Sledgehammer handle replacement

We dug an old sledgehammer head out of the yard, and while it was a fine thing to hold other things from blowing away with, eventually we needed a sledgehammer to knock the shit out of something or other. So I went and bought a hickory sledge/maul handle (at the recommendation of Clint Eastwood.) Then I had to figure out the correct way to install it.

As we all know, it can be hilarious but ultimately embarassing when a 10 pound sledgehammer is put together wrong. Nobody ever blames the head, and the handles seldom break. More often than not, it’s the joinery between the two that fails, and the crafty devil that performs the marriage who gets sued. I could have consulted my friend the cabinet maker, who spent many of his first months in the USAF Carpenters putting wooden handles on a variety of hand tools, but in the spirit of adventure, I consulted the internet.

Also in the spirit of adventure, I set my search criteria for “Axe Handle Replacement” rather than sledgehammer. This turned out to be a good (if inexplicable) move, as most of the instructions for sledge/maul handles are for the type that are held in with epoxy. Those are for squares, all the cool kids use the cross-wedge joint. It’s wicked steam-punk. It’s also how axe and pick handles are held onto their heads.  And this brings me to an important distinction between the instructions found on two of the top listed websites.

The cross-wedge joint works because the tool has a tapered hole through it. The narrow end of the hole is the bottom of the tool head, and the wedges are used to widen the handle at the top of the tool head, forming a cork. Tool heads do not fall off their handles because the handles form a cork shaped profile within the head. This distinction is easy to miss with a tool head with no clear top or bottom on the outside (sledge, maul, ball-peen hammer, broad bladed axe) than it is with, say, a pick.  The first website I visited gave me pretty much the instructions I expected. ‘Shave your store-bought handle down to fit through the head and drive the wedge in to hold it.’  (I was expecting these instructions because I’m a machinist and envisioned an interference fit between two parallel cylindrical surfaces.) Only, if you follow those instructions, and you’re lazy or uninformed, you just might shave down your new handle the wrong way; tapered to a cone shape, and not a cork shape with the fat part at the end. (And your audition for the next Mr. Bean movie will be underway.)

I would have embarrassed myself without the illuminating instructions available at hub pages dot com. The job would not have gotten done, and this post would not be. However, I thought there could be a more illustrated set of instructions, specific to replacing sledge/maul heads onto wooden handles. (I won’t point fingers at the more confusable online instructions, except to say that the domain name rhymes with the sound of a donkey braying.)

Remove the old handle from the head by drilling or soaking, but not fire

Find the top and the bottom and always keep the handle in the same orientation

Check dimensions if your slot is pre-cut into the handle

Check interference to determine where to shave the handle

Shave, shave, shave! use a rasp

Drive the wooden wedge in into the slot, don’t be gentle

Drive the metal wedge in perpendicular across the wooden wedge

Remove the old handle from the head. I had no trouble doing this, as the old handle had long since rotted away. Suggested methods are to drill a few 1/4″ or 3/8″ holes in the remaining wood (beware of steel wedges and nails that may have been used to tighten up the head) and drive the handle out the way it came in, or to soak the head in water (bloat) and allow it to dry (shrink) to loosen the head. As a side note, this is why you don’t leave your wooden handled tools out in the rain, it loosens them. Not recommended is setting the handle on fire or throwing the whole thing into a fire. This will change the temper of the tool head; not so crucial on a sledge, but bad for edged tools. I ran a wire brush through my hammer head, as it was pretty rusty.

Find the top and the bottom. The hole through my hammer head was hourglass shaped, meaning it had a tight spot right in the middle of the head, and the handle could be installed from either side. Since the hole was very asymmetric and the handle was going to be shaved down to match its peculiar profile, I had to assign a top and bottom, and even a left and right side. Conveniently, the handle came with two stickers on it, and I simply stuck one on the head, making sure to always check the fit with the two stickers on the same side, and the handle at the bottom of the sticker on the head.

Check dimensions. The pre-cut slot in the handle went further than the total height of the head. The head should completely cover this slot, to keep water and mud from getting into the head and weakening the handle. Better to remove any extra length from the end now rather than after you’ve shaped the whole length. I marked the handle where the middle of the head will sit, from there to the the top of the handle will have to be shaved down to fit through the narrowest point in the head, and from there to the bottom of the slot will have to match the taper of the lower part of the hole.

Check interference. The oval profile of your new handle will not match the profile of your old head. More material will need to be removed from some parts, and less from others. A good way to see where is to shine a light down the handle and look into the top of the head. Anywhere there’s contact, or shadow, is where the wood needs to come off. Also try the reverse, shining a light into the top and looking at the handle (once you’ve got the handle to go part-way in) DON’T TWIST the handle, keep the saw-cut slot in line with the axis of the head.

Shave, shave, shave! I used a flat rasp and a radiused rasp. By the time I was halfway done, I was wishing for a hand held belt sander or even a 4″ angle grinder with a sanding disc. I must have eyaballed the fit (as above) about thirty times while I was shaving down the handle. I didn’t take any pictures. Just remember that the top half has to be of a uniform size and profile to fit through the choke-point, and the lower half has to match whatever the inside of the hole is.

Eventually, I got the whole slot covered and had no gaps where the handle met the head. I drove the head onto the handle by holding the assembly vertical and tapping the handle end on the ground. It’s okay if the saw-cut slot collapses a wee bit, but not totally.

Drive the wooden wedge in. This wedge will apply pressure, and friction, on two sides of the hole. My wedge was a little wide so I snapped a bit off one side with pliers. The wedge shouldn’t touch the sides, as the metal wedge will split it and spread it in the next step.

I was surprised at how much of the wedge actually went in. I only trimmed about 1/4″ off the end. You can use wood glue on the sides of the wedge if it makes you feel better.

Drive the metal wedge in perpendicular across the wooden wedge. This will apply force to the remaining two sides of the head. I used a pin punch to sink the wedge slightly into the head, but not enough to admit any water or mud. I suppose you could treat the wooden end with some type of waterproofing at this point.

24 comments to Sledgehammer handle replacement

  • Wendy

    Thanks…it had been years since I replaced a handle and your refresher was perfect

  • Chris Murfin

    Wow! Thanks for such a detailed and well written ‘how to’ showing replacement of a sledge hammer handle. I’ve replaced axe handles before and I suspected it would be a little different for my sledge – glad I checked! Thanks again! Excellent photos too.

  • Jim

    I have never replaced a handle before. This was a very good instructional.

  • Shea Bale

    Your post seems very informative, looks like i have the exact same handle made by Seymore Mfg. we’ll see how it goes.

  • Ken Saunders

    Helpful info. Thanks for putting it up. Prior to reading your post, I couldn’t figure out why there were two wedges in the package that came with the new handle. My original handle had only a metal one in it, and I wrongly guessed that I should use one or the other but not both. However, what you say makes good sense. Happily, my head hole has a steady widening from where the handle meets the head to the top.

  • Ken Saunders

    Installation went essentially perfectly. One correction to my last post: the hole in my hammer head was indeed tapered inward to about the halfway point, and then expanded. I couldn’t detect it with my eye directly, but when I went to actually do the job, I first put a strait-edge along the hole and sure enough, it’s clearly like a cone going in and a cork going back out to the top of the head. Thanks again for the post. Oh, I estimate I looked at the clearance 60-70 times. The job was more time consuming than I would have guessed.

  • Bob

    I’m glad you found that sledge head. Thanks to your clear, detailed instructions I was able to whip mine out in no time. Much appreciated!

  • Dave Follett

    Excellent. A new $13 handle seemed so much better then a new $34 sledge but I had no clue how to get in. Thanks.

  • Rye

    I knew hanging onto my old sledges would come in handy. Great instruction.

  • Wham! Bam! Splat!

    I just broke my sledge handle. Definitely a Mr Bean moment. So I was just about to jump into my truck and leave some dust behind… when I realized not only did I not know how to replace it… but I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d need.
    So I wondered if anyone out there in internetsland had ever done this before. It seems internetsland is big and people here have done many things. I found a description of how to do this on that site that rhymes with Bray and… yeah… I was totally \O/

    Then I found you description. It had the secret special ingredient. Pictures! I am very good at reading pictures. Now I understand. :-)

    Thank you very much!

  • Steve

    Thanks for the excellent pictures and instructions. The replacement handle I got has a slot cut in it for the wedge however the sides of the slot are already touching before putting it into the handle, so I will be sawing out the slot a little so that will be some room for the wooden wedge..If I had not seen these instructions I would probably have left out the wooden wedge.

  • Pete Hayden

    I have not replace anything except hammer handles,this was a great help!
    thanks a lot! {This is a great article and with photo’s to help}!!

  • Aloha From Hawaii!

    Thank you for your detailed post. I followed your advice and it worked great.

    Mahalo,
    Michael

  • Chrysoflax

    The best and most detailed description I’ve seen. My sledge is a 16 pound monster and I wanted to make sure I did it right. I’m sure now that it’d been replaced at least once previously as the broken handle wasn’t as meaty near the head as the one I bought. And there is writing on the head either side of the hole which was oriented towards the handle where it would never be seen ordinarily so it was installed upside down. The slight variance in taper of the two sides opening from the center tight spot also seems to bear this out. The writing was important stuff about safety glasses and the weight, so you see my conclusion. The WRITING SHOULD ON TOP WHERE IT IS EASILY SEEN. i painted the parts not used in normal use with a dark brown automotive spray paint that seems to hold up much better than than the cheap black stuff originally used by the Chinese manufacturer. Keeps the rust at bay quite nicely and the slight metalflake in the brown looks very manly (LOL).

  • Talk about making a hard job simple! Without your instruction, old ‘Charlie Brown’ here would’ve had a much, much harder time with my sledge handle. I truly appreciate your effort in making this ‘how-to’ for all us ‘old(er) folks’…:) Thanks a Bunch!

  • Robert

    Thank you, the part about the tapered hole was’nt anywhere else i looked. It seems obvious that the larger end would be up but I was looking for confirmation. My broken handle was put together wrong so I was not sure. Thanks again, great job.

  • Milton

    Thanks so much for this great tutorial. I have been looking at an olde sledge hammer head I found in the yard for a couple of years and finally got inspired to fix it with your detailed instructions.

    Thanks!

  • Fritz Richter

    Amazing! I was spading a garden in the yard of a house I moved into 10 months ago and found a sledge hammer head buried there. I used it for a door stop for a while. One day I was at the hardware store and picked up a handle. Then checked the web. Here I am.

    Seems a few others here found the head somewhere.

  • Clueless

    Thank you for the informative breakdown and step by step pictures. Never done it before and I had been leaving mine to soak(to swell fit it)realise I was wrong now. I also just drove a hardwood wedge in without cutting a slot in the end. I didn’t get any wedges with my new handle though? Any idea where an Englishman might buy some metal wedges on the tinternet?
    Thanks again.

  • cascadian

    super awesome~ my honey just broke his sledge handle (thanks wedge..) and have thusly completed putting in the new handle. we started out with the file but then he started up the stone grinder. it got most of the sanding job done and then we went over it to smooth it out with the file afterwards. the grinder singed the hickory a bit, but we filed most of that out.

    another happy searcher~! thanks!

  • brightonblackrock

    Many thanks for this most helpful tutorial. I will try it tomorrow. (You’ve also given me the courage/push to fit handles to a number of other things about the place. :) Ray

  • Charlie

    You are truly Da Man! I’m getting ready to replace a sledge handle, and I wanted to know the proper way to go about it. Being a mechanic for many years, I pretty much do everything myself if at all possible. I have replaced some handles before, however, I learned a lot of useful information from you. Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge (and wit) !!

  • John Adkins

    Just about to fit my first sledgehammer handle, glad I found your instructions. Not sure if it is relevant but instructions I used to fit a felling axe handle suggested making sure there was very little moisture in the handle or wedge by say laying them on a radiator. This was to get the moisture level below ambient, then when the wood takes up moisture it becomes a really tight fit. Cheers for the info. John

  • Christine do it yerself Queen

    Thank you so much! I try to do all sorts of jobs myself,and sometimes you need another’s detailed instructions and experience to make sure you are doing the job right. We have inherited many old tools and I am trying to repair and restore all of them to good working order. It is a nice way to honor the people they came from-Erick RIP; George RIP; Grampy RIP; and to enjoy the workmanship of the past . In our throw away society people would just buy a new cheap replaceable whatever Chinese widget instead.
    Thanks again! Off to repair I go! And I give you a rating of four hammers!

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