Owning a saw with a shapely handle is a delight to the hand and the eye, but all too many saws have rather clunky, machine-made handles that are more likely to give you blisters than pride of ownership. Not to worry – one woodworker plus a little know-how equals a handsome, new, custom-made handle.
The first thing to do is choose a handle pattern. Simply tracing a favorite existing handle is the easiest option. Alternatively, you can search for patterns on the Internet, or you can select the more flexible option of taking a photograph of a handle you admire and enlarging it to scale. There are literally dozens of designs to choose from. That's what I did for this atypical design – traced the outline and transferred it to plain paper.
My advice is to create a template first, rather than gluing the pattern straight to your chosen handle wood, just in case you have to start over. If you have the correct sizes of forstner bits, using them will make dealing with the inside curves effortless, leaving the remainder to be sawn out. A scroll saw gives the neatest finish and results in minimal clean up. However, I have used a bandsaw, bowsaw and even a coping saw.
Left: The handle pattern outline. Right: Creating the template.
After you select a template, trace the pattern onto your chosen timber. For your first handle, it's probably best to start with something that’s a little easier to work with and a bit less costly, should you make a mistake. For maximum comfort, don’t use wood less than 1" thick. However, you can go thicker if you like a chunky grip.
Follow the same steps as you did while making the template – bore the holes for the inside curves and then cut out the remainder. Be sure to cut out only the front of the handle where the kerf will go, that way, if the kerf goes wrong, you won't have wasted all that work. Take the blade for which you are making the handle and lay it on the blank. Mark the back edge of the blade to indicate how deep to saw the kerf. Also mark the location of the securing bolts.
The handle shape and the bolt locations marked on the blank.
The kerf for the blade needs to be a snug fit. To accomplish this, use the saw you’re making the handle for, but with no set on the teeth. Or better yet – since ripping down the kerf without any set is harder work – use a saw with a thinner blade, but with set to make the correct width. Next, mark up the centerline with a marking gauge.
Now comes the clever bit – instead of relying on a steady hand, a good eye and luck, lay both the kerf-cutting blade and the handle blank on a level surface and shim up the blade so that it's level with your gauge line. Clamp it down, double check that the height is still correct, and then simply push the handle blank back and forth, flat on the level surface alongside the blade to cut a perfectly straight and parallel kerf. Go as deep as you can, then finish off freehand using the jigged kerf to guide your saw straight and true. (Bet that was the bit that was worrying you too, wasn't it?)
Left: Marking the centerline. Right: Shimming up the blade to cut the blade kerf.
If the handle is for a backsaw, now’s the time to chisel out the mortise for the back. Then check the fit of the blade in the kerf and whether the back edge of the blade is lining up with your previously marked line (this is important if you're trying to line up with existing boltholes). Once you're happy that you have the bolt locations marked correctly, bore them on the drill press.
Don’t forget a counter bore if required. Refit the blade and try fitting the bolts. If they're slightly off, don't panic – use a scribe or tip of a needle file to scratch the hole location. Remove the blade and use a round needle file to enlarge the hole in the required direction. If worse comes to worst, a cobalt drill bit will make quick work of drilling another hole in the blade. Don’t worry – many old saws have more holes in the blade than a chunk of Swiss cheese and they still work fine.
The counterbored bolt holes.
Once the blade and handle are fitting together satisfactorily, finish cutting out the handle. Then, you can start on the artistic part of the project. The temptation may be to chuck a round over bit in a router, a quick swipe of abrasives and call it done. If you're happy, that's fine. However, the nicest handles don't just have rounded corners, they have an oval cross-section, and I believe it's worth the extra effort.
Half-round rasps and files are the tools for this task. To get a consistent shape, pencil on a few guidelines and rasp a series of facets rather than trying for the complete curve in one shot. There are about four stages to each corner, so the complete circumference actually gets worked at 16 angles. Sounds like a lot, but it goes quickly and seems to be the easiest way to get the desired shape without losing track of the curve. Blend the different angles into one curve and follow up with files and abrasives until you have the level of finish you want.
Use your hands as well as your eyes to ensure that you're getting the shape correct; if something feels wrong, even if it means going back a stage, do it now because it'll yell at you when the saw is done.
Left: Guidelines for shaping the handle. Right: The handle-shaping process.
The finish will vary, depending on the material used. Oil is a favorite. For this example, however, I simply applied a couple of weak coats of shellac rubbed out with some wax.