For most casual knife enthusiasts, pocket knives are all about the blades. But people seem to forget that there’s an entire other side to every knife and it can be just as, if not more important than the sharp end. The knife handle is the part you hold onto in order to operate it. And in the instance of folding knives, it acts as the case in which the blade is housed when it isn’t in use. It even houses and protects the mechanisms that deploy and lock a knife into the open position. The point is, knife handles deserve more respect and attention than they are given.
One of the things that can make or break the quality, style, durability, and longevity of a knife is the material out of which its handle is constructed. That’s not to say that there is any one material that is better than all the rest, but there are certainly drawbacks and benefits to all the common types – from the way they look, to the grip that they offer, to the amount and type of punishment they can take. To get a grip on the most common substances used in the everyday carry world, we’ve put together the following complete guide to knife handle materials.
Metal of just about any type is a great knife handle material for its toughness and long-lasting durability. It’s strong, can take a beating, and – in most cases – resists corrosion decently with a little maintenance and care. However, the biggest drawback to metal as a handle material is probably its lack of grip. Most everyday carry pocket knives that feature a metal handle are smooth and, therefore, increasingly difficult to handle the more moisture is introduced to the equation. And an increase in moisture also means an increased likelihood of rust and corrosion, but that is easily mitigated, as we stated. The three most common varieties of metal used to construct knife handles are aluminum, stainless steel, and titanium. And each has their own benefits within the metal handle subset.
There are a few really great things about aluminum as a knife handle material. For starters, it can be anodized into just about any color you can imagine, which makes for a great style addition to any knife, and also adds some extra hardness. Aluminum is also a very low-density metal, so in conjunction with being pretty tough, it’s also very lightweight. Its downsides include a limited resistance to impact – which can result in dents and scratches – a lack of grip when not textured, and it can be uncomfortable to hold if used during the colder months. The most commonly used variety of aluminum is 6061 and its variations therein.
While not as light as aluminum, stainless steel offers a much greater resistance to dents and scratching. It’s also quite resistant to corrosion, although not completely impervious to it – so you need to maintain a measure of care to keep it rust and spot free. As far as metal handles are concerned, stainless steel is certainly the most commonly available and the least expensive, but it is probably one of the heaviest. Having said that, if you are looking for a workhorse of a flipper knife and you want one with a metal handle, stainless steel is probably your best bet on the cheaper end of the spectrum. Common varieties include 410, 416, 420, etc.
Titanium is shockingly light for how amazingly durable and tough it is, but it is also the most expensive common metal used in knife handles. It offers an extremely high resistance to corrosion, doesn’t conduct and retain cold as much as its counterparts, and can be anodized just the same as aluminum. Surprisingly, titanium is actually less resistant to scratching than stainless steel, but the upside of lightness outweighs that downside. Be wary, however, if you’re drawn to titanium for its supposed super strength, you might end up discovering that it is not, in fact, indestructible. Cheap alloys of titanium have the potential to be weaker than stainless steel. The most commonly used variety is 6AL4V. As a side note: titanium is also used as a coating on both blades and sometimes handles that adds a bit more strength and overall toughness.
While not typically as durable and tough as metal, synthetic materials make up for it by offering up some unique looks, better grip options, and a complete imperviousness to rust. After all, rusting is solely a property of metal. You could probably even call them waterproof. Typically, synthetic materials also tend to be a bit lighter than their metal counterparts. They also range on the more expensive side of the spectrum, as they are often harder to make and are, therefore, rarer. The most common varieties of synthetic materials used in knife handles are carbon fiber, G10, glass-reinforced nylon, and Micarta. Their plusses and minuses are as follows:
‘Carbon fiber‘ is a generic term for any material made by weaving together strands of carbon which are then set into a resin. As such, the material is only going to be as good as its made. Usually, that isn’t a problem, as any knife maker or brand worth their mettle isn’t going to peddle anything with discount carbon fiber. But, if you see a knife with a carbon fiber handle and the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. Typically, carbon fiber is extremely lightweight, is completely impervious to rust and corrosion (it’s non-metallic), and will be stronger than stainless or carbon steel. It also has a tendency to be rather brittle, not terribly resistant to impact, and on the more expensive side of the spectrum. Still, this is one of the most unique (both in properties and looks) materials used in knife making.
G10 is the common term for a grade of fiberglass composite laminate (a cloth material with a resin binder) used in a number of everyday carry and, more generally, gear applications. Though they are made quite differently, it is not entirely different from carbon fiber when it comes to properties. It’s immune to corrosion and rust, is easily textured and thusly offers excellent grip, and it can come in any number of different colors or patterns. Also like carbon fiber, G10 tends to be on the more brittle side and does not resist impact well. And while it has little to do with functionality, G10 does not pack the same allure and looks as some other materials because it resembles plastic both in appearance and feel.
Short for glass-reinforced nylon or fiberglass reinforced nylon (or glass-filled nylon), GRN/FRN is a thermoplastic material that is notable both for the fact that it is relatively cheap and practically indestructible. It can also be molded into just about any shape and textured in any number of ways. All in all, GRN is an excellent handle material across the board but it, like G10, does not pack the same allure due to its resemblance in both appearance and feel to plastic. Having said that, unless you are overly concerned with the look of your knife, this is an all-around superb handle material which requires essentially no maintenance whatsoever.
Originally developed by George Westinghouse as far back as 1910, Micarta is a brand name for a thermoplastic set composite made from linen, canvas, paper, fiberglass, carbon fiber, or other fabric. And while that description might seem a little obtuse, what you need to know is this: Micarta is very lightweight, extremely tough, and superbly durable. Its biggest downside, however, is that its manufacturing comes at high cost to makers and that trickles down to the price of the knives it is featured on. It is more commonly used in fixed blade knives, but it can still be found in high-end folders and – though it is naturally smooth – it is often textured for increased grip. The process by which it is made can also elicit a very unique look in a wide variety of colors.
Natural & Organic
Beautiful & Versatile
There are a number of different organic substances that are widely used in knife making. And while the knives are a bit fewer and further between in the everyday carry world, these handles no less have had an impact and deserve some recognition. Perhaps the most common material used in the natural category is wood. It offers up classic looks, it’s very easy to work with (both from a maker and user standpoint), it’s fairly long-lasting and durable when properly cared for, and – best of all – it can be significantly cheaper than other comparable materials. It does, however, have a few downsides. For instance, wood is not resistant to water or waterproof and can actually soak it up, causing the handle to warp and – with repetitive soaking and drying – eventually crack, split, or even rot.
Another very popular natural material used is bone or antlers. Typically, you’ll see animal bone handles in fixed blade knives, but the material can be incorporated into folding pocket knives, as well. It’s a beautiful and unique addition, but it can be brittle and deform and crack over time, just like wood. Other, usually more expensive, but similar materials are mother of pearl or abalone – both of which come from sea creatures. This material is gorgeous, but not particularly practical for hard use as it is pricey and can scratch fairly easily. That being said, it’s still a noteworthy option. And, lastly, there’s leather. Typically, leather is not the sole material used in a handle. Most often, it will be wrapped around something else, like wood or metal. And it’s also not very common in folding knives. Chances are if you find a leather-handled knife, it is going to be a fixed combat blade or a bowie knife used for hunting. It offers excellent grip but will crack and peel over time – especially if exposed to too much moisture.
To the Point
To clarify, these are not the end-all-be-all of knife handles. There is a whole host of proprietary and/or rare materials that knife designers like to use – including stuff like meteorite and mammoth bone. And as technology progresses and as people get more clever, less common materials will pop up here and there and some might even end up becoming the new standard. For now, however, what we’ve covered are the most common and available knife handle materials out there right now. And because most of these are easily accessible and quite popular, the likelihood of that changing anytime soon in any meaningful way is pretty slim. One thing to look out for is proprietary varieties and brand names. Micarta, for example, is actually a brand name for layered resin-set materials. Similarly, Zytel is a brand name for a fiberglass reinforced nylon. If you come across any substance with a name of which you are unfamiliar, a quick internet search will usually reveal that it is a brand name or a proprietary offshoot of a more common material. We just hope this information has given you a little more insight into the everyday carry knife world and will help ease your decision making the next time you go looking for a new blade.
Ultimate Guide To Knife Steel
Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with handle materials, it’s time to head over to Gallantry and get acquainted with blades via the Ultimate Guide to Knife Steel.