View Full Version : Handle making setup?

07-24-2012, 10:38 PM
Gonna have a go at making some handles and replacing a few on my set up. Is there one piece of equipment that is completely essential and I'd be daft to attempt this without? Or with a bit of patience can I get by doing this mainly by hand?

The only "power" tool I have in my possession is a POS dremel knock-off that I bought for like $30 for grinding the bolsters off my Sabs.

At first I'll probably practice on my CCK, Tojiro and maybe my sabs then I'll look at replacing some ill fitting wa handles (both AMMs) and my good cleavers.

Cheers in advance,

07-24-2012, 10:55 PM
I have done a few completely by hand, and its possible. But...if I were doing it again and was minimalist in my power tools, I would start with a bench top belt sander. Even just a cheapo 1x30 will save you lots of hand sanding.

Eamon Burke
07-25-2012, 03:10 AM
A powered Sander would be my must-have. It will certainly help open up some more traditional, less-homespun looking designs, but will require practice to get used to. For functional, pretty handles, just get creative, be patient, and buy nice wood.

Are you doing pins? I wouldn't be confident enough to drill pin holes without a drill press, but then again, I'm shaky.

07-25-2012, 04:03 AM
Belt sander is not a necesity.

To get you started you need :

drill and drilling bits
sandpaper, and to make it as fast as possible, start your progression by grit 40
vice on a table would make it easier, but I dont have it, so if I have to catch something, I just clamp a piece of 2/4 to the table, and clamp stuff right onto it.

So what I did on my first handle, I just rougly cut wood, sanded the ends where it should get connected, glued it and clamped and threw to 80 degrees C oven.
After a quarter good glue is dried.
Then I became to think which end is where, and I use plane to roughly set the shape, its fast and that way theres minimal sanding.
When I have nearly shape I want, I start sanding it. Papers 40/60/100/150/320/400 and here i repeat few times after wiping handle with damp cloth.
You could go higher with grit, but 400 and felt to polish does the trick for me.

Marko Tsourkan
07-25-2012, 08:22 AM
How much are you willing to spend? In general, the better the equipment, the less steep is a learning curve (though equipment alone won't compensate for the lack of skill). Making things by hand is possible, but a combination of power tools/hand tools would be my preference.

Essential two pieces of equipment is a disk sander with a tilting work table (it can run you from $100 to $900 with VFD) and a drill press. The rest you can get by with hand tools.

A quick advice, in the beginning save your best woods for the last. An assumption that your first dozen of handles will be great, is probably wrong (I guess it would depend what great means to you)


07-25-2012, 09:10 AM
What about for slot-cutting?

07-25-2012, 09:11 AM
I used to use chisels and a block plane to shape, having a power sander is much easier though. If going the hand tool route Japanese style pull saws leave a lot less clean up. Also consider using rasps for shaping, good ones are very sharp and controllable.
Big thing to watch with wa handles is making sure your tang hole is absolutely in line with the handle, which is much easier to do with a drill press.
Good luck with it

Marko Tsourkan
07-25-2012, 09:51 AM
You can drill a few holes side by side and then use a handle broach to shape the tang hole.


07-25-2012, 10:10 AM
You can drill a few holes side by side and then use a handle broach to shape the tang hole.


Bottom 5 pics here show a broach

07-25-2012, 11:06 AM
Iím in somewhat the same boat. Iíve been collecting blocks of stabilized wood, horn etc., but as yet I havenít taken the plunge. I have a collection of miscellaneous tools, and access to a friendís wood shop, though Iíd eventually like to build my own set up.

Iím only interested in making Wa handles at this point. With the tools I have access to, tell me if the following approach makes any sense. (heckÖ.feel free to tell me Iím daft if this doesnít make any sense!)

For a Wa handle, with say wood body, nickel spacer and buffalo horn ferrule: I was going tos tart by cutting the corners off the block on a band saw, then turn the block into a round dowel on a lathe. I was thinking Iíd join the wood to the ferrule in a round mortise and tenon fashion. IE turn the wood dowel at one end into a smaller diameter tenon. Iím not sure the best way to mortise the buffalo horn, but I was thinking of using a drill press for that.

Iíd cut the nickel spacer with a simple hand coping saw, fit it onto the wood block, followed by the horn ferrule and epoxy everything together. I would then use a bench top sander to shape the handle..IE the disk to flatten the top and bottom, and the belt to shape the handle into an octagon shape.

Finally, I was thinking Iíd stand the handle on end, and again use the drill press to make tiny pin holes side by side for the tang, and use a gouge to finish the hole. One issue is I need to find a clamp or fence of some sort to make sure the hole is plumb. My friends press just has a table.

Any of this make sense?

My other question is what to do when the ferrule is also wood. Do you still attach the two pieces mortise and tenon style, use pins, or is just the tang, along with epoxy, enough to keep the pieces of hood attached?

Thanks for any help!

07-25-2012, 11:23 AM
I have a few questions:
Does horn work like wood, or is it very splintery or brittle, etc.?
Could you use a plug cutter on a drill press to make the tenon?

Marko Tsourkan
07-25-2012, 03:08 PM
Seth and Neil. You might want to plan a trip to NY sometimes.

Best broaches are made by John Perry. Worth every penny. A head and a shoulder higher than other broaches on the market.


Marko Tsourkan
07-25-2012, 03:58 PM
On mortise and tenon construction.

The easiest method would be to use 1/2" or 5/8" dowel stock readily available (maple, oak, poplar, it really doesn't matter, whatever is easy for you to work with). The stock will need a slot cut in for the tang. It can be done with a handsaw, or a bandsaw, but the bandsaw method will be a little tricky, so one will have to think of a method to keep the round stock stationary. You will need a jig for that.

From that point on, one would need to pre-drill 1/2 diameter hole in the handle (calculate the depth by subtracting ferrule+spacer from a length of the tang from machi. Then pre-drill horn about 2/3 the length. If you have a XY vise, you can then change to a smaller bit and drill side by side holes through the remaining 1/3 of the ferrule. Turn ferrule to the opposite side, and clear the tang slot with either milling bits (ferrule is clamped in the vice, don't do it while holding it in your hand), files, or a broach.

Your metal spacer will have same 1/2" diameter hole as your ferrule and handle.

Assembly. First, glue in the slotted dowel, making sure the slot is square. Once your epoxy cures, you can assemble the handle with a spacer and ferrule. I would use a flat piece of metal stock, 1/2x1/8 to align the dowel slot with the tang slot. Let epoxy cure for 30-40 min (get slow curing epoxy) then clamp the handle. A choice of clamp is important, so as you tighten it, it wont shift the alignment.

Once the epoxy is cured, you can proceed shaping it. Strength of your handle will be derived from the dowel, so even if your spacer heats up, handle will hold in one piece.

Horn slot can be shaped best with 1/8 broach, files or milling bits. I would not recommend to clear it with the drill bit or try to clear the slot while holding a piece in hand.

Disk sander with a miter slot and miter gauge is essential for squaring.

Hope this helps.


07-25-2012, 07:01 PM
Thanks for taking the time to write this up - a great primer on construction.

I was watching a video on wa handles and there were a bunch of specialized milling machines. It appeared that some standard type handles were shaped first then a machine (a suppose a shaper would work) would cut the tenon and shoulders following the shape of the handle. This was interesting because I couldn't figure an efficient and accurate way to have a ferule with interior shape that matched a smaller shape of the outside of the handle - like you see on shigs. I still wonder how this is shaped, if it is not circular...


07-25-2012, 07:28 PM
Yes - thanks for the great info Marko - that's very helpful and appreciated. And I'd love to drive down and see your shop!!

Seth - I saw that video from a google search. Here's another one from TC Blades that was interesting. Doesn't answer your question though, as they begin fully round before shaping.


Marko Tsourkan
07-25-2012, 07:39 PM
I can only envy the efficiency of Japanese handle makers, but I am sure higher end handles (and sayas) are more time consuming.


07-25-2012, 08:41 PM
There is absolutely no reason to make a Wa with a mortise and tenon,it is complete overkill. A properly prepared butt joint will be crazy strong,I have tested plenty butt joints to destruction.Mortise and tenon sounds great but I don't see the benefit of the use on a Wa handle.It's a knife not a pry bar.

07-25-2012, 08:51 PM
I guess I was under the impression that buffalo horn wasn't strong enough on it's own to just butt a piece of horn to a piece of wood and insert the tang. That's why I'm asking questions. When I look at the tang insertion point of many of my J knives that have horn ferrules, it looks like wood in the center.

07-25-2012, 09:13 PM
Horn is very strong.I will assume that the japanese Wa handle factory is doing the mortise and tenon to be efficient with a press fit.Please don't let me discourage from a mortise-tenon.I just feel it is more work then one needs to do for a handle.

07-25-2012, 09:51 PM
I thought it was done this way in Japan because most of the blades are heat-fitted using sawdust.

Marko Tsourkan
07-25-2012, 11:37 PM
Horn is very strong.I will assume that the japanese Wa handle factory is doing the mortise and tenon to be efficient with a press fit.Please don't let me discourage from a mortise-tenon.I just feel it is more work then one needs to do for a handle.

I will bring a couple of points in defense of a mortice and tenon construction. :)

To me it's not worth the risk to put hours into handle to see it fail in the end. It might be on overkill, but I know with 100% certainty that I can grind the handle hard and heat will not be a factor.

Second, I can clamp the components with excess pressure to produce a super tight joint between horn, metal and wood. I don't have to worry about starving a joint, as most of its strength is derived from internal tenon.

Another thing, mortise and tenon construction allows for a friction fit, should you not want to epoxy the knife in. If your knife is in need of frequent 'polish, it is best done without a handle on.

All these factors played a role when I decided to go mortise and tenon route.


07-25-2012, 11:50 PM
End grain butt joints are generally frowned upon in woodworking and they are much weaker than side grain. So, I suppose you are saying that the knife tang is what is providing the strength here?

07-26-2012, 07:51 AM
End grain butt joints are generally frowned upon in woodworking and they are much weaker than side grain. So, I suppose you are saying that the knife tang is what is providing the strength here?

If you have the time or even want to you should do some end grain epoxied butt joint failure tests.I was shocked that it took all my 230lbs and some muscle strength to bust the joint.Doing a friction fit blade like Marco does is the only advantage with a M&T.As for the metal spacer and M&T,if you over heat the metal spacer at your ferrule the joint may not fail with M&T.That does not make it OK to over heat the metal spacer as the epoxy around it will burn off and it will be ugly.I have no doubt that a M&T joint is stronger then a butt joint......like I said before it's a knife handle not furniture or a pry bar.I am not saying one way is better then the other I am just putting some opinions out there for you.Have some fun and make some beautiful handle:D

07-26-2012, 08:47 AM
I appreciate the different perspectives. I think I've learned enough to try a few 'practice handles' on some throw away blocks of wood, before I move on to working with the nice blocks I've collected.

07-26-2012, 12:06 PM
With oily woods like ebony and cocobolo I found butt joints were no where near as strong as using a hidden dowel, but this may be in part due to my glue up procedure and quality of adhesive used.
The other advantage of using a hidden dowel, and this was why I started to do this, was that I could slot the dowel before assembling and so avoid the need to drill a deep and narrow slot for the tang.