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Humans have been making tools with wooden handles ever since the Stone Age. Wood is available in most parts of the world and can be manipulated and shaped much more easily than other materials. At the same time, it is incredibly durable and some types of wood can last for centuries. This has made it the go-to for tools, knives, axes, and anything else that gets a lot of use and takes a lot of abuse.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to use wood is the fact that it is a natural resource. If properly sourced and sustainably grown, wood can regenerate itself and create a cycle of more wood with relatively little processing. This, in contrast with other materials like stone, metal, and plastic, makes it an ideal material for construction.
Wood also makes a perfect handle for tools due to its natural shock resistance. When a hard material like stone or metal hits a surface, the vibrations transfer to the hand of whoever is holding it. By using a wooden knife handle, the shock is absorbed by the wood making it much easier to use the tool for longer periods of time and at higher levels of exertion. If a knife is going to be used every day, it is a good idea for it to be made out of something that will be easy on the user.
It is also worth noting that wood compliments metal very well. The aesthetics of a well-made, highly polished wood handle on an immaculately crafted knife blade cannot be beat. As the knife ages, if the handle has been well-maintained it will last just as long as the blade. This is especially important in things like hunting knives and other knives used for work and construction.
I love bushcraft knives with wooden handles! They just feel better to me than a bushcraft knife with a plastic or rubber handle.
The names actually refer to whether or not the tree the wood came from had leaves or needles. However, true to their names, hardwoods for the most part are dense and strong while softwoods tend to be more porous and malleable.
Hardwoods are going to be a much more desirable material when picking the best wood for making knife handles. Going even further, the inner core of a hardwood tree, which is known as the heartwood, is the strongest and most dense part of the tree. This is the part of the tree that has been exposed to the elements the least and will be less susceptible to rotting and warping.
Some popular hardwoods for knife handles include:
- Cocobolo Wood
- Indian Rosewood
Softwoods are not typically used for things like handles and tools due to their pliant makeup and sensitivity to moisture and temperature. However, if properly treated and stabilized, some softwoods can make strong and beautiful knife handles.
Some softwoods that can be used for knife handles when properly treated include:
- Douglas Fir
- Eastern White Pine
- Western Red Cedar
The Forest Stewardship Council.
A good rule of thumb when looking for the best wood for knife handles is to just find out what is the most sustainable and eco-friendly wood available in the area. Some of the more exotic and beautiful hardwoods like Brazilian Mahogany and Ebony are incredibly endangered. While they may seem like a perfect material for an ornamental knife handle, it is best to avoid them.
Softwoods like Pine, Spruce, and Fir are easy to find, cheap, and relatively self-sustaining. They grow easily and quickly, and they are not endangered. It may take a little bit more effort to stabilize them, but they can be an environmentally friendly alternative to some of the more rare and expensive hardwoods.
There are, however, also many hardwoods that are not endangered and are not overly expensive like some exotic woods. Woods like birch and maple are easy to find and relatively cheap compared to some of the less eco-conscious, albeit beautiful options.