– Full Tang Blades –
Fixed blade knives typically have two functional styles of handles…the ‘Full Tang’ and the ‘Hidden Tang’. The ‘Tang’ is the back part of the blade…if made properly, the tang and blade are all one piece of steel with the blade forged or ground out of one end.
On full tang blades, the steel is often completely exposed along all or some of the handle, offering the visual reassurance that the blade will not simply snap off of the handle under heavy force. The exposed tang of these blades would then either have scales of some nature (wood, micarta, ivory, etc.) pinned and epoxied on the sides…or possibly just wrapped in 550 Paracord. These coverings or ‘scales’ provide the main grip for the user.
Be sure that the shoulders where the tang meets the blade are filed completely flat and even to avoid gaps!
– Hidden Tang Blades –
Hidden tang blades have their tang thinned and shaped down so that you can enclose the handle completely around it. This is ideal if you want a solid piece of wood, horn, or other material for the handle. Still a strong design, the hidden tang allows much more flexibility in the handle design, materials, and shape.
The first step in crafting the handle of a hidden tang blade is making the guard and ferrule(s). As I have a picture (on paper or in my head) of what the knife is going to look like prior to forging, the material selection for the guard and ferrule have already been decided. This also is true if the knife will have a butt cap or any spacers throughout the handle. The style of the guard depends largely on the type and size of the knife. Most of the time I use nickel silver or brass sheets to make the guards. Occasionally I will use a stainless steel or I will forge the guard from carbon steel. I typically only forge guards for larger blades if I want to have an ‘S’ curve guard on a bowie or an up-swept guard on a dagger or such.
For knives sporting nickel silver or brass, I will measure the piece to be cut from the sheet depending on how long and wide I want the guard to be. Once the piece is cut with the band saw, I then mark the center line and trace the tang of the blade so I know how long to mill the hole. After the guard is all marked up, I use a caliper to measure the thickness of the tang just below the shoulders.
I make my knives with ‘press fit’ guards for the reason that I feel it looks cleaner than soldering the guard on. Because of that, I must make sure that the hole in the guard is milled perfectly so there are no gaps when everything is put together.
After measuring the tang thickness with a caliper, I select a drill bit that is 1/16th of an inch smaller than the thickness of the tang. This will ensure a nice, snug press fit. The guard and, if needed, ferrule spacers are then milled and filed. The mill holes on the ferrules and spacers do not need to be measured for a press fit, so the holes can be made a little wider.
Upon completion of milling, a final fit check is performed and I begin shaping the pieces. I want to get the shape as close to final as possible before I epoxy everything together…this just makes everything look cleaner when I’m finished. I shape the guard and ferrule on either the belt grinder or the disc grinder. I usually start at 60 grit to get the basic shape, and then clean it up with 120 grit. After everything is epoxied together, I will usually hand sand the guard and ferrule to 400 grit…but that’s later.
I use a lot of natural hardwoods for my handles as I find little else to match the natural beauty provided by a well finished wood. I do, occasionally use stag (if I have any on hand) or horn. I also use Micarta on occasion if a natural handle material is not wanted or is not practical. The one down side to using any natural handle material is that it is susceptible to environmental conditions. While it can be sealed and made generally waterproof, both wood and animal horns are very susceptible to humidity and pressure changes. Bringing the knife into a completely different environment from that which it was made has been known to cause shrinkage or expansion in the material resulting in gaps or improper fit. Any knife that I create that will be specifically used as a ‘survival’ type knife will have a Micarta or paracord handle to ensure durability and fit under any condition and in any environment the owner decides to bring it to.
I trace the outline of the tang on the side of the wood block so I know how deep to drill the hole and how much room I have to shape the handle around it. I then trace out the profile shape of the handle on the block. This will be my guide when I grind it. Next, I drill the hole for the tang, using the trace outline as the guide. Upon completion of drilling, I move to the grinder to get the basic shape. I will typically get the piece ground and sanded very close to final before I even put it together. This allows everything to fit up better and makes for less chance of screwing the pieces up after they have been epoxied on the blade.
Now that the guard and ferrule are milled and shaped and the handle is drilled and shaped, it’s time to put it all together. I first make sure the press fit guard presses on and fits seamlessly with no gaps. If any adjustments are needed, they are made here. I will then epoxy the ferrule onto the handle and secure it with small pins. This way I can make sure the ferrule fits smoothly on the handle and everything blends well. I typically use JB Weld two-part epoxy…you’d be hard pressed to break that stuff loose when it dries! I always want to make sure that any seepage of epoxy out onto the handle, ferrule, guard, or blade is immediately cleaned off. It would pose a very annoying problem if excess epoxy were to dry in an unwanted area! If I am using pins through the handle, these are inserted here as well. Now I let the epoxy set overnight…
The following day, after the epoxy is nice and dry, I do the final sanding of the handle. For wood handles, I usually hand sand to a minimum of 400 grit, depending on the wood. I also touch up any small scratches that may have appeared on the guard, ferrule, or butt cap. Once everything is cleaned up, I seal and stabilize the handle and let it dry overnight. The following day, I buff the handle on the buffer and this removes any excess sealer and gives the wood a beautiful semi-gloss finish.