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!
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