Story by Andy RoyPhotos by Andy Roy, Eric Eggly, Fiddleback Outpost and Fellow Makers Photography
When I started making knives, I got a ton of support from the community – and nobody was as surprised by this as I was. At the time I had very little metalworking experience. Although, I had built some furniture, done some carving and refinished teak on sailboats, so I had a little experience working with wood.
By 2007 I had sold my sixth knife. Actually, it was one of a batch of six knives – I sold 5 and gifted one to a soldier who was serving in Iraq. These knives were so ugly that, looking back, I am still shocked anyone wanted them – I think the handles were the selling point. Even though those early handles were ugly, I think I was onto something.
Early on I had a few vague ideas of what would make a good handle. I have always believed that knives need feminine looking curves to be sexy. To this day I still don’t like bumpy, humpy looking shapes, with jutty, manish looking features.
I also knew that the hand likes to grip a knife handle that is fatter at the spine side and tapers toward the edge side. This gives the cross-section profile – on a good handle – a kind of egg shape. In addition to comfort, this egg shape properly indexes the handle in the hand. A user should be able to feel where the sharp parts are without having to check visually.
From here I realized that my knives fit into two basic handle shape categories. I make knives that have palm swells, and knives that don’t. This is still true today, and the method I came up with to shape handles is still the method I use on every knife.
Shaping starts the same way, regardless of which style handle I’m carving, and is done at an 8-inch contact wheel, with a new 36 grit belt and the grinder running fast.
I start by cutting a cup into the top and bottom of the scales on both sides. Be careful to not take off too much material at this point. Also, be sure to leave more meat at the spine side than the edge side. As a rule, I leave a bit less than a quarter inch at the spine and a bit more than an eighth of an inch at the edge side.
Watch the leading edge of your scales and slowly work it to get a pleasing shape that matches side to side. Look for that egg shape at this point.
For the first couple hundred knives, I stopped using a grinder at this point in the shaping and went to files. I still recommend this. Spending time with files teaches you what is waste and what is not, which really helps later on, when using the grinder to do all the shaping.
At this point, the method for each shape diverges. For knives with a palm swell, I shape the material leftover from the first step. For knives without a palm swell, I remove that leftover material, and look for long flowing curves from the pommel to the bolster area.
If you’re doing this with files, you will immediately figure out which waste material is taking a lot of effort to remove, and you can move to the grinder to knock that material off quickly. This back and forth will eventually lead to you gaining the experience and understanding to do it all at the grinder – without costing you in ruined knives, due to an excess of material being removed too quickly.
One more tip. Use a crayon to mark the waste you want to remove at the grinder. Having a targeted plan helps you focus on the material you want to grind off. This helps target the waste, and also keeps you from removing too much from the wrong spot.
You don’t have to grind everywhere, every time the piece hits the grinder.
Making a great handle is about more than shaping scales. There are design guidelines that new makers need to be taught and I will go over a few of them here.
While teaching this part of knifemaking, I often see a few common mistakes. Firstly, new makers tend to design knives with handles that are too short. Secondly, they always drop the handles too much. And finally, they often just ignore the pommel altogether.
During the teaching process it is not uncommon to see creative blades, guard areas and handle shapes, then at the pommel, they just round it off like a broomstick.
Let’s get into some of the guidelines that will help you avoid an ugly pommel, understand the concept of usable handle length (which is something I learned from my customers over the years) and avoid the dreaded finger choil.
Designing for Size
When considering the difference in sizes, and their relative dimensions, take a look at the Bushcrafter series. The Bushcrafter Jr has a blade that is 3.5 inches long and the handle is 4 inches, while my full sized bushcraft knives have a 4-inch blade and a 4.5-inch handle.
For some reason, new makers always design the handle shorter than the blade. This works for big knives, but for small and medium sized knives, this is a mistake and leaves the handle too short. The size guidelines above will help you avoid this mistake. Larger knives with blades 6 inches or more get a full 5-inch-long handle.
To reiterate, I design smaller knives and larger knives with variations on these lengths, but these guidelines are good starting points.
My big handed customers came up with a concept that I think is important. The idea is that the shape of the handle sometimes rules out much of its length – for actual gripping during use. To find the usable handle length, measure the length of the edge side of the handle – from where the index finger fits, to where the pommel shape limits the pinky fitting. For example, in the case of a bird beak shaped pommel, where the beak lands can limit the grip length a lot.
Any handle material that sticks out after that point is not really usable. Conversely, at the other end of the handle, any material forward of the point where the index finger fits under the guard, is not usable length either.
So, sometimes you can have a 4.5-inch-long handle, with a much shorter usable length. Watch out for this, because big handed customers won’t find these as comfortable as your average handed customers. Making the ends ‘efficient’ will allow bigger hands to work comfortably in many positions while not seeming huge to average sized customers.
Dropping the handle too much is a personal preference thing. I don’t like dropped handles on most knives, and I think that they make a less than fully functional handle – in some situations. New makers I teach tend to drop the hell out of the tip, as well as the handle. It is okay on a khukuri, but for my steak knife, I’d like the knife to be straighter.
Again, it is up to you. On some knives it is called for and simply works.
The Poop Rule
It’s time to talk about the pommel problem.
The Poop Rule is a concept I have used over the years to teach apprentices not to design broomstick handles. The pommel area of the knife has been fleshed out over generations, with many pleasing shapes – fan tail shapes, canoe shapes, bird beak style shapes, and glass breaker shapes are just a few.
So here is the test.
Make a ring with your index finger and thumb. Suspend the pommel from this imaginary ‘anus’ and ask yourself the question, “does the silhouette of my pommel resemble the shape of poop?” If it does, redesign that part of your handle with one of the pleasing shapes already fleshed out by craftsmen since the beginning of time. Most of the time, you’ll get a better-looking knife.
Again, this is a guideline, and sometimes a rounded over pommel just works with a design. I have a few of these in my line, but not many.
Avoidable Design Flaw
Finger choils on small and medium sized knives are a symptom of a poorly designed handle. On a big Busse chopper, I get it. Choking up on those beasts is sometimes necessary. If you have to choke up on a small or medium sized knife, the handle is poorly designed. This is a cheesy fad that I have just never liked.
Finger choils move the usable edge away from the handle. This is a functional flaw and drastically diminishes the leverage you have to make tough cuts – such as notches in traps – with the knife. The edge simply needs to be as close to your fist as you can get it, for maximum leverage. Working notches into traps with your index finger in a choil, is uncomfortable and dangerous.
Basically, if you are my apprentice and I see a finger choil on a 4-inch bladed knife or smaller, I will ask you to leave the shop. Poop shapes get you teased, but choils get you the boot.
There is probably no better way to add sex appeal to a knife, than nailing the handle shape. I teach my apprentices that sex appeal is critical to selling knives. Feminine shapes and pleasing ergos determine the functional usability of the knife, just as much as edge geometry.
I’ve had knives that I chose again and again just because of how they felt in my hand, and my customers do this as well.
Hopefully the few basic guidelines listed above will help get your handles where you want them to be. K&G
Join the Conversation, comment on this story below. >>
Fiddleback Forge(470) 485-3485www.FiddlebackForge.com
Andy Roy started making knives in 2007 and went full time with his hobby on May 1, 2009, after a layoff. Since then he has made over 25,000 knives, mostly for the bushcrafting, hunting, and outdoors enthusiast type of customer.
He is a voting member of both the Knifemakers Guild and the Georgia Custom Knifemakers Guild. Today he enjoys making knives, teaching knifemaking to apprentices and he is one of the four knifemakers that own Pops Knife Supply.
this article should be sent to all knife makers. the pommels are getting crazy out there on customs
Great blog. Thanks for sharing these tools. Those who know less about these. They will know much after reading your blog.
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *
Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.