You may remember the “Pine Tar Game:” On July 24, 1983, The Kansas City Royals were losing 4-3 to the New York Yankees in the top of the ninth inning. George Brett, the Royals’ last hope, approached the plate with two outs and one runner on base. With a length of ash wood, he blasted the ball over the fence, giving the Royals the lead.
However, Yankees manager Billy Martin protested, claiming that the pine tar that Brett had rubbed onto that ash bat extended too far up the handle; a violation of league rules. The umpire agreed and called Brett out, taking away the home run and giving the Yankees the win! Sparing the details of the legal wrangling that followed, the decision was eventually overturned, and the Royals won the game. Here’s a video link if you’re really interested. Even if you’re not into baseball, there is something to take away from this story: pine tar improves your grip.
Here’s why I think that is important. I find that undue effort put into holding on to a tool, gripping too tightly, distracts from removing wood boldly and/or precisely. Plus it is tiring. None of this is much of a consideration when working with carving gouges, but with tools that are swung, it can make a big difference.
Pine tar aside for a minute, the first consideration is the handle itself. Some tools come with good ones and some don’t. To be fair, manufacturers are put in the difficult position of making one handle that is appropriate for thousands of different hands. Not that I think every handle has to be custom made; some turn out to be a good match. For example, I love the factory handle on my GB carving axe. I have found the handles supplied on some adzes to be hard for me to work with. Some are just hammer handles, while others are so oblong in cross section, it feels like holding a yardstick that wants to turn over in your hand.
If you don’t like the handle of your adze, a new one is easy to make and attach firmly. Here is the one I use 90% of the time. The head is by Hans Karlsson. I bought the head and handled it myself. To be fair, I have never tried the handle that is supplied with this adze. I just know that I like the way this handle feels. I am used to it, and there is something to that too.
I guess a real man just spits on his hands to improve his grip, and that works pretty well, but I can use all the hygiene improvement I can get. Pine tar has been used for all sorts of things for centuries. I found it in the baseball section of a sporting goods store. It comes already soaked into a rag and it will last for years. Your tool handles will not remain perpetually sticky. It wears off.
You might also consider gloves. Typical work gloves seem too thick to me for this work. There needs to be more of a direct feel. My son had these football gloves around; with a thin rubbery material on the grip side. I tried one out one day, and they work pretty well. Perfect if Billy Martin is watching you work.