Favourite Handle Woods
Below you will find words and pictures about my favorite handle woods. There’s no order to the items, just photos I’d like to share with those visiting my website.
All of the pictures were taken by me using a Nikon DSLR and natural light on a cloudy day. They only show blocks and scales currently in my workshop waiting to be used. This often takes the form of my ponderling (fondling and pondering) a block until I’ve evolved a knife profile to match it. Either way, I always keep the wood for at least a year to let it acclimatize and de-stress. I don’t exclusively use woods on my knife handles, however it is certainly my favorite material. Wood has been used since the start of history and is still eagerly sought by many makers and their clients. With a seemingly endless palate of colours, figures and grains to choose from, rarely are two pieces the same. I’ve experienced collectors who pick up a knife, comment on the impressive handle scales and put it down, saying its “just wood”, when what they wanted was ivory, shell, horn or antler. Really,… why?
Is it harder than katalox? Does it have more luster and figure than sapele? Is it prettier than tulipwood or more stately than Boise de Rose? Possibly it will wear longer than cocobolo. If this is true, then you should buy it.
This is the sum total of my workshop. Not seen to the left is a bandsaw and behind me are other racks of wood and a general storage cupboard. It’s a simple space dominated by my home made bench and grinder.
As our house is on the side of a steep hill, bordering a state bush reserve, there is zero chance of expanding, which unfortunately precludes me from forging.
It’s just as well I favour hand made knives as there is no room for more machinery anyway.
Ebony. Some people criticize the monolithic black of ebony, and I admit to preferring African black rosewood for a feature. However, ebony is a very useful wood. Black makes for strong contrasts and backgrounds, so I find myself using it a lot for bolsters, especially if the main handle timber has a vibrant colour or figure. For example with Brazilian tulipwood or pink ivory. Why do I use wood for bolsters and not metal,..well mainly to minimise the weight on the knife, but also, if I’m honest, because I like the look.
I find ebony a fairly easy wood to deal with. It is dense and heavy but not hard compared to many of the Australian inland acacias I regularly use. It takes a good polish and is stable in use. If I want to accentuate the blackness I put a couple of wipes of Danish oil or similar on before finishing off with a final coat of friction polish. The only issue to be careful of is the dust. A lot of care is needed to keep the sanding residue from contaminating and staining the rest of the handle material. The best way to do this is to make all your sanding strokes into the ebony, not out from it.
This photo shows around five kilos of black ebony blocks I have in store, probably enough to do me for the next ten years.
A nicely figured block of African black rosewood. This is a genuine rosewood that is regularly mistaken for ebony, and in the East African tourist shops is often touched up with black boot polish and sold as ebony (I lived there for seven years and witnessed a lot of this malarky). In my opinion it is a much finer wood and I prefer its lustrous character over the pure black. It takes a wonderful, natural polish simply by sanding and buffing, is quite hard and stable. I’ve never seen a timber that carves and shapes better, even across the grain it’s like amorphous plastic.
I made two of my personal kitchen knives with handles of this wood and over the last eleven years of fairly constant service they’ve darkened to fully black but not deteriorated. African blackwood is right up there in my top five.
The block pictured is around 30cm long.
I’ve been searching many years for that special block of snakewood and recently scored this one. Snakewood is one of the iconic knife making species, prized not only for the intricate patterns, set against a pleasant, brown-red ground, but also for its exceptional hardness and ability to take a first class polish. The Wood Database lists snakewood as the fourth hardest in the world and I can vouch it is very tough to shape, for some reason, significantly more so than the gidgee pictured below, which is listed as the third hardest. But once you’re working into the fine grits, (800 grit and up 2000 grit) the natural, glossy polish comes out to play and becomes a pleasure to behold. This wood generously rewards those willing to put in the time to sand up to the super-fines.
Quality snakewood is one of the most expensive woods I know of and I’ll therefore only be using it on special projects.
This block measures 33cm long, 6cm high and 10cm across.
Gidgee is listed on the The Wood Database, as the third hardest wood in the world. However, unlike most of the top ten, ringed gidgee is easy on the eye.
It’s my experience that many knife makers who use this wood end up with a very dark handle, one that unfortunately hides a lot of the expensive figure. (this wood does not come to your hand cheaply). The primary cause of darkening is the use of penetrating oils to wet the figure, as part of the finish. Sure, for an hour or three the figure will pop but with time its features will get lost behind an ever increasing gloom. With a wood this hard, pore free and surprisingly well behaved, adding oils is unnecessary. I simply sand it out to 2000 grit and buff with friction polish from there.
Amboyna burl can be a very good wood if you get the dense material with few open eyes and faults. As you would expect, the premium grades like this example can be expensive and hard to find in the market, in fact, some of the most expensive timbers available. There is a lot of lesser grade and green stock for sale that is not suitable for knife handles. With amboyna, you get what you pay for.
When worked, it gives off a dry, musty smell. It’s not a particularly hard wood but can be quite dense and relatively stable, much more so than many other burl woods. It takes a good polish and lasts well as a handle. I generally don’t like using burl woods but I’m comfortable with this one. Don’t use penetrating oil because it will darken the wood, just go with a surface finish.
When finished one way, amboyna burl looks sophisticated, it gives off an air of expense and if you’re making a bespoke knife, this is a hard one to go past. However, if finished another way it makes for a fantastic naive feel on a frontier style blade.
I don’t use much of it because it’s hard to get quality scales. I’m always pleased with the finished results when I do.
I’ve recently taken delivery of some more inland acacias. In common with their kin, they are very hard and dense, take a great polish and provide all sorts of hair loss problems for me the knife maker. Which angle to cut them!
This is curly miniritichie. While the large face shows incredible curls overlying the strongly coloured growth bands, I must confess to really liking the smaller face (which is about 6cm wide). When cut to a handle scale this will give a great chatoyant, cloudy effect.
This is quarter sawn acacia inceana. Its a really dense and heavy wood, at 2000 grit it feels like polished stone in hand. Once again, the growth bands really pop out but are nicely augmented by chevron folds.
I didn’t sand off the deep scratch running diagonally across the block because I didn’t want to waste the wood. The process of shaping knife handles will remove it.
Three knife scales of densely figured Miniritchie. The tight curls number around eight to the centimeter.
These scales have been sanded to 100 grit and given one coat of danish oil. The figure shimmies and dances when you move your point of view, it has a significant three dimensional aspect and a silky gloss.
What I like about this wood is the well defined chocolate coloured growth bands underlying the curly figure.
This photo was taken indoors under my workshop lights
quarter sawn Curly Miniritchie.
Dense curls through and through the wood, and underlying growth bands. I love it.
The Miniritchie is hard, smooth and pore free, a superb handle material, some of the best I’ve ever seen.
When worked, it has a dry, dusty, cocoa-coffee like smell, similar to but not as unpleasant as bullalo horn. It shapes easily and well but be careful when drilling as it chips on the exit. Don’t use any Danish oil or similar, as it darkens this wood too much, just go with a high polish and buffed gloss/hard coat or wax.
This photo was taken outdoors under a dense cloudy sky.
Here’s some river redgum timber I’ve recently sliced up.
The wood was recovered from fence posts removed from an old jam factory site. This factory was dismantled and the land turned into a suburban parkland just south of the Adelaide CBD. The wood was very generously given to me by a client. His best information says the fence posts are circa 1880, making them well over 100 years old. Now that’s seasoned wood!
It has a wonderful swirling figure that can be cut as broad fiddleback such as third from left or as ripples and swirls such as the other three examples.
The blocks are resting on the fence post from which they were cut.
This photo was taken indoors under my workshop lights.
Sure they’re busy, but I love these scales. I’ve had them for years now and I’m still waiting for inspiration, a design that won’t waste a millimeter of such a precious thing.
CAMATILLO is a kissing cousin to cocobolo. It’s a rarer wood, especially with good figure. Very similar to work, oily so rough up the sides to be glued, medium-hard, bogs up files and sandpaper quickly, drills like a block of dense plastic so back the bits out regularly to unclog them. Whatever you do, never use your good files for shaping this stuff because it is frustratingly difficult to clean the gummy debris from between the teeth. You will think your file has been dipped in purple cement. It takes a good polish without filler or penetrating oil. Colours go darker over a period of years.
Most specimens have a purple tint but as you can see, these give the impression of crimson and black. (They do have a bit of purple when viewed with the naked eye). The figure in this example is dramatically and dynamically chatoyant, magically rippling as you change the angle of lighting, a character I haven’t seen in cocobolo.
MULGA is a common inland acacia covering some twenty percent of arid Australia. While there are different types of mulga, this is the common species. The specimen is seperated from the pack by a sensational and dense fiddleback figure over a beautiful walnut brown base. This is one of my prized pieces of wood, so far I’ve only used it to make my personal carry knife.
Mulga is iconic Australiana. Medium hard to hard, dense, polishes beautifully, pore free, wax free, stable and wear resistant. In fact the handle of my own knife is more polished now after a couple of years in my pocket than it was when I made it. Watch out for minor chipping on the bandsaw and drill.
Mulga will darken with extended use but the degree is unpredictable and depends on the particular specimen.
CONKERBERRY is a narrow, twisted, knotty shrub which grows parasitically from the roots of desert trees in the monsoonal northern inland scrubs of Australia, distributed as far south as the fringes of the inland deserts.
The tree has a thick tessellated dull-grey bark and white sapwood which contrasts the startling yellow-orange inside. The trunks nearly always contain a central ant tunnel and are rarely over 10cm wide. Getting a slice large enough for knife scales can involve bandsawing a lot of material.
Professional knife makers have told me that any knife they make with conkerberry sells as soon as it’s displayed.
The wood is a pleasure to work, medium hard, not prone to splinter and polishes very well. Do trouble yourself to keep it clean of metal dust etc or use a filler. It does not require penetrating oil but one light application will saturate the colours.
This is a once in a lifetime bit of wood. The section in this photograph is 15cm by 30cm and has a good story;
The wood came to Australia from Japan with a repatriated soldier at the end of WW2. It remained un-used for years until the soldier died and his effects cleared by his widow. Purchased by a riflemaker, there was enough for three stocks. Two were made and this remaining block kept for that very special client. The riflemaker obviously never thought his clients special enough because when he retired it was still sitting on his shelf like an artwork. After a year of being pestered, the riflemaker reluctantly sold it to me. Not that he considers it’s mine because money changed hands. Far from it. For years afterwards he rang me to see what I’d managed to produce and recently commissioned two skinners from it. Love can be your master.
Steve has contacted me from Gifu in Japan where he trades antique and recycled wood. He says it is figured Tochi no ki (horse chestnut).
If you know what it is, please contact me and let us all know.
BOCOTE. I love the scent that comes from this when first worked, very floral, almost like roses. Unfortunately also very volatile as it evaporates and disappears within minutes.
This is a wonderful wood to work, medium hard, sands drills cuts easily, behaves itself very well and stable in service. It benefits from being kept clean during the build and is best with a hardcoat filler / finish. I also like to apply a penetrating oil before the hardcoat.
I’ve used it many times. When first finished the handle will be more yellow than this photograph shows however over the years it will go a deep golden coffee colour, which looks rich and fabulous.
Another one from my top five
PERUVIAN FLAMEWOOD . I understand this is a trade name invented by the purveyors as they didn’t have a real monica for the wood.
It was rarely for sale around 2005. I purchased these three small thin boards on a whim and haven’t seen anything like it since. You will note two of these have a broad, rippling cross cutting figure.
NOTE, Nov 2014, Paul of Hobbithouse Wood Pages, has informed me that the purveyor of this wood is now dead and the small business that harvested it from the Peruvian Amazon no longer exists. This wood is unlikely to be marketed again, so what remains scattered across the craft market is a rarity indeed. I’ll be treating it like spun gold from now on.
Being thin boards, I use them on small pocket carry style knives. The wood is medium hard, a little splintery, dirties if carelessly worked, a bit porous but stable. It doesn’t want penetrating oil (none used on this photo) but needs a filler / hardcoat finish.
I like it, but will have to ration it out. During the 2008 Adelaide Knife Show a small knife made with these scales was my most remarked about piece, and the first to sell from my table.
PURPLE GIDGEE is a large straight trunked acacia from deep inland Australia. Not that commonly for sale, more uncommon in usable slabs. Often used in jewelry.
The photo shows a polished scale atop rough cuts. When first worked the wood is a disappointing light grey or an even worse grey-brown. Thankfully it oxidises to a full bodied purple with exposure to light. The colour change will take time (weeks to months) but will deepen with degree.
Unfortunately it’s plagued by abundant internal faults (from seasoning) which means a lot of wastage if you are after the perfect piece. Take your time to nitpick out all the fractures on a scale before starting the job and avoid them. The wood is hard to very hard, works well enough but watch out for splintering. Sands and drills ok but take your time with power tools. Polishes extremely well and doesn’t need any finishing oils or coats. The end result is worth the trouble.
SAPELE is a very large straight trunked canopy tree from the Congo.
The wood is now listed by CITIES. Well figured examples are expensive to very expensive. I have a small amount left over from a decade ago. What a joy to pick up a slab of this and watch the full muscle quilting move and shimmer in the light.
The quilting always looks best from one particular direction so go to the trouble of fine sanding both sides of your scales and making sure you hold them in position and get it right before glue-up . I suggest you sacrifice any thoughts of bookmatching in favour of showing off the quilting to it’s best advantage.
It has a dry unpleasant smell when worked, medium hard, has deep pores so keep it clean. Otherwise behaves well. Really benefits from as many thin applications of penetrating oil as your patience will allow, the more the better. Needs a filler / hardcoat.
Dalbergia maritima, mostly marketed as BOISE DE ROSE, is by any measure my favourite rosewood. By no means common, it is now listed by CITIES.
The wood has a deep rich purply-burgundy colour that speaks sumptuously of royal elegance. This will darken with years of age and the wood will self polish with wear.
A medium hard and waxy-dense wood with similar working characteristics to cocobolo, but sands easier. You really need a good extraction system when working this wood or your entire ship and all who sail in her will be forever stained purple. The dust also has a strong scent typical of rosewoods. I recommend not using penetrating oil as you do not want to darken this colour, it takes a wonderful polish but could use a hard coat.
This is FLAME SHEOAK . I’ve seen the spittle fly in debates about whether this is a textural variant of sheoak or a species in it’s own right. I’m not qualified to join in. Either way I understand it’s only one log in a hundred has this figure and colour.
This specimen has a background red tone with golden yellow flames. I have other examples which are either caramel or brown or sandy yellow.
Sheoak appears to be one of the most stable woods, easy to work, about as hard as dry pine, polishes well enough but could use penetrating oil and hard coat.
I like it. Relatively easy to find and not the most expensive, you can afford to search out the best examples. I think familiarity has made it one of the underrated underused Australian knife woods.
COCOBOLO, you either like it or hate it. With an amazing variation in colour, pattern and tone, from flowing lava scales like these to imperial and elegant burgundy the wood can match any mood. It is now listed by CITIES
I’ve met one maker who suffers allergic reactions to the dust and have read about others, but the affects seem to appear on an individual basis.
Easy to obtain, even with good figure, ok to work but a pig at clogging files drills and sandpaper. Can feel cumbersome shaping across the end grain. Waxy, so rough up surfaces to be glued, medium hard and dense, takes a good polish. It does darken with use so avoid penetrating oils if you have the willpower to resist.
Here’s a lolly shop to salivate over. All are bookmatched pairs.
top scales are crotch figured Honduran rosewood, from left in the bottom row we have amboyna burl, thuya burl, curly koa, cocobolo and on the right, cocobolo burl.
WARNING When I used the Honduran Rosewood, my eyes puffed up to the point I had trouble reading and the skin around my neck became irritated for a few days. None of this appeared threatening but it was annoying. As pretty as the wood is, and as wonderful to work as it is, I won’t be buying any more.
MASUR BIRCH is traditionally used in Nordic style knives. I like the fine random pattern which feels quite Art Deco to me.
Careful with splintering but otherwise a good well behaved wood. However given the provenance I’d recommend a long period of adjusting to local conditions before you use any you purchase from overseas. The purveyor claimed my examples were seasoned (and they probably were) but they bent through fifteen degrees within hours of hitting the 14% humidity and 40 degrees Centergrade of an Adelaide summer. Consequently they spent the next six months firmly clamped under a thick wooden shim to the end of my work bench. They appear quite stable now and haven’t warped for over nine months since their release from jail
HAIRY OAK has a distinctive bark composed of densely packed longitudinal wiry ribbons of chocolate coloured ‘hair’
Unlike the lacework of flame sheoak, this wood displays numerous mid-brown morse-code like dots and dashes against a light caramel background. This example also has birdseye style clustering, which is common. The size and density of the pattern varies greatly according to the direction the wood was milled. You can actually order it cut with either numerous small and tightly packed dots or with long sparse dashes.
I think this wood is an ideal candidate for sleek, modern or deco styles.
The wood is medium hard, stable and benefits from penetrating oil and a hard coat. Watch out for pre-existing splintering along the medulla rays, so give potential scales a detailed once over for fine cracks before using them.
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand hairy oak can no longer be harvested and all supplies are from salvage or fallen timber.
Sorry, couldn’t resist putting these in. Both are CAMATILLO and neither look anything like the example heading this page.
I’ve sold one small workshop knife from the pair of scales at rear. This knife can be seen on my photo library page, placed opposite photos of an olive wood box and above photos of a black buffalo horn pocket carry knife.
A selection of stabilised woods. From left we have end cut bocote, bottom row, dyed maple burl, hand made polymer clay and at right, end cut red palm. At top is double dyed box elder burl.
I certainly favour stabilised woods in culinary situations. And they make such an attractive alternative to the black plastic that plagues even the high-end production run kitchen knives. They also take a good polish that is easy to maintain.
I wouldn’t use end cut wood of any type unless it was well stabilised.
These are a chemical soup, so make sure you use good dust control and a mask when working products like these.
An international designer colour collection. On top are pequia amarello and Brazilian kingwood. Below from the left are chakte viga, marble wood, Brazilian tulipwood and on the right, pink ivory.
All are medium hard and fairly consistant to work. Pequia amarello needs to be kept clean as a whistle if you are to make the most of the canary yellow. Brazilian kingwood and Brazilian tulipwood give off strong aromas when worked, often likened to apples by the purveyors, however I find it more like a chemical imitation of apples, oddly not quite pleasant.
Pink ivory is said to be a royal wood, rare as diamonds, which is a great marketing ploy. It can be very expensive, ranking alongside snake wood. I like it, who would have ever imagined wood in this colour. This board has sat in my workshop for four years and is still candy pink. I have the first knife I made with it, and that is still candy pink. However, I understand with prolonged exposure to sunlight the colour will dull substantially. The wood is harder than it looks, works quite well and takes a beautiful polish. However there is one thing you must watch out for. It is important to always use brand new belts and sharp power tools as this wood will heat-blacken as soon as you let your guard down and then its back to coarse sanding for you sport. If you do all the late stage work with files and sandpaper you shouldn’t have any problems.
WHITE CYPRESS has been used since settlement in Australia for housing, fencing, flooring etc. We have a large living potted example which acts as our family Christmas Tree during the season and spends the rest of the year looking after itself outside. My father’s floor boards ( in metro Sydney ) are white cypress.
It is a straight grained, finely banded, caramel coloured wood typically well populated by darker knots, swirls and splodges. The picture at left shows rough cuts, boards and one polished scale.
The timber is renowned for stability, resistance and durability. Slightly harder than oak, it is saturated with preserving volatiles and oils which incidentally give off possibly the most attractive scent of any timber I’ve worked with. A bit like pine but more sophisticated. If you could harness it you would blow away the male cologne market.
Cheap and easy to get, there is a lot recommending it.
BRAZILIAN BLOODWOOD is one of my favorites and many examples can be seen on the photo library page.
The wood is hard and heavy, dominated by longitudinal, dark strawberry red ribbons against a slightly lighter red base. There’s often a vague hint of gold behind the red. These ribbons are chatoyant, swapping places with each other when you move your viewpoint across the grain.
It works easily for such a hard wood, takes a superior polish and is very stable. Allow for minor chipping where the drill bit exits. Check scales for rare hidden splitting along growth rays but otherwise it is quite well behaved. Bloodwood is not hard to source but large examples can be expensive to ship due to their weight.
I’ve seen bloodwood in deeper shades, to a dark purple-red, which is sometimes called Mayan bloodwood. As far as I can tell its all the same species with variations arising from dispersed local populations or possibly the orientation the logs are milled.
Another one from my top five
MUIRAPIRANGA is a colour variant of Brazilian bloodwood but generally marketed as if separate. They both have the same scientific name; Brosimum paraense.
The wood is distinctly ribbon striped with red and golden yellow and has a much more pronounced ray-fleck chatoyance than bloodwood, probably the strongest I’ve seen in any wood. So much so it almost looks fake. As your viewpoint moves across the grain, the striping appears to dance and change colour. Unfortunately you won’t see any of this in the photo opposite, its a character I haven’t got the skill to capture with a camera. Please contact me if you know how to do this.
This wood is rarer on the market than bloodwood and more expensive .
I haven’t used my boards yet but understand it is colour fast. The wood is hard and my test blocks have taken a very good polish without penetrating oil.
This is actually the first block of knife handle wood I purchased. Its fiddlebacked River Redgum ( Eucalyptus camaldulensis) source from inland South Australia. The central piece in the photo is around 12cm wide and 30cm long. Yes, that’s grain running the length of the block.
River Redgum would have to be the most iconic of Australian trees. Growing to enormous spreading classic shapes often gnarled by age and climatic abuse. They are common in many habitats but most often noticed along inland river courses or scattered like giant statues on pastoral properties.
The wood is hard but can be chippy and splintery to work. A good finish requires penetrating oil and filler. Scales must be well seasoned, preferably decades. This particular block is 80 years old and I know it’s pedigree. There is plenty of reclaimed redgum for sale, so you should be able to find a substantially aged specimen that used to be a fence post or railway sleeper.
This is red narra from Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and there abouts. Sometimes referred to as beeswing or curly narra, it is the log timber from the tree that gives the much sought after amboyna burl. Red narra is not the same tree as golden narra.
The three main slabs in this photo have only been sanded to 200grit, with penetrating oil added, just enough to show you the fabulous figure. The main colour is red atop an underlying golden yellow. Each of the boards is 5cm wide.
Its about as hard as good pine, with large pores so requires filler and with chatoyant figure like this, you would be mad not to use penetrating oil. Quite well behaved when worked, however it gives off a dry, dusty smell like a mixture of flying fox colony and pine leaves. Not what you would call pleasant but not as bad as buffalo horn. Luckily, as with most wood smells, it quickly evaporates and the finished product is quite clear.