Jay Fisher - World Class Knifemaker
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Horn, bone, shell, and ivories used in modern custom and handmade knife handle and component construction offer visual interest, tactile security, or great beauty and value. This page is about these natural materials.
Please click on the items in the list below to jump down the page to details of each item or species.
|Natural Animal Knife Handle Materials|
|Antler||Horns||Ivories||Bone||Pearl, Shell, Coral|
|Deer Antler||Sheep Horn||Elephant Ivory||Animal Bone||Mother of Pearl|
|Elk Antler||Kudu||Mammoth Ivory, Mastodon Ivory||Jigged Bone||Gold lipped Mother of Pearl|
|Sambar Stag||Springbok Horn||Walrus Tusk||Giraffe Bone||Tiger Coral|
|Stag (Scales)||Impala Horn||Fossil Walrus Tusk||Oosic||Abalone Shell|
|Stag (Crowns)||Gazelle Horn||Wart Hog Tusk||Oosic, Fossil||Paua Shell|
|Special Treatments||Cape Buffalo Horn||Elk Ivory|
|Ox Horn||Whale's Tooth|
The history is rich. From the first time prehistoric man laced a bone handle to a piece of flint with some sinew, he realized the importance in this handle material. Bones, tusks, and antlers from living animals memorialized the hunt, perhaps personalized and anointed his knife with the spoils of his hunting efforts. There are good examples of carving ivory from as early as ancient Babylonia, 2300 B.C. The tradition of using animal parts for his handles continued throughout history, and continues today.
Tradition, beauty, texture, and value.
Usually, the choice to use horn, bone, or ivory is one of tradition. Most of us grew up carrying jigged bone handled pocket knives, and in my day, we even carried our knives to school. Every boy had his own knife, and occasionally we would find one that had been dropped, or lost, laying in the dirt around the playground equipment. We would often play what we called "chicken," where we would throw the knife between the feet of our opponent in turns, and move our feet to the landing point of the blade, ever closer, until either one of our feet got stuck with the point of the knife, or we chickened out. Usually, our knives were so dull, they wouldn't penetrate a canvas tennis shoe. Man, things have changed today! Most of us are familiar with a stag handled hunting knife. This is the knife style our fathers and our grandfathers grew up with. You didn't take a wooden handled butcher's knife on a hunt, you took a stag handled knife. Again, this probably hearkens back to prehistoric principles of the hunt.
The choice to use horn, bone, shell, or ivory is also one of beauty. Nothing looks like a piece of stag, furrowed and rough. Fresh elephant ivory is a beautiful solid creamy color, suitable for engraving, carving, or scrimshaw. Mammoth ivory can have stunning patterns in rich browns, reds, and even blues. The shapes of many antlers and horns left in the round lend themselves to handles, the forms compliment knives and sometimes modern stands and fittings. Shells can have stunning iridescent light play and a smooth lustrous finish.
The texture of many of these materials helps improve grip strength. Many horns, bones, and ivories become sticky when wet, thus improving grip security when working. The texture adds visual interest and contrast to a smooth and polished blade. The texture of a fine organic material makes a transition between the cold, inorganic steel blade to the living, warm, moving hand. The polished texture of ivory has a smooth comfortable feel, jigged bone is attractive and secure in the hand.
Value is one of the more modern reasons to use this material. Ivories are hard to come by, ancient ivories are a limited resource. Mammoth and mastodon ivory, fossil walrus tusk, and fossil Oosic are some of the most valuable and sought after knife handle materials. Some shells, coral, and pearl families are rare and expensive. Many of these materials increase the value of the knife dramatically.
The first problem with them is that all the materials listed on this page are somewhat porous, and this effects stability. There are lesser and greater degrees of porosity, and that helps with good choices for handle applications. Being porous and organic, these materials absorb moisture, loose moisture, absorb contaminants, salts, and soil. Extra care must be taken to keep the handle material clean and dry. Sudden changes in relative humidity (like moving from a damp forested environment to a dry air conditioned room) can cause such a variation in moisture content that the material shrinks and cracks away from bolsters, guards, or pins within hours.
Temperature also affects these materials radically. Putting a bone or ivory handled knife in the direct sun or under a bright display lamp for a couple hours can ruin it. Part of the problem is moisture content, but another factor is the coefficient of thermal expansion. Since the coefficient is much different than steel, movement can be outright extreme. Often, pins and epoxy do not prevent movement, and eventually the bone, horn, or ivory shrinks, checks, and cracks away from the pins, bolsters and tang. This does not necessarily mean the end of the knife. As long as the knife is kept reasonably dry, it should last in service.
Light can be another enemy. Many of these organic materials react to the long term exposure of light, sometimes bleaching and becoming flat in color and depth. Since they are usually laying on one side, the other side will not bleach, and then the knife looks like a different handle material was put on each side. On a hidden tang knife it can look as if it's been laying in the desert for a century. And the intensity of the light also adds to the effects of drying detailed above.
Sometimes, checking in ivory is an advantage. It testifies to the age of the knife handle, and elephant ivory is graceful and forgiving in its yellowing and checking. It's proof that it is indeed ivory, because replacements (like Micarta® and phenolic plastics) never change, age, or check.
Another disadvantage is toughness and hardness. Organic materials like horn, shell, bone, and ivory can easily be scratched, dented, scarred, and stained. Though some are tougher than others, they are not physically strong materials. Some are brittle, some are downright delicate so special care must be used in mounting them on the handle, and the knife and handle itself must be cared for with extra consideration.
Size and shape can be another limiting factor in knife handle design. Most of these materials are derived from curved pieces, and the geometry of the knife handle must incorporated these curves to exhibit the most from the handle material. Particularly, this can limit the width of the handle. Sections must sometimes be made thin to take advantage of the display area of the material, and this further threatens overall strength. That is why so many mammoth ivory handles, for instance, are used on smaller or folding knives. The curve of the tusk can not be fully applied to the handle flats if the handle is wide and large.
Knife handles aren't the only use of horn, bone, and ivory. I often incorporate these materials into my display stands, sheaths, and even as accent components in the knives themselves. Nothing looks as rich and organic as ivory, polished horn, shell, or coral. It is quite common to see a fork of an antler used to support or elevate a knife on a display stand, and though that is where most of us start in our quest to display a knife, an evolution of that process is inevitable in the finer works.
Horns and antlers have been commonly used in knife handle construction for many millennia. Along with wood, horns and antlers are probably the oldest knife handle material. Horn and antler can be left rough, polished, or carved, sometimes scrimshawed or textured. Though they are similar and often referred to in the same reference, there are some important differences.
Horn is mostly a derivation of hair, actually hollow sheaths of keratin, tightly condensed and packed in a solid growth. Horns, such as cow horn and buffalo horn, are not shed annually, and commonly last the life of the animal. Horns are usually more dense than antlers.
Antlers are a porous bony appendage that are shed annually, so antlers are a renewable resource. Elk, mule deer and white tailed deer are good examples. These sheds can be a valuable find in the forests of our country, and many hikers go out in the early spring just to gather shed antlers. Antlers are usually more porous than horn. Some antlers are better than others.
Often, the terms horn and antler and stag are interchanged, which can cause some confusion. Each one deserves some special attention:
Ivories are animal teeth. Ivories and tusks are unusually dense, some of the densest, hardest animal parts and remains. They are much less porous than bone, therefore last longer, are less apt to absorb liquids, and polish better. They are definitely a step up from bone and antler, but cost considerably more. However, they are not impervious to moisture damage, expansion and contraction, staining, and separation from the knife handle.
I read an ad copy on one web site and the claim is when you buy a custom carved ivory knife handle, "you will own an exclusive work of art that will defy time." What? Ivory shrinks, dries, checks, cracks, stains, and yellows. Time is an enemy of ivory, it will not defy time in any sense of the word. Such claims like this do our business and tradecraft a huge injustice. What handle material will defy time and even outlast the blade? Why, gemstone, of course.
Ivories have traditionally been the most favored of animal parts for knife handles, jewelry, and accessories, so much so that the trade in ivory has reduced some animal species to near extinction. There is a lot of regulation and restrictions on ivory use, and documentation of the origin of certain ivories can be tedious, only for the supplier and maker, not usually for the knife client or collector. Overzealous bureaucrats have even confiscated Mammoth ivory handled knives believing the ivory was from recent elephants. Maybe they were trying to protect the Mammoths from extinction... oops, too late.
Here are the types with details:
Animal bone has been used on knife handles since the dawn of time. Whether to represent the hunt and quest for game, or because it was a willing and workable raw material, or perhaps because ancient man just wondered what to do with all that extra bone lying around, it found its way to the handle. Bone is easily worked, plentiful, and fairly durable. On the modern custom knife, though, it has some problems. First, it is very porous. That means that it absorbs pretty much anything it contacts. Perhaps in ancient times, the tissues and fluids and sweat it encountered would help it stabilize, while imparting a weather resisting patina. Nowadays, no one field dresses their hamburger, or scrapes a hide to make boots for tromping through the snow after mammoth. So the bone is left to dry out, absorb atmospheric moisture and fluids from the hand, and is subject to continuous heating and cooling of the days and seasons. So, being so porous, it expands and contracts extensively, and eventually works itself loose from fittings, cracks around pins, fights any method of attachment used to fix it to a knife tang. It is much more unstable than ivory, and is therefore usually used on the cheapest of knives. Bones mounted on knife handles are often jigged. Jigging in this context is a word that comes from Scotland, and refers to any mechanical contrivance that operates by repeated jerky and reciprocating motion. So jigged bone is named for the jigging machine that cuts it. The cuts in the bone give it some tactile purchase, especially when wet, offer some visual interest, and hide grainy porosity in the finished surface.
The sea has offered us some beautiful materials for knife handles and adornment. These organics can include fish teeth and bones, but their use in knife handles is rare. Pearl, shells, and coral are abundant and moderately durable once mounted on the knife.
Thanks for being here!
I'll add new photographs and descriptions of my horn, bone, ivory, and shell handles, components, fixtures, fittings, and artwork as they become available.
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