Handmade Leather Handled Knife and Leather Sheath

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.

Leather Handled Knife Belt Loop DetailFor 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.

Leather Handled Knife in Blade GuardThe 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.

Leather Handled Knife StitchingI 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

Leather Handled Knife in Handmade Sheath

Leather Handled Knife


Leather Buttons

How-to Make Leather ButtonsMy sister is a button fanatic. She has a huge button collection, and many of her creations prominently feature buttons, either functional, or as decoration. Her blog regularly features button finds, and because of her I am always keeping my eye out for button related stuff.

When I came across a short but excellent article over at Ped’s & Ro describing an experiment in making buttons from leather, I was intrigued. The process seamed simple and the result elegant — the key ingredients of any good design. I decided to try my hand at creating some of my own leather buttons.

Please read the Ped’s & Ro blog for the detailed instructions. I will just add a couple of tips here regarding cutting out the buttons and finishing.

It is difficult to cut smooth curves in leather at the best of times. Combine thick leather and a small radius circle and you are just asking for trouble. The standard solution would be to use a round punch to create the button shapes, but typical round punches only go up to about 1/2″ in size, which is only good for smaller buttons. I didn’t have a round punch this size, and didn’t want to buy one for this exercise, so I economized and used my 1/2″ strap-end punch to make the circles (the “circles” are just really short 1/2″ straps!) I made some 1″ buttons with my 1″ strap-end punch, but it’s curve is not perfect so the buttons are not absolutely round.

I subsequently found (and purchased) a (rather expensive) versatile large punch set at Lee Valley (several punch sizes can even be used concentrically to create washers, etc.) The Lee Valley round punch set includes dies for cutting 3mm to 30mm holes. A good find.

I suppose there is no law that says buttons must be round, so if you are without a punch you could try other shapes.

I burnished all the surfaces of my buttons quite a bit, using gum tragacanth and a wooden edge slicker. The result is a smooth finish, but the process is a bit tedious given the small buttons and my big fingers.

After the buttons dried I finished them with a satin acrylic coating to protect them from the elements and hopefully keep them smooth longer.

I used one set of buttons on an insulated flannel shirt that I bought last fall. I wear this shirt all the time — outside in moderate weather, and inside on cold days. It’s great for slipping out to get some wood for the fireplace, etc. There was only one problem with this shirt — the original buttons were a tad too small and became undone whenever I moved, breathed, or the wind changed direction. The replacement leather buttons are a perfect fit, stay closed the way they are supposed to, and complement the existing leather accents.

I will definitely be making more leather buttons and working on refining the process.

Knife Making

Thorgal Aegirrson
Thorgal Aegirrson

Shortly after I started collecting axes, my wife travelled to Norway. She wasn’t prepared to pack a Scandinavian axe in her suitcase as a present on her return, so instead she brought me a Brusletto knife direct from the factory in Geilo. When I received that knife I instantly got the idea that someday I would make my own knives.

I recently expanded my knife collection with Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish examples from Helle, Mora, and Laapin Puuko. All of the knives from each of these manufacturers is a high-quality product. The quality and finish varies depending on the amount of handwork that went into each knife (the more handmade, the better). There are a few other brands that I would like to purchase knives from (for example, Roselli of Finland), but for now I decided to make a few knives of my own.

At my wife’s recommendation I recently started reading the Thorgal saga fantasy comic series. (Yes, I have the coolest wife ever.) I took the two main characters, Thorgal and Aaricia, as the thematic inspiration for my first two knives. For both knives I used 4 1/4″ Mora laminated steel blade blanks purchased from Lee Valley. Each knife then takes visual queues from its namesake: Thorgal — hand-shaped African Rosewood handle, polished aluminum bolster, and dark-brown handmade leather sheath with contrasting thread and nickel rivets for the belt loop; Aaricia — hand-shaped maple handle finished with linseed and tung oil, brass bolster, and dark yellow handmade leather sheath with contrasting stitching and brass rivets for the belt loop. Each sheath features a hand-carved cedar blade guard insert.

Aaricia Gandalfsdotter
Aaricia Gandalfsdotter

Each knife is a slightly different shape and incorporates features I’ve seen in various other Scandinavian knife designs. I quite enjoyed the process of shaping the handles (and it was a good excuse to get a new desktop belt/disc sander). Since the knives took shape in my hands, they feel very natural to hold and use. As nice as the commercial knives in my collection are, they were not custom made for my hand and therefore are a bit of a compromise in terms of fit, balance, and dexterity.

This project was also a good excuse to do some leatherwork. I am very happy with the sheaths for each knife. Each is as good or better quality than any of the sheaths that came with my commercial knives.

I have a few more Mora blade blanks that I will be using to make a more knives. Just looking for my inspiration right now. In the future, I would like to get a small forge set-up to make my own blades. I also want to make a crooked knife for carving canoe paddles — another project I have on the go right now.