In this article we’re going to be evaluating the different types of knife handle materials. Knife newbies often fall into the trap of assuming that the knife handle is simply an aesthetic choice. However, in reality the type of handle is extremely important to the overall performance and characteristics of the knife.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the most common grips you’ll typically find in knife handles today. These materials can be metal, synthetic or natural and each with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Whether you’re searching for a tactical knife, hunting knife, survival knife or simply a collectors item this guide should help you determine the best knife handle material to suit your needs.
Stainless steel provides excellent durability and resistance to corrosion but is not particularly lightweight. In addition, stainless steel handles can be rather slippery so manufacturers have to incorporate etching or ridges to provide the required friction. Quite often, you’ll see stainless steel used in combination with plastic or rubber, to improve the grip, but stainless steel handles are typically to be avoided in EDC or heavy-duty knives, because of the added weight.
Pros: Strong, durable and corrosion resistant
Cons: Heavy, can be slippery
Examples of stainless steel handles
Aluminum, usually anodized for color, hardness and protection, is a very durable material for knife handles. It’s a low density metal that provides for a nice, hefty feel to the knife without weighing the knife down. The most common type of aluminum used today is the T6-6061 alloy which has tremendous tensile strength.
Properly texturized, an aluminum handle can provide a reasonably secure grip that is also comfortable and easy for extended use. On the downside, if you use your knife quite a bit during colder winter months, you might find the handle uncomfortably cold given its conductive properties.
Aluminum is generally considered inferior to its stronger, yet more expensive brother Titanium which tends to be found on the more premium knives.
Pros: Strong, light, durable, resistant to corrosion
Cons: Cold to hold, can be a little slippery, susceptible to scratches and dings
Examples of aluminum handles
Titanium is a lightweight metal alloy, and it offers the best corrosion (rust) resistance of any metal. It’s a little heavier than aluminum but still considered a lightweight metal and much stronger. Alas, it’s also more expensive to machine.
Titanium is one of those rare metals that has a warm feel to it, so it doesn’t make you suffer nearly as much in the winter time as something like aluminum. It’s very sturdy and yet “springy,” which is why you commonly see titanium used as the liner material for a locking liner knife. Note that both Titanium and Aluminum suffer from being prone to scratches as compared to stainless steel.
Titanium can be given a unique and attractive color through the anodization process which is particularly common on custom knives. Further, it can be texturized through bead-blasting.
Beware the Titanium marketing machine however. You’ll often see Titanium being given more credit than it deserves through effective marketing. It’s far from indestructible and not all alloys are as strong as stainless steel.
Pros: Strong, light, corrosion resistance
Cons: Relatively expensive, prone to scratches
Examples of titanium handles
Carbon fiber is a somewhat generic term referring to thin strands of carbon being tightly woven then set in resin. Carbon fiber reinforced polymer is what you get when you buy a knife marketed with a ‘carbon fiber handle’. The result? A tremendously strong yet lightweight material that is also rather expensive. While strong, it’s far from indestructible and suffers from being brittle. Think of carbon fiber as a bunch of straws stuck together – it’s super strong (far more than steel) in a single direction but starts to break apart when stressed in other directions. Because it’s brittle it can crack if subjected to sharp impacts.
Due to the way in which the carbon ‘weave’ reflects light you can achieve some nice looking results in a knife handle. Production of carbon fiber handles is a labor intensive process, though, so it tends to be found only on the higher-end knives. This stuff is not cheap!
Pros: Strong, lightweight, eye-catching
Cons: Expensive, brittle
Examples of carbon fiber handles
Micarta is a popular branded example of a phelonic – which refers to different substances made with the organic compound Phenol (a type of resin).
Thin layers of linen cloths are soaked in a phenolic resin, producing a product that is lightweight, strong, and looks somewhat dressier than G-10. It was originally introduced as an electrical insulator and easily one of the best plastics out there for making knife handles.
Unfortunately, Micarta in and of itself has absolutely no surface texture, is very slippery and smooth, and requires quite a bit of hand labor to produce and then carve some sort of texture into the knife. This makes it pricey, which translates to a higher priced knife. Note many will tell you that Micarta can be easily scratched but let me assure you that this is not the case. Micarta is very hard and is not easy to scratch at all. Sure it will scratch under attack from sharpened steel, just like G-10 and carbon fiber will but in general it holds up very well indeed.
Pros: Tough, light, durable
Cons: Expensive, brittle
Examples of Micarta handles
G-10 is a grade of Garolite that is a laminate composite made of fiberglass. It has very similar properties (perhaps slightly inferior) to carbon fiber yet can be had for almost a fraction of the cost. The manufacturer takes layers of fiberglass cloth and soaks them in resin, then compresses them and bakes them under pressure. The material that results it extremely tough, hard, very lightweight, and strong. In fact, G-10 is considered the toughest of all the fiberglass resin laminates and stronger (though more brittle) than Micarta.
Checkering and other patterns add a texture to the handle, which makes for a solid, comfortable grip. The production process can utilize many layers of the same color, or varying different colors to achieve a unique cosmetic look on the G-10 handle. Tactical folders and fixed blade knives benefit from the qualities of G-10, because it is durable and lightweight, non-porous and available in a variety of colors. G-10 is currently one of my favorite handle materials for tactical knives.
While cheaper to produce than carbon fiber, it still has to be cut and machined into shape which is not as economical as the injection molding process used in FRN handles.
Pros: Tough, light, durable
Cons: Brittle, lacks elegance
Examples of G-10 handles
In practical terms, I find Micarta, G-10 and Carbon Fiber to be very similar in terms of their qualities as a knife handle material. Many can argue the individual characteristics but at the end of the day they are all super strong and lightweight.
Zytel is a type of Fiberglass Reinforces Nylon (FRN), a thermoplastic material which was introduced by American chemical company DuPont. Zytel is super strong, resistant to bending, abrasion and practically indestructible. What’s more, it’s cheap!
With FRN the nylon fibers are arranged haphazardly throughout which results in it being strong in all directions as opposed to G-10, Carbon Fiber and Micarta which have the fiberglass strands aligned in a single direction. Many knife enthusiasts did not warm-up to Zytel, claiming it feels cheap and somewhat hollow. It also tends to be a little less ‘grippy’ than G-10.
FRN is inexpensive because it can be injection molded into any desired shape and textured in a multitude of ways in the production process. All this lends well to high volume manufacturing and hence low cost. Note also that not all FRN handles are the same. I’ve seen Spyderco do some amazing things with FRN whereas some ‘lesser’ brands struggle to get the most out of it.
Micarta is very similar to G-10 though a little more pricey.
Pros: Strong, tough, zero maintenance, inexpensive
Cons: Cheap plastic feel, less grippy than G-10
Examples of FRN handles
Bone handles have been used since the dawn of man and are still very popular among the knife collector community; in fact, this is the most common material today for classic pocket knives. The bone is derived from naturally deceased animals, and a wide variety of animals at that—including elephant and giraffe. Still, the most common and cost effective bone used today is the abundant cow bone. Aside from bone, similar materials like antler (deer, elk, etc.), horns (sheep, cow, buffalo, etc.) and tusks (i.e. elephant, walrus) will often be used.
Of course, many like bone handles simply because of tradition. I remember my first ever knife had a jigged bone handle and it was a beautiful thing. The bone can be dyed to achieve bright colors, and can be textured to make for an easier grip.
Unfortunately, Bone is somewhat slippery for heavy-duty usage and it’s porous which affects its stability and makes it susceptible to deformation and cracking. Temperature, light and moisture can all impact the characteristics of a bone handle which makes them unsuitable for many.
Pros: Inexpensive, use of dyes create eye-catching designs, traditional
Cons: Porous, susceptible to cracking, somewhat slippery
Examples of bone handles
Like bone, wood had been used as a knife handle since knives came into existence. A good quality wood handle can be durable and attractive, making wood a relatively inexpensive material for heavy-duty knives. Wood also adds a lot of beauty to a knife, making wood handled knives popular among collectors.
Various different types of woods are used in knife handles, so you have to choose wisely based on how and where you’re going to use the knife. If you are going to use it in wet conditions often, you don’t want your knife handle to be made of soft or fine woods like black walnut; better to use a hardwood or a stabilized wood, where the wood is injected with plastic.
Hardwoods originate from deciduous trees whereas softwoods largely come from coniferous trees. There are hundreds of so-called exotic hardwoods used in knife making today and each displaying unique characteristics that excite us as knife collectors.
Examples of stabilized woods include Dymondwood®, Staminawood®, and Pakkawood® which are plywoods typically made from birch. Manufacturers inject polymer resin and then compress under high pressure to create a very dense and durable material than still exhibits natural beauty.
Of course there is a wide variety of pricing among wooden handles depending on the type and scarcity of the wood used.
Pros: Lots of variety, attractive, durable, comfortable to hold
Cons: Porous and instable
Examples of wood handles
Mother of Pearl
Found within mollusks like oysters, Mother of Pearl is the stuff that can eventually turn into pearls (hence the name). It is of course an expensive material but extremely stylish and strong making it ideal for dressy and upscale knife production. The Mother of Pearl material is relatively easy to manipulate in the workshop and can be ground and sculpted into a variety of shapes. For the ultimate in exotic beauty there is the Black Mother of Pearl which originates from Tahiti but is very scarce. On the slightly cheaper end, consider Abalone which is taken from the shell of the mollusks and is also beautiful but lacks durability.
Pros: Natural beauty
Cons: Expensive, slippy
Examples of mother of pearl handles
Occasionally you will see knives with leather handles. Still, I don’t see many of these in production today except perhaps on classic hunting and military knives. The production process typically involves wrapping the leather tightly around another material. In some cases a series of leather washers are compressed and stacked on the knife tang and held together with contact cement. These are then profiled through grinding and finished to reveal an attractive look.
While leather knife handle are nice to look at they do lack durability and strength so you will rarely see them in a tactical or utility knife. More often you’ll see leather used to accent knife handles made of bone, wood or other natural materials.
Pros: Inexpensive, traditional
Cons: Lacks strength and durability
Examples of leather handles
Whatever knife handle material you choose, be sure to pair it up with the right steel. To that end, check out our guide to the best knife steels. Enjoy.