A handmade knife handle is, in my humble opinion, the second most important aspect of a knife design. Like any tool, where you hold it determines how frequently you will use it. You can have the most useful blade design with the best steel and heat-treatment in the world and with a shoddy handle, you’ll pass it up for something more comfortable. At best a poorly designed handle is uncomfortable and tiring to use; at worst it can be downright dangerous.
There are a number of “art” knives out there with various projections and spikes in the attempt to make the piece look more aggressive or scary. To me they look ridiculous. In more cases than not these goofy looking pieces have spines, spikes, points, or blades that invade the actual gripping area. Do the designers and makers of this stuff actually intend this stuff to be handled? Honestly, in some cases they do not. However, I have not seen any warnings of cautions as to the wield-ability of these KLO’s (knife-like-object’s). I personally know individuals who have seriously lacerated themselves when trying to use these things. These objects are perfect examples of how a handle should not be designed.
The elements of a comfortable handle are the dimensions, the materials, the angle in relation to the blade, and the construction method. A well designed grip needs to be of a comfortable length, width and thickness. With handmade knives, this is less of a problem because the maker can customize the dimensions to suit the customer. The angle in relation to the blade depends upon the design of the blade and it’s intended use. Look at the difference in grip angle between a kukri and a kitchen knife. Different functions, different design requirements.
The grip material is important because this is what actually makes contact with your hand. It should be comfortable to hold for extended periods, be able to withstand the stresses that the blade will be subjected to and provide a sturdy purchase for your hand. The grip material should also look nice as well, though I would consider this secondary to durability and comfort. In the modern age we have a large variety of materials to suit just about any purpose imaginable. There is a massive range of manmade handle materials such as the various micartas, dymondwoods, plastics, rubber, carbon fibers, phenolics, metals, synthetic cord, etc. and they all tend to be very stable, less susceptible to the elements and time but as a rule are generally plainer. Natural materials include wood, bone, ivory, antler handled knives, horn, shell, leather, natural rope or cording and stone. Natural materials are generally far more attractive and with a little more care, will last for decades or even centuries.
To me the natural materials are the most desirable. There is a certain beauty and depth to a fine piece of wood or antler that cannot be duplicated by a machine. Since the majority of my work tends to be historically based, natural materials are more than just desirable, they are a necessity. Natural materials, especially woods, do generally need some type of sealant or surface treatment to protect the material from moisture, weathering, or wear.
Manmade materials usually do not require any sort of finishing treatment after polishing. The composition of the material itself provides the finish. Manmade materials are stable, durable, resist stresses quite well and can be quite comfortable. Indeed certain applications almost require the use of manmade materials. Diving knives for example should have a grip that is impervious to water and swelling. It should also have a surface that does not become too slippery when wet. Many of the plastics and rubbers are ideal for this application. Moist humid environments might also require the use of a laminated material such as dymondwood. Dymondwood is made by compressing hardwood veneers to 25% or less of their thickness and impregnating with various resins. It is dense, heavy, durable, hard, will not warp and is impervious to mildew. It is dyed various colors and can be quite attractive. However I still feel that a truly fine piece of hardwood wins against any manmade material with regards to being pleasing to the eye.
The method of attachment of the grip to the blade can make a difference as to what materials can be used. The method must be durable, not allow any looseness or rattling, and be able to withstand the stresses for which the piece was designed to be subjected to. Gluing, pinning, threading, riveting all have their pros and cons. The method must fit the materials and overall design.
It behooves any custom maker or customer to look at the design of the piece as a whole. The blade and the hilt. A handmade dagger has a different set of design parameters than a kitchen knife and so to a greater or lesser extent this dictates what options are available for handle design and material. So it is for every blade. But remember that the grip must first and foremost be comfortable or you won’t use it as often.