Jay Fisher - Fine Custom Knives

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"Concordia" chef's knife  in 440C high chromium stainless steel, T3 cryogenically treated blade, 304 stainless steel bolsters, Sodalite gemstone handle, stand of American Black Walnut, Poplar, Sodalite, Black Galaxy Granite
"Concordia" Chef's Knife

Knife Handles, Bolsters, Guards, and Fittings

Bolsters and Full tang knife blades profiled
Details, Devices, and Descriptions

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, their materials, 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 overall strength, artistic tone, or tactical value of the knife.

I am committed to making completely and clearly the best knives in the world.

--Jay Fisher


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:

What is a handle, anyway?

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 or knife owner'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 knife and allow the knife to complete the owner's needs. The handle, with associated fittings, is not simply something to grab.

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Hi Jay,
You don't know me but I just wanted to say THANK YOU for the wealth of knowledge about knives and all things related (and some things unrelated, too) that you share freely on your website! A lot of people may not agree with all your opinions, but I think it's great how much you are willing to share about what you've learned over so many decades of practical knifemaking experience. Your website is a very valuable resource. As a hobbyist, I often look up your info about handle materials.

- Mark Ou

Handmade knife handle of "Tarazed" in moss agate and Mokume Gane diffusion welded and forged silver and copper, with blued and mirror finished blade

Is there some history we need to discuss?

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.

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"Eridanus" obverse side view in 440C high chromium stainless steel blade, hand-engraved 304 stainless steel bolsters, Plasma Agate gemstone handle, Elephant skin inlaid in hand-carved leather sheath

The knife handle must be properly designed for the use of the knife

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?

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Non-traditional handle shape is very comfortable on this tactical art knife: "Prairie Falcon" in stainless steel and Crazy Lace Agate gemstone

The handle must protect the user.

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.

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"Treatymaker" tactical art knife with sub-hilt hidden tang knife handle in brass and gemstone, blued, double edged blade

Grip security

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!

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Tactical combat knife in Lignum Vitae, the strongest, heaviest hardwood on earth, with stainless steel fittngs and pins on "Kapteyn"

Why use finger rings on some knife handles?

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.

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USMC "Bulldog" tactical combat knife in Madegascar Rosewood and stainless steel

What about knuckle guards, D-guards, and similar fittings?

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.

  • The knuckle guard or D-ring requires additional metal in the handle area, and if it is used on a combat or tactical knife, must be part of the tang for strength (as all good tactical knives are full tang). This means that the entire knife must be made from thick, heavy, and weighty stock to be appropriately strong. The knife will be heavier overall.
  • The additional size and weight of these guards usually leads to a heavy, overbearing handle, and with a light or narrow blade, this usually means an out-of-balance knife that is very handle-heavy. I've seen attempts made to reduce the overall handle weight by reducing the guard to a thin plate of metal, which is an awful way to guard a knife.
  • The additional stock is more expensive, sometimes much more expensive, as steel costs are often reflected mainly in thickness and width, the very two dimensions that must be increased in this type of handle.
  • Milling, grinding, sanding, and finishing this type of handle requires a great deal of time, with no shortcuts. The rings or guards should not have any area that is abrasive to the hand, and hands must be able to slip in and out of the guard with as much ease as possible. So the lengthy finishing process will bring the cost up considerably.
  • The knife can not be made to fit all hands. Since it is unnatural for the human hand to lace fingers into holes, and every hand is different, this may actually be a very uncomfortable handle in use.
  • Forget gloves with this type of handle. They will wrinkle, grab, and ultimately seize or trap the hand.
  • The finger ring components are metal, much less kind and warm to the  hand than hardwood, horn, bone, or antler, or even finished gemstone, which may be contoured to be full, rounded, and comfortable.
  • Security between the knife and hand is increased, certainly, but may actually be increased too much. It is one thing to be able to pull a single finger from a finger ring on a combat knife (see topic just above), but altogether different to unlace all four fingers from individual holes if a hand is sweaty or sticky, as one might expect on this type of knife in use. Even with bare and dry hands, this may create a hand trap.
  • If the hand is injured in any way, or incurs swelling, this handle may well make the knife impossible to use, or worse, impossible to remove from the hand.
  • The knife may not be useable in multiple grip styles. Finger rings may not all be the same size, and location may not be correct or comfortable to alloy both tactical or defensive grip styles, or most of the additional martial arts styles of knife grip.
  • Since the handle is larger, it requires a larger, wider "footprint" in the sheath and thus on the wearer. This is a big, wide handle to sheath, requiring a big, wide, and heavy sheath. This adds to the expense overall, and limits comfortable and convenient carry.
  • The expense of this type of handle, with the added thickness, width, weight, machining and finishing effort, and sheath construction and accommodation will lead to a much more expensive knife, perhaps doubling the cost from a traditional handle.
  • Yes, I've made them, but not for combat knives, and only for art and investment pieces.

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.

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"Diacria" custom knife in mirror polished and blued O-1 tungsten-vanadium tool steel blade, nickel silver bolsters, Polvader Jasper gemstone handle, lizard skin inlaid in hand-carved leather sheath

Increase leverage

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.

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Long, graceful handle lines increase leverage to blade on this fine "Bosque" design in mirror polished stainless steel, hand-engraved bolsters, and Tiger Eye gemstone handle

Increase length

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.

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Long knife handle with sub-hilt for leverage when sawing, positive lock with hand

What is the lightest weight handle material?

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® phenolic 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.

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"Mirach," obverse side view, in RWL34 high molybdenum stainless steel blade, stabilized box elder burl hardwood handle, hand-carved leather sheath

The Bolster

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 omitted for the benefit to the maker manufacturer, to the detriment of the knife, and the disadvantage to the knife owner and user.

By reading these points, it will be clear, from this professional knifemaker's perspective, as to why bolsters are not often seen and the strangely damaging contemporary practice of omitting these critical features:

  • It's a lot of work. This speaks to the knife construction overall, and to the client and knife owner in an obvious, striking way. The maker is in a hurry. He wants to get to the handle. The handle is a pretty piece of wood, or mammoth ivory, or stag, or some manmade material he's familiar with, and it's easy, fast, and reliable to work with. The maker wants to get the knife done; he doesn't want to be slowed down by troublesome cutting, milling, shaping, attaching, and finishing of a handful of little pieces of tough metal attached to the knife. Bolsters can be a real pain for the maker: small pieces of material that each require individual attention, and add to that they have to match each other! This is a lot of extra work, and the maker just doesn't figure his knife, his creation, or his client is worth the time and effort, so he doesn't do it. Easy, cheesy, fast and breezy. He doesn't need no stinking extra bolster work, and neither does the guy buying the knife, right?
  • It takes special material. The maker who chooses not to use bolsters on his full tang knife may not have the materials to make the bolsters, and they would add an extra expense to his project. Perhaps that's a reasonable choice in an economical knife, but if you're hand-building knives, or trying to make good knives, why bother if you have to be cheap? Why not just accept that the client who wants a cheap knife is going to buy one made in China, or Pakistan, or India? These materials are not inexpensive. Brass, which used to be cheap is going up in price, and nickel silver has skyrocketed in price in the last two decades. Stainless steels are another material that the maker may have access to, but this is an extra expense to buy it and keep it on hand, and even more expense to work, machine, and finish it.
  • It takes special skills. To me, this is one of the saddest reasons not to include bolsters on heavy duty and full tang knives. Guys just don't know how to make them. They don't know how to cut them, fit them, prefinish them, mount them, and finish them. They don't know how to blend them to the handle, to the knife, to the project. They don't often see bolsters on all the other maker's knives, and bolsters are never mounted on factory knives, so the bolster is a mystery to them. I remember reading one post where a new maker was asking if he should mount bolsters on his blade, and the answers were that most knives will never see combat, so it's not necessary, and that adding bolsters was just a personal style decision that didn't really matter one way or the other. This is truly sad. The maker who believes these reasons (offered by anonymous or unskilled beginners) is hobbling himself and his pursuits simply because he doesn't know how to make and attach and finish them. Worse, he's speaking directly to his client that the knife, and the client, are not worth the trouble.
  • Tang strength (and the full thickness tang) is often sited as a reason to not include bolsters. How this works in the mind of the maker is that since he doesn't want to make the bolsters, he's a bit concerned about the strength of the tang overall, so why not just cut corners even further and omit the tang tapering altogether, which leaves a thick, heavy tang that will offer the strength the bolsters would otherwise provide. It's a decision of economy, after all, and economy is what custom handmade knives are all about, right? Wrong. There are a lot of things wrong with this persistent and predominant way of making knives. You can read what the front and rear bolsters accomplish in the text in this section below, and these are real considerations for heavy-purpose knives.

    By leaving the tang at full thickness, this speaks volumes about the lack of care or consideration of the maker. A full thickness tang will have to be heavily milled (drilled) with a Swiss cheese approach of weight reduction, or the knife will feel horribly out of balance, and overly handle-heavy. Besides the critical factor of drilling away the support of the handle to a web of tenuous metal, the tang is only as strong as the two smallest webs across the width of the tang and no more. You won't see the milling unless the handle scales are removed. The full tang thickness tang may work for extremely large knives (over 16" (40 cm) long blades), but usually anything with a smaller blade not only feels overly handle heavy, it looks overly handle heavy.

    This look, this visual appeal is something that few makers understand nowadays, and it is a severe limit to their success. Us older guys know this; it takes decades of study and practice knife making to understand and apply these critical nuances to our art, and this is one of the reasons our knives are highly valued. This is why older makers often cringe at the sight of a full thickness tang, and some even ask the maker how and when he will finish the blade!

    By the way, consider that the full tang knife handle without the bolsters will rely upon two factors to keep the handle scales attached. One is the shear strength of the pins, and modern practice is to use as little pinning as necessary to mount the handle scales (typically two or three small pins right down the midline of the handle). It's even common to see hollow rivets and eyelets used to accomplish this, expecting hundreds of pounds of force (for a strong man) to be applied wholly through the thin wall of these few, small, and weak attachment means. The second factor securing the unbolstered handle scales to the full tang is the adhesive tensile strength of the bond, based on (typically) epoxy. This is not the shear strength, it's the adhesive tensile strength. Keep in mind that the highest forces and easiest area for an adhesion bond to fail is at the ends, or terminal points of the adhesive which is exactly where a mechanical bolster would be physically attached! The concern is because the handle will flex, ever so slightly, even in the heaviest, thickest tang, and this leads to lateral and axial movement. Also, the coefficient of thermal expansion, coefficient of moisture content expansion, and even atmospheric pressure changes will lead to differences in sizes of the handle scales and the tang. This will, eventually, break the epoxy bonds along the handle scales since they are only effective in one, singular tension plane. Without bolsters, this bonding failure is a long term certainty. This may take years, or it may take weeks. Handle materials move, particularly organics or carbon-based materials (all manmade materials), and it's well known by knife owners who look one day, to find their knife has a hairline crack between the handle scale and tang.
  • They are lazy. Yes, unfortunately, it's true. A lot of makers simply are too lazy to make a good knife, a good set of bolsters, and a good finish. It bewilders me why someone who is lazy would take up knifemaking in the first place. To be successful, it's one of the most labor-intensive arts there is. But all arts have their guys who are constantly seeking shortcuts, and ours is no different. Makers like this come and go, and I've seen it decade after decade. It's a great trade and craft and art, until you have to do it for year after year after year after... you get it.
The arguments against bolsters

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?

  • Bolsters make a handle heavy. This is usually the first point brought up by those who dislike bolsters. I've faced this claim all of my professional knifemaking career, usually when discussing gemstone handles. People who really don't have any professional knowledge or experience with fine handmade knives will quickly throw out this talking point, based on their largely visual perceptions about how a knife will feel. They do this without holding the knife, without weighing it, and even during a conceptual stage before the knife exists! They probably to this because of two misconceptions:
    • One misconception is based on a knife they once held that had large, overly built or out-of-balance bolsters, and it made the handle heavy. So, in their mind, all bolstered knives have heavy handles and all bolstered knives are bricks. This is plain ignorance, because a professional knifemaker knows just how to balance the handle so that weight is either neutral or even blade heavy. For example, looking at my featured knife pages and you'll see that a good 70% of my knives have neutral balance, that is, the fulcrum point is right at the forefinger location in forward grip. Another 25% are designed to be blade heavy, for heavier work. And the last five would be handle heavy, because the blade is simply too small to counterweigh the handle, such as in very fine small knives like paring knives and caping knives that benefit from a weighty handle. So it is the responsibility of the maker to build a knife that is in balance, one of the critical points I write about on my "Six Distinctions of Fine Knives" page. This is a maker's realm, not based on the decision to forego bolsters, but based on his particular skill at balancing a knife.
    • The other misconception is that of appearance and association. Metal, particularly a solid, shiny hunk of metal (the bolster) looks massive, and has the appearance of weight. This, then, is a decision made based on visual appearance alone. The person who stubbornly holds onto this idea has no familiarity with the actual balance and weight of a bolstered knife; he is making this comment based on visual queues. I've faced the same uninformed comments about my gemstone handles for decades, while my clients are overjoyed (and keep me in continuous orders) with the balance, feel, weight, and control of a finely made bolstered handle, even with gemstone scales. How can this be? After all, these knives look heavy to the guy who dislikes bolstered (and gemstone-handled) knives. It's because, as is often the case, the uninformed critic has no access to truly well made, well designed, and well balanced knives, and can only look at photos of them and make assumptions.
  • Bolsters don't make a handle stronger. This is a huge error in judgment. If that were the case, why, historically, were bolsters made in the first place? This is a slap in the face to every knifemaker who has ever lived, ever worked hard to build a good knife, and found that these critical reinforcement areas are necessary to the functioning, effectiveness, and longevity of a well-made tool. The reasons for bolsters are clearly spelled out in this section, and it should be clear to understand why good knives deserve bolsters. The uninformed person who makes this argument might as well say that a grind weakens a knife, so why have one? Same with the blade point. It doesn't make a knife stronger, so why would you put one on the blade? How about the handle? It's not necessary, particularly if you believe the three pins down the center of the handle scales contemporary concept, so why put handle scales on at all? And the sheath? Is it really necessary? Why not, then, just have a bar of metal in your pocket with a bit of a thin area to cut with? Never mind, just buy a two dollar box cutter. Sound ridiculous? Follow this uninformed logic to its conclusion, and this is what the person who makes this claim would have you believe.
  • It's not in the style of the knife. This is a sad commentary on how knives are styled after factory production models, and I believe this happens because factory knives are simply all the makers and beginning collectors have access to. They just can't buy a bolstered knife, and repeatedly see non-bolstered knives, so this is the way they figure it should be. Not a lot of creative or serious research there, just copy the guy on the left, over and over.
  • The knife is too cheap for bolsters. This is the only realistic reason and I support it wholly! If a maker is making an economical knife, he can cut costs by making a handle without bolsters. I've done this myself, so I know what I'm writing about. You want to make a knife, you want to sell it quickly, you want to offer a less expensive model to a client that is trimmed down to its essentials. The knife is a light duty knife; it's only satin finished or blasted; it has no embellishment; it has a plain sheath. While it's been many years since I've built one this way, and skeletonized knives are more fitting in this range, this is a reasonable argument to omit bolsters. Just don't expect a professional chef or counterterrorism or military professional to buy and use this type of knife; he wants it built as well as possible, and that includes bolsters!

The Bolster Purpose, Construction, Attachment, Materials

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. It also critically protects the most vulnerable areas of bonding stress at the adhesion points of the scale-to-tang. I wrote about this above, that the tensile strength of epoxide adhesives is low, and the bolster critically and mechanically reinforces this very location.

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?

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:

  • The blade and fittings will have to be made out of an overly thick and expensive block of steel, enormously increasing the cost of the project. Most of the steel will be milled away, which is not a sound and reasonable use of fine steels, equipment, machinery, and time (not to mention the carbon footprint expense!). This cost is passed on to the knife client.
  • While the bolster-to-blade junction is obviously sound, there is no mechanical reason for this process. How many knives are subject to the ridiculous stresses requiring integral, one piece bolsters and guards? This magnitude of shock, load, and force that would prevent the knife from breaking at the bolster or guard would have already broken the thinner parts of the knife, mainly the tip, the belly area of the edge, the blade at the grind termination, or the straight section of the blade.
  • There is no advantage to integral knives; the bolsters and guards are not somehow "better" because they are made out of the blade stock. In truth, the integral type of fittings are usually inferior to separate bolster materials because of these reasons:
    • The blade material is (or should be!) a hardened and tempered tool steel. While there are stainless tool steels, they do not have the corrosion resistance of most fitting materials. For example, austenitic stainless steels (like I use on most of my knives) simply will not corrode through many decades of use and exposure. The human hand is very salty and acidic, and the fitting areas are in constant contact with the moisture and acidity of the hand. The blade does not typically have these exposures. Even if the blade is used to cut alkaline or acidic materials, it is usually cleaned, perhaps waxed, before insertion into the sheath, and it is not soiled when it is stored. The bolsters and guards are not usually cleaned, they must be in contact with the human hand every time the knife is held, including putting the knife in storage. Just think of where your fingerprints are left. Unless you hold your knife with cotton archival non-reactive gloves, your hand will always and continually leave residue on the handle (including the bolsters and guards). Even brass and nickel silver offer more corrosion resistance than most martensitic stainless tool steel blades and they definitely offer more corrosion resistance than ANY carbon steel blade.
    • Another reason is that it is usually beneficial for the bolsters to be made of different material for appearance and embellishment. A nice set of engraved nickel silver bolsters adds much to the value of an investment knife, and even brass looks warm and inviting against a polished piece of exotic hardwood. Nothing quite approaches the rich bright appearance of austenitic stainless steels, and when engraved they are not only stunning, but also the longevity is and permanence of the engraving exceeds all other stainless steel materials, including the blade!
    • Color and appearance is also important. Another drawback to integral knives with bolsters milled from the blade stock is that the bolsters themselves are limited to the same appearance and properties of the blade. If you want a different color for the bolster, you can't have it in an integral. If you want to leave the bolster softer so that it can be engraved, sorry, an integral will prevent that.
    • Yet another substantial reason against integrals is one of artistic creation. A milled integral bolster can not be carved, cast, shaped, or creatively sculpted to any great degree. Usually, it can only be milled, sometimes engraved, and limited in shape to the capabilities of the machine that cuts it. The crisp shape of a polished sculpted front bolster face can not be made on an integral knife. The bolster-to-blade union can only be finished to a limited degree, and sharp angular polished forms that can be created on the bolster face before the bolster is fitted to the blade are simply not possible.

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, but still, it's a machine operation where the machine is control, not the human hand.

This is faster and easier than making a knife by hand, even if hand-machining (grinding). 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.

Please help to stop wives' tales, knife myths, and misconceptions in our trade through education.

Back to Topics

Please click on thumbnail knife bolster pictures
Multiple knives with finished and heat treated blades, bolsters profiled and marked to match blades. Lots of small pieces here! Bolsters, milled and drilled, faces finished, dovetails cut and trued, ready for mounting to blade with zero clearance pins Driving zero clearance pins in bolsters and through knife tang Peening zero clearance pins through bolster and tang. This swells pins, locks them permanently in place on the knife tang. Multiple bolsters mounted on knives, peened solid. Bolsters after dressing down, removing excess metal, rounding and blending surface

What's it made of?

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. In time, brass in contact with leather in even moderately humid environments will form a destructive, horrible green product of corrosion (copper carbonate or copper chloride) that will stain everything it touches and be very difficult to remove.

Brass guard and pommel on hidden tang knife with Zebra wood and Serpentine gemstone
Brass Guard and Pommel
Engraved Brass Guard, Subhilt, and Pommel  on "Bowie Classic" with madegasscard rosewood
Brass Guard and Pommel
Hand-engraved brass bolsters with golden Tiger Eye Quartz gemstone and inlaid Australian Tiger Iron Gemstone on knife handle
Engraved Brass Bolsters
Engraved brass bolsters with tigereye quartz gemstone palm knife handles
Engraved Brass Bolsters
Hand-engraved brass bolsters on Trophy game set knives
Engraved Brass Bolsters

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.

Monogram "PWF" hand engraved on nickel silver bolsters on tactical knife with ebony hardwood
Engraved Nickel Silver
Nickel Silver bolsters with Goncalo Alves hardwood knife handle
Nickel Silver
Nickel Silver Bolsters with Labradorite Gemstone on "Fornax" knife handle
Nickel Silver Bolsters
Hand-engraved nickel silver bolsters with Aventurine gemstone knife handle
Engraved Nickel Silver

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 meticulously and constantly cared for. It will 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.

Hand-engraved low carbon steel bolster with Pecan burl hardwood knife handle
Engraved Mild Steel
Hand-engraved low carbon steel bolsters with New Mexico Jasper gemstone knife handle
Engraved Mild Steel

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.

440C high chromium martensitic stainless steel hand engraved and inlaid bolsters with gemstone mosaic knife handle
440C Bolsters
High chromium martensitic stainless steel bolsters, hand-engraved with inlays in mosaic gemstone knife handle
440C Bolsters

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 or don't want to work with it: it's hard, extremely tough, and difficult to machine. It's very difficult to engrave. 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 refuse to 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.

Hand-engraved 304 austenitic high chromium stainless steel bolsters on fine collector's knife
Engraved 304 Stainless Steel
Bead blasted 304 stainless steel bolsters with CPMS30V stainless steel blade, Frogskin Jasper gemstone handle
Bead Blasted 304 Stainless Steel
Sculpted and mirror polished 304 stainless steel guard and pommel on collector's dagger with Sodalite gemstone handle
304 Stainless Steel Guard, Pommel
Hand-engraved 304 stainless steel guard and pommel with Cocobolo hardwood and Snowflake Obsidian Gemstone knife handle
Engraved 304SS Guard, Pommel
Bright hand engraving on 304 austenitic stainless steel bolsters with Confetti Agate gemstone handle
Engraved 304SS Bolsters
Deep relief engraving on 304 stainless steel bolsters with Eudialite gemstone handle of collector's fine knife
Engraved 304SS Bolsters

400 series Free Machining Martensitic Stainless Steels:

Here we're talking about 410, 416, and 420 stainless steels. They are stainless 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, particularly when not heat treated, 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). These 400 series stainless steels can not even approach the corrosion resistance of 304 stainless; they are a completely different type of steel. Manufacturers of these400 series steels claim they are 'heat treatable stainless steels only used where corrosion is not severe." Why use stainless steel fittings at all when they are more likely to corrode, more so than the blade? Now you can understand why I don't use them and why I don't recommend them either. More in the section below; 304 vs. 410, 416 stainless steels.

I don't use these stainless steels for bolsters, pins, guards, pommels, or fittings!

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:

Mokume Gane diffusion welded and forged bolsters with Moss Agate gemstone knife handle
Mokume Gane
Diffusion welded copper, nickel silver guard and pommel with Lace Amethyst gemstone dagger handle
Diffusion Welded Copper/Nickel Silver
Pattern welded stainless steel damascus bolsters on folding knife with Jade gemstone handle
Stainless Steel Damascus
Diffusion welded copper, nickel silver, brass bolsters with Biggs Jasper gemstone knife handle
Copper/Nickel Silver/Brass
Solid copper guard and pommel fittings, ferrule type on this fine handmade chef's cleaver
Copper Guard and Pommel
Solid copper ferrule type guard sockets olive hardwood under guard outer diameter, soldered to blade tang for sealing against moisture
Copper Guard, Ferrule Type

The choice of bolster, guard, or fitting material depends on the knife design, the intended use, and the artistic arrangement of the handle components. There are many more bolster materials, and I'll add examples as I can.

Back to Topics

304 vs. 410, 416, and 303 Stainless Steel

The consideration of the client is the top priority for me.

Clearly, there is no advantage to using 410, 416, 420, and 303 stainless steel in knife fittings, bolsters, and guards apart from making it easier for the knife maker to machine. This is detrimental to the knife owner or user, as the fittings are less corrosion resistant, and less tough.

The section above was brief, and I think it's important to go into greater detail about the distinctive differences between several steels used in knife fittings. In knifemaking, unfortunately, there is a propensity to make what the knifemaker wants and less often what the client desires. This is something I've written about before, and in this section, I'll try to be clear about how a simple metal choice demonstrates this. Please understand that I, too, make the kind of knives I prefer to, but when I do, I'm trying to consider the final knife client, the man or woman who will own the knife, use the knife, cherish the knife, sometimes for generations. The consideration of the client is the top priority for me, and in every piece I make, I try to offer the best possible materials within the range of the client's choices, budget, and idea.

While some people prefer the look of brass, copper, or mokume gane (detailed above), most modern knife clients absolutely prefer stainless steels, and for good reason. Stainless steels are chosen for the bolster and fitting material for the same reason a stainless steel is chosen for the blade. They are corrosion resistant.

Older knives that have carbon steel bolsters, fittings, and devices are a constant source of complaint and worry; a bit of rust quickly grows into a pit, a pit deepens underneath, the knife can quickly become ruined. Please also consider that the metal underneath the bolster, guard, or fitting, (the part of the fitting you can't see) can be corroding out of sight, if corrosion resistance is not built in, through and through the material.

Engravers love carbon steels; they are easy and soft to engrave, hold high detail, and look great when they are first finished and presented, but years later, the worry continues, the knife client and owner can't let his guard down for a single month, or after a single handling, since an errant fingerprint will eventually become rust. Human hands are acidic, moist, and sometimes carry compounds, elements, and salts that will encourage and accelerate corrosion, and on a knife handle, this can be disastrous. Not even mentioning the blade, the handle is where the hand is expected to grip the instrument, yet makers continue to ignore the very nature of surface reaction and interaction with the human hand.

In order to eliminate corrosion as a concern, stainless steels are used in knife handle fittings. Stainless steels form a passive oxide on the surface at the instant they are exposed to oxygen, so are passive by nature. But the degree of passivity varies markedly among stainless steels, and that is the focus of this section. The choice of stainless steel types for a knife fitting material affect the corrosion resistance, appearance, and long-term value of the knife immediately, and more importantly, in use over time.

If you look around the internet and read the choices and discussions about stainless steel knife fitting materials, you'll see several players come up over and again. These are the same stainless steels that you'll see for sale by the knifemaking supply companies, suppliers that depend on the hobbyist and part-time knifemaking factions. You'll also see these stainless steels in use by boutique shops and manufacturers.

Forum moderators (unskilled watchdogs of anonymous postings) will simply claim, "use 416 stainless for bolsters and guards." Most of these people don't have the knowledge or record to back up their claims, they've just made a few knives and claim to know best for other unskilled people. They have plenty of time, though, to sit fat at their computers and make thousands of posts...

The steels they incorrectly recommend are 410, 416, and 420 stainless steels. Makers will swear they are the best for knife fittings, and there are a lot of knives made with 400 series stainless steel fittings, and there is a reason for this. Unfortunately, the reason is not because they are the best steels for the job, but I'm committed to making the best, so for comparison and explanation, I'll detail why don't use or recommend them. I know that knifemakers reading this will wince, some will go on to try to defend their use, and like other parts of this site, they'll decry my comments. Others will change their minds, start to use the premium material, and their clients will like it so much, the makers will never go back to using the inferior stainless steels. This is simply what I know in service to thousands of knife clients over four decades of knifemaking at the time of this writing.

These 400 series stainless steels are martensitic stainless steels, by composition and classification. They are made to form martensite. If you have read my Heat Treating and Cryogenic Processing of Knife Blades page, you'll understand how important martensite is to tool wear. Briefly, martensite is formed when carbon is locked into the crystalline lattice structure, it is a strained and carbon-rich allotrope that adds hardness to the metal.

High martensite is great for a knife blade, but has no bearing on fitting material. Fittings are not expected to have wear resistance, but are expected to have corrosion resistance. Knife blades that are martensitic are heat treated, hopefully through complex and sophisticated processes, in order to bring out the highest wear resistance, toughness, and corrosion resistance of the steel. What? Corrosion resistance?

This is the problem with using 400 series stainless steels in knife handle fittings. CORROSION RESISTANCE is the reason to use these steels in the first place, yet, in order to reach their maximum corrosion resistance, they must be effectively and professionally heat treated. These steels, like all martensitic stainless steels, do not reach an acceptable level of corrosion resistance until they are hardened and tempered. All foundries, sources, scholars, and suppliers of these stainless steels will clearly disclose this fact!

You might think this is minor, but here's a clear comparison to consider: 400 series stainless steels will usually darken, dull, and rust if you leave a water drop on them to dry at room temperature; the same water drop on hardened and tempered 400 series steels will not. I've seen this over and over, it's clear, simple, and easy to understand.

Heat treating these steels doesn't mean merely heating them up with a torch and quenching, it means a sophisticated regime of treatment, hardening and tempering, with cryogenic process, and I'll reassert the claim that this is never done with fittings. Makers who claim to harden and temper their bolsters, guards, and fittings are not doing this, and if they are, they are wasting their time doing so. There is a lot of misinformation in our trade, a lot of hyperbole, misrepresentation, and outright lies. It would be nice if this wasn't the case, but it is so, and the client deserves to know the technology, reason, and condition of what he buys. At the very least, if a maker is claiming that he hardens and tempers his bolsters, ask him what his process is, what his final temper is, and why he has chosen it, and watch him squirm.

If a knifemaker does harden and temper these 400 series steels for fitting materials, he is wasting his time because at their very best, they are substantially less corrosion resistant than 300 series austenitic stainless steels, and by a significant margin. Why not just use the highly corrosion resistant 300 series stainless steels? Then, the maker doesn't have to worry about heat treating them at all. Why not offer the highest corrosion resistance possible to his clients, knife users, and owners? Why not offer him a "zero-care" high chromium, high nickel stainless steel that will hold its finish indefinitely? Remember that the metal underneath the bolster, guard, or fitting, the part of the fitting you can't see can be corroding out of sight, if corrosion resistance is not built in, through and through the material. Why not have the highest corrosion resistance possible built into the alloy, since corrosion resistance is the reason for choosing stainless steel in the first place?

It's because it's much easier and cheaper for the knifemaker, manufacturer, boutique shop, or factory, that's why. Knifemakers quickly learn that machining metals that are high in chromium and nickel is a difficult process, and they are too lazy, in a hurry, unskilled, or unknowledgeable about the machining, grinding, and finishing process of austenitic stainless steels. If you read between the lines in discussions and on maker's websites, you'll see that many makers don't want to work with the more difficult, and tough austenitic stainless steels; they want it to be easier.

As I've written before on this website, "easier" is not a reason to be a knifemaker at all, yet guys are constantly trying labor-saving tricks that are of no benefit to the knife owner, user, or client. Simply put, 410, 416, and 420 series stainless steels are chosen for fittings because they are stainless steels, and they are easy to machine and work, not because they have any advantage to the knife owner.

The 400 series stainless steels that I list are easier to machine because they are not as tough in their annealed condition. They are not as tough, and not as corrosion resistant because they are low in chromium, the hardest element on the periodic table. 410 stainless has only about 13% chromium, and 416 stainless steel has about 14% chromium, and neither have any nickel at all. Compare this with 304 stainless steel that has 18 percent chromium, and 8 percent nickel, and you'll see that in any condition, 304 stainless steel is substantially more corrosion resistant than the 400 series. This also makes 304 much more difficult to machine, as the alloy is extremely tough. Toughness is good in fittings, particularly in thin guards where extended geometric forms would be better suited to be tougher, and less brittle and likely to break. The most important thing is corrosion resistance, where the hand contacts the fittings, and the reason for choosing stainless in the first place. Just know that 416 stainless steel has the easiest machinability of any stainless steel, which is great for the maker, but not so good for the knife owner.

Sulfur and 303 Stainless Steel

One of the contributing factors aiding in machinability of these steels is the addition of sulfur. Sulfur is not considered an alloying element; it is considered an undesirable impurity in the alloy! Sulfur weakens steels; causes brittleness, and makes steels with high sulfur unweldable. Sulfur is put in steels to make them easier to machine and that is the only reason it is used. While 410 is generally low in sulfur, 416 can be extremely high, depending on the manufacturer. This is why forum posers and moderators recommend 416; it's easy-peasy to work with and is stainless (kind of) in the untreated condition.

 Another factor is that sulfur can add a distinctive yellow cast to stainless steels; easily seen when compared to high alloy, martensitic stainless steel blades. This is the reason not to use 303 stainless steels in knife fittings; it is a high sulfur variant of 304, made to be more machinable than 304. Again, the choice of easy comes to mind. By the way, 303 is less corrosion resistant than 304, so the only reason to use it is to make it easier on the maker, and of no benefit to the knife owner, and it has a slightly yellow cast compared to 304.

Clearly, there is no advantage to using 410, 416, 420, and 303 stainless steel in knife fittings, bolsters, and guards apart from making it easier for the knifemaker to machine. This is detrimental to the knife owner or user, as the fittings are less corrosion resistant, and less tough.

Knifemaking is not about easy; it's about making the best knife for the guy who holds the handle. This is why I use 304 stainless steel for the fittings on nearly every knife I make. It's also used to make nearly all stainless steel nuts, bolts, and fasteners, and nearly all stainless steel kitchen equipment and facilities, as well as nearly all medical stainless steel equipment, since it is so remarkably corrosion resistant.

There was a great study about nickel allergy and contact in the stainless steel category. The study demonstrates how some stainless steels break down and others don't.

"The main conclusion is that low-sulfur stainless steels like AISI 304, 316L or 430, even when containing Ni, should not elicit nickel contact dermatitis, while metals having a mean corrosion resistance like a high-sulfur stainless steel (AISI 303) or nickel-plated steel should be avoided."

—"Nickel Release from Stainless Steels," Haudrechy P., Mantout B, Frappaz A, Rousseau D, Chabeau G, Faure M, Claudy A in Contact Dermatitis (1997)

One last extremely important thing: in the National Sanitary Foundation (NSF), Food and Drug Administration, (FDA) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), there is a specialized rating called the Food Contact Substance (FCS). In order for a steel to be FCS rated, it must, by definition, contain at least 16% chromium.

  • 416 stainless only contains 12-14% chromium; it DOES NOT RATE for food service safety; it is not an accepted Food Contact Substance.
  • 410 stainless steel only contains 11.5-13.5% chromium; it DOES NOT RATE for food service safety; it is not an accepted Food Contact Substance.
  • 440A, 440B, and 440C contain 17-18% chromium, they DO RATE for food service safety; they are an accepted Food Contact Substance
  • 304 stainless steel contains 18% chromium, it DOES RATE for food service safety; they are an accepted Food Contact Substance

It seems to me that the optimum FCS rated knives in performance, safety, and corrosion resistance are 440C with 304 stainless steel bolsters and fittings. Now you know another reason why I make them this way!

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Tough, highly corrosion resistant hand-engraved 304 stainless steel bolsters:
"Orion" obverse side view in 440C high chromium stainless steel blade, hand-engraved 304 stainless steel bolsters, Rio Grande Agate gemstone  handle, hand-carved leather sheath inlaid with frog skin
More about this Orion

What about Micarta, G10, or Other Materials for Bolsters?
(fake bolsters)

If it's not a bolster, don't lie by calling it one.
A real bolster strengthens the handle, a bolster that is not made of metal weakens it.

Knifemakers find out rather quickly how difficult it is to make bolsters; you know that if you read the previous sections on this page. Bolsters are small pieces of metal, often thick (or they should be) and they are difficult to cut, machine, mill, grind, sand, finish, mount, and polish. Makers also find out that they do not finish or blend well with softer handle material, leading to unevenness in the form. The process of finishing them often digs out the softer material right at the edge of the harder bolster material and this is obvious to the knife client, and it looks very bad and feels worse. So, rather than conquer this difficult challenge to make an even, substantial, and worthwhile metal bolster, years ago, guys started replacing the bolster metals with softer materials, like acrylic plastics, G10, Micarta, or wood. This is a cheap, shoddy effort and it's time that someone actually spoke up, described, and shined a bright light of truth on this type of handle. This is a shortcut on the part of the knifemaker, and an indicator of how he's made the knife, sheath, and accessories overall: with shortcuts in mind.

At first glance, you might suspect this as just another choice, something more colorful or visually interesting than the metal bolster, but let's get some clarity here.

  • It's not a bolster. The first thing a maker who decides on making a knife this way does is call it a "bolster." It is not a bolster, it's a small piece of different handle scale. It should never be called a bolster, because the purpose (and name) of a bolster is to bolster, or strengthen the handle assembly.
  • It weakens the handle. A piece of Micarta phenolic, G10, carbon fiber, wood, or acrylic plastic mounted instead of a bolster does absolutely nothing to bolster or strengthen the knife. In fact the very construction of this handle type actually weakens the entire tang-to-handle scale junction, making the knife handle much weaker than if it had been a simple unbolstered uniform handle scale! This is because the fake bolster is not a part of the handle scale, and it is attached to the handle scale with epoxy along a thin and narrow joint perpendicular to the handle tang. Just a little bit of flexing at the tang (which is inevitable and described in the section above) and the junction will crack, since epoxy has little tensile strength.
  • The pinning weakens the fake bolster. These small pieces of fake bolster also require extra pinning so they don't move, rotate, or slide, and while this should not weaken the tang, it weakens the very pieces of fake bolster material by interrupting their uniform physical mass and internal reinforcement by putting pins through them! A full handle scale of uniform, homogenous, one-piece material without the fake bolster would be markedly stronger than putting a small piece of different material where a real bolster would be located.
  • It looks cheap, and it is cheap. This type of handle speaks a lot to the maker's practice and type of knife. It shouts loudly to other makers, and more importantly to potential clients that he is not comfortable in metalwork, he does not want to expend the effort or learn the skills necessary to mount bolsters, and so he just puts a spacer of softer material in place of the bolster, and then lies by calling it a bolster, which is the opposite of what it actually does. It should be called a "weakener," because it weakens the entire handle overall, and weakens especially the appearance of the finished piece.
  • There is a historical reason that bolsters were (and are) added to knife handles, and those reasons are clearly described in the sections just above. The reality is that they bolster the knife handle and are necessary to reinforce the most critical areas of the blade-to-handle junction and the butt. For thousands of years knifemakers and armorers have made and attached bolsters and there are clear reasons for them. It speaks a lot about a modern maker who chooses to ignore the real purpose of these critical fittings, and take the lazy, ineffective way of handling his knives, while claiming that these spacers are something they are not (bolsters). The ancient knifemakers would laugh at this effort, and it's an insult to our tradecraft and history to make a knife this way. Don't call it a bolster if it's not; just recognize that it is a handle scale made of multiple pieces of material bonded together by glue and held in place with pins and it is weaker than a real bolstered knife.

A fake "bolster" is actually a "weakener," and a sign of a weak effort on the part of the knifemaker overall.
The knife client should wonder at what other shortcuts the maker has made.

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"Ari B'Lilah" Tactical Combat Counterterrorism Knife, obverse side view in CPMS35VN high vanadium-niobium stainless steel blade, pure titanium bolsters, G10 composite handle, tension-locking sheath of kydex, aluminum, stainless steel, 6AL4V titanium, ultimate belt loop extender
Proper bolsters of pure T2 titanium on this Israeli Defense Force YAMAM Counterterrorism Knife

Some important points about stainless steel knife bolsters, guards, and fittings

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. See the details about this in the section above: 304 vs. 410, 416, and 303 Stainless Steel

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Hand-engraved 304 stainless steel bolsters with brown Micaceous Hematite gemstone knife handle

What About Dovetailed Bolsters?

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.

  1. It locks the handle scale in place; the handle scale can not come off by lifting in any way off the tang. It cannot be knocked, hammered, or dislodged, even if by some chance all bedding material and adhesive were removed or made ineffective. Simply put, dovetailing the bolster creates a mechanical lock that secures the handle to the tang in the strongest, most permanent fashion. There simply is no stronger way to lock handle material to the tang.
  2. Because the lock is strong and durable, great forces may be applied to the handle and they are mechanically transferred to the knife tang and ultimately, knife blade. This is critical in tactical, combat, and counterterrorism knives, because the last thing the knife owner needs to worry about is a handle coming loose or falling off! This will never happen with dovetailed bolsters; it's simply not possible, unless the handle is completely fractured and broken into pieces, and even then, the pieces that are under the dovetails will remain!
  3. More friable handle material is better protected with a dovetailed bolster. We've all seen wood split or splinter on the end grain, and the end grain of the dovetailed handle is precisely where the bolster overlays and protects it. When well-bedded and sealed, moisture cannot penetrate the wood or other organic materials (horn, bone, or ivory) and the handle scales are better safeguarded.
  4. Lateral flexion is limited with dovetailed bolsters by increased surface area and the geometry of the shape. A dovetailed bolster offers a much larger contact area between the handle scale and the bolster, and this limits the lateral flexing (side to side) of the handle. When squared bolsters are used, this is the first location that a crack (in the handle adhesive) will occur, and it is the most noticeable and damaging to the handle.
  5. The bolster is enlarged on the surface, but reduced in weight. This is a balance and artistic property. When the bolster overlays the handle material, it gives more appearance of substantial metallic component, and a larger surface to engrave on or embellish if that is the direction of the piece. But the actual mass of the metal bolster component is less, since it's cut away underneath. So, balance of the knife handle, where critical grams can make the difference between a heavy handle and a balanced handle can be controlled.
  6. The appearance is more flowing and pleasing to the eye. The matched angles of the dovetailed bolster scream out fine, intricate and matched workmanship, and truly the finer knives exhibit this component of fittings in our art.

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, and epoxy has very little tensile strength.

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.

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"Taranis" Counterterrorism knife, dovetailed bolsters locking handle material to the tang
"Taranis" Counterterrorism Combat Knife

Mosaic Pins?

Though I've used mosaic pins in my early knives, I haven't use them in many years. This is due to several factors:

  • The materials used to manufacture or make custom mosaic pins are copper, brass, aluminum, and sometimes bronze. These are all softer materials, and some are too soft for use in any knife fitting (aluminum). I aim for the highest durability and these all fall short.
  • The geometry of a mosaic pin is weak. Since the pin chamber or tube is filled with epoxy or filling material, the strength of the pin relies on small pins of the weaker materials listed above.
  • The diameter of a mosaic pin leads you to think it is strong, but a large diameter forces the maker to cut away more of the handle material, weakening the handle material. So, you may have a large, somewhat stronger pin, but the canvas that reinforces Micarta®, the fiberglass cloth that reinforces G10, or the carbon reinforcing carbon fiber composites are cut away, weakening the handle scale. In woods, a large mosaic pin requires a large hole, and that erases the strength in the pin area, weakening the scale. Since expansion and contraction is inevitable due to changes in moisture and temperature, the handle may crack and check around these large pins. I'd rather not have that happen!
  • Corrosion is more apparent, and more troublesome in these typical materials. Not only does this stain, cause odors, and require hand polishing, the bright colorful contrast of a mosaic pin is quickly flattened as these materials darken and tarnish; they must be constantly maintained.
  • The style of the mosaic pin is rather... cheap. When it first became fashionable to have them, makers had to hand-construct the pins with found and drawn wires, tubes, and stock. Now, the pins are mass-marketed and imported to knife making supply companies. To me, these pins have become a way to gussy-up plain handle material, not something you would find on high grade investment knives.

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.

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Solid and strong 1/8" 304 stainless steel pins:
"Imamu" obverse side view in ATS-34 high molybdenum stainless steel blade, 304 stainless steel bolsters, green, black, pistachio G10 fiberglass epoxy composite handle, locking kydex, aluminum, stainless steel sheath with full accessories
More about this Imamu

What about domed pins that extend beyond the surface of the material?

Some makers use domed pins, or pins that extend above the surface of the handle or bolster material to mount their fittings or handle. The technique is used most often on handle materials or bolsters, guards, or fittings that are extensively carved. The surface is convex, concave, may be textured, formed, or finished before being mounted on the knife blade or folding knife handle, so it would be very difficult to attach these materials with pins that are flush with the surface. Flush pins are a difficult affair; try making this happen in 304 stainless steel, with a fit so tight that you simply can't see the pins at all. In order to bypass this difficult process, or if the material is so soft and delicate that expanding a pin would crack it, domed pins are used. I know of at least one maker who mounts everything: bolsters, guards, handle material: everything, with domed and polished brass pins.

How domed pins are usually made: The blade is drilled (before heat treating) to accommodate the location of the pieces to be pinned and mounted to the knife. The material to be pinned is fitted to the flat of the blade, and the holes for the pin are backdrilled through the holes in the blade and through the material. The material is then sculpted, shaped, carved, and finished. Then the pins are tapped into position, and they may be lightly peened (or not, if the material is delicate) and then a doming tool is used to round over the surface of the pin. Sometimes one pin head is formed first, and the second is formed while the formed one is being supported by a pin anvil. Doming tools are found in the jewelry trade, and they can be high speed steel or carbide carvers and sanding apparatus. Then, the pin is covered with masking tape to protect the handle material from swarf and abrasion, and the domed pin is polished. Because the polishing may affect the carved material, domed pins are often made of softer metals (like brass) that are easy to polish without affecting the material underneath.

This is not necessarily a bad thing; but like all parts of handmade items, there are costs to pay and a specific application that should be noted.

  • Soft materials like mammoth or mastodon ivory, softer woods, teeth, stag, shell, antler, horn or bone are typically the recipient of the domed pin. This is because pinning them flush, and expanding the pins by peening can crack these soft and somewhat delicate materials. In some cases, this is the only way to mechanically mount and attach these materials. Flush pins are very difficult to finish in these materials, since they may be irregular, curved, or shaped with rough texture (like stag). Just know that if they are mounted with domed pins, the material may be somewhat delicate.
  • Pins may not be peened or expanded (particularly in the tang), and this is important. The pin may be only held in place with adhesive, and may not be expanded in any way at the surface. As mentioned above, widening of the pin to any degree may force the material to crack, after all, that is why the domed pin is being used. There is one technique where a soft pin (usually brass, silver, nickel silver (white brass), or (rarely) gold is used, and the hole at the surface of the material is slightly enlarged or tapered. The pin is then lightly peened to expand and hold the material in place, and then the pin is cut and domed and polished in position. While this may seem strong, it is not, because the expanded areas are bearing mechanically on the soft surface material, and the pin is not expanded in any way through the actual blade or tang. The pin can actually move through the tang, held in place by only the adhesive. This is a fairly weak way to mount any material.
  • The pin material is usually soft. As previously stated, brass, silver, nickel silver (white brass), or (rarely) gold are used for domed pins. Sometimes softer stainless steels are used. In the final stages of finishing a domed pin, even if finely sanded, on brightly finished knife handles and fittings, the pin must be polished. A hard, tough material, would take extensive polishing to bring up the surface of the pin to a high luster, and this would abrade, dig out, and embed the softer and often porous surface underneath with polish and swarf. In order to prevent this, the softer the pin material the better, so it polishes quickly and easily. When stainless steel pins are used, the polish is in the forming tool, since it is polished, it imparts the same finish to the surface of the pin during forming.
  • The domed pin is uncomfortable. This is probably the largest limiting factor and the main reason that I rarely used domed pins. Who wants to feel a bumpy little protrusion sticking into their palms when gripping a handle? This is why domed pins are usually used on "collector's" knives that are truly never meant to be held or used. They make look interesting in a photo, bright little yellow or golden accents rising up above a piece of mammoth ivory or horn, but they are not something you want to feel digging into your hand. This is why they go well with highly carved handles, since radical carving on handles means that the handles are not really meant to be gripped either, and the knife looks best when sitting on a stand, in a case, or hanging in a frame.
  • Domed pins will become quickly scratched and scarred. This is insurmountable. The pins are raised from the surface; they stick out; they protrude, even if only a little bit. They are also soft, so they will be easily abraded, dulled, scratched, and scarred by the knife simply laying on any surface harder than the pin. They will need to be babied, coddled, protected from harm, so the knife that has the domed pin is usually not expected to encounter actual use in any way. Re-polishing them may not even be possible, since this would mean cutting away the surface of the pin with a doming or forming tool, sanding, and then buffing them.
  • Domed pins need polished, a lot! If the domed pin is brass, copper, silver or nickel silver, it will need extensive maintenance, particularly if it is brass, since brass darkens overnight. All that polishing will eventually darken the area around the pin, as compound and swarf is deposited. I suppose the handle could be lacquered to protect it somewhat, but surface coatings are frowned upon in the knife world, since they will, sooner or later, darken, discolor, stain, chip, scratch, and wear off. The only exception to continuous polishing would be gold, but gold is so soft that it can be scratched at the slightest contact.

I'm not saying that domed pins should be prohibited, and I know of at least one maker who uses domed pins to mount everything: bolsters, guards, handles, and sheath fittings. His knives all look like they are studded with tiny brass buttons, and stylistically this detracts from the heavy carving of the damascus, horn, ivory, and bone that he does. Little brass protrusions abound, and evidently, he has a following for this type of mounting arrangement, so someone likes it.

Domed pin mounting may have purpose and it's certainly well-known in the jewelry trade, and I may even use it if my project style and necessity of mounting requires it. But it is not a mount for a durable, permanent, long-lasting and tough knife fitting and handle, and should be used sparingly, not as a default mounting method.

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Clean, smooth, polished, contoured handle, solidly mounted:
"Orion"reverse side view in 440C high chromium stainless steel blade, hand-engraved 304 stainless steel bolsters, Rio Grande Agate gemstone  handle, hand-carved leather sheath inlaid with frog skin
More about this Orion

What about blackened bolsters?

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.

IMPORTANT NOTE! In about mid-2016, through many trials and development experiments, I came up with a process that can produce a dark, non-reflective, near-black durable patina on stainless steel bolsters and blades. This is a limited process, and can only be used on certain types of stainless steels, handle materials, and knives. This darkening agent creates a flowing, dark pattern I call "Ghost Slate." I use this process on some of my elite counterterrorism knives in my "Shadow" line. You can learn more about this at this topic link on my "Counterterrorism Knives" page.

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"Kairos" combat, counterterrorism knife in 440C high chromium stainless steel blade, 304 stainless steel bolsters, G10 fiberglass/epoxy composite handle, hybrid tension-locking sheath in kydex, anodized aluminum, stainless steel with HULA, LIMA, and UBLX
More about this counterterrorism "Kairos"

Mounting the bolster

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. Soldering creates localized heat that may affect the blade temper. Unless acidic soldering flux is removed from any area between the bolster and the tang, it can 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 3000 knives over 30 years as of this writing, I've never had one fail.

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Pins and bolsters, ready for mounting in zero clearance pin holes through knife tang

Why is there a scuff mark on my bolsters?

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.

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"Hooded Warrior" in locking waterproof kydex, aluminum, and stainless steel combat sheath

The Guard

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.

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302 stainless steel sculpted guard and pommel, wire wrapped Sodalite gemstone handle with sterling silver wire, ferrules

Do you make Japanese style wrapped rayskin handles?

Skin handles? Handles made of skin? 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.

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Carbon steel bolsters with Red River Jasper gemstone handle and blued steel knife blade

Okay, Let's see the Handle Materials

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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