It’s a steal!... I’m not advocating theft here, far from it. But saving yourself a lot of money can feel like stealing. And surely saving money and benefitting others, is as ‘permaculture’ as it gets. My wife Fiona and I love to visit a local charity/thrift shop. We donate our own pre-used items to it when things become unused or unwanted. When we stopped using our tumble dryer whilst trying to reduce our electricity use, we donated it to the shop for them to sell on. The charity is Emmaus which is a charity for the homeless that started here in France, but they also exist in England. Ours is actually a warehouse with a few barns and houses set in the countryside.
On one visit, the charity had been donated a workshop full of old tools. I have plenty of tools of my own but my most recent craft interest is blacksmithing, so I’m always on the lookout for old tools that I can re-purpose into hand tools for green woodworking or natural building. I was surrounded by a newly donated abundance of old tools past their best for their original use but still pieces of good quality steel - that’s steel that is high in carbon which makes it hard - as hard steel takes and holds a good sharp edge.
I made a selection of the best pieces of steel for re-forging and took it over to the counter to obtain a price. I could hardly haggle over the price as the box weighed about 12kg (26.5lbs) and the billhook laying on the top would cost me a minimum of 25 Euros for a new cheap Chinese one. Next to that with a loop forged in the end of the handle was a clog maker’s hand chisel. I already had a project in mind for that. The rest of the box was full of files, nail pullers and an old pry bar - all good high carbon steel.
Back at the forge, I wanted to renovate the billhook first so I burned off the over-sized handle, heated the tang (back part of a tool) to bright red and bent the tang back straight, ready to have a new handle fitted. I worked on a few other things while I had the forge up to heat.
I took the blade back into my workshop to clean up with a wire brush and then sharpened it on my water stone to avoid overheating the edge, causing it to lose its original edge-holding ability. Now I needed to make a handle for it.
I heated the loop on the old chisel to bright red and straightened it out (it actually took two heats to finish this stage). Then I heated the area at the point the steel gets larger just after the loop and bent it to an 80º elbow at 90º to the blade edge. The tapering end would be a tang for the handle. Next I bent the centre of the blade to the same elbow, but in the opposite direction to the new tang. It was then ready for heat treating.
First I heated the whole thing up to a cherry red in the forge and placed it in a bin full of vermiculite.† This insulates the steel and allows it to cool slowly over a few hours, which enables the steel to soften, a process called annealing. In this softer state, it’s easier to file, grind, sharpen and polish. Once all the grinding and polishing is done, it’s time to re-harden the steel (quenching), then reheat it again in our Rayburn oven to about 310ºC (590ºF) (tempering). This makes the steel less brittle. Afterwards, the handle was made and fitted.
Making The Handles
Whilst a round handle is serviceable, it wasn’t ideal for either the billhook or the bowl carving gouge. I therefore used a technique of turning using multiple centres. First I needed a piece of suitable hardwood. Ash and beech make good tool handles, but I had some dry oak around my workshop, so that’s what I used for these two projects. I turned the oak down to a slightly oversized cylinder. The joy of making your own tool handles means you can make them specifically to fit your own hand, so I sized it by feel not measurement. Then I re-turned it again on three separate centres leaving a bigger section at the back end of the handle to stop it slipping from my hand when in use.
Here (above) you can see the original centre mark surrounded by the four marks left by the prongs that drive the wood round. You can also see two rings left by the next drive centre which is just using friction to drive the wood. I was left with a softly rounded, three sided shape. I then turned off all the marks, which left me with a pleasing shape. Then it was time to drill a hole for the tang of the tool and to fit the handle into it with plenty of friction to grip the tang. The hole was not deep enough for the whole tang, so I heated the tang and burned the rest of the hole into the handle. This made it fit well. The handle was tapped on to the tang once it was cool with a little added Araldite glue for extra security. It should last a lifetime.
I made both handles for these two tools using the same method but with slightly different shapes. The bowl carving gouge works as intended and the billhook will see plenty of use this winter and next spring laying hedges. We have many other re-purposed tools that students on our natural building courses can learn to make, starting with a craft knife as part of the first week’s curriculum of blacksmithing and green woodworking. Once the building starts, students use their evenings and weekends to explore both disciplines of blacksmithing or green woodworking further.
Bowl carving gouge and the fully restored billhook.
Steve Hanson, Permaculture teacher, practitioner and consultant. A natural builder and professional craftsman for more than 20 years. He is co owner of Permaculture Eden, a human scale permaculture farm near Lourdoueix-Saint-Michel in central France. All photos copyrighted to Steve Hanson.
More details of courses at Permaculture Eden can be found on their website at: www.permacultureeden.com/courses
† Vermiculite is a hydrous, silicate mineral that is used as a high temperature insulant.