Making the Handle

The handle is pretty simple, relatively fast, and one of the more interesting parts in knifemaking. Remember that this series assumes your knife is a stick tang, and not a full tang, which will be covered sometime in the future. The processes are quite different.

First, like the guard, is fitting the tang into the block of wood, only then followed by shaping. Start by selecting a drill bit the same diameter as the thickest part of the tang. The tang could be wider than the drill bit, but unless it's more than twice the diameter of the drill bit, only drill one hole. Due do the fact that there's a guard or bolster, you don't need to be as perfectly fitting as in the guard making.

Make sure before you start drilling to mark out where it needs to be, where the drill bit will be going, and that you don't drill all the way through unless you need to (if the tang is long enough). Limit yourself here by making a sharpie mark on the drill bit itself, so you have the same length going in as the tang. Any mistakes you make here can cause you to have to throw away the wood and start again.

The actual drilling itself is made way easier if you have a drill press, but it's still possible with a handheld drill, which is what I did for quite a while. If using a hand drill, put the wood horizontally in the vise and go from there, constantly checking it at different points of view to make sure it's straight. If you drill askew, throw away and start again. Go slowly and carefully, especially if you intend to go all the way through; too much pressure and you've got a possibility of splitting or chipping at the end. Go to your limit and stop.

Now if the tang is tapered (and it should be), it won't go in all the way. I use some back and forth motions with the drill bit or a round file to widen up the hole. Youdon't need to go all the way here, just enough to fit the tang halfway in or so.

Then, burn it in. This is a creative technique for getting a perfect fit. Fire up the forge, get the end of the tang red hot, and push it into the cavity. The wood directly in the way is burned, but due to the lack of oxygen there's no fire started. Occasionally you'll get some flame near the end, but that's easily extinguished with beating with a fireproof cloth of some sort (like a work glove). Keep water and damp cloths nearby, of course. Be warned, there is a lot of smoke.

It may take several heatings to get all the way in, and you might need to do some drilling or filing towards the end. Be sure not to ruin the temper of the blade, and cool it if the heat starts to creep too much into it (you can tell by the colors).
 

Cutting out the handle

Once the tang is snugly fit in the wood (there can be a bit of wiggle; you'll secure it later with epoxy), it's time to cut out the handle. Assemble the pieces, and if there needs to be any cutting or grinding to make the end of the wood level and flush against the guard, do so now. Then, cut out your design, and trace the handle shape over the wood. Do not cross this line.

If there's a lot of material to remove (more than a fourth of an inch), use a saw. A bandsaw would be ideal here, but if you don't have one (I don't either) that's ok. Hand saws like a hacksaw work beautifully, just be mindful of any curves. Though it's risky, due to a lot of jumping around if the wood is not safely secured, a lot of the time I even use a jigsaw.


Once you've cut out as close to your marks as youcan safely get, switch to a coarse rasp. I have a very coarse half-round rasp that I've had as long as I can remember, and though it's getting pretty dull now, I still use it for 80% of my handle shaping. Half round is ideal, especially for getting in any curves. Files and rasps are some of the most underrated and useful tools ever.

Put the wood in a vise sideways and work from there. It's always helpful to be raised above the work here, so you have more control and view over it. File all the way to the lines, it should be a perfect two-dimensional match to your design. Once assembled, the knife is finally starting to look like it will when finished.

At this point there is a choice you can make regarding the sequence of the steps. If the bolster (or guard) is to be flush with the wood, now is the time to permanently assemble the blade, guard, and handle, and only once they are firmly cemented together with epoxy, do the shaping. The other option, is if the bolster or guard are not supposed to be flush with the handle. In this case, shape the wood first, then permanently assemble.

I'll list the steps in the first case, assembling first, then shaping. I find that if the two are flush it looks more professional and it's easier to clean up dribbling epoxy.

Final Assembly

Beforehand, make sure everything is straight when put together. There should be no wiggling of the guard, and there should be no gap between it and the blade, and between the guard and the handle.

Epoxy is sold at hardware stores quite cheaply, under $15. Be sure to get the type that binds both wood and metal. There are different epoxies that cure at different rates, but I tend to get the fastest: 5 minute epoxy gives plenty of time to mix, apply, and put together.

Mix the epoxy and dab it into tang cavity. Put a good amount but don't fill it, you only need about enough to coat the sides. Slide the tang (with the guard on) into the handle, dabbing back and forth so as to coat the tang as well. Put a very small amount on the bottom of the guard as well, so you have a bond between it and the wood.



Press together firmly, and make sure it's all straight. You don't want anything to be loose at this point, so keep a good amount of pressure on the pieces. This is where the short working time comes in handy. If you're sure it won't expand without pressure, you can put it (belly up keeps it straight) on the workbench to cure.

Once cured, youcan begin working on shaping the handle.


Shaping the Handle

Wrap the blade in masking tape to protect it from dings and scratches, then clamp it on its side onto your workbench, with the handle sticking out over the edge. I like to work the guard and the wood near that area first, so it's all flush. It's a bit of slow work, especially because you'll need a file to work the metal guard and not a rasp, but you'll get there. Make sure that it's symmetrical on both sides.
 



Once again, the coarse rasp will do 80% of the work. Your ideal here is to shape the handle so it's most comfortable. The basics are thick at the pommel, so it's harder to slip out of the user's hand, a little thinner where the pinkie would rest, then widening for a bump, to accommodate the center of the palm and the longer two middle fingers. After this bump it should be a smooth taper all the way to the guard. If it's a bolster, it should widen out just slightly, to keep the hand from slipping onto the blade. If you were looking at the back of the knife, this shape would resemble a coke bottle.

 

 

From there, I round off the back of the handle, and start doing the same for the belly. It's better off slightly tapering in my opinion, so as to look like an inverted teardrop shape if viewed from the pommel direction. There should be no sharp corners save at the very pommel itself, which would depend on whether your design calls for it or not. Once you think you're done, feel it in your hand and look at it in different points of view. Note what could be made better or more comfortable while keeping aesthetic, then change it if need be.

With the handle shaped, it's time to finish and refine it. I've gone over details of hand finishing with sandpaper in a previous article, and the principles remain for wood finishing too (It's just slightly faster). From time to time while working, oil it to bring out the color. There are several good oils for finishing, but the choice of which one doesn't really matter at this point. If you can finish it fine enough to almost polished, you may not even need an oil. Remember, don't miss any areas. It's really frustrating to find rasp marks after you thought you finished.



Not something you want to notice last minute

Once the handle is hand finished, it's time for the last step, sharpening.