Updated: Dec 26, 2019
In today's knife game, the choice of handle material has become just as important as the blade steel, especially in high-end knife market. The right handle material could play a major role in the performance of a knife. This may not be so much of an issue for collectable knives, other than aesthetics of course, but for actual daily use the handle material is quite important.
There are a large variety of handle materials available in the market and with more composites being developed for knife handles regularly, choosing the right handle material could be a tricky task. In this article I will list some of the most commonly used handle materials and discuss their specs and performance.
I have divided these materials into 4 categories; Exotics, Metals, Synthetics and Natural. For Metals, Synthetics and Natural categories I'll try to provide a short brief of each material's physical qualities and short-list their Pros & Cons. For Exotic materials, I'll only discuss the history and characteristics of each material but won't list any Pros & Cons. Simply because these materials are incorporated into knife handles for one reason only, aesthetics. The philosophy behind using exotic materials is to add uniqueness, flair, collectability and sheer beauty to the knife. They are not meant to have any practical advantage over other materials. Therefore, I'll skip the Pros & Cons for this category.
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Timascus is one of the most exciting, beautiful and of course expensive materials that is currently used in knife making. In fact Timascus is so expensive it's usually used for making hardware, pocket clips and other smaller parts to keep the prices at a reasonable range. Unlike most other materials that we will discuss in this article, Timascus was specifically developed for knife making. It was first created in 2005 in a collaboration between master metalsmith Tom Ferry, Bill Cottrell and Chuck Bybee.
Lets hear the story of Timascus from Tom Ferry himself:
"Tom Ferry, ABS Mastersmith:
The creation of Timascus was developed through the combined effort of Chuck Bybee, Bill Cottrell and myself. The idea of a titanium based damascus was sprung upon me by Chuck numerous times at numerous shows and venues. The discussion always ended with me saying that I doubt it was possible to create but Chuck would always leave a sheet of titanium for me to try. The advantage of creating a titanium based laminate material would be its lightweight, non magnetic, and non corrosive properties. At this time we had a theory that each titanium alloy would heat color or anodize at a different rate thereby giving contrast in the pattern. The main idea was always for knife furniture as titanium will not form carbides or harden enough to make a descent blade.
After finishing up early in the shop one day and glancing over to see the rather large stack of accumulated titanium sitting in the corner of my shop, I decided to give it a whirl. I started with a damascus based process I knew well and employed it upon the first billet. It was an utter failure as the titanium did not even begin to bond at all.
Having never let failure stop me before, I instantly assembled another billet and modified the process a little. This is where the excitement started! During the first weld attempt on this billet, the titanium went molten and sprayed white hot sparks all over the shop. Of course these sparks proceeded to ignite anything they touched and needless to say I spent the remaining afternoon putting out a few fires and placing a well deserved phone call to Mr. Bybee. Boy did he get an earfull!
Although this first experience was not a great one, I could not get the idea of accomplishing a titanium damascus out of my head. I proceeded to do a lot of research and after a couple weeks I approached a good friend Bill Cottrel and discussed the process with him. We came up with a new approach and arranged the date on which to execute it.
The third attempt was a complete success and Chuck received a friendlier phone call this time.
One year later, Timascus has been taken to the next level as we have developed the first mosaic based pattern.
The development of Timascus is in my mind a huge step and a natural progression in the realm of damascus or pattern welded material. Since the first success, our process has evolved and changed numerous times to accommodate the problems we encountered and the patterns that can be developed. This has been by far one of the greatest and hardest things I have ever accomplished as there were no boundaries or set limits to follow."
Timascus has virtually the same physical qualities of titanium. It is hands down the most beautiful and prestigious of metals, at least in my humble opinion. Timascus is a trademark and is patented. A few other people have also attempted to create a similar product using different methods. Collin Meyers, the talented custom knife maker at Rad Knives is one that has succeeded. He is currently forging his own version of titanium Damascus which he calls "Radmascus". Make sure you check his astonishing work.
Mokuti is another name for this material that is also very common. Timascus and Mokuti are virtually the same material. The difference is that "Timascus" is a trademark while "Mokuti" is the term generally used to refer to this type of pattern-welded titanium alloy.
Also see read more about Timascus Technical Information.
Ron Best Full Dress Fatty
Mokume-gane commonly referred to as Mokume is another exceptionally good looking material used in high-end custom knives. The mesmerising layers and patterns in Mokume are similar to Timascus in appearance. But unlike Timascus which was created only recently, Mokume is actually a few hundred years old.
Mokume gane is a Japanese metalworking process first developed by master metalsmith, Denbei Shoami in the 17th century. Mokume gane in Japanese means "wood eye metal"or "wood grain metal" which refers to the burlwood type pattern of the metal. Denbei originally created Mokume for making decorative parts for samurai swords. The traditional Mokume was a sandwich of softer precious metals like gold, silver and copper. These metals were fused together by heating them up to a nearly liquid phase but not allowing them to completely melt.
With development of modern techniques and machinery, many other metals can now be used in making Mokume. Titanium (which results in Timascus), iron, bronze, brass, etc. are commonly fused together to create stunning patterns. The different colours are achieved by applying patina to Mokume's surface.
Mokume is widely used in jewellery and other fine crafts. Thankfully, knife making industry has also taken advantage of this magnificent material. Many custom knives and even some production knives come with whole or parts of handle being made from Mokume. For knife handle application, most Mokume alloys are forged from less expensive metals such as copper, brass, bronze and nickel. However, the resulting product is still pricey due to laborious and difficult process of production.
William Henry Monarch
Mammoth Molar or mammoth tooth is an exotic (and expensive) handle material. It is basically a fossil molar derived from woolly mammoth. These molars are usually 10,000 to 40,000 years old! This material is uniquely beautiful and extremely attractive.
Mammoth molar's three part layer structure contains enamel, therefore mammoth molar is quite hard and durable. It is often petrified or treated with special resins to fill the pores and bind the layers. It can also be dyed to achieve outstanding colours.
Mammoth molar has a traditional and natural look to it and makes an excellent choice for traditional pocket knives, high end fixed blades and art knives.
Arno Bernard Vulture
Kevlar is high strength material developed in the late 60's and was first commercially used in racing tyres as a replacement for steel. Kevlar's tensile strength is 5 times more than steel while it's many times lighter. This has made Kevlar suitable for many application where high strength and low weight is critical.
Kevlar is usually seen in the form of fabric sheets or ropes of various thicknesses. It can be used in those forms or as an ingredient in composite materials.
Thunderstorm Kevlar is a resin based composite material. It is manufactured similar to Micarta by infusing Kevlar fabric with resin, but it also has brass wires running through the weaves. The final products looks like a cross between Burlap Micarta and lightning strike carbon fiber.
Thunderstorm Kevlar is quite expensive which is why it's used in mid tech and custom knives rather than production knives.
Pohan Leu Custom Hamachi
Meteorite is literally "extraterrestrial". It is the debris of asteroids or comet stars that manage to pass through the Earth's atmosphere. Upon impact, these particles heat up so much that form a fireball and burn. Any material that survives this pass-through and lands on earth is generally called a meteorite. Meteorites are usually found in form of stony meteorites, iron meteorites or stony-iron meteorite.
Although this space age material has recently gained popularity in high-end custom knives, it is not a new material in the knife making world. A 3000 years old dagger made from meteorite was discovered in tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in Egypt. The King Tut's Dagger is an extraordinary work of art, given the time it was made an a solid proof that men were addicted to collecting knives made of expensive materials for a very long time! 30 centuries later, the legendary knife maker Buster Warenski recreated King Tut's dagger as part of his "Legacy Series"knives.
Meteorite can be used to make knife handles as well as blades. Some knife makers even forge Damascus blades from meteorite. This material is fairly expensive and usually reserved for art knives and collectible pieces.
Anthony Marfione Super Matrix
Zirconium is one of the most popular materials in custom knives and for good reasons. Zirconium is a lustrous, grey coloured metal (Don't confuse it with Zirconia, Zircon or cubic Zirconia).
Zirconium was first introduced to knife making by Alpha Knife Supply in 2007. Zirconium is used in military applications for making explosive and nuclear weapons. For that very reason, the sales of Zirconium in the US is closely monitored by the Department of Defense and the sale of the material is restricted to the USA and approved people only. So don't be surprised if you see astronomical prices for a knife with Zirconium handles.
Zirconium is a soft metal that bends easily so it's not suitable for knife parts needing strength. It's mostly used for knife furniture such as inlays, bolsters, guards or backspacers. Although the oxide layer on the surface of zirconium is quite hard, the core is still soft by metal standards. Zirconium is easy to machine and process for knife making, however, it is considered as extreme fire hazard as the Zirconium dust & small particles can combust spontaneously.
When polished and heat coloured properly, Zirconium features a highly polished, glass like surface that's almost black colour. The oxide layer formed on the surface via heat treating is highly scratch resistance which is very ideal for knife handles. But be aware it is also a finger print magnet and requires cleaning after each time you handle the knife.
Robert Carter F16
Titanium is perhaps the most popular of all metals for knife handles. It is widely used by most reputable makers in high quality knives. Everyone wants a titanium handle knife, but what is all the fuss about? I'll explain.
Generally speaking, titanium is as strong as steel but weights 45% less. It is twice as strong as aluminium while being 60% heavier. Titanium is known for its strength-to-weight ratio. Titanium is highly corrosion resistant and unlike steel, does not rust when exposed to extreme weather conditions and sea water. This is particularly important if you use your knife for outdoor or marine application. Titanium is a poor conductor of heat and electricity, but that is actually a good thing. It means your knife handle will not feel uncomfortably cold in winters. Titanium naturally has a warm feel to it. It is also a non magnetic metal which is not so important for most applications but is still a bonus point.
Different alloys of titanium are used in making knife handles (and other parts), however, the most commonly used type is the Ti 6Al-4V also referred to as Grade 5 or TC4 titanium. Grade 5 has the ability to be heat treated to increase its strength, is light weight, formable and highly corrosion resistant.
While common types of titanium have an ultimate tensile strength of around 434 MPa (63,000 psi,) the Beta C titanium can reach over 1400 MPa (200,000 psi). The Beta C is more expensive but that has not stopped custom knife makers to use it in their creations.
One of the most anticipated characteristics of titanium is its ability to be anodized via electro-plating or heat. Electro-plating is the more accurate and controllable method which we also use to modify and customise our knives at Lion Knives.
Pros: Very strong, corrosion resistant, light weight, durable, elegant, versatile
Cons: Difficult to work with, expensive
Todd Begg Steelcraft Bodega
Aluminium is another popular metal for knife handles. Aluminium is a very light weight, strong and durable metal. Most of the time you will find aluminium in anodized form. Beside aesthetic, anodizing is to enhance scratch & corrosion resistance as well as improving grip.
Aluminium is used in different alloy forms with the most common being the T6-6061 alloy. While this alloy has great tensile strength, it is less corrosion resistant compared to softer alloys of aluminium. This is where the anodizing process comes into aid.
Using aluminium for knife handles significantly reduces the weight because it is almost 2.5 times lighter than steel and even lighter than titanium by about 60%.
There are a few downsides to aluminium too. Aluminium is a good conductor of electricity and heat. This means it can get annoyingly cold and uncomfortable to hold in colder environments. Aluminium is also easily scratched which could be a concern if you use your knife on a daily basis.
Pros: Durable, light weight, corrosion resistant, strong
Cons: Prone to scratching, cold to hold
Stainless steel is on the cheaper end of the scale for making knife handles due to its abundance. Despite the lower price, stainless steel is actually very strong, durable and a real "workhorse". Stainless steel offers great corrosion resistance but it's not totally rust proof, specially in contact with sea water. For marine applications titanium or aluminium are a better choice.
Stainless steel is not particularly light weight. Therefore it is to be avoided in larger knives and daily carry knives. Stainless steel could be slippery and manufacturers often add textures, jimping or combine it with other materials (Usually inlays) to improve its grip. Coating is another way to add traction to stainless steel. Titanium carbo-nitride, DLC and PDV coatings improve corrosion resistance and aesthetics as well.
Pros: Strong, inexpensive, durable
Cons: Slippery, heavy, may rust in certain conditions
Kershaw Nura (titanium coated)
G-10 is a form of laminate fiberglass composite. G-10 is created by stacking multiple layers of fiberglass and soaking them in epoxy resin. The mixture is then compressed under heat until the resin is cured. The result is an extremely hard, lightweight and strong material.
Out of the 3 most commonly used laminate composites (G-10, Carbon fiber and Micarta), G-10 is considered to be the toughest. G-10 has all the ingredients to be the perfect knife handle. It is light weight, extremely strong, impervious to elements & chemicals and features excellent electrical insulation. Great colour and pattern variety, low cost and ease of manufacturing has made G-10 one of the most popular materials for knife handles.
Textured and contoured G-10 provides a very secure and comfortable grip which has made G-10 one of the best choices for tactical and outdoor knives.
Pros: Extremely strong, chemical resistance, great for wet & cold conditions, affordable, durable, light weight
Cons: Brittle, feels cheap
Benchmade Griptililan 551-1
What we refer to as "carbon fiber" is actually a carbon fiber reinforced polymer. It's manufactured by bundling several thousands of carbon fibers to form a tow which is then woven tightly into a fabric. This fabric is then combined with resin and compressed under heat to produce carbon fiber reinforced polymer or "carbon fiber".
Carbon fiber has several advantages including high tensile strength, high chemical resistance, high temperature tolerance, and low weight. Carbon fiber's high strength to volume ratio allows for exceptional strength while reducing weight compared to metal handles.
Apart from technical advantages, carbon fiber also looks and feels great. However, it is relatively expensive and is used mostly in higher quality knives.
Pros: Tough, strong, light weight, chemical resistant, elegant
Cons: Brittle, limited variety, expensive
Micarta is another generic term used to describe resin impregnated fiber compounds. Micarta was developed as early as 1910 by George Westinghouse using phenolic resins to impregnate paper and cotton fabrics which were then cured using pressure and heat to form a laminate.
In later years many different types of fibers and resins were also used in making Micarta laminates. Linen, paper, cotton, jeans, fiberglass, unwoven fabrics and even brass and silver wires are used to create different types of Micarta. As such, a great variety of colours and patterns are available for this material which makes it ideal for decorative applications such as knife handles.
Micarta's largest application is in industrial and electrical equipment but we will leave that part alone. For knife handle application, Micarta is a fantastic material that offers excellent strength, resistance to chemicals and light weight. Micarta is also a good choice for using in wet and cold conditions. When textured properly, Micarta offers very comfortable and secure grip. The vast variety of colours and patterns also make Micarta a very popular choice for knife handles.
Pros: Strong, light weight, chemical resistant, good grip, great choice of colours
Cons: Somewhat brittle, slightly more expensive than G-10
Juma is a modern, high-end material that has recently gained popularity in the (custom) knife industry. Juma is a polyurethane based coloured thermoset plastic material. Juma is used mostly in making components and artefacts that resemble ivory in both feel and appearance.
Juma is easily machinable and could also be thermoformed in boiling water. Juma has a relatively hard surface and does not break easily thanks to its high E-mudulus and homogeneous structure. Juma is resistant to most common chemicals and weak to medium acids and can be polished to a shiny surface or be finished in matt.
The most important feature of Juma though is its exceptionally beautiful texture. There are a large variety of patterns and colours available from solid and neutral colours to lizard skins patterns and vibrant colours. The latter is the most popular in custom knives.
Pros: Exceptionally good looking, feels comfortable, good chemical resistance
Cons: Expensive, plastic feeling
Puma Summer, Blue Snake Juma
C-Tek is a relatively new material to the knife world. It is basically an aluminium honey comb structure that is infused with high strength resin. C-Tek is undeniably beautiful and is quite unique because it is a combination of metal and synthetic chemicals. C-Tek is available in endless combinations of structure and resin colour as well as semi transparent to opaque choices.
While C-Tek looks stunning, it is not as durable as other resin based knife handle materials such as G-10 or Micarta. It could be prone to chipping specially around the outer edges.
C-Tek Matrix is also another form of C-Tek which is made of interconnected mesh manufactured from molten aluminium, then infused with resin.
Lizard Skin is basically the same as C-Tek with deformed cell structure infused with resin. It seems to be some sort of salvaging the damaged or defected C-Tek honey combs. The resulting product is actually quite interesting.
Pros: Unique, beautiful, great choice of colours, light weight
Cons: brittle, not durable
Olamic Cutlery Wayfarer Compact
Kirinite is another new material that was introduced about ten years ago. Kirinite is the next generation of acrylic with a variety of improvements. Kirinite is made of high end acrylic resin with very thin strands of poly paper swirled through the mix. The result is a material which is completely unique in terms of how it looks.
Kirinite is a very tough material too which has made it suitable for knife handles and pistol grips. It is fairly easy to work with which could translate to lower production costs. Kirinite can be polished easily to achieve a glossy finish. As for hardness and durability, Kirinite has both, while keeping the weight down compared to hardwoods.
Pros: Tough, light weight, inexpensive, great colour & pattern combinations
Cons: Brittle, lacks elegance, plastic feeling
Bark River Mini Fox River
Zytel (FRN, GFN, Grivory, Zy-Ex, Griv-Ex)
Zytel is a trademark referring to a large family of Nylons developed by DuPont. Zytel is a high strength, abrasion and impact resistant form of thermoplastic polyamide commonly known as Nylon.
Zytel features high strength, and good heat, abrasion and impact resistance. It is one of the best materials for applications requiring a durable and wear resistant material. Zytel could be modified in several different ways.
For knife handle application, glass reinforced form of Zytel is the most suitable. This form of Zytel is most commonly referred to as FRN (Fiberglass-Reinforced Nylon) or GFN (Glass-Filled Nylon). Some knife manufacturers are using or have used other terms such as Grivory, Zy-Ex, Griv-Ex, etc. to refer to FRN but they are all virtually the same product.
One of the biggest advantages of Zytel is the ease of processing and modification which means lower production cost.
Pros: High strength, light weight, abrasion and impact resistant, inexpensive
Cons: lack of elegance, feels cheap
Buck Vantage Force
Bone is one of the oldest materials known to and used by man. It is a cost effective yet attractive handle material which has gained popularity among collectors. Bone is used in both traditional and modern knives. It is easy to shape and can be dyed to create beautiful colours. Similar materials such as horns, antlers and tusks are also commonly used for knife handles.
Jigged bone handles are great choice for folding knives and seem to never get old. Most common types of bone used today are derived from naturally deceased animals such as cow, giraffe, camel and elephant. You may be surprised to know that bone is the most common handle material for pocket knives today!
Pros: Beautiful and traditional, inexpensive, wildly available and easy to process.
Cons: Prone to cracking, porous
Another material known to man for thousands of years is wood. Wood handles are one of the most popular among knife enthusiasts. There is a large variety of wood handles in different colours, patterns, densities and prices. A good quality wood handle can outlive it's owner and perform well in most situations.
The most popular type of wood handles are hardwoods. They are durable, beautiful and comfortable in hand. Given the right amount of care and maintenance, they can be used almost anywhere. Burlwoods in particular are very popular for their exotic colours and patterns as well as hardness.
Another common type of wood is stabilized wood. They are processed by injection of polymer resin into plywood and compression. This process creates a very dense and durable wood material while preserving the natural beauty of wood. Some examples of stabilized wood are Pakkawood, Dymondwood and Staminawood.
Pros: Natural, comfortable, durable, lots of choices
Cons: Porous, some woods could be slippery, unstable
Leather is not the type of material you'd see on a knife handle often, except for a few fixed blade, fighting style knives. Leather is not particularly durable so to make it suitable for knife handles, manufacturers have to stack, compress and glue leather together and then shape it.
Due to lack of strength, durability and resistance to elements, leather is not considered a good material for knife handles. However, I have to admit it looks good and is comfortable in hand. While leather is said to lack durability, there are some exceptions. The KA-BAR USMC fighting knife with it's stacked leather handle has been used for many years in the harshest of environments by US marines and some of the early production models are still working just fine.
Pros: Looks good, comfortable in hand, inexpensive
Cons: Unstable, lack of strength, not durable
KA-BAR USMC Fighting Knife
Mother Of Pearl
Mother of pearl is another material not commonly used in knife handles, mainly due to its high price. Mother of pearl is naturally beautiful and its hard surface helps with scratch resistance. Most of the time it is used as an inlay inside the handle or other parts (i.e thumbstud) and sometimes in combination with other exotic materials. Mother of pearl is an ideal choice for collectable and dress knives.
Pros: Beautiful and elegant, durable
Cons: Expensive, brittle, slippery
Fallkniven Tre Kronor 3
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