1. The tang of the blade you want to use must be at least 5mm longer than you intend the handle to be.
2. You canít make an entire handle out of leather, you need solid pieces for the first and last sections, actually two pieces of boot-sole leather glued together will serve in either position, but it looks rather silly.
3. You have to rivet the tang to the last piece, or use a lock-nut assembly.
4. The finish is everything. A badly finished knife made of leather is not only ugly, but also can be a sponge for bacteria.
The point of this tutorial is not to provide a set of instructions to make a copy of any given knife, but rather to explain how to solve some of the problems inherent in this type of design.
The choice of blade is more or less infinite, provided it has a stick-tang, and has either sufficient length to set a rivet (at least 5mm and preferably 10mm longer than the handle) or it has a threaded end to take a lock-nut. The lock-nut arrangement is common on factory-made leather-handled knives. The Solingen blades from Brisa, or the Brusletto Granbit are excellent examples of blades with a threaded end for a lock-nut. Personally though, I much prefer a simple rivet and this tutorial will deal with that style, but it would obviously be very easy to use most of the information if you want to make a screw-end knife.
I have set out in the first picture a few commercially available items from my blade drawer that are suitable and two that are not (Figure1). If you want to use something else, please ask the supplier how long the tang is. Photos on websites or in catalogues are often clipped, not showing the true tang length. Styreforsí damascus blades for example are much too short in the tang for this. You might notice in the picture that the Baudin Damascus blade has a quite ridiculously long tang, while the rough forged blade at the top is way too short, as is the Carlsson Whittler next to it. These are both high quality hand made blades, so donít assume that a hand-made Scandinavian-style blade will work.
The next thing you need is leather. This should ideally be 4-4.5mm thick, I usually use thick shoulder leather. It will be compressed to some extent in the process of making the knife, so you donít want it to be too thin. I always have a fair stock of this stuff to hand, but if you donít, it might be a problem. For this reason, I made the knife illustrated in this tutorial from a belt-blank from Le Prevo leathers. These are listed as 3mm thick, but I tested several and they were all at least 4mm. At £2.44 each, whoís arguing?
The end pieces can be metal, horn, antler or wood. Most suppliers will provide 3mm brass or nickle silver bolsters and butt washers, or you can make your own, as I did here (Fig 2). Moose antler is particularly attractive. I tend to use the rosencrans for the back, and the section immediately next to it for the front. A strong ebony, or buffalo horn section will also work well at either end. Basically if you have a strong material for the back section, you wonít need a rivet washer to set the rivet, you can countersink the rivet and finish it flush. Iíll go into this later. If you make your own butt cap, drill a 3mm hole for the thinned-down end of the tang to project through.
As for spacers, the limit is really your imagination, but I strongly suggest from bitter experience that you donít use reconstituted stone. The very fine dust produced by sanding this material coats the fibres of the leather and is a nightmare to get rid of. If you are using fibre constructs, which are very common in this sort of knife, it is probably best to assemble them in advance, with a small amount of Epoxy; clamp them firmly and then treat them as a single section. If you intend to have two spacer blocks, it is a good idea to make them as a single block and then saw it in half. This makes sure that they are similar. Figure 3 shows the assembled starting materials for the knife in this project. Before you start, the last centimetre or so of the tang must be filed or ground to a round profile, about 3mm in diameter. Basically, it must just fit through the hole in your butt cap (Fig 3a). This is essential to form the rivet later on.
To start with, you need to fit the first handle piece, or bolster firmly on to the tang. It is common with this sort of blade to find that the shoulder of the blade/tang junction has a curved shoulder, rather than a straight cut-off. A number of sources suggest you should file the shoulders flat to make fitting the bolster more straightforward. I disagree, the blade-smith put the curved shoulder there to reduce the likelihood of a stress fracture at that point, I donít see the point in buying a high quality blade and then reducing its resistance to fracture..
It isnít really all that difficult to shape the inside of the bolster as a curve to fit the tang. I usually use a set of needle files and several Dremel carbide tips for this. Obviously it is up to you whether you do this or not, but I think it is of particular importance with hand forged blades, where the stresses may not have been entirely relieved prior to hardening (or so my father told me many years ago). It is always worth spending the time finishing the front of the bolster to a fine polish; it is much harder to do this when it is attached to the blade. (Fig 4)
The first section should be fitted, glued and properly cured before you attempt to fit anything else to the handle. With my clamp design, this is essential, or the blade may slip, but even with the Brisa Knife-vice I strongly advise it, to ensure that it is straight and properly seated. I always tape the face of the bolster and the whole blade very carefully, then grease those surfaces with vaseline before assembly. This makes it very unlikely that you will get any epoxy where you donít want it. Although I used 5 minute epoxy for this, I still leave the blade/bolster assembly overnight, just to be safe (Fig 5).
It is best to sand off the glossy side of the leather before you make it into a handle. This isnít essential, but it improves the line of the finished handle. If you are using a belt blank, a quick buzz along a belt or drum-sander works very well. Then I cut the belt blank up in to small rectangles of about 35mm x 25mm. Very carefully draw in the centreline and use the tang itself, or a calliper measurement to mark the position of the hole, so that it falls 1mm or so either side of the top and bottom faces of the tang (Fig 6). Each piece of leather should be made to fit the tang in the position that it will sit.
The tang on this particular knife was just over 3mm thick, so I used a 4mm drill bit to punch in holes at the top and bottom of the proposed slot, then cut the remainder out with a sharp knife. For this project, in addition to the over-thick bolster and cap, I took the rather eccentric decision to use thick metal spacers in the handle. I would suggest that you do not copy thisÖ firstly it isnít as attractive as I had hoped and secondly the difference in hardness between nickle silver and leather is considerable. It is a silly idea, so do something else.
Including everything (except the rivet washer) this is a 35 piece handle (Fig 7). It is crucial to remember that each section requires careful attention, you only need one piece out of line or twisted around to force you to reshape the handle to accommodate the error, if it is even possible, that is. Each of the slots in the leather for this knife is 1mm larger than the tang at that position. Each leather washer is intended to fit in a precise position, as are the spacers. If you do this sloppily, and just drill a big hole in the middle of them all, shoving them on any which way, you will probably regret it later, when the sections start to slip and rotate.
As soon as you have marked the leather pieces for drilling, it is important to develop a system to keep them in order. After drilling and cutting, I gently buzz them with a barrel sander to smooth the faces. Rub it flat on a piece of 240 grit abrasive if you are doing it by hand. This is another good opportunity to remove any glossy bits of leather facing that may remain (Fig 8 ). The leather pieces should now be kept in order, because the sections nearer the blade will have a larger slot than those further back.
Make sure that you test assemble the handle several times under tension in your clamp (Fig 9). In this case, I found 2 pieces of leather during the second trial that were twisted (OK drilled badly). If I had glued them in position, I would have had to change the profile of the knife. This is quite common. It is only a problem if you don't correct it before it is too late. Substitute one of your spares, but keep the duff piece, youíll need it later. Another point to note: Make sure that the spacers are symmetrical, in other words, if you have 8 leather pieces between the bolster and first spacer, there should be the same number between the back spacer and the butt cap.
You will notice the little pile of ďsparesĒ; these are important for two reasons: Firstly because you are likely to mess up one or two pieces during the gluing process, throw that piece away, because it is probably covered with epoxy and will make a mess. Move on to the next piece, it will still fit and you can use leather from the spares pile to fill in at the end. Secondly, these ďsparesĒ will be glued together to form your practice block. This is an absolutely essential part of the process.
Before you do the final assembly, tape the blade and grease the top of the blade and the front of the bolster with vaseline (Fig 10) this prevents the epoxy from getting where you donít want it! Mix plenty of epoxy, you wonít use it all, but it is an irritation to run out just before the end; I made-up half a pack of slow-cure araldite here.
Organisation is everything now; the pieces should be laid out in order and fitted with care. Assemble the handle one piece at a time, applying only a small smear of epoxy all around the skin side of the leather, then push it down firmly on to the pile. Remember, you are not trying to saturate the leather, just lightly glue the pieces together and to the tang.
When you have fitted all of the pieces in place, fix the top clamp bar in place and compress the pile. My own clamp and the Brisa model both have the advantage that the clamp flexes slightly when the correct pressure is applied. You are not trying to squeeze the life out of it, but you should compress the pile down about two thicknesses of leather (Fig 11). Note, I always fill the top hole with Vaseline, again this prevents any epoxy that might squeeze out from causing grief. You will notice that surprisingly little glue comes out, this is not a messy process if you do it properly.
Now glue the remaining pieces together and clamp them firmly in a vice or some other means of applying even pressure (Fig 11). This bit is really very important, as you will see later. Some people recommend gluing the leather into blocks of 5 or six pieces before assembly, so why donít I? Well you can always see the blocks where they were clamped under slightly different pressures, and the ends donít fit together so well. One piece at a time. I have tried pre-shaped leather ovals, but these leave you little room for error and tend to dictate the shape of the knife.
Well thatís it. You have to leave the knife clamped together for 3 days. The epoxy will cure completely in 24 hours of course, but that isnít the point. You are compressing the leather to a new compact (and harder) state. It takes about 3 days before the leather finally gives up trying to spring back into its original shape.
So what are you going to do in the meantime? Are you going to be tempted to unclamp it early? Donít worry, Iím going to keep you busyÖ..
A genuinely riveting interlude.
I have noticed that many makers donít rivet the tangs of their knives, preferring instead to cut off the tang and seal it in place in a blind hole with epoxy. Some people clearly do this because they view riveted tangs as a pointless anachronism, and in most cases they are probably right; but it is unwise to apply this philosophy to stacked leather handlesÖ On the other hand, I suspect some people do it because they are wary of the unknown, which is not such a good reason. Now is a good time to start.
I am biased on this issue I suspect. My father was a master toolmaker and I was indoctrinated from an early age with the concept that any tool worthy of respect should have its own structural integrity, completely independent of any glue joints that may have been used to facilitate the assembly process. My first exposure to the making of Scandinavian style knives was reading the first edition of Bo Bergmanís book ďKnifemakingĒ some years ago. He clearly shared my fatherís views on the subject. In my opinion, the tang rivet is an integral part of the tradition of the Scandinavian knife, so I will continue to rivet them whether they need it or not.
Basically there are two or three types of rivet that I commonly use for tangs and they are illustrated in Figure 12. They all basically employ the same technique for setting: using the round face of a ball-pein hammer you tap firmly on the very end of the tang until it swells out to form, in effect, a nail-head clamping the handle in place. This action is shown in figure 13. The movement is all from the wrist, which allows precision aiming. It is not good to knock antler about by missing too much, wood isnít so bad, but even metal will show marks if you miss too often. You might try holding the hammer about half way up the handle, which is about the right place for optimal control. My riveting hammer is about 70 years old and belonged to my father; he sawed the handle off to the right length.. It is quite heavy, which makes things easier.
So for your first evening of waiting for your knife handle to set, why not practice your rivetting. Just find a block of hardwood and some thin nails. About 3mm will do, because this is about the size of our rivets. Saw off the heads of the nails, drill some holes in the hardwood and set them with quick-set epoxy, so that they protrude by about 5mm (simple rivets) or 10mm for rivet washers (Fig 14). Rivet washers (called "pommels" on the Brisa website) are available for pennies from most knife supply shops. Donít order one or two, get them by the dozen! These are basically a washer which is dome shaped. When the rivet is set, the dome is compressed, so that the washer applies a spring-like pressure which is very strong. Even if the knife contracts a little over time (not a problem with leather handles) they will usually apply sufficient pressure to keep it firm.
Use a file to set the final length of the rivet, so that the section protruding is the same length as its diameter. This is an excellent rule of thumb for all rivets. Now practice that all-important tap until you can make perfect rivets every time. Rivet washers are usually held in place with a bit of tape while they are being fixed, because they have a habit of bouncing off in to the far reaches of the workshop.
I use a more suspect technique: I fill the washer with 5-minute epoxy, put it over the tang, clean up any excess glue, then waitÖ. about 5 minutes. By this time the epoxy is set, but flexible, so it will hold the washer in place, put can still be deformed for the rivet to be set properly, as long as you can set it within about 5 minutes. This is probably stupid and I will get caught out one of these days by an overly hard tang that takes too long to rivet.
With soft nails, the rivet will probably form in about 30 seconds, but with a knife tang, you may be tapping for anything up to 5 minutes. But it will work. Disaster only strikes when you panic and start hitting it too hard. By the way, soft nails also tend to split at the edges of the rivet a little, much more than most tangs, so donít worry about it. Actually, even if this happens on a knife, it is only a cosmetic issue, it doesnít reduce the strength of the rivet.
Rivet washers are the easiest to set and make the strongest form of rivet, as shown in fig 12, because they press over a greater surface area. They are essential if you are riveting into soft antler marrow, but rosencrans, any decent hardwood, or metal will take a simple rivet, or a flush countersunk rivet. The countersunk rivet is the neatest, for obvious reasons, but just donít sand the material down below the bottom of the sink, or you donít have a rivet at all! (Yes I have done it) For a thick metal butt-cap, I would usually countersink the rivet, but in this project I am using a rivet washer to show how it works.
Isnít it a bit early to be finishing?
So youíre bored with riveting, but still have a day to wait before your knife is ready to work with? Well tonight you get to play with finishing some leather at least. Take the practice block out of the clamp and sand it square. If you have a belt sander, this takes seconds; if notÖ well it takes a little longer.
The finish is the whole art of leather handled knives. I have probably made about 15 to 20 of these knives, but have tried out hundreds of different finishes; all of them were first developed on these little blocks of stacked leather. You have four faces, so you can try four different things at once and I strongly recommend it. If you donít like any of the finishes, sand off a few more millimetres and try again.
I am going to give you a couple of tried and tested recipes of my own to try out, but it is your knife, so you should really explore this and make it how you want it to be.
Commercially available knives in this class usually use a horrible varnish or acrylic ďsheenĒ sealer. I am not impressed personally. You can do much better than that.
1. Quick hard leather finish.
This finish is the one to use if you want a maintenance-free handle that is completely waterproof and behaves just like wood. None-knife people will usually be stunned by the beauty of it. Particularly because it doesnít feel like leather at all.
Sand the leather gently to 240 grit, then apply a drop of cyanoacrylate glue and immediately rub it over the whole surface with a latex or vinyl gloved finger. You are not trying to saturate the leather, just stick the surface fibres together. Leave it for about half an hour, then sand with 240, 320 and 400 grit abrasives in turn. You should start to see some loose fibres coming through at this point. Repeat the cyanoacrylate step. This time sand with 240, 320, 400, 600, 800, 1000, 1500 and 2000 grit abrasives (Fig 15).
At this point you can treat the surface as if it were wood. CCL Traditional English Oils and Polishes make two finishing sets that are gorgeous, the knife Handle Polish set (supplied by Brisa) and the Knife Handle Oil set. The polish set uses a fine lacquer base which is then mixed with oil to give a gorgeous sheen, superb for collectorís knives. The Knife Handle Oil set is better for working knives; it uses a sanding sealer followed by a conventional, but rather light oil. Either of these finishes will work well to give a hard very attractive surface that requires virtually no maintenance and has none of the traditional properties that make leather handled knives so attractive to knife users. Frankly any technique you use on wood is worth trying. If you want to colour the leather, use a spirit dye between the first and second coats of cyanoacrylate.
2. My version of a traditional finish.
This is my favourite finish. It takes several days to do well, is rather less pretty than the hard finish, but gives you a real leather handled knife. For this finish, you need a good quality soft leather grease. Gold Quality Laederfedt (from Brisa) or Pecardís leather dressing work equally well. You also need some gum tragacanth and good quality abrasive sheets from 180 grit to 2500 (Axminster cloth backed are ideal).
Sand to 240 grit as usual, using a light action. Now rub some grease into the leather with your fingertips (Fig 16) Massage it in quite hard for a few minutes, then leave it to settle for half an hour. Wipe off any excess, then sand very lightly with 320 grit abrasive. Rub in some more grease, wait half an hour and sand with 400grit abrasive. Repeat this for 60, 800 and 1000 grits, then substitute a drop of gum tragacanth in place of the grease. Rub this in very hard with vinyl or latex gloved fingertips (helps the polishing). Leave for half an hour, then sand with 1200 grit abrasive. Do the same for 1500 grit, then leave it overnight. The next day, rub in some leather grease very gently and sand with 2000 grit abrasive and repeat for 2500 grit. Leave it overnight again and finally, just rub in some grease, polishing with a cloth.
There are a number of minor modifications you might try. For example, if you have a buffing machine, or an attachment for a pillar drill to take a buffing wheel at low speed, you can buff the handle with pure hard bees-wax after the gum tragacanth stage and call it quits. This gives a lovely firm, but non-slip grip. If you don't have any gum tragacanth, you can just buff with bees-wax after about 1500 grit and leave it at that.
If you have the resources, try out all of these options on your finishing block and see which you prefer.
Figure 16 and 17
You now have a perfect finish. A handle made like this will give a secure non-slip grip in any conditions; it will absorb sweat and be quite cool on hot days, will be warm on cold days and will require regular weekly greasing for the first few months and once every three to six months (depending on use) thereafter. This finish will age beautifully if cared for properly. It is not a finish you are likely to find on a knife by a commercial maker, because it is labour intensive and takes days. A situation where those of us who are strictly amateur (those who do it for the love of the thing) and donít have to account for every minute spent are at a profound advantage.
You chooseÖ. Basically neither of these is the ďcorrectĒ finish, they are both good for different uses and different people. Fig 17 shows each of these finishes on my block, together with a traditional finish over a spirit dyed base. It is obviously impossible to convey much useful information about the nature of the finishes, particularly their tactile characteristics, in a photograph, so it really is important to try them out before you start messing with your knife. If you get into the hobby of making stacked leather handles, you will probably find yourself spending hours playing with these little blocks. It is habit formingÖ. Would it be better to use the gum tragacanth a bit earlier in the process, or maybe not at all? When is the best time to stain the leather? What with? How about buffing with carnauba wax? Would the hard finish be better if you only sand the cyanoacrylate layer lightly to a polish, or all the way through to the bottom? Etc etc. Maybe this is just because I canít stop being a scientist even when I am relaxing. But I doubt it.
Free at last!
OK, so now it is finally time to unclamp the knife and actually rivet the handle (Figure 18 ). You should do this immediately. I advise you to use a rivet washer if you donít rivet regularly, it is stronger and easier. Surprisingly, I think it complements this knife quite well as it turned out.
When you have riveted, you can start to shape the leather. If you have a belt sander, this is ideal (Fig 19) but a coping saw can be used to rough out the shape, and leather reduces with abrasion much more quickly than wood, so shaping by hand isnít a problem. You might notice that I invalidated the guarantee on this belt sander, by hacking away the frame to allow access to the unsupported belt.
When you have roughed out the shape, tidy it up by hand, using strips of abrasive pulled back and forth around the handle (Fig 20). Remember Whichever finish you choose, you have to sand the bolster and butt cap to a fine polish. Also the harder metal, in particular, will be more resistant to the abrasive so it is very easy to get uneven bumps if you are not careful. I deliberately allow quite a strong build up of heat in the early stages of machine sanding to shape, This hardens the leather still-further, with no external change. The scorched bits polish off easily. It does dry the leather out through, so a touch of leather grease is a good idea.
After this of course, it is back to finishing. You already know how to do that and will have practiced your finish of choice on your little block by now. It really is important to do this. I still produce a practice block for every leather handled knife I make and try out the finish. Leather is highly variable and you have to know how it is going to respond.
If you look at the small selection of knives in figure 21, you will see that you can do a lot with stacked leather if it is compressed properly. The knife with the reconstituted jade spacer and butt cap has been used heavily for several years, with no signs of problems for the handle, the rather deep guard is completely solid. Which is more than you can say for the blade... I donít recommend the use of reconstituted stone spacers in leather handled knives. The dust produced by sanding clings to the leather fibres. This thing was completely green for a year before I figured out a way to get rid of it.
Hopefully this tutorial has given you the confidence to have a go at making stacked leather handles. If you use the practice blocks as I suggest, you canít really go wrong.
Oh by the way, the knife at the bottom of figure 21 is the same as the one in my gallery, in case you thought you might have seen it before. It is included here for curiosity value. You might be intrigued to know that there isnít a single drop of glue in it, the whole thing is held together by the rivet; my father would have been amused at least.
Appendix: How to make the clamp you will need for this type of knife
The clamp is very simple and can be made for very little money. It just needs two pressure plates, which can be made from metal (in this case a brass letterbox flap) or MDF. A couple of threaded rods (these are 8mm, but the size isn't important). 4 plain nuts and washers (to fit the treaded rod. These lock the rods in relation to the blade-end plate. The two wing-nuts are used to tighten the tang plate to apply pressure. The holes for the rods need to be about 1mm bigger than the diameter of the threaded rods themselves and the blade slot should be big enouth to take the blade well wrapped in tape for protection. The hole in the tang plate should be 7 or 8 mm.
I have drawn it out for clarity, but it should be pretty obvious from the series of pictures, which show the assembly of the clamp. This really shouldn't cost more than a few quid to make and the parts are easily available at any DIY or hardware shop.
The other clamp in the final image is the professionaly produced item sold by Brisa. If you have one of these, you have to drill a hole in the middle of the sliding plate to take the tang. Whoever designed this clearly doesn't like rivetting tangs...
Both of these clamps are ideal for assembling any scandi knife with muliple parts.
Diagramatic plan for making the clamp
Photographic demonstration of clamp assembly