In this installment of Knives 101, we’re focusing on knife handles.
Your instructors today are Joshua Warren, product expert and stoke ambassador at Work Sharp –Darex, LLC, and Dexter Ewing, a veteran of the Work Sharp Pro Staff. As you might imagine, Joshua, Dexter and the team at Work Sharp know their way around a knife handle, which is why we selected them for today’s knife handles lesson.
1 Bolster (Front)
Description: Located at the transition point between the blade and the knife’s handle, the bolster strengthens the critical areas of a knife, such as the handle/blade junction. It also provides a smooth transition from the handle to the blade, as well as comfort for the user. A bolster can also be used to add weight where needed to help balance a knife.
Other Notes: There are a few key types of bolsters and not all blades have bolsters. On folding knives, the bolster secures the pivot mechanism for the folding action. On a fixed blade, the bolster can either be a full or partial bolster. A full bolster helps prevent hotspots while using a knife for a long period, but sometimes a full bolster can get in the way of using the heel of the knife or create challenges when sharpening. A bolster on a fixed blade knife serves the same primary purpose as a folding knife, which is to secure the blade to the handle.
2 Bolster (Rear)
Description: The rear bolster secures the handle and provides strength at the butt of the knife. Like the front bolster, the rear also creates hand comfort.
Other Notes: The rear bolster is less common on folding knives, but it is on the classic Buck 110. A rear bolster can be made of a variety of materials.
Description: The knife butt is at the end of the handle, which, of course, is at the opposite end of the blade. The butt can have several functions depending on what additional features it has. Properly designed, the butt can improve your grip on the knife.
Other Notes: Tactical knife handles may include a glass breaker, survival knife handles may have a solid flat butt for use as a makeshift hammer or crushing tool, and chef’s knives and kitchen knives may be finished with a sturdy but flat butt for crushing or breaking food during preparation.
4 Guard (Front)
Description: Located at the transition of the blade to the handle, the front guard prevents your hand from slipping off the handle and onto the blade.
Other Notes: Styles and shapes vary on guards. Everyday carry (EDC) pocket knives may have minimal guards built into the shape of the handle to help guide the hand and provide secure grip.
5 Guard (Rear)
Description: The rear guard, which is on the butt, prevents your hand from slipping backward off the handle.
Description: The handle, of course, is the part of the knife you hold onto when gripping and manipulating the knife. If this is news to you, we welcome you as a new reader. The handle also provides balance and comfort for more efficient use. Grip retention is highly dependent on handle material and its surface treatment.
Other Notes: Simple knife handles may be round or oval. Oval shapes provide better reference for indexing the knife’s blade. Round and oval handles are more common on kitchen knives.
7 Handle Belly
Description: The belly is the underside (the main body of the handle between the front and rear bolster) where you place your fingers.
Other Notes: The belly should fit your hand specifically for the job intended for the knife. Some knives offer distinct cutouts for each finger; these are designed to improve grip. Others use minimal or no finger shaping, claiming that grip is stronger when fingers are able to grip together with nothing in between. Most handles will range between these extremes, depending on the usage of the knife and the maker’s preference.
8 Heel Drop
Description: On the rear bolster or butt, some handles curve downward. This is a heel drop. The heel drop provides comfort, especially if you have larger hands.
9 Lanyard Hole
Description: The lanyard hole, which extends through the handle, is near the butt or on it. The hole allows you to attach a rope or lanyard that allows you to secure the knife to your wrist during hard use, finding it in poor light or while underwater, when removing the knife from its sheath or even as a security measure.
Other Notes: Lanyard holes can also be lined with a small diameter aluminum tube that acts as an additional anchor point for the handle scales to the tang. Lanyard holes also dress up knife handles visually.
10 Pocket Clip
Description: A pocket clip is attached to the knife handle and allows you to slide your tool into your pocket, providing a secure method of carry and easy access to your tool.
Other Notes: Clips are available in varying materials, styles and shapes, and some allow you to carry in different orientations. Check your local carry laws.
Description: A quillon is similar to a guard, but it is distinct in one way. A quillon prevents someone else’s blade from sliding down and contacting your hand rather than preventing your hand from sliding up and contacting your own blade.
Other Notes: A quillon is used on combat knives and is most recognizable on a sword, which may have a quillon that connects from the front bolster to rear bolster.
12 Rear Hook or Persuader
Description: This is a protrusion on the rear of the handle (the butt) used most commonly on tactical knives as an additional weapon or as a glass breaker. The rear hook is larger than dedicated glass breakers.
Other Notes: Typically, this is not sharpened, but it could create an open wound if used to strike an enemy. This is used at close range. It can also be used as a glass breaker or similar tasks.
Description: A rivet, which is used to secure the handle or scales to the tang or frame, is a fastener that extends through the handle from one side to the other.
Other Notes: They are much less likely to come loose on their own as screws sometimes do.
Description: Not all knife handles are one solid piece wrapped around the tang. (A blade that is full tang means one piece of metal runs from the tip of the blade to the butt of the handle. The purpose is to increase the knife’s strength, so it holds up well during heavy usage.)
Often, knife handles are made up of scales, two pieces of material affixed to each side of the tang or affixed to each other with spacers, such as on a folding knife. Scales provide grip and often the structure of the handle is supported by or made up of the scales themselves, specifically with folding knives.
Other Notes: There are a wide variety of materials that can be used for scales.
Materials in Knife Handles
Description: Aluminum knife handles are used primarily in hunting, general outdoor and tactical knives. Aluminum can be machined or cold-forged. Cold-forging creates a denser/heavier material that is very solid; plus, it enables a maker to cast a handle to shape with various surface features.
Advantages: Aluminum knives are light and strong and usually texture-coated for a better grip. Aluminum is easy to clean and non-corrosive, so they can be used around water without concern. Type III hard anodization, which adds a thin, durable layer of protection to aluminum’s surface, provides protection from scratching, scuffling and abrading. This is used commonly on tactical knives.
Description:Used on hunting knives and often on pocket knives, bone handles offer a traditional look, and they are usually affordable and beautiful. Bones from various deceased animals are used, but leg bones from cows (for their strength) are used most often. When caring for bone or horn-handled knives, keep them dry and dry them immediately after washing. Do not store them in humid conditions, as they can retain moisture and mold or deteriorate. The surface can be smooth or jigged. Jigging adds visual and functional texture, enhancing the grip.
Advantages: The primary benefit of a bone or horn handle is appearance. Bone is generally affordable and can take on many different colors or patterns.
Description: Brass is usually used for handle components, not entire handles. Brass, which is not textured and can be slippery, shows wear over time but continues to look good. Be advised that it scratches easily, too. This is commonly used for bolsters on holding knives, as well as liners on multi-blade pocket knives.
Advantages: Brass is strong, and that is ideal to secure components together. It is also heavy and offers beautiful styling. And who does not love that unique gold color?
Description: FRN stands for fiberglass-reinforced nylon. It can be injection molded into a multitude of shapes. Typically, you’ll see this on less expensive folding knives and fixed blades.
Advantages: It is affordable, strong and lightweight. However, it may not stand up to stress over time. Textures, contours, radii, jimping and other surface features can be molded into FRN handles. It is also quite stable; it does not absorb moisture and holds up to deterioration from UV light.
Description: These handles may be comprised of embedding stones and other materials or they may be made entirely of large stones. They are non-porous, but they would not be my first choice for a hard-working knife. The stones are often strong, but they can fall out with heavy usage if the handle flexes. Handles made completely from gemstones are expensive. Large gemstones usually possess imperfections, making them less durable and more susceptible to breaking or cracking from impact. The best use for gemstone handles is on investor- or collector-grade art knives.
Advantages: In a word … beautiful.
Description: G10 is made from multiple layers of fiberglass and impregnated with phenolic resin. It can be cut and shaped with texture to provide an excellent grip. It is also non-porous and does not absorb moisture. In fact, it is impervious to most known liquids. It is the handle material of choice for working, hunting and tactical knives.
Advantages: In regard to shapes, colors and textures, there are a wide variety of options with G10. It is also lightweight, sturdy and easy to clean, although its primary weakness is susceptibility to impact.
Description: Ivory, along with bone and other materials, such as shells and horn, are custom materials. Ivory is from elephant tusks, which are massive, overgrown teeth that protrude on both sides of an elephant’s trunk. Made of dense, bony material, tusks are used for digging, lifting and defense. They are critical to an elephant’s survival. Ivory is banned because poachers kill elephants only for their tusks. While beautiful, ivory scratches, as it is not the hardest material.
Advantages: Ivory, which can be expensive, is dense and less porous than bone; therefore, it will last longer. Although genuine ivory is banned, man-made materials like Micarta closely approximate ivory’s color and texture. Micarta is less expensive and legal.
Description: Micarta, usually found on more expensive knives, features multiple layers of fabric impregnated with phenolic resin. Micarta is scratch-resistant but not naturally textured. Grip is partially established through the handle shape. There are three types of Micarta: paper linen, linen and canvas. Paper linen is a finer-grade material. Linen Micarta is the most common, and canvas is used with heavier canvas cloth.
Advantages: Resistant to impact, Micarta is easy to clean with soap and water. Compared to other materials, it also has a bit of a softer/warmer feeling to it. It is lightweight and durable. Additionally, it provides a good grip. You will see it tactical knives.
9 Stainless Steel
Description: Stainless steel contains chromium, and that means strength. It also contains additional properties that render it less likely to exhibit corrosion under normal circumstances. This steel, which is also described by its grade and trade name, is ideal for hunting, general and tactical knives.
Advantages: Stainless steel is strong and resistant to corrosion and staining.
10 Deer Antler
Description: The properties of antler are similar to bone. While they are tough on the outside, antler are generally porous. Thus, the wear factor is only average. The unique texture enhances the grip quality, however. Other options include elk antler (stronger and thicker than deer antler) and stag antler (solid, hard, beautiful and expensive). You’ll find stag on higher-end factory knives and custom knives.
Advantages: Because of their beauty, durability and aesthetics, stag handles are popular choices. Stag is considered a “status” handle material, and collectors covet it.
Description: Strong and lightweight, titanium is half the weight of steel. That means the same strength can be achieved in half the thickness. Titanium can be textured through bead blasting and colored through anodization. It is more expensive than stainless steel and aluminum but stronger than both and corrosion resistant. The most common grade of titanium used is Grade 5, which is a 6AI/4V titanium alloy. Its composition is 6 percent aluminum, 4 percent vanadium and 90 percent titanium.
Advantages: Titanium is durable, strong and lightweight. It also has a warmer feel than other metals when exposed to the cold.
Description: Many different types of wood are used to make handles, but primarily they are hardwoods such as walnut, birch, maple, burl wood or pakkawood. Wood handles are durable but become much less durable when wet. Thus, they should not be used for tasks in or around water. A process in which the pores are impregnated with a resin, stabilization prevents the wood from soaking in moisture.
Advantages: Wood is durable and naturally beautiful. Plus, you’ll find it in a variety of shapes that provide a natural grip.
Joshua Warren is the product expert and stoke ambassador at Work Sharp –Darex, LLC. Dexter Ewing is a veteran of the Work Sharp Pro Staff.
Read more: Go here for a Knives 101 article featuring blades.