Woodturning Tool Handles

Large woodturning tools with four
styles of well made timber tool handles

Overview: For most of us, the tool handle is the single biggest factor that determines our comfort when using a woodturning tool. Through the years, I have used several styles that were so well made they felt like a natural extension of my arm. I've also used tools whose handles were so uncomfortable, I threw them away and turned one of my own to use.

Over the last few years there have been numerous types of handles marketed for holding woodturning tools. Having been a professional woodturner for more than sixteen years, I've used many different types of handles. I've yet to find a truly "universal" handle that works well in every situation, so I use several types of handles, depending on the project and the amount of tactile response I need.

Close-up view from top: Crown tools Pro PM bowl gouge,
Sorby Swan Neck hollower, Crown Tools roughing
gouge, Crown Tools replaceable tip bowl gouge

Comfort and suitability for the intended use are my primary criteria for determining which handle to use. Looks are irrelevant, as most of my handles lose their sparkle and good looks in short order anyway, especially when they are pressed into quick service as a substitute mallet…


Ergonomics

If the handle on your turning tool feels uncomfortable, or they do not fit your hand correctly the quality of your turned surfaces will suffer. Your tool handle should feel like it's a natural extension of your arm. For this to occur, the handle must fit your hand correctly and be comfortable to use for extended periods of time.

One easy way to insure that your tool handles are comfortable, is to turn your own. Depending on time constraints and your preferences, you may not want to turn your own tool handles. If you buy handled tools, try to get your hands on them before you buy to see if they are comfortable and fit your hand well. Most handles are made in a "one size fits all" design, which usually means one size fits a few!

Kelton's small steel tool handles are
11.5" long with a 7/8" outside diameter
and feature a non-slip over wrap

If you have very large hands, or very small hands you may have trouble finding tool handles that will fit your hand correctly. While you can easily turn a wooden handle to fit your hand perfectly, making up a metal handle to fit your hand can be a challenge. Regardless of whether you prefer manufactured handles or homemade handles, you will be more productive and you will have better control over your tools if the handles are properly sized for your hand.


Suitability for Intended Use

Kel McNaughton's large steel tool handles are
23" long with the handle extension mounted and
with a 1-9/16" outside diameter

Manufactured and homemade tool handles can be made from numerous materials including various timbers, steel tubing, aluminum tubing, heavy brass tubing, rigid copper pipe and even some solid plastics. Which handle to use for any given project is largely a matter of personal preference, but there are reasons why some handles work better for certain situations.

Oneway's aluminum tool handles are light in weight
and feature a comfortable over wrap. From top: 17.75"
long – 1.25" diameter; 12" long – 1.25" diameter

Most manufactured metal handles are made from aluminum or steel pipes/tubing. Homemade metal handles may use these as well, but may also be made from copper or brass. When it's homemade, you use what you have on hand usually, as long as it's up to the task. For smaller tools, brass and copper pipes can make very effective handles and can be filled with epoxies for a more substantial feel, or lead shot to reduce vibration.


Timber Handles

Advantages: Timber is a tried and true material to use for turning tool handles. It is light in weight, easy to obtain (you can even make them from scrap) and is suitable for many turning applications. You can also easily turn one that will fit your hand exactly with little effort, which is a big plus. Timber handles give you excellent tactile feedback when cutting and their weight makes them comfortable to use for extended periods.

When turning with large format tools, you need
long handles for better leverage and control. From
top: Henry Taylor Tools 1.75" heavy roughing
gouge; Craft Supplies Artisan Tools 3/8" bowl gouge;
Craft Supplies Artisan Tools 1" scraper

Timber handles are my preferred handle to use when making finishing cuts and some intermediate cuts on small to medium sized blanks. When I get down to the last bit of cutting, I want all the tactile feedback I can get through the handle and timber is an excellent material for allowing you to feel the cut.

The handle on Henry Taylor's 1.75" roughing gouge
measures 17" long. The handle on the 1" Craft Supplies
Artisan scraper measures 12" by comparison

Disadvantages: Timber handles can be uncomfortable to use when roughing large blanks due to shock and vibration. This is especially true when removing large corners, or when working on uneven surfaces like rough sawn surfaces. Although you can mitigate vibration/shock concerns somewhat by adding lead shot into drilled counter bores in the end of the handle, you are limited by the need to keep the handle walls thick enough for safety. Handles made from timber may fail with extended use. All of my early bowl gouges were turned from Zebrawood and I really loved using them for turning my production bowls.

After seven years, the Zebrawood handle that held my 5/8" deep fluted bowl gouge split one day when turning a bowl. Upon inspection, I found a deep resin pocket inside the handle that was not visible on the outside. This resin pocket no doubt contributed to the failure of the handle. This points to a potential problem with using timber for tool handles that will be used for heavy stock removal. In cases like this, a metal handle may be the best material to use in the long run.


Metal Handles

Steel handles like these from Kelton are a good
choice to use with large format tools when rough
turning and performing gross stock removal operations

Advantages: Metal handles offer increased strength over timber handles, as well as the ability to vary the length of the exposed flute on some tools. Most metal tool handles also have the ability to add extra sections to extend the overall length of the handle. This is a very nice benefit when working on deeper forms, where the extra leverage and control afforded by the extra long handle is necessary for optimal control of the tool.

Kelton's multi-gouge steel handle (21" long,
1.25" diameter) features an adjustable collet
design that can be used with numerous sizes of
round shaft woodturning tools

Close-up view of the receiver in Kelton's
multi-gouge tool handle showing the adjustable collet

Many metal handles also feature different drilled holes at either end; so one handle can be used to hold two different sized tools. Others feature removable bushings that allow tools with different diameters to be used with the same master handle – a nice touch!

Some tool handles feature cushioned over wraps like this
Woodcut tools hollowing tool handle (upper) and
Kelton's steel gouge handle (lower). These handles are very comfortable to use for extended periods

Disadvantages: Although metal handles generally come with some type of comfort wrap, they can still be uncomfortable to hold if your studio lacks climate control and is located in areas that routinely see temperatures below freezing in the winter. Some handle wraps or coverings are uncomfortable to use for extended periods. When buying new handles, try to pick them up and see how they feel in your hands to insure they will be comfortable to use.


Plastic Handles

Advantages: Most plastic handles for woodturning tools are homemade using scrap screwdriver handles, or scrap solid plastic rods and are typically only used with smaller tools like micro turning tools and fine detail gouges. The primary advantage of plastic handles is their weight. When using fine detail tools you need excellent tactile feedback when turning ultra fine details. Plastic handles, as well as small wooden handles offer excellent tactile feedback and are my preferred handles when using micro tools and other homemade tools, like scrapers for hollowing ornaments.

Disadvantages: Plastic handles are only suitable for micro and small turning tools. Some plastics are brittle (like the ones found on really cheap screwdrivers) and do not hold up well. If you make a plastic handle from an old screwdriver, the hole may be too large which will require an epoxy backfill to compensate for the oversize hole that was drilled for the screwdriver shaft. Plastic handles turned from solid rods can be expensive, even if turned from scrap stock.


Timber Handles

These timber handles feature well made designs for medium format tools (Crown and Sorby, top two - 10" long) and small/micro format tools (Henry Taylor, bottom two – 7" long)

For the most part, the manufactured timber handles that come with woodturning tools are comfortable. However, I've purchased a few through the mail that were not balanced well and others had gripping sections that were too small for my hands. Others seemed to have been turned by a machine that never knew how the human hand grips a handle.

The top two handles from Crown and Sorby have a wide
flaring near the ferrule that is very comfortable to hold.
The bottom two handles from Henry Taylor are
perfectly shaped for micro turning tools

Although you can always knock off a wooden handle that you don't like and turn your own, it's usually cheaper to buy the tool without a handle from the get-go. That way, you can turn what you like and know that it's spot on for the size of your hand. Luckily, most of the timber handles I've purchased on turning tools have been well shaped and I've used them for years without modifications.


Metal Handles

Most metal handles for turning tools (except those made for small tools) tend to be large enough to fit large hands well. The exception to this rule on larger turning tool handles is the Glaser replaceable tip bowl gouge. Glaser's shot filled aluminum handles are too small for the size of my hands. When I originally began using Glaser's replaceable tip bowl gouge several years ago, I would get hand cramps when I used the gouge all day long roughing bowl blanks.

Cushion grip handles help to reduce vibrations when
making heavy cuts, or aggressively hollowing by hand

It became a real problem for me, since I loved the vibration damping qualities of the shot filled handle when doing the initial round over on my bowl blanks. However the handle was just too small to fit comfortably in my Grizzly Bear sized hands. I looked at several "over fitting" wraps and tubes in an attempt to increase the outside circumference of the handle and finally settled on using several wraps of the tape sold to wrap mountain bike handles.

This solved the size problem for me and the Glaser gouge quickly became my favorite tool for roughing out my bowl, platter and hollow form projects. A side benefit of using this tape is that it insulates the handle, making it much more comfortable to use during the winter months.

Glaser's replaceable tip bowl gouge (shown here without
the bike tape wrapping) is about 1-1/16" near the front
and 1.25" near the rear. Wrapping bike tape around the
handle is an inexpensive way to increase the outside diameter

Just like with any other handle, try to get your hands on the metal handle you're interested in before you buy one. If that's not practical, see if a friend in your woodturning club or association has a similar handle that you can check out. If you can give it a go on the lathe, even better! You never really know how comfortable a handle will be until you start making shavings. I like to test metal handles on the lathe by turning off the corners on a large bowl blank. If your handle passes that test and it remains comfortable to use, you've got a winner.

These aluminum handles from Oneway have been partially filled
with bird shot to reduce vibrations when taking heavy cuts

I like to use metal handles for projects that require deep interior cutting, or when doing the initial roughout of large raw timber blanks on the lathe. Anytime the cuts are heavy and aggressive, I typically use a metal handled tool. I have added lead shot to a few of my metal handles to reduce vibration when turning. This is very easy to do and can dramatically reduce the vibration and shock felt when roughing larger blanks on the lathe. I usually add birdshot into the handle until the void in the handle is about 50% full. If necessary, the lead shot is adjusted more or less, depending on how much dampening I need.


Making Your Own Handles

These two large and heavy scrapers from Henry Taylor (top)
have been fitted with homemade 17" long Birdseye Maple handles. The bottom tool is a round scraper made from an automobile shock absorber rod, mounted on a 7.25" long homemade Black Walnut handle with a textured grip


Making your own tool handles is a great way to practice your spindle turning skills as you turn a handle to your exact requirements. Although most turned handles for woodturning tools are made from timber, you can also make tool handles from other materials like mild steel, aluminum and other suitable metals. If you're lucky enough to own a metal lathe, your options increase dramatically, as you can work many other types of materials to produce a custom made handle.


Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.


Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.