Steel and other materials

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Steel, the heart and soul of a knife
(See Also: Lexicon: Blade Steel)

As a knife collector, you will want to know the types of steel  used in the production of blades. Knife makers should share this information with honesty and integrity and some do. As it is, most of the high-end knife makers almost always tell you what type of steel is used. Mid-range and economy knives tend to be more nebulous in their approach.  

But even if you are told what type of steel is being used, you still need to know if it is a good steel or a bad steel for knife blades.  Unless you know something about steel you won’t know a good blade form a bad one.  At the same time knife collectors will also be quick to degrade certain types of steel based on personal bias and bad experience. This may lead to you passing up a good knife based on hearsay rather than honest appraisal.

Simply put you should learn about steel but don’t be dissuaded from buying a knife based on what you’ve heard or read. There is probably more discussion on what type of steel makes a quality knife blade than any other topic in the knife collecting hobby.  In the end, it really all comes down to this:  Did the knife blade meet or exceed your expectations and were you satisfied or impressed with the outcome?  If the answer is yes to both questions, then the steel in the knife is acceptable and worth the price you paid.

You're going to hear a series of letters and or numbers thrown at you as well as some rather innocuous yet impressive words thrown at you: Things like X105CrMo17 or surgical steel or my favorite 420J2 Tool Steel. My advice to you is to look them up in the lexicon and find out what they are and what steel they compare to. The phrases are often meaningless, the letters and numbers are grades of steel as defined by various engineering as manufacturing bodies to actually allow people to know what kind of steel is being used in the steel industry. They are assigned by the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), BSI (British Standards Institute), ANSI (American National Standards Institute),AFNOR (Association française de Normalisation), JIS (Japanese Industrial Standards), and other official and quasi-governmental bodies. As the various standards organizations assign differing alpha-numeric codes, several steels with different codes are comparable to one another. To further complicate this alphabet soup of steel grades are proprietary names assigned by some knife makers.

With that said, let's move on to some of the popular grades of steel found in some of the most popular knives made today.

Many people will argue that 420HC and 440A are poor quality stainless steel yet this steel is used by some of the major knife manufacturers, worldwide including respected USA makers.  Both steels are also required by many Government contracts including NATO and the U.S. Military..  Others will complain that 1095 carbon steel is used by the military simply because they go with the low bid contractors.  Some companies will only call their steel by a company trademark name that doesn’t clearly specify the type of steel used.  Just as many people will defend the various types of steel and declare the bias against such steels is unfounded.

In reality, it is important to know what kind of steel is being used and deciding if that steel meets your intended needs.  For instance, 440A stainless steel is often used in ceremonial swords. It is used because it can be given a razor sharp edge and will polish up quite nicely. However if you were foolish enough to fence with this sword or attempt to slice through a hard surface, it would most likely break.  A ceremonial sword is all show and is intended for ceremonial use.  It shouldn’t be used as a weapon or to cut anything more than a wedding cake!

At the same time, 440A or its equivalent has been used by countless manufacturers of pocket knives and small fixed blades with good results for many, many years. The shorter blades will not be subjected to the same type of force that the long blades of swords are expected to absorb. Thus they will work fine for cutting twine, skinning small animals, breaking down card board boxes and whittling and other small jobs that pocket knives are intended for. For instance, the steel used in the current U.S. Army pocket knives is 420HC.  Victorinox, makers Swiss Army Knives, uses X50CrMOsteel.  This steel is comparable to 440A Stainless in almost every aspect.  Obviously 440A and comparable type steel are ideal for everyday use in pocket knives; despite those who declare it an unsuitable blade steel.

Just as important as the type of steel is the company making the knife. Companies may use a different heat treating process which will produce blades of differing qualities. Thus one company may produce a good quality 440A blade while another company’s 440A blades will be lacking.  In some cases the same company may produce top quality knives using D2 tool steel but turn out a crappy line of knives using Damascus steel or 420HC stainless.

With that said, the steel used in the blade is only one aspect of the overall quality of the knife.  You should also consider the thickness of the blade, the shape of the blade, its intended use and how the blade is attached to the rest of the knife. Thus, the steel in the blade should really be only part of the formula for determining a good knife and when you judge the steel.

Confused?  So was I that’s why I say forget about the alphabet soup of letters and numbers and ask yourself: ‘did the steel meet or exceed your expectations and were you satisfied or impressed with the outcome?’ Eventually though trial and error you will discover knife makers who use quality steel and others who could do better. While the debate on the best steel will probably wage on forever, I am going to leave the debate and move on to other materials that make up a knife and should be considered when determining if a knife is worth what you're paying.

For a listing of the most common Steels used in knife blades See the Lexicon: Blade Steel)

Just about anything can and has been used as scales on a knife handle. Good knife handles fill two very different functions.  The first is to make it possible to grip the knife in a safe, effective, comfortable way. The second is to make the knife look good.  Just as some collectors only collect by pattern or brands, other collect knives with scales of certain materials.  It would be impossible to list all the materials used to make knife handles but for the sake of new collectors I will discuss three or four of the most commonly used materials in four categories: manmade, animal, vegetable, and mineral.

Most manmade material used for knife scales were not made for that purpose. In fact almost all of the manmade materials were developed for some other industrial application and then adapted by knife makers for knife scales.  For the most part, the manmade materials tend to be made of plastic, hard rubber, fiberglass, or a manmade stone.

In the early 20th century celluloid was often used as a handle material. Celluloid if a very soft material made of plant cellulose.  It is easy to work and could be made to look like expensive materials; such as ivory and stag. However, it had several drawbacks.  It can be easily dented.  It is prone to cracking, and will fade, warp and shrink when exposed to prolong heat or sunlight.

Delrin is the DuPont trademark name for high impact thermoplastic used by many traditional pattern knife makers. The plastic is easy to mould when heated but once cooled it becomes wear resistant, will not warp or shrink, can be carved and polished to lustrous finish.  The fact that it can be dyed and jigged to resemble other materials has made Delrin and excellent choice for Traditional Pattern knife makers.

G-10 is a relative high quality, low cost glass reinforced epoxy resin.  At one time it had numerous commercial applications but most of these were subsumed by flame retardant FR 4.  As this is not a major requirement for most knife handles, G-10 suddenly became a low cost better quality handle material for knife makers. G-10 normally has a matte finish and is easy to mould and is easy to grip, even when wet, making it ideal for tactical knives.

Corian is a acrylic polymer and alumina trihydrate developed by DuPont and is used primarily to make counter tops.  Knife makers, especially traditional pattern makers, like Corian because it is tough, impervious to water, scratch resistant and can be made in a variety of colors and patterns.

Without a doubt the most renewable and most commonly used animal material for knife handles is bone. Today, the bone used by most knife makers is domesticated cattle bone. Bone is light weight, durable and comparatively easy to work with. It is also prone to fracturing if it is cut too thin. It can be dyed and it is often jigged (cut) into a variety of patterns making it one of the most versatile handle materials used today. In fact, a common practice is to jig bone to resemble another type of material, especially stag.
As I mentioned most bone that is used in cattle bone. Another commonly used bone is Camel Bone. This is often used in knives made in Pakistan, India and South West Asia. Camel bone is normally unbleached, natural bone that has been cleaned, sanded and polished. It is often used in conjunction with knives using “Damascus” steel for the blades.

Stacked leather washers are often used in the making of handles of fixed blade knives. The washers are be compressed, sanded, and treated for mold and moisture resistance.  In the end stacked leather makes a non-slip grip that is impervious to water and resistant to shrinkage.  The leather can also be oiled and polished and many feel that its look actually improves with use.

Another popular material is animal horn; particularly African Cape Buffalo Horn and Ram’s Horn.  Horn is normally considered a step above bone because it is less plentiful.  Cape buffalo horn is normally dark brown in color often almost black but is sometimes streaked with lighter shades.  It is normally not dyed.  Ram’s horn is normally buff or whitish yellow in color but can be darker. Both horns show the natural patterns of the horn.  Both are normally buffed and polished and make nice looking handles.

A long time favored material for scales is Stag.  Stag is antler. There have been times when the use of stag has been banned due to Environmental laws. Today most stag comes from the antlers of Red Deer native to India and Pakistan. The antlers are gathered up shortly after they are dropped by the Deer; meaning the animals were not injured in the harvesting of the stag. There are numerous ways that stag is prepared for knife scales.  Like bone, stag can be dyed and it can be jigged.  First cut Stag, that is stag from the outer shell of the antler is what is considered the best part of the antler to use. Normally first cut stag is not jigged. This is because knife owners who buy knives with stag handles want you to know it is genuine stag. 

Second cut stag comes from the inner portion of the antler and thus is called second cut. The quality of second cut stag is normally less than that of first cut stag.  It is more likely for second cut stag to be jigged and or dyed. Often it is jigged and dyed to resemble first cut stag. When first and second cut stag are shown side by side, the differences are obvious. 

A desired piece of stag used on fixed blade knives is the part where the antler was attached to the head, known as the Crown Stag. Crown stag is normally very thick and very hard.  The large rounded crown makes an ideal pommel for a fixed blade knife with a stag handle.

Currently Ivory is making a small comeback on some high-end knives. Ivory, as you may know has several heavy restrictions on it making the sale of it so difficult that most knife makers avoid it entirely. In fact there are few places where Ivory can be imported from. For the most part, imitation ivory or white smooth bone is the preferred choice for economy or mid-range knives. 

However, for high-end knives fossilized Mammoth Ivory has become an excellent choice.  While it is called fossilized, it is in fact actual ivory or tooth material recovered from mammoths and other ivory producing mammals that were frozen thousands of years ago and just recently discovered. Because of the nature of the freezing, mammoth ivory tends to be various colorful shades and hues and doesn’t look like traditional ivory.  This adds to its exotic nature.  And as you can suspect only a very small amount of mammoth ivory is available making the knives with such scales, expensive and highly desirable.

A final mention should be made about tortoiseshell.  While it is not specified by practically any knife maker, any tortoiseshell currently be manufactured by a knife maker is imitation tortoiseshell.  Tortoiseshell used to come from the shell of the hawk bill tortoise. In 1973 there was a worldwide ban on the trade of material made from tortoiseshell.  Tortex, a type of Delrin is often used to mimic tortoiseshell. Today the term tortoiseshell refers plastic scales that look like tortoiseshell and not actual tortoiseshell.

Bamboo:  Bamboo is considered one of the most environmentally friendly handle materials as it is 100% renewable and comes from the fast growing bamboo.  The bamboo is the pressure treated and stabilized making it impervious to moisture, rot and shrinkage.  It is considered as hard as most woods and a great alternative to manmade materials.

Hard Wood is a term used to describe any of a variety of wood materials used for knife scales. Most often if the wood isn’t specified it will be any of the varieties of hard woods used in the lumber industry such as oak or maple or a hard type of pine wood.  This isn’t necessarily bad.  However if a more expensive type of wood is used the knife maker will normally specify the type of wood.   Some of the more popular hard woods are Olive, Teak, Rosewood, Cherry, and Mahogany

Burl Wood is a special type of wood which is sometimes called gnarly, curly or root wood. Burl wood has had its normal growth pattern interrupted which causes the grain of the wood to form marvelous indistinct patterns.  It is somewhat difficult to work with but because it can be sanded and polished and doesn’t have a normal wood grain pattern it make a beautiful decorative wood.

Desert Ironwood is a dense wood found in Arizona and Northern Mexico. In the past Desert Ironwood was used to make small trinkets and jewelry. Today, it seems the chief use for this wood is for knife scales and pistol grips. This isn’t surprising considering the quality and beauty of this impervious wood.

Currently, laminates are quite popular among some knife collectors.  Laminated wood handles consist of several thin layers of wood, often dyed different colors and then glued together under high pressure.  When the laminates are fitted and sanded to the knife handles, various shades of the dyed wood will appear creating interesting often exotic patterns. It is difficult to say if this trend is a fad or is here to say.  As with so many things in knife collecting some trends are recurring while may never return.


Mineral refers to gemstones, metals and minerals.  For the most part these are items used to make jewelry. They can be genuine or natural which means as they were made in nature. They can be synthetic or reconstituted which refers to chemically identical materials produced with the help of scientific intervention. And lastly, they can be imitation or artificial which means they resemble the genuine but are not in any way chemical identical to the genuine article and should be classed and manmade..

The first of these items could actually fall under the “Animal” category; this is Pearl or or more precisely Mother of Pearl. Mother of pearl is the internal lining of any of the pearl oysters.  The pearl is sliced from the shell, and then carefully shaped and polished to fit the knife handle. Pearl is delicate and hard to work with and is prone to cracking but makes a beautiful knife handle.  If the knife maker doesn’t specify the color of the pearl, they are normally referring to White Pearl.  Other popular colors are Gold (yellow) Red, and Black.   These are often called Black Lip, Gold Lip, etc. and refer to different species of pearl oysters.

Abalone is another material that really falls under the animal category but is listed here because of its use in jewelry. The shell of the Abalone (Haliotidae Haliotis) provides a beautiful iridescent material in a variety of shade and hues.   While pearl and abalone both come from the shells have animals, they have a completely different appearance. Abalone normally is harvested from four different commercial abalone farms. There is far less abalone in the world than there is pearl and the harvesting of Abalone is strictly controlled.  
In many cases abalone and pearl are usually sliced extremely thin when used as knife scales.  They are usually then used as an underlayment being sandwiched between a layer of clear acrylic and the knife liners. This is often done to reduce the cost of manufacturing. Normally you can tell if this has been done by looking at the edge of the scales.

Gemstones are precious and semi-precious stones used for a variety purposes especially in the manufacturing of jewelry.  They are often used as accents on knives as well as for knife scales.  Typically economy brands and mid-range knives will use synthetic or imitation stones.  High-end and custom knife makers will normally use genuine or a mix of synthetic and genuine. While any type of stone could be used in knife scale, some of the most common are Turquoise, Jaspers, Jade, Jet and Amber (which is actually a plant by-product).  For details on these and other gemstones see the Lexicon.

Finally, various metals are also used for knife scales.  Obviously any metal can be used for knife handles however some are more popular than others. Metals such as steel and aluminum are common among tactical knives. Anodized aluminum is particularly popular because it is inexpensive, light weight and reasonable durable.  It is also soft and scratches easily.  Alox, and aluminum alloy is used by Victorinox as scales on a variety of knives and is also used for the liners on almost all of their Swiss Army Knives. Titanium is often used to powder coat scales (and even blades) In order to give them a tougher surface.   Precious metals such as Silver and Gold are sometimes used for accents or the entire scales on some custom and high end factory knives.

In short, if it is possible to be shaped into a knife handle it has probably been used as knife handle or scales. You may find a particular type a material that you especially like and use it to determine what type of knife you want to collect.

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