HOLDING FIRM
Knives Illustrated|January-February 2021
GETTING A GRIP ON KNIFE HANDLE BENEFITS, MATERIALS, AND FUNCTIONALITY
TIM STETZER

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.

METAL

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.

BONE/STAG/HORN

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.

WOOD

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM KNIVES ILLUSTRATEDView All

TIP TALK

UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN BLADE TIP SHAPES AND WHY IT MATTERS

7 mins read
Knives Illustrated
January-February 2021

HOLDING FIRM

GETTING A GRIP ON KNIFE HANDLE BENEFITS, MATERIALS, AND FUNCTIONALITY

9 mins read
Knives Illustrated
January-February 2021

EDGE UP

TIPS, TRICKS, AND TECHNIQUES TO SHARP WHEN ADVENTURING FAR FROM HOME

6 mins read
Knives Illustrated
January-February 2021

THE COMBAT KITCHEN

SLICE, DICE, CHOP, AND CUT: FOOD PREP WITH BLADES FROM POPULAR TACTICAL KNIFE COMPANIES

8 mins read
Knives Illustrated
March-April 2021

MORAKNIV Classics

THESE TIMELESS BUSHCRAFT KNIVES HAVE BEEN UPDATED AND ARE BETTER THAN EVER

8 mins read
Knives Illustrated
March-April 2021

ONE FOR THE ROAD

CHOOSING AN “EVERYWHERE KNIFE” CAN BE DIFFICULT DUE TO COMPLICATED KNIFE LAWS

9 mins read
Knives Illustrated
March-April 2021

TRAVELING LIGHT

SOMETIMES, INEXPENSIVE UTILITY BLADES YOU PICK UP AT YOUR DESTINATION CAN GET THE JOB DONE

6 mins read
Knives Illustrated
March-April 2021

MATCHED PAIR

JB KNIFE WORKS LAYMAN KNIFE AND GAMBIT HATCHET COMBO: ONE PICKS UP WHERE THE OTHER LEAVES OFF

9 mins read
Knives Illustrated
March-April 2021

WHEN BIGGER IS BETTER

THE CAS IBERIA CHOP HOUSE IS A MACHETE THAT PROVIDES BIG BLADE CUTTING POWER

8 mins read
Knives Illustrated
March-April 2021

KITCHEN KNIVES DON'T HAVE TO BE DULL

I have a confession to make. See if this sounds familiar. I take meticulous care of the knives I use for everyday carry, hunting, and general woods wandering. I wipe them down with an oily cloth after use and I never let them get too dull. Seldom do I have to restore a damaged edge. Most of the time I simply touch up the edges of my pocketknives with a few careful strokes across the rough bottom of a ceramic coffee cup. That’s usually all that’s needed. I don’t use my knives as screwdrivers or pry bars. As a matter of fact, I still have the very first knife I ever owned, an old Boy Scout knife that was handed down from my older brother. The blades have a deep patina that comes with using carbon steel over the years, but the knife is very usable still.

2 mins read
Knives Illustrated
March-April 2021
RELATED STORIES

Zooey

Deschanel has gotten her share of shade for not blending in. But that's exactly the quality you need to thrive, she says-and she credits it with powering her as a comedic actress, singer, and cofounder of multiple companies.

10+ mins read
Entrepreneur
June 2022

PENTAGON IS STILL HIDING UFO SECRETS!

Congress freaks as military brass buries alien threat

2 mins read
Globe
May 23, 2022

Apple Delivers Strong Quarter, but Warns of Trouble Ahead

Apple reported strong quarterly results despite supply shortages, but warned that its growth slowdown is likely to deepen.

3 mins read
AppleMagazine
May 06, 2022

Final Cut Pro

The Pro software that filmmakers loved

6 mins read
AppleMagazine
April 29, 2022

The Pen Is Mightier

Horrified by the war in Ukraine, artisan pen makers across the globe are using their skills to make a difference.

7 mins read
PEN WORLD
April 2022

THIS SCIENTIST CAN'T STOP THINKING ABOUT CYCLING

Is it rational to ride a bike? This question came to mind as Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard University, published his latest book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.

2 mins read
Bicycling
Issue 03, 2022

HOW TO BUILD a BACKYARD GREENHOUSE

Step-by-step plans for making a plant-filled oasis

10 mins read
Popular Mechanics
March - April 2022

Author Matt Gallagher and Lea Carpenter Talk Sex, War and Writing

From the field of combat to the field of kickball, Playboy fiction author Matt Gallagher discusses his deployment, literary influences and more

10 mins read
Playboy Africa
April 2022

89 Minutes With … Ocean Vuong

The balladeer for the sensitive queer has a metaphor for everything and a new book of poems.

6 mins read
New York magazine
April 11-24, 2022

INSIDER Q&A: EX-GOOGLE AI SKEPTIC TIMNIT GEBRU STARTS ANEW

When she co-led Google’s Ethical AI team, Timnit Gebru was a prominent insider voice questioning the tech industry’s approach to artificial intelligence.

6 mins read
AppleMagazine
April 01, 2022