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 a great material for something like a knife handle which should be equal parts durable and beautiful. Because it is such a universal material all over the world, 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 wood in nature, making them both sustainable and durable.
Depending on what the knife will be used for, there are all kinds of different options as to the types of wood that can be used. Some are more decorative and ornamental while others serve a more functional purpose. When looking for the best wood for knife handles, knowing how the knife will be used goes a long way.
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 easily than other materials. At the same time, it is incredibly durable and some types of wood can last for 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 the fact 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 an ideal material for construction.
Wood also makes a perfect handle for tools 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. By using a wooden knife handle, the shock is absorbed 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 for it 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 things like hunting knives and other knives used for work and construction.
I love bushcraft knives with wooden handles! They just feel better to me than a bushcraft knife with a plastic or rubber handle.
Hardwoods vs. Softwoods
There are two main types of wood that are generally used for any type of construction or craftsmanship: hardwood and softwood. The names actually 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 strong while softwoods tend to be more porous and malleable.
Hardwoods are going to be a much more desirable material when picking the best wood for making knife handles. Going even further, the inner core of a hardwood tree, which is known as the heartwood, is the strongest and most dense part of the tree. This is the part of the tree that 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 things like handles and tools due to their pliant makeup and sensitivity to moisture and temperature. However, if properly treated and stabilized, some softwoods can make strong and beautiful knife handles.
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 pot of resin 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, that means that all of the air has been pulled out of the wood, and it is ready for curing.
Unless it is cured properly, the wood will not stabilize. This means that 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 then needs to rest for 48 hours before anything else is done with it. This whole process will give a softwood the strength and durability it needs to be a usable knife handle.
Untreated hardwoods don’t need any kind of special processing before they are turned into a knife handle. They are hard enough right off of the tree, and only need to be shaped and polished to bring out their natural beauty.
Availability and Sustainability
Something that would be important to consider when looking for any wood for building materials is whether or not it is sustainable and ecologically sound to use. Some of the 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 of the more common woods have been illegally logged. For this reason, those that are 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 just find out what is the most sustainable and eco-friendly wood available in the area. Some of the more exotic and beautiful hardwoods like Brazilian Mahogany and Ebony are incredibly endangered. While they may seem like a perfect material 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-sustaining. 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 of the more 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 of the 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 is going to determine what the best type of handle for it is going to be. With a little bit of thought, an endless variety of woods can make something beautiful that will last a long time.