Strong Foundations: A Look At Knife Handles
When purchasing knives, most people are – unsurprisingly – primarily concerned with the quality of the blade. This makes perfect sense since you purchase a knife, whether for the kitchen or for hunting and camping, with its cutting ability at the forefront of your mind. You want to make clean, easy cuts, and you want a knife that will stay sharp over time. But a knife’s cutting ability isn’t only centered in its blade; the handle also plays an important role.
One thing you’ll notice if you look at any professional chef’s knives is that they all feature rivets the full length of the knife handle. Those rivets are there for an important reason, as you’ll come to understand. They play a key role in the overall stability and leverage of the knife and will extend its lifespan in ways that are just as critical as blade quality. So, before you head out to buy your next knife, here’s a quick look at what you need to know about knife handles.
All the Way Through
Tang: no, not the stuff astronauts drink in space. When it comes to knives, there are two main modes of construction, the half tang and the full tang. The tang of a knife refers to the part of the blade that extends through the handle, and of course, you can also get knives that are considered stub tangs, three-quarter tangs, and a range of lengths in between.
Full tang knives are generally considered to be the strongest and highest quality knives and those who use their knives under challenging conditions attest to being able to cut through the toughest materials with full tang knives. They resist bending and provide significant leverage for the user, making them perfect for tasks like butchering.
Compared to the full tang, half tang and stub tang knives offer relatively little durability and are more likely to break when cutting. They won’t stand up to the toughest cutting tasks and the handles are more likely to break, even if they’re made of a quality material. You’ll likely get a somewhat longer lifespan and greater use out of a full tang knife with a lower quality handle grip than you would out of a high quality, half tang knife.
How can you tell if your knife features full tang construction? There are a few giveaways. If you look at our review of the J.A. Henckels chef knife, for example, you’ll notice in the picture that the knife features rivets all the way down the handle. Those rivets are there to secure the full tang. In some full tang knives, and visible in the Henckels review, you can also see the full blade extending through the handle, as the handle is only affixed on either side and doesn’t fully surround the blade.
Holding it Together
Of course, in some cases, there are low-quality knives made with full tang handles that still won’t be able to take on major kitchen or hunting projects because of the nature of their construction. A knife with rivets is made to keep the tang secure for the long-term, but other full tang knives are made in a manner known as push tang. Push tang knives are stuck into the handle and secured with glue. You should avoid push tang knives, as the glue won’t hold up for very long and you’ll soon find yourself holding a knife with the blade falling out – obviously a very dangerous scenario.
Another interesting knife construction model, more secure than a push tang, but somewhat awkward for kitchen knives, is the rat tail tang. Rat tail is a straightforward descriptor here – the tang of the knife is actually longer than the handle and sticks out the end where it’s either threaded or welded into place. How well this kind of knife will hold up depends on the construction of the rest of the handle, but you’ll likely experience some sacrifices in stability over time.
Get a Grip
Finally, when considering different knives, you’ll want to inquire into the grip material. The grip, or handle, is the part of the knife that you hold on to, the part that the tang runs through. Across the board, you should avoid buying knives with plastic handles. Plastic changes shape too easily and also cracks readily, resulting in an unusable knife. Instead, look for knives with Kraton, Micarta, or G10 handles. Dense wood, rubber, and nylon can also make good knife handles.
Most people haven’t heard of Kraton, Micarta, or G10, but all of these materials are just highly specialized versions of everyday materials. Kraton, for example, is a kind of synthetic rubber, while Micarta is linen mixed with resin. Similarly, G10 is a combination of resin and fiberglass; all of these materials are very strong and make for a sturdy knife blade that’s unlikely to loosen or crack when in use.
Dense woods are also great for knife handles, something you may have noticed if you’ve ever inherited knives from your relatives. While knives made in the 1980s and 1990s equipped with plastic handles have long since cracked and been thrown in the garbage, your grandparents’ knives featuring wood handles likely just need to be run through the sharpener. Beyond that, they continue to hold their shape after years of use.
The Foundation of a Great Knife
The reality is that when buying a knife, you can always sharpen a decent blade, but you can’t do anything if you purchase a knife with a low-quality handle – it’s just a waste of money. It’s time for knife buyers to do their due diligence and pay attention to the handles. Great construction here will carry over to the rest of the knife. Companies that make cheap knives may be able to create a convincing blade, but they don’t put any effort into the handles.
Feeling unsure about how to proceed with your next knife purchase? Don’t worry – Carlson Knives has you covered. With reviews targeted to many different knife styles, including pocket knives and hunting knives, we can help you choose the perfect tool for your next great adventure – in the kitchen, in the woods, and beyond.