What are the Best Knife Handle Materials? [Guide]



There are so many knife handle materials out there. But what exactly are all of these, and which ones are the best? Let’s have a look…

Most people consider the handle to be just an aesthetic asset of a knife. But this is wrong. Very wrong. The handle is just as important as the blade in a survival knife because it is the point of contact between you and the knife.

I did a bit of research into what the different types of handles are, and what the advantages and drawbacks are for each handle material. I hope this gives you some insight into the various options, so that you’ll be able to make a careful decision as to which material to choose for your survival knife.


3 types of knife handle materials

I know, there are tons and tons of different handle materials. You’ve probably seen countless ones looking through product description and reviews.

Overall, these materials can be separated in 3 families:

  • Metals: metals are widespread in the knife handle industry. They are strong and durable, and are therefore a great option for outdoors equipment. 
  • Synthetic materials: these are the modern ones. Most of them are created specifically to exhibit certain properties. There’s a lot, and scientists are constantly designing new, better ones.
  • Natural materials: these are the more vintage materials. Most of these have been used for hundreds of years, and played an important role in the knife-making history.

Let’s have a closer look at the materials in each of these categories. You’ll find these or similar variants in 99% of knives!

Once again, don’t be intimated by all the weird name and trademarks thrown around in product reviews. A lot of them are basically the same one, but with a different name.



METALS


Metals are popular handle materials, the main ones used being Titanium, Stainless Steel and Aluminium. Most metal knife handles are actually not pure metals, but alloys.

An alloy is a combination of a metal with another or others, or with a non-metallic element. There are various reasons why alloys are used instead of pure metals. These include an increased durability and tensile strength, but also often a lower overall manufacturing cost.

The main drawback is that smooth metal handles can generally get quite slippery (this is mainly the case with stainless steel). Otherwise metals are durable and will continue to make good knife handles.

Titanium

Titanium is a metal that is known for its strength and durability. Titanium blades and handles are non-ferrous (they don’t contain iron), which means they won’t rust (since rust is caused by the oxidation or iron).

Titanium is very strong and durable for its light weight, and is therefore often used as a coating for knife blades, just to add extra protection and improve the blade’s corrosion-resistance.

The knife industry uses various alloys of titanium (an alloy is a combination of several metals, so not one pure metal).

The one I’ve seen the most while doing research is Ti6Al4V, which means it is made up of 6% Aluminium (Al), 4% Vanadium (V) and the rest – 90% – is Titanium (Ti).

Unlike most metals, titanium doesn’t have that cold feel when you touch it. It’s sturdy, but also springy, and can be used as part of the locking mechanisms of folding knives.

However, be aware that titanium is not indestructible, and can suffer from scratching much more than stainless steel.

Advantages Drawbacks
  • A very lightweight material compared to other options.
  • One of the most durable handle materials.
  • Very good resistance to corrosion.
  • More expensive than other metals, resulting in higher priced knives.
  • Can be prone to scratching (more than stainless steel).
  • Is often overrated…


Example of knives with Aluminium handles:

Zero Tolerance George 0920
Boker Plus 01BO035

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is a very common element for both knife blades and handles. Steel itself is an alloy of iron and copper primarily, and its manufacture is relatively cheap. 

Stainless steel is the “strongest” metal on this list in that it will not dent or scratch as easily as titanium or aluminium. However, on the other hand, it is heavier that the other two, which can be cumbersome, whether you are using it for EDC (Everyday Carry) or survival.

Stainless steel is also corrosion-resistant (stainless). But just be aware that while it is corrosion resistant, it is not corrosion-proof, and will rust if you don’t take care of it.

Most stainless steel-handles knives have smooth handles, which makes the knife get very slippery when wet. Some manufacturers bank on handle design (including ridges and etching), or couple the steel with rubber or grip tape on the handle to improve the knife’s reliability.

I’ve seen a lot of 410, 416 and 420 handle steels in product descriptions, so these are probably the most common ones out there.

Advantages Drawbacks
  • No scratches, no dents.
  • Very durable and cheap.
  • Corrosion-resistant (though not rust-proof).
  • Quite heavy and cumbersome, especially for EDC.
  • Can get very slippery without adequate handle design.

Example of knives with Stainless Steel handles:

Spyderco Grasshopper
Kershaw Leek

Aluminium

Aluminium is a very popular metals in all kinds of products. This is because it is strong, lightweight and cheap. Like Titanium, it is also non-ferrous, which means it is resistant to corrosion.

However, because of aluminium being so lightweight, aluminium handles can be prone to scratches and dents.

There are also many alloys of of aluminium used in knife-making, with the most common one out there being T6-6061. This material is mainly aluminium (as you might expect), but also contains other various metallic elements such as Magnesium, Nickel and Copper.

Aluminium can be anodized (a finishing process) to basically any color. So you can get a green, blue or pink aluminium-handled knife.

An aluminium handle can get quite slippery, so I would recommend making sure the handle is textured aluminium, so that you are able to have a relatively good grip even when it is wet.

Advantages Drawbacks
  • A tough, lightweight material.
  • Relatively durable and water-resistant.
  • Large range of customizing options.
  • Limited resistance to impact, can be dented.
  • Can be prone to scratching (more than stainless steel).
  • Feels cold to the touch and slippery.

Example of knives with Aluminium handles:

Benchmade 940
Kershaw Link

SYNTHETICS


Scientists keep designing better and better materials for knife handles. These materials are either designed to have an increased grip, or a better durability, or a lighter weight, or many things at once.

There are countless brands and names for synthetic knife handle materials. Here, I’ve tried to give you some of the brads/names that are very similar to these common materials.

Micarta®

Micarta is a very popular material for survival knives (usually fixed blades). It is extremely strong and durable, and has proven to be a safe choice for any types of conditions.

You’ll find that many people will tell you that Micarta is a phenolic laminate. This just means that the process involves soaking pieces of linen, paper or canvas and pressing them together.

There are a few types of Micarta, such as canvas, paper or linen. This just means that the material soaked in resin is a bit different, though the texture, durability and strength are ultimately the same.

Micarta is naturally smooth, but is often textured to improve the grip. Make sure you will get a good grip on the knife!

Fun fact: Micarta was originally designed to be an electrical insulator!

Advantages Drawbacks
  • A tough, lightweight material.
  • Incredibly durable and water-resistant.
  • Some range of customizing option, more aesthetically pleasing.
  • The knives can get quite pricey…
  • Is brittle, and can break under high pressure.

Example of knives with Micarta handles:

Ontario rat-7
Ontario rat-7
Condor Desert Romper
Condor Desert Romper

Kraton®

Kraton is a TPE (thermoplastic elastomer), also known as TPR (thermoplastic rubber). This means that it is basically a synthetic rubbery material.

Because it is artificial rubber, Kraton is flexible, has a good grip and is waterproof. It also has an increased resistance to heat and harsh conditions, compared to natural rubber.

Kraton handles can come in a variety of harnesses, depending on your preference. However, this is as far as customization will go!

A main problem with Kraton handles is that, while it is durable, it is also porous and can soak up a lot of fluid. This can cause the handle to feel a bit soggy and to decrease in quality over time.

Advantages Drawbacks
  • A very good, sturdy, comfortable grip.
  • Relatively durable and water-resistant.
  • High resistance to weathering.
  • Not the most aesthetically pleasing.
  • Can soak up fluid and be hard to clean.
  • Quality can decrease drastically over time.

Example of knives with Kraton handles:

Fallkniven A1
Fallkniven A1
Cold Steel Pendleton Hunter
Cold Steel Pendleton Hunter

G-10

G-10 is a popular handle material, known to be a ‘fiberglass composite laminate’. What does that means? Well, it’s basically a strong substance made from taking strips of fiberglass, soaking them in a resin, and then compressing them.

It’s considered to be the toughest blade material out there!

This material is common in fixed blade survival and tactical knives. That’s because it is extremely durable, water-resistant, lightweight… It pretty much has all the features that make a good survival knife handle.

G-10 handles are usually textured to give the hand a good grip (once again, grip is a key aspect!).

G-10 is in many ways similar to carbon fiber, but is much cheaper!

It can be customized in some ways, including color and textures. But in my opinion, G-10 handle tend to be less visually attractive than others.

Fun fact: G-10 was designed to be used in electronic circuit boards because of its excellent resistance to water, oil and acid.

Advantages Drawbacks
  • A sturdy grip when textured grip.
  • Incredibly durable and water-resistant.
  • One of the toughest materials out there!
  • Not the most visually pleasing thing.
  • G-10 is made of fiberglass and can be brittle, and thus doesn’t resist impact well.

Example of knives with G-10 handles:

Spyderco Tenacious
Spyderco Tenacious
Spyderco Bushcraft
Spyderco Bushcraft

Carbon Fiber

What is carbon fiber? Well, it’s basically carbon strands woven together and then set into a resin, making one of the strongest materials in the industry.

Carbon fiber is a very high tech material, because of its incredible strength to weight ratio (it’s one of the most lightweight materials here) and also because of its futuristic looks!

You’ll often see the weave-like pattern on the handle, which is actually quite classy. The resin can be changed, which makes for a large range of color and customization options.

Carbon fiber can be stronger than steel, and is lighter than Micarta and G-10. However, while it is strong in the direction of the handle, it is brittle, like a lot of synthetic materials. This means it will break when stressed extensively in other directions.

The production of carbon fiber is quite an effort, and that will definitely reflect in the price! Carbon fiber is really not the least expensive…

Advantages Drawbacks
  • One of the strongest materials in the industry.
  • Incredibly durable and water-resistant.
  • A cool futuristic and customizable look!
  • Usually more on the expensive side…
  • Carbon fiber is brittle, and will break upon sharp impacts.

Example of knives with Carbon Fiber handles:

Benchmade 940-1
Spyderco Chaparral
Spyderco Chaparral

FRN (Zytel®)

FRN is short for Fiberglass Reinforced Nylon (also known as GFN – glass-reinforced nylon), which basically means that it is made of both fiberglass and nylon, and molded into any desired shape.

FRN is known to be basically indestructible. It is strong, abrasion-resistant, waterproof and can sustain bending in practically any direction.

This is because the nylon strands in FRN are all arranged randomly, making it strong in all directions, whereas the strands in carbon fiber, G-10 and Micarta handles all lie in the same direction.

You’ll encounter various brands of FRN. One of them is Zytel®, a thermoplastic developed by DuPont. Other ones include Grivory®, also a common trademark, and Grilon®.

FRN is a really cheap material to manufacture, and is a good option is you have a limited budget. However, it also looks and feels quite cheap and plastic-like. It’s up to you to decide what matters most to you.

Advantages Drawbacks
  • A practically indestructible material.
  • Resistant to bending and stress in all directions.
  • One of the cheapest options on the market.
  • Looks quite cheap and feels like it.
  • FRN tends to be less grippy than G-10 on knife handles.

Example of knives with FRN/Zytel® handles:

Fallkniven TK4
Fallkniven TK4 (Zytel)
Ka-Bar BK2 Companion (Grivory)

Paracord

It’s weird, but I’m actually seeing more and more brands selling knives with Paracord handles. It seems to be trendy nowadays!

Other companies usually have an option, for full tang fixed blades, where you can buy the blade (and tang) only, and then add your own paracord or custom handle.

Paracord is actually short for Parachute Cord.

Wow. No one ever told you that, hey! Yep, paracord was originally used in the suspension lines of parachutes. Today it has proven itself to be the ultimate cordage for bushcraft, survival , and basically any outdoors trip!

It’s also a good thing to have cordage readily available in any survival situation, whether it be for building a shelter, repairing your bag, making a bow drill…

But just remember that 2 to 3 meters of cordage aren’t always what are going to save your life, and I’d personally rather go for a sturdy, comfortable handle for a knife I will be using a lot.

Advantages Drawbacks
  • A good option for minimalists/survivalists.
  • Looks fancier than more ‘common’ materials
  • Paracord will always be useful.
  • Not the most comfortable to hold.
  • Can soak up fluid or loosen.
  • Not a very sturdy, reliable option…

Example of knives with Paracord handles:

Gerber Bear Grylls Paracord Knife
Gerber Bear Grylls Paracord Knife
MTECH MT-528C
MTECH MT-528C

NATURALS


Natural materials have been used for thousands of years in knife making. The evolution of the knife goes parallel to the development and evolution of the handle.

While these are not the most durable, waterproof, lightweight or strongest materials, they are traditional and are generally quite aesthetically pleasing compared to synthetic handles. These materials continue to be gems for knife collectors.

Leather

Leather knives are becoming rarer and rarer. There are a few still in production, but leather seems to have gone out of fashion for knife handles.

The process is basically about wrapping leather straps tightly around the knife. Leather handles are generally quite cheap.

Leather requires a high maintenance and is not half as durable as most synthetic materials. However, it has its charm and actually makes a comfortable handle.

Advantages Drawbacks
  • A traditional material with a vintage look.
  • Lightweight and somewhat sturdy.
  • Very cheap manufacture.
  • It’s definitely not the most durable.
  • Requires high maintenance.
  • Not a very strong material.

Example of knives with Leather handles:

Ka-Bar USMC
Ka-Bar USMC
 Case Medium Skinner
Case Medium Skinner

Bone

Bone is a very historical handle material. It is now being brought back into the knife industry to create fancy custom designs.

The most abundant, and most used source is the cow bone. There is actually a large range of options to customize your bone handle. This can include dying it to give it different colors, or texturing it to improve grip.

Bone is a cheap, cool traditional material, and this is why people like it. However, it is not really the best for hardcore use. It can get very slippery, and can crack over time because it is porous.

Advantages Drawbacks
  • A traditional vintage look.
  • Relatively durable and water-resistant.
  • Large range of customizing options.
  • Can get very slippery.
  • Is not very durable nor strong.
  • Porous, and prone to cracking.

Example of knives with Bone handles:

Case Bermuda
Case Bermuda
AishaTech Asek Hunting Knife
AishaTech Asek Hunting Knife

Wood

Wood is by far the most popular natural handle material for knives. 

A good quality wooden handle will be strong, durable and a good handle for survival knives. What makes the success of wood is also its attractive look. It adds a lot of beauty to a knife, which is why it is so popular among collectors.

Wood is also popular because of the large range of options it offers. There are hundreds of different woods of different hardness, colors and textures that you can choose from.

This also means that you have to choose wisely from these hundreds of options. You want the wood to be adapted to the conditions that you will use the knife in.

There are 2 main types of wood: softwood (which comes from coniferous trees – pine, fir, spruce) and hardwood (which comes from deciduous trees – beech, hickory, oak, walnut). Generally, you don’t want to have a softwood under any humid conditions.

Another option is to choose a stabilized wood. These are reinforced with resins to make the handle more durable, waterproof and strong. A common brand of stabilized wood is Dymondwood®.

The price of knives with wood handles vary greatly depending on the wood used, its scarcity, the handle finish, 

Advantages Drawbacks
  • A traditional, comfortable, strong material.
  • Relatively durable and water-resistant.
  • Lots of options to choose from.
  • Requires some maintenance.
  • Can be damaged or broken.
  • Is quite an unstable material.

Example of knives with Wood handles:

Condor Swamp Romper
Condor Swamp Romper
Opinel no. 8
Opinel no. 8

Mother of Pearls

The material is one for the eyes. Definitely the most visually satisfying on this list, mother-of-pearls handles are very popular among collectors.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all there is to say about these handles. The material is not durable, and is very slippery. So not a good idea for a survival or tactical blade.

Mother-of-pearls knives are generally quite expensive (makes sense to me). A cheaper alternative, if you don’t feel like spending millions, is to get an abalone handle (abalone is the stuff inside the shell of mollusks)

Advantages Drawbacks
  • Natural beauty (just appreciate it).
  • Relatively strong.
  • Not durable.
  • Very slippery.
  • Quite expensive.

Example of knives with Mother-of-pearls handles:

Case Small Pearl
Case Small Pearl
Case Whittler
Case Whittler

Stag

Stag is a material derived from deer antlers (which fall off naturally every year). It is a very classy-looking option for hunting lovers.

Stag is mainly found in hunting and Bowie knives, since stag, bone and horn often represent hunting trophies (traditionally).

Like bone, stag is not the best for hardcore use. It can get slippery, and can crack over time because it is porous. However, it gives a knife a unique look that no other material will.

Advantages Drawbacks
  • A traditional vintage look.
  • Relatively durable and water-resistant.
  • A unique material and feel.
  • Can get very slippery.
  • Is not very durable nor strong.
  • Porous, and prone to cracking.

Example of knives with Stag handles:

Case Sod Buster pocket knife
Case Sod Buster pocket knife
Uncle Henry 181UH Bowie
Uncle Henry 181UH Bowie

Handle Design

Handle material isn’t everything. Sure, it’s a large part of what makes a good handle, but there are other things. And one of them is the handle’s design.

You can have a very tough, waterproof, durable handle material, but if there’s no way to hold it properly, it won’t really be of any use.

Schrade SCHF-9 Extreme
Schrade SCHF-52 Frontier

As you can see, the two knives above are the same brand, and have the same handle material, but their handle designs are quite different.

So if you’re going to invest in a knife, make sure that it fits your hand well and feels comfortable. Some people like finger grooves and other’s don’t! It’s just about figuring out what is going to be a better tool for you.

Finger guards

Finger guards are not necessary, but can be something to take into account when choosing a handle design. 

It might help if you’re clumsy, and just add a little extra safety to the knife. This is important if you intend on using your knife often and for hardcore bushcraft.

Here are examples to illustrate what knives with and without a finger guard on the handle look like:

Helle Lappland – no finger guard
Buck 119 – has a finger guard

Finger guard are not necessary, and you can get used to working with a knife that doesn’t have one. It just requires you to be a bit more careful so that your fingers don’t fall onto the blade.

Personally, I prefer having a finger guard as I feel much safer with it (I can be quite clumsy sometimes). But it’s up to you!


What are knife handle finishes?

You’ve probably seen me talk about finishes in the rest of this post.

But what does finish mean for a knife?

Finishes are the last stage of the manufacturing process. This last stage 
often involves a certain coating or treatment of the handle, to improve its quality, its durability, or its aesthetic appeal.

So what are some common handle finishes?

There are actually three main handle finishes, from what I’ve found: bead-blasting, anodizing and ‘other coatings’.

  • Bead blasting is a method of coating that involves blasting the surface of the handle with various materials such as sand or beads (hence the name). This is done to produce a non-reflective, rougher surface, which is more prone to corrosion. Stonewash is also something that you’ll encounter a lot, but it’s very similar to bead-blasting except it couples it with a coating.

Boker Plus 01BO035 – Stonewash finish
  • Anodizing: this is a process whereby the handle is coated with an oxide layer, making it stronger and at the same time waterproof. Aluminium handle are therefore often coated with an aluminium oxide layer by this process.
Benchmade 940 – an anodized Aluminium handle
  • Other coatings: in some cases, the handles may be lined with a thin layer of another material, such as titanium or a ceramic. This is done to improve the handle’s durability.

Handles and tang

A survival knife’s tang is very important in determining the knife’s overall strength and reliability. A good knife, with a good handle, often comes with a good tang. 

What is the tang of a knife?

In simple terms, the tang of the knife is the unsharpened, usually unexposed part of the blade that extends down the handle.

When a knife is said to have a full tang, this indicates that the solid piece of metal that constitutes the blade runs down the handle as well. A full tang knife relies in its structure and strength on a solid, continuous piece of metal.

The opposite of this is partial tang, where the blade only extends partially (usually very thinly) through the handle. As you can see in the images below, a full tang knife could just as well be used without a handle, and has a much more substantial profile than a partial-tang blade.

Partial tang (left) vs. Full tang (right)

For more detailed information here is an entire post dedicated to knife tangs.

What does the tang of the knife have to do with the handle?

The handle is always attached to the tang. This means that the closer the tang is to full tang, the better the handle is attached. This is why I would always recommend a full tang for fixed blade knives.

Having a full tang also means that the pressure you apply to the knife is more equally shared between the blade and the handle.

With a partial tang, you will apply a lot of pressure to the handle. This can often even cause the handle to come loose and detach. You don’t want this to happen!


What is Grip Tape?

If you’ve used a skateboard before, you should know what grip tape is. Grip tape is that gritty sand paper layer that is used to increase the grip of something. 

Some brands, like Victorinox, have incorporated grip tape-like material in their knife designs: 

If you already own a knife and would like to increase the grip on it, then an option might be to add some grip tape to the handle. 

Just cut out a few shapes out in the tape, and use superglue to stick it to your handle. Don’t put too much on though, you don’t want to compromise comfort for grip!

Other variants of grip tape are more rubbery (like some of the stuff on tennis racket). You can usually get this at a local hardware store.


Now that you know how to choose the right handle material, make sure you also get the right blade material for your knife!

There are even more blade materials as there are handle materials! So I tried to help you a bit… Here is a guide to choosing the best blade material for your knife. 

I hope this was helpful and that you found what you were looking for. If you have any comments or suggestions, let us know in the section below. Looking forward to hearing from you!

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