Almost everyone who has ever used a knife would agree that the blade is one of its most important features. From the design of the blade to the material and hardness, to the sharpness, the blade of the knife gets an awful lot of attention. So much attention, that many overlook another important feature of every knife: the handle. An important component of the handle are the scales, which are an integral part of any good knife.
The two pieces of material on either side of the knife handle are referred to as knife scales. They are made of a number of materials, which vary due to application and intended use.
Knife Handle Composition
A knife handle is a simple, yet crucial part of any knife. A knife with an ergonomic handle can be the difference between sore hands at the end of the day or hands that are ready to take on the next task.
Most handles utilize a piece of material formed in some fashion or another next to the blade. This material is referred to as the bolster. Knife handles will also incorporate a piece of material at the butt of the knife to keep the hand centered around the handle, referred to as the handle butt.
Not only is hand fatigue a concern when designing a knife handle, but safety is also a huge concern. Knife accidents are no joking matter, and the slip of a knife can easily cause injury.
Dr. Ver Steeg is one of the most respected authorities in knife and knife handle building. A hand surgeon by trade, Dr. Ver Steeg dives deep into human anatomy and knife handle ergonomics with all the knives that he custom builds.
A common misconception is that a knife with grooves for finger holds will allow for a much more stable grip on the knife. The human hand actually gets much of its grip strength from compressing the fingers together, leaving regular smooth knife handles the better grip option of the two.
If you look at your palm, you will notice a slight concavity in the middle. Dr. Ver Steeg recommends a knife handle with a convex arch in the middle of the handle to match the concavity of the human palm. This will allow for more hand-to-handle contact and overall better control of the blade.
These profiles can be easily produced in the scales of your knife. Simply trim these features into the knife scales with a scroll saw after cutting the scale blanks. These edges can then be sanded to allow for smooth transitions.
The knife scales can be affixed to the knife in several different ways. The portion of the knife metal where the handle is located is referred to as the tang. The tang will usually have 3 to 4 holes drilled in the material. The knife scales will then be drilled in locations to match the holes that are drilled in the tang.
The scales are shaped using hand and power tools to conform the material to the desired shape. Scales can also be stained and finished at this point, or they can be stained and finished once fixed to the tang. An epoxy adhesive is then used to glue the knife scales to the tang. Metal pins are then driven into the holes through both scales and the knife tang. The handle is then finished and polished.
Knife Scale Materials
Knife scales can be built from a wide variety of materials. Each material has its pros and cons, and personal preference often plays a large role in scale material choice.
Wooden knife handles have been around for centuries, and wood is likely one of the first materials to be used for knife scales. Most will argue that a knife with a fine wooden handle has a very appealing aesthetic. Something about the human eye can recognize this; the same way as we can look at a firearm with a beautiful cherry stock. When wooden handles are used on tools, they give the tool a certain amount of character, almost a personality.
Wooden knife scales can be built from soft or hardwoods, however, hardwood scales are recommended if the user is expecting to use the knife in all weather conditions. Softwood knife scales are typically harvested from coniferous trees, which are known to absorb water and dent easily.
Some knife scales are built from hardwood burls. Burls are growths on the sides of trees in which the wood grains are swirled in many directions. Burlwood is highly valued and is often sought after by many craft makers. Knife scales are no exception.
Many hardwood knife scales are composed of Oak. Oak offers great strength, while also exhibiting excellent color. It also readily accepts a stain. Knife scales made from Ebony are particularly rare, but they have an almost unparalleled beauty. Ebony wood is almost entirely black, and Ebony trees are dwindling in numbers. A knife with Ebony scales can make a great addition to any knife collection.
A huge benefit to using wood for knife scales is the “workability” of wood. Wood is easily shaped by even a novice knife-builder. No special blades or sandpaper is required to construct top-quality knife scales. Wooden knife scales can also be refinished over time. Simply remove the pins through the scales and the knife tang by driving them out with a smaller diameter pin.
Depending on the finish on the knife, a stripping solvent will then need to be applied to the knife scales. The scales can then be sanded to remove dings, scratches, or old stain. Once this step is complete, the knife scales can then be stained and refinished. This is not the case with many composite materials.
Bone or antler knife scales are another popular knife scale choice, especially amongst hunters and anglers. The bone is finished with a protective sealant to weather-proof the material before it is glued to the knife tang. Utilizing antlers for knife scales can make a great and personal gift.
Perhaps the scales come from an animal that was harvested on a hunt that you shared with that person, or a shed antler that was discovered together. Regardless of the story, you can give a gift that they will be sure to remember forever.
Stainless steel is a virtually bomb-proof knife scale material that is widely available. The great thing about stainless steel is that it is scratch and weather resistant. Stainless steel knife handles are not without their negatives, however. They tend to be on the heavier side, and they can slip around in your hand when wet.
Most people have seen Micarta knife handles, as they are incredibly common, but very few likely recognize one when they do. Micarta is a synthetic material composed of layers of linen cloth bonded together with phenolic resin. Many kitchen and cooking knives utilize Micarta scales. Micarta is easy to clean and is much like stainless steel scales regarding its hardiness.
The main benefit of Micarta over stainless steel is weight; Micarta is much lighter than stainless steel, which can be of great significance when choosing a knife for backpacking or everyday carry. Micarta, much like stainless steel, is also slippery and can be difficult to hold in your hands. Many Micarta knife scales incorporate some type of rubber to increase grip.
Besides Micarta, G10 is another highly popular synthetic knife scale material. At first glance, these two materials seem remarkably similar. The main difference lies in the material. G10 utilizes fiberglass layers as opposed to linen. Both are bonded together by compressing the layers and using a resin as an adhesive. G10 has many of the same popular traits as Micarta; it is very hardy and weather-resistant, and it is incredibly light.
In addition to the materials mentioned above, there are numerous others. To be honest, almost any material can be used for the scales of a knife. Some materials are better than others, which is obvious to tell when you are browsing through the models of some of the most popular makers. Think of materials like aluminum, carbon fiber, FRCP, FRN (one of my favorite), titanium, and more.
In my opinion, knife handles deserve as much, if not more attention than the blade of the knife itself. From handle ergonomics to scale material, the handle of a knife can make all the difference between a poor knife and a great one. The next time you are looking to make a knife purchase, pay special attention to the scales and overall handle design. I can assure you; you will be glad you did.