Some random thoughts on handle making philosophy

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Rant specialist extraordinaire
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Aug 12, 2016
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I wrote this in the other thread, but as it got wordy and long winded I figured it really didn't belong there.

I find it interesting how Japanese, throw away, WA handle construction philosophy morphed when it intersected with western makers that started making Japanese style knives. Japanese makers, in general, used to treat handles as an after thought, a replaceable, cheap and temporary part that gets used up and replaced. The focus is on the blade and the handle is there for convenience and not expected to last as long as the blade. In light of this, handles are burned in, held mostly by friction, sometimes beeswax is used to increase friction, and are easy to replace. The material used is soft and not durable, it is left untreated so overtime it discolors, scratches, dents and eventually gets replaced. The handles are also cheap and are just utilitarian, the wood is plain and doesn't look as anything special. Basically, no one seems to care about the handles, they are all basically the same. An interesting side effect of this construction is that the knife becomes somewhat customizable since the handle can be moved closer or further from the choil of the blade.

Now, when western makers got into the game they brought their philosophy of western handle making to WA handles. We start seeing much more effort and focus being given to the handles. They are functionally similar, but different woods and materials are used. We see metal and other spacers, treated woods, acrylics, ferrules made out of metals or composites, etc. The attachments are often permanent with either epoxy or nut on the end of the threaded tang, or pin through the tang. The handle now is meant to be permanent and expected to last as long as the rest of the knife, much more time and effort is spent on it. This creates an interesting paradigm, these handles are often very beautiful and will last for the life of the knife, but they are also often heavy and slippery, they can mess with the balance of the knife making it a lot more handle heavy and heavier over all. The maker now needs to consider how to correctly balance the knife, something Japanese makers are unlikely to ever think about since traditional WA handles are so light. These handles sometimes have sharp corners, due to materials used and octagonal or hexagonal shapes of hard ferrules.

On western ergonomically shaped handles using permanent attachment and durable materials makes a lot of sense. For one the grip is often different and handles are difficult to change. On cooking knives that are mostly held in pinch or similar grip the handle doesn't need to be elaborate from a functional standpoint since it is not held fully, it is there as a counter balance and counter weight to some degree. I wonder if different handle making philosophies came from relative scarcity of steel in Japan vs Europe in the past.

Recently we see a move to the middle of sorts, more and more western makers use hot glue as semi-permanent attachment and are staying away from heavier materials. Focus seems to be more on the blade than the handle in a way. In any case, some of my observations from messing around with a lot of different knives.
Handles are probably the most personal part of a knife, but to me also has the biggest impact on comfort because it is in direct contact with your hand. I've been trying to figure out exactly which features contribute most to my own comfort vs which ones have no affect. I take complete measurements of every dimension of all my knives handles to try to make the correlation. My sample size is still limited at this point at around 50 different examples. But here are some of my thoughts so far.

-Total circumference matters more than any one dimension. I used to think that too narrow is uncomfortable, but then I found some narrow and tall handles which ended up quite good.
-I don't like sharp facets. I've experienced this with hardwoods and also with some makers' ho wood. This however is a very easy one-minute fix to remove the sharpness with sandpaper.
-only the front 2 to 3 inches of the handle actually matter for me because of my hand size. Everything else is just for balance and looks.
-Shape does not have as big of an affect as I originally thought. Going through all of the extremes of circular, to oval, to octo, to straight up rectangle. They can all be equally good
-Simply judging an octo handle size by width and height are not adequate. The depth of facets makes just as big of an impact. I had a handle I loved which was 20x23mm in front so that was my benchmark. However, I found many other handles with similar width and height that felt nothing alike. Changing the depth of facets going from 5mm to 6mm can make a huge difference.
-Most stock ho wood handles are not perfectly flat on the sides. They're slightly rounded, which effectively reduces the total circumference of the handle.
-the amount of grip that I can get around the handle with my pinky finger has a bbig impact on the effectiveness of the handle. This is consistent with what I was told by a professional occupational hand therapist. Try gripping something without using your pinky and you will see what I mean.

It's hard to spec out exactly what I'd like to makers though. I tried talking to a respected custom maker about my handle preferences when discussing a possible custom knife, and I think he got annoyed, telling me that it would be too much work for him to make. So for knives now, I just provide general guidelines and hope for slightly oversized so I can make final adjustments myself if needed.
As someone who predominantly pinch grips, I want my handles to balance the knife at the pinch (or just in front). After that I want it to "feel good" (as defined in a totally unclear way that I can only say when I hold it).

Sharp facets suck. Big (larger circumference) handles suck. Small circumference handles sorta suck, but are usable (e.g some Kono handles). Length is reasonably immaterial - so long as I can hold the knife by the handle well when drying it off, it's long enough.

Ovals, Righty D-handles (I'm a lefty), octagons all have worked for me. Yo handles are fine but balance points are generally further back than I like.

If I've talked to a maker about a custom, I simple say my desire is to balance at the pinch
Also want to add, smoothness of a handle is detrimental mainly when the size/shape doesn't match your hand.

I used to think smooth "slippery" handles would be terrible and large knives would become dangerous and fall out of my hands. I put that to the test with my 450g cleaver going to the extreme. I installed a dense oily rosewood handle (behaves like a stabilized wood or ebony) that I sanded as high as I could to 2500grit, then waxed it to baby butt smooth. In use, I never feel like it will slip because the size fits the knife and my hand perfectly. I like it a lot also because it's very easy to keep clean.

On the other end of the extremes, I have an unfinished nonstabilized Japanese handle on one of my newer knives that has incredible amount of grip, but still feels like it will slip out of my hand because its not the right size for me.
Is this western/japanese dichotomy accurate? Seems like Japanese makers made very fancy handles well before western makers 'got in the game'. I think the difference in philosophies is more about catering to the pro vs enthusiast market
I've grown so used to Japanese handles that most Western handles just feel weird to me at this point. The Tsourkan hidden tang is probably as c;lose to a comfortable yo-handle as I've experienced in recent years. The extremely sculptured Western handles I totally don't get as they seem extremely non-universal relative to fit and grip. Barring very unusual extremes of size an octagonal wa-handle is at least a shape that can readily accommodate most grips and hand sizes.

Aesthetically I hate the really "decorative" handles from some Western makers (although they may be wa shapes). Most dyed wood or bright colored resin/acrylic just looks gaudy and garish to me. If you throw in four or five different materials that only makes it worse visually. YMMV. I am not at all a fan of high gloss finishes on handles. Some degree of texture or at least a more matte finish makes the handle much less slippery IME although size and shape are also part of that equation.

I want my handles to be installed so they can be removed preserving both the blade and handle. I am not a fan of epoxy or other semi-permanent affixing methods.

I use a pinch grip and have relatively small hands but I have yet to encounter a Japanese-style handle that felt sufficiently too large in diameter to really bother me although I have seen some that seemed out-of-scale to the blade. Overly long wa handles do bother me slightly, probably something to do with inertia(?), but I can live with them. I'm fine with octagonal, D, or oval handles. I have not used an acorn/heart-shaped handle for any length of time but I don't think I'd dislike the shape assuming no sharp edges and reasonable proportions. I tend to like handles that gradually get broader and/or deeper the farther from the blade but it isn't a necessity. A sharp, right angle edge on the front of the ferrule bothers me. I prefer some tapering or chamfering.
I think that your technique and body type and size and hand size and finger length and prior knife experience make this far too easy to overanalyze without much purpose. But here's my long rambling anecdata:

I am tall and lanky with large hands and extra long fingers. I cooked food professionally for more than 10 years in upscale casual churn and burn places before I knew there was such a thing as a wa handle. Slicing and dicing mountains of everything all day every day. And mostly with Cozzini and Montana and Dexter Russell Sani etc type knives. Since then I spent another ten years doing the same thing except with better knives. I have tried everything I can get my hands on. Which is a lot. I have never really had problems with any kind of handle. If it cuts, I'll adapt. I don't care what it looks like. If it doesn't cut then I will make it sharp and then I will adapt. My "gripes" are only really applicable to super duper high volume environments and even then pretty marginal situations where you get stuck doing something repetitive and slimy and cold. Then handle ergonomics are all you really think about until you're done.
The way I grip a knife and the style of high volume cutting I employ and my long skinny crooked fingers is extremely uncomfortable with typical wa handles. I think my grip mostly developed as a way of protecting my fingers from damage due to sharp spines and choils on cheap house knives before I knew that people made better knives or that people made such modifications to their tools.
In my pinch grip most of the force is absorbed and delivered by the side of my pointer finger pinching my thumb in front of the handle on the blade. And in back by the top of my middle finger squeezing the handle against the heel of my thumb. I have no use for a neck or "emoto" on a knife. I either feel like my middle finger gets smashed crooked in between the choil and the ferrule or on the shorter end of the spectrum, or it feels like there is nothing for my middle fingertip to hold onto at all on a longer necked wa. I lose both proprioception and leverage.
I definitely don't hold onto a knife much with my pinkie or ring finger. I could lose them tomorrow and it wouldn't affect anything. I don't care much about how long a handle is either. I'm happy using most wa knives with no handle all just gripping the rusty little tang snub. And extra long handles are fine too as long as they aren't too fat or heavy. But for me keeping my middle finger comfy is a much greater concern than balance or any type of finish consideration.
Also, this is another one of those things in the knife world where you have to balance between two different opposite pulling concerns. The perfect handle for cutting does not have any relationship to the perfect handle for sharpening. Circumference is largely irrelevant to me. But I prefer a tall skinny cross section for cutting and a short squat cross section for sharpening. Gives you better leverage for how you use the knife for cutting or sharpening respectively. Most tangs are shaped with a tall skinny cross section and I am pretty comfortable just using a tang as a handle for cutting. But again, it really sucks for sharpening. My least favorite cross section is round or square. Round you lose all proprioception for orientation when cutting or sharpening. Square you lose leverage.
I also prefer the handle to gradually taper until it is the same width as the spine instead or their being a big gap or step like there is on a typical wa.
In regards to balance, I prefer knives that are balanced at or forward of the pinch. But I also prefer 250-350mm knives. So I don't really need a wa ho handle to achieve forward balance.
Handle finish, doesn't matter too much to me. But again, if I have the option, I prefer what I am used to. So if I have my choice I prefer welded or integral steel bolsters, full tapered tang construction and pakka or similar black scales. But that's never a deal breaker obviously.

Here are a couple of my prototype/thought experiments trying to make the perfect handle for me. This is one of my favorite handles for cutting with. Kind of testing the limit on how skinny I could get. Tapers down to where the handle ends right at the choil. No neck.


Tall skinny cross section

But it sucks for sharpening.

So this is several generations down the road and still a work in progress. But this is more trying to strike a balance between comfort cutting and sharpening. I'm pretty happy with it.


Or in a much more skilled craftsmen's rendition.

I've handled one of these in a 200-210ish. Found it obscenely comfortable but handle heavy. I imagine at about 250-270 it would feel just about sublime.

For what it's worth, when it comes to really nice handles with buffed facets, metal spacers, stone spacers, and a recessed metal fit, I find myself spending as much time, or more, in fact sometimes twice as much time working on the handle as I did on the blade. Unless we're talking about a honyaki or a mirror finished blade that is. Personally, those are the kinds of handles I'd rather be making. I like putting together pieces that evoke a certain amount of awe, and that will last a really long time. It's just what appeals to my personal, aesthetic sensibilities.

That said I lean almost exclusively towards simple utilitarian handles these days. That just seems to be where the vast majority of interest lies, and I get it, if you have a budget, better it be spent on the steel than the handle, but as somebody that learned most of what he knows by watching guys with JS and MS rankings, it really threw me for a loop. Most of what I keep hearing from people is that they aren't too concerned about the size of the handle, but there is a very distinct opposition to dyed burl. Maybe it's a sensory thing, that's it's just too much, it's overwhelming. Kind of like fast or heavy music? In any event, my professional existence depends on a relationship between me and the people who I effectively work for, and though I may have preferences and opinions, much of my methodology is generated by what the people I serve are actually looking for in their knives.
@stringer I hold the knife very similarly to the way you do and also prefer balance in front of the pinch grip. I also don't really care about ring finger and pinky. I have also figured out that with a knife with a neck I like balance point to be farther away from the choil. When the neck doesn't exist the balance can be closer to the choil. This occurs because with the neck most of the handle is behind the pinch since the neck occupies some of the space under the grip, making most of the handle and associated weight behind the grip. I can ofcourse adjust to most balances, but given the choice I want balance point in front of the pinch. I agree it is all extreme nitpicking. I used to prefer longer necks since I hated when my middle finger was pinched between the ferrule and choil. Lately I gravitate toward handles that taper dowm and have a height of the neck or there is no neck at all. Ofcourse sometimes the handle just works when it is not supposed to. Some knives just feel very comfortable even though from dimensions and construction they are not supposed to.
As long as there’s no Machi gap between the handle and blade then it’s fine for me.

I’m most comfortable with this kind of handle shape so far. The wood material is ironwood. Have very firm grip even when wet.


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