The Complete Online Guide to Knifemaking, HANDLE MATERIAL
The Complete Online Guide to Knifemaking, HANDLE MATERIAL
Handles or scales can be made from stabilized wood, brass, micarta, alumilite or any combination of materials. For many, it's the scales that allow the bade smith to personalize an otherwise common design. For others, a more traditional wood look is preferred. It's all personal preference. Regardless of the material, knife scales should be comfortable in the hand and be tough enough to stand up to the elements. When assembling scales remember its all about fit and finish.
Any good quality two-part epoxy can be used to attach scale material to the tang of a blade. Generally the slower the cure time, the better the bond is going to be. We usually use 24-hour two- ton epoxy. Whenever using epoxy, clean or degrease both materials with alcohol. Rough up both surfaces with sandpaper to create little ridges. These ridges provide more surface area for the epoxy to bond to. If you live in a cold environment, store the epoxy inside. The only time we have ever seen epoxy fail was when it was stored in an unheated area or when the surfaces being glued were not properly prepared. Any excess epoxy can be easily cleaned off the knives blade with a paper towel and alcohol wipes.
Wood scale blanks are available from a variety of knife making supply companies. For economy scales, try your local lumber yard. Materials like walnut can usually be purchased by the foot. If you know someone with a table saw, this material can be quickly ripped down to 3/8 thick by 2 inches wide. We usually buy three or four feet at a time and the end result gives us dozens of scales at a price compared to what one or two commercially purchased knifescales would cost. Of course, the local lumber yard may not have a huge variety of exotic woods to choose from.
Hardwoods like walnut, mahogany, and cocobolo are often used for knife handles. Wood is easy to work with and to sand smooth.
If you are going to cut your own scales from a log, make sure it is stabilized to prevent it from shrinking and cracking. Step one is to dry the wood out which can be done in any warm dry environment. Knifemakers use a stabilizing product called Catus Juice which is available on the Internet. If you want a DIY recipe, mix 50 percent polyurethane with 50 percent paint thinner. Cut the wood blanks slightly oversize and then let them soak overnight. The paint thinner quickly soaks deep into the dried-out woods cell structure. As it does, it drags the thinned down polyurethane with it. The thinner then evaporates leaving the urethane to fill the woods cell structure and prevent cracking.
Hybrid scales are a combination of wood and casting resin. Endless combinations of color and texture are combined to create some beautiful one-of-a-kind knife handles. Often makers combine wood burls with alumilite casting resin. Casting with alumilite is not an easy process. The object is to reduce or eliminate bubbles in the transparent finished scales. Any moisture in the wood or even in the air will produce a cloudy cast. Either a vacuum or pressure pot can be used. The vacuum chamber reduces ambient or surrounding pressure causing any bubbles in the mix to expand, so they would float to the surface prior to the resin hardening. Pressure pots do the exact opposite. They increase the ambient pressure which results in compressing the bubble size of any air trapped in the resin. If small enough, these bubbles become microscopic and invisible. In both cases, the object is to end up with a transparent, bubble-free scale material. Knife scales created from alumilite are available from an ever-growing variety of custom makers. Some of these specialize in crafting unique one of a kind scales that are nothing less than spectacular. Join our Facebook group “Knives and Knife Making,” or just do a quick internet search to get an idea as to the variety available.
Micarta is commonly used to describe a composite material that is saturated in resin and then clamped or pressed to squeeze out any excess resin while drying. Micarta is often crafted from layers of colored paper or fabric. A simple wood press can be made which utilizes shop clamps to create the needed pressure. The saturated fabric is wrapped in parchment paper which will not stick to the finished product. Be careful when clamping the press together. Excess resin will run out of each end. We usually set up our micarta press on a board over a garbage can. It allows for easy clamping and excess material to then drip directly into the can preventing a messy cleanup. It is important that the press clamps flat. Otherwise, the finished product will be of uneven thickness. The end result is a durable scale material that is comprised of multiple layers of paper or material. When shaping and sanding micarta into knife scales the colored layers are exposed which results in some very interesting Damascus like lines.
Liners are used between the scales and tang of a knife. They are usually used to add color and can be made from laminated paper micarta or purchased liner material. Commercially available liners are often Vulcanized paper. They are available in vivid colors and you can stack different colors for a layered look. When using vulcanized paper, scruff up both sides with sandpaper prior to gluing to the knife scales. Otherwise, the epoxy may not hold. We attach liners to scale material with epoxy prior to profiling the scales. Glue and then clamp the scales to the liner material onto a flat surface, like a thick piece of glass. Use parchment paper to prevent it from adhering to the flat surface. Aside from ease and time savings, the major benefit from purchased liner material is the uniform thickness.
Spacers are the exact same material as liners. The only difference is how they are used. Liners are used between the tang and scales, and spacers are used between scales and bolsters or between one scale material and another.
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