When you’re planning to buy a knife, quality certainly becomes the first priority. Among the components, blade is definitely the most crucial part but the handle of the knife has to be the second priority. If the handle is poorly installed or defective, it decreases the overall utility and value of the knife. As different kinds of handle materials are available in the market, it can be an uphill task to choose the one best for you. Knife handles are mainly divided into two categories – natural and artificial. Let’s have a detailed look at these categories.
Types of Knife Handle Materials
Natural Handle Materials
Wood is the traditional and perhaps the most used component for making knife handles. The reasons are varied – it’s widely available, durable, inexpensive and incredibly beautiful. Wood can be patterned, carved and shaped, and can be stained with any color. However, the natural expansion and contraction varies based on the kind of wood. Very oily woods such as African Blackwood or Desert Ironwood are solid and stable. Other woods need to be stabilized to increase the sustainability of the knives. So which is the best wood-knife handle?
Bone is most commonly used for crafting the scales of pocketknives. Bone made handles are preferred for their ability to be carved and dyed. For making knife handles, bone is typically obtained from the following:
- Cattle (shin bones most of the time)
- Camel bone is also used sometimes nowadays
It enhances the visual appeal quotient of the knife handle. Horn is more susceptible to natural expansion and contraction and provides less durability compared to its other natural peers. However, none of these decrease its popularity when it comes to making knife handles because these are just characteristics of horn. Two types of horns that are mainly used in knife handles are:
- Buffalo horn
- Impala horn
It’s one of the mostly used materials found in premium quality traditional knives. Unlike horn, which is hair, antler is bone. Thus, antler makes the handle more stable and much stronger than even some of the most durable woods. The antler utilized for making knife handles can come from the following sources:
- Indian Sambar Stag (the actual quality stuff)
Artificial Handle Materials
This resin-saturated substrate provides a great look, excellent grip and is almost indestructible. Originally developed in as early as 1910 for insulating electrical parts and decorative applications, Micarta uses paper or cloth as its substrate. The main reasons that make this material widely used for crafting handles of hard-use knives are its complete stability and the absence of any probability of expansion and contraction.
It was one of the popular knife handle making components during the mid-twentieth century, and was mainly used for pocketknives. The main reasons that contributed to its popularity were:
- Vast range of patterns and colors
- Stunning beauty
However, its popularity degraded over time due to its tendency to easily get dented as well as its fade, crack, shrink or warp. In fact, a celluloid-handled knife is substantially worth less compared to handles made of any other material.
Though according to many knife-appraisal books, acrylic isn’t ideal for everyone, it provides the user with an acquired taste. This material brings in all the beauty of celluloid minus the drawbacks. Acrylic is a sturdy handle material for quality pocketknives.
Use of rubberized handles varies widely based on their characteristics. For instance, if the rubber is extremely soft, it’ll almost surely breakdown and mayn’t be comfortable for real-world use. However, you can still find rubberized knife handles in the market because of one reason – it keeps the cost down. Rubberized handles are used widely by some companies such as Fällkniven. Their handles are comparatively sturdy and provide a good grip.
Types of Wood Materials
In temperate climate and boreal latitudes, hardwood is derived mostly from deciduous trees. However, in sub-tropical and tropical climates, it’s derived mostly from evergreen trees. Some may confuse hardwood with heartwood but the latter is different and refers to the central wood present in any tree, which means it could be present in both softwood and hardwood.
Usually, hardwood comes from broad-leaved angiosperm trees. For transportation of water throughout the wood, these trees have vessel elements, which seem like pores under a microscope. Some tress from which you can get hardwood are oak, balsa, alder, beech, mahogany, walnut, hickory, teak and maple.
Typically, most hardwoods have a higher density than their softwood counterparts and are harder, durable and more expensive in nature than them. Yet, some exceptions are there. Consider the wood you get from yew trees, which is relatively hard despite being softwood, while that from balsa trees is softer than softwoods even when it’s hardwood.
Gymnosperm trees that usually have cones and needles (like evergreen conifers such as spruce and pine) are typical sources of softwood. Medullary rays (sheets with living cells that are perpendicular to the growth rings and run vertically through the tree) and tracheids (xylem’s water-conducing cell) of these tress help in the transportation of sap and water. You won’t see any visible pores (due to tracheids) when you put softwood under a microscope.
The growth rate of softwood is faster than hardwood and almost 80% of timber is derived from softwood. When compared to hardwood, softwood has a lower density and poor fire resistance in addition to being less expensive. Some particular species of softwood are found to be more resistant to woodworm infestation as some of these insects have a preference for damp hardwood.
Some tress from which you can get softwood are Douglas fir, cedar, pine, juniper, yew, spruce and redwood.
Stabilized wood refers to wood that you have injected with a chemical stabilizing solution. Usually, dry wood (with moisture content less than 10%, if possible) and the stabilizing solution is placed in a container, which is then placed under a vacuum, followed by application of high pressure to ensure the solution infiltrates the pieces of wood completely. Once the stabilizing solution penetrates the wood fully, it’s heat cured to transform the stabilizing solution into a solid. The wood is stabilized this way to increase its durability and make it less prone to cracking and warping as compared to natural wood, which is untreated.
Just like working with dense hardwood, you can use standard wood working tools to cut, sand and shape stabilized wood. Apart from having improved durability and a lower tendency to have problems in the future due to cracking or warping, stabilized wood is also preferred for getting a good finish easily since the stabilizing process seals some open pores along with removing up roughness or irregularities of the wood as it evens up the wood’s hardness.
Some examples of stabilized woods are Staminawood, Pakkawood and Dymondwood, which are usually made from birch that has been injected with polymer resin and subsequently compressed under high pressure. It’s important to note that the stabilizing process has different effects on different woods. Some specific woods such as ash, maple, and box elder will show a considerable weight gain due to stabilizing (which could be over two times their original weight). Some other varieties like walnut and redwood will show a lower weight gain, which would make them end up being not quite hard. Yet, due to the stabilizing process, they are still more durable and harder than natural untreated wood.
Wood as a best knife handle
Knives with wooden handles offer a warm feeling, have an unbeatable aesthetic appeal, are made from renewable resources and offer a good grip. Perhaps that’s why many (from professional chefs to novices to avid knife collectors) prefer knives with wooden handles. A wood handle of good quality isn’t just durable and eye-catching, but even helps you save money by being a comparatively economical material when it comes to heavy-duty knives.
Since knife handles use a wide variety of woods, you have to select the material wisely based on the tasks the knife will be used for and the type of environment it will be subjected to (high heat, humidity etc). For instance, when you plan to use your knife frequently in wet conditions, it would be better not to use knife handles made of fine or soft woods like black walnut. Instead, you should invest in a durable hardwood, or a stabilized wood that has been stabilized to have fortified strength and is pretty much waterproof.
In brief, let’s take a look at what makes wood work as the best knife handle:
- Additional grip: Being naturally textured enables the wooden handle to offer an extra and smooth grip, which can be quite handy in the kitchen. In fact, wooden handles are rounded gently and feel nice in the user’s hand.
- Extensive variety: There’s a wide variety of woods are available in the market and even blocks cut from the same piece can have unique characteristics. This makes wood a great choice for those looking to get a lot of variety in their knife handles since wood – as a material, offers a lot of options to take your pick from.
- Aesthetic appeal: Apart from bringing a lot of variety, wood has an unmatched visual appeal as well compared to its counterparts, which again works in its favor. The artistic and creative designs (which could be often exotic) provided by wooden handles can hardly be compared to any other material.
- Durable: It’s true that some varieties of wood aren’t meant to be put into water (as they will rot and get damaged over significant period of time), which some may take as a disadvantage. The truth, however, is that hardwood and stabilized wood work well even in wet conditions due to their high durability and robust strength. As long as you take proper care of wooden handles, you can expect high durability. They won’t melt and can withstand heat. You just have to do a little sanding periodically to remove the stains and marks.
- Environment-friendly: Being a natural, renewable, non-toxic and biodegradable resource, wood can help you do your part for the environment’s cause, which is yet another reason that makes it the best material for crafting knife handles.
Since the invention of knives, wood has been a preferred option for making the handles. Even today, many prefer wood over other choices when it comes to knife handles. From comfortable grips and elegant designs to durability, wooden knife handles provide multitude of advantages as compared to their peers. Some studies have even shown wood to have natural germ-killing characteristics, which makes knife handles made of wood less prone to being affected by growth of germs and bacteria. What’s more, you can make an environmentally responsible choice by using wooden-handled knives and thus reduce your carbon footprints.
Emily Noel is foodie who is consumed by wanderlust. In her free time, she travels a lot. While travelling she makes sure to try out all the local dishes. She is a professional chef and also acts as content Strategist for Premium Chef Knives.