Even the simplest-looking knife has a lot of parts that affect its performance and maintenance, including the handle. Before you buy a knife, you should know the specifics of the handle materials and how to maintain it.
There are many, many different types of handles available, but they mostly fall into three categories: metal, synthetic, and natural handles.
Types of Knife Handle Materials
Here’s your guide to the types of handles in each category, the pros and cons of each type, how to care for them, and how each handle rates for durability, grip, and appearance.
Metal Knife Handles
Aluminum is a very durable knife handle material. They are often anodized or coated with an oxide layer, for improvements in color, hardness, and protection. Aluminum is low-density, which means that the knife feels substantial in your hand, but not heavy.
There are different kinds of aluminum that might be used for knife handles. For example, one of the most common is the T6-6061 alloy, which offers plentiful tensile strength.
Aluminum is resistant to corrosion, though not to scratches and impacts. It has conductive properties that make it very cold to the touch in cooler weather. Aluminum handles can be very slippery as well, though a secure grip can be achieved with enough texturization.
Maintenance and Cleaning: Aluminum knife handles are pretty easy to maintain, although they are susceptible to scratches and dings, so you should be careful with them. They should never be washed in a dishwasher; rather, you should hand wash and dry them immediately after use. If they become discolored, polishing them can restore their shine.
Durability: Very good
Grip: Poor if untextured, secure if properly textured
Appearance: Available in varying colors and thicknesses
- Aluminum is very durable and will last for a long time.
- The aluminum material makes the handle more lightweight than other metal handles.
- This type of handle is resistant to corrosion.
- Aluminum is susceptible to scratches, dents, dings, and other visible results of impacts.
- These handles can become very cold in cooler temperatures, such as winter weather or inside a warehouse or freezer. This can make them difficult to hold and use under such conditions.
- Like other metal handles, aluminum handles can be slippery, making it easier to cut yourself. However, proper texturization can help achieve a more secure grip.
Stainless steel knife handles are very durable and resistant to corrosion and impacts. However, they are heavy, so they should be avoided in heavy-duty knives. They are also slippery, which is why you often see them with ridges or other features designed to improve grip.
Maintenance and Cleaning: Stainless steel knife handles are easy to maintain, due to their durability. They should be hand washed and dried after use, and should not be left in humid places.
Durability: Very good
Grip: Very poor, but can possibly be improved with ridges and etching (though not completely)
Appearance: Beautiful sleek silver appearance
- Stainless steel is very durable and will likely last for a long time.
- The stainless steel will also resist corrosion, and because of its strength, it will stand up to impacts as well.
- This type of handle is very heavy, so it’s not recommended for heavy-duty knives or EDC (everyday carry) knives, which are used on a regular basis.
- Stainless steel is slippery, so it may be hard to hold and use. This can increase the chance of accidental cuts. Many manufacturers have tried to improve the grip by adding ridges or etching, but these features can’t completely correct the issue.
Titanium knife handles are known for their strength, durability, and lightweight nature. They resist rust and other corrosion better than any other metal handle. Titanium is not quite as light as aluminum, but it’s still much lighter than stainless steel. At the same time, it’s very sturdy.
Like aluminum, it can suffer scratches and dings, but it’s not as difficult to hold in the winter, due to its naturally warm feel. Anodizing the metal can give it interesting colors on custom knives, and it is also sometimes texturized through a process called bead-blasting.
Maintenance and Cleaning: Titanium knife handles don’t need much maintenance, though they can still incur scratches and dings, so care should be exercised. Like other metal handles, they should be hand washed and dried immediately after use.
Durability: Very good
Grip: Slippery, but improved through texturization
Appearance: Gray or silver utility appearance
- Titanium is very strong and durable.
- Titanium also offers the best corrosion resistance of any metal knife handle material.
- This type of handle is lightweight and sturdy at the same time.
- The metal has a warm feel to it.
- Grip can be improved with texturization.
- Anodization and bead-blasting offer customization options.
- The handle is a bit heavier than aluminum, but still more lightweight than stainless steel.
- Titanium has a reputation for being invincible, but it can easily incur scratches and dings.
- Like all metal handles, titanium can be slippery to hold. This can be improved through texturization, such as bead-blasting.
- Titanium handles are much more expensive than aluminum or stainless steel handles.
Synthetic Knife Handle Materials
Carbon fiber knife handles are made of thin strands of carbon, which are then woven together tightly and set in resin. These types of handles are very strong and lightweight, but they can also be brittle and incur cracks from impacts.
Maintenance and Cleaning: Carbon fiber knife handles are strong, but they crack easily so you should be careful when handling them. Dishwashers can stress the handle and cause it to break apart, so it should be hand washed.
Durability: Cracks easily and breaks apart
Grip: Good, due to the texture of the carbon weave
Appearance: Variety of textures, colors, and patterns
- Carbon fiber handles are stronger than steel, but only if they are not stressed in multiple directions.
- These handles are very lightweight.
- The carbon weave creates interesting patterns, due to the way the light reflects off of it.
- The carbon weave also creates textures that improve grip.
- The handle is brittle and can crack under stress.
- Knives with carbon fiber handles are more expensive, due to the labor-intensive process required to produce them.
Micarta knife handles are a type of phelonic, which refers to a group of substances made with phenol, a type of resin. Micarta is actually a brand name for the most popular phelonic handles.
This type of knife handle material is very strong and hard, as well as lightweight. It does not easily pick up scratches or dings. However, it has no texturization, which makes it very slippery and difficult to use. Some companies do add etching or other texturization to improve grip, but this usually increases the price of an already-expensive knife.
Maintenance and Cleaning: Micarta knife handles will stand up to most scratches and impacts, so you don’t need to be especially careful. Hot water and soap is usually enough to clean dirty or stained micarta handles.
Durability: Very good
Grip: Very slick and smooth, unless texture is added
Appearance: Typically black or gray, with a utility type of appearance
- Micarta handles are tough, strong, hard, and durable.
- These handles are lightweight to carry, hold, and use.
- They are resistant to scratches, dings, and impacts, except from sharpened steel.
- Micarta handles are slippery and smooth, making them difficult to use.
- Sharpened steel can still cause damage.
- Knives with micarta handles tend to be expensive.
G-10 knife handles are similar to carbon fiber handles, though much more affordable. G-10 refers to a grade of Garolite, which is a laminate composite made of fiberglass. Layers of fiberglass cloth are soaked in resin, then compressed and baked under pressure. This process creates a knife handle that is tough, hard, and strong.
G-10 knife handles are also lightweight and easy to use. They normally contain patterns, such as checkering, that provide a secure and comfortable grip. They are non-porous, making them resistant to moisture. The only real downside of these types of handles is that they may not stand up to impacts very well.
Maintenance and Cleaning: G-10 knife handles will resist most moisture, but it is susceptible to impacts. Be careful when handling it and clean with hot soapy water.
Durability: Very durable, owing to strength and moisture-resistance
Grip: Secure and comfortable
Appearance: Can be one solid color or varying colors and effects, depending on the colors of the layers used
- G-10 handles are tough and strong. This makes them durable and resistant to impacts.
- They are resistant to moisture as well.
- They are lightweight.
- This type of handle is more affordable than other comparable handles, such as carbon fiber and micarta.
- Lots of texture gives the handle excellent grip.
- G-10 handles are available in a variety of colors, patterns, and styles.
- Though these handles come in a variety of styles, they pretty much always look and feel like plastic.
- They do not resist impacts.
FRN / Zytel
FRN stands for Fiberglass Reinforced Nylon, and Zytel is a common brand name for FRN handles. These types of handles are both strong and affordable. They are resistant to bending and abrasions.
While other handles can be brittle when stressed in multiple directions, FRN handles feature nylon fibers that are arranged randomly throughout the handle, resulting in a stronger handle in all directions. The handle is textured during the production process, but it still doesn’t achieve the grip that you see in other handles, such as G-10.
Maintenance and Cleaning: FRN knife handles are strong and will resist most abrasions and impacts. Soap and water should be enough to clean it.
Durability: Very good
Grip: Good, but still inferior to other handles
Appearance: Dark and textured
- FRN handles are strong and resistant to most stresses and abrasions.
- A simple production and texturing process results in a more affordable knife.
- The handle has a decent grip, but it’s not as secure as other handles.
- It can have a feel similar to plastic.
Juma knife handles are made from juma, a material resulting from the mixing of a high-grade resin and a mineral base. It is very easy to machine and form into knife handles. It is also very easy to polish, which results in a strong, durable handle with a hard surface.
It resembles ivory in look and feel, and can come in a variety of colors and patterns. The main drawback of this type of handle is that it is very smooth and doesn’t offer much friction for grip. They are also quite pricey.
Maintenance and Cleaning: Juma knife handles have hard surfaces, so they will not incur scratches and dings easily. They also don’t require any special care. Regular washings will help them stay clean.
Durability: Very good
Grip: Smooth with no texturization
- Juma handles are strong, durable, and hard.
- They are colorful and highly customizable.
- Juma handles are very smooth and slippery. There is typically no texturization available.
- Despite the simple manufacturing and polishing process, these handles can be expensive.
Kraton knife handles are made of a rubber-like polymer. They are soft and comfortable, yet very strong as well. They have a secure, textured grip. They are resistant to heat, weathering, and extreme temperatures. However, they still absorb water and moisture.
Maintenance and Cleaning: Kraton knife handles may resist most impacts, but they are susceptible to moisture. Hand washing and drying immediately after use will keep them clean and functional.
Durability: Very good
Grip: Very good
Appearance: Not very flattering, since it looks like black rubber
- Kraton handles offer a very comfortable grip.
- The material is very strong and durable. It is resistant to many conditions, like heat and temperature.
- The handle absorbs and retains moisture.
- It will also look like black rubber and cannot be “dressed up”.
Paracord knife handles involve wrapping a knife tang with paracord, which is a tough material used in hunting, hiking, and other outdoor pursuits. These handles really have one main benefit: in an emergency, you can unravel the paracord for your own use.
The downsides outweigh this benefit, though. The handle has poor grip, since paracord is pretty slick. Depending on how the cord is wrapped, the handle can be uncomfortable to hold and could even cause blisters. It is not very durable and requires lots of maintenance.
If you ever do remove the cord, the handle becomes painfully uncomfortable.
Maintenance and Cleaning: Paracord knife handles are pretty fragile. They should be maintained carefully and kept dry and clean. If they do get dirty, they should be hand washed very carefully.
Durability: Very poor
Grip: Very poor
Appearance: May be appealing to some, but most agree that it’s not particularly attractive
- The paracord can be removed in an emergency. However, this leaves the knife bare and unusable.
- Paracord handles are uncomfortable to use and have little to no grip. Once the paracord is removed, they become even more uncomfortable.
- The knife could cause blisters during normal use and slips could cause accidental cuts.
- The handle is not very durable. It requires careful maintenance and cleaning, and even then, it may not last very long.
Natural Knife Handles
Horn knife handles are typically made from the horns of naturally deceased animals, most commonly sheep, cow, and buffalo. They are very similar to bone handles. Variations may include those made of antlers and tusks. They are often seen on hunting knives.
Their main benefits are aesthetics and affordability. They are not very practical for everyday use, though. They are slippery with minimal texturization. They are also not too durable, due to their porous nature which causes them to absorb and retain water. They crack and are susceptible to many external conditions, including moisture, temperatures, and light.
Maintenance and Cleaning: Horn knife handles require quite of bit of care, since they are not very durable. They should be dried immediately after hand washing.
Grip: Too smooth and slippery
Appearance: Natural beauty, with options for different colors
- Horn handles are very aesthetically pleasing.
- There are options for customization, including dying the horn to produce different colors.
- They make a hunting knife more natural-looking.
- They are an affordable knife handle material, though this could vary depending on the type of horn used. The more exotic the animal, the higher the price of the handle.
- Horn handles are very slippery. They are often left smooth, without etching or other texturization.
- They are porous and absorb water, though not as much as bone handles.
- They can suffer from cracks.
- They are susceptible to any changes in temperature, light, and moisture.
Bone knife handles are most commonly seen on pocket knives and hunting knives. The bone in the handles is sourced from animals that passed away naturally. The animal used varies widely, but the most common type of bone used is from cows.
Bone handles are seldom sought for their durability or function. Rather, they are seen as traditional, affordable, and beautiful. They can have a natural appearance or may be dyed to produce various colors. Aesthetics aside, there are some downsides to bone handles.
They are slippery, though this can be improved with texturing. They are also porous and retain moisture, which compromises the integrity of the handle. They are susceptible to deformation and cracking as well. In addition, temperature changes and even light can alter the handle. This all adds up to a knife handle that will not be very durable or practical.
Maintenance and Cleaning: Bone knife handles are similar to horn handles in that they need special care. Be careful handling them, don’t leave them in humid conditions, and keep them dry. They should be hand washed and dried right away.
Durability: Very poor
Grip: Slippery and only improved slightly with texturization
Appearance: Beautiful and customizable
- The main benefit of bone handles is their beauty.
- Bone handles are also very affordable.
- They can take on many colors and patterns.
- Bone handles are very slippery, making them difficult to use.
- They are not very durable. This is because they are porous, retain moisture, sustain cracks and deformities, and are affected by temperatures and light.
Abalone knife handles are made from the shells of mollusks and are considered a variation on Mother-of-Pearl handles. The colors and patterns vary from one handle to the next, since each mollusk shell is unique.
Knife handles made of Abalone are more affordable than Mother-of-Pearl handles and just as beautiful, but they are not very durable. They are very thin, which makes them brittle. They also can be very slippery, similar to Mother-of-Pearl.
Maintenance and Cleaning: Abalone knife handles are very fragile and should be handled with care. They will resist water due to their slippery nature, so cleaning should be fairly straightforward.
Grip: Very poor
Appearance: Beautiful, unique designs
- Abalone handles are colorful and unique, varying from one shell to the next.
- They may still be pricey, but they are not nearly as expensive as Mother-of-Pearl handles.
- Abalone handles are not too durable, owing to their thin, brittle nature.
- The handle is slippery and smooth.
Wooden knife handles vary greatly. There are many different types of wood used, including:
- Black walnut
Each of these woods comes with their own benefits and drawbacks. There are certain qualities that all wooden handles have in common, though. They are generally durable, beautiful, and affordable. They are comfortable to hold and provide a secure grip, though this could vary depending on the wood used.
On the downside, most types of wood are porous and absorb moisture easily, making them unstable and less durable.
Maintenance and Cleaning: Wooden knife handles, regardless of the type of wood used, requires special care. They are mostly durable, but will absorb water and hold on to it. They should be dried right after washing.
Durability: Good, except when wet
Grip: Secure and comfortable
Appearance: Beautiful and natural-looking, lots of variety
- There is a wide variety of wooden handles available.
- They have a beautiful, traditional look to them.
- They are generally durable when kept dry.
- Wood is one of the most affordable materials for making knife handles.
- Their grip is secure and comfortable.
- The durability of wood handles is decreased when the handles become wet. They absorb water easily, so they are not recommended for any knife that experiences heavy use in the kitchen or outdoors.
Mother-of-Pearl knife handles get their name from the substance they are made of. Mother-of-Pearl is found in mollusks, such as oysters, and has the capacity to turn into pearls one day.
It’s an expensive material, but it’s easy to manipulate for the production of knife handles. It’s strong and durable, and gives knives a sense of luxury. They can be slippery, though.
There are some variations on Mother-of-Pearl, such as the expensive Black Mother-of-Pearl and the cheaper abalone.
Maintenance and Cleaning: Mother-of-Pearl knife handles are pretty durable, but should still be maintained carefully due to their high price tag. Their slippery nature will make them easy to clean.
Grip: Very slippery with no texturization
Appearance: Beautiful and natural
- The process to produce Mother-of-Pearl handles is not as labor-intensive as with other handles.
- The handle is strong and durable.
- It can give a knife a high-end appearance.
- There are a few variations to choose from.
- Mother-of-Pearl handles are very expensive.
- They are very slippery and usually contain little to no texturization to improve grip.
Leather knife handles are mostly seen on classic hunting and military knives. They are affordable and offer a beautiful, traditional look. They also have an excellent grip.
However, they are not recommended for everyday use. This is because they are not very durable. Leather absorbs moisture very easily and can become damaged. They are also not as strong as other types of handles. They are best used to accent more durable handles.
Maintenance and Cleaning: Leather knife handles are not durable and absorb moisture easily, retaining it for a long time. Be careful not to scratch the leather and dry the handle immediately after hand washing it.
Grip: Very good
Appearance: Attractive, vintage look
- Leather handles are beautiful and traditional.
- They come in a wide variety of colors and textures.
- They can offer a traditional or vintage look.
- They have a natural texture due to the way they are wrapped around the knife tang, which provides a secure grip.
- Leather handles absorb water easily. They also retain the water for a long time.
- They are not very strong and can incur damage.
- They have limited durability.
To find the perfect knife for your needs, you need to pay attention to the quality of the steel in the blade, shape of the blade, and extra features you might need. However, you should not forget about the knife handle material.
Choose the material that will be best for you and your purposes. Remember that a beautiful handle may be hiding difficult maintenance or a short lifetime. By knowing what will serve you best, you can choose the handle, and knife, that you will love for years to come.