View Full Version : Handle Materials

04-11-2003, 08:50 PM
Hello Mr. Robertson,

I first want to thank you in advance for what I know will be an informative me at least. Here goes.....

What types of wood do you suggest using for handles. I work with alot of curly maple but am looking to add some variety. I am curious as to what collectors are going for. If it matters, I am referring to forged blades of traditional design.

Hope I make sense....

Brett Gatlin

04-12-2003, 08:51 AM
Hi Brett,

Well, I am no Les Robertson to be sure, but I am a collector of forged fixed-blade knives who is real partial to wood handles so I'll throw down some assorted thoughts on various woods that may or may not bear any relationship to the views of a more broad base of collectors. In no particular order:

1) Curly Maple ? This is, without a doubt the staple handle material of the forged blade maker. Nothing wrong with it at all ? some really terrific knives have been adorned with this wood and some terrific makers (Jay Hendrickson comes to mind) use it almost exclusively. But the problem from a collector?s standpoint is that its use is so prolific that it can quickly come to dominate your collection. Speaking for myself, I?ve become super-saturated with curly maple. If curly maple were a color, I?d see it as beige ? as unlikely to offend as to excite. I?ve passed up some pretty good knives for that handle-material choice alone. (But then again, I?d hardly recognize my collection if it didn?t have at least a couple examples, like the Massey bowie pictured below).

2) Ironwood ? The nicely figured stuff is about as good as it gets in a darker-colored wood. A very dense wood, it makes a great handle choice on a larger knife because it can help balance-out a larger blade. Takes a nice polish too.

3) Walnut ? An absolutely classic choice for a fine gun stock or knife handle. Beautiful, but subdued. An elegant choice, as presented on this Rob Hudson knife:

4) Thuya Burl ? I like this stuff a lot. Nice color and some eye-popping patterns. This choice definitely adds some visual zip. I?m told it can be a bit of a pain to work with (gums up the belts) but the results are worth it (knife by Fisk):

5) Wenge wood ? This super-dense, super-tough African hardwood is an excellent choice for knife that will see hard use. It is also a beautiful choice whether with a carded texture (as on the Fogg bowie pictured below) or a highly- polished finish.

6) African Blackwood ? Again, one of the more dense woods out there. Some may say it?s a bit boring, but on the right knife it can be quite stunning: say a mid-size bowie or fighter with satin-finish carbon steel blade and mirror-polished steel fittings, the look can be both severe and striking. Ebony is also pretty good in this regard.

7) California Buckeye burl. I have absolutely no idea what the natural color of this wood is as I?ve seen it mostly dyed a variety of colors that range from truly beautiful to truly freakish. I remember a Bradshaw bowie that had muted tones of blue / grey that was spectacular. I?ve also seen some bright nearly day-glo or neon colors that made me want to? well? not buy the knife.

8) Amboyna Burl - Really a stunning choice. Not yet represented in my collection, but certainly will be. Here?s an example by J. Loose (his pic as well):

9) Masur Birch ? a great choice for a lighter-colored handle material ? comes in a nice range of tones from reddish-orange to dark tan. Can be nicely figured as well.

10) Snakewood ? a stunning high-contrast wood that I don?t see around nearly enough.

As you can probably guess, I could go on and on. The main point I would make is to try to offer some variety. With wood, mother nature has provided a fantastic array of color, pattern and texture. Make use of it. When I walk past a maker?s table at a knife show and see a broad range of handle material (wood and others) I?m going to stop and take a careful look. When I see all of just one thing, the effect is decidedly less arresting.

Best regards,


04-12-2003, 10:38 AM
Thank you, Roger. That's alot of info and I appreciate you spending the time to go into such detail. I am starting to become more of a "if it looks it" type.

From a collectors viewpoint, are there any handle materials to avoid?

Thanks, Brett

Gabe Newell
04-12-2003, 04:46 PM
I have the Amboyna/Loose piece. The great thing about Jonathon's choices were that the color line in the Amboyna, the plunge line, and the pattern in the damascus all relate to each other.

So in addition to the comments above, about specific materials, I'd throw in that relating features of the handle material to the rest of the design can have a powerful impact on the overall effect of the knife. You can repeat, invert, extend, distort, and so on features that are (presumably) fixed in your handle material into the butt cap, bolster, pins, and blade.

04-12-2003, 04:58 PM
Hi Brett,

As far as handle materials to avoid, I?d say anything synthetic, but with one caveat: if you?re making what might be generally described as a ?tactical? knife then synthetics are just fine (perhaps even preferred). Jerry Fisk makes a military model (basically a strong, stout spear point bowie) that is handled in black micarta. It?s about as close as I come to being interested in a tactical knife, though I?d prefer even that one in, say, African blackwood. But hey, tacticals are hugely popular and are here to stay, so if you happen to be making that kind of knife, then by all means go nuts with the micarta and such.

In terms of natural handle materials to avoid: pink ivory (wood) ? ugh. I?m also not a big fan of giraffe bone, though I have seen some examples that turned out pretty good. The list of handle materials I?d pick ahead of giraffe would be pretty long and varied.

Like you, I look forward to Les? input ? he draws on an incredibly broad range of experience and certainly knows what?s hot and what?s not.



Jason Cutter
04-12-2003, 05:40 PM
Thought I'd throw in a few 2-cent pieces from my PILE of 2-cent pieces !

As a maker who hasn't necessarily "settled" on a specialty wood or particular style of any type, I've come across things that seem "better," for lack of a more appropriate description. For one, I think that more and more buyers are discerning themselves as either users / collectors or both and will choose knives to suit the job (field or cabinet !) The idea of a beautiful finely burled wood that would fall apart in the field is a real danger.

Being from Australia, as impressive as curly maple is, it is becoming a bit common now. I see quite a few makers throwing into the mix one of the Australian woods - RINGED GIDGEE. If I wanted to use maple, it stabilises well, so I'd probably go for a highly figured stabilised maple - burled, spalted, curly and birdseye, preferrably all in the same piece. My idea of a presentation bowie is with African Blackwood - that jet black oily finish and sublime streaking with golds and whites is very very elegant.

I am thinking more in terms of colours than anything else, and for woods, its more what it looks like than what it actually is. (IMHO)

The suggestion that "tactical" is going out, may be right, from what I see. That suggests that black and green are less popular. However, my Micarta handled knives are no less popular (maybe more) but I too have become bored with canvas Micarta for example. I've had to do "extra" things to Micarta to improve the appearance of it. I contour it, texture it, jig it, inlay it, machine it etc. I personally think it helps but thats just me.

Stag is a difficult one. I personally really like working with stag, but even when people like to pick up a stag handled piece, not many people are buying it. I'm not sure why - it isn't just my knives. Could it be a saturation thing as well, but to me a nice stag handled fighter or bowie is a class act and it gives a knife a very rugged "outdoorsman" look, even if it gets as far as the display cabinet.

Just a few thoughts. I haven't used many other materials like MOP, stone etc. enough to say much about those.

Cheers. Hope Les catches up soon. Jason.

04-12-2003, 06:27 PM
Greetings all,

gaben - you lucky dog you - that J. Loose knife is sweet! You make a really good point about the importance of synthesis between the handle material and the rest of the knife.

Jason - thanks for the detailed post. Some of the more interesting wood handles I've seen of late have come from Australian makers - I like that ringed gidgee wood as well. Just wanted to clarify one point : I didn't suggest tacticals were on their way out, I actually suggested the contrary.



Keith Montgomery
04-12-2003, 07:22 PM
Personally, I think ringed gidgee is about as nice a wood as ther is for knife handles. It has great figuring and takes a fantastic finish. Better as far as I am concerned than ironwood.

African blackwood is the perfect wood for coffin handled bowies, I prefer it to ebony.

On smaller knives I really like snakwood, but from all accounts it is a finicky wood. It tends to check and crack as it shrinks and is not easy to stabilize.

A wood that looks great on some fancy folders is pink ivory. It has a wonderful deep pink to red colour and takes a very smooth finish.

Bailey Bradshaw
04-12-2003, 09:08 PM
Keith mentioned Blackwood for coffin handles. I really like this wood for several reasons. First is it polishes SOOOO well. A very dense grain and really oily texture make it a joy to finish to a high gloss. It also carves, checkers, drills and sands very well. All this adds up to my next point. This wood is VERY stable with no treatment. It doesn't NEED a sealer or stabilization. It is so oily it just stays put. Many of these wood need some sort of sealer or finish to bring out their figure or keep them from shrinking. My opinion is ALL burls need sealer or stabilizing just because of the nature of burl grained wood. It is usually not very dense, has irregular grain making it weaker than uniform grained wood, and it has more pourous eyes and end grain making moisture exchange with the air more previlant and harder to control. To many woods this means shrinkage and possible cracking.

04-12-2003, 09:20 PM
Let me be the first to say - "Welcome to CKD Bailey!" Glad you stopped by and hope to see you here again soon - your post was most informative.

Best regards,


04-12-2003, 09:58 PM
Mesquite burl and crotchwood are beautiful hardwood that is very hard, very dense and is one of the most stable woods. There may be cracks, but they won't grow or change as the wood ages and can be filled effectively with epoxy.
This wood works well and darkens with exposure to light. It does not need stabilizing, unlike maple and buckeye burls.
You will want to have carbide teeth on the tablesaw blade when you cut it.
Some of the better hardwood sellers online carry it as well as regional dealers in Texas and Arizona.

Osprey Guy
04-12-2003, 10:25 PM
I'm a huge fan of Ironwood, especially when it's Grade A or Presentation Grade and therefore showing Chatoyant...the word refers to depth...and lots of it. A cool, 3D effect caused by transparent's really intense, especially in bright sunlight.

I also love snakewood. I was fortunate enough to get hold of a good amount of gorgeously figured and well-cured snakewood a few months ago. So far I guess I've been really lucky as I have yet to experience cracking or shrinking...(I do try and go easy on the heat when working with sense pressing my luck).

Contrary to many opinions in this forum, I happen to be extremely fond of giraffe bone! Not the phoney, gaudy colored stuff...I mean the more natural looking pieces with lots of grain/character, and lovely, subtle colorings. Every now and then it can be astonishingly beautiful, and it is so easy to work with! I'm sort of a nut about selecting great handle material...I've looked at Mammoth over and over and as far as I'm concerned I've got some giraffe bone that will give most of the far more expensive mammoth a run for its money (I just posted a new giraffe bone folder in the display case...I went out of my way to "honor" the fact that it was giraffe...if you get a chance check it and you'll understand right away what I mean ;) ).

I guess the bottom line for me,... it all depends on the selection regardless of the material, and how it's been used. I've seen where a number of guys have felt obliged to flat out "pan" various materials...They've even pronounced that such and such material is for the most part "dead" for use in knife handles...(giraffe is one of those that's supposed to be "history")...
No matter what the material may be, there's no changing the simple fact that if that particular version of that "something" is will always be beautiful.

Dennis Greenbaum

Yeah Baby!:smokin

04-12-2003, 10:26 PM
This is a great post, although I can add nothing better than has been offered. But, I'd like to steal a moment to say hi and big CKDF welcome to Bailey Bradshaw. :)

But since I'm here I want to add a comment that someone, somewhere imparted to me and #### if I can give him credit. It's simply that handle material, be it wood or ivory or pearl or stag, etc., are ALL organic and represent a past living growing thing. That and also the leather in sheaths. This adds life to your knife in an immeasurable way. It's a respectful way to view your knives in the larger scale of things. :)

Also interested in Les' comments...


Terry Primos
04-12-2003, 11:21 PM
Ironwood and African Blackwood are two of my personal favorites. Both are dense and stable, and take a killer finish with no sealer. A customer recently sent me some real nice Lignum Vitae to put on a couple of knives for him. I had never used it before and was surprised at how nice it looked when finished.

I've been using Ring Gidgee when I can get it and have grown quite fond of it. I'm pretty sure it will become a standard for me.

Right now I have a lot of requests for Ironwood and Thuya Burl. Thuya Burl is not dense like Ironwood, African Blackwood, and Lignum Vitae, but it's easy to work with and smells good.

By the way, welcome to the CKD Forums Bailey. We're glad to have you.

Keith Montgomery
04-13-2003, 12:01 AM
If I am not mistaken Les is one of the people that doesn't think much of giraffe bone, but I may be mistaken. I seem to remember him posting that somewhere. I have seen many knives with giraffe bone handles that look spectacular; some from Tom Anderson really stick in my mind.

My favorite handle material for bowies and hunters is sambar stag, but it has to be nice stag and that is getting harder to find and more expensive. It will shrink, but this can be reduced or even stopped by treating with mineral oil. Right up there with stag is ancient walrus ivory; the colours on this material can be absolutely amazing. Mammoth/mastadon ivory is another favorite, especially the bark. On certain knives (gents fixed and fancy folders including slipjoints) I like pearl, in particular gold lip. Abalone can look nice on these knives as well. Sheep horn can look very nice as well and I have seen a few knives with black sheep horn that really look sharp. Coral, woods and stone all have their place as well. On primative knives, ends of bones and bear jaws with teeth seem to belong.

I personally don't like most synthetics. The exception to that is the Micartas. On fancier knives paper micarta can look very nice and on hunters, utility and tactical knives linen and canvas micarta can make for excellent results. I think tactical knives are the only category where synthetics won't negatively affect the value of the knife.

The one material that I find totally inappropriate for knife handles is any of the laminated woods (Pakkawood, Dymondwood and Frostwood). Some of this looks ok, but most make me want to I don't even really like this stuff on $5.00 knives; on anything more than that it really turns me off.

Keith Montgomery
04-13-2003, 12:04 AM
Forgot to welcome Bailey to CKDForums. It is great to see you here.

04-13-2003, 07:55 AM
I never thought my post would generate this much response. Sounds like we are all wanting to hear Les' opinion. I appreciate the opinions given and have learned alot from them. Not only are we learning which handle materials are preferred, but also why. I wish I could try them all but as a part time maker, it will take years to do. Guess that's not so bad after all. Brett

John Andrews
04-13-2003, 09:33 AM
Being new to this VERY EXCELLENT forum, I can see I'm going to really enjoy it! I agree with your selections even though I havn't used many of the exotic handle materials. I use natural materials and only use Micarta, ect. on customer's request. Where I live here in SE Iowa good looking wood and antler is here for the gathering. I pick up antler sheds and cut most of my wood for use. Osprey says it very well about what looks good is not out of vogue. Most of my knive handles are combinations of wood and antler, and still seems to be the choice of collectors and outdoorsmen here. Osprey mentioned the "3-D" effect of some woods. I use a lot of Osage Orange and cut my own. It is probably about the easiest wood here to find, and the presentation grade has this 3-D effect, even though I don't see any offered in supply outlets. Very hard stuff, but great for working.

04-13-2003, 11:30 AM
I didn't mention in my post on mesquite that desert ironwood is the greatest, hands down. The problem is that it was never very plentiful and is swiftly getting more scarce, mostly due to the market for carvings. I still use some, but try to limit myself.
Mesquite is very abundant from southwestern N. Am through much of South America as far south as Argentina.

Another very nice hardwood that doesn't seem to get much attention is Manzanita burl. It has beautiful red, brown and yellow patterns, is very hard and fine grained. It often has cracks that are easy to fill with epoxy but is otherwise very stable.

As an experiment I recently cut up a beef leg bone my dog had left out back for six months or so after cleaning off all the softer stuff. I cut some slabs with a table saw and put them in a warm oven for a couple of hours for sterilization. Then I coated them with epoxy, which I later sanded of the outside. This made a pair of very nice scales that look suprisingly good.

If I could post attachments, I would include a photo.

Les Robertson
04-13-2003, 11:39 AM
First, let me thank Roger...excellent photo examples.

Next, everyone is entitled to their own opinion...even if it's wrong. :D

What my exepreince has showed me is that the type of knife has much to do with which handle material is used.

I realize that my opinion is skewed. As I feel that collectors should do as much as they can to insure their knives at least hold their value.

Hunting Knives ...number 1 prefered material is Sanbar Stag. After that your looking at (in no particular order).

Sheep Horn
Desert Ironwood
Curly Maple (especially for ABS Hunters).

Some type of African Animal Horn.
Cape Water Buffalo

Obviously, everything else under the sun has been used on hunters

Multi Blades....dyed jigged bone of some type is Number 1

Stag and Mother of Pearl are also prefered handle materials.

Art Knives.....Some type of Ivory is number 1.

Elephant Ivory use has declined in use over the last decade. This has more to do with price increase and lack of desire for the Elephant Ivory more than the CITES treatry.

Mammoth Ivory is white to dirty white, ok to use for lower end pieces.

Mastodon Ivory, especially the Bark is desireable.

My personal favorite is Fossil Walrus Ivory. Preferably the female tusk (smaller root hole) at the very tip of the tusk the hole almost disappears. Making this a very solid materail to use.

The nice thing about Mammoth and Walrus is that thousands of years in the ground have allowed the tusks to take on different colors, depending on the minerals in the ground.

Blue = Phosphrous
Green = Copper
Pink = Gold
Browns and Tans = just lying underground for so long.

Next on art knives is Pearl.

Mother of Pearl a favorite, especially for antique bowie copies and folders.

Gold Lip Pearl a favorite for Damascus folders.

Perhaps the most desireable right now is Black Lip Pearl. This has more to do with its lack of availablity in larger sizes.

Then other types of shells:

Paua Shell
Pink Sea Snail
Tortoise (mostly from womens night stand sets... Hair brush, hand mirror, etc.) Very popular in Europe at the turn of the century, especiallly France.

Lastly, Stone. Jade, Neprites, Lapis Lazuli, Tigers Eye, Malachite and marble are used. Much of what a maker can use depends on the equipment they have or can gain access to. Jade is about a 7 and you need diamond equipment. Where as with marble, you could work that in your shop with standard wood working tools. Good ventalition is necessary. It's not just the dust (which can be held to a minimum working the stone wet). But also, as in the case of Malchite (it can release cyanide) when it worked.

Bowies there is no clear number one.

ABS Style Bowies:

Curly Maple
Desert Ironwood

Seem to be the top 3

However, as Bailey pointed out if your going with a tradtional antique pattern, African Blackwood and Ebony top the list. Very dense and hard woods, not much shrinkage.

Because of the size and construction techniques used on the handles. Just about any handle material can be used. Either as a solid piece or in sections like the handle of a Price style dagger.

Tactical "Brand Name"

Folders....number 1 is Carbon Fiber Scales.

G-10 and Micarta follow up

Fixed blades....number 1 is micarta.

Usuallly linen micarta.

If you want an excellent grippy surface, Rag micarta is the way to go. While it is butt ugly, it's gives a great grip.

Green Micarta is starting to make some head way. Even maroon micarta is starting to show up more often.

NOTE: There are no natural handle materials used on Tactical "Brand Name" knives. If you use natural handle materials you have created a "utility" or "presentation" version of a similar Tactical "Brand Name" knife.

Some handle materials I don't like:

Giraffe Bone, especially the dyed variety.

Wild Woods "Brand Name"

Spalted Maple

I agree completely with Keith that :

Pakkawood, Dymondwood and Frostwood are right out.

Jigged bone made to look like stag.

Woods I really like:

#1 Desert Ironwood. Because of it's looks and stability

Golden Ring Gidgee. I had a piece made by one of Jasons fellow countrymen. Incredible wood!

Claro Walnut

Cocobolo. I prefer the lighter colors as this wood will darken with age.

All in all there certainly are some beautiful handle materials out there.

Now with all this behind us. Always utilize the number 1 rule...Buy what you like.

However, understand that because, with the exceptions of the synthetic materials, all natural materials will have their own character. They will also be subject to shrinking. Also, incects and animals may also enjoy your favorite handle materials.

As such, make sure you understand what your handle material is going to look like. As you may be in for a surprise. The time to decide on the handle material is before the knife is built.

I have gone so far to buy a lot of my own handle material. I found by doing so this allowed me to enjoy the process of the knife being built even more.

Gaben, thanks for starting this thread. And thanks to all who have contributed. I think this is an excellent thread for both makers and collectors.

04-13-2003, 02:30 PM
Thanks Mr. Robertson for your highly anticipated insight. It virtually mirrors the opinion of a well known ABS Mastersmith that I spoke with regarding this subject.

As a new maker, it is difficult to choose among the plethora of materials available while, at the same time, being concerned with what actually sells in the secondary market. This entire thread could be used as a guideline for anyone, but obviously open for interpretation.

Once more, Thanks to all who participated. I can say without a doubt that I have benefitted from the information given.


Jason Cutter
04-13-2003, 03:58 PM
Hmm... dense, stable woods are good, shrinky, unpredictable woods are out. That seems to be the maker's perspective. Buyer's perspective ? ... Looks good, will do .... Looks really good, must have ....

Roger, it wasn't your post I was referring to saying that tacticals were "out." There was suggestion some time back (? 6months ago) that that green black looks was on its way out, as was the Japanese modern "tactical" style. My point was as yours was. I don't think thats true. I make both those styles and enjoy it very much, and 90% of my custom orders have been for compact tactical utilities (hmmm... all have double guards) and the Japanese-wrapped styles. But thats just my own limited experience. I'm sure that Les' own range of handcrafted pieces and those on other sites will also attest to their ongoing popularity.

But Micarta and the other synthetics - its a matter of taste. Many makers specifically say in their sites - "prefer working with natural materials..." and usually they include stabilised woods, but nary a hint of Micarta anywhere.

Philosophically speaking, perhaps people feel that beauty comes from being able to work and enhance the character and beauty of a natural material (wood, horn, antler, MOP)as opposed to a sterile synthetic like Micarta or G-10. Many people also believe that an exotic beautiful material is more apropriate on a $1000 than some canvas Micarta. Ironically, many synthetics can cost as much or more than nice woods, but the fun begins when you do your own sourcing and get the prices you want. And equally an issue is the availability. All the more reason to go for a nice set of Gidgee if you can get some.

Keith has mentioned the laminated woods. Again, many laminated woods are no cheaper than anything else, and yet the vast majority end up looking quite (read- VERY) tacky and there is little option but to take it to a polish, at which time it looks like plastic ... Some of the single-colour Dymondwoods are nice but only just... It does seem a turn off.

Sorry far yet another long post but this is interesting and I've been taking notes. Thanks. Jason.

04-24-2003, 12:54 PM
I'm no expert by any means, but for just my two cents, I don't mind some of the dymondwood knives. It all depends on what knife it's on and how it's presented. Of course, if you've got 5 different colors, it's going to look gaudy no matter what you do with it. But I don't mind low-contrast two-color laminates at all. Just a matter of taste.

Personally, I don't like Mother-of-Pearl. It always looks cheap to me. I'd rather see Abalone than Mother-of-Pearl.

For some odd reason, I really like ebony. When brought to a shine it really seems to bring out the little "ghost lines."

As for the best around looking materials, I'd have to go with the Desert Ironwood and Mammoth/Mastodon Ivory.

Like I said though, that's just my .02.

By the way -- have any of you worked with Zebra Wood? Does it make good handles, or are the contrasting layers to far apart to make handles out of?

04-24-2003, 08:38 PM
i haven't used it (yet - there's some curing in my wood box), but depending on the cut, wide grain can produce interesting effects. here is a zebrawood handle from rich ramsey:
one of my favorites is tulipwood with red/yellow grain layers that usually run about 1/8" between repeats, like this one from ron l:

04-25-2003, 08:12 AM
That looks great! I've got a Grizzly Showroom close to my house and they've got some, I might try it out. Thanks for the pic.

04-30-2003, 10:09 AM
I have a question about sheep horn.

I recently bought a DEAN knife from Les. It has a very nice sheep horn handle, lots of character. It feels very good it the hand.
Is this stuff from regular farm sheep? Wild sheep? Big horn sheep???

How stable and wear resistant is this stuff? From the nature shows of Big horns butting heads, it looks like it must be fairly tuff stuff.


05-04-2003, 03:21 PM
Really good thread! Thanks to all for the information...

Keith Montgomery
05-05-2003, 09:52 AM
Sheep horn can come from a variety of sheep such as wild Bighorn or domestic Rambouillet (other breeds as well).

Sheep horn is very tough, but it does not like very humid or very dry atmospheric conditions. It will expand or crack from these conditions.