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!