Knife handles have been made out of just about every type of material imaginable, ranging from the very weird to exceptionally nice looking and practical. There are many very good man-made and natural materials available today for knife handles. The purpose of the following list is to give you some idea of the more common types of knife handle materials that are used today.
Abalone - Abalone is a natural material from the shell of a mollusk that is harvested off of the coast of California, Mexico and other areas of the South Pacific. It has a very pleasing appearance but it is not as durable as some other knife handle materials. Its most popular use is for gentlemen’s pocket knives where it would not be exposed to the rough and tumble of heavy duty outdoor use. There is also an imitation abalone made from a type of plastic which is used mainly for pocket knife handles.
ABS - An amorphous thermoplastic terpolymer. The most amazing mechanical properties of ABS are resistance and toughness which are excellent qualities for knife handles. Used mostly for everyday working knifes.
Aluminum - Aluminum is very durable and provides a solid feel without the extra weight. It can be formed to provide a very comfortable and secure grip. The most common finishing process for aluminum is anodization which adds color and protection.
Bone - Bone used for knife handles is taken from naturally deceased animals. Bone handles are usually given a surface texture for better grip and added beauty. Jigging is the most common way to produce the surface texture on the bone and it is done using a special jigging machine in which modified bits cut out pieces of bone. The machine operates in a rocking motion to produce the particular desired pattern. Each of the patterns has its own distinguished look. After the bone is jigged, it can be dyed in variety of colors. Bone is a very good material for knife handles as it is durable, fairly easy to shape and can be very attractive. It is one of the most common handle material used for pocketknives.
Black Mother of Pearl - Blacklip Mother of Pearl is one of the most exclusive pearls in demand in today's knife market. It comes from small shells found in French Polynesia around Tahiti and its Archipelagos. Just under the exterior bark of the shell is where the real beauty of the Blacklip shell lies. It is very similar to abalone from the standpoint of durability and uses
Carbon Fiber - Carbon Fiber is composed of thin strands of carbon that are tightly woven in a weave pattern and set in resin. Carbon fiber is probably the strongest of all the lightweight synthetic handle materials. The main visual attraction of this material is the characteristic of the carbon strands to reflect light which makes the weave pattern very visible. Carbon fiber is a labor-intensive material which results in a rather expensive knife. It is a very good knife handle material… if you want to spend the money for it.
G-10 - G-10 is a fiberglass based laminate. Layers of fiberglass cloth are soaked in resin, compressed and then baked. The resulting material is very hard, lightweight, and strong. Surface texture is added in the form of checkering or other patterns. It is an ideal material for tactical folders and fixed blade knives because it is durable and lightweight. It is available in a variety of colors.
Leather - Leather handles are seen on some hunting and military knives. Leather handles are typically produced by stacking leather washers, or less commonly, as a sleeve surrounding another handle material. Leather knife handles are attractive to look at but are not as durable as some other materials. Leather works well as spacers to add accents to a knife handle.
Micarta - Micarta is similar in construction to G-10. Layers of either linen cloths, canvas, or paper are soaked in a phoenolic resin. Heat and pressure is applied to the layers which causes a chemical reaction (polymerization) transforming the layers into a high-pressure thermosetting industrial laminated plastic. The end result is a material that is lightweight and strong. Micarta is a popular handle material on user knives due to its extreme toughness and stability. Micarta has come to refer to almost any fibrous material cast in resin. It is available in a variety of laminate materials and colors.
Stag - Stag is another material that is extremely popular. Of all of the deer species, Sambar Stag antler material is the most sought after for knife handles because it is more dense than the others. Most Sambar Stag comes from India and due to the government ban on its export, it is becoming more and more costly and rare. The charm of stag comes from the attractive looks and rough texture of the surface that gives a nice grip for the user. Another intriguing thing about stag knife handles, is that, since it is a natural material, no two knives will be alike. Stag is derived from naturally shed deer antlers. When exposed to open flame, stag takes on that slightly burnt look. Sambar Stag is very durable and it makes excellent knife handle material.
Stainless Steel - Stainless steel offers durability and of course corrosion resistance when used for knife handles. It is quite often used in combination with another material such as plastic or rubber to make it easier to grip. The biggest drawback to stainless steel knife handles is the weight.
Titanium - Titanium is a metal known to be harder but lighter than steel. While stainless steel handled knives are usually on the heavy side, titanium provides the toughness and durability of a metal handle without so much weight. Titanium offers the most corrosion resistance of any steel. It has a good “feel” and makes an excellent handle material.
White Mother of Pearl - A highly prized knife handle material! White Mother of Pearl comes from the silver lip shell. Some of the best White Mother of Pearl comes from the South Seas of tropical Australia. It is very rare in sizes large enough to use for knife scales. It is said that it takes 10 tons of pearl shells to find material large enough to cut scales of 1/10” x 4 1/2” long. It is also very similar to abalone from the standpoint of durability and uses.
Wood - Wood knife handles vary from the more common wood species to the most exotic and the price ranges accordingly. Soft or fine woods like black walnut are not good choices for hunting knife or for uses that involve a lot of moisture or water. Hardwoods like Rosewood, oak and maple make good choices for hunting knives. Stabilized wood like spalted maple, mesquite and desert ironwood are available where the wood is impregnated with plastic making it entirely waterproof and providing it with a durable finish that does not require any maintenance except an occasional buffing. These are highly recommended for tough duty knives and those that would be exposed to a lot of moisture. Fancy and exotic wood handled knives are especially popular with collectors. A good quality wood handle will be durable and can be attractive as well.
Zytel - Zytel nylon is thermoplastic material developed by DuPont. Zytel is an excellent material for work knife handles since it is virtually unbreakable and very abrasive resistant. It is one of the least expensive of synthetic handle materials to produce, thereby holding down the cost of the knife. It is quite often given a surface texture to improve gripping when used for knife handles.
There are many other materials used to make knife handles as well such as various types of plastics and exotic materials such as: mammoth tooth and ivory, warthog tusks, stone, oosic (walrus penis bone), sheep and buffalo horn etc. Almost any hard material can (and has been) used as a knife handle.