Jay Fisher - World Class Knifemaker
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There are many components that bring a fine custom or handmade knife to its pinnacle of style, use, and completion. Though the first view is of the blade and handle, the bolsters, guard, pommel, and fittings are just as important to the construction and fulfillment of the piece. Understanding how all these components work together, what they are constructed of, how they are finished, mounted, displayed, oriented, and completed is essential to the knife maker. These features and components are just as important to the knife client, owner, or user, and, along with the blade, set the artistic tone or tactical value of the knife.
On this page, you will find the basic introduction to the handle and fittings. Please take a few moments to familiarize yourself with the knife handle and fittings in detail before moving to the more detailed specifics and examples in the pages that follow:
An old knifemaker once told me: "The blade makes it a knife, but the handle sells it." A rather quaint way of looking at knives, I think, but somewhat accurate. The handle is the link to the hand, the tactile, textured lock to the human form that assures a military combat or tactical knife will function with the user. It's also the aesthetic, beautiful fit to a collector's hand that demonstrates the maker's skill and care and accentuates the blade style and shape, anchoring the artistic concept of the knife. The handle is often the canvas that sets the artistic knife maker's work apart from others; it may well be the distinction that sets the value, purpose, and function of the knife. For modern knife makers, we have access to more elaborate and wide-ranging handle materials than ever before in history. The handle may truly customize a knife, it may make each knife creation unique. Its form, shape, texture, color, materials, arrangement, and embellishment all work together to complete the hand knife and allow the knife to complete the owner's needs. The handle, with associated fittings, is not simply something to grab.
Sure, why not? The earliest knives were simply blades of splintered rock, and it probably didn't take long for early man to cut himself trying to hold on to a sharp piece of flint, obsidian, or chert. He realized along the way that some real leverage might be possible if he could just figure out a way to make that chunk of rock sharp on one end, and dull on the other so he could hold it. The other problems were that the rock was heavy, and the material was a limited commodity. He probably figured out quickly that the blade was entirely different than the handle. One end needed to cut, the other couldn't. Sticks were easy to grab, and so were bones and pieces of antler, and they seemed to hold up pretty well, so all he needed to do was marry one to the other in permanent fashion. So a little of that pine sap and some tiny strings from a plant or tough gut strings of a dead animal, and voila! It wasn't pretty, but that could come later.
The first metal blades were a wondrous invention. Smiths were so fascinated with the metal that they decided metal handles were the answer. Metal handles worked pretty well, except the metal was heavy, and it was cold to hold on to in the winter, and the metal itself a precious commodity, better suited to the blade only. So, back to the sticks, horn, bone, ivory, and leather. These were once-living things that were warm to the touch, softer than the steel, comfortable to hold onto. But they dried up, shrank and cracked, absorbed greasy hand stain, blood, and filth, then got slippery. Unfortunately, there were no reasonable alternatives available, so a practice of re-handling blades was necessary. The finest blades were adorned with rock handles, gemstones that were carved and often inlaid with precious metals and other gem. They survive to this day.
Modern man still makes metal blades. He is still concerned with the limitations of early man's knife handles. The new materials he has available, and the new adhesives, sealants, and chemical treatments make a huge variety of knife handles feasible and practical. There are plastics now, and rubbers, epoxies, and composites. There are new methods of attachment, new hardware, dyes, shaping tools, and pressure-treating and finishing processes. Perhaps the most important inventions and refinements of the last 50 years are: adhesives, abrasives, and the computer. The modern professional knifemaker uses them all.
There are hundreds of books on knives, swords, and edged weapons history, and I encourage you to explore this fascinating field. By the way, the combative side of the field is called hoplology. We can focus on the particulars of what early man has learned, and reveal how he now copes with the same problems of the blade-handle issues.
It sounds like a simple thing. Add some lines and length to a drawing on paper, and you have a handle. Additionally, you must consider the leverage ultimately applied to a blade, the grip geometry, the shape of the human hand, the stock size and cost, and the angle of the handle to the blade. And there are many other points, most of them discussed on this page.
The knife's intended use determines to a great degree the shape and size of the handle. If a knife is to be used in delicate, highly controlled cutting, then the handle is usually much larger than the blade. This allows a great degree of control of the knife; for example, look at a surgeon's scalpel. It has a long, narrow handle and a very small blade. Conversely, if a knife is to be used as a heavy tool, with aggressive cutting and light chopping, it has a large blade and a smaller handle to keep the weight in the blade. The knifemaker walks a fine line between balance, overall weight, length, width, and gripping geometry. The knife handle must protect the user, offer a secure grip, increase the leverage applied to the blade, increase and adjust the handle length, bolster or strengthen the whole knife, rigidly attach the handle components (scales, pieces, inlays, etc.), be comfortable to hold, resist exposures, compounds, and fluids that will degrade it, offer longevity to match the blade, be cost effective, weight balanced, and above all, beautiful! That's a lot to ask, and the experience of the knifemaker plays a key role here.
Sometimes patterning out the profile in acrylic or aluminum is the only way to find out how a knife will feel in the hand, and how the blade will project in use. I think a lot of factory knives are designed by people who don't use their hands to make a living, and that is where the problem starts. They might design from a computer program, or perhaps they might use models that are closer to pens and pencils, as those instruments are more familiar in their daily use. Also, many designs come from foreign countries where the people are physically much smaller-framed and have more modest attitudes. I think this attributes to style overall. Another major contributing factor is that this saves the manufacturer substantial money on materials and supplies to machine them. You may see very large, voluminous handles in cheap, light, hardwoods or plastics. Often, the decision of how to make a handle rests largely in the manufacturing process and cost factors, and less in the handle size, shape, or usefulness.
There is also a large difference in human hands. Some people have small hands, some larger. Only a custom maker can size the fit of the hand to the knife client. I've included a special page here to size the hand width to the knife for custom orders.
How to know if a knife handle can be custom made to fit your hand? Take a good look at the maker or company that is handling the knife. Do they have several hundred patterns available to fit your needs? Do they have dozens or even hundreds of different materials available in hardwoods, horn, bone, and ivory, manmade materials or gemstone? Will they custom design a knife suited just to you?
Usually, this means a clear object barrier between the sharp blade and the hand. A fully guarded knife does this best, absolutely defining and preventing the hand from going forward. It's drawbacks: it is large, sometimes heavy, and best suited to large knives and swords. Guards sometimes offer huge areas to embellish, which may compliment an investment grade collector's knife. A smaller version of the guard becomes a quillon, the part that stops the finger(s) from sliding forward. The quillons can be incorporated into a finger groove, they can be on the rear bolster, locking the hand to the handle, and they can even be incorporated into a sub-hilt, mid-bolster, or central quillon, which helps lock the hand into the handle.
An issue with large guards, quillons, sub-hilts and physical barriers within the handle arrangement is that all hands are different, and there is no universal shape or design that will always be comfortable to all hands. Mid-handle divisions may also restrict the knife owner from holding the handle in a reverse or non-traditional grip style. More pieces within the handle add more weight, more mechanical complexity, and more cost.
How much complexity is too much? How about a folding guard? I saw a humorous attempt on a public posting at making a rather elaborate Bowie/Sword fit into a machete-sized sheath. The maker thought it would be a good idea to have the guard fold backward into the hand of the person holding the big knife. This would allow the piece to fit into the large sheath. Problem here? Well, if a knife is a real knife, a guard would never fold, as that would render it pretty much useless. Also, the injury that could happen to the hand gripping the handle is a sobering reminder that the purpose of the guard is to protect, not collapse and fold over onto the hand! What was surprising was how many other knifemakers thought this was a great idea! It goes to show how few knifemakers actually make working knives in modern times. If the piece was just for display, why not make the blade fold too, in about five pieces, then you could stuff it in a pants pocket and do away with the whole sheath...
A guard or quillon of some fashion is almost always recommended on a medium to large knife. The movement, physical forces, and weight of the knife require that some form of protection is given to stop the hand from sliding forward onto the blade. Though you may see an omission of quillons, finger grooves, or guards on a very few of my knives, these are very light and small designs not intended for heavy use. Once a knife design is of substantial size (larger than a typical folding knife), I believe some form of guarding is necessary. I do have a few smaller patterns that omit the protection.
I question any medium-sized knife style that, as tradition, omits a quillon, guard, finger groove, or any device that stops your hand from sliding right onto the cutting edge. (this is the traditional puukko, puuko, or puuka in Finnish) What were those Finns thinking? When I see one of these knives, I wince at the thought of a forefinger sliding forward onto a razor sharp blade. My Finnish knife enthusiasts assure me that this type of knife is only used as a tool, and that the protection is not necessary, and some have claimed they know of no accidents involving this type of handle. If, however, you look up the term "Tommi Puukko" you'll discover that the guy who studied at Fiskars designed a puukko for fighting, and it looks like every other puukko blade and handle arrangement, slick and dangerously unguarded. So, although the knife is considered a tool, some are considered weapons. Perhaps this is an artifact of the requirement that in many of the Nordic countries, knives as weapons are outlawed. If you study deeper, you'll find that some of the newer puukko designs are incorporating a finger groove and bit of a quillon to offer a bit of hand protection.
Grip security is a complex subject. It's partly based on friction, which (believe it or not) is a mysterious facet of physics that is only now being seriously studied on the molecular level. Friction alone is not the determining factor of the knife handle. If it were, the handle would be covered with rough sandpaper, insuring your grip. The truth is, there is a careful balance of friction, comfort, and intended use of the knife that must be met, balanced with materials and exposure.
The handle shape has more to do with a secure grip than friction, because there is a large variety of exposures that the knife handle and hand may encounter. Sweat, grease, water, oils, salt spray, humidity, dirt and debris, and even gloves all effect the hand to handle bond. Since so many of these are out of the control of the knife maker, the handle shape takes a lead in how the knife feels and works in the hand.
The handle needs to feel good going into and out of the hand as well. A well-shaped handle also helps the hand orient the cutting edge in the dark or without looking at the knife. The human hand is amazing, it can adapt to a variety of shapes, but not all of them are comfortable to maintain, rigid yet movable, strong, yet with a light touch. Some shapes are more suited to a tactical grip, locking the hand to the knife so the user can apply great force, some grips need to be light and delicate, such as a skinning knife or caping knife where the knife is used more like a surgeon's scalpel. It is a very touchy-feely thing!
You may have noticed a good deal of finger rings on my professional, combat, and tactical knives, as well as collector's, user's, and specialty knives. The reason for a finger ring is simple: it's security. When a finger is laced through the ring, it increases the security between the knife and hand many times. This can be off-putting to some, who may have heard of the many dangers of metal rings of all kinds. I, too, have heard these horror stories: how a man playing basketball left his ring finger hanging on the basket after being ripped from his hand when his wedding ring caught the metal frame, how a parachutist left his ring finger hanging in the plane after the jump. I'm sure there are many more, and you probably have your own versions. I've personally never met anyone who lost a finger to a ring, but I can imagine that it's a concern. There is a huge difference between a wedding band that tightly grips a finger and does not easily come off and a finger ring on a knife. A knife finger ring is typically one inch in diameter on the inside, which allows an easy insertion and removal, but is still very secure.
The finger rings I use are designed for the index finger, so you can tell by looking at the knife if it is typically held in a traditional or a reverse grip. If a knife is held in a traditional grip, the finger ring is at the blade-handle junction, if it is held in a tactical reverse grip, the ring is at the butt of the handle.
You don't often see well-made finger rings on knives. I believe it is because of the greater expense in the width and thickness of the steel required, and the additional cost of machining and finishing the interior and exterior of the ring. The ring can not simply be a drilled hole through a section of tang. Its placement is critical, and is usually not along the center of the axis of the handle. So, wider stock must be used to accommodate the ring design and construction and accommodation for additional steel geometry to support force transfer between the ring and the tang. The ring must have thin enough walls to allow a finger and parts of the hand to wrap around it, yet be thick enough to be strong. This can be a problem on a ring at the handle butt, because the tang must also be tapered for strength-weight control. So a thick piece of steel stock, at least .250" or greater must be used. An additional concern and expense is finishing. The ring must not merely be beveled, it should be rounded, smoothed and often polished on the inside and outside, so that the hand is not injured or abraded by sharp or rough corners. It takes a lot of time and effort to get this right, and that is why you don't often see well-made finger rings on knives.
The use of a finger ring is a personal preference. If the knife blade is caught in a piece of machinery while a finger is laced through, it could lead to a serious accident. But what is your knife doing near a piece of machinery anyway? Many clients are convinced that the additional security is worth it, and do not want the knife to leave the hand. Others do not prefer this design. Either way, it is the knife client's responsibility and choice, and I make the knife according to their specific needs and requests.
Since finger rings are more common on tactical and combat knives, please take a look at those by entering my Military and Tactial Knife Portal page.
From the trench knife to sci-fi flicks, we've all seen knuckle guards and D-rings designed to protect the hand by fully sweeping around the exposed fingers, or to double as a set of brass knuckles for defense. While this may be a viable application, there are some points to consider when designing, incorporating, or ordering this type of handle fitting arrangement for a knife.
Please consider carefully this option and style of hand guard and handle for any knife. I'm not setting out to discourage your selection of this type of handle, only to illustrate some points and limitations that you may not have considered.
To increase leverage to the cutting edge, the handle must accommodate bearing down. That force is usually applied through the spine of the knife, the thickest metal that supports the back of the blade and extends into the handle. Often, the thumb is the mechanism that applies that force, with the palm supporting the movement. Contrary to popular beliefs, a large knife cannot apply more cutting force, unless you swing it through the air and take advantage of its mass to apply force to the cutting edge (it then becomes chopping force, completely separate from controlled cutting). It's a small knife, with a large handle that can apply the greatest controlled cutting leverage. This is why wood carving tools and knives have huge handles and tiny blades. That relationship also lends itself to great control of that small force area. Just look at the design of a surgeon's scalpel. Large, long handle, tiny, thin blade. Most surgeons are intimately aware of this relationship, and balance in general, consequently; many of my fine clients are docs.
The handle increases the length of the tool overall. As a blade gets longer, the lever-applied force to the handle-blade junction increases, particularly when great stresses, such as chopping and sawing, are applied to the blade. So the handle design must be thickest just behind the ricasso, the generally flat area behind the grind, and in front of the front bolster or guard. The bolster also must reinforce this area, and that is it's main function: to bolster.
Other than a skeletonized handle, the lightest weight handles are a small group of hardwoods and some stabilized woods. Woods like maple (rock, fiddleback, bird’s eye, or curly) are very hard and durable and very light weight. Some stabilized burls (like redwood or box elder) are very nice, beautiful, serviceable handles. Plastics like micarta and ironwoods and rosewoods are usually heavier. The lightest is, of course, a skeletonized handle (where there is no handle material, only a milled tang), but not the most comfortable for heavy field use. I try my best to balance the handle weight with the blade length, style, and use. A lightweight handle isn't always the best bet, as the knife can be more substantially balanced and "settled" into the hand if it has a heavier handle.
Why so few bolsters on knives? This is a great question, and one that should pop up a lot more often than it does. First, understand that bolsters are used on full tang knives and sometimes on folding knives, so this topic does not include hidden tang, rabbeted tang, or pin tang knives, and mainly involves full tang knives. The reason to make a knife full tang is (or should be) strength. Full tang knives are unquestionably stronger than any other type of blade-to-handle arrangement, so strength is already in the maker's conception and conversation. Yet, few makers today use bolsters on their knives.
There are some serious reasons for this and doubly serious reasons that it should be carefully considered by the modern knife client. A knife is simply less without bolsters. Less strong, less durable, less robust, less overall. Like most handmade and challenging craftsmen's pursuits, the reason to not use bolsters are many, and they are only of benefit to the maker, and to the detriment of the knife, and the detriment of the ultimate knife owner and user in particular. By reading these points, it will be clear, from this professional maker's perspective, as to why bolsters are not often seen and the strangely damaging contemporary practice of omitting these critical features:
You may see the same, tired arguments against bolsters, posted repeatedly, on forums, discussion boards, and in conversation. What are the specific points and how do they fit into the conversation?
Purpose? The bolster does exactly that; it bolsters or strengthens the critical areas of the knife, mainly the blade/handle junction and the butt of the handle. There are many different arrangements, but strength is what the bolster is about. It also aids in supporting the mounting of the handle material (I dovetail nearly all my bolsters, locking in the handle scales for rigidity). The bolster also offers a fine area for embellishment (engraving, etching or inlay of materials and gemstones). The bolster reduces lateral flexion by offering more area for bedding and adhesion of dissimilar handle materials. The bolster also aids in gripping the handle, and sometimes offers wider area than the blade for the thumb to rest and a quillon to prevent the hand from sliding forward onto the blade. The bolster can offer an area to exert pressure onto the knife, and strengthen the butt for easy removal from the sheath. The bolster may also act as a pressure point, a skull crusher, an impact area, or a tactical persuader. The bolster can strengthen the area of the lanyard attachment point, reduce stresses on the handle, and offer a corrosion-resistant surface for the hand to grip. It may strengthen mechanical areas and devices, such as in a folding knife or tongue and groove mechanism. It can also aid in retaining, bedding, and protecting handle materials, particularly end grains on woods.
Attachment? The bolster attachment is important, for in order to work, it must be bonded to the blade in a complimentary and permanent fashion. Some knifemakers solder bolsters. This is a weak union, as soldering only adheres the surfaces of the metal to each other. One of the most important things I've learned over the years is that order for dissimilar materials to be bonded, they must first be mechanically secure, and second to that is adhesion by glues, solder, brazing, and finally welding. It's all about the mechanics. Incidentally, I've never had a failure of any fitting on any knife, in over 3000 knives made and sold and in use for over 30 years.
Integral bolsters is a name that makers have assigned for a knife that does not have attached bolsters or guard; the fittings are instead milled along with the blade out of one solid piece of stock. On first glance, this seems like a good idea, but it is limited in these critical ways:
So why is this touted as some great advantage and why is it done? Because it's easier than actually making independent bolsters, matching them, and attaching them permanently to the knife! It's because, in knifemaking, the most common culprit of misdirection is that the machine that creates the knife is limited in operation and use. Yes, I said machine because if a knife has integral bolsters and guards, it is created by machining operations, namely Computer Numerically Controlled milling machine operation, what is typically used to create this type of knife. Most of these knives are never "handmade," no matter what the maker may tell you. He is not standing at the grinder holding the knife in his hand slowly working through the overburden of thick stock that needs to be removed to create the integral knife, he is clamping the blade stock in a CNC mill, and letting the computer carve away the material that is not the finished knife, under a splash hood with automated control. If he's old school, he may use a Bridgeport Toolroom knee mill to do this.
This is faster and easier than making a knife by hand. There, I said it. Yep, it's a decision of lack of quality, in effort to save money and time for the maker, and is not of any advantage to the client. Just as in many areas of this trade, a manufacturing decision is somehow touted as being advantageous to the knife owner. This sad practice happens frequently in this trade, and I'm determined to uncover this type of misdirection, and misconception, no matter how long it takes. You are taking your precious time to read this; you deserve to know the truths that most other makers (and all manufacturers) won't tell you.
For the reasons listed in the previous topic, it is often and mostly beneficial that the bolster or guard stock be made from a different material than the blade. Here are some of the bolster and guard materials I use, and the reason they're used.
Brass: Brass is an old standard for knife bolsters and guards, and is an alloy of copper and zinc. Some guys aren't even interested in a fitting that isn't brass. Brass resists decaying corrosion that would "rust" it away, and brass develops a passive patina that inhibits further corrosion. It polishes easily, it has an initial warm, inviting color, and it engraves easily. It solders easily, and brazes well, both advantageous on milled-through guards. It's good for knives made for people who have nickel allergies.
Disadvantages: Brass tarnishes easily, is relatively soft and scratches easily. It is not as strong as other materials, and has a distinctive odor. Some of these limitations can be controlled by using naval brass, a more corrosion-resistant and tougher brass. Knives with brass bolsters simply require more maintenance, polishing, and waxing. Brass can also stain and darken leather sheaths, textiles, and some clothes, particularly in wet environments.
Nickel Silver: Also called German Silver, this material is a type of white brass. Like brass, its base is copper, with zinc, and the addition of usually 18% nickel (it has no silver in it; the name refers to its color). It has a pleasant, warm silvery color with a hint of yellow, is more resistant to scratches than brass, and is corrosion resistant to atmospheric water and organic compounds. It is easily soldered for work on guards. It's relatively strong. It engraves well.
Disadvantages: It is not as hard as ferrous metals (steel and stainless steel), and has a definite yellowish tint compared with the bright, silvery blue of a stainless steel knife blade. People with nickel allergies should avoid it.
Low Carbon Steel: Also called plain steel, low carbon steel, or mild steel, this is non-tool steel, or soft steel. It is used mainly for bolsters and guards that will be engraved, and is the traditional material for historic engravings with a deep history in firearms engraving use. It engraves deep, clean, and easily. Brass and nickel silver (being soft) are not as capable of retaining high detail in deep relief because they wear away, scuff and scratch easily. Deep relief is the engraving where the background is relieved and blackened. Low carbon steel is tougher and harder than brass or nickel silver, so resists scratches more. Good for people who have nickel allergies.
Disadvantages: Plain steels will easily and readily rust if not cared for and corrode quickly, particularly when in direct contact with the hands, so a coating of microcrystalline wax or light oil and regular maintenance is necessary to prevent this. Plain low carbon steels are high maintenance bolster materials, even more so than brass! If pits are allowed to form, they may be impossible to remove without regrinding and refinishing. I rarely use this material for bolsters any more, as there are better choices.
Martensitic Stainless Tool Steels: The same stainless steels that are used on the blade can be used on a separately attached bolster or guard. For example, a 440C blade can have 440C pins and bolsters. The stainless is harder, tougher, and more corrosion resistant than any of the previous listed materials. It polishes well, and the color matches the blade. It is very resistant to scratches.
Disadvantages: The stainless tool steels are very hard to engrave, and most engravers won't even touch them. They do not reach their full stain resistance until they are hardened and tempered. So corrosion resistance, while good, is not as high as the blade, if the blade is made of the same stainless tool steel because the bolsters must be mounted after heat treating. Though I've used these in the past, I do not use or recommend this bolster material; there are currently better choices.
Austenitic Stainless Steels: In this group of steels, I use 304 stainless steel, and I consider this the best bolster, guard and fitting material in the stainless alloy steels. This is not a martensitic tool steel, and has little carbon but does have as much as 20% chromium and 11% nickel. It is hard and very, very tough. The color of the steel matches the hardened stainless blade steels beautifully. It is completely impervious to any substance that might corrode it, except very strong exotic acid blends and electrical currents. This material stays the way it was finished for decades and decades; nothing touches it. It very resistant to scratches. How tough is it? 304 is the same as 18-8 stainless steel that is used on stainless bolts, screws, and fasteners. How corrosion resistant is it? This is the same stainless that is used in the finest stainless steel cookware. I believe it is the premiere bolster, guard, and fitting material to use on the highest value, toughest, most durable knife handles, period. The reason you don't see it more often is because most makers can't work with it: it's hard, extremely tough, and difficult to machine. So they opt for the softer, cheaper, and easier to work stainless steels (like 416 and 410).
Disadvantages: 304 stainless steel does not machine easily (my problem, not yours). It does not engrave easily, and most engravers will never even attempt to engrave this tough, hard material. But I do, and my clients love what I get. It also costs more, mainly for the effort and machining.
Important note: In my opinion, it is absolutely the finest bolster material available.
Free Machining Martensitic Stainless Steels: Here we're talking about 416 and 410 stainless steels. They are good, hard, tough steels, polish well, and are used by a lot of knife makers. They have some of the characteristics listed in the "Martensitic Stainless Steels" paragraph above, and have some distinct differences. The most important is machinability. These steels are not as tough and wear resistant as 304, which is difficult to machine. These steels have much lower chromium than either 440C or 304, which means a markedly lower corrosion resistance, lower than the blade if the knife is made of most of the martensitic tool steels used for knife blades. So, they can corrode easier. The reason most makers use these steels is because they are easy to machine, not because of any other reason. So the choice to use them is of convenience to the maker, not the knife owner.
More Disadvantages: I never use them because the alloy content creates a slight yellow cast to the color, which does not match most stainless steel blades. If the knife will have a stainless blade and bolster or guard, why not make it match in color? Most importantly, 400 series stainless steels MUST be hardened to reach their full and expected corrosion resistance. Bolsters applied to a knife blade are never heat treated, so corrosion resistance is less than optimum. Even if the bolsters were heat treated, both of these steels are inferior in corrosion resistance to 440C, ATS-34, or CPMS30V (S30V). Manufacturers of these two steels claim they are heat treatable stainless steels only used where corrosion is not severe: in air, fresh water, some mild chemical exposures, and food acids. Why use stainless steel fittings at all when they are more likely to corrode than even the blade? So you can understand why I don't use them and why I don't recommend them either.
Copper, Silver, Mokume Gane, Diffusion Welded Metals, Damascus: these are constructed metals, specialty metals, and all are selected for a unique appearance. A client asked how the Mokume Gane is made on the knife in the photos below and here is my detailed response:
The metals are chosen that have a similar base, in this case, nickel silver and copper which both have a copper base. The sheets of metal are meticulously cleaned, as any contaminants would prevent fusion. Even a fingerprint would cause problems, so cleaning is an involved process, including scrubbing with pumice and strong chemical degreasing. The sheets of metals are arranged and clamped in a "stack" in a steel framework. The clamping is very, very tight. The clamp and stack are place in a nitrogen-filled electric furnace, and brought to just below the melting temperature of the metal and held at that temperature. Because the expansion of the copper based alloys is greater than the steel clamp, the tightness increases even more! During this time, the molecules become very excited, and electrons cross from one sheet to the adjacent, and diffusion welding takes place as molecules start to share electrons. The stack is held at this temperature for a while, while fusion takes place. After the stack and clamp cools, the clamp is removed, and the stack has become a solid billet. The billet can be drilled, filed, cut, and heated and forged to create variation in the pattern. After the forged piece is cut, drilled, and mounted to the knife with zero-clearance pins which are peened, it is then sanded, polished, and finished. The surface is lightly etched and colored with potassium sulfide to bring out the differences in the metals. The surface patina is waxed for protection.
Not all patterned, damascus, and other metal bolsters require such an involved process, and all are chosen based on their applicability to the knife's artistic value and arrangement. I've used many different types of bolster, guard, pommel, and fitting materials, and each has its own characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages. A sampling of those materials is below:
The choice of bolster, guard, or fitting material depends on the knife design, the intended use, and the artisitic arrangement of the handle components. There are many more bolster materials, and I'll add examples as I can.
There are a lot of discussions about the preferences of bolster materials among knife makers, and a lot of discussions about the stainless steels. I believe this is because most modern handmade custom knives are moving away from nickel silver, carbon steel, and brass in favor of stainless steels. The reason is because of value and longevity. Stainless steels do not need babied, polished, waxed, or tended to regularly. They are tough, hard, and very wear resistant. They can add value to the knife. Few people want to worry about handle maintenance, scratches, scuffing, and corrosion. If a knife is to be very tough, made of very durable materials (like tactical combat knives) additional durability is paramount.
Discussions on the Internet demonstrate that most makers do not like to use 304 stainless steel, one of my most favored bolster materials. Their reasons are because 304 is difficult to machine, hard to finish, and nearly impossible to engrave. They say that if a knife maker is making a knife to be engraved by an engraver, most engravers won't touch the stuff because it's very difficult to work with, cut, and finish. Guess what? They are correct!
To me, this is what makes 304SS so valuable. I work with it more than most makers and I absolutely love it. By the way, this is the same stainless steel (18-8) that is used to make stainless steel bolts, screws, and fasteners, so it is very durable and tough. Yes, it's hard to drill, mill, grind and machine and ultimately engrave. But as a professional knife maker, I'm a machinist and metalworker by definition, and that does not stop me from offering the best material to my clients; they expect that. Specialized techniques are required, and this is in the skill requirements and practice of a modern metals worker. I'm even welding 304 SS fittings and components, and I am excited by the beauty and appearance. 304 is not a material for the timid, but in my opinion, it is the best for the application of bolsters and guards when you want stainless steel, and I believe it has the longest term high value as well as the lowest care factor.
What are these other guys using? They're using the 400 series stainless steels, which are martensitic, and easier to machine due to alloy components. But the most important limitation for 400 series stainless steels is that they do NOT reach their full corrosion resistance until they are hardened and tempered, and that is never done. So to sell the properties of corrosion resistance on stainless steel bolsters when using 400 series stainless steels is only viable if the bolsters and fittings have been heat treated, and I've never heard of anyone ever doing that. Even if they were heat treated, they would not reach the corrosion resistance of S30V, 440C, or ATS-34 knife blades. Also, even if and when they are heat treated, they cannot come close to the corrosion resistance of 304 stainless steel.
I've always believed that dovetailing bolsters is the absolute best way to make them, and I'm all about offering the very best. When a bolster is dovetailed, the face that is against the handle scale is angled over the handle scale. This accomplishes several things.
Why don't other makers and manufacturers use dovetailed bolsters, what do they use, and why? I've seen plenty of bolster arrangements in my decades in this business, and here's how it typically goes: A new maker realizes he wants to bolster a knife, for the obvious reasons listed in the topics above. So he starts with straight, flat bolsters, like small squarish blocks attached to the tang. These look coarse and simple, and the handle scales are not locked, but simply adhere against the squared off face. Flexing the knife in normal use creates fine cracks and separations in the bolster-to-scale junction, and the adhesive (typically epoxy) will crack a this point. So the maker chooses one of several options: either improve bolster design, or make a thicker tang that won't flex (making the knife handle-heavy) or eliminate bolsters altogether because they are just too much trouble. This third option, eliminating bolsters and leaving the tang too thick seems to be the mainstay of current knife construction, and this is sad. Makers figure it's just not worth the trouble, so they don't make bolstered knives at all.
What about other arrangements or bolster geometry? Every maker has tried curves, sculpting, shaping, rounding, and contouring bolster faces and scale-side edges, but runs into problems and limitations. Since curved bolster-to-scale junctions can not be dovetailed (you can't fit the handle underneath!), then these areas are left squared off, that is, ninety degrees to the flat of the tang. This is a result of the process (milling and shaping with a machine). Even though they may be curved, they fall under the problems of number 4 above. Sooner or later, the handle will flex, and the area will show a crack where the bolster-to-scale line is, because there is not an effective lock between the scales and bolster.
Another way to look at this is that a curved bolster-to-scale line is simply an inlay. I've done inlays, too, but full inlays are completely surrounded by metal that won't flex, and this is only applicable on small knives not expected to see any forces, or of limited durability. And the bolster method done this way is much weaker than a full inlay on a small folding knife, where this is reasonable. Doing this on a large knife does it no good.
This is why I choose to dovetail all bolsters, whether single, double-ended, mid-bolstered or otherwise. It's the best choice and my clients simply expect the very best.
Though I've used mosaic pins in my early knives, I haven't use them in many years. This is due to several factors:
I'm not slamming all mosaic pins, but these are the reasons that you don't see them (and probably won't ever see them) on my knives.
Occasionally, I get asked to make a knife that is all black, that is, with a blued blade and blued bolsters. The bolsters can only be made of low carbon or mild steel to be cold blued; they can not be stainless steel. While there are chemical baths to blue stainless steels, they are expensive and unreliable, so I don't use them and so there is no way to darken the stainless steel bolsters. Bead blasted, the stainless steel bolsters will appear a flat gray.
I have made carbon steel bolsters in the past that are cold blued, but the care factor was extreme to prevent rust. The blade is not so much of a problem because it is hot blued (deeper penetration), and it does not have a hand wrapped around it like the bolsters do. Hands are acidic, and just one fingerprint left on low carbon steel for a while will start to rust. So, while there are some knives on my site that have cold-blued carbon steel bolsters, I wouldn’t recommend it because of the care factor.
You might ask why I don’t hot blue the low carbon steel bolsters. The bolsters are permanently attached with zero-clearance pins to the tang. Then, the bolsters and handle are finished together, for a tight, secure, bedded fit. If the knife were put in the bluing bath after the handle is mounted, the superheated caustic bath would destroy any handle material and ruin the bluing bath. So, the only bluing or treatments that can be done to steel bolsters is after the handle finishing, and that’s a carefully applied cold blue on a non-chromium (carbon steel) bolster. Often, this cold blue is not black, just a dark gray, and must be continually reapplied. The color sometimes looks blotchy, uneven, or spotty.
One option is to screw the bolsters to the tang, mount the handle material, finish it, then remove all the fittings (handle and bolsters), blue them, and then reassemble. This would only be recommended on folding knives or art knives, not heavy duty knives as the mechanical fit of screws is not as strong and secure as zero-clearance pinned bolsters. The handle-bolster junction would have to be dressed and smoothed a bit, creating a less than bedded fit. Not recommended on heavy duty tactical or combat knives.
Another option is nickel silver. The nickel silver bolster (and pins) can be darkened with off-the-shelf cold bluing sold to touch up firearms. This finish is not as dark as hot bluing steel, and it does not last as long. But the knife owner can easily touch up or re-apply the cold bluing as he sees fit. Nickel silver is expensive, and the cost has risen dramatically in the last years, so expect to pay more for this type of bolster. Since nickel silver is softer than any steel, it will rub and scuff more often and more easily so will have to be touched up more often. Of course, be aware that people with nickel allergies should not have this material on any utensil!
If a military client requires black all around, he might be able to apply a temporary coating of spray camouflage paint, to be removed after his service duty or tour. I don't recommend coatings long term on any knife, they can hide flaws, imperfections, or fractures, and might accelerate corrosion. See more on my FAQ page at this bookmark, and on my Blades page at this bookmark.
For the bolster, what I've found that works best is pin attachment. The bolsters are pinned to the tang of the knife blade with zero clearance pins, heavily peened in place. The pins swell in position, making them impossible to remove. In fact, the only way to remove the bolster is to grind it off the tang. When done right, this creates a near seamless fit of the bolster to the tang. How many holes and of what diameter are determined by the use of the knife, the cross sectional area, and the thickness of both the bolsters and the tang. I don't solder most bolsters. Unless acidic soldering flux is removed from any area between the bolster and the tang, it will lead to corrosion of the knife tang and eventual failure. And it is a step that is not necessary, particularly on high chromium steel blades and bolsters. It must be working well, in over 2000 knives over 30 years as of this writing, I've never had one fail.
Any time you have moving parts in contact with each other, a wear pattern will emerge. On the modern knife with a uniform or mirror finish, this becomes visible. The bolster of any knife is the area where the sheath (either leather or kydex) grips the knife to hold it secure. So every front bolster scuffs, and this is normal. Changing the material can help somewhat, but even mirror polished high chromium stainless steel bolsters will scuff. There simply has to be some area where the tension of the sheath can be applied to the knife to hold it firmly and safely, and gripping the front bolster is better than gripping on the blade. Sometimes, engraving the front bolster helps this a bit, only because it isn’t as noticeable because of the engraving.
The best way to limit this may be with a locking sheath. The locking sheath relies upon the lock to maintain the knife in the sheath, and not tension of the sheath on the bolster faces. So, though the bolster helps hold it in position, there is less stress on the bolster face, and less scuffing. There is usually some scuffing on every knife when inserted and removed continually from the sheath. In the locking or kydex sheath, this sometimes shows up on the blade as very fine lines usually on the spine of the knife. This too, is normal. If needed, the scuffing can be quickly removed from a mirror polish with a fine buffer and green chromium rouge. It doesn’t affect the value of the knife unless it has deep scratches, and those could be due to embedded sand or grit from use.
The scuffing can be more obvious in a bead-blasted bolster or blade. That is because of the uniformity and light reflection from the finish. This is not easily corrected, only re-blasting the entire handle will remove it, and it will promptly return. On bead-blasted or tactical and field models, this is usually not an issue, for each knife wears the marks of its use, age, and expeditions. Many owners are proud of the marks on their knives, the stain of use, the scratches of combat with the elements (or direct combat), and most knives age gracefully. I have clients that prefer brass and high carbon alloys (non-stainless) steels just because of the patina that these steels wear after decades of use.
There are other collectors who wish for their knives to remain pristine. Like a fine collector’s firearm, the knives are never used, only stored and admired. They maintain the highest value, of course, and are never (hopefully) stored in their sheaths. Their pleasure is derived from owning an investment, and ultimately a collection, rather than using the fine tool in excursions, combat, or daily use and routine.
So, don't worry about a little scuffing on your knife. It shows that it has been pulled from the sheath, used, admired, and returned with frequency. It's handled, and that is what a knife was meant to do. See this additional topic about scratches on knife blades on my Blades page.
A guard is completely different from a bolster. It is created to "guard" the hand from the blade, and lends itself particularly but not limited to double edged knives, daggers, and swords. In the old days, it would guard your hands from an opponents blade, but modern knife battles are rare...
Guards are made from the same materials as the bolsters listed above, and are milled and machined to fit on a reduced tang that is also milled to fit. The guard is mechanically fitted to the tang, then usually soldered in place at the shoulder. It is this fit to the shoulder of the ricasso and the cross-sectional thickness of the tang through the guard that determines the overall strength of the knife/handle junction. It is weaker than the bolster/full tang design, but there are some designs that simply cannot be made any other way. The tang of the knife is then tapped or hard-soldered or welded to a threaded rod. The handle pieces are drilled and stacked onto the tang, then the pommel (which is drilled and tapped) is screwed on. The whole assembly of the handle may take many components (I've made one knife that had over 50 pieces on a hidden tang), and is usually filled with high quality, high strength jeweler's epoxy. After the epoxy sets, the handle, pommel, and guard are ground, sanded, and finished. This design lends itself to full, rounded handles, and decorative styles like fluting, spiral fluting, and wire wrapped inlays. It also hearkens back to the days when good steel was prized for its rarity, and not "wasted" beneath handle material.
No. I occasionally get asked to make this style of handle; I don't do it. I don’t do the whole Japanese reproduction thing, though there are many modern makers who do. My reasons are several:
First, it's been done. I like to create new and exciting knives, with modern methods and techniques, using modern or unusual materials never before used in knife handles (like gemstone). I don't make reproduction or copy knives, and anything I do in that style would be a copy.
Second, that type of handle has very poor durability, even when made by a master. The silk or cord wrap is short lived, and will absorb oils and acids and soils and ultimately work loose, or become stained and unusable. Cord of any kind has no place on a knife handle. I talk about parachute cord wrapping knife handles on my military knives page here. This is a similar application, even worse if the material is silk, which is weak and short lived. It is expected that if the piece is handled, it will, at some time, need to be rewrapped and repaired. I like to build durable knives that don't need maintenance of any kind. Of course, I realize that most of the handles made in this traditional way are not used or handled in order to preserve the handle. That is not what I expect of my knives. The rayskin underlayment is more durable than the silk or cord wrappings, and I use rayskin inlays on my sheaths, but in my opinion it is simply not a sturdy material, especially when you compare it with hardwoods, stabilized materials, manmade materials or gemstone (the ultimate in durability and value). The way both the rayskin and cord wrappings are traditionally mounted are also short-lived.
Third, I personally don't like that type of handle. Stylistically, I don't think that it looks good on a modern knife. The first thing that comes to my mind when I see a knife handled this way is that it is a reproduction piece, a copy of an original work dated by cultural fashion and antiquity. I prefer a more modern look, my own artistic creation of a modern knife.
Here is a link box to pages with hundreds of photographs and descriptions of various types of handle materials I've used over the decades. If you love knives as much as I do, you'll enjoy the journey!
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