Build custom beer tap handles
With home brewing taking off, and makers getting serious about not only the beer they’re making but the whole presentation of their favourite home brew, a customized beer tap handle is the perfect gift.
Home brewing is an art, and with a wide variety of ingredients available on the market today, the brews are more varried each and every day. A custom tap handle will certainly complete the look and feel of a home bar.
As for the design, the sky’s the limit. As long as you keep the theme fun and personalized, you can’t go wrong. Hobbies are the obvious theme, but if nothing comes to mind, an attractive piece of figured wood, carefully coated with a tasteful finish, is a great approach. If you want to take it to the next level, a textured or carved handle will liven up any home bar.
Proportions don’t need to be exact, but they should be close enough to what a visitor expects a beer tap handle to be without asking. I also find it’s the details that go a long way with small projects like these, so don’t be afraid to spend a bit of extra time bringing the handle to life, as it will be well worth it.
Gather Your Supplies
Although it’s not always needed, epoxy will help keep the threaded inserts fixed in position if you want extra assurance. If the hole you drilled in the end of the handle resulted in a less than perfect insert fit, epoxy will fill that gap and add strength to the fastener. Also make sure to have the insert and magnetic items on hand before starting this project.
A drill press equipped with some sort of fixture to hold the handle blank at 90° to the ground is the perfect machine to bore a clean hole in end grain for the threaded inserts.
Install the Insert
Brown used a spade bit to assist with installing the threaded insert into a 1/2" diameter hole in the ends of the handles. Some inserts are installed with an Allen key wrench.
Draw the Design
Mark the design onto the blank so the waste can be removed with a bandsaw. Using images are a great way to ensure the proportions and shape look appropriate. The internet is a great source for virtually any photo, sports team logo or organic shape.
Remove Some Waste
A bandsaw will help remove waste and get you closer to the shape you want. It can be tricky cutting all four sides of a blank on a bandsaw, as the blank needs to be supported during the cuts. Using masking tape to re-position offcuts in place so you can make different cuts is a good approach.
Gouges Create Texture
Although any hand tool can leave texture, a gouge is one of the best tools to use to remove wood and create a visually interesting surface.
Chisels Are Flexible
A chisel will give you lots of flexibility when it comes to removing unwanted material. You can use a chisel to get into tight inside corners and heavily chamfer corners.
Hand Planes Smooth Surfaces
When removing wood from a flat or slightly convex surface, a hand plane is a great option. A distinct advantage to using a hand plane is that it flattens surfaces. Small planes will fit into tighter areas.
Though there are many ways to add one or more magnets to the handle and writing surface, here Brown inset a washer used with rare earth magnets, then installed the magnet in the rear face of the writing surface.
Spokeshaves Are Helpful
When rounding edges, smoothing surfaces and reducing the thickness of the handle shaft, a spokeshave is a great tool to have around. Brown clamped the base of the handle in his vise, then used his hip to help support the handle while using the spokeshave.
Straighten Things Up
Many hand tools will leave a slightly undulating, wavy surface. Tools like a rasp and a short block plane will assist you with creating straight surfaces, like the shaft of this small canoe paddle.
It’s always important to start a project with as much of the hardware on hand as possible. Beer taps in the U.S. and in Canada have a 3/8″-16 thread. I’ve purchased these inserts from my local hardware specialty shop, but I’ve seen them in some of the big box stores, too. The piece of hardware gets threaded into a hole in the end of the wooden handle, and on the inside of the insert threads secure the handle onto the beer tap.
Before you go to the trouble of sizing the hole for the insert and installing it in the handle, it’s safest to try it on the tap to ensure the threads are correct. If this is a gift, and you can’t do that, you could always replace it down the road if for some reason the threads are wrong.
Break out some wood
A handle of anywhere between 6″ and 12″ tall is fine, though there are really no rules. Each handle can be as long as you need, and will also depend on the design you go with.
With the paddle handle pictured on the first page, I laminated a blank with a series of solid wood and veneer. I’ve also used solid wood for handles. The choice is yours.
The main shaft can be machined square or rectangular, then the hole in the bottom of the handle can be drilled to accept the threaded hardware. The insert hole should be bored on the drill press while making sure it’s parallel with the travel of the bit. This is so the hole is parallel with the shaft and to ensure the hole is drilled accurately. When drilling into end grain by hand the bit tends to skate around a lot, and an uneven hole is the result. You can install the insert now.
Lay out the handle
I often use images from the internet, or possibly photos I have, to help lay out the shape I’m working towards. Once I’ve penciled in the shape, I head to the bandsaw to remove as much waste as I can.
If you’re unsure about the shape you’re making, it’s a good idea to use some softwood or possibly something even easier to work with, like rigid Styrofoam board. A bit of practice will often reveal a better approach to your design, so once you start on the real thing the process will leave you with a nicely shaped handle.
I tend to leave the base of the handle larger, and therefore stronger, to properly hold the threaded insert. This is especially true when working with a softer wood. Having a square base with a taper that blends into the long portion of the handle looks good.
If you’ve ever shaped a cabriole leg, you’ll know this step can be tricky. The first few cuts are easy, but once you start removing material “in the round,” meaning you’re removing material from all the sides of the part, you lose a flat surface to support the workpiece. Saving offcuts and taping them to one surface of the workpiece to provide a stable surface to make future bandsaw cuts is a good approach. Never shape a workpiece on the bandsaw’s table that’s not stable and properly supported.
Another approach to consider is to leave a chunk of material intact and rectilinear, as you can use it to clamp the handle to a workbench or secure it in a vise as you shape it later. This is often beneficial with intricately shaped handles.
Shape the details
With the bulk of the waste removed, it’s time to focus on adding a more organic shape to the handle. An assortment of chisels, spokeshaves, rotary tools, gouges, hand planes and sanders will collectively assist with this process.
Shape certain parts of the handle, then step back to have a look at your progress. It can be hard to visualize how the handle will look once it’s complete, and you don’t want to remove too much material from an area.
If this is your first time shaping in the round, you’ll quickly realize that holding your workpiece steady while you remove material from it can be a challenge. Leaving a section of material on the handle during the bandsaw stage can assist with this, but isn’t always practical. Dedicated support jigs can help keep the handle from moving while you shape it. Griping the base of the handle in a vise and working on the distant end also works well if you’re using hardwood. Softwood can sometimes crush under the pressure of a vise.
Create the writing surface
Although this step is optional, adding a small surface that can be written on with chalk is a nice touch. It’s possible to glue a small writing surface directly to the handle, but I find this isn’t often an easy task, and it can also be accidentally hit and break off. A magnet embedded in the handle and a small screw driven into the rear face of the writing surface works well. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with embedding a magnet in the rear of the writing surface and installing a washer in the handle.
Rare earth magnets and all the related cups and washers give woodworkers lots of options at this stage. As long as you can secure a magnet to either the handle or the rear face of the writing surface, you can install a washer or even a #4 screw into the other surface.
A few coats of blackboard paint on the front of the writing surface will provide a good surface for writing with chalk.
Finish it off
Once you’re pleased with the overall shape of the handle, hand sand it thoroughly. Break all the edges, as this handle will be touched a fair bit. Enjoying a beer is hard when a sliver is deep under your skin.
Most finishes will work just fine on this type of handle. A wipe-on finish is generally easy to apply to furniture, but any deep texture or tight inside corners might make it slightly more challenging to apply to a handle. An aerosol spray can allows you to apply a coat to the many surfaces of a handle, and quickly gets into any texture or inside corners. This is often the approach I use.
Because you can’t hold the handle while you apply a finish, I put a thin piece of wood or a length of metal rod in my vise and fit the handle directly over its end. This way, the handle is fully supported while I apply the finish, and no fingerprints ruin the finish. This will be carefully looked at and touched a lot, so if you’re in doubt add another coat.
In use, a tap handle shouldn’t be grasped from the top, as doing so can exert a lot of force on the threaded insert. Grasp it near the bottom portion of the handle to reduce the leverage to keep it working for a long time.
Now the payoff — giving the handle to your friend and accepting a free glass of beer. Enjoy it; you’ve earned it.