Monthly Woodworking Meetup – Knife Handles
Monthly Woodworking Meetup – Knife Handles
This month the meetup topic was “Knife Handles”, meaning we were going to use our woodworking skills to make wooden handles for knife blanks that we purchased. The knife blanks are all the metal (blade, tang, mechanical attachments) needed to put together with our wooden “scales” (the two or more pieces used for the wooden handle) in order to have a finished, usable knife.
Knife blanks come in all styles and sizes as you can see from the images to the right in the slider. I choose to go with something a bit smaller for my first handle and since our nice Cutco Paring Knife went mysteriously missing (*cough* teenagers *cough*) my wife requested a new paring knife. I was happy to oblige and choose a nice 67 layer Damascus paring knife blade. These blanks can be bought on Amazon (click here) or from your local Woodcraft, where I got mine. I was pleasantly surprised that I could get a blank for about $25, and apparently the quality is quite good.
Our class this time was being run by both Robert Balfour (@revivalwoodcraft) and Kyle McKloskey (@black_dog_forge). Robert has done a few dozen knives himself, so that means he’s considered “experienced” by the comparison of the rest of us! Kyle on the other hand, now he’s an expert in his own right. Kyle, after all is a professional blacksmith with his own set of special skills, but he makes his blades himself. So when I asked Kyle if the blank I bought was real Damascus I was thrilled when he said that it was and it was actually a pretty decent quality blade too. The group was once again invited to Bobby Zander’s (@zanderwoodshop) shop at his beautiful home in northern San Antonio. Bobby, and his wife Karin (@zzhoney), have a great shop setup behind their home.
I’ve always wanted to make a knife, but alas another hobby such as blacksmithing is not really in the cards with a small 2-car shop like mine. Someday, maybe…
So starting off with a group lesson on making the handle for a knife was a great jumping off point. Learning the proper steps and process not only saves time, it saves money! Which let’s face it, our mistakes can be costly when talking about using epoxy!
- Knife Blade blank
- Handle Pins (Mosaic, Solid, or Rivets)
- Scales (Material for handle; wood, plastic, stabilized corn cob, mammoth tusk, stone etc.)
- Masking Tape
- Sand Paper (200-600)
- Wood Finish (Board Butter or other product)
- Color spacers (Small spacers that add a line of color between your wood and metal Knife handle.)
Step 1: Preparing Materials and Cutting Scales to Size
- To organize your materials, lay them out on a clean work surface with plenty of space. Unsheathe your blade and cover the sharp section of the blade with cardboard and Masking tape. This will protect you from cutting yourself and protect the blade from getting scratched.
- Prepare your Handle Scales and cut them down to a square with .5 – 1 inch of extra material around the blade handle. Using a Pencil trace the edge of the blade handle onto your Handle Scales.
- Next, use the Vertical Band saw to cut out the shape of your handle. Make sure to leave 1/8″ of extra room so you don’t cut away too much material. That will be done on the sanders.
Step 2: Drilling Pin Holes
- Knife handles come with predrilled holes. These represent where you can insert your pins and the size of pin you can use. Hopefully your blank came with the correct size pin or you bought pins to fit your blank. If not, you could try drill larger holes using the Metal Drill Press but remember, your metal has been hardened and this may not be easily done.
- Tape your two scales together and then tape your blade handle on top. Mark the spots on the scales where the pins will go. You should drill the two scales together so that you know the pin holes will line up. If you don’t do this step correctly, you encounter problems assembling your knife.
- Next, choose a drill bit just slightly larger than your selected pin. 1/8″ pin (.125) would use a slightly larger drill bit (.128-.132). Clamp down your Scale and using a drill press and drill a straight vertical pin hole. Drill hole nearest the blade first, drill hole at opposite end next, and then drill center hole (if you have one) last.
- If you are adding a color spacer to the blade you must drill the holes in this piece as well. You can tape the spacer to your scale wood and Drill them together on the drill press.
- If your knife came with rivets instead of pins you must countersink your hole to the desired depth for the head of the rivet. You can use a caliper to determine the size of the rivet head, which represents the size of the countersink hole you must drill.
- If your knife blank does not have a bolster (the spot where the handle ends and the metal begins) you will need to shape and sand the section of the scale that will touch the sharp edge of the blade. Once Epoxied, this section is difficult to work on the sanders without damaging the sharp edge. Also, remember to line up the two scales symmetrically if you want the front of your Handle to match on each side.
Step 3: Cutting Your Pins to Size
- Put your handle together and let the end of the pin stick out of the handle an 1/8″. Mark 1/8″ on the long side and cut out the desired number of pins with a hack saw to the right length. It is better to cut your pins longer than shorter. It would be a real bummer to realize you cut your fancy mosaic pin too short.
Step 4: Epoxy the Blade Handle Together
- Next, have two clamps handy and place a fresh piece of paper out on your workspace. Lay you parts out and make sure your pins go into the holes you drilled. Practice putting your Knife together, you will only have a short period of time to assemble and clamp your knife together once epoxied.
- Prepare your epoxy and using a scrap piece of wood and apply a light even coat of epoxy over the first handle scale. Insert your pins into this first handle scale so they are sticking vertically into the air. Now place your knife blank into place and carefully align your pins with the holes in the metal handle. Finally, epoxy the other half of the handle scale and connect it over the extruding pins to the other side of the metal handle.
- Once all the layers have been epoxied take the two clamps and clamp the knife handle together. Depending on the amount of epoxy squeeze-out you may want to wrap some paper around the handle to keep it from getting all over your clamps. Check the time and let sit for at least 15-20 minutes.
- After the epoxy has cured you can remove your knife from the clamps and move onto sanding the handle into shape.
Step 5: Sanding Your Blade Handle into Shape
- Now you are ready to create the shape of your knife handle. Plan out the flow of how you want your handle to be shaped. Based on the knife tang you may have a pretty good guide already.
- Start with the outside edges and sand the wood down until it was flush with the knife metal. Then form the rest of the handle by rotating the knife handle over the disc sander. You will need to sand down the metal pins that are sticking out to make sure they are nice and flush with the handle.
- Be sure at this stage to constantly stop sanding and feel your knife in your hand. Make sure it feels right and you have a good grip depending on the purpose of the knife. A chopper needs to have a larger grip than a fine paring knife. No matter the end use of the knife, an uncomfortable handle means the knife will never get used. Once you are happy with the shape you can finish up and move onto polishing your handle.
Step 6: Polishing
- You can now polish your handles using your wood polish of your choice. If during the sanding process you touched any part of the blade or the bolster, now is a good time to take some 400 and 600 grit sand paper and polish those spots to a nice shine.
- And now for the best part, adding a polish or oil to the wooden handle. I use the same process used for making cutting boards; mineral oil and beeswax. I have a special blend of Board Butter that I make for cutting boards that works prefect for knife handles too. Simply slather some of this on your handle and let it sit for about an hour to soak up the oil. Afterwards just wipe off the excess and buff the wax left on the wood to a nice polished shine.