Making Kitchen Knives – Part 6 – Basic Shaping of the Handle

I have decided to make the handle on this knife from an old piece of wood I have cut from a palette that stood outside for quite a while. I do not know what wood it is, I suspect birch. It is extremely weathered and looks kinda crap. But there is a trick to make such old wood look very fancy.

©Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

©Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

I have done most of the work per hand, first splitting the piece of wood along the visible crack, then cutting it with small hand-held saw to very roughly the final shape and drilling the holes for pins. So far this work was pretty uneventful and straightforward.

As you can see on the picture on the right, I have fixed the two halves with screws to make the final shaping. This is where things stopped being uneventful. The wood was not overly hard, but it was very tough and I could not shape it on the big belt sander because that is running too fast and the wood tended to gum up the belt and burn. So I have been stuck with using handheld tools. I thought that it is not a problem because I expected to do it quickly even so.

I was wrong. It took me 1:50, or 110 minutes, to get the handle scales into a nearly finished shape. I should have used my small belt sander, it has slower running belt and is better suited for wood.

Of course it would not be nearly as long work if I have made ordinary rectangular handle and not this ergonomically shaped one. However I consider the handle shape to be an important, even defining, component of this design. Simplifying the handle shape in the name of saving time would in my opinion strip the product of its uniqueness and I see no point in hand-made completely generic knives.

I think that I could reduce this work significantly by working on multiple knives at once, cutting the outlines with band saw and rough shaping with the small belt sander. Due to confined space in my workshop I need some time for setting those two devices up so it is not always worth for a one-off action. But should I prepare say 20 handle scales in one go, It would certainly be worth it.

©Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

Before proceeding to finishing the handle I had to use my magic trick to improve the looks of the wood. That trick is called “ammonia fuming” and consists of putting the scales into a big jam-jar with a bit of ammonia solution and leave them in it overnight of for a few days, depending on what your goal is – the longer the wood is in the ammonia, the darker it will become.

In this specific instance I have left the wood sit directly in the ammonia solution, letting it to soak it up. It is also possible for example to only let the wood above the solution in the fumes (hence the name).

I have experimented in the past with multiple solution treatments and I have at my disposal a few such processes to alter the wood to warying degrees – from mild color change to actually making the wood compacted and a lot harder. The advantage of these methods over staining the wood with a dye is that the color change goes deep into the wood so it does not get scratched off. It also looks a lot more natural in my opinion.

However, to wrap up, this step took more time than I expected it to, but I think I can put it in “low hanging fruit” basket, because I expect working in bulk should reduce time here significantly and I already have the machinery necessary for that.


  1. kestrel says

    It’s looking great. I agree with you about putting effort into the handle: the handle of a knife is sort of the human/knife interface, and I think they matter quite a lot to the user. I know they do to me. That handle makes me just want to pick that knife up and use it! I also think you’re right that this part could be made faster, as I used to know a man who made wooden saddle trees (they were then covered in rawhide) and he had jigs set up so that even an unskilled worker could shape the base of the saddle tree very quickly and easily. And maybe just a bigger container for your magic trick, so you could do many at once?

    This knife is looking so good. It is certainly something that I myself would buy.

  2. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    The handle looks like it would fit my hand nicely. Useful and comfortable if you use a knife more than just a few minutes a day.

  3. avalus says

    Yes, the handle is what really irks me about a lot of knives I bought. Yours looks like is will be very comfortable.

  4. rq says

    That looks a very comfortable knife. I once read an interesting sf short story about knives and handles, but for the life of me I can’t remember the title or author -- it was either in this or this anthology, both of which are currently sitting in storage in the distant land of Canada.

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