There are many different varieties of wood that can be used for knife scales. Ultimately, hardwoods work best for knife scales, because they are very durable. Common hardwoods used for knife scales include walnut, oak, African blackwood, koa, desert ironwood, rosewood, olive wood, ebony, amboyna, bloodwood, bocote, and cocobolo.
When you make knives, you know the type of material you use for the scales is almost as important as the steel chosen for the blade. The right one will complement the finished knife and add to its beauty and function.
Wooden knife scales are a knifemaking mainstay because they have an excellent, textured grip and look great. Other advantages include:
Wide variety: Wood is a material that comes in various colors and grains. You have several options to choose from, regardless of whether you’re making a simple table knife or intricate artisan blade.
Sustainability: Wood is an environmentally-friendly resource. It’s biodegradable and renewable, making it the scale material of choice for eco-conscious knifemakers.
Resilience: While some species of wood are not compatible with water, hardwoods and stabilized woods won’t decay in wet conditions. They even endure heat well, although you’ll want to remove any visual imperfections that may result.
A superior-quality knife handle is pleasing to the eye, feels good to hold, and will last longer with regular maintenance. Using wood can often save you money because it’s a natural resource that’s readily available sometimes without specialized processing or treatment.
If you’re considering producing knives with wood scales, it can be hard to decide which variety of wood would be best for your knives. The abrasive experts at Red Label Abrasives have taken the most common wood varieties used for knife scales and detailed the pros and cons of each type of wood below.
What Wood Types are Commonly Used for Knife Scales?
Hardwoods make the best choice for knife scales because they are durable. They can maintain thin sections and fine curves like flutes and finger grooves without chipping, splintering, or breaking. When selecting a wood, look for close-grained options that will resist staining and contamination.
Walnut is used for practically everything: furniture, kitchen fixtures, gun handles, and more. However, if you plan to use it for knife scales, it’s a better choice for one-of-a-kind display pieces that get little use. Although elegant in appearance, walnut is not as stable as other woods, so it’s not the best option for a knife you plan to use regularly.
Oak is a highly popular choice for knife scales, and it’s easy to see why. It’s affordable and results in a beautiful, durable, and stable handle. Because oak is so effortless to work with, artisan knifemakers will often add inscriptions or designs to the finished handle to boost its aesthetic value. Its unique combination of affordable price and resilient composition makes it an ideal choice for utilitarian projects like kitchen or hunting knives.
Like oak, rosewood is a cost-effective knife scale material. It varies in shade from golden brown to a deep, purplish hue and darkens with age, making it look deep and luxurious when polished. Rosewood has a sturdy composition that makes it suitable for the most demanding uses. Many knifemakers prefer Indian rosewood because of its rich coloration and resistance to all types of contaminants- even termites!
Olive wood, which originates in Europe and Eastern Africa, is a yellowish wood with darker brown or black streaks. Like rosewood, the color deepens with age. The most common uses are veneer manufacturing, turned objects, and specialty wood pieces. Although olive wood is prone to insect infestation, you can avoid this problem by maintaining your knife regularly.
Ebony is a beautiful, luxurious wood with a rich darkness that puts it in demand for everything from luxury furniture to upscale knives. Consequently, it’s pretty expensive, but the stylish results and resilient performance makes it worth the price, especially if you want to make a knife that collectors will be eager to buy.
Amboyna is one of the most expensive woods you can use for a knife handle, but in terms of beauty and functionality, you will definitely get your money’s worth. It is solid, stable, and resists oxidizing. Although strong enough to be used on everyday knives, the price tag makes amboyna more appropriate for artisan knives that get little wear.
Bloodwood has it all: gorgeous red color, silky feel, and wear-resistant. If you’re looking for an exotic alternative to traditional oak, walnut, or rosewood, bloodwood produces inspiring results. You can use it for kitchen knives, hunting knives, and showpieces, but make sure you keep its color vivid through regular cleaning and oiling.
Bocote has an exotic yellowish color with a distinctive black striping, so it creates an impressive knife handle. Bocote is also wear-resistant and can be used for a wide range of applications. However, it’s as expensive as it is stylish, making it a better choice for custom or ornamental knives.
If you’re looking for a super-durable wood, you won’t go wrong with cocobolo from Central America. It has historically been used to make fine furniture, musical instruments, and other specialty items and continues to be in relatively high demand globally.
As a knife handle, cocobolo does well in both wet and dry conditions and resists nearly everything, including insects, so the finished knife will last a long time, no matter how often you use it. Cocobolo also comes in a variety of colors that include yellow, red, purple, and black, so you can achieve different visual results.
As the name implies, African Blackwood is a black colored wood that can often be completely black (with no discernable grain). African Blackwood may also sometimes have a purple or dark brown hue to it.
African Blackwood is extremely dense and durable. It has a reputation for being metal-like, because woodworkers often have to process the wood with metal-working equipment. African Blackwood is great for carving intricate details into the knife handles, because its density will hold those details well.
Desert Ironwood is one of the hardest and most stable woods known to humans. The color tends to range from an orange yellow to a darker red or brown. Desert Ironwood is heavy and it can provide a good counterbalance for longer blades. The stability of Desert Ironwood makes it relatively easy to work with.
Koa is a very expensive and very sought after wood, because of its beautiful appearance and the fact that it only grows in Hawaii. Koa can be found in yellow, gold, red, pink, and brown hues. Not many woods possess the range of colors or chatoyancy that Koa does. Koa is relatively easy to work with. It is a hard and durable wood that is well-suited to be used for knife handles.
Some knifemakers use stabilized laminates, which are plywood products made from birch. This material is produced by using intense vacuum pressure to insert dye and polymer or phenolic resin into the wood before compressing it into plywood blocks. The result is a tough, long-lived wood product that’s practically waterproof.
Stabilized woods have been treated to overcome issues like weakness and porosity. The treatment process is similar to stabilized laminates, and the resulting wood is durable, long-lasting, and uniquely-colored. If you want to use a wood that’s not naturally self-sealing or resinous, stabilizing it can make it suitable for wet applications like kitchen use or marine environments.
Sanding & Finishing Knife Scales
When it comes to shaping and finishing your knife scales, you’ll want to use abrasives that are best-suited for the job. Choosing the correct abrasive will give you better results and increase the lifespan of the abrasive itself.
Aluminum oxide abrasives are commonly used for woodworking and can be used for shaping knife scales. If you are sanding hardwoods, it’s safe to use a ceramic or zirconia abrasive for longevity. Just watch your speed to prevent scorching. Most knifemakers enjoy using J-weight sanding belts when shaping scales, as they are great for getting into tight spaces and conforming to curves. J. Neilson loves ourJ-Flex Cotton Finishing Belts for handles and we also offer ascalloped version if you’re working with very tight spaces. Our abrasive specialists can help you decide which abrasive would be best for your application if you need help.
David Kranker is a writer and creative maker who has been covering the abrasive and knife-making industries on the Red Label Abrasives Blog since 2020. David spends his time continually researching sanding and bladesmithing to provide readers with the latest and greatest information. In his free time, David utilizes abrasives for many different home and auto projects at his home in Delton, MI.