Saturday, July 15, 2017

Project #23 - new handle for a small DICK bread knife

This project was one of the fastest ones so far. Shortly before I was about to visit my parents my mother asked me, whether I could help her to pick a new bread knife (size was the main limitation). After brief search I settled for a smaller DICK bread knife with about 20 cm blade, but the handle was just unsighty piece of black pastic, so I have decided to try to make a western style handle (with hidden tang) for it.

As always - I appreciated very much your questions, comments and feedback.

I had just a few days (evenings, to be more exact) to finish this project. Fortunately I already had some components in preparation for a similar handle, so I did not have to start from scratch.

Knife as it came from the shop

The original handle is only half-tang

Design and material

The handle was going to be a 'free style' western handle with a hidden tang made out of:
  • stabilised & dyed maple burl
  • paper micarta spacer
  • buffalo horn ferrule


The first step was the removal of the old handle - I simply ground it off the tang with a #40 belt on my little 1x30" belt sander. This was a quick job that took just a few minutes, but I did slip a little and caused a slight scratch to the blade close to the hadle. I decided to leave it that way as full removal would have been very labor intensive (basically refinishing the whole blade)

The next step was shaping the (originaly half-full) tang to a width of 12mm, so that it would fit my stadard handle making process. Once this was done I could proceed with the handle.

Tapping the bolts

Drilling away the bols

Grinding off the black plastic handle

Painting the tang with permanent maker and scribing the future
hidden tang.

Handle - making the block

I had the block and ferrule pre-drilled as these were originally intended for a different knife (which is still in the making). All I needed to do is to make a spacer and a dowel before fitting the handle together and gluing it.

Construction-wise this handle was going to be a 'hidden dowel' handle where the dowel connecting all handle parts is not visible from the front. This has not only design reasons, but also to have the possibility to taper the ferrule on sides without risking getting too close to the dowel.

The handle construction started with squaring up the stabilized dyed handle block. I consider this step very important, because it makes it much esier to clamp and drill the handle in a well defined manner. Once the black is squared up, decide where I want to drill the handle (and how deep), and then I draw centerlines on all 4 sides. plus I tap the opposite (butt) side of the handle. That little tap should help me to know where the center (axis) of the handle is later in the process, as the lines will eventually be ground off during finishing of the handle.

Once the block was ready I have drilled 12 mm wide opening. I did the same with the spacer (ivory color micarta) and the buffalo horn ferrule.

I would than proceed making a dowel and dry fittinig all parts to make sure that I will be able to insert the tang into the hanle once the handle will be finished.

Note: Use only as little glue as possible as the excess will flow inside the dowel and give you a lot of work with a needle file or needle rasp later when you will want to fit in the tang

The gluing of the handle followed in 2 steps. First I would glue the dowel inside then handle (I use a small piece of steel to keep the dovel 'opened' (pushing against the handle). The next day I would glue the spacer and the ferrule in place (and clamp the whole handle).

OK, at this stage the handle block is all glued together. I would test that the tang can be inserted. If a bit of glue leaked inside the dowel, than I would clean it up before proceeding with needle files or needle rasps.

Once the dowel was made to fit, it was glued inside the handle
block with an epoxy. The piece of steel makes sure the dowel
does not 'close' while the glue is curing.
Testing the fit of the tang before the whole handle would be glued.

In the next step the whole handle was glued together.

Shaping the handle

Once the block was glued it was time to start shaping the handle, but first the block would be squared-up again, the excess glue would be removed and the ferrule ground so that it follows the width and height of the block.

In the next step the handle dasign (profile) would be traced on the handle.

Important: The 'waist' of the handle is relatively narrow and one should not forget that there is a 12 mm dowel inside. So alignment is important here, otherwise one could grind too much later when shaping the handle and expose the dowel.

Design traced on squared-up handle block
 I first roughly ground to shape the profile of the handle with a #40 belt. This was rather fast as this particular wood was not too dense and not oily.

Note: It is a good idea to first test how does the wood reacts to grinding - some woods are easy to grind, others will start to burn very easily. Also - if you are grinding oily woods like for example african blackwood, than heating up the wood too much will make the wood 'sweat' the oil and it will clog your belt in no time.

Handle profile ground.
I would then re-draw (not shown in the photos) the centre lines on both upper and lower side of the handle + roughly trace the profile (from the top view) on the handle and grind it with #40 belt. I would use the upper (and only accessible) wheel on the grinder to grind in the concave curves of the handle.

The handle ground from all 4 sides.
In the subsequent step I would start to grind the edges of the handle. At this point I would regularly check the handle size in hand (I would insert the blade to have a better feel for the size). Once I was getting happy with the result I would switch to #120 belt and smoothen out the surface.

Important: Be careful when finishing the grinding with a coarse belt - these cut very fast and have hard edges - it is very easy to accidentally 'bump' into the edge of the belt - in particular around inwards curved areas.

Handle ground to shape with #40 belt.

Handle after #120 belt
Handle finished with #120 belt. Here in different
light so the colours are a bit different.
What was left was the surface finish of the handle - I have sanded the handle by hand with the progression of sanding paper from #180 all the way up to #1000 (the buffalo horn seems to profit from the fine grit finish, the wood did not change much past #400). I have applied a few thin coats of Tung oil and gently polished the handle with '0000' steel wool. 

Tip: When hand-sanding a handle - always use some support under the sanding paper (wood, metal, plastic) when sanding over contact area between two or more materials to avoid over-sanded transitions as usually two different materials react to sanding differently. This is in particular important when there is metal spacer of ferrule involved.

Using a piece of steel as a dummy tang I was able to
position the handle for hand sanding.

Applying final polish and checking that the butt is nicely shaped :)

With the low grit hand sanding (mainly with the #180) I have used a round pice of wood to support the sandpaper as I was removing some 'bite marks' from the coarse belt.

Note: The trick to get an even finish with Tung (or similar hardening) oil come from Robin Dalmann - he first applies the tung oil and then wipes the handle with a clean cloth or paper towel like he would want to remove all the oil. This leaves only very thin layer and when repeated several times yields a very nice finish.

The handle before mounting

I took a little time to 'play' with the handle - to make sure it has the right proportions and sits well in hand. It is very easy to make a handle too large when one does not have much experience (happened to me with a few handles before). At this stage - before the handle was glued onto the tang, it would still be easy to re-shape and re-finish. Yes - the same could be done once the handle was glued onto the tang, one just needs to be a little more careful. 

The tang was glued in place with G/flex epoxy

Finished knife

The final handle while not perfect (some light symmetry issues) turned out pretty nice - I think I did get lucky at times - after all this was my first western (Yo) style handle.

Lessons learned

With this project I was spared from painful or time costing experiences, but there are a few points worth mentioning:
  • If you have an approximately reasonable handle design (a good starting point), than you can fine tune the handle shape 'on the fly'. I found this fact very liberating and I have actually enjoyed a lot shaping this handle.
  • It may make sense first test the handle design on a piece of simple wood (I used beach) to see whether what looked cool on paper also sits well in hand.
  • This was the first time I have used micarta in the handle making - and I have enjoyed it a lot. I am starting to understand why is this material so much loved by knife makers.
  • There are many very cool handle materials, but when making a handle for a lightweight knife, make sure you do not pick too heavy materials, as the knife could become 'butt heavy' - a property usually not appreciated with kitchen knives.

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