Garden Tool Handles

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This article is from Issue 35 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Use offset turning to shape a custom grip.

Overall dimensions (handle only): 17⁄8" dia. × 73⁄8" long

With spring officially here, the urge to dig in the dirt can prove overwhelming. But before you venture outside, have your lathe help you fashion grip-friendly hardwood tool handles for a garden shovel and fork, like those shown above. The secret behind the comfort lies in offset turning, where you intentionally mount the blank off center and remove waste along one quadrant of the cylinder. Combined with bead and cove work, the offset turning results in a handle that nestles in the palm of your hand, while providing purchase for your thumb when thrusting the tool into the soil.

Note: See the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide for the stainless steel garden shovel and fork (with brass ferrules).

Use tape to mark the hole depth on the bit, and then drill in increments, backing the bit out to remove debris.

Prepare the stock

1 Label one end of a 2 × 2 × 8" turning blank as the butt and the other as the ferrule. Also, label one face of the turning blank as the front and the adjacent faces as the sides. Next, make a centered mark 61⁄2" down from the ferrule end on one side face. At your drill press, bore a 3⁄8" tool-hanging hole where marked (Figure 1).

2 Strike diagonal lines from opposite corners on both ends of the blank to establish the centers. Mark the centers with an awl. Then draw a line that is centered and perpendicular to the hanging hole across the butt end of the blank. On the butt end of the blank, measure 3⁄16" away from the center hole on this line and mark a secondary point with an awl. The line and awl mark will serve as reference for offset mounting later.

3 Mount the blank between centers, gripping the butt end in a four-jaw chuck. Install a keyed or Jacobs chuck with a 3⁄8" bit at the tailstock end. Set your lathe speed at 500 rpm and bore a 21⁄4"-deep tang hole at the center mark in the ferrule end of the blank as shown in Photo A. Crank the bit out as needed to clear debris.

Remove the waste to transform the turning square into a cylinder with a 1" gouge.

4 Replace the Jacobs chuck with a cone center. Adjust the tailstock to snug the cone center into the 3⁄8" tang hole, securing the blank. Locate the tool rest just below the blank’s center. At 1,000-1,500 rpm, round the blank to 17⁄8" diameter using a 1" roughing gouge. Work the cutting edge back and forth as shown in Photo B. Check the diameter with a caliper.

5 Measure the inside diameter of the brass ferrule, and adjust your caliper accordingly. Align the ferrule with the end of the blank and mark the tenon length as shown in Photo C.

6 With the tool rest just below center and the lathe speed at 1,000 rpm, turn the ferrule tenon by moving the square tip of a 3⁄8" bedan or parting tool toward the blank’s center. As shown in Photo D, keep the handle perpendicular to the blank as you shear off the waste. Check the diameter with the caliper setup in Step 5. Fit the ferrule on the tenon. You want a tight friction fit. Leave it on the turning for the duration to prevent the cone center from splitting the tenon when securing the work between centers. (We’ll epoxy it later on.)

Use the brass ferrule to mark the length of the tenon on the blank.
Employ a 3⁄8" bedan (shown here) or parting tool for forming the ferrule tenon.

Shape the handle’s contours

1 From 1⁄4" scrap plywood, make the Marking and Sizing Jig in Figure 2, locating the nail holes where shown. Using your bandsaw, cut 1⁄16"-deep kerfs along the jig’s edges where marked. (These match the key diameters in Figure 1.) Now, drive 3⁄4"-long brads into the jig where indicated. The spacing of the nails allows you to quickly set up your caliper when establishing your cove and bead diameters as shown in Photo E. It also helps with consistency when making more than one handle.

Note: The handle diameters and nail locations shown match up well with a medium-to-large hand grip. If making handles for a small-to-medium hand grip, reduce these dimensions by 3⁄8" between the nails along the jig’s length and across the width.

2 With the blank spinning at minimum rpm, place the jig on the tool rest, aligning its tenon section with the blank’s tenon. Fit a pencil point in the kerfs, and mark the critical diameters on the blank.

3 Remove the jig. At 1,000-1,500 rpm, slowly drive a parting tool straight into the blank to cut to the diameters shown in the Front Profile in Figure 1. Check the diameters with a caliper as shown in Photo F.

4 Adjust the tool rest to just below center. With the lathe speed increased to 2,000 rpm, use a 3⁄8" spindle gouge to form the beads at the wide critical points of the turning where shown in the Front Profile in Figure 1. With the gouge handle dipped lower than the cutting end, allow the bevel to ride the blank as you tip the edge into the wood and move it back and forth along the beaded areas. Check the diameters occasionally as you work.

5 Now, using the same cutting motion and speed, form the coves between the 17⁄8" and 13⁄8" beads, and between the 113⁄16" and 13⁄8" beads with the 3⁄8" spindle gouge, removing the waste and moving the cutting edge towards the narrower diameter (Photo G).

6 Reduce the lathe speed to 500 rpm and sand the shaped handle blank, moving through a progression of grits from 150 to 400.

Drive brads into the jig where shown to serve as a quick reference when setting up your caliper.
Establish the turning diameters along the handle blank’s length using a parting tool and caliper.

To create graceful curves, move the edge of a 3⁄8" gouge from the wider diameters to the narrower ones.

Complete the handle with offset turning

To make the finished handle more ergonomic, you need to reduce the front quadrant where shown in the Side Profile in Figure 1. This is done by offsetting the blank 3⁄16" on each end. You need a jam chuck to mount the blank to avoid damaging the 3⁄8" hole at the ferrule end for the metal tool tang.

1 Remove the cone center from the tailstock’s live center and the blank from the four-jaw chuck. Insert a 2 × 2 × 4" scrap blank into the four-jaw chuck. Now, make the offset jam chuck dimensioned in Figure 3. 

To do this, adjust the speed to 1,000 rpm, and round the blank to 13⁄4" diameter using a 1" roughing gouge. Mark out the location for the 3⁄8 × 1⁄2" tenon 3⁄4" in from the end. Using the 3⁄8" bedan or parting tool, form the tenon, checking its diameter. Then part-off the jam chuck to its final 11⁄4" length.

2 With a center finder tool, mark the center on the end of the jam chuck with an awl; now continue the line across the chuck’s edge. Measure and mark 3⁄16" away from the center mark on the centerline with an awl where shown in Figure 3. This will be your offset mark.

3 Next, replace the four-jaw chuck in the headstock with a spring-loaded safe driver (or spur drive center). Install a live center into the tailstock. Now fit the jam chuck’s tenon into the 3⁄8" tang hole in the blank and place the live center into the offset awl hole made previously. Next, place the point of the safe driver into the offset awl point made in Step 2 under “Prepare the stock.” Now, use the edge of the tool rest as a guide to orient the alignment mark on the edge of the jam chuck with the line you made earlier on the butt end of the blank. Secure the assembly between centers (Figure 4).

4 Fix a sheet of white paper behind the turned blank to better see the ghost image of the offset turning. With the lathe running at 2,000-2,500 rpm, form the offset handle using your 3⁄8" spindle gouge. Create the flat area along the handle by easing the cutting edge into the ghost image of the off-center stock (Photo H). You’ll want to remove the waste in the offset shape in the Side Profile in Figure 1.

Follow innermost edge of the ghost image with ⅜" spindle gouge to shape the flat areas on the handle.
Install the ferrule and steel tang to the handle with two-part epoxy.

5 Using the same tool and tool rest location, turn the thumb rest on the first bead down from the ferrule end.

6 Turn off the lathe and hand-sand the handle to soften its turned edges. Now, replace the jam chuck with the cone center at the tailstock end, fitting it in the ferrule hole. Insert the point of the safety center into the true center at the butt end of the blank. Secure the blank by tightening the tailstock in place. Now, at 1,000 rpm, form the rounded end of the butt with your 3⁄8" spindle gouge, referring to Figure 1. Sand this area and part off the completed handle.

7 Apply a polyurethane or other durable finish to the tool handle. Let dry.

8 Mix up epoxy, pull off the brass ferrule, and apply a thin coat around the tenon. Reinstall the ferrule. Next, spread epoxy in the tang hole with a nail. Now, fit the tang of the stainless steel shovel or fork into the handle (Photo I). Add a leather hanging strip and go dig in the dirt.

About Our Turner

West Virginian Tom Schottle has turned wood for the past 10 years. Books, videos, and workshops helped with his education, along with countless hours at the lathe. He sells his work at local galleries.


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