Handle Material knifeopedia
The handle material has a big impact on the design as well as production cost. With the exception of injection moulded or metal handles, the production process is almost identical. The material is cut into rectangular blocks in the size of the final handle. It’s then ground into the desired shape, by hand or by machine/robots, and polished to the desired surface texture and finishing.
Natural wood and stabilization
The traditional material used for knife handles is natural wood. As a natural material, it adds warmth to the grip, which is liked by many users. It comes in different materials and grains, and can be dyed for color variation. Also, since the grain of each handle scale is unique, it adds a personality to the knife.
As wood moves depending on temperature/moisture, at a rate very different to metal, using natural wood on a knife can lead to problems, especially in a full tang/riveted construction. If the scales shrink too much, tang and rivets may become exposed, creating uncomfortable burrs, or if excessive, even lead to cracks in the handle.
One way to prevent reduce shrinkage is stabilizing the wood, which is especially helpful in case of wood with low density/high porosity. This is done by placing the block of wood into a vacuum chamber to extract the air from within the wood, and then introducing an acrylic resin into the wood. Afterwards, the scales are dried.
Stabilization not only eliminates movement, but also adds strength to the wood itself and makes it more resistant to rot. In most cases, it makes the handle look more attractive and still feels like wood in your hands, not plastic. The only downside of stabilization is cost.
As explained above, natural wood is a very popular material for knife handles, but usually is expensive, plus the movement creates a lot of issues. Based on the idea of maintaining the look & feel of wood, but making it more suitable for production on industrial scale, handles made of composite material have been invented. There are different versions, with Pakkawood and Micarta (both registered trademarks) being by far the most popular ones.
Also sold as Staminawood, Colorwood, Dymondwood etc., this is a type of plywood. Moisture is removed from layers of wood veneer using a vacuum process. The layers are then glued together with phenolic resins under high pressure. Some are dyed with coloured resin, for either a more natural look or a more eclectic appearance. This process makes the scales much more stable and resistant than natural wood and largely waterproof. Pakkawood comes in a variety of base veneers and dyes, which all have their layered look in common.
Layers of wood veneer are replaced by paper or fabric, glued together with phenolic resin and dyed in different colours. The most common types are paper, linen and canvas Micarta. Especially linen Micarta has a very similar look than Pakkawood and has thus become popular for use in knife handles. Due to the complete absence of wood in the material, it’s even more stable than Pakkawood.
Acrylic handle are usually made of PMMA. It’s a strong, resistant and durable material, that can easily be ground. It comes in a variety of colours and patterns and can produce eclectic looks. But they are not cheap. They are usually delivered in blocks, that have to be ground into shape.
Recently hybrid material with burl-wood and acrylic resin have appeared on the market. Blocks are cast with dyed resin and the burl. Production is similar to stabilised wood. It can produce very rich designs.
The most commonly used material for mass-produced knife handles is plastic. It’s resistant, stable and completely waterproof, so that it can be put in a dishwasher.
Plastic handles are usually injected into their final shape, either directly onto the metal parts of the knife, or as handle scales to be attached to the tang.
In an industrial production, material as well as process costs are very low, making it by far the cheapest way of producing a knife handle. But as expensive injection moulds are required for production, it's only economic in larger production lots.
In terms of functionality, plastic handles are hard to beat, but create a minimalist and functional look that many users consider boring as compared to other materials.
In the past twenty years, knives with metal handle have become popular. Many users like the seamless one-piece construction that looks hygienic and durable.
Knives with metal handles consist of two or three pieces. The most common way of production is inserting a blade made of knife steel into a hollow handle made of stainless steel (consisting of two scales, welded together), and welding both together at the insertion point.
Some high-end full metal knives are made in a three-piece construction, where a hollow handle is welded to a solid bolster part, and those parts then welded to the blade. This has the advantage of the solid bolster part improving the balance and the material structure in the area of the welding seam.
Disadvantages of full metal knives are the risk or corrosion and breakage in the area of the welding seam (depending on production process), and the cold and slippery feel of the handle, which is disliked by some users.
Twenty years ago, for most users, knives were a tool, with not much emphasis placed on design. That has changed profoundly. Nowadays, there is a huge variety of knives with handles in a multitude of shapes and materials. To further enhance the design, decorative elements are added to the handle, like metal end caps, spacers, mosaic or logo pins, or combining different materials in one handle.