Hey there! And welcome back to my somewhat warped little corner of cyberspace. I'm glad you could join me.
A couple of weeks ago I started rambling on about the various materials they use to make knife handles, and I've covered the natural materials fairly well. I had originally planned to do metals in this ramble and then look at man made materials next time, but instead I think I'm going to combine the two into a single ramble. After all, there's just not that many of the two compared to natural materials; so let's go ahead and get started.
When it comes to metal knife handles, almost every knife I know of uses one of three metals. Stainless Steel, aluminum, or titanium. Of the three, steel is the most scratch resistant but also the heaviest, aluminum tends to be the lightest, and titanium tends to be the most durable as well as the most expensive. Aluminum and titanium also can be anodized which can result in some spectacular colors, and of course all three can have a "brushed" look applied. Most stainless steel knives in my experience also tend to have some other material mated with the steel, most often in the form of an inset with rubber and plastic being the most common. The reason many knife makers do this is that stainless steel tends to feel rather slippery in the hand and so they add another material to improve the grip. I've also noticed that aluminum seems to get colder in the winter than either steel or titanium for some reason. Admittedly this rather subjective and you may find no noticeable difference, but I have run into several people who agree with me about this somewhat perplexing observation. I'll also freely admit that as a general rule I'm not all that fond of metal handled knives, though there are a few exceptions. The old Colt 668 fixed blade knife comes to mind, however the bankruptcy proceeding Colt went through back in January ended the production of all Colt knives for the foreseeable future so finding one may prove a bit of a challenge.
When you start talking man made materials, synthetics to use the proper terminology, things start to get a bit more colorful as well as wide ranging in both quality and price. Some of course use plastic to simulate natural materials, and some of them are really quite amazing in their similarity to the real thing. Still, as a general rule very few knife makers are going to use plastic on any of their good knives so it's probably best to stay away from most knives with plastic handles unless you happen to come across one of the rare exceptions.
Perhaps the most commonly used synthetic for knives is micarta. Originally developed by Westinghouse around 1910 as an electrical insulator, it is made by layering sheets of some material impregnated with resins (normally phenolic resins) and then exposing the built up mess to heat and pressure to form a very durable "board". The sheets can be linen, cotton, paper, or even fiberglass; and when two or more colors of sheet material is used, the resulting knife handle can be truly striking. The drawback is that micarta tends to extremely smooth, and is one of the more difficult materials to work. As a result micarta handled knives tend to be more expensive than the other synthetics.
Similar to Micarta is a material called G-10. Like micarta, G-10 is a laminate, but it uses glass fibers instead of cloth or paper. Almost as durable, G-10 is also used as an electrical insulator in many industries, but where most micarta tends to be of a darker hue due to the type of resin used, G-10 can be found in almost any color you can imagine. It also tends to be much easier to work which normally translates into a lower cost to you, the knife buyer.
Another laminate you may come across is commonly referred to as carbon fiber. Keep in mind that carbon fibers can be one of the strongest materials around, much stronger than steel in fact. The only problem is that all that strength only runs in one direction. As a result a knife with a carbon fiber handle is kind of like a diamond in a way. A diamond is indeed the hardest material any where, and can be used to cut through even the toughest item, but they're so brittle that if you hit it with a hammer all you'll have left is diamond dust. Carbon fiber handles are also extremely labor intensive, for about the only place you'll find these handles are on the very highest grade knives around. I mean, this stuff is expensive!
At the other end of the price spectrum is a material known as Fiberglass Reinforced Nylon, or FRN for short. The earliest example of FRN is a material called Zytel, which was introduced by DuPont back in the 1950's. Unlike the others mentioned so far however, the fiberglass fibers in FRN tend to run in completely random directions instead of being lined up neatly. This results in a material that can be injection molded in almost any form you like, which helps to keep costs way down. I know some feel that FRN isn't any better than plastic or rubber as a knife handle, but personally I find it to be as durable as you could possibly ask. In fact, my most commonly carried EDC knife, a Kershaw Freefall, has a FRN handle and the knife has yet to fail me in anyway.
One of the newer handle materials on the market is an acrylic based product called Kirinite. Available in a wide variety of colors and color combinations, you can find kirinite in almost any color you could possibly want. It works almost identically to wood, and, at least so far, seems to be as durable as you could possibly want. On the other hand the only major knife company I'm aware of that is currently using kirinite on any of their knives is Case, so at least for now you're most likely to see this material used on custom knives only; unless you're lucky enough to live near a major Case dealer.
And that my friends is the nitty gritty of knife handles. Yes, there are some out there who will think this whole series of rambles about the different materials that can be used to make a handle for your favorite knife silly in the extreme. Most of them will try to tell you that the handle really doesn't mean anything, but I personally think they're nuts. A knife with a poor handle will fail you every time. If the handle doesn't fit your hand right, or is made of a material that allows it to slip in you grip, then the knife will be a danger to you and anyone beside you. So pay attention to that handle. Pick the knife up and see how it fits in your hand even before you pay any attention to what style of blade or blades it has or what those blades are made of. If you can't keep a grip on it, then even the best blade isn't going to do you any good.
But for now it's late and alas, I must be up all too early in the morning. So until we meet again in this little corner of cyberspace I call my own, I wish you well dear reader. And remember, if it's worth doing then it's worth doing with attitude!
Welcome back my friend. It's Wednesday, so it's time to talk knives again and last week we had started to discuss handle materials. So let's see where we were then.
So, you've already listen to me ramble on about the different categories; which admittedly was kind of boring and limited. So why don't we start looking at the first of those categories, namely natural materials such as bone and wood. Is there any thing that can't be used to make a knife handle? Not really. In fact is you go back far enough you'll find just about any natural material you can name used somewhere or other, even stone! So what's used today?
One material that's been used for thousands of years, and is still used even today is of course wood; and why not. There's very little out there more beautiful than a nice piece of wood that's been lovingly shaped and worked. Rosewood, cocobolo, ironwood, even birds eye maple, the possibilities are as endless as the type of trees in the forest. Wood is pleasing to the eye and comfortable in the hand, and some are as durable as you could ask. Archeologists have found oak foundations in various parts of the world that are 100's, even thousands of years old, and still as solid as the day they were made. However not all wood will last like this, and like almost all natural materials it will suffer much more from abuse than metal or man made materials. So if your wood handled knife gets wet or dirty, wash it gently, dry it well with a soft towel as best you can, then set it aside to dry naturally over the course of a day or two. Then when it's dry, rub it well with mineral oil or some natural wood oil. And for God's sake, whatever you do, don't put it in a hot oven, on top of a stove, or by the fire! You'll dry it out so completely it'll crack and then you'll have no choice but to either replace the handle or replace the knife.
Another material that's been in use at least as long as wood, and possibly longer, is leather. After all, when man was still living in caves and chipping his blades out of flint and obsidian, what was easier to work with? It cut easily, much more easily than trees, and there was plenty to go around after each successful hunt. Even today there are many knives out there with leather handles, but most of them use what are often referred to as "spacers". Wrapping a handle in leather often doesn't work well over time since leather can stretch leaving you with a grip that can turn in your hand at the worst possible minute. Leather spacers, which look like washers made of leather, form the handles of some of the more iconic fighting knives around; from the famous Ka-bar of the U.S. military, to the V-42 dagger used by the British "Devil Brigade" in WWII. The Premium Bowie from Magnum by Boker also uses them, interspaced with piece of cocobolo wood and the entire handle polished to a fair-the-well.
Perhaps the most beloved handle material for many knife collectors is bone. Almost as easy to work as wood, bone can be smooth or rough and died in almost any color imaginable. Today cow bone is the bone of choice for most knife makers, mainly because as long as people eat beef there will be a steady supply. Plus it's even more durable than most woods, so it'll last a long, long time.
Then there's Stag or antler. All antler material from legitimate suppliers come from antlers that have been "shed" by the animals in the spring before the new antlers start to come in, and it's natural texture make for a great grip. However poorly fitted antler can easily come lose from the tang resulting in a knife that can turning your hand, so I personally would recommend spending a bit more to make sure you get a quality fit and, possibly, sambar stag antler from India since it has a much smaller "morrow" core than other breeds.
Along the same lines of antler would be horns. Unlike antlers, most animals do not shed their horns; but since true horns are, believe it or not, a form of hair it does not hurt the animal to have their horns cut off once a year or so. Perhaps the most popular horns are buffalo, sheep, and types of ivory; though getting ivory legally is getting tougher and tougher as countries crack down on poachers more and more. Indeed, every new manufacture knife I've seen in the past 2 years with an "ivory" handle was actually using a synthetic material of some sort instead.
Similar to ivory, but no where near as durable is Abalone and Mother of Pearl. Both materials are made from the shell of various mollusks, and while beautiful as all get out, it doesn't tend to be very durable. For this reason they tend to be used mainly for "gentlemen's" pocket knives which will rarely see any heavy use or presentation knives that are not intended to be used at all. It also tends to be one of the most expensive of the natural handle materials since it can literally take a ton of muscles and oysters to get a pair of pieces big enough for one knife.
Near the beginning I mentioned using stone for knife handles, and I know I heard at least one or two snorts of disbelieve out there; but stone really is used for knife handles even today. Most of the time it's a semi-precious stone such as turquoise, but I've also seen fossilized wood and mammoth tusks. Don't believe me? Go look. You'll find knives from Case, Rough Rider, Colt, and, some of my personal favorites though I have not yet managed to become a dealer for them (and truthfully, since they're so small, probably never will), Santa Fe Stone Works.
Finally, there's a group that some are still arguing over which category they belong in; namely the stabilized woods. What happens here is that the wood (or any natural material that's porous enough for the chemicals toward their way in) is put in a vacuum tank along with a resin like material and the resin is forced into the wood and then cured, most often by applying heat. The result is a material with the natural beauty of wood and the durability of a synthetic.
And there in a nut shell are the choices. Truthfully, I find the natural materials so beautiful that they comprise most of the knives in my personal collection. But next week I'll ramble a bit about the synthetic material currently in use, which, in all honesty, tend to be superior in terms of durability; even if many of them don't hold a candle to the natural materials in looks. But hey, some don't agree with me on this; and isn't that part of what makes life so grand? Things would be dreadfully boring if we all agreed on everything after all. But until then, I hope your weeks all you could ever hope for and may the god of your choice smile down on you. And as always, remember, if it's worth doing then it's worth doing with attitude!
Hey, and welcome back! I hope you've been enjoying my little rambles on knives. So far we've looked primarily at the blade, which is only reasonable since it's the blade that does the work, right? Well sort of. As we've seen, the material a blade is made out of, the style of blade used, and the final grind all have huge impacts on just what a knife can do best and what it's main weaknesses may be, but it's more than a little difficult to hold onto a knife with out a proper handle. Yet the number of things that handle can be made out can sometimes be so overwhelming as to leave a person new to knives curled up in a ball somewhere staring into space. I mean, one web site I saw listed over 24 different handle materials to choose from, and that still leaves some items out and others put under listings that make them sound like it's all the same thing. So how do you choose?
Unfortunately, there's just too many choices to cover all of them in one ramble, even one as long as I sometimes find myself delivering; but I can at least try to start breaking it down for you. So for today, let's look at the three main categories and then in later rambles I can try to start breaking each category down a bit.
The first, and oldest category would be natural materials such as wood, bone, horns, antlers, mother of pearl, etc. These are of course the oldest materials used, and some knife collectors won't even consider a knife that doesn't use one of these traditional materials. These materials have a natural beauty to them that has shined down through the ages, and are generally self renewing. Even those materials that come from animals, with the exception of bone, are most often obtained with no injury to the animal. I mean think about it. Almost every animal out there looses it's horns or antlers at least once a year, and for those that don't it's rarely dangerous or painful for the material to be harvested in a humane way. They tend to be tough, durable, and for the most part relatively cheap. The biggest drawback is that unless they're stabilized, they will start to deteriorate over time. Of course, if you take care of your knife and don't abuse it that may take two or three generations, but still.
The next category would be metals, most often stainless steel, aluminum, or titanium (though occasionally other metals may be used for one reason or another). Now I must admit that I'm not all that fond of metal hilts or handles, but they do have their advantages. For one thing they're tough as, well, metal. So you end up with a handle that is as durable as hell, and can be finished in a wide variety or ways. Some even have other materials used as inserts which can greatly improve the grip feel. However they often get hot or cold depending on conditions much faster than other handle materials, which can make holding the knife somewhat uncomfortable under extreme weather conditions.
Then we come to the synthetic materials. This can be anything from plastic to a carbon fiber, fiberglass, or even resin based materials. Some, such as FRN (Fiber Reinforced Nylon), can be molded into just about any shape you want. Others, such as Micarta and G-10, must be worked and shaped in a method very similar to the way you'd make a handle out of wood. In this group of materials, perhaps more than any other knife handle materials, you really do get what you pay for though. G-10 for example in almost as durable as metal, doesn't scratch as easily, and can be made in a wide variety of colors. What's more it doesn't absorb or loose heat the way metal will. However it does tend to be on the expensive side. Plastics on the other hand run the gamut from cheap and flimsy to ones that are tough as nails. However unless the plastic is reinforced in some method, it will crack or break much more easily that almost any other knife handle material out there. For those who might be interested Walter Sorrells, a highly respected custom knife maker, has a video showing how to make Micarta here.
And there you go. A very fast and dirty look at knife handles. Not a lot of information you say?Well, yeah, you're kinda right there, and I do apologize. But if I started trying to discuss each type of material used I'd have an entire book! A thin book maybe, but still a book's worth of information, and then where would I be? So come back next week and the two weeks after, and we'll start to take a look at each category in a little more depth. I'm figuring on starting with natural materials next week; but hey, if you'd rather I start with synthetics, or even metal, just let me know in a comment post to this ramble. Or you can go to my Facebook page and leave a comment there. Either way my friends, if enough of you want me to start somewhere else I'll be more than happy to do so. Or maybe you have a specific question you'd like me to address. Again, just leave a comment in either place and I'll get you an answer some way or another.
But until then, I wish you clear skies and smooth sailing until we meet again here in my little corner of cyberspace. Take care my friend, and remember; if it's worth doing, it's worth doing with attitude!