Wa Handle WIP (PIC HEAVY)
So, I've seen a lot of questions regarding wa handles on the boards lately. Because of this I thought I'd share the method I've mish mashed together from various unfinished tutorials hanging around on the internet (plus it gives me a chance to have my methods critiqued by those who've gone before me lol). My tooling is semi limited...I have the basics plus a bit, but no lathe etc. Honestly though I think one could do these with as little as a vice, hack saw, hand drill, files, and sandpaper.
So first, a list of the tools I use:
Radial arm saw
6"x48" belt/9" disc combo sander with 120 grit and 600 grit belts
XXC/XC DMT plates (you could substitute sandpaper on a piece of glass for this)
Wood clamp (any type will work, I'm using the lever type, but screw types will do just fine)
Dremel tool with a small zip bit
Epoxy (I use basic gorilla glue for the glue up, and gorilla glue brand 5 minute epoxy for the blade set...but I've heard really good things about West Systems epoxies)
That's pretty much it. Again...most of this I use because I already had it. The first handle I made I used the saw, drill, and clamp and not much else.
So...lets get this going shall we?
Basic materials. Water buffalo horn, and stabilized buckeye burl. This walk through is for stabilized woods. If I'm using something like ironwood, rosewood, or other dense and oily hardwoods, I use a different finishing process (including oiling during the last sanding stages, and no belt work for the final polish).
First, I make sure that the handle blank is pretty much square to itself. Then I'll determine which side I want to use as the ferrule (I use the grain to determine this...its all about aesthetics). From there I scribe marks to determine the center. This isn't critical as long as you have enough room all around...but it's helpful in keeping things square. At that point I drill a pilot hole roughly the diameter of the thickness of my tang.
Once the pilot hole is drilled as deep as I can, I determine the length of the 'ferrule' piece, and cut it with a radial arm saw (if you're using another material for the ferrule, just substitute it for the piece here). Any good saw that makes square cuts will do. You can even use a manual miter box saw. From this point on its important that everything you do be square to everything else. If you don't, your handle will most likely look 'off'. Measure twice, cut once.
Make sure (if you have a preference) to mark which side of your blank is going to be the top of the handle. Also (and this IS important) make sure to mark which end of the ferrule piece is the front. There's not much in this process that's more annoying than drilling your holes in the ferrule (next step), and finding out your grain is mismatched. Please don't ask how I know this, just take my word.
This is why you marked the front of the ferrule. On the back, you'll drill a 1/2" hole about 2/3-3/4 of the way through the ferrule. If you look closely in this picture you'll see where I stopped. You want at LEAST 1/4" or so of thickness remaining for strength in the ferrule (if you ever have to remove the handle from a knife you'll thank me for this...again, please just don't ask). You can also see the pilot hole I drilled in my horn spacer.
The front side of the ferrule.
This is all of the pieces I'll be using to make my handle. If you go with another design you may have more or less pieces, but this covers the basics. You can see I've drilled everything with the 1/2" bit. On the ferrule (as I mentioned) I stopped with 1/4" or so remaining. On the handle piece...I stacked all the pieces and measured about 1/2" longer than my tang (in this case 4 1/2"). A bit of math told me how deep the 1/2" hole in the handle piece had to be.
Next, we slot the dowel for the tang. I use a hacksaw blade for this...but feel free to be creative. The size of the slot isn't critical...just that its centered.
If you look at the end of the dowel, you'll see I flattened it with my belt sander down the length. This is to allow trapped air and glue to escape when you drive it into the handle piece.
See the little black dot? Before I drove the dowel in (to pre-check fit)...I used a depth gauge to measure the depth of the hole in the handle. I then transferred the mark to the dowel...ensuring I drove it in deep enough. In this step I also dry fit the rest of the pieces to make sure that the dowel is just the right length to fill the handle without touching inside the ferrule. When in doubt...make it a bit shorter. Too long means your ferrule will butt up against it and won't clamp down on the other pieces...which is very bad.
Here you'll see that I slotted the dowel wider at the top. This is to make sure the blade will be guided towards the center when I burn it in. It doesn't have to be pretty. I use a hardwood dowel for strength...but it also resists burning better than the typical pine dowel. This is a good thing overall.
Next, surface EVERYTHING that will be glued together for your handle. I use my DMT Extra-Extra Coarse for this...but you can use a piece of 120 grit sandpaper stuck to a piece of glass if you like. If you skip this step, don't be surprised if you see spaces between your spacer and liners that are filled with nothing but glue, or worse...actual gaps. If you look closely here you'll see that I already slotted the tang hole in the ferrule. I like to go a little over sized here on kitchen knives (though typically not this much...long story). The front of the ferrule will be sealed with epoxy regardless, and this oversized hole allows me to be sure the blade is true to the handle in all dimensions before the epoxy sets. Additionally it lets any extra epoxy vent more easily when the handle is inserted.
Once you've surfaced everything...go ahead and glue it up using your preferred adhesive. I use Gorilla Glue. Its the only thing I have found that stands up to the heat of belt sanding without burning out. Unlike typical two part epoxies (in my experience)...it also burns out easily when I insert the tang.
Once the handle is done curing (you're supposed to wait 24hrs...I usually wait 12-15 and go for it)...its time to get to breaking it down into a real blank. I like to start with the sides, and sand down to a point where the liners are showing across most of the handle face. I don't worry too much about keeping things 'even' other than by eye, because...well, lets face it. If you're so far off of even just to get your liners to show...you screwed up pretty badly somewhere and may end up having to start over anyhow lol. I do check the thickness of the blank at the top and bottom periodically to make sure things aren't WAY off.
You can see here I'm already 'kind of' setting my tapers by eye. A lot of this is done by feel until the final stages. If you don't have an eye for this kind of thing don't worry...just keep it square and cut your tapers in later.
Once I get the sides true...I like to burn in my tang using a little tang shaped piece of mild steel clamped in a vice. I prefer using the template tang because I can get it screaming hot, and burn it in with one or two heats, as opposed to 10 or 20 with the actual tang. That gaping black hole there used to be a frothy mess of Gorilla Glue. The reason I do this now is so I have some idea of where the knife will actually sit side to side as I go.
Here I'm beginning to grind the top and bottom to match the sides. I use a standard carpenters square to keep the blank true to itself on the flats, and also to make sure my tapers don't get out of whack lengthwise.
And the top is pretty much ready to go. At this point (even though the bottom isn't quite there yet) I'll measure the dimensions of all four flats on the ferrule, and then all four flats on the butt, and adjust as necessary until everything is square. Meaning I'll have a smaller rectangle on the ferrule, and a larger on the butt...I'm just making sure they're true rectangles.
Now we're getting closer to our final 'blank' dimensions. Here I'll go ahead and measure around the tang slot. I measured the neck of my knife at roughly 20mm wide, so I'm looking for 21-22mm centered off the tang slot here in order to leave some room for adjustment. On the sides I'm going to go to 20mm, since I want this handle slightly taller than it is wide. Once I've got everything marked, I scribe a square around the blank with my calipers, leaving a # type marking in the wood (you can barely see it in the picture).
I then do the same on the butt, adjusting the marks to make sure I've got around 3mm of taper from ferrule to butt. Ignore the center marks...they're left over from squaring the blank before drilling in the first step.
The flats are now good to go.
Here I've inserted the actual blade (you still have to heat the actual tang to do this...but nowhere near as much as for the first burn in) to check for straightness to the handle. You'd think this would be a no brainer with the slotted dowel...but they can still seriously get way off. If the blade isn't straight (this one wasn't), I'll heat it up and burn it in again, applying force in the direction necessary to get the blade to line up as I slide the tang in. Once its true I move on to making sure the blade is clocked properly to the handle (edge and spine are in line with top and bottom).
You can see here that the blade makes a perfect 90° angle to the handle. This wasn't the case when I first put it in. Again...heat the tang and twist it as you insert it to get the proper clocking. Oh...and seriously...be careful folks...if your knife is sharp (this one is stupidly sharp)...its very easy to damage yourself rather permanently in these steps. If you're uncomfortable working with a sharp edged blade...wrap it up. I don't like to do this because most of these things tend to be sharp enough to cut right through whatever you wrap it in...which can be REALLY bad when you're doing something full force. I'd rather just respect the edge, and keeping it bare keeps me that much more careful.
This is awesome. A lot of questions were just answered.
Here you see I took a pencil and marked where the actual knife sits. This helps me finalize what 'true' is going to be (it doesn't matter if the handle is square to itself if it isn't square to the knife)...and lets me know if I have any adjustments in height to make. On this knife I had to sand more off of the bottom to line it up with the neck of the blade.
All square! You can see however that the tang slot...isn't. This is why I leave them slightly oversized. Maybe once I'm more experienced with this (this is like my fifth handle ever...hell, my fifth thing out of WOOD ever lol), I'll be able to clean this hole up to be like 1mm wider than the flats on each side. For now...I'm not too worried. I dye my epoxy, and it covers the hole nicely.
Once you've got everything roughed in...put the handle back on the knife. Make sure the line of the spine is maintained, and that there's no glaring 'weird' spots that stand out. I use this time to make sure my plan of action for the next few steps (outlined in the previous pictures) is a good one.
You can see here that my taper from ferrule to butt is properly centered on the blade, and the blade is true to the handle.
On other types of knives with a guard...I'm VERY careful with the slot for the tang. On wa handled kitchen knives...I'm not so worried. Handles seem to be like shoes for these knives around here lol, often being changed or traded etc. Plus, if the blade ever needs major maintenance, getting it off is a bit easier with a larger slot. As I said, in the end its sealed with epoxy anyway, and so it isn't as relevant as on other types of knives.
Now comes the fun. The handle blank has been completely shaped and the tapers set. All that's left is to cut in the 'facets' and complete the octagonal shape. I do this by picking a number based on the dimensions of the handle. This one is roughly 20mm on the ferrule, so I'll go with 4mm as my facet guide for the ferrule. I scribe that into the face of the ferrule, again making a # marking on the front. Where those lines intersect the flats of the handle are my guide lines for the facets.
I do the same thing on the butt, only I raise the number a bit, in this case I went 5mm.
Some guys use the disc sander and jigs and fences to cut in the facets. I can't do that for some reason. I do mine lengthwise and all by hand on the platen. First I cut the facet on the ferrule...getting it close to my guide marks.
Glad you're enjoying it! I'm still going...but you'll want to keep in mind that this is just the method I use. A lot of guys use a mortice/tenon method, or just butt things together. I combined a few methods I found online into one method that works for me (so far!).
Originally Posted by theLawlCat
Always interesting to see how others do it. Looking forward to seeing the final steps.
Then I flip it over and do the same thing on the butt.
Then as a last step, I blend the two into one smooth line. Voila!...one facet done!
I do try to make them as even as possible...but I also make sure it 'looks' right. This is why I do it without a jig. Sometimes square...isn't. The same thing for level. Sometimes when you make things perfectly true...they look off. Better to make it look right in my opinion, and measurements will only take you so far in that.
The ferrule all faceted!
The overall handle with the facets cut.
After all the facets are done, I'll knock the corners off the ferrule by eye with the slack belt.
I also begin the rounding of the butt on the slack belt.
Now...once the overall shaping is done, its time to fill the voids you will pretty much always get in burl woods. To do this I keep as much of the sanding fines as I am able to, and mix it with CA glue (regular super/crazy glue). Using a small spatula of some sort, work the glue mixture into the visible voids in the handle. I don't go crazy here, nor do I try to be perfect. These handles are organic. They're made from wood, horn, and metal. Part of the beauty in them to me is the contrast of the man made geometric lines and smoothness, foiled by the natural feel and visible texture of the materials used. A few small voids only add to that in my opinion.
So, once the CA glue is dry, I'll knock off the majority of it with my EEC DMT diamond plate. I used to use sandpaper on a surface plate...but sandpaper is EXPENSIVE, and while diamond plates aren't cheap...I'll never have to buy sandpaper for this purpose again lol. Even a completely worn out EEC diamond plate will cut wood and CA glue. For the record, I don't like the other brands of diamond plates (though I haven't tried Atoma), as most aren't flat, and the diamonds rip out with use and can scar your work badly. NOT GOOD!
So here you can see I switched to the Extra Coarse DMT plate, and am now actually refining the handle. The reason I do this all by hand instead of with the belt sander is heat. When you belt sand these things they generate incredible heat. The wood, horn, and nickel silver all have different expansion rates, with the horn seeming to be the greatest. What happens in this situation is the horn and wood expand, and get knocked off by the belt, then when it cools, they shrink, leaving the metal as a raised ridge. In use this isn't too big a deal (as long as its not huge...different climates are going to cause this regardless), but when you're trying to evenly polish the handle its a real bear. You can actually see the gaps in the previous picture. (Since making this handle, I've decided to limit my use of horn for these. No matter HOW much I worked the piece...the ridge still came back the next day. Its just a factor of the materials used, and I don't think it can be avoided.)
Once I'm done surfacing with the plates, I'll hit the whole handle with a 600 grit J-flex belt (VERY LIGHTLY...just enough to refine the polish...be CAREFUL not to generate more heat) on my sander. This leaves a pretty great polish in and of itself. I did used to go higher...but the end result was very glassy and fake feeling. To me this 600 grit belt finish is a bit more natural. Still glossy and finished, but not like plastic.
Once the belt sanding is over, I run the handle past a loose stitched buffer, loaded with a mix of beeswax and carnuba wax. This brings out the figure and chatoyance in the wood, and adds a protective coating. If the wood weren't stabilized (meaning if it were rosewood, ironwood, or one of the other dense, oily hardwoods), I'd have used a different finishing process...which basically includes saturating in teak oil and hand sanding up to the 600 grit. After that I'd use the same process listed here.
So that's pretty much it. There's pictures of the final knife all mounted up here...but as far as making the handle goes...this pretty much covers it. Keep in mind though that this is just my method I've worked out. I'm sure others like Stefan, Marko, mhenry, twistington, and the other professional makers on this board have their own method. I'm sharing this to hopefully gain their critique, but also (and more importantly to me), to help you guys who are interested in making your own handles possibly take the first step. There's not much more gratifying in my opinion than using something you made with your own hands...and for those of you that don't make the knives you use...making the handle could be a large part of helping you to experience that feeling .
I agree completely! When I first decided I wanted to do wa handles instead of westerns...I searched the internet over looking for tutorials on how others did it. I found a few half finished, a few dead links, and not much else. I'm sure using other search terms there may have been more...but due to the seeming lack, and the recent interest on this board...I thought I'd put my method up for critique and as an example of one way to do it. It may not be the best...but it seems to work for me so far .
Originally Posted by apicius9