A CRASH COURSE IN CREATING THE INTERFACE BETWEEN STEEL AND FLESH
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.
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.
“THERE ARE MANY PLEASING WAYS TO SHAPE THE TERMINAL END OF THE HANDLE.”
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.
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.
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.
“… I LIKE TO CHOOSE THE WAY THE TREES GROWTH RINGS RELATE TO MY HANDLE.”
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
05 5. Scales glued-up on the knives 6. Raw material flattened for the first time 7. Pre-glue-up layout
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
8. Raw scales material 9. On to the final step, hand-sanding