As Knife Technology Evolves, So Do Handle Materials. Whether Natural Or Synthetic, These Materials Are Helping Knife Aficionados Get A Grip.
From time to time, a new handle material—either natural or synthetic—surfaces. These days, a quartet of emerging options is making an impact, and several custom knifemakers have produced some excellent results with them.
Those who have been around knives any time at all have heard the term carbon, but it’s usually associated with blade steel or well-known carbon fiber handle materials. In this case, however, carbon fiber has put on a little heft! The material known as fat carbon has found its way onto knife handles, and K.C. Gray is putting it to work.
“Fat carbon is a synthetic carbon fiber composite material with alternating layers of carbon fiber and a color layer,” he explained. “When ground or machined the contours reveal the different layers. It comes in a wide variety of colors and patterns: blues, purples, reds, oranges, and greens. I keep quite a bit of it on hand. It’s very popular with most of my customers, and I’m also quite fond of the knives I make for general sale.”
Gray usually brings his fat carbon in directly from a favorite supply house, and the demand for the material is brisk.
“I think the popularity of fat carbon stems from the striking looks of the bright colors contrasting with carbon fiber. It’s also very durable and quite strong, which doesn’t hurt either. Fat carbon is remarkably easy to work with. It has wonderful stability and as such, it cuts, grinds, machines, and polishes easily. It’s wise to employ a respirator when grinding or machining it. Carbon fiber is a health hazard if inhaled.”
K.C. says the introduction of fat carbon doesn’t pump up the cost of a knife, and the results make a foray into the fat worthwhile.
“The material is surprisingly inexpensive compared to a lot of other materials that have similar visual impact,” he related. “Combined with its ease of working, it doesn’t add much to the overall cost. I think it can be used in a wide variety of styles, from tactical folders to kitchen knives. Fat carbon has a color and pattern for just about anything.”
Gray also has produced knives with another synthetic handle material, antique Westinghouse paper Micarta®, as has Chris Sharp.
“A lot of this material comes from the electrical industry, old electrical boxes and transformers,” Sharp observed. “It’s a mix of materials. It was normally made from cotton, cork, fiberglass, and linen fabric with some sort of resin holding it together.”
Gray says antique Westinghouse paper Micarta is an old material. “When most people say ‘Westinghouse,’ they are referring to the vintage ivory paper Micarta. Through aging, it has developed a yellowish tone on the outside. Once contoured, it reveals the contrast between the creamy white interior and more yellow outer layer. There are, however, a great many other Westinghouse Micartas—brown, black, blue, red, and rag can be found.”
Sharp finds his Westinghouse paper Micarta readily available at knife shows and from suppliers, but he is always on the lookout because it can be found in some unusual places. The trick is to know where and what to look for.
“It is an antique material” Chris reiterated. “It was designed by George Westinghouse around 1910 to be used as an electrical insulator. It can be found in a lot of colors, but the old stuff was dependent on who made it and what material was available at the time. At the moment, what I’m getting from the local electrical company is a transparent green and brown. I always have some on hand, but I’m always trying to pick some up at every knife show. Also, there’s always somebody dropping some variation of this material off at my shop.”
The Westinghouse paper Micarta fills the bill on toughness, durability, and ease of working. “It’s pretty easy to work with and can be used on any knife design,” Sharp concluded. “I love working with it. The older stuff is in short supply, which can cause the price of the knife to go up—and people sometimes take advantage which, in turn, causes ridiculous pricing.”
Another synthetic handle material gaining traction is TeroTuf, a composite of polyester resin and fabric. It is a relative of canvas Micarta but may hold some better characteristics. It has no phenolics and, compared to G-10, contains no glass fibers. What’s more, some users may find TeroTuf is more shock absorbent than the others.
“I use TeroTuf because it’s light, tough, waterproof, and easy to cut and shape,” custom maker Matt Gregory commented. “For the most part, I make a core out of it for stick-tang knives and sleeve the core with carbon fiber or similar material. I’m what you would call a hobbyist maker, I guess, although I’m awfully serious about how I build things. I’ve been making knives for 17 years but only make a handful per year.
“I love TeroTuf because it’s really easy to work with and machine, but it’s tough as nails and impervious to darn near anything you throw at it. Because it’s relatively lightweight, it makes a great core material. Much of what I make is neo-Japanese/American-styled stuff, and TeroTuf makes a fantastic tsuka, or handle core. I prefer it to wood. Many of my friends and fellow knifemakers have used it to great effect and have been influential in my explorations of the material, including Dan Keffeler, Ben Tendick, Nathan Carothers, and James Helm, to name a few.”
Matt sometimes uses TeroTuf in the core of both the knife handle and the sheath, overlaying carbon fiber cloth and then applying multiple layers of resin before smoothing and polishing.
On the natural side, ringed gidgee, a product of Australia, is making the rounds. James Fleming imports his ringed gidgee from @thetimberjoint on Instagram.
“It’s a natural hardwood in the acacia family of trees,” he said, “the same as koa. Ringed gidgee is a chatoyant brown and caramel color, and it can have some blond sapwood as well, much like desert ironwood.”
Keeping plenty of ringed gidgee in stock, Fleming considers it one of his go-to handle materials. It is user-friendly in any knife design.
“But it’s still wood, so I wouldn’t suggest it being used around salt water on a regular basis,” he advised. “It makes a great handle for outdoor knives, chef’s knives, hunting knives, and even folders.
“I think its popularity comes from the fact that it has everything a knifemaker looks for in a handle material,” James continued. “It has beautiful color that has a ton of depth because of the chatoyant nature of the deep curls. It’s rated as the third hardest wood in the world, which makes it extremely durable. Once the wood has properly dried, it is ready to be used, and there is no need for stabilizing due to its being a very dense hardwood.”
From a shop standpoint, ringed gidgee is similar to desert ironwood but probably a bit less gummy. According to Fleming, it cuts and drills easily but can be a bit of a challenge on a belt grinder.
“I suggest having a belt grinder with a VFD [variable frequency drive] to slow it down, and using a fresh belt,” he observed. “It polishes up extremely well during hand sanding and needs nothing more than a bit of beeswax and buff for the finish.”
From a cost standpoint, James acknowledges that ringed gidgee is classified as an exotic material, and that alone causes the price of a knife with it for the handle to escalate. However, it doesn’t approach the expense associated with the highest end of the exotic spectrum, such as mammoth ivory.
For a bit of an uncommon look and a potential conversation starter, these handle materials make the most of the opportunity. Chances are more will be seen of these up-and-comers.
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