My favorite knife handle material is natural wood. In my humble opinion, you simple cannot beat the beauty and uniqueness of natural wood grain. There is a wide variety of woods available that are suitable for knife handles. Some domestic woods are readily available and inexpensive. Other exotic woods are quite scarce and very expensive. Some natural hardwoods can be used as-is for knives while softer woods my need to be stabilized with synthetic resins to harden and waterproof them.
Some terms that you might hear when referring to woods are "spalted", "burl" and "stabilized". I'll give a brief definition of each one.
Spalted wood is simply wood that has begun the process of decaying. One of the outstanding effects, sometimes, of this wood decay and coloration is what we call Spalt. Spalt doesn't always occur when a tree dies and neither does it always strike all specie of tree equally either. When it does occur, it can be a beautiful and wonderful thing for those able to use or at least appreciate such a thing. Spalted wood is always unique. No two pieces are exactly the same. Spalt is the combination of a wood decay and a wood coloration mechanism caused by certain types of fungus. Spalted wood is highly prized in woodworking because of it's unique patterns and colorings.
Burl: The dictionary defines burl as an abnormal wart-like growth or excrescence, often produced by stooling. Stooling refers to the throwing out of shoots from a tree stump to produce a second growth from the original roots. Irritation or injury results in the stunted growth, which develops into a contorted and gnarled mass comprised of dense and woody tissue. The surprise is that this contorted and twisted specimen can be unearthed and sliced to yield a dramatic and often beautiful piece of wood with many "eyes".
Stabilized: Wood is stabilized by injecting resins and sometimes colored dyes under intense vacuum so that the resins totally impregnate the wood. This process hardens the wood, makes it waterproof, and greatly decreases the likelihood of shrinkage or cracking over time. Stabilization is a fairly expensive process and it is not suitable or necessary for extremely hard woods like Desert Ironwood and Rosewood.
Hands-down my favorite. This is the hardest, densest wood that I know of and it is one of the most beautiful.
Desert ironwood only grows in the washes and valleys of the Sonoran Desert below 2,500 foot elevation. The Sonoran Desert is located in southwestern Arizona, southern California, and the northwestern part of Mexico. They are one of the longest living trees in the Sonoran desert, and can live as long as 1,500 years, although those are very rare.
The wood of the desert ironwood is very hard and dense. It actually sinks in water. It was used by the Seri Native Americans of Mexico for tool handles. Today the Seri Indians make carvings of desert plants and animals from the ironwood.
Desert Ironwood is protected and it's harvesting is illegal in the United States but some of it is still available from older inventories and collection from fallen trees. Some is still harvested in Mexico. It is somewhat rare and very expensive.
My second favorite wood for beauty and hardness.
The pre-eminent rosewood appreciated in the western world is Dalbergia nigra, Brazilian Rosewood (now a CITES-listed endangered species). It is also known as Rio rosewood or Bahia rosewood. This wood has a strong sweet smell, which persists over the years, explaining the name "rosewood".
Another classic rosewood is Dalbergia latifolia known as (East) Indian rosewood or sonokeling. Other rosewoods can be found in tropical America, Southeast Asia, and Madagascar. About a dozen species of the large genus Dalbergia, are recognized as rosewoods.
Because of its density and durability, rosewood is often used in Chinese martial arts weaponry, particularly as the shaft of spears and in Gun staves.
Cocobolo is a hardwood from Central America yielded by two to four closely related species of the genus Dalbergia. Because of its great beauty and high value, this species has been heavily exploited and the tree is now in danger of extinction outside of national parks, reserves and plantations.
Cocobolo is a very beautiful wood, known to change color after being cut. It is typically orange or reddish-brown in color, often with a figuring of darker irregular traces weaving through the wood. It is fine textured and oily in look and feel, and stands up well to repeated handling and exposure to water. The wood is very hard, and is easily machined. A common use is in gun grips and knife handles. Cocobolo is also quite dense, and even a large block of the cut wood will produce a clear musical tone if struck.
Only relatively small amounts of this prized wood reach the world market and it is expensive. Cocobolo is highly favored for fine inlay work, brush backs, knife handles and musical instruments. Some Cocobolo wood has a specific gravity of over 1.0, hence it will sink in water. Care must be used when cutting Cocobolo, as the wood's oils can induce allergic reactions if inhaled or exposed to unprotected skin and eyes.
The name "snake wood" was clearly inspired by the snakeskin-like markings that decorate this exotic wood. Known technically as piratinera guianensis, snake wood comes from a small, relatively rare tree found in the forests of Central and South America.
Initially deep red in color, snake wood changes its stripes (so to speak) upon being exposed to air, which makes the wood eventually turn reddish brown. An extremely dense hardwood, snake wood can be somewhat challenging to work with. It splits fairly easily and tends to be splintery. The bright side is that snake wood turns well and polishes beautifully.
Snake wood is commonly used to make pens, knife handles, pool-cue butts, and other turnings, as well as for unique-looking inlay work.
Berchemia zeyheri (syn. Rhamnus
zeyheri) of the family Rhamnaceae, the buckthorn family
A treasured wood from southern Africa, varying in color from pink to red. Also: red ivory. Closely related to brown ivory.
I have seen conflicting reports on the scarcity of pink ivory. No one disputes that it is one of the more rare woods in the world, but some reports say that vendors grossly exaggerate the scarcity to drive up the price. If that's the case, then they have certainly been successful, as it is quite expensive.
This is one of the most beautiful exotic woods that I have ever used. It polishes to a stunning glass-like finish.
The Thuya tree is a short scrub-like conifer indigenous to Morocco. The exceptional natural patterns in the grain are only found in the root of the tree. This wood has been coveted since Roman times and in modern times extracts from the tree are used in both homeopathy and aromatherapy.
Thuya wood comes from a sustainable source, the trees are constantly being replanted. The color is golden brown to red, highly figured with small eye clusters of tight burls. Moderately hard and heavy. Aromatic smell. It works well with tools and polishes to a fine luster. It is relatively rare.
African Blackwood or Mpingo (Dalbergia melanoxylon) is a flowering plant in the family Fabaceae, native to seasonally dry regions of Africa from Senegal east to Eritrea and south to the Transvaal in South Africa. The dense, lustrous wood ranges from reddish to pure black. Good quality "A" grade African Blackwood commands high prices on the commercial timber market. The tonal qualities of African Blackwood are particularly valued when used in woodwind instruments, principally Highland pipes, clarinets, oboes and Northumbrian pipes. Furniture makers from the time of the Egyptians have valued this timber.
Due to overuse, the mpingo tree is severely threatened in Kenya and needing attention in Tanzania and Mozambique. The trees are being harvested at an unsustainable rate, partly because of illegal smuggling of the wood into Kenya, but also because the tree takes upwards of 60 years to mature. African Blackwood is no longer regarded as being ebony, a name now reserved for a limited number of timbers yielded by the genus Diospyros; these are more of a matte appearance and are more brittle.
Blackwood is among the most expensive timber in the world, commanding prices more than ten times that of American Black Walnut. It is very hard, takes an exceptional polish and is the “Turning wood of Kings” for nothing holds fine detail as well as African Blackwood.
(Umbelluria californica). Native to the Pacific Coast of North America from Oregon to Southern California, Myrtle is one of the most expensive types of wood from the U.S., is used as upmarket wood veneer for fixtures and interior decoration, for car interiors, for furniture making and inlays. Mrytle Burl is commonly referred to California Bay Laurel (its pungent leaves have a similar flavor), California Bay, California Laurel, Spice Tree, Pepperwood and Headache Tree (the last from the strong scent of the crushed foliage, which can cause a headache if breathed in to excess).
The thick sapwood is pale brown and is not clearly demarcated from the heartwood. The heartwood is rich golden brown to yellowish green, and is often variegated. It is reported to darken considerably when water soaked. The grain is generally straight, but is often irregular or wavy. It is described as close, tight, and smooth. Myrtle Burl is reported to be highly prized for its excellent and swirling stumpwood, clusters, and burls. Material from Oregon is reported to exhibit attractive mottled figures which range from fine, delicate dark stripes to heavy splotches, occasionally marked with gold and silver streaks.
Native to Cameroon and Gabon, West Africa, Bubinga includes 16 species, native to tropical regions of Africa (13 species) and South America (3 species). They occur in swampy or periodically inundated forests, as well as near rivers or at lakeshores. Usually light red or violet with fairly evenly spaced purple stripes, this hard and heavy fine grained hardwood takes a high lustrous finish.
Bubinga is often used by luthiers for harps and other instruments, such as bass guitars, because of its mellow and well-rounded sound. It has been used in drum shells as well. Drum companies such as Tama offer various high-end drum kits with plies of Bubinga in the shells. Bubinga is sometimes used in the production of archery bows, in particular as the main wood of the handle in some flat bows.
This rare Mediterranean wood is very aromatic. Olive wood pen blanks are produced from the trimmings of the olive trees that grow in the Holy City of Bethlehem. Light to medium brown with streaks of black and darker brown running through it. Has a fine texture with a shallow interlocked grain giving it a marbled appearance. It polishes up well and gives a smooth even finish. Excellent for decorative turnings, inlay, high end custom furniture, and of course, knife handles.
Distinctive for its zebra like light and dark stripes, the term "zebrawood" is shared by several different woods with this particular appearance. The most common species available are from West Africa. It is a heavy hard wood with a somewhat coarse texture, with the typical so-called zebra stripes, often with an interlocked or wavy grain. The heartwood is a pale golden yellow, distinct from the very pale color of the sapwood and features narrow streaks of dark brown to black. Zebrawood can also be a pale brown with regular or irregular marks of dark brown in varying widths. Also used in skis and tool handles but that might seem like quite a shame for such an dramatic, exotic wood species.
Claro Walnut :
Also called California
black walnut (because hey, guess where it grows?), this
is a true member of the walnut family with more color,
grain accent, and overall beauty than most other walnuts
--- it is frequently an exceptionally beautiful wood.
Figured pieces and crotches are especially prized for
high-end gun stocks because of the beauty of the wood
combined with an exceptionally high ability to withstand
This species is more likely to have interlocked grain than normal American black walnut, and thus more likely to have curly figure, but even pieces without curly figure can be quite striking because of the color and grain patterns.
Also known as American walnut, is a tree species native to eastern North America. It grows mostly alongside rivers, from southern Ontario, Canada west to southeast South Dakota, south to Georgia, northern Florida and southwest to central Texas.
Black Walnut is highly prized for its dark-colored true heartwood. It is heavy and strong, yet easily split and worked. Walnut wood has historically been used for gunstocks, furniture, flooring, paddles, coffins, and a variety of other woodworking products. Due to its value, forestry officials often are called on to track down walnut poachers; in 2004, DNA testing was used to solve one such poaching case, involving a 55 foot tree worth an estimated $2,500.
A rare, exotic hardwood that grows in Southeast Asia and has a fragrant aroma. It can vary in color from yellow to golden brown to red, and is generally considered excellent for both turning and finishing. Amboyna is a marvelously luxurious burl from the tree that is commonly known as narra.
Native to tropical South
America, especially northeastern Brazil, Tulipwood,
sometimes called Pinkwood, has irregular streaks of
shades of yellow rose, pink and violet on a
straw-colored background. The color is reported to fade
with age. It is a fine grained hardwood and was a
popular timber for the manufacture of French furniture.
Macassar ebony (Diospyros Macassar) from Indonesia, Gaboon Ebony from Africa and Ceylon Ebony from India is one of the most intensely black woods known, which, combined with its very high density (it is one of the very few woods that sink in water), fine texture, and ability to polish very smoothly, has made it very valuable as an ornamental wood.
Ebony has a long history of use, with carved pieces having been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs. Modern uses are largely restricted to small sizes, particularly in musical instrument making, including piano and harpsichord keys, violin, oboe, guitar, and cello fingerboards, endpieces, pegs and chinrests. As a result of unsustainable harvesting, many species of ebony are now considered threatened.
The best is very heavy, almost black, and derived from heartwood only. Because of its colour, durability, hardness, and ability to take a high polish, Ebony is used for cabinetwork and inlaying, piano keys, knife handles, and turned articles.
The name mahagony is used when referring to numerous varieties of dark-colored wood, originally the wood of the species Swietenia mahagoni, known as West Indian or Cuban Mahogany. It was later used also for the wood of Swietenia macrophylla, which is closely related, and known as Belize Mahogany. Today, all species of Swietenia are listed by CITES, and are therefore protected.
Mahogany has a generally straight grain and is usually free of voids and pockets. It has a reddish-brown color which darkens over time, and displays a beautiful reddish sheen when polished. It has excellent workability, and is very durable and slow to rot. These properties make it a favorable wood for boat making, as tradition has shown, as well as for making furniture and upholstery (see Chippendale), musical instruments, and other durable objects.
Mahogany is a very popular material for drum making, because of its great integrity and capability to produce a very dark, warm tone compared to other more common wood types like maple or birch. A wide variety of electric guitars are also made from mahogany, like Gibson's Les paul line and most of the PRS guitars among others. It is noted, again, for its dark properties, as well as its weight (Gibson Les Pauls may weigh as much as 15 pounds), the combination of which produces a warm, rounded tone with huge sustain, for which the guitar is famous.
Maple lumber comes principally from the Middle Atlantic and Lake States, which together account for about two-thirds of the production. The wood of sugar maple and black maple is known as hard maple; that of silver maple, red maple, and boxelder as soft maple. The sapwood of the maples is commonly white with a slight reddish-brown tinge; the heartwood is light reddish brown, but sometimes is considerably darker.
Hard maple has a fine, uniform texture, turns well on a lathe, is resistant to abrasion and has no characteristic odor or taste. It is heavy, strong, stiff, hard, and resistant to shock, and it has large shrinkage. Sugar maple is generally straight grained but the grain also occurs as "birds-eye," "curly," and "fiddleback" grain.
Some of the larger maple species have valuable timber, particularly Sugar Maple in North America, and Sycamore Maple in Europe. Sugar Maple wood, often known as "hard maple", is the wood of choice for bowling pins, bowling alley lanes, pool cue shafts, drums, and butcher's blocks. Maple wood is also used for the production of wooden baseball bats, though less often than ash or hickory.
Some maple wood has a highly decorative wood grain, known as flame maple and quilt maple. This condition occurs randomly in individual trees of several species, and often cannot be detected until the wood has been sawn, though it is sometimes visible in the standing tree as a rippled pattern in the bark.
Maple is considered a tonewood, or a wood that carries sound waves well, and is used in numerous musical instruments such as guitars and drums. It provides resonance and a lighter weight than many other woods used in necks such as rosewood. Also the look of a maple neck is appealing to many guitar players. Maple is also used to make bassoons and double basses.
Spalted Maple is a favorite for knife handles and it takes a high polish.
A hard, dark greenish/grayish wood from Central America, mostly from Mexico, this wood frequently has one of the most wildly swirly and billowy grain patterns of any wood. Common variant name spellings include ziricote and, far less frequently, siricote. Zircote is related to bocote and some dealers confuse the two although the two really don't look alike at all.
The commercial name Purpleheart is reported to refer to timber produced by about 20 species, including P. porphyrocardia , which grow in Central America and tropical South America, from Mexico to southern Brazil. They are reported to be most common in the Amazon basin, and are also found in Colombia, Guyana, Surinam, and Venezuela. Supplies are reported to be ample, but the wood is fairly expensive. It is reported to cost more than mahogany but less than teak.
The heartwood is initially dull brown, but it rapidly changes to a bright, vibrant purple. Prolonged exposure darkens the wood to a dark-purplish brown or dark brown. Purple Heart is an exotic and imported hardwood that is strong and resilient, and has a uniform fine-to-medium texture. A very heavy and dense hardwood, it's crushing strength is exceptionally high and it does not mar or dent easily.
Native to Mexico and Central America, Bocote is sought for its beauty for both the local and international markets. It has become quite rare in many parts of its original range. Bocote is a particularly fine, beautiful wood, with colors varying from light to golden brown and variegated irregular markings. It is a strong lustrous wood, with medium and uniform texture and straight or shallowly interlocked grain. It is hard and heavy and often highly figured with "eyes".
Grown in Venezuela, Peru, Panama and Brazil, Bloodwood, also called Satine, is hard and heavy and takes a high lustrous finish. The color is usually rich strawberry red sometimes with golden yellow stripes.
Native to the rich bottom lands of Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma as well as an area in the central United States consisting of parts of Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, southeastern Oklahoma, a narrow belt in eastern Texas, and the extreme northwest corner of Louisiana, but was not common anywhere. It has been widely naturalized throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The Osage orange (sometimes hyphenated) or Osage apple or simply Osage (Maclura pomifera) is an ornamental plant in the mulberry family Moraceae. It is also locally known as mock orange, "wild orange", hedge-apple, horse-apple, hedge ball, bois d'arc, bodark (mainly in Oklahoma and Texas), bodart (in northwest Louisiana) and bow wood. "Osage" derives from the Native American people inhabiting the valley of the river of the same name in Missouri. Slang terms for its inedible fruit include monkey brain, monkey ball, monkey orange, and brain fruit, due to its brain-like appearance.
The heavy, close-grained yellow-orange wood is very dense and is prized for tool handles, tree nails, fence posts, electrical insulators, and other applications requiring a strong dimensionally stable wood that withstands rot. Straight-grained osage timber (most is knotty and twisted) makes very good bows. In Arkansas, in the early 19th century, a good Osage bow was worth a horse and a blanket. Additionally, a yellow-orange dye can be extracted from the wood, which can be used as a substitute for fustic and aniline dyes.
Found in Brazil and Mexico, the name "kingwood" derives from the fact that a couple of hundred years ago, this was the favored wood of French kings for their furniture. It has traditionally been used or inlays on very fine furniture and in billiard cues, e.g., John Parris.
It is usually Light to dark violet brown with lighter and darker stripes of purple. Other woods yielded by the same genus are cocobolo, rosewood, tulipwood. Also called Violetwood or Violete, it has a bright luster, fine texture and is very stable in service. It is very hard and heavy, takes a high natural polish and develops patina as it ages. Kingwood is fairly rare.
Koa - (Koa acacia) Koa is the largest of the native trees of Hawaii. This tree has been used by native Hawaiians to make canoes, carved figures, furniture and in recent years in the craft industry. Koa is a moderately heavy wood and can range in color from golden orange to a deep reddish brown. Koa is famous for its Ribbon grain which often comes highly figures. This wood turns easily and polishes to a high sheen. Hawaii, USA
Found in Southwest United Sates and Mexico, this beautiful wood is heavy and very hard. The basic color of this amazing wood is brown, ranging from light to dark brown. The yellows, pinks and orange/reds appear in marble like grains to make this an exquisite wood. Mesquite wood is a pleasure to work with an takes a beautiful high polish.
The mesquite tree is a hardwood that grows predominately in both North and South America, although there are some less known members of this family worldwide. We are most familiar with those found in the dry areas of Utah, Louisiana and Texas, mesquite wood though does grow as far south as Venezuela and the Jamaican Islands. Other names include Texas Mesquite, honey locust, honey mesquite, Texas ironwood, western honey locust, algaroba.
Mesquite Lumber is difficult to cut and dry and downgrading in the process is common, but it does produce a hard and strong wood with high bending and crushing strengths when successful. It has a relatively strong grain pattern with some interesting swirls when you get around the limb buds. It can exhibit some of the traditional figures such as quilted and fiddleback if you are lucky. Mesquite lumber can vary significantly in color depending on the source ranging from pale straw to medium chocolate or reddy brown and some with almost a deep purple tinge. Higher grades are rare and expensive.
Native to South and Southeast Asia, Central America and the Caribbean, Teak (Tectona grandis) is a coarse uneven textured wood with an oily feel. Grain can be straight or wavy according to its origin. Teak's durability makes it an excellent choice for outdoor projects and is commonly used on boats.
Native to the
Western United States, Redwood is buttery
textured, burgundy colored, and for centuries
this rot-resistant wood has helped California
withstand sun, surf, earthquakes and yes, even
rain. Redwood was used throughout the Western
United States to build everything from
industrial mills to wine tanks. Also known as
Sequoia, California Redwood and Redwood Burl,
the wood is red in color with distinct growth
rings, lighter in weight than many woods. The
burl is particularly striking with distinct eye
Box elder is NOT the same as elder, being as it is a member of the maple family, which elder is NOT. Box-elder has the broadest range of the North American Maples. It is present from Canada to Guatemala (in the mountains), and from New York in the east to Florida, west to southern Texas, northwest across the great plains into Canada. Further west in Colorado and California it occurs on slopes, in valleys, and associated waterways reaching optimal growth along streams in floodplains where it occurs with other bottomland hardwoods.
The names "Box Elder" and "Boxelder Maple" are based upon the similarity of its whitish wood to that of boxwood. Although beautiful, it is light-weight, soft, and not strong unless it is stabilized. It is commonly used for low quality furniture, paper pulp, interior finishing, and barrel making.
Native to Eastern USA, Canada and Europe. An ash can be any of four different tree genera from four very distinct families , but originally and most commonly refers to trees of the genus Fraxinus (from Latin "ash tree") in the olive family Oleaceae.
The wood is hard (a hardwood), tough and very strong but elastic, extensively used for making bows, tool handles, quality wooden baseball bats and other uses demanding high strength and resilience. It is also often used as material for guitar bodies and snooker cues, known for its bright, cutting tone and sustaining quality. Ash veneers are extensively used in office furniture.
It's color is light cream to light brown. It is Quite similar to Red Oak in appearance and many working properties. Excellent shock resistance. Straight-grained with moderately coarse texture. Glues, Stains, and finishes well.
The Pecan is a species of hickory, native to south-central North America, in the United States from southern Iowa, Illinois and Indiana east to western Kentucky and western Tennessee, south through Oklahoma, Arkansas, to Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana; and in Mexico from Coahuila south to Jalisco and Veracruz.
The wood is commonly used in making furniture, hardwood flooring, as well as flavoring fuel for smoking meats.
Trees in the genus Carya (from Ancient Greek kary "nut") are commonly known as Hickory. The genus includes 17-19 species of deciduous trees with pinnately compound leaves and large nuts. A dozen or so species are native to North America (11–12 in the United States, 1 in Mexico), and 5–6 species from China and Indochina.
Hickory wood is extremely tough, yet flexible, and is valued for tool handles, bows (like yew), wheel spokes, carts, drumsticks, golf club shafts (sometimes still called hickory stick, even though made of steel or graphite), walking canes etc. and for punitive use as a switch or rod (like hazel), and especially as a cane-like hickory stick in schools. Baseball bats were formerly made of hickory but are now more commonly made of ash.
Hickory's color is usually white cream with brown streaks to tan.
Cherry Wood, Black Cherry, American Cherry, Wild Cherry Prunus Serotina: Cherry trees are found throughout the US and Canada. It varies from a yellowish pink when first cut to a deep rich reddish brown, often getting darker and more rich as it ages. Its smooth texture and working properties make it a favorite wood among furniture makers.
Cherry is a domestic hardwood. The heartwood is usually a medium red-brown with it’s own characteristic luster. The sapwood is narrow and nearly white. The grain is straight, finely textured and close with usually a gentle waving figure. Cherry has a uniform texture, is medium heavy, strong, stiff and moderately hard. Cherry is one of the most sought after domestic hardwoods. Cherry turns darker as it ages.
Mallee: From Australia. Red Mallee is also referred to as Gooseberry Mallee, Pink Gooseberry Mallee, Square-Fruit Mallee.
Mallee is a "scrubland vegatation" or "bush" that is common in many parts of Australian wetlands and savannahs. At harvest the mallee tree delivers a host of valuable products aside from eucalyptus oil, such as activated charcoal (the most important component of most of the world’s air and water filters), raw material for particle board and finally biomass for energy generation.