I became a fan of fixed blade knives rather late in life and have started to experiment with different handle materials. I never really understood the appeal or construction of leather knife handles, but I became intrigued and decided to make my own.
A leather knife handle is actually made from a stack of compressed, glued, and shaped leathers “washers”. The form and feel of the handle comes from the leather, but the strength comes from the tang and the rigid bolster and butt/pommel reinforcements.
I used a commercially available 6″ carbon-steel blade blank from Morakniv as the basis of this knife. Most leather handled knives I have seen are of the hunting-knife variety, so I decided that a larger knife would be better.
For the most part, I followed an excellent tutorial in the British Blades forum. I deviated a bit from the tutorial by hiding the tang under the butt cap and securing the butt cap with two 1 1/4″ #14 screws. This was not my original plan, but I had trouble riveting the butt cap to the tang. I sanded the screw heads flush with the butt, though two small depressions from the driver holes remain visible — not the most professional job, but a strong and fully serviceable arrangement.
Today I finished making the leather sheath. I like a Scandinavian-style sheath, which is stitched at the back and holds the knife with simple friction rather than a complicated snap and/or strap.
The sheath is lined with a hand-carved cedar blade guard. After seeing an interesting comparison of the performance of various sheath materials in wet and frozen conditions I decided to make a drain-hole at the tip of this blade guard. If water gets in the sheath, it will simply drain out the bottom. I also applied a good coat of paraffin wax to the blade guard interior to discourage moisture build-up. The devil is in the details, as they say.
I tried to match the coloration of the sheath with the knife handle. I first dyed the sheath brown, applied a bit of yellow dye, and then applied USMC black dye. The black dye I applied sparingly only to the tip of the sheath, and then with a cloth, blended it into the brown. I repeated this a few times until I had a nice smooth blend from solid black at the tip to warm brown at the top.
I hand stitch all my sheaths. Normally I make my needle holes with an awl, but on this sheath I used my recently purchased hand sewing punch. This is a great tool and created even and consistent stitching holes. I still had to use a fid/awl to slightly enlarge the insides of the holes so I could easily pass the needles, but in general the punch really sped up the hand-sewing process.
Though it had some challenges I really enjoyed this project. I like the lively feel of the leather handle surface. I compared it to a 6″ Buck plastic handled knife I have which feels dead by comparison. I am also, once again, very happy with the combination of the knife and the sheath. I got into knife making from working with leather, so it makes sense that I put a high value on the sheath.
I like to give my knives a name. I will call this one Gandalf The Mad, after the unscrupulous and cruel Viking Chief from the Thorgal comic book series. It gave me some trouble, has a complex and dark exterior, but also a spark of power and nobility.
Gandolf the Mad
Blade: 6″ High-carbon-steel Morakniv blank
Handle: vegetable-tanned leather, African Rosewood, aluminum, carnuba wax
Sheath: hand-carved cedar blade guard insert, hand-dyed and hand-stitched vegetable tanned leather, riveted belt loop