A Study In Ironwood for Kitchen Knife Handles

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Dave Martell

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Over the years I've used a lot of AZ Ironwood for knife handles, it's among my favorite choices. I like that it's hard to grind since it allows me time to make mistakes and fix them and it grinds nearly compatible with bolsters, tangs, and pins to allow me to get a flush fit without undercutting. Then there's the look - wow who can't appreciate the color contrasts, dark lines, and metallic shimmer? I love it!

What I don't love so much is how it doesn't finish as nice as I'd like. It's a tight grained, dense, & oily wood that isn't stabilized, it's natural. Most knifemakers simply sand, buff, and wax and call it good. That's what I did as well but then I started to wonder about how it holds up in the kitchen. Most "custom" knifemaker's knives go from maker to customer and then to the safe - that's it's life. For a kitchen knifemaker we have to expect that our knives will be used, get messed up with oils/grime/acids, and then washed with detergents and maybe even scrubbed with scouring pads. How can we expect a wax coating to hold up and protect the wood in this type of an environment? Ironwood turns dark over time from UV exposure, hand oils, and gets washed out from dish detergents - we need to protect against these problems.

Over time I've had mixed results in finishing ironwood and have found a few things to be true when working this stuff. First is that it should not be over-buffed or buffed hard. In fact, if buffers are used it should be done using a soft buff, gently, and quick because the grain can get easily smeared. I stopped buffing ironwood, preferring to go to higher grit sandpaper instead. Yes some shine is sacrificed by not buffing but I can keep the grain appearance tight. I've also taken on the task of trying to figure out how (if at all) it's possible to seal ironwood using drying oils and this task has turned into a long term experiment since I've had little to no success.

As I mentioned before, ironwood is very dense, tight grained, and oily - it doesn't want to allow anything into or below it's surface. When an oil is applied it ends up sitting on the surface and drying/curing even if it's designed to soak in as many are. For most other woods (even stabilized woods) it's relatively easy to get a smooth build up of oil on the surface by first soaking the wood and then building up the layers but with ironwood (with a surface that doesn't allow penetration) all we get is a build up and this is weak since it's not holding onto anything - essentially the surface build up has got no roots under the surface like we can get with other woods. In every test I've done (with oiling ironwood) I've always been able to scrub away the oil coating using dish detergent. It's a major bummer when this happens after days of rubbing in the coats of oil.

To mention the test/experiments some....what I'm doing is using every drying type oil that I can get my hands on, mixing concoctions, etc. I've been doing this for a couple of years now and only in the last year or so have I seen results that are promising yet not so consistent. I have figured out a few mixtures/recipes that work for most common woods yet ironwood remains troublesome.....until recently.

The knife shown in the pictures below was first finished using the traditional method of buffing & waxing, then it was used and became ugly over time. The owner actually tried waxing per my instructions and then went so far as applying tung oil but it still kept getting uglier. I refinished this handle a few days ago and it's now the first that's been sealed using a new mixture of oils that actually block UV light, waterproof, keeps oily dirt out, and repels acids....all while allowing the look and feel of the wood to come through. The loss of color contrast is the only negative that I can see but maybe over time I can improve on this through tweaking.

I'm going to be shipping the knife back to the customer to have him use it as normal and we'll see where this experiment takes us. I'm hopeful but hey you never know. I'll be sure to post the results when that time comes. I just wanted to share with you guys now what I've been up to. Please feel free to comment, I'd love to hear what you think about the differences between finishes and your opinions on the topic of using ironwood in the kitchen.

Ironwood Study1.jpg


Ironwood Study2.jpg
 

aboynamedsuita

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I think they both look great in the third pic. It's crazy how I was just admiring the Burl Source ironwood and contemplating a western rehandle (it's a sign!)
 

Anton

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Good stuff Dave. Thanks for taking the time for this
 

ecchef

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I like the darker oil finish. Seems to have more depth in these photos.
Dave, have you tried oil impregnation under vacuum?
 

Reede

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I guess I'm the odd one here, but I've always wondered why people like desert ironwood so much. To me it is a very plain looking wood. The only thing I have with it is my Nick Wheeler paring knife, and I got it on Bladeforums ready made. I'd have picked something else if I would have had the choice.
 

icanhaschzbrgr

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I guess I'm the odd one here, but I've always wondered why people like desert ironwood so much.
Different strokes for different folks. I've worked with many different fancy wood, but still like ironwood for it looks. And in my eyes it only looks better over time. Just like a knife takes patina, ironwood darkens overtime and adds some value to the whole thing. But again, we all love different things, so no strict rules.
 

Anton

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I guess I'm the odd one here, but I've always wondered why people like desert ironwood so much. To me it is a very plain looking wood. The only thing I have with it is my Nick Wheeler paring knife, and I got it on Bladeforums ready made. I'd have picked something else if I would have had the choice.
If done properly, Ironwood can look awesome

DSC_2060 (1).jpgimage.jpg
 

apicius9

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Good Info, Dave. I'm looking forward to seeing the long-term outcomes... I never liked the idea to only wax and buff, so I applied finish regardless of the wood's stubbornness, but I usually leave it at 4-6 layers, depending on the piece. I think of that as a compromise between protecting it and preserving the 'wood feel' that the untreated wood has more than stabilized ones. But you are probably on the safer side to preserve the looks with the more elaborate finishing procedures.

Stefan
 

Seth

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I vaguely remember from my woodworking days the idea of teasing out the oil from some woods I think with a couple of treatments with acetone in order to get finishes to soak and adhere. I will try to find the reference.
 

Dave Martell

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I vaguely remember from my woodworking days the idea of teasing out the oil from some woods I think with a couple of treatments with acetone in order to get finishes to soak and adhere. I will try to find the reference.

I've wiped down ironwood with both alcohol and acetone until the oil stops coming off onto the rag but it hasn't seemed to make a difference. Doing what you're talking about is worth the try though, the next one I do I'll acetone it in steps/layers until I'm 100% confident that there's nothing left on or below the surface. Thanks!
 

Matus

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One of my knives has a very nice ironwood handle (I do not know how it was finished) with a lovely figure, but after few months the contrast between the light and dark parts got much weaker as the lighter parts darkened. I have use board butter on the handle. Is this behaviour as expected? thanks.
 

Dave Martell

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One of my knives has a very nice ironwood handle (I do not know how it was finished) with a lovely figure, but after few months the contrast between the light and dark parts got much weaker as the lighter parts darkened. I have use board butter on the handle. Is this behaviour as expected? thanks.

Yes this seems pretty normal and it's what I'm working to prevent from happening.
 

Burl Source

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Something I have noticed is ironwood that has been power buffed will darken about 10x faster than hand buffing with a soft cloth.
 

Dave Martell

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So I've still been working on this issue, 2 yrs later, yet finally making progress with something positive to report.

As we've known the issue(s) with ironwood is turning dark and ugly through oxidation, UV, and detergent exposure. The goal is to minimize the contact that the wood will have to those things through sealing the surface while retaining the nice color/tone of the ironwood during the process.

Most oils darken & cloud/obscure wood and also don't want to adhere to such an oily/dense species as ironwood. I've found that oiling to seal this wood type just doesn't work. The wood doesn't want to accept in the oil nor will even the thickest coating remain in use.

What I have discovered is that varnish will do just the opposite - it'll soak in, adhere, and stay put through normal use. The keys are using the correct varnish and thinning it enough to allow it to get into the wood and build up from within. You simply can't coat ironwood and expect the finish to last. I suggest using a thin spar varnish. This type of varnish is meant to live in the elements, is very tough, and is UV resistant. Thin the varnish down to a water consistency and let it soak in and do however many coats needed until the varnish appears to build up onto the surface. Don't be tempted to thicken it, this is a long process that'll take a week to get correct, just be patient.

This method can also be applied to cocobolo. This is actually where I learned the most about how to seal ironwood as cocobolo is even tougher to get right since nothing builds on this wood easily.



The handle below shows my most recent results in ironwood. Here you can't see (in the pictures) the sheen very well but it's there and you can obviously see that the color and character of the wood shows clearly. I'm encouraged by these results....



 

daddy yo yo

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Dave, I herewith apply for testing this handle over the next two years for you. You simply have to add a blade (preferably gyuto) and send it to me. I am amazed by the generousness of my offer! :pirate1:
 

toddnmd

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Dave, those handles are looking very nice! Would love to see if the color stays over time.
 

Dave Martell

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I've made some more improvements in how I finish ironwood.

What I've come up with is that oily woods reject oil finishes yet varnishes will adhere if applied SUPER EXTRA thin for the first 3-4 coats. I use this knowledge and apply these first coats to form a base that fills the grain and begins to build on the surface.

I've played with many varnishes to get just the right one and as a side bonus it contains a UV blocker which serves to retard oxidation from UV light so as to help ironwood retain it's fresh appearance.

After the 3-4 coat varnish base is formed I layer on an oil/varnish mix to further seal and bring out the wood's color and characteristics generally bringing the number of coats I apply to 10-12 total.

Will this hold up forever? I doubt it but it's getting better and better.

See these for the last two I've done....



 
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