Birchbark for the knife handle - pros and cons.

October 14, 2019

Birchbark for the knife handle - pros and cons.

     You’ve purchased your first knife, and it has a birch bark handle. What exactly does this refer to and why would you pick that material?
Birch trees are located in the Northern Hemisphere, from America to Russia and everywhere in between, and the bark obviously refers to the outside layers of these trees. This bark has been used for many hundreds of years as a waterproof construction material; items historically made with birch bark include kitchenware, paper, roofing material, and has been used to build boats. Probably the most famous use of the material, is an airplane made by Howard Hughes, the “Spruce Goose” the largest aircraft ever made for about 50 years was constructed of 98% birch wood, despite being named after spruce.

Birch bark kitchenware

     For the more scientifically minded, the bark also has chemical and medicinal properties, it contains a significant amount of Vitamin C that can be made into a drink to ward off scurvy and the birch tar oil is an effective insect repellent. The list of popular uses goes on from arm casts to leather production. Some native American tribes believed that birch wood and bark made you immune to being struck by lightning, not a scientific fact but certainly interesting.

     As you can tell, this part of the Birch tree is very useful and using the material as a knife handle is only one of the amazing properties. Pleasant to the touch, and aesthetically interesting, Birch knife handles are common in the custom knife world. One particular property of these knife handles is the low thermal conductivity. This handle will feel warmer in the winter than almost any other handle you could put on a knife, which is great when the gloves have to come off for intricate work. (For example the Fischer by ROSarms during the Ice fishing season w!ill feel great in your hand even without the glove).

Fischer by ROSarms - knife for the fishermen!

     The bark is ecofriendly, as it grows quickly in the wild and on tree farms; it is available with no additional processing, so this is a “tree to knife” material. Using many layers of the bark leads to a very low waste product since the inner parts can be made into other products as well. Some products like resin and G10 require many chemicals, and if you’re trying to be ecofriendly, this is the ticket. For historical recreators, this is another great material, as birch bark has been available for knife handles as long as knives have been made.

     If you’re trying to recreate the pioneer voyage or just peeling fruit at the campsite, this is a great material to select. Speaking of peeling fruit, the high levels of birch tar make the material antibacterial and water-resistant, so using it in the kitchen is no problem. A quick wash with soap or a wipe down will be enough for making sure all your tools are cleaned. Common wood knife handles and even some plastics will potentially need to be sterilized especially when used for cleaning game, fish or dirty vegetables. These handles also will not rot, because of the tar giving it natural water resistance, there is no opportunity for them to have water introduced. This is a huge advantage for natural materials, as other woods being unsealed can rot away with moisture exposure. The oil within the bark is often used specifically for its water-resistant purposes and can treat the leather to make it waterproof, this process results in “Russian leather”.

Companion-2 by ROSarms with birch bark handle.

     Of course, there is no free lunch, and birch bark knife handles are not invincible. After many years of use and exposure to the sun and elements, birch bark can become gray. This does not affect the usage of the knife it only loses some of the beautiful look. Don’t worry though, this can be restored using this link provided, however, you might want to keep the weathered look to show off your well-used tool. This material, being wood is not fireproof, and should be used near the fire with caution as the oils contained within are known to be excellent fire-starting compounds. Wood can crack and split if subjected to serious stress or impact, so taking care to not drop your knife would be best to retain the handle as well as the carefully sharpened blade.

     Given these restrictions, taking care of your knife handles should be no issue. Archaeologists have been known to find letters, tools, and other pieces made of the bark that are many hundreds of years old in fantastic condition. Some of the earliest birch bark paper inscriptions go back beyond the 1200s. Go into the forest near you, if you see some wood on the ground that is not rotten but clearly old, chances are good that it is birch. Birchbark handles can be handled just like most synthetic knife handles, they are not affected by heat, water, dirt, etc. and will only lose the color with age, and this can be restored as stated above. (see our blog article on Birchbark handle restoration...)

Suna by Olamic with Birchbark handle

   How does one make a birch bark handle? The bark is very thin and couldn’t be sculpted easily like a piece of hardwood, so the bark must be stacked. One method of making a handle for a knife blade is as follows: the bark is cut into small pieces, slightly larger than the overall width of the handle. These pieces are stacked on the tang of the blade and tightly packed using a jig to provide pressure. The knife is placed in an oven to bake any moisture out of the bark, and to help the bark release the natural glues that reside in the material. Once the piece has been baked properly, the handle can be shaped with woodworking tools and finished with sandpaper.

Quick Recap, birch bark handles are

  1. Antibacterial
  2. Virtually maintenance-free
  3. Eco-friendly
  4. Durable for hundreds of years
  5. Not fireproof
  6. Discoloring (but can be restored) 

   Selecting a birch bark handle for your knife can be a great way to get involved in the custom knife world. Compare this material to others and you will see a great value proposition given by the bark. Many custom knife manufacturers offer this material for the reasons shown above and it is a well-respected choice for your first or latest custom knife. Compared to G10, resins, bone, and other choices, this natural material measures up well. Maintenance-free, natural and beautiful birch bark knife handles will treat your sheath to a great style and even better performance.

Buy knives with Birchbark handles.

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