rod. Turn the blank over and drill half way from the bottom. If you have been accurate, the holes should meet in the middle. If not, you can straighten it with a small round file or enlarge the hole from below. Check that the nut and rod are a good fit. On the narrower Bailey pattern planes (up to 51mm/2” blade) the rear handle is normally held only by this nut and rod, with a small boss at the forward end of the foot of the tote to hold it straight. Mark the position of the boss and drill a hole to house it. In wider (and therefore heavier) planes there is a screw at the forward end of the foot to hold the handle more firmly. A hole for the screw can only be drilled from underneath, so it must be done with some care to avoid splitting out as the drill breaks through. At the rear of the attachment to the plane body, there is usually a boss drilled to take the threaded rod, although some makes have only a flat platform on which to mount the tote. Drill and chisel if necessary a hole to accommodate the boss. Then check for fit and adjust until the handle sits flat on the body.
The procedure at this point is the same for both the plane and saw handles. File or sand the curves until they are smooth and sweet. You can now begin the rounding over. The quickest way is to use a router in a router table (photo 7). A round over bit with 3/8” radius and bearing pilot is about right. Alternately, it takes only a little longer to do the job with rasps and files. Remember that although you round over both sides with the plane handle, on the saw handle only the area gripped by the hand needs to be rounded. The profile of the remainder is mostly up to you. All of mine end up a little different in this detail.
Front plane knobs
Front plane knobs tend not to suffer so much from damage, but if you wish to replace them, it is not difficult, even for an inexperienced turner such as I. Turn your blank down to a cylinder a little over length and begin by drilling for the boss on the plane body. Remove the blank from the lathe and turn from a piece of scrap a jam chuck over which to fit the blank with the hole you have drilled in the knob blank. Centre the other end of the blank and press in with a drill chuck and drill for the nut, then drill through for the threaded rod. Only now should you shape the outside.
Traditionally, handles and knobs have been lacquered: you can finish them this way or even with polyurethane. My preferred finish is oil and wax.
Terry O'Loughlin makes furniture and woodworking tools. He is based in Canberra.