Knives are very important tools for a chef, but having a sharp blade isn’t enough. People often overlook the handle. A good-quality and comfortable knife handle is key to an enjoyable cooking experience. If you feel confident holding a knife, you can use it much more effectively.
Knife handles come in many different materials. The best option for you depends on your budget and aesthetic preferences. Natural material choices include wood, leather, and bone. Though comfortable and stylish, these may wear out fast.
Metal handles are a classic choice and are very durable. Modern technology has given us synthetic handles that are incredibly strong and lightweight.
Before selecting a kitchen knife handle material, you should understand the benefits and downsides of each. That way, you can be sure that your new knife will cut through food easily and feel fantastic in your hands. Now we will take a closer look at each type of knife handle available.
What is the purpose of a knife handle?
In simple terms, a knife handle is the lower part of the tool that supports the blade. This link between your body and the knife allows you to control the knife as you cook. Overall, a well-designed handle is crucial to using a knife safely while chopping or slicing.
For safety reasons, a knife handle is often heavier than the blade it’s attached to. If you drop the knife, the handle will likely hit the ground instead of the blade to reduce the risk of injury. A heavy handle also gives you more stability when cutting. Since the knife’s center of gravity is nearer to your hand, it puts less strain on your wrist as you use it.
The material used to make the handle influences the knife’s appearance, comfort, and value. Some materials are not appropriate in certain situations. For example, you probably don’t need the newest high-tech material for a butter knife. Try to pick a sensible material that you enjoy touching and that suits your price range.
Natural knife handle materials
Original materials for building knife handles were always natural. Before humans could cast metal or mold plastics, they had to rely on trees and animals to produce tools. Traditional hunting knives always contained natural materials, and that is true today. There are three main options for these handles:
Wooden knife handles
Wooden handles offer beautiful natural patterns and colors. There is a wide variety of soft- and hardwoods to choose from, such as rosewood, ebony, and oak. The price depends on the rarity of the tree that the wood comes from, but hardwood tends to be more costly.
Despite its beauty, wood is prone to rotting. To combat this, manufacturers cover wooden handles in resin to waterproof them. Even with extra protection, wood is not as tough as metal, so the handle could still crack if it falls.
These handles can have special features not found in other materials. When you think about buying a wooden handle, it is worth familiarizing yourself with the following definitions:
Stabilized wood has been protected using resin. The process was mentioned earlier and aims to fill the pores and gaps within the wood with liquid resin. This happens in a high-pressure environment to ensure the handle is tightly packed.
Afterward, the handle is waterproof and much harder. Through stabilization, wood is less likely to expand and contract with temperature changes. While an effective method, not all woods need to be stabilized in this way. Some dense hardwoods can be used effectively in knife handles as they are.
When a tree undergoes abnormal growth, it can display deformities (lumps) on its trunk. These are offshoots separate from the plant’s main body. The lumps are known as burls and form due to an impact or infection. Burls look ugly from the outside while attached to the tree. However, wood from a burl can contain stunning patterns that make it pricier than non-deformed wood from the same tree.
Spalting is a natural phenomenon in which wood is colorized by fungal decay. This mostly happens in dying trees. Once again, a seemingly ugly process yields a beautiful result. Spalted wood has color combinations that are striking and in demand. Spalting happens differently to each tree, so every spalted piece of wood is like a new work of art.
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The number of wood varieties used in knife grips can be overwhelming. Here are a just few for you to consider:
Ebony’s characteristics are a very dark (almost black) appearance and high density. Its hardness and toughness make it ideal for use in kitchen knife handles without stabilization. This wood is also popular for making musical instruments. Ebony is nevertheless an expensive wood, not least because many species of ebony trees are becoming increasingly endangered.
Like Ebony, cocobolo is very sought after. Its rich reddish-brown color makes cocobolo look wonderful on furniture. It is also hard, water-resistant, and well-suited for manufacturing knife and gun handles. Cocobolo grows in Central America. Their tree numbers have dwindled thanks to over-exploitation and mainly grow on nature reserves.
Contrary to the previous two kinds of wood, oak is relatively affordable. Despite making solid and durable knife grips, oak is easy to machine into shape. This allows engravings to be made on oak handles without much difficulty to create comfortable and stylish textures. Oak is somewhat brittle, so it pays to have the handle stabilized for long-term use.
Leather knife handles
A leather handle consists of leather wound very tightly around a (usually wooden or metal) base material.
Leather is very soft and vulnerable to water damage, so a leather handle won’t last long if used in the kitchen. Although inexpensive, leather handles have little use outside of hunting or carpentry.
Bone knife handles
Animal lovers will be glad to know that, typically, bone handles are the by-products of already dead animals. Hunters originally hand-made knives in the wilderness using parts of animals they’d already killed. The bones can come from many animals, from elephants to deer, but cows are the most popular choice.
The material properties of bone allow it to take on beautiful colors. On the flip side, it may be risky to use bone handles since they are very smooth and could slip out of your hand while you cook. Finally, dead bones are brittle. Hence, a bone handle might crack if you aren’t careful.
Metal knife handle materials
Metal handles are by far the most common and familiar variety for kitchen knives. Manufacturers cast the handle and blade using the same material into a single object. This gives metal knives a very smooth and professional appearance.
Metal handles sometimes have added engravings or rubber textures to improve the grip. The types of metal you will commonly see in handles are as follows:
Stainless steel knife handles
Aside from looking fantastic, stainless steel is a very durable option for metal knife handles. It is hard, so resists scratching, and does not rust easily either. As a result, you can wash a stainless steel knife handle many times without any concerns about corrosion.
The toughness of stainless steel comes at a cost because these handles are quite heavy. Much like bone, stainless steel can be hard to grip unless it has added textures, so be sure to take care.
Aluminum knife handles
Aluminum is not as hard as stainless steel, yet is considerably lighter. It does share good corrosion resistance with stainless steel while being very affordable.
Aluminum is a highly conductive metal and can be uncomfortable to hold in cold conditions. Likewise, be careful not to burn yourself when cutting something hot with an aluminum handle.
Titanium knife handles
Titanium has superior material qualities to the previous two metals. It has the best combination of low weight, high strength, and anti-rust, though is more costly to manufacture. By choosing titanium, you are investing in a handle that lasts long and works brilliantly in a wet kitchen environment.
If you have the extra money to spend, it might be worth finding a knife with a titanium handle. The comfortable grip and lasting performance can justify a higher price tag. Beware that some claims about titanium’s properties are exaggerated―this metal is not unbreakable.
Synthetic knife handle materials
Cutting-edge scientific techniques have generated impressive new materials in the last several decades. These inventions are free from many limitations of natural materials. Well-engineered synthetic materials have excellent properties for use in knife handles.
That said, new generations of materials are not without their flaws. But, as advances in technology continue, we are likely to see more new-age materials in household items. These are some of the synthetic knife handles available to you:
Carbon fiber knife handles
Most of us are familiar with carbon fiber. It is famous for its high-end applications in Formula 1 cars and airplanes. Carbon fiber is useful due to its high strength-to-weight ratio. While still expensive, it has found its way into more familiar products, including kitchen knives.
Carbon fiber knife handles are light, strong, and attractive. They also insulate very well to reduce the chances of you burning your hands. Unfortunately, its structure is strong only in the direction of the fibers (and substantially weaker in others). Resin coats the fibers to make the material hard, yet brittle. Unlike with a metal handle, a firm blow may snap a carbon fiber handle.
G-10 knife handles
G-10 is sometimes called Garolite. It is significantly cheaper than carbon fiber, despite being almost as strong and lightweight. G-10 manufacture does not consist of weaving fibers and covering them in resin. Rather, it entails tightly stacking sheets of fiberglass and then solidifying them in resin.
G-10 might not look as pretty as carbon fiber, but G-10 handle material comes in several different colors. It shares carbon fiber’s main physical weakness in that it’s brittle.
Micarta knife handles
The material micarta is built similarly to G-10 using linen sheets instead of fiberglass. They are packed tightly and then cooked in phenolic resin. Micarta has the same pros and cons as carbon fiber and G-10; it’s strong, light, but brittle.
Micarta is particularly slippery in the hand. Because of its hardness, it takes a lot of energy and labor to engrave a texture onto a micarta handle, which raises the price.
Are any other materials used for knife handles?
The answer is yes. While this list has covered the most common and important materials for knife grips, it is by no means exhaustive.
Mother of pearl is the raw material used to manufacture pearls for jewelry. It comes from the inner shells of sea creatures such as clams and snails. It can be shaped into flat panels and then added to knife handles. Mother of pearl has a beautiful multicolored shine. It is not the most functional material for a handle because it is slippery and prone to cracking.
Zytel is a thermoplastic material. Specifically, it is a type of fiberglass-reinforced nylon, which means that glass fibers are arranged randomly within the plastic. When it hardens, Zytel has high tensile strength in all directions, unlike carbon fiber. Along with being strong and cheap, Zytel knife handles are stiff and heat resistant.
One final peculiar knife handle material is unexpected: paracord. Some survival knives are purely metal blades with paracord wrapped around the bottom to form a handle. The design is very eye-catching and the cord provides the necessary friction to grip the tool. Though not hugely comfortable, the paracord can be untied for use in an emergency.
What is the ideal size and shape for a knife handle?
The perfect size for a knife handle depends on two major factors―the size of your hands plus the exact purpose of the knife. Unless you buy knives with custom handles, they will probably be slightly too big or too small.
A thicker knife grip (relative to your hand) is suitable for chopping or slicing through tough foods. The higher surface area creates more friction with your hand, so the knife is less likely to slip if you push down hard. A smaller and lighter handle is better for more delicate tasks like carving or peeling. In those situations, less force is required, hence you can benefit from a more sensitive feel through the thinner handle.
The underside of the knife handle is an important part of the blade’s overall design. This can be flat, curved, or have indents for fingers. It is vital that you like the shape of your knife handle.
What are knife scales?
You might understandably be confused if you hear this terminology. Knife scales are the parts of the tool that form the handle. Two separate blocks of material (usually wooden or synthetic) are joined together around the lower section of the blade called the tang. This is not the case in a fully metal blade because the lower section of the blade acts as the handle.
Natural vs metal vs synthetic knife handles
When deciding which knife to buy, the first question to ask is: how long do you want it to last? If you like the design and don’t mind replacing the knife in the shorter term, you can opt for a leather or bone handle. Carbon fiber and G-10 handles are more durable but vulnerable. You can pay a lot for them but if they crack, they are beyond repair.
Metal knife handles have the best chance of lasting a long time. You can even keep using them if they have dents or scratches.
Safety is another big concern. Handles made from bone and metal tend to be slippery unless they have added texture, so they are not ideal for elderly or disabled people. Bone and leather handles are porous and difficult to clean properly. These handles can house bacteria, making them potentially unsuitable for cooking. The synthetic knife handles perform best in this category.
You can only buy knives within your budget. If you have enough money, you can treat yourself to a knife with a beautiful hardwood handle or perhaps a polished titanium blade. If you cannot afford those, a blade with softwood or G-10 grip material is a good alternative.
Which handle you most enjoy holding is an entirely personal preference
A knife can look great in pictures, but if it feels unpleasant in your hands, you won’t perform well with it. You have to try different materials to discover which works best for you.
Why not take a look at our knife selection? We offer a range of high-quality and stylish blades with ergonomic handles to suit any taste.
Ultimately it is well worth researching different possibilities for kitchen knives and their handles. Investing in a sturdy handle will serve you well in the long run because it will make cooking a lot less tiresome and frustrating.