As noted in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.” On the other hand, oaken logs lounging in bogs for a couple of millennia transform into something of a “holy grail” for knifemakers.
The oxygen-poor, acid-rich bog environment changes humble woods such as oak into something dark and infused with history. And it’s in no small part because of this that makers have turned to the material for knife handles.
Knives seem to have a long relationship with bog oak, a prized and precious wood pulled from bogs after thousands of years.
For instance, take the Scottish sgian dubh, the small utility fixed blade sheathed in the sock of a Highlander in traditional Scottish garb. Translated from Gaelic, sgian dubh means black knife, which some think is a reference to the dark bog oak from which the handles of a number of sgian dubhs were carved.
Just as oxygen-poor and acid-rich bogs transform wood, some makers have gone beyond traditional sgian dubhs and use the handle material to hearken back to more mysterious and historic times.
Because it takes ages to form, bog oak is a finite resource. ABS journeyman smith Mike Deibert, who makes knives on the weekends and evenings when he’s not working as an elementary school teacher, waited five years after he bought a piece of bog oak for the right knife to come along.
The large, handle-sized piece of the material came already stabilized. Deibert has most of his natural handle materials stabilized so they’re not subject to fluctuation in humidity and are more predictable to work. Even before he decided to use the bog oak, the project was going to be a special one.
“The Black Betty Bowie was created in September of 2019,” Deibert explained. “I designed it for a client who wanted to present it as a gift to an individual who was responsible for raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research. I wanted to come up with a special work of art that even a non-knife enthusiast couldn’t help but appreciate.”
Deibert started with a bold-featherpattern-damascus design by working out the pattern on paper. When he saw the finished billet, the contrast thrilled him. Besides its tight grain and chocolate color, the wood, billed as a 5,400-year-old relic pulled from a bog in Ukraine, gave the blade historical gravitas.
“When I saw how incredible the dark plume billowed down the center of the blade, I knew I had to put together a guard and handle that complemented this intense feature,” he began. “Originally, I had drawn the knife with a piece of ironwood burl in mind for the handle and a satin-finished steel guard. But, with a very dark portion over most of the blade, I decided to go with all-dark furnishing as a complement.
“This wood, once growing and living thousands of years ago, is now preserved and on display as a handle on the world’s oldest tool. There’s a story in it, and it makes me proud to be able to keep that story going.”
What kind of knife would Baba Yaga, a mysterious and terrifying old woman in Slavic folklore, wield as a war blade? That’s the question Connecticut knifemaker Matt Berry pondered as he read through Katabasis, a novel in which the wicked witch swoops in for an appearance.
“Babayaga’s Warknife” began with a blade Berry had put aside after beginning it in 2016.
“I started with the pommel carving, which was meant to be Baba Yaga’s face. The rest of the handle just kind of fell into place as I worked forward from the pommel,” he recalled. “I worked on it as time and inspiration allowed and finished it in the spring of 2019.”
One of the highlights of the knife is the pommel. Berry carved the bog oak to fit into the bronze pommel and ferrule, which he created by casting them via the lost-wax method. The oak for Berry’s handle entered a bog about 5,300 years ago and helped set the knife’s tone.
“I wanted something European even if bog oak was never used in the 1200s,” Berry said. “Bog oak is quite expensive. It’s right up there with burl in price and will sometimes cost more. There’s not a lot of it around and the supply is finite. I get most of mine from an English furniture company that digs up and dries its own logs and then makes high-end furniture. I’m buying the company’s scraps.”
Like anything that has sat around for a few millennia, bog wood has its quirks. According to Berry, it can be as temperamental as Baba Yaga herself.
“The grain isn’t tight, and it’s kind of mushy and chippy at the same time,” he warned. “Th at makes it very frustrating to carve. It drills and sands fairly normally but it can be prone to splitting.”
Dagger of Firsts
Brant Cochran of Gray Flame Forge works in the insurance industry but, when he can, he’s in his shop. When he created his 10.5-inch dagger with a blade of W2 tool steel and a bog oak handle, it was a project of firsts.
He took three months to slowly build the dagger, in part because it was his first time making a dagger of that length. While he wanted to make a large knife, the quintessential bowie didn’t appeal to a man whose interests in edged tools were whetted when, as a youngster, he saw an arming sword at his grandparents’ house.
The dagger was the first time he had made a knife with a cross guard, a pommel, takedown construction and a bog oak handle. He initially had planned on making the handle from ironwood. Then, after some African blackwood got “screwed up,” Cochran turned to a piece of bog oak.
“I’d never used it before,” he stated. “I was already doing all these new things—why not try a new material as well? That was part of it. But I was interested in bog wood because it has a historical element to it. It had spent 3,300-plus years sitting in a bog.”
His impressions? The bog oak worked a heck of a lot better than ironwood.
Furthermore, it was almost the perfect carving wood. He created a subtle ridge running down the length of the handle. The wood wasn’t soft enough for the subtle feature to get “completely washed out,” nor was it hard enough that it required extra effort to eliminate the sharp edges. The dagger of “firsts” became a springboard to future projects.
“I would work really hard on one piece as I was trying to build up my skills,” Cochran said. “Then I would bring it to master smiths I knew and respected to get it critiqued. A picture is not going to show you every little detail you need to figure out how to make a quality knife.
“Your edge might have good retention but if your handle’s too thick or just very uncomfortable, you might not pick that up. And, by speaking to the master smiths and having them show you what those details are, you can then train your own eye to do it as you move forward.”
For Anders Högström, bog oak is a relic from an ancient time and a perfect complement for his Valdez ceremonial dagger.
A full-time knifemaker who lives in southern Sweden, Högström is also a hobby chef when he’s not crafting knives. One vein of his work is to build knives of cultures that are combined or are long-ancient ones that persisted for years.
According to Högström, “My main direction of design is that of a marriage between the Nordic and Japanese.”
He uses a lot of one-off casting and hamons. For his short-bladed ceremonial knife, he went with a model he imagined could have been used by an ancient American Indian culture, such as the Inca or Maya.
“The ceremonials I make are a sort of homage to what would have been used by a high priest, shaman or someone of similar standing at a ceremony of importance,” he explained.
Högström indicated bog oak pairs well with other materials. For the Valdez, he “married” the 1,200-year-old material with ancient walrus ivory left raw in the handle butt to provide texture. The bog oak, he said, carried a “meaningful weight”—almost as if the material were an artifact of an older time.
“Something ancient that has been left to decay—but, as nature would have it, something happened in the process, and the original material got to evolve into something else—much like the fossil walrus ivory in the handle that was colored by minerals in the ground and because of the thousands of years it stayed there,” he mused.
Högström pointed out that some pieces of bog oak must be stabilized because they might be soft and the pores of the wood must be filled.
It depends on the project. However, for his ceremonial dagger, he said the unstabilized wood was “easy to work and medium soft.” He chose a fine-steel-wool finish to get into the wood’s grain, thus bringing out the most character. This was followed by a couple of coats of wax to protect the surface.
When customers learn of the bog oak’s history and the stories it evokes, Högström said they often react with “both amazement and amusement, as well as a certain reverence.”