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Here’s the quick answer: the best Axe Oil is Boiled Linseed Oil (check price on Amazon here), and its most peoples preferred choice. Applying BLO on our handles will give them a lot more grip and a great look to the wood. Not only that, but it soaks in and nourishes the wood from the inside.
It is bonds to the wood when dried, so no flaking off. It is a common finisher for blacksmiths that just get done forging an axe. There are many other oils to chose from, but really this is your best choice.
Here are a few reasons we want to use Boiled Linseed Oil vs other oils and resins.
- Increases resistance to water/sun
- Removes scratches and warping
- Makes unfinished wood look rich
- Reinvigorate old dried wood
- It is quick drying vs other oils
- Very affordable
- Leaves a smell of grass
- Penetrates deeply into the wood
The best ways to apply any sort of oil to our handle is with thin coats one at a time. This is a slow process, but works much better than throwing on a thick coat thinking it’l do the job quicker.
Thin layers work the best because they make the oil more exposed to oxygen – and that’s what we want. When it stops looking wet after a thin coat, whats really happening is it begins oxidizing, cross linking and polymerizing from all the exposed oxygen.
Let each thin layer absorb and cure and repeat the process until the wood can’t absorb anymore. If you are just touching up slightly worn axes, just using one of these thin layers would be enough.
Boiled vs Raw Linseed Oil
Raw Linseed Oil is also sometimes used to coat the handle, however it takes longer to dry. Since it is “raw” there are no preservatives – for us that means no mildew protection for our axe handles.
Raw is also a lot thicker than Boiled which will take a longer time to absorb. On the other hand, one coat of raw linseed oil is really all you need. Waiting until it dries and applying another coat is almost pointless – since its so thick when absorbed into the wood the second coat will just sit on top the first one, not absorbed into the wood.
Boiled absorbs quickly but needs a couple coats to make it really reap all the benefits of having Boiled Linseed Oil in the pores of your handle.
Soaking vs Brushing
Soaking an axe handle in BLO has been around for a while now. This process takes at least 1 week to finish. The longer the handle stays submerged – the more is absorbed into the wood. In practice, usually the head end of the handle ends up soaking up the Boiled Linseed Oil.
Brushing is another technique. The most common practice when applying whatever oil you are working with – let it sit for a while to absorb into the wood and remove the excess. This way does not really get the deep penetration like soaking would, but after many re-applications the handle will slowly get more and more saturated.
For extra water resistance, including some Tung Oil(found here) on the handle will help to seal the surface well. Tomahawks left in the wintertime to deal with humidity change can easily have its head come off when it comes time for chopping or splitting in the summertime. This is usually the case for restoring old axes, however for newer projects – good old BLO is still the most common.
Sanded vs Open Pore Wood
Once an axe handle has been sanded, it is no longer considered “open pore“. In this case, soaking the wood like mentioned previously would not have too much effect. Instead its best to apply a coat by hand, let dry then wipe off and repeat the process. The more you sand down the handle, the smoother and shinier it will look.
If you’re dealing with unsanded wood – soaking might be more beneficial. The pores of the wood are open and can deeply absorb the BLO. Keep in mind – the wood can only absorb so much, so 12 hours seems to be the sweet spot for this method.
A soaked handle can still sweat out the oil for several days after it is wiped down. If you want to soak your handle allow several weeks for it to fully dry.
Some people also use turpentine along with their boiled linseed oil in a 50/50 mixture. This helps the axe oil go deeper in the wood and also dries quicker. This is optional as leaving the handle in BLO alone to dry for a few extra days gets almost the same effect.
Working Temperature for Best Results
It is always better for absorption to be in a warm environment. Many older axe makers would tell you to get close to the stove on cold winter days when applying these oils. The heat allows for a bigger penetration depth and rate.
The best practice is to find your warm spot, maybe that’s by a stove or just out in the sun. Brush or soak your handle in the oil and leave it out in the sun to dry. As soon as it dries, go out and put another thick layer and let it dry again until it cant absorb any more.
Working in cold temperatures can still be done, but will not produce the best results. If possible, leave this task for a time when you have the sort of heat necessary to really bond that Linseed Oil deep inside the wood.
Linseed Oil Safety
This is very important and sometimes overlooked. When you have an oily rag like we would after using it to wipe down your handles – DO NOT crumple it up and store it in a tight enclosed space. These rags have been known to spontaneously combust if left in this state.
These are after all highly unstable oils. To get the polymerization that we are after, the oils can oxidase so fast and generate enough heat that they catch on fire. Especially if you ball it up and leave it in a tight space. It can still be getting a small amount of oxygen that will combust due to all the heat in that small space. Its happened before and it is a real danger.
The best way to handle the rags when you’re done is to just lay them out flat somewhere to dry. There is still a chance that leaving it out in the hot sun can also cause it to catch on fire, so make sure to keep them in the shade and cool place.
Always keep your Boiled Linseed Oil rags in metal containers. Fires most commonly happen when wadded up rags combust near kindling. If your rags are in a metal container they will 1. Be sealed off getting less oxygen 2. Be isolated from other flammable materials.
Using Other Oils
Tung Oil is another route you can choose. One reason is because it’s a little better at protecting against water damage. Boiled Linseed Oil has certain metallic additives to speed up the oxidation process. This means the BLO will not be able to penetrate as deeply as Tung Oil.
Lots of people begin playing around with different mixtures to try and get a specific result in terms of protection, grip and looks. An article in the First Mariners Catalog by Pete Culler goes over his formula for what he calls “Deck Oil“.
He uses 8 parts Boiled Linseed Oil, one part Turpentine and one part Pine Tar. This combo really seems to work best and gives a nice finished product that has just a little better feel than BLO alone. The Pine Tar gives it a great smell.
The main reason BLO is still preferred on its own is because of the price. Tung Oil for example is usually at least 3x the price of Boiled Linseed Oil and often gets the same results. If you have some lying around then sure, proper application will give you some good results that you’ll be happy with. Most people can’t justify paying so much more for such similar results.
Another good option for anyone to consider is adding Pine Tar to your mix. Pine Tar is great for wood protection. It also allows beeswax to penetrate and bond to your wood handles much better. Mix it with Boiled Linseed Oil and Turpentine and you’ll have something good.
This will require many coats, especially if it is a new raw piece of wood. About 10 thin coats applied over a couple of weeks to allow each coat to dry. Afterwords you can take a heat gun and warm up the handle and rub some virgin beeswax all over the handle.
Doing this will leave you with a very smooth feeling handle. It will slide up and down easily on your axe handles when chopping, but also gives you a very good grip when choking down. Besides axe handles, this coating works great on all woodworking tools.
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Also, doing your finish in this way will really seal up the handle well. If you live in an area that gets high humidity, this is a life saver in terms of mildew buildup. Since BLO can be considered food for mildew, sealing it with a coat of beeswax helps the longevity of your axe handles. Nonetheless, Boiled Linseed Oil(check price here) is considered the best oil for axe handle and other wooden tool handles.