A very easy way to make a wa handle

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cotedupy

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This is quite an obvious thing to do tbh, I do it a lot and I'm sure many others do too, I'm not trying to claim any great innovation. But maybe someone hadn't thought of it, so here's the process of what is most certainly the easiest way to make a nice Japanese knife handle. Most of the below is gonna be quite simple stuff, I'm just breaking it down step by step.

So your average, fancy-ish Japanese knife will come with a handle that involves a nice bit of horn for the ferrule attached to a bit of Ho wood for the main part. In terms of tactile feel Ho wood is rather good as a handle material, though it does have some notable drawbacks in other areas; it's quite light so larger knives tend be very forward weighted, it absorbs quite a lot of moisture unless you coat it with something, and it's unremittingly drab and awful to look at.

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I received this NOS Takohiki from @refcast recently, and was quite pleased to see just how pretty the red marbled horn ferrule was. And that ferrule is gonna play into my hands when making a new handle for it, because the only particularly difficult or annoying part of making a wa handle is drilling it neatly. But by sawing the ferrule off and re-using it we're gonna allow an expert in Japan to do that bothersome work for us.

First knock yer handle off. There are tons of videos out there explaining this fully, but basically; 90 deg c oven for 10 or 15 mins, wrap the blade in a bit of newsaper or tea towel, hold it against a piece of wood with the ferrule over the end, and hit the other end of the wood with a hammer or mallet. This handle below had actually been burnt in so I probably didn't need to bother with oven-ing before, but it's kinda difficult to tell if a handle's been glued or not until you remove it.



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Putting horn in an oven will dry it out slightly, making it go dull and milky-looking. All you need to do is give it a little fine sanding and a smear of mineral oil and you're back in the game.

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Then just saw the ferrule off. You'll notice I've left a wee bit of the Ho wood on too, in case I want it as a spacer. Most buffalo horn ferrules are black, and they can work nicely with a light coloured Ho wood spacer and then some dark wood for the main part (contrast innit!).

I then cleaned the tang up by sitting it in a glass of vinegar for about ten mins, before a little coarse sanding.

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[TBC]
 
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We now have a horn ferrule that's been perfectly drilled and shaped for the knife, by someone else.

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In actual fact; for the Takohiki handle in the rest of this post I'm not going to use the Ho wood as a spacer, cos I've got a nice bit of Olive wood for the main part, and I want a dark spacer between that and the red horn, so I just sand the Ho wood away in this instance. Here instead is a piece of bog oak that I'll probably use as a ferrule at some point, but with the precision of a Japanese pull saw I can cut a small and neat sliver off it very easily.

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Now here's the clever part... take your main block of wood that you're going to use for the handle and drill it deep enough that the tang fits in. It doesn't need to be neat. You could use a drill press and do a big circle down the middle, you can use a hand drill and be pretty much as sloppy as you want, whatever. It doesn't need to friction fit or look good. Here's an example from a different handle:

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Then glue up your handle blank, I would use epoxy or wood glue for this, don't use CA / superglue. Put the tang of your knife in to make sure it's all aligned before the glue fully sets.

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Don't leave the knife in though, you're just making sure the tang slot in the ferrule aligns with the hole you've drilled in the wood. Take the knife out and leave the handle blank standing upright for 24hrs, because even '5 Minute' epoxy takes about a day to really properly set.

After that - the easiest way to make your blank into a knife handle shape is to use a belt sander, holding the blank against the platen. I lilke to do it with the belt facing sideways like this:

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But you could equally do it with the belt facing upwards. Your call.

The other neat thing about saving the orginal ferrule is that you can use it to guide the shaping of your new handle. My Takohiki was a RH D-Shape handle, and I just followed the lines from the ferrule, putting a smidgen of taper in so it's slightly larger at the heel than the original.

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For this initial shaping I used a 40 grit belt and then an 80 to smooth it out a little. You could just do it on a 120 belt but it'd take longer and wear out more, or just on a 40 grit and spend more time hand sanding at the end. Again - it doesn't matter.


[TBC]
 
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The other thing I've noticed with the epoxy is you need to watch the heat with the sander. If the epoxy heats up too much it loses its grip and falls apart. The only time I've had a real problem w this is when I've used metal spacer material. Might be my brand of epoxy though....
 
At this point after the belt sanding I usually slather some oil on the whole handle, as I find it makes the final colour richer and deeper.

Then you just hand sand it a bit. IMO wood feels nicest at somewhere between 180 and 400, but horn starts to really pop and shine over 1k. The easiest way to do that is take the whole thing to 1k+ and then sand just the wood part back down at a lower grit. Finish it with oil or wax as you prefer, tung oil or tung based hardwax oil is what I tend to go for.

And put the handle on the knife. You can use hot glue, wax, or epoxy to fix it (epoxy is runnier the warmer it gets). Or if the tang was originally burnt in and the slot is properly snug then a friction fit alone might be enough, which is what I did here. Shove the tang in and hold just the handle with the blade downwards, then a couple of taps on the handle butt. Obviously you'll worry that it's gonna smack the blade out onto the ground, but actually it moves up the handle, fixing it solidly in place. Don’t ask me why, probably ‘physics’ or something.

To be completely honest - I also don't know if this is how people do friction fits of knife handles, I just did a gentler version of how you fit an axe handle.




It worked perfectly though, so I shan't worry myself with the theory (the machi gap is very much intentional btw).

And the end result is rather lovely I think, I'm hugely looking forward to sharpening and using it. Any octopus living in the Brixton / Clapham area of south London ought to be extremely worried by this turn of events...


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The other thing I've noticed with the epoxy is you need to watch the heat with the sander. If the epoxy heats up too much it loses its grip and falls apart. The only time I've had a real problem w this is when I've used metal spacer material. Might be my brand of epoxy though....


Yep absolutely, it's the no.1 most annoying thing about metal spacers for me, though I assume the same would happen with other types of glue too (?). Whichever way I would certainly advise to never attempt the double metal spacer, it will make you want to kill yourself.

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Oh and - I saw your reply on the machi gap thread, is my method in the vid above how you would normally re-fit a burnt in / pressure / friction fit handle without glue-ing it? Or is it usually done another way...?
 
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Exactly how I do it @cotedupy unless I’m lazy and I drop it in on the cutting board from a cm height till it’s in the right spot. Friction fit is all in how good the fit is. Yours looks spot on but with the cutting technique I use with wa handled knives the handle doesn’t need to have crazy strong grip. For me the handle is really there for comfort and balance.

Very nice spacers. I tried a repair when 1 side of a western handle cracked and used a metal spacer to hide the difference in wood grain. Ended up falling apart and had to rehandle the whole knife in end…
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Now I tend to only use metal spacers at the top of monohandles so I can dip the metal on a wet rag while I’m grinding.

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Just ordered a custom. And requested a wrought spacer in the middle of the handle… I’ll let the pros deal w it…
 
nice work Oli. Beautiful blade. Now I want to grill some octopus and make some ceviche.
 
Even JB Weld fails with enough heat. 300f is easy to hit with a metal spacer and dull abrasive. Non ferrous metals are easiest for spacers, stainless is an absolute nightmare
I would certainly advise to never attempt the double metal spacer, it will make you want to kill yourself.
I did a double stainless and stone spacer once......it didn't make me suicidal, but I think that's only because the insanity set in before I got there😂
 

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Nice! Thanks, @cotedupy. I have the opposite project for Mikami knife that came with a plastic ferrule. The wood part of the handle is the only point of the knife he has his maker's mark so I'll try and salvage it.

Following along!

I’m planning on doing the same with my two Mikami knives. Keep us posted when you get to do it!
 
@cotedupy fantastic work Oli. Lots of valuable tips.

I need to try using my belt sander laying on its side like that. Have you tried using in this position but on a blade face? I’m wondering if I can achieve a quick belt finish like that.

What are you planning on using the Takohiki for? Fish and seafood dedicated slicer, or for protein in general?
 
Exactly how I do it @cotedupy unless I’m lazy and I drop it in on the cutting board from a cm height till it’s in the right spot. Friction fit is all in how good the fit is. Yours looks spot on but with the cutting technique I use with wa handled knives the handle doesn’t need to have crazy strong grip. For me the handle is really there for comfort and balance.

Cool, ta. I thought I was probably on the right track, but didn't want to lead anyone astray, as it was just something I thought of doing after I finished the handle. And yeah - the fit here is completely perfect, but obviously not through any skill of my own, just cos I used the existing ferrule.

Really like your burnt Takeda handle with the metal ferrule bit, that looks great.


nice work Oli. Beautiful blade. Now I want to grill some octopus and make some ceviche.

Cheers mate. I've always wanted a Takohiki, so pleased I managed to do it justice.


Non ferrous metals are easiest for spacers, stainless is an absolute nightmare

Yeah, using stainless washers as spacers on a sander would get me probably 75% of the time. Brass and copper much better.

That stone spacer is wild!


I need to try using my belt sander laying on its side like that. Have you tried using in this position but on a blade face? I’m wondering if I can achieve a quick belt finish like that.

What are you planning on using the Takohiki for? Fish and seafood dedicated slicer, or for protein in general?

I've used it on it's side for blade work occasionally, but facing up is much better, if you can put it in a vice or clamp or something.

I'll probably only use the Takohiki for fish. I sometimes use single bevel slicers for other things, but tbh I don't really eat much meat. I have about 6 or 7 old yanagi as well that I've restored and re-handled. I always mean to sell them at the end, and then I don't because they're beautiful and I like collecting them and polishing them and looking at them.
 
Cheers mate! I've been looking for knotted oak or other woods to try something like the blue epoxy resin ones you do. They are wild.


Yeah that light oak and electric blue combo worked nicely didn't it. You basically want trash wood for it, the bits I was using were offcuts from floorboards that were too knotted and void-y to use. Your best bet might be to go to the kind of timber merchant who supply the building trade and asking if they've got any bits they're throwing away...
 
Yeah that light oak and electric blue combo worked nicely didn't it. You basically want trash wood for it, the bits I was using were offcuts from floorboards that were too knotted and void-y to use. Your best bet might be to go to the kind of timber merchant who supply the building trade and asking if they've got any bits they're throwing away...
I have about 100sq ft of oak floor boards I ripped up but its all to thin for handles, unfortunately. I look at wood differently now. Every time I see a railing, rolling pin, chair leg etc my first thought is... would that make a good handle?
 
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