Replacing handle scales on a western handle

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Dec 31, 2019
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Philly Suburbs
I just finished installing snakewood handle scales on a Misono dragon. Before I started @chiffonodd asked me to take pictures of the process along the way, as he was curious what was entailed. I figured there were probably others on the forum who might be interested in seeing it as well.

This is a much more involved project than replacing a wa handle. I am fortunate to have a pretty well equipped wood shop, otherwise I might not have started doing these. I tried to take pictures of as much of this as I could, but will apologize in advance for the crappy quality of the camera on my antiquated cell phone.

The first thing I do when working on a yo handle is to carefully wrap the knife in paper, then masking tape to protect the blade. Now we are ready to remove the old scales. Most Japanese manufacturers use rivets and glue to mount the handles. The sides of the rivets seat pretty tightly together, but they can loosen over time, which is why you sometimes see gaps developing between the scales and the tang on some older vintage knives on Ebay and such. There are a few ways to get the old scales off, but the method I have found easiest is to use a drill press to drill out the center of the old rivets. It helps to use a punch to mark center to keep the bit from traveling on the steel or brass. A slower drill speed usually works better when drilling metal. A bit of oil helps the bit from over heating


When I do western handles, I use corby bolts and epoxy to secure the new scales. They look like little barbells, with a narrow shaft and 2 larger standard screw heads on each end. They come in stainless steel, brass and copper, in varied sizes, 3/16, 1/4 and 5/16. I like corbys because they offer a good strong mechanical hold on the scales which is much tighter and durable than the epoxy bond alone.


Sometimes the existing drill holes are just a bit to small for the shaft of the corbies, in which instance, they must be enlarged. Some folks prefer a center mosaic pin, which is a straight shaft and will likely require much more enlarging. You can use a needle file to do this. I have a set from Harbor Freight that sold for around $7 I think, but a diamond bit and a dremel tool make this process pretty easy and quick.


Before the new scales are installed, the tang should be prepared for glue. The old adhesive needs to be removed with rough grit sandpaper and acetone.


I failed to take pictures of preparing the new scales. When you buy wood for knife handles they usually come in a single block in a size that is often larger than needed for the scales. I usually try to trim them down so that there is less wood to grind down once they are mounted. Unlike a wa, a western handle must be ground down after they are mounted to tang. This adds a new challenge to the process. I trim the scales so that they are just thicker than I need, just a little thicker than the bolster. If I want to add some contour, cokebottle shape, to the final handle, I account for that in the thickness of the tang. It is important that all the cuts on the block are square, otherwise it can really complicate the process of drilling the pin holes. Another thing to mention here, the Misono has a square tang. I have done quite a few tapered tangs lately, where the metal on the hilt end of the tang is thinner than near the bolster. In those types of handles, the handle scale often abutts the bolster at an angle that is slightly more than 90 degrees. If the block is squared, there is a little gap between the scale and the bolster. This must be accounted for when trimming the blocks. The taper also makes it hard to keep the drilled holes straight and true through both sides of the blocks. Thankfully, Misono is factory made and nice and square.

Drilling the scales for corbys is a 2 step process. First, holes are drilled to fit the shaft of the corbys. I usually drill the hilt end first, then use a pin to hole the scale in place while I drill the other 2.


The next step is to flip the scale over and drill a slightly larger hole to accomodate the slightly larger head of the corby. Depth here is very important. It must be drilled deep enough so that the female end of the corby shaft goes into the tang holes so that the male threaded end can screw in, but not too deep or the corby will fully tighten before it can pull the scales tightly to the shaft.

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Almost ready to glue everything up! Before blending the epoxy, I always dry fit everything together. Once you know it fits, and will tighten you are ready to go. I use an epozy with a slow setting time, Fast drying epoxies don't give you the time necessary to get all the glue applied and get it tightly screwed together. I put glue in each of the pin holes to seal up the gap, and inside the corby itself to hold those together.


The 2 ends of the corby bolts screw together and pull the scales tight to the tang, but I often use clamps to pull everything together as I tighten the screws.


Once the glue dries, I grind off the tag ends of the corbies and trim some of the excess wood off with a band saw. You can see an outline of the tang that i scribed on the scale. Again, this just makes it easier to grind the handle.


I take off as much stock as possible on a 6x48 belt sander. It offers a lot of 80 grit surface area, and the platten keeps the pin and metal of the tang from standing out proud.


To sand the inside contour of the handle, I switch to a smaller belt sander than lets me get to the handle and not place the blade in harms way


To get the hook nice and clean, and to round the contour of the hook, I use a spindle sander


The last step, probably the most tedious, is the hand sanding. I use 220, then 400, then 600. To clean up any remaining scratches on the pin surfaces and the bolster I go as high as 1500. Just like polishing a blade, you often discover scratch marks remaining from coarser grits, only after you take it to final grit. Then you must start all over again

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It is a much different project than doing a wa, but with the attention to detail that you reflect in your handles, I am sure you will pull it off, Trent! Feel free to reach out if you have questions or get stuck.
Yeah, I'm saving this one Fred. Nice write up and it takes some of the mystery out of the process. The spindle sander looks like a nice thing to have around. I am about maxing out my cheapo grinder's ability.
It was certainly a daunting project the first time I decided to try it. My first one was a cheap Sakai Takayuki that I got on the Bay. It came out OK, but I made enough little mistakes that served as lessons for the next.

The drum sander is helpful for getting that nice hook at the hilt end. It is a fairly specialized piece of equipment which takes up a bit of valuable shop floor space. You can buy little drum sanding "bits" that can be used on a drill press, or if you have a very steady hand, with a sanding drum bit on a dremel tool
Superb stuff hombre!

Reminds me why I’ve only ever done a couple of yo handles (basically cos it’s difficult and I’m lazy).

But actually; having the process so clearly explained, maybe I’ll have another go soon…
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