Handle Finish

Handle finishing is something that I never would have thought I’d get into, and certainly not to the degree that I have.

When I first started doing rehandles I didn’t know (or care) what woods were what, what properties woods had, or how to finish them. I used to do what a lot of knife makers do….”buff is enough”. Next! ?

That approach is fine for safe queens, knives that won’t ever cut anything. But that’s not to be expected from a kitchen knife owner, they use their knives – all their knives, almost without exception.

The problem for our little sub-world of knife making is that we make knives that will get used hard, washed with dish detergent, get all sorts of crap on them, and maybe even get scrubbied! ? Basically they get used and abused just from simple normal use.

Early on I came across some wood that challenged the “buff is enough” concept to where I couldn’t even get them looking nice enough to impress for the initial customer contact let alone long term use so I started looking for ways to make my handles prettier. This is what stared the ball rolling into what has become an obsession with me. ?

I’ve bought likely 90% of everything available on the commercial market that is sold as a finishing oil. I’d bet that I’ve spent somewhere between $700-$1,000 on different oils and related paraphernalia. I’ve mixed my own combos from these oils and I’ve been testing and keeping records since at least 2010 but not until just recently do I feel that I’ve made any significant progress in achieving my goals of making a more attractive handle that is also wear resistant.

There are several discoveries that have come my way. I’ve discovered that every wood needs something different, there is no single answer to what to use for everything. In knife making we use hardwoods, soft woods, stabilized woods, oily tropical woods, oily desert woods and these all need something different.

I often get asked about what I do to my handles but I won’t answer this question because I’m still learning.

In the past had I said that I do this or that I’d have been giving bad advice for what I know today to be wrong. If I can ever get to where I feel more confident I’ll make a post or write a blog or something with specifics to help others out but that’s not going to be today.

I will, however, share some of the things that I’ve learned that I feel are things that are safe to pass on at this point in time….

Off The Shelf Oils

Most all of the finishing oils on the market are blends that are based off of either boiled linseed oil (BLO)(which isn’t really boiled at all) or some type of tung oil variant but rarely pure tung oil (PTO). Some have varnishes or urethanes in them and most contain heavy metal dryers.

Ex. – Teak oil, Teak Oil Finish, Danish Oil, Tru-Oil, Tung Oil Finish, Tung Oil, Circa 1830/1850, Antique Oil, Waterlox, Tried & True, Finishing Oil, etc

These off the shelf blends work OK for most applications but fail for some. I could write novels on the combos I’ve tried and the results I’ve achieved but the take away is that they don’t always work, or better put, they don’t always match up to the wood being worked on.

Most failures come from the fact that they don’t adhere well enough, aren’t water resistant, or cloud the grain/obscure the beauty.

Mix Your Own

I now prefer to mix my own blend. This allows me to tailor the blend to suit the needs of the particular wood being worked on.

Maybe I want to have a high level of shine, maybe I want a satin sheen, or somewhere in between?

One day it’s a hard stabilized wood like maple that I’m working on and the next day it’s an un-stabilized oily African Blackwood, there’s many variables to consider. I like to be able to make the necessary changes on the fly vs having to follow what a can has in it and hope for the best.

What to Use on What

There are two (basic) distinct categories that I break wood into when deciding on the blend that I’ll be using.

1. Non-Oily Woods = Oil/Varnish Blend

2. Oily Woods = Wiping Varnish Blend

Oil/Varnish Blend = BLO or PTO / Thinner / Varnish

*Note – if you’re going to use tung oil be sure to buy “PTO” – the more expensive “Pure” or “Raw”version.

**Note – PTO has no dryers and takes much longer than BLO to fully cure. PTO is superior to BLO in the results it provides but you need great patience to use this stuff. Be sure to keep this in mind when adding coats and before use.

Wiping Varnish Blend = Thinner / Varnish

*Note – I’ve never tried this but many people use shellac on oily woods. Shellac drives me insane but has great waterproofing qualities and because of that it’s still something I’ll be working with in future testing.

Adjusting the Blend

To achieve more shine – add more oil.

To get more water resistance – add more varnish.

To make the mix flow/spread easier/better (or even soak in better) – use more thinner.

Then there’s.

Poly = Don’t bother unless you want plasti-dipped handles. This stuff can substitute as varnish but will be more plasticky than spar even.

Lacquer = Cheap looking, like you spray painted the handle

How Many Coats?

Use many very thin coats vs a few thick coats!

I’ve found that 5-6 really thin coats to be the magic point where I start to like what I see and can expect it to not wash off too easily. More is better though you can expect to at some point cross over into a bit too much with some woods. I define “a bit too much” as to where the handle looks and feels gaudy. There is sometimes a fine line between a nice build up that’s glossy and the “old ship’s deck” look, know what I mean? ?

So, have I just given you the answer to how to finish your handles? Well sort of. If you were paying attention you should have realized that I’ve labeled the basics but that you’re going to have to play around and figure out what works best with different woods. There is no one simple answer here, not if you want really nice results anyway. I do hope that what I’ve given you here helps to inspire you to try your hand at mixing your own oil finish blends and going for that true custom finish on your handles.

#knife, #knives, #handle, #custom, #kitchen, #chef, #cook, #Martell, #tungoil, #linseedoil, #woodfinish