WEIGHING THE PROS AND CONS OF DIFFERENT HANDLE MATERIALS
How much thought have you given to your knife handles? When you get right down to it, a knife consists of two distinct parts, and they’re both equally important. The blade has the sharp edge that does the knife’s work of cutting and slicing. But without a handle, that blade would be pretty tough to hold and use.
A knife blade’s ability to cut is based on a variety of factors, from type of steel to profile to grind. Similarly, the handle’s comfort and ease of use are determined by its shape as well as its material. The very first handle material was likely animal hide or fibrous plant material wrapped around one end of a piece of flint or obsidian.
Thankfully, though, we’ve improved handle technology since then, and knives have gotten a bit more comfortable to use. The downside is that because so many options for handle materials are available today, it can be difficult to decide what’s best for you. That’s where we come in. We’re going to go through the most common handle materials and discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly for each one.
These materials can be divided into two broad categories—natural and synthetic.
NATURAL MATERIALS FOR KNIFE HANDLES
Natural materials are those that occur, well, naturally. We modify them to suit our needs, but they all have their roots in nature. Many, though not all, natural options are replenishable, if that’s a consideration for you.
This is one of the oldest handle materials, and it is still widely used today. There are just about as many types of wood handles are there are species of trees. Hardwoods tend to be a better choice due to their durability. Many times, the wood must be stabilized before it can be properly used for a handle. Without getting too far into the weeds, this means that the wood is impregnated with resin so that it isn’t affected by humidity. If this isn’t done, then the wood could swell or shrink, eventually cracking or falling off the knife completely.
Wood can be an exceptionally attractive material, with rich colors and interesting grain patterns. While wood can be an inexpensive option, the more exotic hardwoods aren’t cheap.
In this category, we’re including knife handles of antler, horn, and tusk as well as plain bone. Like wood, this is a very old, very traditional type of handle material. The most common bone used today is cow, as it is abundant and cheap. However, you can also find things like mammoth tooth on the market, which is rare, and thus pricey, but incredibly eye-catching when it is properly finished on a knife handle. Bone can be textured to provide a more positive grip. If it isn’t textured, it can be slippery, especially when wet. It can also be dyed in any color imaginable. Many users prefer bone simply due to tradition.
“The great thing about Micarta is its durability. Assuming it is affixed to the knife properly, it will easily last the life of the steel and then some.”
The biggest downside with bone is that it isn’t the most stable material to use. It is porous and can crack somewhat easily when dropped or struck.
Leather lends a very traditional, old-school look to a knife. Often, leather knife handles consist of a series of leather washers that are stacked on the stick tang. Each washer has adhesive on it, and they’re compressed tightly by a nut at the end of the handle. The handle is then sanded to the proper size and shape. Leather handles can be very comfortable to the user, and they look great to boot.
However, leather is susceptible to moisture and can be problematic in wet environments as a result. If you use the knife regularly, the oils from your hand will condition the leather over time, but some users prefer to apply mink oil or similar treatments to help protect it.
When we say synthetic, all we really mean is human-made. These are all materials that don’t just occur naturally and require us to more or less create them.
This is arguably one of the most common knife handle materials on the market today. Micarta is made using cloth or paper that’s soaked in resin. Many different types are available, including denim, burlap, and canvas. The end result is a material that’s nearly impregnable and that can take a great finish. It is fairly inexpensive, and you could even make it at home if you’re so inclined. In discussing handle materials with a group of knife users on social media, Micarta was far and away the most popular choice.
The great thing about Micarta is its durability. Assuming it is affixed to the knife properly, it will easily last the life of the steel and then some.
Sort of a kissing cousin to Micarta, G10 is made similarly but with fiberglass rather than cloth or paper. G10 is incredibly tough and nearly indestructible even if you treat your knife like a rented mule. It is available in a huge range of colors. Some users prefer something bright so that the knife is easy to spot if it is dropped or set down somewhere.
It tends to weigh just slightly more than Micarta, all other things being equal. But in terms of toughness, there’s not much difference.
This patent-pending material is a combination of G10 and rubber, in which layers of each are alternated throughout the handle scale. The end result is sort of a best-of-both-worlds situation, where you retain the solidity and toughness of G10 but with the rubber adding extra grip and traction.
It is still fairly new on the market, but users are reporting very favorable results.
This is one of the strongest materials available. It is made by taking very thin strands of carbon or graphite and binding them together with resin. In addition to its strength, the other appealing aspect of carbon fiber is the weight, as it is very light compared to similar materials. It can also be very striking visually, with an interesting pattern that reflects light.
While it is strong, it can also be brittle and crack or shatter if it is struck just the right way. In other words, if batoning wood in the forest is your thing, you probably don’t want to do that with a carbon-fiber handled knife. It is also rather expensive compared to other options.
Fiberglass-Reinforced Nylon (FRN)
This is a nylon polymer and glass fiber mixture that is injection-molded into handle scales or whatever else is needed. It is strong, long-lasting, and inexpensive, all of which makes it a great choice for knife handles. You can get it in a range of colors and patterns. FRN is water-resistant and easy to keep clean.
Many people tend to avoid it, though, because it can look and feel cheap and plastic-like.
There is a dizzying array of acrylic handle options out there, from pinecone to dragon scale and more. Without a doubt, these are some of the most gorgeous options out there for knives, adding beauty and character. Any color or pattern you can imagine can be probably be found. Most are made by pouring resin and then submerging something into it, such as chicken wire, before it hardens.
“…you need to consider where and how you plan to use the knife to determine the best handle material for your individual circumstances.”
The beauty comes at a cost. These materials aren’t cheap, and they can be fairly brittle. As a general rule, they’re more for looks than actual use.
Sometimes, you don’t want or need a full handle, so paracord or some other type of cordage will be wrapped around the tang. This is definitely a viable option, particularly on smaller knives, such as one you might wear on a lanyard around your neck. The cordage adds negligible weight to the knife. In an emergency, you could even unravel some or all of the cordage to use in some way.
If that’s a driving force behind your decision, learn ahead of time how best to remove the cordage without needing to cut it into several pieces.
There are a few different metals that are commonly used for handles, including stainless steel, aluminum, and titanium. They’re strong and durable, with a high level of corrosion-resistance. They can also be finished with interesting textures or finishes, adding visual appeal.
Depending on the metal used, it can add significant weight to the knife. We’re not talking pounds, of course, but even an ounce or three could be noticeable when compared to another knife the same size.
At the end of the day, you need to consider where and how you plan to use the knife to determine the best handle material for your individual circumstances. As with most things in life, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
A liner is an added layer of material that rests between the handle scales and the tang of the knife. Because of the range of colors available, G10 is often used, though there are other options out there, including metals like brass or copper. The purpose of adding a liner on a fixed-blade knife is usually more decorative than functional. The idea is to provide a pop of color to adorn the handle. You could even go with a glow-in-the-dark material to really make it shine at night.
A liner can also be used to add thickness to the handle construction. However, if you’re ordering a knife from a maker, be sure to specify that intention when discussing the handle construction. Many makers will default to their standard handle thickness, regardless of whether liners are added or not, and shape the scales thinner to accommodate the added layer.
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