Knives Illustrated - - Contents - STORY BY ANDY ROY, PHO­TOS BY FIDDLEBACK FORGE

It’s funny how a ca­reer can start. When I was a boy, roam­ing the woods, I liked to use my knives to carve walk­ing sticks and build forts. I was al­ways bang­ing about with a K-bar USMC knife. I would carve balls onto the ends, shape hand­hold ar­eas, and re­move bark in pat­terns around the walk­ing sticks.

Once I grew up, I did a bit of wood­work­ing and work­ing on sail­boats. So, when I came upon knife­mak­ing around the age of 30, I was bet­ter and more at home at fil­ing a pleas­ing han­dle shape than I was at the met­al­work.

I was shocked to find that my ugly knives were sell­ing, and I’m still shocked, look­ing back at those knives, that they sold. It wasn’t a mys­tery though, my cus­tomers told me what drew them to the knives. It was the han­dles.

This ar­ti­cle is about how we, at Fiddleback Forge, make han­dles.

Phase One

I sep­a­rate the han­dle-mak­ing process into three dis­tinct phases. First, the ma­te­rial must be cut, flat­tened, and glued to lin­ers that are also flat­tened on a sur­face plate. Next, the scales are tacked to­gether, a blade is taped to the scale set, the han­dle gets drilled, re-flat­tened, and glued up. Fi­nally, in the cleanup step, the han­dle is shaped and fin­ished.

I like to cut scales from a large plank rather than buy­ing pre-cut scales when­ever possible. This is for cost rea­sons, and also be­cause I like to choose the way the trees growth rings re­late to my han­dle. A quar­ter­sawn piece of hard­wood is al­ways bet­ter-look­ing than plain-sawn wood. For knife­mak­ers, quar­ter­sawn means that the rings run per­pen­dic­u­lar to the tang of a fixed-blade knife rather than par­al­lel to it. Osage Orange is a great ex­am­ple. Plain-sawn Osage is bor­ing, like ply­wood. Quar­ter­sawn Osage dis­plays rays even in straight-grained wood. It is way more in­ter­est­ing when it is cut this way. Al­most ev­ery hard­wood has rays that you will never see un­less you make sure the growth rings are put onto the knife in the right way.


Once the ma­te­rial is cut, we flat­ten it with sand­pa­per lightly glued to a sur­face plate. Flat­ten­ing is a job that ev­ery ap­pren­tice and em­ployee has tried to in­no­vate, but a sur­face plate is still the most ef­fi­cient, ac­cu­rate way, in my opin­ion. I think moving the ma­te­rial in a cir­cu­lar mo­tion is bet­ter than back and forth. Also, note that Mi­carta will al­ways have a slightly bowed side, and a slightly cupped side. Flat­ten­ing the cupped side is eas­ier by a long mile. We also flat­ten the liner ma­te­ri­als at this stage, on the same sur­face plate.

Be pre­pared to sand your fin­ger­tips off when flat­ten­ing thin ma­te­rial. At this point, we use cyanoacry­late glue to as­sem­ble the lay­ers. This isn’t rocket science, just don’t glue your­self to the ma­te­rial.

Phase Two

In the sec­ond phase of the han­dle­mak­ing process we tack the scales to­gether with su­per­glue, and tape a knife blade to them with blue painter’s tape. It is im­por­tant to make sure that the blank is prop­erly po­si­tioned on the scales, be­cause once you drill through them, repo­si­tion­ing the blank be­comes im­pos­si­ble.

We drill the han­dle holes straight through each blank and scale set. The method is the same for ta­pered tangs. Start with the big hole, and put a tem­po­rary tube in it to hold it tight. Then, do the smaller holes us­ing a tem­po­rary tube on the first one so that the blank doesn’t shift dur­ing drilling.

Once the scales are drilled, the lead­ing edge of the scale is shaped and sanded be­fore re-flat­ten­ing the scales at the sur­face plate again. Now the scales are ready to be glued to the blank. We use West Sys­tems G/flex epoxy for this step. It’s in­cred­i­bly strong, and has a 45-minute open time. It’s al­ways nice for a craftsman to have plenty of time to do glue-up.

Phase Three

Fi­nally, we grind the ex­cess scale ma­te­rial down to the spines, shape the han­dle and sand it out. Shap­ing the han­dle is a stock-re­moval step. Keep in mind, with any stock-re­moval job, you set a low point, then shape to the low. This is what your bar­ber does, what land­scap­ers do when they shape bushes, and what you do when you mow your yard. If you grind be­low the low, you have to re-cut every­thing to match that low point. So, I set the low points in the han­dle with an 8-inch wheel and a new 36-grit belt. Then, I re­move ma­te­rial around the low points to set the shape of the han­dle. Re­mem­ber that a han­dle should be egg-shaped. That is, it should be wider at the spine side than at the edge side. This makes for an er­gonomic han­dle. This egg shape also al­lows your mind to in­dex where the edge is at all times dur­ing use.

Once the rough shape is in, I clean up the spines with a 120-grit belt. It is im­por­tant that the spines are square to the knife and the scratches are uni­form. I throw in a 220-grit scal­loped-edge belt to help the hand san­ders with the ma­jor­ity of the deep scratches, then I run that same belt over the spines. So, when the knife is handed off to the san­ders, its spines are at 220-grit, and the scales are at roughly 120-220.

My hand san­ders start at 220, but I keep some heav­ier pa­per around if there are stub­born scratches. They progress through the grits to 400 grit, then switch to grey and fi­nally white Scotch-brite pads. At this point the cutting work is done. The knife is marked and any stain­ing from the mark­ing process is cleaned up. Fi­nally, we use Howard’s Feed-n-wax on the han­dles be­fore tak­ing pic­tures.


Fi­nal Thoughts

Keep in mind, when shap­ing your han­dles, you don’t have to touch the low spots with the grit ev­ery time you’re try­ing to re­move the high spots.

This is a common mis­take I see in ap­pren­tices. Even­tu­ally they chase the scales too thin and they look bad. Set a low, and carve to the low. Use the belts on the high spots.

Fi­nally, here’s a note on de­sign that I teach to my students: There are many pleas­ing ways to shape the ter­mi­nal

end of the han­dle. There is a fanned fish­tail shape, a beaked shape, a ca­noe shape, etc. Th­ese shapes have al­ready been hashed out by the knife com­mu­nity. A broom­stick han­dle is al­most al­ways ugly in my opin­ion. So, I teach my students the “poop rule.” If you en­vi­sion your han­dle emerging from a per­son, does it re­sem­ble the sil­hou­ette of poop? If so, change it. Avoid mak­ing poop-shaped han­dles at all costs. KI

03 04 1. Drilling the pin holes

2. Andy hand-shap­ing the scales

3. Tak­ing a block of Mi­carta and roughshap­ing it into scales

4. Clean­ing up the spines and shap­ing

01 02

05 5. Scales glued-up on the knives

6. Raw ma­te­rial flat­tened for the first time

7. Pre-glue-up lay­out

06 07

8. Raw scales ma­te­rial

9. On to the fi­nal step, hand-sand­ing



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