Can’t get a grip? Looking for that perfect knife handle material? Don’t worry we’re here to help!
So what are knife handles made of? Knife handles consist of a wide variety of materials, from metal to mother nature’s resources.
For many newbies and knife enthusiasts, the handle is a key feature which immediately draws their attention. In fact, it is just as important as the knife’s blade.
With numerous knife handle materials on the market today, it can get very confusing and downright frustrating.
Before you decide on the right knife handle material, ask yourself, what am I going to use the knife for and what are your expectations of its performance.
As you will see below, some knife handle materials are more durable than others. Some materials are less resistant to humidity and prone to cracking. Other types are excellent and suitable for outdoor use.
My advice to you is very simple. Never overlook the importance of knife handle material. If you simply believe the handle material is solely an aesthetic asset, you are dead wrong. In support, the handle material is extremely important because it affects the overall performance of any knife.
By the time you're finished reading the material below, you will understand what I mean.
We are committed in helping you find that perfect knife handle material. A great deal of research was performed to provide you assistance and guidance in making an informed decision.
In this ProSurvivalStrategies.com Guide, you will learn:
- Why is a knife’s handle material important?
- How to choose the right knife handle material.
- What are the three specific categories of knife handle materials?
- And much more!
Let’s begin understanding what knife handles are made of.
Why Is a Knife's Handle Material Important?
OK, let’s face it. When we purchase a knife, the first thing that grabs our attention is the handle. Then the gears in our brain start churning and the decision can be made spontaneously. Stop right there.
Did you ask yourself what type of material was used to construct the handle? For most of us, this wouldn’t even cross our minds. Don’t worry, I’ve also made this mistake, but never again.
A knife’s handle material is just as important as the blade. Why? Because it is the point of contact between you and the knife. In support, the handle material affects the overall performance of the knife itself.
Never underestimate the value of knife material because it determines the following:
- Cut performance.
- Level of hand control.
- Amount of grip.
- Your level of fatigue based on each task.
- Water, humidity and temperature resistance.
- Durability and reliability.
Don’t fall into the trap of purchasing a knife because the handle material looks cool or pretty. Of course “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. I get it.
I strongly advise you to consider the above-mentioned features when choosing the right knife handle material for your specific needs.
How To Choose The Right Knife Handle Material.
The answer to this question is very simple. In fact, if you read the above-mentioned, you are 80% there. The other 20% focuses upon your personal use.
So what do I mean? If you use your knife outdoors, the handle material must be rugged and impervious to the elements. For example, certain synthetic handles such as G-10, Micarta, Thermorun, GRN, FRN and Kraton are durable and specifically designed for outdoor use.
On the other hand, if you are more refined and looking for a more appealing knife handle material, you may want to consider a metal such as aluminum, carbon fiber, stainless steel or titanium. These materials are lightweight and won’t weigh you down like a bayonet.
If you are a serious collector, you may find the natural knife handles more intriguing. Mother nature has provided an abundance of such material from wood to ivory.
However, horn and ivory are very controversial knife handle materials. As you read below, you will understand why.
In the end, it’s your personal preference and taste. Just make sure your decision is on point.
What Are The Three Specific Types Of Materials Knife Handles Are Made Of?
The materials used to make knife handles fall into three specific categories which are:
Let’s examine the above-mentioned knife handle materials. Keep in mind each material is unique with its own pros and cons.
What Are The Different Types Of Metal Knife Handle Materials?
There is no question that metals are popular handle materials. When it comes to handle design, the metals used are Aluminum, Titanium and Stainless Steel.
They are not pure metals but alloys. An alloy is a metal made by combining two or more metallic elements or a non-metallic element to give greater strength or resistance to corrosion. For example, alloying tin with copper creates bronze.
Alloys are used because pure metals are too soft for many uses. They can be made harder by adding another element to pure metal. This explains why an alloy has more uses than a pure element. For example, pure iron is very soft and is converted into steel by adding carbon and other elements (usually other metals).
The main disadvantage is that a smooth metal handle gets quite slippery when exposed to humidity, rain and sweat. Otherwise, metals are durable and still make good knife handles.
ALUMINUM KNIFE HANDLE.
WHAT IS ALUMINUM?
Aluminum is usually anodized (or coated with an oxide layer) for color, hardness and protection. It is low-density, which provides for a nice substantial feel without weighing the knife down.
The most common type of aluminum used today is 6061-T6 which has significant tensile strength and resistance to corrosion. 6061-T6 consists of Silicon, Iron, Copper, Manganese, Magnesium, Chromium, Zinc, Titanium and other elements.
When properly textured, an aluminum handle can provide a reasonably secure grip. However, due to its conductive properties, it can be very cold to the touch in colder climates.
Aluminum is inferior to Titanium, a far superior alloy found on more expensive knives.
Although easy to maintain, aluminum handles are prone to scratches and dings. After use, they should be hand-washed and dried immediately. If the handle becomes discolored, it can be polished to restore its shine.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF AN ALUMINUM KNIFE HANDLE?
- More lightweight than other handles.
- Resistant to corrosion.
- Relatively durable and water-resistant.
- Numerous customizing options (colors and thickness).
- Susceptible to scratches, dents, dings, and other visible results of impact. (More than stainless steel).
- Handles become very cold during the winter or inside a freezer. May be difficult to hold in such conditions.
- Aluminum handles can be slippery if not properly texturized to achieve a secure grip.
Two Example of Knives with Aluminum Handles are the Benchmade 940 EDC and Kershaw Blur Glassbreaker EDC.
TITANIUM KNIFE HANDLE.
WHAT IS TITANIUM?
Titanium has many advantages over stainless steel: despite being lightweight, it provides great strength, amazing corrosion resistance and strength to density ratio - the highest of any metal. In its unalloyed condition, it is still stronger than some steels but less dense.
Titanium blades and handles are non-furious which means they don’t contain iron and ultimately will not rust since rust is caused by oxidation of iron.
Titanium is 60% denser than aluminum but more than twice as strong as the most commonly used 6061-T6 aluminum alloy. Although it is not quite as light as aluminum, it’s still much lighter than stainless steel.
Knife manufacturers use various alloys of titanium and the most common is Ti6AI4V, also sometimes called TC4 or Ti6-4. This titanium alloy has a high strength to weight ratio and excellent corrosion resistance.
The chemical composition of this alloy consists of 90% titanium, 6% aluminum, 4% vanadium, 0.25% iron and 0.2% oxygen.
Another amazing characteristic is Titanium (unlike Aluminum) doesn’t have a cold feel when you grip the handle.
Titanium is not indestructible and like Aluminum handles, are prone to scratches. Titanium handles are texturized by a process called bead-blasting.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF A TITANIUM KNIFE HANDLE?
- Lightweight material when stacked up against other materials.
- Excellent corrosion resistance. (even when exposed to saltwater).
- Great strength.
- Metal has a warm feel to it.
- Anodization and bead blasting offer customization options.
- Very impressive to look at.
- Very expensive. (More expensive than aluminum or stainless steel.)
- Prone to scratches and dings.
- Like all metal handles, titanium can be slippery to hold. This is improved through texturization, such as bead blasting.
- Often overrated by aggressive marketing tactics.
Two examples of knives with titanium handles are the Benchmade Anthem 781 EDC Knife and Spyderco Endura 4 Signature EDC Knife.
STAINLESS STEEL KNIFE HANDLE.
WHAT IS STAINLESS STEEL?
Stainless Steel is commonly found in both knife blades and handles. These knife handles are very durable, resistant to corrosion and impacts.
It is heavier than Aluminum and Titanium, which is often reflected in the price. Due to its weight, it can be cumbersome to carry.
There are different makeups of stainless steel and some are more costly than others. Generally there are 5 types of stainless steel: (1) Austenitic, (2) Ferritic, (3) Duplex, (4) Martensitic and Precipitation Hardening.
Stainless Steel handles are slippery like all metals (i.e. Aluminum and Titanium) and even more slippery when wet. Manufacturers incorporate ridges, rubber, or other designs to improve grip.
The most popular Stainless Steel handles are 410, 416 and 420.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF A STAINLESS STEEL KNIFE HANDLE?
- Corrosion-resistant, but remember “It is stainless not stain impossible” and it will rust if not properly maintained. Should be hand-washed, dried and not left in humid places.
- No scratches or dents. (Stands up to impacts.)
- Durable and will last a long time.
- Easy to clean and maintain.
- Shiny reflective appearance to enhance beauty.
- Heavier weight properties.
- Slippery unless textured. (More slippery when wet.)
- Will rust if not properly maintained.
Two examples of knives with stainless steel handles are Kershaw Leek EDC with 3 inch blade and Spydero Police Model Signature EDC.
What Are The Different Types Of Synthetic Knife Handle Materials?
The continuing scientific struggle to design better and improved knife handles is never-ending. I’m sure you’ve read the various types of metal knife handles and understood the pros and cons of each.
Now, it’s time to introduce synthetic knife handles. These materials are designed to provide increased grip, better durability, lighter weight and resistance to corrosion.
In fact, all of these important features in a knife handle are essential to any outdoorsman and survivalist.
MICARTA KNIFE HANDLE.
WHAT IS MICARTA?
Micarta (a phenolic laminate) is a fiber/plastic composite used to construct knife handles. Although Micarta has the usual trait of composite materials, it is actually a combination of absorptive fibers such as cellulose paper, cotton fibers, non-woven fabrics and linen soaked in resin.
When manufactured, heat and pressure is applied to the layers which causes a chemical reaction known as (polymerization) which transforms the layers into a high pressure thermosetting industrial laminated plastic. This process creates a tough material for hard use activities.
Micarta is naturally smooth and subsequently undergoes texturization to improve the grip on the handle.
Micarta handles are found in every genre of knives: Bush, EDC, Survival and Tactical.
Do not confuse Micarta with G-10 which is a woven fiberglass and coated with epoxy resin. The process to make both materials are similar because both are consolidated under heat and pressure to finalize the laminate. However, the materials used are extremely different.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF A MICARTA KNIFE HANDLE?
- Micarta handles are durable, hard, strong and tough.
- Lightweight to carry, hold and use.
- Resistant to dings, impacts and scratches.
- Resistant to corrosion and chemicals.
- Does not rust or oxidize.
- Available in various colors, combinations and surface treatments.
- Knives with Micarta handles are more expensive than G-10 or FRN.
- Brittle and can break under high pressure.
Two examples of knives with Micarta handles are the TOPS Knives Bob Bushcraft Knife and ESEE 4P Fixed Blade Knife.
KRATON KNIFE HANDLE.
WHAT IS KRATON?
Kraton is a thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) also known as a thermoplastic rubber (TPR). It was first developed in 1955 by the chemical division of the Shell Oil Company to broaden their portfolio of elastomers beyond SBR, which was first developed during World War II.
It is a synthetic replacement to rubber. This artificial rubber has excellent flexibility, high traction and sealing abilities. Additionally, it has an increased resistance to heat, chemical exposure and weathering, as compared to natural rubber.
Kraton handles are soft, comfortable and have a secured textured grip. The downside is they still absorb moisture and water because Kraton handles are porous.
Ross Seyfried, a world renowned hunter and writer of (Guns and Ammo Magazine), praised the Cold Steel Master Hunter equipped with a Kraton handle. He stated, “ The material makes wonderful grips and handles for one simple reason, pure traction. Hot, cold, wet, dry or even covered in fat these handles give you a firm comfortable grip.” May 1990 Guns and Ammo Edition.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF A KRATON KNIFE HANDLE?
- Kraton handles are hard to beat when it comes to sheer utility.
- Provides a strong, sturdy comfortable grip, and pure traction.
- Long use without fatigue.
- Provides increased resistance to heat, chemicals and weathering.
- Durable and resist most impacts.
- The handle will not shrink, crack or splinter.
- Fluids and moisture can penetrate the handle over time damaging the material making it weaker, brittle and more odorous if not properly maintained.
- Not the most aesthetically appealing because it looks like black rubber.
Two iconic examples of knives with Kraton handles are the Cold Steel Master Hunter and KA-BAR Modified Tanto with 8 inch Fixed Blade.
G-10 KNIFE HANDLE.
WHAT IS G-10?
G-10 is a very popular handle material, but do not confuse it with Micarta or Carbon Fiber. The only similarities to these materials is they are all resin-based laminates and use heat and pressure to shape them.
G-10 is distinct because filament glass cloth (i.e. fiberglass) is used for its base material. This makes it one of the strongest fiberglass resins.
G-10 is a ‘high pressure fiberglass composite laminate’. It is produced by stacking multiple layers of glass cloth, soaked in epoxy resin and compressing the material under heat until the epoxy cures.
As with most fiberglass, this stacking process provides amazing durability and strength.
G-10 is used extensively in the electronics industry because its water absorption is extremely minimal and G-10 is not electronically conductive.
Not only is it durable and strong, it is also a low maintenance material. Many knife enthusiasts certify the reliability and strength of G-10 handles.
It is often used in folding, survival and bushcraft knives because of its ruggedness and lightweight.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF A G10 KNIFE HANDLE?
- G-10 does not rust, oxidize, become brittle or softer overtime.
- One of the strongest materials available.
- Due to its high level of durability, it is one of the most widely-used materials in the gun and knife industry.
- Resilient and rugged.
- Extremely lightweight to carry, hold and use.
- G-10 can be customized (textures to provide a strong grip and colors for aesthetics).
- Cheaper than Carbon Fiber and Micarta handles.
- Will not expand or contract due to temperature or moisture exposure.
- G-10 is made of fiberglass and can be brittle.
- Doesn’t resist significant impacts.
- G-10 water-resistant, not waterproof.
Two excellent examples of EDC knives with G-10 handles are the Benchmade Turret 980 and Spyderco Para 3.
CARBON FIBER KNIFE HANDLE.
WHAT IS CARBON FIBER?
Looking for a knife handle with high-tech material and futuristic looks? Consider carbon fiber. It is a more decorative feature because of the way it catches and reflects light.
Carbon fiber has aura and reputation which makes consumers willing to pay more for the cachet of having it.
As technology evolves, the possibilities of carbon fiber will remarkably diversify and soar.
Carbon fiber is an organic polymer (characterized by long strings of molecules bound together by carbon atoms). It consists of very thin strands of the element carbon which are tightly woven and ultimately bound with resin.
These fibers have high tensile strength and have a superior strength to weight ratio compared to steel.
One form of carbon fiber (carbon nanotube) is the strongest material available.
A QUICK LOOK AT THE FIVE STAGES OF MANUFACTURING CARBON FIBER.
There are five stages in manufacturing carbon fiber known as the PAN process.
- Spinning. PAN is mixed with other ingredients and spun into fiber which are then washed and stretched.
- Stabilizing. The fibers undergo chemical alteration to stabilize bonding.
- Carbonizing. The stabilized fibers are heated to very high temperature forming tightly bonded carbon crystals.
- Treating the Surface. The surface of the fibers is oxidized to improve bonding properties.
- Sizing. Fibers are coated and wound onto bobbins, which are loaded onto spinning machines that twist the fibers into different size yarns. Rather than being woven into fabrics, they can also be formed into composite materials, using heat, pressure or a vacuum to bind fibers together with a plastic polymer.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF A CARBON FIBER HANDLE?
- High strength to weight ratio it’s stiffer and stronger than steel.
- Resistant to corrosion.
- High temperature tolerance and low thermal expansion.
- Multiple ways to finish it (polished or roughed up).
- Good grip due to the texture of the carbon weave.
- Provides a variety of textures, colors and patterns.
- Cool and fashionable.
- Cost is a deterrent unless weight advantage is exceptionally important.
- Brittle (does not take impacts well, can chip and splinter).
- Harder to work with than G-10 or Micarta.
- Can have imperfections in the weave (which may or may not bother you).
- More prone to chipping than FRN, G-10, Kraton, Thermorun, Micarta and Zytel handles.
- Generally used for high-end knives.
Two high-tech examples are the Benchmade Bugout Gold Class and Chris Reeve Small Sebenza EDC Knife.
ZYTEL (FRN, GFN, Grivory, Zy-Ex, Griv-Ex) KNIFE HANDLES.
WHAT IS ZYTEL?
Zytel is a trademark referring to an enormous family of Nylons developed by Dupont in the 1930s. Since its invention, it has become the most widely-used of all engineering polymers.
The acronym FRN stands for Fiberglass Reinforced Nylon and GRN is Glass Reinforced Nylon. Knife manufacturers market various trademarks such as Grivory, Zy-Ex and Griv-Ex. In the end, they are all similar products. So let’s keep it simple.
FRN/GRN handles are made of a nylon based plastic that is reinforced with fiberglass and subsequently molded into any shape.
FRN is a cheap material to manufacture which makes it ideal if you have a limited budget.
DID YOU KNOW?
The KA-BAR BECKER BK9 has a Zytel/Grivory handle (i.e. glass fiber filled nylon). The trademark Becker handle is well-known for allowing prolonged periods of heavy use with lesser fatigue than most other knives in its class.
FRN has proven itself time and time again. Even though FRN is considered cheap, it is an extremely tough knife handle and can take serious abuse. It derives its strength from nylon strands which are all arranged randomly, making it strong in all directions.
It is more flexible than G-10 and other resin laminates. Its impact toughness is one to think about. We all love the underdog, don’t we?
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF ZYTEL/FRN/GRIVORY KNIFE HANDLES?
- Cheaper alternative to Carbon Fiber, G-10 and Micarta. (Great option on a limited budget without sacrificing quality and strength.)
- Resistant to bending and stress in all directions. (More flexible than G-10 and other resin laminates).
- FRN handles can be texturized because they are injection molded.
- Low dampness and water absorption.
- Resistant to most abrasions and impacts.
- Very low maintenance.
- Looks and feels cheap like plastic.
- FRN is less grippy than G-10 or Micarta on knife handles.
Two examples of knives with ZYTEL/FRN handles are the KA-BAR Becker BK9 and Spyderco Delica 4.
PARACORD KNIFE HANDLE.
WHAT IS PARACORD?
Paracord (short for parachute cord) is a type of rope originally used for parachute suspension lines. Classified as a kernmantle rope (from the German kern meaning “core” and mantle meaning “sheath”). This unique cordage is designed to optimize durability, flexibility and strength.
Paracord is remarkably durable and can be used everywhere. It can become a makeshift for anything.
It is not uncommon to see paracord used as knife handles. In fact, some manufacturers produce knives with paracord handles while others sell you a full tang fixed blade allowing you to customize your own paracord handle.
A QUICK NOTE:
If you decide to customize a handle with paracord, I suggest you use Titan Mil Spec 550 Warrior Cord. Why? Because it was specifically designed for US Special Forces. It makes a great paracord handle and the core is uniquely designed with 3 life-saving survival strands: (1) Snare wire; (2) Fishing Line and (3) Waterproof Fire Tinder. It’s an excellent multi-functional survival tool.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF A PARACORD HANDLE?
- Paracord can be removed and used for emergency situations.
- Paracord is a great improvisation if the handle of your knife breaks.
- On fixed blades you can customize your own paracord handle.
- Cordage is readily available in any survival situation.
- Paracord only works on fixed blades. EDC folding knives are not an option (unless it’s a last resort).
- Absorbent (will soak up blood, mud, sweat, and water) and give off a foul odor.
- Most paracord will shrink when exposed to heat and moisture.
- Needs replacing, it doesn’t last forever.
- Ergonomics (paracord handles are uncomfortable and have minimal grip. Gloved hands are better than bare hands).
- Paracord handles can cause blisters and slips causing cuts. Ultimately it can cause serious infections and that’s the last thing you need.
- Removing the paracord leaves the knife bare and possibly unusable.
- Can loosen after continuous use.
Two examples of knives with paracord handles are the Gerber Bear Grylls Paracord Fixed Blade Knife and White River Knife Paracord Fixed Blade Knife.
THERMORUN KNIFE HANDLE
WHAT IS THERMORUN?
Thermorun is a high-performance TPE (Thermoplastic Elastomer) commonly referred to as thermoplastic rubbers.
They are a class of copolymers or a physical mix of polymers (typically plastic and elastic) composed of both elastomeric and thermopaltic properties. These are technical terms so let’s leave them to the scientists.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF A THERMORUN KNIFE HANDLE MATERIAL?
- Military tested and approved.
- Excellent thermal stability.
- Excellent chemical-resistance.
- Insensitive to heat aging.
- Excellent water-resistance.
- Warm in the hand.
- Durable handle. (excellent low temperature impact-resistance).
- Insensitive to DEET (a notorious mosquito repellent known to dissolve plastic).
- Comfortable, safe and a sturdy grip.
- Firmer than Kraton (a synthetic rubber).
- Sometimes Thermorun handles can be made a little thicker.
- Not as grippy as Kraton under extreme conditions.
Two aces with thermorun handles are the Fallkniven S1 and Fallkniven F1.
JUMA KNIFE HANDLE
WHAT IS JUMA?
Juma is a modern grade material which consists of mineral based materials in a resin plastic. It is a thermoplastic polymer with similar properties as polypropylene.
It is manufactured by combining mineral based materials with dyed resin products which create stunning and amazing knife handles that truly stand out. For example, Juma white ivory greatly resembles natural ivory in appearance and feel.
The use of Juma instead of ivory protects natural resources and reduces manufacturing cost. This high-quality resin material machines easily and polishes well.
What’s so amazing about these handles is the color and scaled texture that immediately stands out. It gives a handle a “one of a kind look".
Unfortunately, these handles can be expensive despite simple manufacturing and polishing processes. They also look cheap and feel like plastic.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF A JUMA KNIFE HANDLE?
- Juma handles are durable with a hard surface.
- They are easy to polish.
- They have high elasticity.
- They are resistant to common substances such as detergents, greases and oils.
- They have very low water absorption.
- They are warm to the touch due to good thermal properties.
- They have amazing handle textures such as Black Snake Scale, Blue Snake Scale and Dragon Scale.
- They have an amazing variety of colors such as ivory, red, pink black and green mamba.
- They don’t require special care.
- They have an excellent similarity with natural ivory, its lines and grains.
- Juma handles are very smooth and don’t offer a sturdy grip without texturization.
- They can scratch easily.
- They can be very expensive despite simple manufacturing and polishing processes.
- Since it’s a thermoset plastic, it looks cheap.
- They never replace the look and feel of natural knife handles.
- They do not compare to the quality of G-10, Micarta, Thermorun, Carbon Fiber or Zytel knife handles.
- Buyer Beware, Juma can be customized to mimic real knife handles such as bone and ivory.
Two examples of knives with vibrant Juma handles are the Puma Winter Snake Hunting Knife and Laguiole Aubrac Pocket Knife.
What Are The Different Types Of Natural Knife Handle Materials?
Since the beginning of time, humanity has relied on mother nature to create tools. For example, during the Paleolithic and Neolithic Eras, (commonly referred to as the “Stone Age”) early humans built knives out of one solid piece from flint, obsidian or quarts.
DID YOU KNOW?
An early pocket knife unearthed by archaeologists in Hallstatt, Austria featured a bone handle. The researchers were able to determine the tool dated back to around 600 to 500 B.C.
Archaeologists unearthed ancient Roman knives. Roman artisans brilliantly carved knives for warriors adding intricate designs on the handles. These designs displayed victorious gladiators and vicious combat scenes.
Natural materials such as bone, wood and exotic material such as mother of pearl, stag, horn and tortoiseshell were used for knife handles.
Our ancient ancestors clearly knew the importance of natural materials. Centuries later, we find the same natural materials in knife handles today.
WOODEN KNIFE HANDLE.
WHAT IS WOOD?
Wood is a common natural substance that knife manufacturers use to make handles. It is by far the most naturally used material.
Wood handles are organic, warm to the touch, comfortable to hold and can be long-lasting if maintained properly.
Hardwood comes from deciduous trees - (beech, hickory, oak, walnut) that lose their leaves early winter, bear flowers and have broad leaves. These trees have wood that is dense and more resistant to penetration.
Softwood comes from coniferous trees (pine, fir, spruce) that have needles or are evergreen and have pine cones. Some conifers have wood that is very dense and strong. This is a never-ending debate.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF WOOD USED IN KNIFE HANDLES?
- African Black Wood.
A quality wooden handle is strong, durable and a suitable handle for bushcraft knives.
Wood handles have an appealing beauty which is why it's highly popular among collectors. Its popularity is also enhanced because of the range of options it presents.
Metal and synthetic handles do not provide the hundreds of options (from colors to textures) that wood does.
Skilled artisans can create beautifully textured wood handles from either soft or hardwoods.
Although wood handles come in multiple colors, designs and textures, you have to choose wisely because you want the wood to perform well in the conditions you will put it to use.
DID YOU KNOW?
Snakewood (Piratinera Guianensis) is one of the finest woods available, highly rare and very expensive. What makes it unique is its patterns and markings.
Another option to consider is stabilized wood. Knife manufacturers use a wood stabilizing process to develop a more durable handle.
Woods that are too weak or porous are pressure impregnated with polymer or phenolic resin. This high rate of pressure ultimately creates a dense, impregnable, solid and almost waterproof wood product.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF A WOODEN KNIFE HANDLE?
- Organic, warm to the touch and comfortable to hold.
- Durable and water resistant if stabilized.
- Handles come in numerous colors, designs and textures.
- Stabilized wood handles minimize or eliminate warping, cracking and other issues associated with wooden handles.
- Depending on the type of wood used can be one of the most affordable knife handles.
- Can be difficult to clean and maintain.
- Wood handles are porous unless stabilized.
- Prone to warping, chipping and cracking.
- Can be expensive depending on the type of wood used, its scarcity and handle finish.
Two examples of knives with wooden handles are the Buck Knife 192 Vanguard Fixed Blade with Walnut Handle and Benchmade North Fork with Stabilized Wood Handle.
BONE KNIFE HANDLE
WHAT IS BONE?
Bone is the hard organ that comprises the skeletal system in all vertebrates. It protects bodily organs, produces red and white blood cells, stores minerals (primarily calcium) and provides support and structure to the body.
Bone is made up of cells called osteoblasts (that create new bone) which subsequently become osteocytes (the cells of mature bone). The process is definitely more complex.
Bone is extraordinarily strong and ounce for ounce is stronger than some steel. Thank God for our skeletal system.
Bone knife handles are clearly one of history’s iconic natural materials. It is one of the earliest used on knife handles and commonly seen on pocket and hunting knives.
They have always given a knife a distinctive look and feel. Even with all the new handles on the market, there’s just something special about the way it looks.
From ancient Babylonia to present, bone knife handles are here to stay.
WHAT TYPES OF ANIMAL BONES ARE USED IN KNIFE HANDLES?
- Cattle (is the most commonly used).
The bone in the handles are sourced from deceased animals such as Alligator, Buffalo, Camel, Cattle, Deer, Elephant and Giraffe.
The most dominant bone used comes from cattle because of the amount of beef consumed annually in our country. There’s a ton of bone left behind thanks to our appetites.
Bone handles are seldom sought for their durability or function. Instead, they are seen as affordable, beautiful and traditional. They are aesthetic masterpieces because they can have a natural appearance or are dyed to produce various colors.
On the other hand, these handles are organic and porous and unable to resist weathering if not maintained properly. They absorb contaminants, moisture, salt and soil.
Sudden changes in humidity and temperature can cause them to shrink and dry. Even long term exposure to light damages the handle.
Despite its beauty, this is not a knife handle meant for hard prolonged use.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF A BONE KNIFE HANDLE?
- The traditions of bone handles last a lifetime and a classic choice.
- Textured handles provide a good grip.
- Depending on the type of bone used in the handle, the overall value of these knives increase significantly.
- Affordable depending on the type of bone used.
- Dyes can be used to create a variety of varying looks.
- Excellent collectors piece.
- Bone handles are organic and porous which affect stability.
- Absorb moisture, contaminants, salts and soil.
- Prone to chipping, cracking and flaking.
- Extra care must be taken to keep the handle clean and dry.
- Sudden changes in humidity and temperature can cause bone handles to shrink and dry.
- Long term exposure to light can damage the handle.
- Not a good choice for any type of knife used in the field.
- Most bones used to make handles are derived from curved pieces which limits the width of the handle.
Two examples of knives with bone handles are the CRKT M4-02 EDC and Nescole 9 inch Bowie Knife.
LEATHER KNIFE HANDLE.
WHAT IS LEATHER?
Leather is a very popular and frequently used knife handle material. It is commonly found on Bowie, bushcraft, hunting, military and survival knives.
When it comes to a leather handle, the legendary U.S.M.C., KA-BAR Fighting Knife is in a class of its own. Highly prized by the Marines, it saw extensive action throughout the Pacific Campaign.
These handles have a warm and friendly feel to them. With a classic and vintage look, it is very difficult to overlook a leather handle.
They are naturally textured which provides a secure grip. Some will even state that these handles get better as they age and compare them to aged baseball gloves.
Leather handles have disadvantages. They are generally porous and retain moisture which eventually causes leather rot.
Humid conditions accelerate the destruction of leather handles. It is not uncommon for mildew and mold to take a hold on the handle. If so, use a stiff brush to remove it. Do it outside so mold spores aren’t released into your home.
The condition of the handle will clearly reflect how you maintain it.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF A LEATHER KNIFE HANDLE?
- Leather handles are a very warm and friendly material.
- They have a classical, traditional and vintage look.
- They are lightweight.
- They have a natural texture and provide a secure grip.
- Beautiful colors and textures can be achieved with stacked leather.
- To some, they get better as they age like a baseball glove.
- Just like any tool, if you maintain it, it will last.
- Leather handles can wear out with prolonged use.
- They are not very durable and can sustain damage.
- They can be scratched.
- They are not impervious to the elements.
- They are susceptible to mildew and mold if not treated.
- They absorb and retain water which can lead to leather rot.
- They are prone to leather rot in humid environments.
- Like any handle they require maintenance and are treated with (mink oil, an oil based leather dressing like Lexol or Kiwie neutral shoe polish).
Two examples of iconic leather handles on knives are the KA BAR Full Size U.S. Marine Fighting Knife and KA-BAR 1220 U.S. Army Fighting/Utility Knife.
MOTHER OF PEARL KNIFE HANDLE.
WHAT IS MOTHER OF PEARL?
Mother of Pearl is the common name for nacre. It is an organic material produced by mollusks such as abalone, pearl oysters and freshwater mussels.
It is an iridescent material composed of calcium carbonate which protects the inner tissue of the shells from parasites and foreign irritants. For example, when a foreign object enters an oyster such as a grain of sand, organic material or even a parasite, nacre is released. The foreign object is encased eventually creating a pearl.
Mother of Pearl is considered a material of extraordinary strength.
It comes in amazing colors such as white to silver, steel blue, green, bronze and black. It also has a pearl-like iridescence because the calcium carbonate layer is similar to the wavelength of light.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF A MOTHER OF PEARL KNIFE HANDLE?
- Mother of Pearl handles come in all types of colors and variations.
- They will not bend, expand or shrink.
- They are not affected by humidity.
- The handle is hard and durable.
- Easy to maintain and clean.
- They are very popular among collectors, these handles have a luxurious look, feel and price tag.
- They are not used for bushcraft, survival or tactical knives.
- They are slippery when wet.
- They definitely are not durable for heavy outdoor use.
- They can be expensive depending on the type of material used such as “Black Lip Mother of Pearl”.
- Abalone knife handles are a cheaper alternative.
Two examples of knives with Mother of Pearl knife handles are the Santa Fe Stoneworks Kershaw Leek EDC and Fallkniven TK3 Mother of Pearl.
ABALONE KNIFE HANDLE.
WHAT IS ABALONE?
Abalone knife handles are produced from very small or large shells of mollusks. The mollusks within these shells are a delicacy and highly sought after. However, various species are protected and illegal to fish.
It is a cheaper alternative than Mother of Pearls. Handle colors and patterns will vary because each shell has a unique color.
Don’t expect these handles to be durable. They are very thin and which makes them prone to cracking and chipping. These shells are applied to a composite like veneer when handles are manufactured.
Abalone knife handles are also slippery when exposed to moisture. It is never used on tactical, survival or bushcraft knives.
DID YOU KNOW THERE ARE SEVERAL SPECIES OF ABALONE PROTECTED BY THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT?
- Green Abalone from Mexico and Southern California.
- Black Abalone from California and Baja California Coast. Fishing for them has been outlawed since 1993 in California. They are still a target for poachers.
- Pinto Abalone from Southeast Alaska to Baja California, Mexico. In 2019 it was designated an endangered species.
- White Abalone from Southern California and Mexico. In 2001 it was designated an endangered species.
- Abalone knife handles are aesthetically appealing with many different colors and patterns available.
- They are a cheaper alternative to Mother of Pearl.
- They do not absorb moisture.
- They have a stunning iridescent light play and smooth lustrous finish.
- They are not used for bushcraft, survival or tactical knives.
- Abalone handles are fragile and should be handled with care.
- They are slippery when exposed to moisture.
- Environmental impact, the demand of abalone is generally for food and the shell is used as a byproduct, so consider farm raised abalone.
Two examples of abalone handles found on knives are the Kreiger pocket knife with Damascus Blade and Case 12002 Abalone Small Texas Toothpick.
STAG KNIFE HANDLE
WHAT IS STAG?
Before you mount those beautiful trophy antlers, take a minute and look at your knife’s handle? Is it made of Stag? If it is, that handle came from deer antler.
Stag is made up from deer antlers usually found on male deer. However, both male and female reindeer (known as Caribou in North America) have antlers.
Antlers are an extension of a deer’s skull. While the antler is growing, it is covered with velvet which supplies oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone. When the antler achieves full size, the velvet is lost and the antler bone dies.
The dead bone is a mature antler and at some point falls off. Deer shed their antlers once a year.
Many respectable outdoorsmen appreciate nature and harvest antlers in mid-March or thereafter because deer shed their antlers late in the winter. However, Mule deer grow their antler during the summer and shed them in the spring.
The stag used for knife handles come from a variety of deer such as Mule, White Trail, Roe, Red Deer and the highly-prized Indian Sambar (permanently banned for import).
Stag is not exclusive to deer, it also comes from Caribou, Elk and Moose.
- Stag knife handles are dense and relatively durable.
- Commonly found in hunting and Bowie knives.
- They have a rough texture which provides a good grip (especially Sambar Stag).
- The shape of the antler provides a natural curve.
- They have an attractive and vintage look.
- They are used in both high-end and basic everyday knives.
- Stronger than horn handles.
- Indian Sambar Stag has been permanently banned for export. Its value soars everyday.
- They are porous and can chip and crack over time.
- They can get slippery when exposed to moisture.
- They can degrade and separate from the knife over time.
- They absorb moisture, contaminants, salts and soil.
- They cannot be exposed to sunlight for a prolonged period of time.
- They cannot be exposed to high heat.
Two examples of knives with Stag handles are Muela Magnum 26 and Puma SGB Highlander.
HORN KNIFE HANDLE.
WHAT IS HORN?
There is a clear distinction between Stag (antlers) and horn.
Stag is made up of dead bone which sheds and is re-grown every year. Horns on the other hand are live extensions of the skull and stay with the animal for the remainder of its life.
It is a permanent pointed projection and consists of keratin and other proteins surrounding a core of live bone.
Keratin is the epidermis when confined and thickened and is referred to as a horn. It is the same protein found in our hair and fingernails.
Horns have either a curved or spiral shape often with ridges known as fluting.
A QUICK LOOK AT THE TYPES OF HORNS USED IN KNIFE HANDLES.
The types of horns used in knife handles are as follows:
- African Buffalo.
- Asian Buffalo.
Mother nature determines how the horn is shaped, textured and colored.
Manufacturers go through great lengths to prepare horns for knife handles. Once collected, they are seasoned, cleaned and washed.
DID YOU KNOW?
In the multi-billion dollar illegal animal trade, rhinoceros horn is the most sought after appendage and surpasses elephant ivory. On the black market, rhino horns are sold for between $30,000 and $65,000 per kilo in Vietnam, making them more valuable than cocaine, heroin and even gold.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF A HORN KNIFE HANDLE?
- Horn handles can be quite durable depending on the type of horn used.
- They are available in various colors and thickness.
- They give knives a more natural look.
- They are aesthetically appealing.
- Horn handles are slippery and often left smooth. (Some knife enthusiasts use sandpaper or grip tape to enhance grip).
- They are colder to the touch during winter.
- They are prone to natural contraction and expansion.
- Similar to Bone and Stag, they are porous and absorb water if not treated.
- They are prone to damage by the larvae of carpet beetles and clothes moths if not stored or properly protected.
- They are affected by mold.
- They are sensitive to changes in light, moisture and temperature.
- They are prone to cracking.
- They are expensive depending on the type of horn used. The more exotic, the more pricey.
- Mother nature determines the geometry of the handle which is incorporated into these curves.
An example of a knife with a horn knife handle is the Joker Bowie Knife CK96-2 with Black Buffalo Horn.
IVORY KNIFE HANDLE.
WHAT IS IVORY?
Ivory is a hard white creamy material from the tusks and teeth of mammals.
It is made up of dentine, a hard, dense, bony tissue wrapped in enamel. Enamel is the hardest animal tissue which manages wear and tear. Ivory has no blood vessel system and is more dense than bone.
Ivory has been a prized material for knife handles since the beginning of ancient civilizations. In fact, the word itself ultimately derives from the ancient Egyptians, ab, abu which means “elephant”.
The Gibel el Arak Knife was an ancient Egyptian masterpiece with a flint knife and ivory handle. Ancient Greek and Roman artisans also carved gorgeous ivory knife handles that have survived the sands of time. Impressive? Absolutely jaw dropping!
WHERE DOES IVORY COME FROM?
When we hear the word “ivory”, we automatically associate it with majestic elephant tusks. However, ivory comes from other mammals such as:
- Wooly Mammoths and Mastodons, the extinct relatives of today’s elephants.
- Elk, have two ivory teeth believed to be remnants of tusks from their ancestors.
- Walrus, from its two upper modified canines.
- Narwhal, the ivory tusk tooth which grows through its upper lip.
- Hippopotamus, the tusks from both upper and lower jaws which are harder than elephant ivory.
- Killer Whale, whose teeth are entirely composed of dentine.
- Sperm Whale, whose teeth are entirely composed of dentine.
- Wild Boar and Warthog, which come from the tusks.
Regardless of its species, the chemical structure of teeth and tusks is the same.
A QUICK LOOK AT THE BAN ON COMMERCIAL IVORY.
On July 6, 2016, pursuant to the Endangered Species Act, section 4(d), the United States imposed a near ban on commercial trade in African elephant ivory.
States Laws further ban the sale of tusks and teeth of any animal including but not limited to elephants, hippopotamus, narwhals, walruses and whales. For example, see State of New Jersey Assembly No. 3128, Introduced May 8, 2014.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF AN IVORY KNIFE HANDLE?
- Ivory handles are denser than bone and easily worked with woodworking tools.
- They will not burn.
- They can be scrimshawed with amazing detail.
- They add a distinct natural beauty and visual interest.
- The grains in the material become more apparent with age.
- With Wooly Mammoth handles, you own a piece of ancient history.
- They are not as popular due to federal and state regulations, restrictions and public sentiment.
- They are organic and prone to scratching, dents, stains, sudden changes in temperature and humidity.
- They are not all the same, some ivory is more brittle and delicate than others and must be vigilantly protected.
- Prices vary due to color, grade and artisanship.
- Be careful of handles advertised as “ivory”. Counterfeit handles can be produced from Resin Ivory “imitation ivory” and sold as authentics. Caveat Emptor “Buyer Beware’.
- Your knife can be confiscated by authorities, for example a wooly mammoth ivory handle made from Juma can be mistaken for an authentic.
- Federal and state laws ban the commercial sale of ivory.
Due to the current federal and state statutes, ivory handles are best observed at a museum.
All Within Your Grasp!
From the great outdoors to our glorious soldiers in the field, all knives are important tools used for a variety of tasks.
Each and every part of them from the tip of the blade to the end of the handle work simultaneously.
A knife’s handle is not solely an aesthetic asset. The handle is extremely important when it comes to overall performance. It is the point of contact between you and the knife, and plays a crucial role in comfort, safety and overall durability.
From steel to mother nature’s resources, handles are made of various materials. Clearly, not all handles are the same and each material has its advantages and disadvantages as stated above.
Now, the above-mentioned list does not cover each and every different knife handle. More exotic handles are constructed from dinosaur bone, coprolite “fossilized feces”, meteorite, armadillo tail, and gemstones.
My goal was to familiarize you with the various options available. But most of all, help you in making an informed decision.
Did you get a grip? What’s your knife handle made of? I would like to know.