The knife is likely humanity’s second or third oldest tool, with the pointy stick probably being developed from the not-pointy-stick prototype. I’ve always been in love with knives. Every one has its own feel. Its own personality. Its own special purpose. Some of them almost leap out of your hand, ready to do their job. Some are big and burly without being clumsy. Some of them will slice a warm tomato paper thin, if you treat them right. Youtube must have known about my love, and it knew I like to watch productive people make stuff on Youtube, because it kept suggesting I watch this video. And it was right. I wanted to learn how to make knives.
Long story short, its really hard to do it from scratch without expensive equipment. Its possible, but hard and tedious. However, there are a few short cuts you can take to jump right in with minimal equipment. Err, and minimal skill. Like what I have.
Mora is a maker of some really great, low-cost knives. And they’ll sell you just the blade. In this post, I’ll walk you through the steps I took to put my own custom handle on this 6 inch blade. The end result is a large bushcraft knife suitable for all manor of outdoor misadventure. Mora make a simple, bullet proof item. Carbon steel, nothing fancy there. A scandi blade is really basic, but that’s where the magic is. Most blades have a primary bevel then a secondary bevel where its sharpened. The scandi blade just has a single bevel, like a razor. This is particularly well suited to digging under the grain of wood or other fibers. At the cost of a bit more difficulty sharpening, this means the scandi is particularly well suited to camp tasks like preparing kindling, slicing rope, etc.
The first step in this project is to lay out your plan. Instead of going for a traditional scandinavian handle, as you’d expect on a scandinavian style blade like a puukko, I went for a more shaped handle. I much, much prefer more options for bracing my fingers on forward strokes or when poking, and this design provides that. Also, I tend to hold my knives in a saber grip. That’s the nice thing about DIY. You can D whatever the F U want.
I traced the blade on paper, and then sketched out the outline of the handle I want. The front finger groove comes a little close to the tang, so that’s something I had to keep an eye on.
Then I laid out a few bits of material that I want to use for the handle. I had a bit of cheap red oak from the hardware store, some green leather bits, and a block of leopardwood I grabbed on a lark when I got some exotic hardwood one time. At this point, I also have a spacer made of black micarta scrap, but this didn’t make it into the final design since I fucked this piece up made a thoughtful decision to not include this material. The goal here is purely design. I’m looking for a nice balance of colors, contrasting textures, etc. Most rules for aesthetic designs are domain independent. That means that rules for putting together a proper suit and tie apply here as well. High frequency next to low frequency next to no frequency next to high frequency. Pick two colors, and add in one highlight. Avoid symmetry and follow the rule of three or the golden ratio.
Now that we have the general design down, its time to actually get to work. If not done already, make sure all your stock is square and flat. Like, really flat. And if you aren’t sure you can pull that off… use leather spacers. Making a knife is more like fitting jewelry than it is like carpentry. You need everything to fit perfectly and you need to fret every detail. Because this shit is HARD. The bolster, that’s the part of the handle that interfaces with the knife, the bolster needs to fit the tang like a glove. I find the center of the block, drill a row of holes smaller than the diameter of the tang, and then use needle files to connect them. This should make a slot that is dead-on square and normal in the center of the bolster. If you take your time, it will be perfectly square. Just put on an audiobook and zen out, and you’ll have it perfect in no time. Like this.
FUCK! Ok, not great, but not a disaster. Anyway, the knife blade isn’t perfectly square on all surfaces, so you’ll need to fit, file, fit, file, fit, file, fit, file until your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Eventually, you’ll get it to seat correctly.
Perfectly, within some margin of error. If you look close, well, you’ll see its seated pretty well, but not perfect. Like I said, this is jewelry, not carpentry. I said its an easy job to pick up. Mastering it will take a lifetime. For my skill level, I’m looking to get a good enough seat that the finish will fill that gap. More on that later. Note the blue painters tape around the blade. That’s to prevent premature hematological baptism.
Once the bolster is fit, the rest of the handle is easy. Using a drill bit just slightly wider than the tang, dill a hole straight and through the center of the rest of the wood blocks. I also used a table saw to split the bolster since I ruined my spacer decided not to use the micarta spacer. If you do this, this cut is super, super critical and you really, really need to make sure it is square and straight. Also, mark your piece before you cut it so that you can assemble it later with proper grain orientation.
At this point, all the material is in shape and ready for glue up. Up till this point, its been a fidgety project but you can go nice and slow. Well, that ends here. Its now a fidgety project that is also gloopy and you will also be on a the clock. So spend ten minutes dry fitting your knife so that you could assemble it blindfold, because once you mix your epoxy, shit gets real. This is also your last chance to change the design. Here I am out in the sunlight making sure I still like the way it looks under natural light.
Epoxy is a hell of a material. Its going to fill all the space in the handle and hold this knife together. A modern epoxy, properly mixed and applied, will be harder than the wood and last longer than I will. The task here is to fill the bolster with epoxy, slide it on, cover the spacer with epoxy, slide it on, cover the next spacer, slide it on, cover the next spacer, slide it on, fill up the last handle, slide it on, and then clamp it all together. And make sure you use enough to fill all gaps. But not so much it squeezes out the top of the bolster. And don’t epoxy your knife to your clamps. And don’t get epoxy in your hair. And don’t tighten your clamp so much it all explodes like you just lost at Perfection. And don’t use five minute epoxy because you will need more than 5 minutes. Because I’ve done all that before and each one of those things sucks.
But if, if you do it all correctly, you will be rewarded with a very stinky garage as you let this cure under a little bit of compression for at least twenty four hours. PS make sure you orient it so that the squeeze out goes on the handle, not the blade. Because if it cures on the blade, there’s no fixing that. You are stuck with an ugly knife forever.
But the next day, after your garage airs out and doesn’t smell like an old tire is fermenting in Satan’s asshole, you get to see if you’ve fucked up all your hard work. Lets take a look.
Success! That squeeze out is not problem. It’s all coming off. What matters is the handle is one solid, rock hard piece. No wiggle. No wobble. Now you just need to turn that big, blocky knob into a smooth, sleek handle like you drew on the paper. I used a band saw to get it roughly square, then I use a belt sander to rough out the shape. A rasp works really well here, too. Then, once you have the shape, just sand. And sand. And sand. And sand. You really want to take it to the finest grit your wood can stand, and then maybe one more. Oak and leopardwood are both fairly hard, so I took this to 2,000 grit. You’ll need to get automotive sandpaper for this, but if you skimp here your knife won’t ever feel as good as it should.
The last step is to apply a finish. In theory, any wood finish is possible here, but poly or lacquer are not good finishes. Superglue is actually pretty great, but I’m partial to a paste made of mineral oil and beeswax. Its food safe, and you can oil the blade with the same oily rag as you use for the handle. Its not as permanent as some other finishes, so it will need touched up every year or so. But meh, if I didn’t want to put a little work into my tools, I wouldn’t be making them myself. Also, wax is a good enough gap filler to fill the tiny gap around the base of the blade.
This is my first time using leopardwood, and I really like the way it turned out. I also really like the way the shape turned out. Its made to fit my hand, and I kept checking it as I roughed out the shape. Its asymmetrical and maybe it looks a little sloppy if you look from the top down, but it fits my hand like it was made for it. Because it was. My thumb fits on the top of the bolster just right, and I have good purchase with my pointer and pinky.
But most of all, every time I pick up this knife, I’m going to remember the work that I put into it. It was my mind and my hands that brought this humble tool into the world. It has visual and utility elements of a scandi knife, but it also has a few other particulars that I really like. I didn’t mine the ore or smelt it. I didn’t forge and grind the blade. I didn’t even generate one unique feature on this knife – I copied the best from a couple different place. But I made that knife. And I’ll know it in my bones every time I pick it up.