There’s several simple ways to add a handle to a blade, but first let’s talk about safety. Blades are sharp. They’re supposed to be sharp. You probably should tape up the blade before starting to work on it. Be careful anyway, the Scandinavian blades are really sharp and will cut through the tape if you grab them wrong. If you’re working with hot solder or pewter, or power tools, wear safety glasses. The dust from some handle materials can be bad (sometimes VERY bad) for your lungs. Use good ventilation and/or a dust mask. When you’re working with power tools or sharp stuff, pay attention to what you’re doing. Don’t try to work when you’re tired or in a hurry.
One of the easiest, and most attractive, ways to make a handle is with antler. Find a suitable piece of antler, drill a hole, and add the blade, and you’re done. You can add a guard, or not, as you choose.
Here’s how. Pick out the piece of antler and cut it to length. Before you cut it, lay the blade over the piece and see how the tang will fit. Try holding the section to see how it feels in your hand. If your piece of antler includes the crown, you can either place the crown at back of the handle as a pommel, or at the front of the handle as a natural guard. You may have to shorten or narrow the tang to fit in the available space. If you have to narrow the tang, be sure to file or grind parallel to the tang, not across it. Any scratch lines that cross the tang may weaken it, and cause it to break under stress. Drill the hole. I like to drill a narrow pilot hole, then widen it, but not all the way to the bottom. You may want to use several size drills so the hole tapers in steps. (I often taper the tang to match.) You can widen the hole at the opening with a narrow rasp or chisel to form a slot rather than a round hole. You only have to do this at the opening where the tang widens. Don’t narrow the tang near the base of the blade, you need the strength there. As you enlarge the hole, try the blade for fit. When you can get it into position, you’re ready for the next step.
There’s several ways to bind the two together. If you don’t care about tradition, epoxy works really well. It’s a good idea to clean the tang to remove any oil or grease. If the tang is polished, you can roughen it with sand paper, or add a few shallow grooves, to give the epoxy a better grip. You can dye the epoxy if you wish, or add some of the powder from your drilling to help the epoxy to blend in. If you have taken the time to form a slot just large enough for the blade rather than an over sized hole, it will make a neater appearance.
For a mire traditional piece you can use pitch, or sap from pine or spruce trees. A good approximation of this is ferrule cement. This is an early form of heat glue made for assembling fishing pole ferrules. It contains some kind of tree sap and is available in larger sporting goods stores. I’ve even used frankincense, and I suspect amber would work as well.
Another traditional method is poured pewter. This can be tricky, and probably isn’t the best choice for a first project. You get one try at the final moment to get it right. Position the handle vertically in a vise or other holder. Wrap foil around the handle to form a collar. Melt the pewter, pour it into the hole, quickly add the blade, and let it cool. It helps to heat the tang as well, so the pewter does not freeze instantly as you are inserting the tang. You need to be careful that the heat does not draw the temper of the blade. Concentrate the heat on the outer half if the tang. Let the assembly cool completely before removing the foil. It’s best to leave it overnight, or at least for several hours. If you remove the foil before the core is cold the antler may split as it contracts from contact with the cooler air. If you use a little more pewter than is needed to fill the hole, it will form a cap over the end of the handle and hide the hole. You can also cut grooves in a decorative pattern in the handle that will be filled by the pewter. This also helps lock the assembly together. Alternatively you can assemble the knife first, then pour the pewter. I have trouble getting a clean fill this way because the pewter tends to freeze as soon as it contacts the blade. However I know several folks who do it this way and don’t seem to have any trouble. Perhaps they get their pewter hotter than I do. Remember to use a lead free pewter if you’re going to eat with the knife!
You can also split the difference and set the blade with epoxy, but only use enough epoxy to fill the handle within a quarter inch or so of the top, then finish with pewter. This saves pewter, and is very solid.
I’ve had some inquiries on how to melt the pewter. There are several ways depending on the tools at hand. I usually use a torch to melt some off the block into a stainless steel serving spoon or ladle. Then I apply the torch to the bottom of the spoon until the pewter is nicely fluid. If you didn’t have a torch I suppose you could melt it on the kitchen stove with a ladle.
Knives assembled with pewter were quite common in the 17th – 19th centuries. Knives made this way would be would be very suitable for the American Colonial through Civil War periods.
Yet another alternative is to set the blade with epoxy, again leaving some space at the top. Then mix some of the dust from drilling the antler into some of the surplus epoxy and pack it in the top of the hole. This will match the color of the epoxy to the antler and make the size of the opening less obvious. If done properly, it will look as if the tang was forced into an exactly fitting hole.
If you want to do this in a more period fashion, you can soak the antler in sour buttermilk and vinegar for 6 – 12 weeks, at which time it should be soft enough to force the tang into the antler. After 4- 5 days it will regain it’s hardness. This is a very ancient method of working antler for all kinds of artifacts. The folks on the Primitive Ways website suggest you can also do his by soaking the antler in rainwater for a month or so. I haven’t tried these methods yet, but it’s on my list of things to do. I’d be tempted to drill a pilot hole to insure the tang goes in straight.
Bone makes a very nice handle, and is mounted much the same as antler. Finish up with a nice polish for a mellow feel and look. If you are polishing on a power buffer, be very careful it doesn’t grab the knife and feed it to you! When working with power grinders or buffers I try to stand to one side rather than in line with the rotation.
The leg bones from deer work very well with little work. On buck skinner reproductions, I’ve seen jaw bones of wolf, bear, raccoon, and others, used complete with teeth. This is very picturesque, but not very comfortable to use. I doubt that it was commonly done in the period.
Wood is a little more work, but gives you greater freedom to shape the style you want. Select a block, drill and fit to the blade, but don’t glue it. Then shape and sand the handle, stain and glue it. You can bring the end of the tang through the end of the handle, and peen it down on a nut or washer. You can thread the tang for a recessed nut, but this isn’t common for Scandinavian knives. An easier alternative is to drill the hole almost, but not quite, through the handle. Shorten the tang to match and bind the two together as with antler.
With wood, you may want to form the hole as a tight slot that just fits the blade. This avoids the need for an end cap or hilt. With a snug fit, you may not even need the pewter or epoxy. One of my customers tapers the tang to a point and makes the hole just a bit short so he’s actually driving the point into the wood of handle. Of course if you overdo this you’ll split the handle. The result can be an elegant combination of blade, wood and shape. This style is quite common in Scandinavia. Like the Japanese styles, it is deceptively simple looking.
The easiest way I’ve found to form the slot is with a drill press. Using a drill the same size as the thickness of the tang (or just a bit thinner) drill two or three long holes in a line that converge at the bottom. Clean out the material between them to form the slot. You can use a combination of narrow chisels and rasps to clean out the space between the holes and open it up for an exact fit. Chain saw files work well for this You may want to grind a round file flat on two sides and taper the other dimension on one side as well. Recently I’ve been experimenting with zip cutters. These look like drill bits with teeth along the shank. They are used by dry wall installer to make opening for electrical switches, etc. You may want to taper the tang, but avoid removing material at the base of the blade where strength is needed.
If you are using a drill press, you can make a simple tool to greatly ease the work. Clamp a block of scrap wood to the table of the press. Drill a shallow hole in the wood and fit a stub of nail or drill rod in the hole, leaving a little sticking out. Lower the table, but keep the stub in line with the drill. Now when you are drilling the handle, drill a shallow (1/8″ or so) reference hole in the other end of the handle first. Place this hole over the nail and you will be sure of your hole direction. This makes it much easier to drill converging holes to form a slot. It also is a great help when you are trying to drill through a handle from two ends and get the holes to line up properly. If you are making a handle with a blind hole you can still use this to keep the hole in line. Just leave the handle a bit long until you drill the hole for the tang, then remove the surplus with the reference hole.
An alternative is to burn the slot. This was often done in early times since long drills (or drills of any kind) were not always available to the maker. Today, it’s easiest if you first drill a hole, then burn the hole into a slot. This is how the Helle factory did the Viking handles. You can use a piece of steel shaped like the tang, heated to a…