Backyard forging Part 4: Handling


Material selection for handles

As with all things relating to knife making there is a huge variety of options available to you. Which materials you are intending to handle your knife with is no exception.

When handling knives at home we are predominately thinking of utilising natural materials such as wood, bone and antler. Unless you have your own personal injection moulding set up in which case tactile rubber handles are within your capabilities.

Looking at the choices that are available across the natural spectrum there is a wide range that we can choose from with the choice ultimately boiling down to your own personal preferences. Although there are differing qualities to each material and different wood varieties that can be considered ultimately many people go for what they like the look of.

Available on the internet is an exciting range of materials from which to choose. All of these allow for a truly custom-made and personalised knife to be crafted that suits the user. In my case, when it came to choosing a handle for my knife, I chose to spend as little money as possible on this project and source what I could from the woods. Only the piece of antler was purchased for a small cost.

In the end, both tradition and aesthetics mainly influenced my choice. Having produced a rate tail tang knife inspired by those produced in Scandinavia I thought it would be nice to continue with that tradition for the handle. As a result I decided on a slightly more complex design and went for a composite handle of Antler, birch bark discs and Yew wood. The inclusion of the birch bark not only added to the overall look of the knife but it also added to part of our craft display at the Bushcraft show this year where we were focusing on the multiple uses of bark.

There are choices to be made regarding the colour of your birch bark, which depends on when you harvest the bark. Bark harvested in the summer will produce a much creamier yellow colour while winter harvested bark will have a much darker brown colouration.

Preparing the materials

Once you have decided on your chosen materials for the handle they are going to need preparing so that they can be secured to the tang. Throughout this blog I will focus on securing handles to rat tail tangs as this is the design of knife made during these blogs.


The preparation of materials for handle construction

With a composite handle being the aim for this knife several small disks of material need preparing. In some ways this is an advantage over one piece of material as it means that less accuracy is needed when attempting to drill the hole. Great precision is needed if you need to drill through a single piece of wood of the entire length of your handle. I’ve found that not owning a pillar drill makes this more of a challenge.

Make sure that all the holes are pre-drilled before you attempt any form of shaping to the handle as all excess material provides you with manoeuvring capabilities when profiling the handle later on. If you try to shape out the handle and then drill the holes, you can end up with the sections being out of line should the holes be slightly out of sync.

Once you have drilled out a pilot hole it will need extending with some small file or abrasives until you have enlarged it to the dimensions of the tang. I found this job slightly tricky but with chainsaw and tile cutters it is possible to open up the hole to the correct size. Again this is one advantage I found to composite handles as you have several small holes to increase to the correct size rather than one long continuous one which proved much more time consuming when I first attempted it.

fig3Extending the width of the pilot hole to the dimensions of the tang

Be careful not to increase the holes too much as you want them to remain a snug fit around the tang. If you are using antler, you can boil it in water to soften it when it is nearly there and lightly tap it on the tang. The antler will shrink as it dries, binding tightly on to the tang without the need for adhesives.
The first knife I made was completely handled with antler and I boiled it before tapping it on. This resulted in there being nothing but friction holding the handle to the tang.

For both the antler and the wood it was necessary for me to drill out the holes for the tang. The birch bark on the other hand only required a small craft knife for the job as you do not want to tear the bark.

fig4All components drilled and ready for securing to tang

Locating the handle

Now that you have all the holes pre-made it is time to assemble the handle. Do a dry run before applying adhesives otherwise you’ll end up with a very sticky mess should you decide that some of the pieces require more work.

Clamp the knife in to a work mate or bench vice with the tang facing up making sure the knife is securely clamped in place. This will allow for the handle components to be attached and lightly hammered into place should they need to be.

Once you have located all the pieces of the composite and are happy that they fit securely and snugly in place it will be time to remove them and then secure them in to their final resting place.

Securing the handle sections

Remembering the order in which your pieces are loaded on the tang, mix up a good batch of adhesive. I used good old Araldite but there are a range of suitable adhesives out there on the market.

Now is the time to implement what I referred to earlier about boiling the pieces of antler to make them pliable so that they can be tapped on for a secure fit. This only takes 10 minutes or so. If you are choosing to do this then boil the section that will sit first on your handle, closest to the blade, and gently tap it into position. It is important that you do gently tap the antler home because if you feel too much resistance then it probably requires more boiling or it may be the case that the hole needs opening up a little.  Allow this to dry off before starting to apply adhesives otherwise the moisture will affect how it sets.

fig5Using a small block of wood over the antler while hammering it into place.

Once you are happy that the first antler section has dried, start to compile to the rest of your composite handle, applying a layer of adhesive between each section. Make sure that you have a good amount of adhesive applied to each section but don’t apply it as if you were buttering toast. An even thin layer is all that is required.


fig7Composition being constructed with Adroit being applied to each layer

Continue this until you have the final piece of antler remaining and heat that again in boiling water to soften it. Once softened, place the antler over the end of the tang and lightly hammer it into place. You should now be left with at least 3-4mm protruding from the antler which will be riveted over in order to guarantee a secure fit of the handle. If there is more than this remaining out of the back of the handle then it can be simply sawn off with a hack saw to leave the required length.

Depending on how accurate you have been with drilling and enlarging the holes through your handle pieces or depending on the drill bits available to you, there might be a gap around the final piece of antler that is too large to simply rivet over the end of the tang.  If this is the case then use a small brass pommel end over the tip of the tang and rivet over the remaining protrusion.

fig8Brass pommel cap placed over the tip of protruding tang

This is a delicate operation and one that will test how you have tempered your knife in the forging process. If you have left the blade too hard then there is a risk that it could break as you hammer over the end of the tang. If this should happen then the key is not too get annoyed! Honestly I know that seems like a ridiculous thing to say but you have to treat these things as part of the learning process. Just allow it to broaden your vocabulary for 5 minutes.

fig9Tang being softened to blue before riveted over

In an attempt to prevent the knife from braking it is important to soften the end of the tang as much as possible without affecting the temper of the knife. I achieved this by using my Jetboil stove and placing the tip of the tang in to the flame. The crucial aspect here is that you watch the colour change very closely. You do not want the metal to change above anything but a blue colour. If it starts to rise above this you will affect the whole tang instead of just softening the tip.

This will only take a couple of minutes in the flames of a small blow torch.

Once you are happy that the tip has turned blue accurately, with a controlled blow, strike the protruding section of the tang. This will take a good few nerve raking blows and the tip might require re-heating the end half way through as before. Once you start though the tang will start to fold over into a mushroom shape, spreading out over the brass pommel cap. Once you have flattened out the tang completely over the pommel cap and there’s no room for the handle being forced down, the job’s complete.

fig10 Detail of brass pommel cap once tang riveted over

Allow at least 24 hours for the adhesive to dry completely before progressing to profiling the handle.

A labour of love (profiling the handle)

It is now time to start the laborious process of profiling the handle into shape so that it custom fits your hand.

To start with, use a knife to reduce any large bulky material from around the edges of the handle so that you’ll have less material to reduce with rasps and sandpaper.

Throughout this process have a knife that you really like the feel of the handle to hand so that you can fashion your custom built one similarly to it.

Start with a wood rasp and start to aggressively remove bulk material from the handle. Once you have profiled out the handle to the shape that you are happy with, it will then need sanding to a nice smooth finish. Work down through the different grits of sandpaper until you are satisfied with the smoothness of the handle, finishing off with a fine wet and dry paper. After this, apply a good layer of linseed oil to the handle and allow it to soak overnight. I repeated this for a couple nights to make sure that the oils had soaked into the materials thoroughly.

Finally mix up a small amount of adhesive and use it to fill in any gaps that are present at either end of the handle. This will stop any dirt getting stuck down the tang of the knife and resulting in a build-up of bacteria which is an important consideration when butchering game.

fig11The finished article!

Now you should have in front of you a knife with a completely finished handle and which is only lacking the all-important cutting edge and sheath for safety of carry.

These will form the final two instalments in this series of blogs.


Danny Hodgson




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