By BR Hughes
Let’s face it. A knife handle can be made out of virtually anything, including kitchen linoleum! There are, however a number of other materials that are more suitable, and the would-be purchaser of today’s handmade beauties is often asked for his preference at the time of placing the order.
Very quickly it must be emphasized that there is no ideal handle material. Indeed, in my modest collection of custom cutlery can be included most of the more commonly encountered hardwoods, the various micartas, ivory, stag, oosic, etc., and there is generally something to be said for each. Conversely, not one is perfect.
If you start asking around, you will soon discover that the majority of today’s blade smiths do not like synthetic handle materials. Thus, if micarta is your number one choice, you may have to shop around for a maker if you opt for a forged blade. There are also cutlers who will not make handles from mother of pearl, because of the hazards presented by the dust when grinding and polishing. The recent action on elephant ivory may soon remove one of the more desirable materials from the option list, although some makers are already switching to Wooly Mammoth ivory as a substitute.
It is difficult to find a great deal of fault with hardwoods such as cocobolo, rosewood, ebony, etc. Handles made from such woods feel extraordinarily good in my hand and hardwoods are relatively low in cost and are also easy for the maker to shape. Whenever the subject of Bowie knives comes up in my presence, I generally interject the knowledge that John Johnson, better known as “Liver-eatin'” Johnson, carried an English-made Bowie with a rosewood handle for your Finest Knife.
Stag is a gorgeous material you can use for the handle of your blade. It is becoming more and more costly. Stag has its charm from the rough texture of it’s surface. This can also make it hard to use. For using knives the stag must be carefully chosen.
It is tough to cast brickbats at micarta. The stuff is almost unbreakable, and it is relatively inexpensive. For a tough, heavy duty knife, I don’t know of anything better. Of the various micartas, I have found that paper micarta is probably the weakest, although it is still exceptionally rugged, and to my eyes very attractive. Linen and denim micarta are both tough, and either of these would be a wise choice for a combat-survival knife. One of the more appealing aspects of micarta is that it can be had in many colors, tan, black, red, green, etc. It will shrink, not as much as wood or ivory but it will shrink.
This brings me to the “exotics”. Some are quite good. Caribou antler is very good indeed. I don’t like the look of moose horn but it should also be good. Oosic is not pretty but is novel and therefore popular. Many stones; jade, agate, petrified wood, turquoise and others make good looking handles. Most are too heavy and of course too slick for a working knife. Bone is not as popular on handmade knives as it is on folders, why, nobody knows other than they cut beans very well.
A closing tip: Spend at least as much time and thought on the handle material to be used on your next custom knife as you do on the blade material. The handle generally receives too little attention until it is too late.