My interest in custom knife making was sparked when a good friend gave me an unfinished project he had started years ago, and never completed. It’s a beautiful Damascus steel hunting knife with an ironwood handle, and sadly remains unfinished. I have, however, done a fair amount of work on it, and found the process to be very interesting. Since that time, I’ve done some reading on the subject and recently had the opportunity to work on this small bowie knife as a Christmas gift.
The blade, with a full tang, was purchased online with the bolsters already attached. Overall, I was happy with the quality of the blade, though the bolsters were not done particularly well and required some final shaping and finishing. After experimenting with some different materials for the handle and spacers, I settled on a block of stabilized sycamore that had been died with contrasting red and blue, along with some vulcanized paper spacers (also purchased online, from a knife supplier).
When thinking of a plan to address the curved front bolster, I decided to try a technique that I’d been wanting to explore for it’s potential in various wood working projects: an epoxy inlay. I purchased some blue dye, and a pearlizing powder from a hobby store, to give the epoxy a matching color. This made it much simpler to shape the handle, since it eliminated the need to create a complex angled curve on the front of each scale.
I started by cutting two matching blanks from the block of sycamore, paying attention to keep the grain pattern matching. Each blank was about 1/4″ thick, and slightly larger than the finished handle size. I then traced a rough outline of the shape onto each blank, and slowly started shaping them to fit. The first step was get the correct angle so the blank would fit snugly in between the bolsters. In retrospect, this project would have been much simpler without having pre-attached bolsters, and I’ll definitely start the next knife project by purchasing a blade without them.
Once the handle blanks fit snuggly in place, I cut the paper spacer material to match, and epoxied the first side in place, using a 30-minute two part epoxy. After that had dried overnight, I drilled the holes for the handle pins. The tang was pre-drilled, so I accomplished this by placing the knife carefully in a vice, using a hand drill, and utilizing the holes in the tang as a guide. I also placed a scrap piece of wood on the backside, to reduce tear out from the drill bit. Afterwords, I repeated the entire process with the remaining scale.
With the scales attached and drilled, I next inserted the pins in the handle. I used nickel silver pins, also purchased online, and epoxied them in place after roughing the surface of each with sand paper. I researched the more proper method of peening the pins, but given that this was my first such project, and that the knife would mostly be decorative, I decided against attempting this. At that point, I also mixed up a small amount of epoxy with the dye added, and using a toothpick, I filled in the small gap at the front of each scale. I also added another strip of paper spacer material between the colored epoxy and the wood.
Once all the epoxy had a few days to cure, I began with the shaping. I used a small file to finish shaping the bolsters, particular the front bolster, which had an uneven curve on either side. I used a hack saw to cut the pins flush to the handle, then began shaping the handle. The process was slow, but simple enough. I used a chisel, and a small spokeshave to rough out the shape, in combination with a belt sander. I also used a sanding disc on a rotary tool to shape some of the smaller inside curves. Final shaping and smoothing was done by hand with sandpaper, which was also used to smooth and ultimately polish the bolsters (down to 1800 grit).
Lastly, I applied a tung oil finish on the handle, then a light coating of paste wax buffed out to give a polished look to the handle. Overall I was very pleased with the result, though there are certainly things I would do differently the next time around…but hey, that’s the nature of experimenting, so no loss there. I enjoyed this project, and will definitely try another knife at some point. Stay tuned for a future post on the damascus blade that started this as well, I’m hoping to complete that project soon.