July 15, 2021
By Bryce M. Towsley
Knife-building is a great DIY hobby. It’s not only a lot of fun; you also end up with a new knife to use on your outdoor adventures.
Good custom knife-makers are artists with decades of experience, but almost anyone can get into knife-building by starting with a kit.
Jantz Supply (knifemaking.com) is the king of knife-building components. The company offers everything from simple starter kits to materials that will produce a knife of museum quality. I wanted to make a medium-size fillet knife, so I chose Jantz’s Trout Fillet kit with a 5 3/4-inch blade.
The kit includes pieces of wood for the handle, but I wanted a different look. I added a block of red canvas Micarta handle material to jazz things up a bit.
Jantz has several colors of canvas Micarta, as well as numerous other handle materials such as G10, which makes it easy to give your knife a custom touch.
Wrap the blade in several layers of masking tape. This protects the blade from scratches and your fingers from amputation and lesser trauma.
The Micarta comes in one piece; cut it in half so you’ll have material for both sides of the handle. I used a chop saw, but a hacksaw will work well, too. Lay the blade tang on the handle material, clamp the two together, and use a fine felt-tip marker to trace the shape. Repeat for the other side of the handle, being sure to flip the blade so you trace the side that fits against the material.
Use a jig saw to cut out the handle pieces, called “scales” in knife-building terminology. If you’re like me and don’t have a jig saw, you can use an extra-course belt on an upright belt sander to give the scales a rough shape. This removes material very fast. Wear a respirator, and be careful to not go past the line. You want some material left over after installing the handle scales so that they can be sanded flush to the tang.
Sand the tang and the inner side of one scale to provide a rough surface for glue to grip. Clean the scale and tang with acetone or another degreaser.
Mix up some epoxy. Most brands will work fine, but I like the Devcon 2-Ton epoxy that Jantz sells in 8 1/2-ounce bottles. It is easy to work with, keeps well on my bench and will last through several projects.
Coat one side of the tang with epoxy, position the scale on the tang, and clamp. It’s best to clamp in multiple locations. (I tried to use a vise, but I could not hold the scale in position as I tightened the vise.) Make sure the scale material extends past the edge of the tang in all locations and the front edge of the scale is correctly positioned.
The Trout Fillet knife has three pins that help secure the scales to the tang. Once the epoxy is dry, drill the holes in the scale for the pins. There are holes in the tang to use as guides. Drill with a bit that is slightly larger than the pin diameter.
Align the other scale on the tang and hold it in position. Using the holes you just drilled as a guide, drill the corresponding holes in the second scale. Insert a pin into each hole after drilling to help keep the scale in position as you proceed.
Double-check the fit of the pins. They should pass through both scales and the tang. Sand and clean the mating surfaces of the second scale and tang, and apply epoxy to the side of the entire tang. Roll the pins in epoxy to coat them. Add the scale to the tang, making sure its front edge matches that of the first scale already in place. Insert the pins to align everything, and clamp well.
After the epoxy has cured, it’s time to shape the handle. You can do it by hand with files, sandpaper and even a Dremel tool, but the best way by far is to use a bench-mounted belt sander. Start with a 60-grit belt and switch to finer grits as you go, finishing with 120. Leave the backing plate on the belt sander for the initial shaping, and sand to the metal all around the tang so that the scales and tang are even with each other.
Pros use a long, unsupported sanding belt to shape handles. I found that by removing the backing plate on my sander I have 11 inches of unsupported belt, which works fine. A little bow in the belt helps with the shaping. Always keep the knife handle moving; stopping will introduce flat spots. Roll the handle to round its edges and to shape the material.
How do you know when the handle shape is right? That’s subjective, of course. You can compare it to other knives, but when it feels good in your hand and looks good to your eye, the shape is correct. Just make sure the two scales match and that one is not wider than the other.
Complete the handle by hand-finishing it with fine, decreasing grits of sandpaper and steel wool. After the final smoothing, I applied a few coats of Johnson’s Paste Wax. This sealed the handle and made the colors of the canvas Micarta really pop.
Other than sharpening the blade, the knife is now done. I recommend getting a sheath for your knife, and Jantz Supply offers them in the raw. They must be fitted and finished, but completing a sheath is not difficult and it’s a nice complement to your custom knife.
—Step-by-step photos by Bryce M. Towsley