Handles for Knives: A Comprehensive Guide by a Master Blacksmith

The handle is just as crucial to the knife’s overall functionality and aesthetics. As a master blacksmith and knife maker, I’ve spent years perfecting the art of creating handles for knives.

Undoubtedly, the quality of craftsmanship, elegance, or perfection of shape, and the superb cutting characteristics of a knife blade play a primary role in choosing this tool. However, the quality of materials, comfort, and functional advantages of its handle are equally important. For exclusive knives, the defining factor is the flawless execution of lines and a thoughtful selection of valuable rare materials. Therefore, a beautifully designed handle is a more critical part of such a knife than its cutting characteristics.

Why are Handles for Knives Important?

The handle determines the comfort, grip, and overall balance of the knife. A well-crafted handle ensures that the knife feels like a natural extension of the hand, allowing for precise and safe usage.

Types of Materials Used in Handles for Knives

  1. Wood: One of the most traditional materials, wood offers a warm, natural feel and can be carved into intricate designs. Popular choices include walnut, oak, and rosewood. Each type of wood has its unique grain and color, making every wooden handle distinct. However, wooden handles require regular maintenance to prevent them from drying out or cracking.
  2. Bone: Bone handles, often derived from cattle, are known for their durability and unique patterns. They can be dyed in various colors and carved with intricate designs. However, they can become slippery when wet.
  3. Stag: Derived from naturally shed deer antlers, stag handles have a rugged appearance and provide an excellent grip. They are often used in hunting knives.
  4. Micarta: A composite made of layers of fabric set in resin, Micarta is incredibly durable and resistant to moisture, making it an excellent choice for heavy-duty knives. It offers a smooth grip and can be crafted in various colors and patterns.
  5. G-10: Similar to Micarta, G-10 is a fiberglass laminate composite. It’s lightweight, durable, and available in various textures and colors.
  6. Metal: Metal handles, such as stainless steel or titanium, are durable and provide a sleek, modern look. They can be textured for a better grip but can become cold in low temperatures.
  7. Rubber: Rubber handles provide an excellent grip, especially when wet, and are comfortable to hold. They are often used in diving or fishing knives.
  8. Plastic: Lightweight and affordable, plastic handles are resistant to moisture and easy to clean. However, they may not be as durable as other materials.

Design Considerations for Handles for Knives

When designing handles for knives, several factors come into play:

  • Ergonomics: The handle should fit comfortably in the hand, with contours that align with the user’s grip.
  • Balance: The weight distribution between the blade and handle should be balanced to ensure ease of use.
  • Texture: The handle’s texture affects the grip. A textured handle can provide a better grip, especially in wet conditions.
  • Durability: The handle material should be able to withstand regular use without deteriorating.

Components of a Handles for Knives

Depending on the purpose of the knife, an appropriate blade shape is selected. Taking this into account, the handle is formed and its positioning method is chosen. The knife handle can be in a straight line with the spine of the blade or at a specific angle to it. It consists of the following parts:

  • Tang: A small, narrow strip of metal relative to the blade, which is its continuation and on which the handle is formed.
  • Handle: Holds the blade for working with the knife.
  • Guard: Located between the handle and the blade, it’s designed to provide a stop for the fingers, protecting them from cuts. It can be single or double-sided.
  • Pommel: A device placed opposite the blade’s edge that attaches the handle to the tang.
  • Bolsters: Paired steel strips of metal that encircle the handle, protecting it from damages like cracks and splits.
  • Ferrule: Similar to the bolster, it is attached near the guard or with it and serves the same functions.
  • End Cap: Used when fitting the handle to the tang using a riveted method, by which it is attached to the tang.
  • Shield: Located on the side of the handle as an insert, it bears the manufacturer’s details (design, monogram, or initials of the craftsman).

The knife handle is attached to the tang in two ways: socketed and riveted.

The riveted method is used when there’s a wide tang that matches the contours of the handle. Two identical handle plates, also called “scales”, are riveted to it. The simplicity and reliability of riveted handles allow them to be used for knives of any purpose. Only riveted handles are used to create folding knives.

Riveted Handles

For the socketed method, narrow tangs are suitable, onto which handles are fitted. They can be of various shapes and sizes, allowing for the realization of design and stylistic ideas for the knife’s appearance. The weight of a knife with a socketed handle is much lighter, making it suitable for prolonged, energy-intensive tasks.

Shapes of Handles for Knives

Knife handles can have different tactile surfaces – smooth, rough, finely ribbed, depending on the material used in their production. However, the most crucial requirement for choosing a knife handle remains its comfortable fit in the hand for easy, precise tasks.

Depending on the shape, there are the following types of knife handles:

  • Straight: Most popular for making kitchen knives, they can be equipped with a pommel, but they aren’t very versatile. It’s essential to note that most models don’t have guards, which can be unsafe for the user.
  • Tapered: These handles can either widen or narrow relative to the blade. Historically, the former was used in weapons from Muslim countries (like the Turkish yatagan dagger, Persian kard), while the latter was used for dagger weapons for those whose dominant hand was the left. Today, they are part of surgical instruments. They often come with guards.
  • Concave: They fit comfortably in the hand and may have finger grooves, but their application range is somewhat limited.
  • Convex: Most common and suitable for various tasks. They can have shapes with a thickened or flattened middle part. Working with the latter can be a bit uncomfortable as they don’t always feel right in the hand, and one might need to get used to such handles.
  • Flat: Not comfortable for prolonged tasks as their edges press into the palm, but their shape allows them to take up little space.
  • Knuckle: Their unusual shape resembles brass knuckles and is used in making push daggers and butchering tools. They don’t have much functional value and are more of a knife decoration. •
  • Hook-shaped: Somewhat reminiscent of a curved umbrella handle, they are used for making thrusting tools for fencing.

Materials for Making Knife Handles

Knives can be adorned with various handles, and the cost of the cutting tool often depends on the material used for these handles. Knife handles are made from natural, synthetic, or metallic bases. Depending on the material used, there are several types of knife handles:

Synthetic models with fiberglass addition: These are made from zytel, kraton, and micarta (G-10). For combat knife handles, phenol-formaldehyde resin and bakelite overlays are used. Such knife handles are lightweight, resistant to freezing temperatures, and feel good in the hand.

Thermoplastic handles: These are produced using a pressure casting method and are typically of a single convex model, explaining their relatively low cost. Materials include polyamide (PA), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), and polycarbonate (PC). Polyamide is durable, insulating, fire-resistant, and resistant to chemically aggressive elements. Polycarbonate is hard, deformation-resistant, and handles open flames well. ABS consists of resin and elastomer, making it impact-resistant, reliable, and fireproof.

Thermosetting plastic models: Unique in that their initial shape cannot be altered. They are made from polyester, acrylic, phenolic resins, and fiberglass, which acts as a reinforcing component. Additional G-10 overlays can be applied to these handles, giving them a pleasant roughness, and their color variety helps create beautiful vibrant models.

Elastomeric handles: These feel rubbery to the touch. Their surfaces provide enhanced grip with the palm, preventing the knife from slipping during use.

Metallic models: These include aluminum, steel, and titanium handles.

Wooden handles: Among the most ancient and popular, they are made from walnut, beech, birch, cherry, mahogany, and other valuable wood types. The unique grain of each wood type gives the product its individual beauty and shade. Wooden knife handles are primarily treated with linseed oil or epoxy resin.

Horn or bone handles: Made from the horns of deer, roe deer, moose, elephant ivory, and tusks. They are durable, decoratively appealing, but can feel cold in freezing temperatures or be quite heavy. Elephant ivory doesn’t handle impacts well, reducing its longevity.

Maintenance of Knife Handles

Regardless of the material, regular maintenance ensures that your knife handle remains in top condition:

  • Wood and Bone: Regularly oil to prevent drying out. Avoid prolonged exposure to moisture.
  • Metal: Clean with a soft cloth and avoid corrosive substances.
  • Rubber and Plastic: Clean with mild soap and water.

Sometimes there arises a need to replace a knife handle that has been damaged or was initially not very comfortable (too light or heavy), or wasn’t suitable for the tasks at hand (it felt cold, slipped in the hand, or restricted wrist movements). Of course, one can purchase a suitable option from a knife store or order a product from an online store. However, many might find it interesting to craft their own masterpiece by hand.

Making a knife handle is an intriguing and captivating process. To craft a knife handle yourself, you need to decide on the characteristics it should possess and its shape.

It’s best to start by creating a comfortable handle with finger grooves. A deeper groove should be made for the index finger since most of the pressure during work falls on it. The other grooves should be broad and shallow, ensuring safe knife use with gloves in cold conditions. The placement and depth of these grooves can be determined using clay fingerprints applied to the blank. Additionally, one can craft a knife handle that’s straight or slightly curved.

Conclusion

Handles for knives are more than just a means to hold the blade. They play a pivotal role in the knife’s functionality, aesthetics, and overall user experience. Whether you’re a knife enthusiast or a casual user, understanding the intricacies of knife handles can enhance your appreciation for this age-old tool. Remember, a well-crafted handle not only elevates the knife’s performance but also turns it into a piece of art.

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