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Thread: Woods to Work with... The blackisted? and the best?

  1. #1
    Senior Member
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    Dec 2012
    San Francisco Bay Area

    Woods to Work with... The blackisted? and the best?

    Ever walk into a grocery store and come out with some obscure ingredient just to see what you can do with it? or because you wondered what it's like to work with in the kitchen?
    I do that all the time..... and I'm guilty of the same when it comes to grabbing a block of wood for a handle or a project if it catches my eye. Sometimes I find something and become a fan. Others.... it's future firewood. I've tested a bunch and have some loves and hates.

    Dave posted a rant (well deserved) about the frustrations of Redwood for handles in his sub forum a few days ago and it got me thinking. Among all who make handles or sayas or whatever, from the one now and again makers to the pros, we've probably got a large pool of info about different materials.

    Didn't want to hijack his thread, but seemed like it might be a good idea to create a new one to see if we can't collectively build up a sticky worthy list of quick info on materials to have as a reference. Know any material can turn out a good result or a horrid one in any single case but speaking in broad strokes from past experiences....what do you love or hate to work with...... The Love it or stay far far away materials list...... Thoughts?

    Case in point...

    Redwood. run and don't look back. High Frustration. Sands erratically and unpredictably. Tricky to get good finish. Dust not a friend.

    African Blackwood. Love, occasional hate. Great look. Great finish. Hard on tools....potentially brittle. Slow to work. Beware the weight when making handles

    Cocobolo. Allergy sufferers run away fast. Hold your breath. Caution. Caution Caution. (But it does look great)

    Black and White Ebony. Heartbreaker to heavenly. The look is awesome but brittle and breakable while being worked. All ebonies a potential cautionary tale for handles.

    Bubinga. Thank you, I'll have another.

    Ziricote. a champ if you start with a good block.... not friendly if you have to mill down (drying cracks and checks are common)

    Mammoth Tooth...horn....woods....etc etc.....

    Anybody with thoughts on the idea of this thread or interest in adding to it ...chime in.

  2. #2
    Senior Member
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    Jul 2012
    Cairns. Australia.
    I made a couple of Saya from Cypress pine,it was nice to work with and finished beautifully.Had a terrible reaction to it,was itchy for days and had to get prescription antihistamine.

  3. #3
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    Jun 2013
    scot what are the woods in mine?

  4. #4
    mkriggen's Avatar
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    Mar 2013
    Amboyna Burl Baby! Beautiful colors and figure, works easy, and finishes beautifully?

    Be well,
    Rule #1- Don't sweat the small s%&t, rule #2- It's ALL small s%&t

  5. #5
    Das HandleMeister apicius9's Avatar
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    Feb 2011
    Ardmore, PA
    Good idea, thanks CPD!

    Redwood. Don't see it quite as negatively but it may be easier in wa handles with mostly straight surfaces. But I agree with the difficult finishing.

    Black and white ebony. 99% of the pieces I have seen had cracks. Can work but it's a PITA.

    Black hight grade ebony. Used to get instrument grade ebony from instrument maker suppliers, well seasoned. Many handles developed cracks over time. Also makes me cough and sneeze like cocobolo does for others. Will not use it anymore.

    Snakewood. PITA to work because it is so dense. Cracks easily, during working it or over time.

    Palm wood. Really more a bundle of fibers than real wood. Can look nice but is very brittle and breaks out easily.

    Lignum vitae. Oily stuff, smears and clogs all abrasives very easily, clearly not my favorite to work with.

    Purple heart. Yuck. Hate the color and it burns easily.

    Walnut. I just don't seem to have the talent to finish it in a way that it looks nice, but others make it shine (literally...), so it's me, not the wood.

    Thuya burl. Have a love-hate relationship with this. One of my favorite woods when the piece is good, smells good, too, but can be very brittle when unstabilized - and looses a lot of its charme with stabilizing.

    Maple burl. Can be beautiful, but also had pieces that were very 'spongy' after stabilizing, felt like they could break any moment.

    Curly & quilted maple. Easiest woods to work with, great to finish.

    Koa. Still fascinated by the differences in colors and figuring this wood comes in. Fairly easy to work with. Always look forward to seeing the final outcome, still my favorite.


  6. #6
    Senior Member
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    Jul 2012
    Cairns. Australia.
    Quote Originally Posted by CoqaVin View Post
    scot what are the woods in mine?
    American White Oak and PNG rosewood.Is it still holding up ok?

  7. #7
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    Oct 2013
    I don't have the vast experience as many members on this site do but here are some of my thoughts from the handles I've made:

    Koa - Becoming my favorite wood, I have found it easy to work and finish and it can have the most amazing patterns.

    Amboyna Burl - Another good one, though I've only worked with stabilized pieces for Wa and Western handles

    Thuya - I have only made a very small paring knife handle with a stabilized piece and it seems very fragile but continues to smell nicely when wet and looks very beautiful

    Snakewood - I took the advice of many and went very slowly while working it for some western handles and I avoided it checking during that, time will tell i suppose. I found while sanding it that Snakewood almost wanted to be polished and seemed to become so on its own. Very hard though and slow to work.

    Ebony - I rehandled a forgecraft that turned out alright and I had some trouble gluing it to the tang. Sanding was very slow, but it turn out well and feels very good in the hand.

    Mesquite Burl - I found this wood easy to work and it finishes fairly well.

    Hackberry (Spalted) - Even stabilized this wood was very lite and fragile and broke along the handle pin joint but glued back together. The pattern does look very nice.

    For future projects I intend to use more Koa and at some point some stabilized Redwood to see what all the fuss is looks so pretty too, how bad can it be?


  8. #8
    Delbert Ealy's Avatar
    Join Date
    Feb 2011
    Indian River, MI Just under The Bridge
    This thread is interesting, and to me quite funny.
    I guess I have a different perspective, because I have worked with metals more and longer.
    It is true that some of the woods are very dense, like snakewood.
    For me most of my tooling is geared towards working with metals, an I start with the premise that a sharp tool is a safe tool.
    For most of the woods I like stabilized, and I must say that stabilized redwood is one of my favorites.
    The Top of the list for me is maple, nice to work, and such variety from a single wood.
    Ebony is on the bottom of the list for me at present.
    Laminated metals specialist, Kitchen knife and gadget maker
    "Build a man a fire and he will be warm for a day, set a man on fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life"

  9. #9
    Weird Wood Pusher Burl Source's Avatar
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    Jun 2011
    Kerby, OR
    If you want a super easy wood to work that you can finish fast and easy, just use straight grain maple.
    All of the others are going to take extra work. When you see the exceptional handles like Michael Rader's there is a lot of extra work involved.
    Like most crafts the more you put into it the better the results. One method does not work for everything.
    On another forum Michael was answering questions about what is expected when testing for JS or MS. I asked about how he finishes his handles. This was his reply.
    Quote Originally Posted by Michael Rader View Post
    Ok, so, you don't actually have to finish your handle to the grade that I do to pass your tests, but I'll share a few tips on that.
    I was taught wood finishing by an ol' timer that worked for Benelli a long time ago and one of the most important things he stressed about finishing gunstocks was filling the grain. He really liked Teak Oil. I think we used SeaFin.

    So, sand your handle down to 320-400 grit or so, saturate the handle with oil and let sit for about ten minutes while just keeping it wet so as much oil can soak in as possible. Then we would wet-sand so a slurry of sawdust fills the grains and pores. Kinda massage it in with your fingers too when it gets thicker. Let sit for 5 days or so in a warm room until that stuff is rock-hard. Sand back down to the wood again and do it again. Then sand it down to the wood yet again and this time, wipe off the slurry after wet-sanding and with a clean paper towel wipe on a clean coating of oil. Let dry. Repeat.

    At this point the grain and pores are filled and you are building a very thin layer of hard, clean oil finish in and on the wood. Repeat the wet-sanding with 600, 800, 1200 grit papers. Apply clean oil everytime afterwards. Let dry completely. Buy some super fine steel-wool from Klingspore or Rockler (not Lowe's or Home Depot - their #0000 isn't the same.) Scrub the finish to a nice satin sheen. You can also rub-out the finish with Pumice then Rottenstone powders too.

    So, that is how we did it and many, many of my sword handles/scabbards and knife handles were done this way. I'd recommend using Pro-Custom gunstock oil from Brownell's instead of Teak or Tru-Oil. And, yes, do this on stabilized woods too especially if you can see open grains like Koa, etc... You might want to use a buffer on the finish too, but if those grains/pores aren't filled, it won't look quite as nice as it can.

    There are some other, quicker ways to fill the grain/pores too, but, you know - try this for a while...
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  10. #10
    Dave Martell's Avatar
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    Feb 2011
    Airville, PA
    I am driven crazy by some woods and I call them bad names but I have to assume some responsibility in bad results because many other makers get good results from the same stuff. I do have my favorites though, maples being at the top of the list, just so easy to get great results.

    Michael Rader is likely in the top 10 (or higher) of woodworkers in the knifemaking community, his results are spectacular. I'm just starting to be able to even understand what he's talking about in what he does, doing it myself is a whole other thing.

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