Wood vs Stabilized wood. Which is better for knife handles?
The debate on which material is better to use for a knife handle has no definitive answer due to knives having multiple purposes in different scenarios. Here we’ll try to give the benefits of both materials and you can make your own decision.
First let’s take a look at the pros and cons of using all natural wood.
Unstabilized wood is beautiful when sanded, oiled and put on a knife and many knife makers agree on this point. There is no other material that has been used as long as pure wood to make a knife handle. In fact, the infamous Bob Loveless made the VL&A Delaware Maid knife handles from wood. There is no doubt that a hard, oily wood like Rosewood, Cocobolo, Blackwood, Arizona Desert Ironwood, Lignum Vitae or others will provide a wonderful basis for a lasting handle. The question remains that while these woods are naturally beautiful and tough, how long will they truly last? If the knife is simply going to sit in a display case then there isn’t an issue, but what if we’re talking about a field knife or a kitchen knife? Will the handle resist cracking and swelling when covered in hot water, animal fat or blood? And if so, for how long? Some people enjoy the natural, non-treated looked of wood and they live by it. Doug Lester says, “I still remember Mom’s old butcher knife with an unstabilized hickory handle that she had forever. I think that my sister is still using it. Of course it probably wouldn’t do well in a dish washer, but dish washers aren’t very good for knives, especially ones like Mom’s that were carbon steel.”
So maybe they will hold up over time, even when being used on a daily basis in the kitchen.
Stabilized wood definitely has it’s benefits and beauty, but what is stabilized wood and how do you stabilize wood? Mark at Burlsales.com shares this:
The purpose of stabilizing wood for use as knife handle materials is to make the wood more durable and less prone to cracking or moving. Dry wood to be stabilized is placed in a chamber under a vacuum. The stabilizing agent (chemicals) are released into the chamber with the wood. The wood and chemicals undergo a period of time under vacuum followed by a time under high pressure. After the wood has been completely penetrated or infused with the chemicals the wood is then heat cured in ovens. This changes the liquid stabilizing agent into a solid. When properly done the chemicals penetrate the wood grain and fibers and turn into a solid giving the wood additional weight and hardness for increased durability. This helps to limit or eliminate warping, cracking and other problems that can occur with wood when used under extreme conditions. Stabilized wood is usually easier to work with and finish than natural wood because some open pores and voids become filled and the wood now has a more evenly distributed hardness.
So what does all that mean? Basically, stabilizing wood increases the toughness and durability, but the question remains: Is it necessary?
This depends on the knife’s intended purpose and overall goal. Many claim that if you are making a kitchen knife or any knife that will be used regularly then it’s best to use stabilized wood unless you’ve chosen a naturally oily and hard wood, but even stabilized wood isn’t guaranteed not to swell or crack, it’s just less likely to do so. Natural wood that is porous and soft may absorb water and swell or crack more easily, leaving you with an imperfect or broken knife handle.
While the answer isn’t clear the fact is that blade smiths of the past, present and future have been and will be using both materials. It’s up to the blade smith to research the woods, treat them properly for the knife’s purpose and create a work of art with the chosen material.
Thanks to everyone at Knifedogs.com who replied to this initial posting when I initially posted the question: Wood vs Stabilized Wood. Without their knowledge and links I couldn’t have compiled this article. This isn’t a new question and you can find the answer (and debate) at many different knife forums on the internet, but I found this to be a very clear and unbiased answer and put the information into an article in hopes other knife makers can benefit from the communal knowledge that is Knife Dogs.