Knife Handle Design Your thoughts and techniques for designing a handle - May 2011
Posted 30 April 2011 - 07:21 PM
What is it that makes a knife handle "beautiful"? How should it's shape flow with the knife's blade and add to the overall lines of the knife?
What have you learned from testing your knife designs about how to make a handle that allows the knife to perform as it is intended to?
What is your process for designing a new knife handle?
Posted 30 April 2011 - 10:43 PM
I used to try to work up some proportionate relationship when designing a new knife, and that resulted in some fairly decent knives. Then I learned that the handle is really the part of the knife that will determine whether I like the knife enough to keep using it, so I started paying a lot of attention to shapes that felt good in my hand. This led to experimenting with shapes that were comfortable. Along the way I became acquainted with Bill Moran, and started learning how to shape handles with palm swells and curves. Sometimes I got it right, and sometimes I just made a mess of the handle. But it all helped me learn.
I also began learning about knives from different parts of the world, and tried some of the typical handle designs I liked. Over time my ideas on good design have been altered, and now I find that I like to use knives that have handles long enough for my hand to feel secure in using the knife. That is, not too short, and, although I do have to use some short handles on a few small knives, I have come to the realization that it doesn't matter how long the blade is, nor how short. The handle must be comfortable and long enough for the person who will use it. Period.
Artistic design is just that--artistic design. The proof lies in how well the handle helps the knife to function in the user's hand. That's the way I design handles now. Factors that I consider are: intended primary purpose of the knife, the size of the user's hand, what material is preferred, whether there is to be a butt cap or not, style of handle, type of tang, whether a stick tang will be hidden or go all the way through the handle and be peened or threaded to the butt cap.
Sorry if this isn't much help. It is pretty general. I am very selective in choosing which piece of antler or wood is to be used. That is just a personal "does it look right for this knife?" thing.
Posted 02 May 2011 - 06:03 AM
The handle material can work along with the design by offering texture, tackiness, smoothness, etc. Material choices and combinations will also allow weight distribution to aid in balance.
Posted 02 May 2011 - 06:34 AM
One of the things that must be dealt with on handle design is: the more the design of the handle locates the fingers and/or hand on the knife; the more it limits the placement of the fingers and/or hand on the knife.
This can be taken as far as the smith is willing to take it.
The more I think about it the more I realize the handle shapes of the long past were that way for a very good reason.
I am still trying to make a nice handle.
Posted 02 May 2011 - 07:57 AM
Competing in a cutting competition is an excellent way to learn knife handle design. Many makers have modified their handle shapes based on what they learned in cutting competitions. If you have no desire for competition, at least put a handle on a blade and go chop on a 2x4 to see how the handle shape works. It doesn't matter if the blade's edge is not up to the task; as the point is to learn how the handle shape works.
Handle design is equally important for all working knives; not just choppers. For hunting knives, I have two primary criteria. First, does the shape of the handle immediately tell me where the edge of the blade is. If you pick the knife up with your eyes closed, can you tell where the edge is? Second, I prefer that a hunting knife be just as comfortable to hold with the edge up as it is with the edge down. Again, testing your handle is the only way to know if your design is correct.
Aspiring knifemakers need to understand that they should place just as much attention on learning good handle design as they do on learning how to make a quality blade. The skill to do both is the only way to make a knife that performs.
Posted 02 May 2011 - 08:11 AM
That being said there are knives where a straighter handle is called for like some sheffield bowie styles. One thing I do is trace the outline of the blade on paper and try different handle looks. If you do not like something, all you have to do is erase it and try again. I also have templates of some of my standard handle shapes.
One thing, have a good idea of what type of handle you are going to put on a knife before you start assembling the knife. Again the drawing pad. It is a lot easier to draw things out and have a good idea where you are going than to just attach a block of wood or other handle material and hope that it turns out good. Especially true with more expensive handle material. Taking a $300.00 ivory handle apart because something is not right is not good for your stress level.
Anvil Top Custom Knives
Posted 18 May 2011 - 06:00 PM
In a true working knife scenario I would think that handle material and the finish of the material can play as important a role as the shape. In other words, if I make a "perfectly shaped handle" on a chopper and then polish the handle material it would work against all that I did to shape it for it's intended use. The polished handle would want to slip in my hand when in use. Then again, too rough of a material or too sharp of angle(s) and you can wear a blister on your hand pretty quick.
I hear often how certain materials become slippery when wet or bloody, so again, choosing the right material for intended use comes into play. Especially for hunting type knives and camp knives. I guess a lot of possibilities can be ruled in or out depending on the knife's intended use, be that a wall hanger to a field use knife.
I'm like the rest of you in regards to the evolutionary process... As an example, I've recently been busy making the same pattern knife over and over and I'm yet to make two identical handles. Each one that I make seems to evolve just a little here and there and they are progressivly becoming more comfortable with each itteration. The first adjustment was general thickness of the handle... Then it was to leave the top a little flatter and the bottom thinner so that in cross section it was more egg shapped than just oval. Then I played with the placement of the palm swell both forward and back as well as up and down. The only consistent part has been the handle material and it's finish. All in all, I feel that the handles are becoming more user friendly which in this case is top priority.
I guess I'm just rambling to try and spark some thoughts from everyone...
For anyone just getting started making knives, when it comes to handle comfort, build what you think is going to work and then over test it and see how your hand feels the next morning... When I say over test it, I mean if it's designed to chop, then chop a decent sized log in half not just a couple of 2X4's, and don't wear a glove... You'll soon find out exactly where to make any handle/guard changes...
Posted 19 May 2011 - 07:10 AM
You are quite correct that handle material type and the finish applied to it can affect the usability of the knife. Unfortunately, we are often limited by the customer's choice of materials and/or the cost of additional work to the handle to make it less slippery.
Bead blasting, stippling and checkering can improve the "grip" of a handle. But, the customer must be willing to pay for the time required for the extra handle work. Checkering and stippling can be very attractive when added in panels on the handle. However, these techniques are time consuming and add to the cost of the knife. Too, you're not likely to find many customers who will wish to have you modify the surface of a beautifully colored piece of expensive ivory. When faced with making a knife with what will be a slippery handle surface, a handle shaped with curves and contours will help provide the user with a places to lock his fingers on the handle. So, when creating a handle design that you expect to use repeatedly with different types of handle material, it is important to shape the handle with plenty of contours. Lucky for us, a nicely shaped handle is also esthetically pleasing.
As Rick pointed out, testing your handle designs is an important part of making knives; most especially for big choppers. You need to try out your handles as your customers will use them. You can learn a whole lot about your handle design by chopping on a board or log for a while. Hunting knife handles must also be user friendly. Build your knife and go cut up some tough cardboard, using the knife in both edge up and edge down grips.
When designing a new handle shape, I will grind the handle out of a pine board and test how it feels in my hand. Once I have settled on a shape for the handle, I will build a knife with it and go test it. I keep the final pine test handle for a reference. If the handle shape is complicated and has contours that were shaped with different sizes of round wheels, I write on the pine handle the size of wheel that was used for each contour.
Posted 19 May 2011 - 05:34 PM
Posted 19 May 2011 - 07:19 PM
I am going to have to remember the hardcopy handle also. Good idea Steve. One of those slap yourself in the forehead DUH! moments. It is amazing how much difference a handle can make in the balance and feel of a knife.
Anvil Top Custom Knives
Posted 20 May 2011 - 11:52 AM
Wasn't it Hay Hendrickson that said, in part, "It's the handle that sells a knife". Whether it was Jay or someone else, at many levels, there is a lot of truth in that statement.
Early on in my knifemaking endeavors I thought a handle just had to look and feel good. As I've progressed, and I still have more than a lifetime can teach me, I have realized that just pretty handle material and shiny furniture is only a small part of making a knife handle that feels "alive" in your hand. Ergonomics, balance, lines, flow and proportion, coupled with those things that are eye catching is what, in my opinion, makes for a great handle. When I look at the knives in the gallery, there are some folks that make it look almost automatic... Man, I envy those people! ("Those people" includes all of you have contributed to this thread... You guys are definitely artists.)
One quick question...
Have any of you ever made a frame handled knife and tapered the frame to help improve balance? I'm not sure that I've ever seen a tapered frame handle but it seems like a good idea. Thoughts?
Posted 20 May 2011 - 07:41 PM
The balance was right at the guard afterwards and it did look good. So yes it is something to consider with a frame handle. Which leads right back to handle material choice. I would also take into account the blade length and style. A lot of test fitting is involved.
I will see if I can find a picture of the knife and post it. Good thinking Rick.
Anvil Top Custom Knives
Posted 22 May 2011 - 01:20 PM
In grinding the taper into the frame, did you cut it out of some stock first and then grind the taper or grind the taper onto the end of some stock and then cut it off, or, judging by the photos, it looks as though you forged the taper in and then cleaned it up on the grinder?
Posted 22 May 2011 - 08:30 PM
Anvil Top Custom Knives
Posted 31 May 2011 - 09:25 AM
OK, IF that makes any sense, I always try to produce a knife handle that is narrower at the guard, and thickens/widens to the butt of the handle. So often I see and handle knives that are just the opposite....the handle is large near the guard, and then tapers towards the butt of the handle. This always feels awkward to me, and it seems that my hand is always wanting to slip rearward on the handle.
I have a lot of folks come through my shop, both experienced knifemakers and rank beginners...it always surprises me when I explain my thoughts on handles, and see just how many people never give, or have given, much thought to the shape of a human hand, and trying to make a handle that fits the hand.
Posted 16 June 2011 - 07:27 PM
Wasn't it Hay Hendrickson that said, in part, "It's the handle that sells a knife". Whether it was Jay or someone else........
D'Alton Holder said "We're in the business of selling knife handles".
Posted 26 June 2011 - 08:23 PM
Posted 27 June 2011 - 09:27 AM
I thought I'd ask for thoughts from those more experienced on the correlation between the height of the handle and the width
I find that a short but thick handle can be quite comfortable (but less visually appealing) and I tend to prefer a taller handle that's thinner in width.
My process always begins with a sketch as my blueprint for the knife. In transition from 2-Dimentional plan into a 3-dimentional knife I shape and contour my handle until it feels comfortable in the hand. This method tends to leave me wanting to thin the handle further for a more balanced appearance.
I've got several thought's on how to improve my own designs-
1. Very small changes to the profile of the handle might just have a profound effect on the thickness needed to achieve comfort
2. I need to man up and grind my handles a bit thinner and I'll probably realize I've increased appeal and satisfaction without giving up comfort and usefulness. (Steve, thanks for the tip on making a template handle from pine !)
I guess I'm curious if you guys have a rule of thumb for how thick the handle should be in relation to the profile size. Something like a hunter will be "X" thickness while a large chopper will be "Y"
Any input will be appreciated fellas !
Take care All- Josh
Posted 27 June 2011 - 04:16 PM
I'm really enjoying this thread, too and can certainly relate with what you mentioned. I'm pretty new and am finding handles a bit of a struggle, particularly as to the look (flow, I suppose) as opposed to how it actually feels. Lin has said that drawing out what you want is a better way to go than trying to do it from the picture in your head, so I draw it in my notepad. I'm working on my first full tang knife and realized an interesting thing today-just because the profile looked okay on paper, didn't mean it actually felt comfortable when I got it there...
I, too would be very curious as to the methods used by those more experienced for determining height/width of handles. I've got one knife I finished a few weeks ago and the word "clunky" comes right to mind everytime I look at the handle. I'm sure some of you have done it enough that you just go with what looks right and it ends up feeling right, too. Guess I'm just a bit slow when it comes to success in this area..... Thanks for any advice.
Posted 27 June 2011 - 06:28 PM
A common problem is for new makers to make the handle too thick or blocky as mentioned. I believe the inclination is to buy the material too narrow and try to make it work. Drawing it out on paper first, including the planned cross section will enable you to test the block of handle material to the drawing to see if it will work. If it's too small to cover the picture, it wont be large enough to shape into the handle you have drawn.