Knives are one of human’s earliest tools. The first flint knives and scrapers didn’t have handles, but people soon learned to lash wooden or bone ones in place to increase leverage, keep their hands away from the cutting edge, and to improve performance. We’ve come a long way since then, but the basic concept remains the same; a good handle improves the performance of your knife. But what makes the perfect handle? Is there even such a thing? Let’s take a look at the various handle materials used as well as their pros and cons under both normal and extreme use.
The most basic type of knife handle is no handle at all. Some knives are either forged or ground as one piece, so there’s really nothing like an added pommel, guard, or scales to break, making the construction process simpler and making the overall design very rugged. That bare steel can be slippery though, depending on the texture left on the metal, the shape of the handle, or the addition of any grooves or checking. The bare metal is also susceptible to extremes of heat and cold that can make using the tool uncomfortable to use without gloves. In addition to a one-piece knife, you also will sometimes see metal scales used, often aluminum or titanium. While scales like this still can suffer from being uncomfortable in extreme heat or cold, they often have checkering or texture added that improves the grip. Aluminum in particular can be anodized in a wide variety of colors, too, allowing for great design touches.
The other metal handle style you’ll sometimes see is a cast brass or aluminum handle. They suffer the same benefits and drawbacks that the other style metal handles do. They’re affected by extremes of heat and cold and can be slippery depending on the grip texture. They are generally durable though, and some castings can allow for intricate design features.
I’m lumping bone, antler, and horn together on this one, basically representing any natural material as harvested from animals. You could probably include ivory here, too, although it’s not especially common these days due to its price, rarity, and restrictions. Bone or horns are probably one of the earliest materials used for knife handles due to availability from game animals killed for food. Our ancestors were quite good at making use of all parts of the animal, so the bones, horns, and antlers were often turned into tools of their own, and later into handles or parts of handles for flint knives. These materials remained popular as humans transitioned to bronze and then steel, and you still see them used frequently on custom, and some production, knives today.
Bone can dry and crack, or absorb moisture and expand, so while it certainly can and has been used in its natural state, it’s best stabilized for use in handles today. Bone and ivory generally have a smooth texture; you can also checker or engrave them, adding both aesthetic qualities and texture for a better grip. Antler often has a rougher texture naturally, which is why you frequently see stag left in the rough when used for handles. An advantage of stag is that it’s made from shed antlers so it’s a renewable handle material that doesn’t harm the animal when you harvest it.
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