For centuries, wood has been the standard when making a handle for a knife. Its wide availability, combined with how easy it is to work with, makes it an excellent material for something like a knife handle which should be durable and beautiful. Because it is such a universal material worldwide, there can be a lot to sift through when looking for the best wood for knife handles.
Due to its shock resistance and environmentally sustainable quality, birch is an ideal wood for making knife handles. Birch trees regrow quickly and produce some of the hardest natural wood, making them both sustainable and durable.
Depending on what the knife will be used for, various types of wood can be used. Some are more decorative and ornamental, while others serve a more functional purpose. Knowing how the knife will be used goes a long way when looking for the best wood for knife handles.
Why Use Wood?
Humans have been making tools with wooden handles ever since the Stone Age. Wood is available in most parts of the world and can be manipulated and shaped much more quickly than other materials.
At the same time, it is incredibly durable, and some types of wood can last centuries. This has made it the go-to for tools, knives, axes, and anything else that gets a lot of use and takes a lot of abuse.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to use wood is that it is a natural resource. If properly sourced and sustainably grown, wood can regenerate itself and create a cycle of more wood with relatively little processing. This, in contrast with other materials like stone, metal, and plastic, makes it ideal for construction.
Wood also makes a perfect tool handle due to its natural shock resistance. When a hard material like stone or metal hits a surface, the vibrations transfer to the hand of whoever is holding it.
Using a wooden knife handle absorbs the shock by the wood, making it much easier to use the tool for longer periods of time and at higher levels of exertion. If a knife is going to be used every day, it is a good idea to be made out of something that will be easy on the user.
It is also worth noting that wood complements metal very well. The aesthetics of a well-made, highly polished wood handle on an immaculately crafted knife blade cannot be beaten.
As the knife ages, if the handle has been well-maintained, it will last just as long as the blade. This is especially important in hunting and other knives used for work and construction.
I love bushcraft knives with wooden handles! They feel better than a bushcraft knife with a plastic or rubber handle.
Hardwoods vs. Softwoods
Two main types of wood are used for construction or craftsmanship: hardwood and softwood. The names refer to whether or not the tree the wood came from had leaves or needles. However, true to their names, hardwoods, for the most part, are dense and robust, while softwoods tend to be more porous and malleable.
Hardwoods will be much more desirable when picking the best wood for making knife handles. Going even further, the inner core of a hardwood tree, known as the heartwood, is the tree’s strongest and dense part. This part of the tree has been exposed to the elements the least and will be less susceptible to rotting and warping.
Some popular hardwoods for knife handles include:
- Cocobolo Wood
- Indian Rosewood
Softwoods are not typically used for handles and tools due to their pliant makeup and sensitivity to moisture and temperature. However, some softwoods can make strong and beautiful knife handles if properly treated and stabilized.
Some softwoods that can be used for knife handles when properly treated include:
- Douglas Fir
- Eastern White Pine
- Western Red Cedar
Stabilized or Untreated?
Wood stabilizing is a process that involves injecting a softwood with resin to harden it and make it more usable for something like a knife handle. For this process, the wood must be completely dry. Wet wood will not absorb the resin, and the wood will be unusable.
During stabilization, the wood is placed in a resin pot inside a vacuum chamber. The vacuum pulls all the air out of the softwood and replaces it with the resin, filling the porous parts of the wood. When the pot stops bubbling, all of the air has been pulled out of the wood, and it is ready for curing.
Unless it is adequately cured, the wood will not stabilize. This means it should be put in an oven until all the resin has hardened and bonded with the fibers. After an hour in the oven, the wood needs to rest for 48 hours before anything else is done. This whole process will give a softwood the strength and durability it needs to be a usable knife handle.
Untreated hardwoods don’t need special processing before turning into a knife handle. They are hard enough right off the tree and only need to be shaped and polished to bring out their natural beauty.
Availability and Sustainability
It would be essential to consider when looking for any wood for building materials if it is sustainable and ecologically sound to use. Some factors that come into play with sustainability are how easily the trees regenerate and whether or not they are grown in protected areas.
In some cases, it has been discovered that even some more common woods have been illegally logged. For this reason, those looking to be extra environmentally conscious should search for reclaimed wood or possibly wood that has been certified by The Forest Stewardship Council.
A good rule of thumb when looking for the best wood for knife handles is to find the most sustainable and eco-friendly lumber available. Some more exotic and beautiful hardwoods, like Brazilian Mahogany and Ebony, are endangered. While they may seem perfect for an ornamental knife handle, it is best to avoid them.
Softwoods like Pine, Spruce, and Fir are easy to find, cheap, and relatively self-sufficient. They grow easily and quickly, and they are not endangered. It may take a little bit more effort to stabilize them, but they can be an environmentally friendly alternative to some rare and expensive hardwoods.
There are, however, also many hardwoods that are not endangered and are not overly expensive, like some exotic woods. Woods like birch and maple are easy to find and relatively cheap compared to some less eco-conscious, albeit beautiful options.
The type of wood that is used to make a knife handle is going to depend on a lot of things. Whether or not the knife is just for decoration or if it’s going to be used all day, every day will determine what the best type of handle for it will be. With a bit of thought, an endless variety of woods can make something beautiful that will last a long time.