Steve Shackleford Blog

Knife Handles: As Wood As It Gets

ThereIn the burl category, redwood (left) and black ash (right) are among the more popular woods. Lloyd Harner uses each for the handles of his razors, as well as the most popular of all woods, ironwood (center). The hollow-ground blades are 52100 carbon steel. (SharpByCoop.com photo)

There’s no time like the present to be a stickler for wood knife handles

Curiosity about the wood of choice among makers, users and collectors in terms of utility, user friendliness and good looks gives rise to the obvious question, “Which natural wood handle material is most popular, especially for custom knives?” American Bladesmith Society journeyman smith Peter Bromley and I were discussing the subject over coffee.

    “There are so many types of woods and so many variations within each type that the possibilities are nearly endless,” Bromley said. “You also have to find a piece of wood with a busy grain structure, so when you cut a handle-size piece, then the pattern carries over into the smaller portion.”

    Problem is, sometimes what looks good on a large piece of wood gets lost when you scale it down to handle size.

    “It’s why makers tend to like burl,” Bromley reasoned.  “It’s always busy no matter how small the handle is.”

    Shannon McFall of Knife & Gun Finishing Supplies, Chris Hartman of Masecraft Supply, and Chuck Bybee and his daughter Jessica Bybee Walker of Alpha Knife Supply each responded with two words: desert ironwood.

    “When it’s the highest quality, the most beautiful patterns are ironwood,” McFall said. “It’s still in relatively low supply, but we haven’t had a problem with replacement yet.” The shortage problems result from government regulations regarding the material. “It has become a lot harder to get the nicely figured desert ironwood,” as a result, Walker noted. “If we can’t get it, we switch to walnut. Turkish walnut is extremely dense with high contrast and performs similar to ironwood.” Bybee said he favors the look of highly figured curly koa. For high-end stuff, koa’s deep curls are rich in chatoyance, he opined. Chatoyance is the luster a material—in this case, wood—exhibits when you move it back and forth under a source of light, Bybee explained

    Hartman said ironwood is a favorite in terms of utility, looks and the best combination of both features. However, he questions whether there is a low supply of the material. “Have you ever been to a knife show that didn’t have tables full of ironwood?” he asked. With quality comes price and all those interviewed indicated ironwood is the most expensive of the woods. On the other hand, Walker said maple is probably the least expensive.

 

WHERE THE BURLS ARE

“Amboyna burl machines well and is a nice wood,” Walker began. She added redwood burl is always very popular—though not with production knife companies because it is more difficult to machine—along with box elder. Hartman agreed. “Amboyna burl has nice, tight patterns and it wears well, plus there seems to be a good, consistent selection available,” he said. “It looks good, feels good and sells well.” McFall cited the popularity of California buckeye, box elder, maple and amboyna burls, all of which are softer woods that must be stabilized to make them suitable for handle use.

    “Maple burl probably was the first wood stabilized successfully, it’s the most readily available and the cheapest, but we don’t sell a lot anymore and it’s not in the top five,” said Mike Ludeman of Wood Stabilizing Specialists International (WSSI). “Box elder burl is the most versatile wood and we double-dye it. Black ash burl and California buckeye burl are popular, and with buckeye each piece has to be graded individually because it can look nice, but have a huge void on the inside, so each piece has to be graded individually and priced accordingly.”

    McFall, whose Knife & Gun Finishing Supplies also provides a stabilization service, echoed Ludeman about the box elder and California burls. “They have the best patterns and finest colors,” she said. “Box elder takes a dye the best in single/double dyed, and you can get the effects of a lot of natural wood with more control over the colors.”

    Along with advances in the stabilization process comes more options. “Something normally bland with a figure can now be dyed to a natural look, rather than staining it as in the past,” McFall noted. “You have more control over the colors.”

 

“BETTER” OR “JUST NEW”?

Ludeman said stabilization methods are “highly regarded secrets” in a field that is growing.

    “Stabilized is not a word I like to use because it’s thrown around loosely anymore,” he noted. “I achieve 100 percent penetration of an acrylic impregnated wood.” Hartman embellished the point. “I have seen a lot of new ‘stabilizers’ advertised out there, which doesn’t make them ‘better,’ just new,” he offered. “As far as I know, the important part is proper selection and preparation of the wood, and fully understanding the entire stabilization process.” Bybee warned that amidst the growth in companies and individuals offering stabilization services, you should research the subject and exercise caution.

    Factory knives with stabilized wood handles are rare. “Generally, a factory uses stabilized wood, typically U.S. maple or box elder, for a special/limited edition” because of the cost factor, Ludeman said. “It’s not something they make tens of thousands of.” Hartman concurred. “Who can supply 500 pieces of high-quality stabilized woods on a consistent basis for two years?” he asked. “You can do limited-edition runs but it’s very hard to supply quality consistently over long periods of time in that quantity.” Bybee agreed, adding, “Factories have moved almost exclusively to man-made materials, with G-10 and Micarta® dominating now, because they can count on availability and consistency.” 

 

FUTURE WOODS

What woods will be popular in the future? “It varies because a lot of popular woods are harder to get so they don’t actually show up more,” Walker said. “Turkish walnut has a really rich color, nice dark browns with lighter streaks running through it, and I think it shows promise in gaining popularity.”

    “I would love to see somebody come up with something new made from bamboo,” Hartman stated. “This could be the perfect material, it’s sustainable, has a lot of good qualities, but just not enough character or pattern to become a hot-selling knife material.” He also identified the need for a  “passionate supplier” of exotic woods.

    “There are a lot of ‘suppliers’ of woods, myself included, but no ‘master wood supplier’ that does only exotic woods, stabilizes and does nothing else,” he mused, “a ‘wood crazy’ company that lives and breathes wood dust for knife folks.”

    The complexities involved in natural and stabilized woods make the possibilities, as Bromley noted, “nearly endless.” There is an attraction that cannot be denied. “Wood is naturally, beautifully created,” Hartman said, “and it’s a silly man who thinks he can improve on that kind of art.”—by Stephen Garger

 

Wood: It’s Not a Wash!

 

The No. 1 maintenance tip Jessica Bybee Walker offers is to not wash the knife in a dishwasher.

    “A lot of knifemakers use vulcanized fiber liners, which are very susceptible to moisture and can shrink and pull back or swell up in the dishwasher and crack,” she warned. Chuck Bybee recommended putting mineral oil on your hand and rolling the handle around in it. “I also put Renaissance Wax on all my ironwood knives as one of my yearly rituals,” he said.

    “Wood is a natural product so I don’t use a petroleum-based blend. I use a thin coat of olive oil on wood handles. Besides,” Peter Bromley smiled, “I like the smell.”

    Stabilized woods do not require the same amount of care as untreated woods, but that does not translate as “no” care. “Basically, stabilized wood is an enhanced wood—not the cure-all for swelling, shrinking, etc.,” Ludeman noted. “The real purpose stabilization serves is to expand the availability of woods that are otherwise too soft for knife handles.” In other words, stabilized or not, use common sense and do not leave your knife sitting on the dashboard in 90-degree heat.—by Stephen Garger

 

Woods: Most, Good and Least

 

MOST POPULAR: Desert Ironwood

MOST EXPENSIVE: Desert Ironwood

GOOD IRONWOOD SUBSTITUTE: Turkish walnut

MOST PLENTIFUL: Maple

LEAST EXPENSIVE: Maple

MOST POPULAR BURLS: Amboyna, redwood, box elder, California buckeye, maple and black ash

 

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