Hand crafted knife handle

Hand Crafting a Stacked Composite Knife Handle

The handle of a hidden tang knife is conventionally made by cutting out a slot in a a suitable piece of material: wood, bone, synthetics etc. A greater visual impression can be made by stacking multiple layers of various materials, or accent colors in the knife handle. In this article I will show my first attempt at creating a handle with stacked wood layers for a hidden tang knife.

I began with a piece of yellow pine. Certain exotic hardwoods may be a better choice due to tighter grain structure and other properties that make a more durable handle. I used what I had on hand to see if I could make it would work. The accent layers were made from hardboard, plain, cheap hardware store hardboard. Elegant I know.

Cut your stock to a suitable size. Cut it to a generous length and width, much of it will be waste, but work your way down to final size cautiously.

To cut the slot, you will need a drill bit that is equal (preferably not greater) in width than the widest part of the knife’s tang. You want a tight fit, the larger the knife, the more physical stress that it will be subjected to, the more crucial the fit is. The 3 1/2” blade I was working with provided a forgiving piece to start with.

My conscience remained clear through the horribly drilled slots that you will see in the next few pictures. A drill press would be ideal, but so would laser vision and chainsaw hands. Do the best with what you have.

In hindsight, it may be a good idea to cut a template slot in a piece of steel and clamp it over the workpiece. You could use the steel piece for a bolster afterward.

I started the slot by drilling a single hole as straight as possible into the center of the block. Drill another hole near the first, without cutting through at the surface, and another on the opposite side. The slot should taper to the bottom, similar to the tang shape. Feel it out. Start with scrap wood and make a few practice runs.

If you know, or think you know a more accurate way to do this, then by all means follow your gut. I was using a small enough blade, that accuracy was not crucial, but there are undoubtedly better techniques available here. That being said, I cut the mustard doing it this way. Good luck.

I tested the fit by clamping the knife, blade down (wrap in tape to protect blade) in the vise and use a rubber mallet to tap the block into place. If it feels to tight, then BACK OFF, be careful not to split the wood. Try to visualize how deep the knife must fit into the block. If your bolster is 1/4” thick, than cut the slot to fit 1/4” below the choil of the knife. Use a dowel to tap it back off and make adjustments to the slot, or move on to the next step.

I used a square and a red marker to mark the layers in the knife handle. The knife’s tang is longer than it needs to be, the bottom marks are approximately where the bottom bolster will go.

Here I cut out the layers with a table saw. I do not have a zero clearance insert, so the cuts are just shy of edge. After cutting out the waste layers from the primary knife handle material, I flattened and smoothed the faces on 150 grit sandpaper.

I next cut out and drilled slots through the hardboard accent layers. Same process as before. I sanded the glossy side to give the epoxy a better bite, and also sanded the rough side to flatten it.

I ended up using fewer of layers than I planned. The length added by the bolsters made a simpler stack more appealing to me. I apparently forgot to take pictures of the bolsters being made. They are cut from a steel circular saw blade 1/8”. To cut the slot in the top bolster, I clamped it into the vice, and used the lip of the vice as a guide to drill holes side by side in a more accurate line.

I then used need files to square it up. The bottom bolster has a single hole drilled in it. At this point I rounded off the end of the tang into a tapering cylindrical tip, approximately 11/32” in diameter. The tip of the rounded tang will be hammered flat (peened) over the bottom bolster to secure it.

I used a slow set compound epoxy from locktite to glue the layers together. I mixed it in a plastic cup and clamped the knife, point down, tang up in the bench vice. Slide the top bolster onto the tang, spreading a generous amount of epoxy onto its bottom side, slide on handle material layers in desired order, finish with bottom bolster. Make sure that the bolsters are aligned properly before the epoxy sets.

To keep pressure on the stacked layers while the epoxy dried, I used a clamp made from scrap wood and two pieces of 3/8” all thread. The boards have slots/holes cut in them to fit over the knife and keep pressure on the top and bottom bolsters. Wing nuts hold it all down tight. The clamp worked as the epoxy dried, but it splintered and broke as I removed it. I suggest making one from metal.

I Wiped/scraped off excess epoxy once clamped, I didn’t worry about getting all of it off since the handle was oversize, all of the areas marred from dried epoxy were filed off.

In addition to clamping the stacked handle layers together, I used bar clamps to push the handle assembly against the knife for a stronger bond overall.

I carefully removed the bonded knife from the clamp.

I then cut off excess material on the band saw. A rasp was used next to bring the shape closer to the bolster profile. I tried to use smooth strokes to avoid chipping out the wood badly. Don’t try to file away at the bolsters just yet. Too much stress on the bolsters may break them loose from the wood. Once a the rough shape has been brought down to near the bolster profile, it is time to peen the tang over the rear bolster.

I used a 8/32 machine nut for a washer to distribute the force evenly against the bottom of the knife. The top of the washer was countersunk, so peened end fit snug into the nut without tearing around the edges. I cut the tang down to size against the nut. The length I learned to peen rivets with is ½ the rivets diameter. So it the tang was 1/8”  in diameter, the rivet should rise 1/16” above the surface of the workpiece. I used a piece of superglue to hold down the nut as I hammered.

I started with a flat end of a small ball peen hammer. Tap downward and outward in a short tight sweeping sort of motion around the circumference. Imagine the head of the rivet/tang mushrooming out over the nut. As the head of the rivet got closer to the nut, I switched to the peen end of the hammer for more clearance.

Tap directly in the center of the rivet once in a while to flatten it out and push out the edges more. When the rivet was pushed down tight into the nut, I filled the outside of the nut smooth just for kicks.

Now that the bolsters were squeezed down and secured permanently, I filed the bolster profiles until I was pleased with the appearance. They were not perfectly aligned when I glued them, so it was mostly just evening out.

Next, I used sand paper, starting at 60 grit and working up, I rounded out the profile and focused on removing deep chips in the wood left from the rasp. Sand paper is a safer method of adjusting the shape of the handle than a file or rasp. Focus on symmetry.

Use your preferred method of finishing once you are satisfied with the shape and have sanded up to desire grit. I went up to 800 grit and let the hand soak in a cup of linseed oil over night. I was pleased with the appearance of the finished handle. The hardboard polished better than I expected it to and after the linseed oil soak, the accent layers came out black and smooth. However,  the blade doesn’t feel great in the hand, its a bit to small to get a good hold on the knife handle. The techniques in this article can be applied to any sized knife though.

See also my article on stone washing and acid etching your knife for more knife detail.