Introduction: Making and Installing Wood Knife Scales for an Old Knife (full Tang)
I have an old Gerber Profile that I really wanted to like...but the handle never fit my hand quite right. Not Gerber's fault..."one size fits most". Unfortunately, the set containing my hand size is disjoint from the set of "most". And it is, in my opinion, a beautifully designed knife. Plus, I love the look and feel of wood. Wood gunstocks...wood knife scales. So, I decided to make new scales and reshape the handle to a custom fit for me.
What you'll need:
Safety glasses, dust mask and all other applicable safety equipment
Ruler or measuring device
Wood for scales or pre-cut scales
Drill press, electric drill or brace
Coping saw, jigsaw, bandsaw, scrollsaw or other appropriate cutting implement
Table sander or rasps, files (never used a rasp? Me either. But I found a combo 4-in-1 rasp/file at Walmart for $4 that worked great...it is pictured in step 1)
Sandpaper in the follow grit levels: 100, 150, 220, 400
Adhesive or epoxy
Clamps or vice (to hold material during drilling or heating)
Odorless mineral spirits
Disposable shop towels, paper towels, clean rags or foam brush (for applying oil)
Boiled linseed oil, Tung oil, Danish oil or Wipe on Poly (finish)
Optional dependent on need:
Tablesaw or handsaw (for cutting scale blanks)
Clamps (if you choose an adhesive that requires curing)
Blowtorch (to heat Loctited fasteners)
Rotary cut-off tool (to reshape tang if desired)
600, 900, and 1500 grit sandpaper (for additional sanding)
0000 steel wool (for additional sanding)
Step 1: Choose Your Scale Material.
First, choose a wood to use as scales. I bought a scrap piece of cherry wood 2" x 2" x 6". You can use most scrap hardwoods, or purchase precut blank scales in a variety of colors, both stabilized and unstabilized. Stabilized woods are infused to keep them from expanding and contracting from humidity and moisture...and to make some softer woods handle ready. I've seen videos while researching this project where old palletwood was used with fantastic results.
Step 2: Remove Your Old Scales.
My scales were glued and screwed. Since they were rubberized plastic, I cut through the scales with a razor knife around the screws and then used the razor knife to slice though the adhesive. Don't go crazy...you may need these scales as templates for your new scales...so go easy unless you know for a fact you're not going to use them. After that, the screws were sealed with red Loctite, so I heated them to 550 degrees with a blowtorch and removed them. If your scales are pinned or riveted, you will need to remove those. I have another knife that needs scales that is pinned...when I do it, I will update this Instructable, or make a new one and link it.
Step 3: Make Any Changes to the Handle Shape of Your Knife.
This knife was too short for all my fingers to fit between the two pointed areas, and my little finger rested uncomfortably on top of it. Bye little uncomfortable point. Reshaped it with a rotary cut-off tool.
Step 4: Reshape Your Old Scales to Make a Template for Your New Scales.
If you reshaped your knife tang...you may need to reshape your old scales to use as a proper template. I marked and removed the material with a razor knife.
Step 5: Shape Your Scale Blanks. (Pre-cut Scales Can Skip This Step)
Mark your desired thickness, length and width, and cut accordingly. Ordinarily, you will want the grain of the wood to run lengthwise,or close to it. Study your material before completing this step. Keep aesthetics in mind when contemplating your blank cuts. Length and width are dictated by the tang, while thickness is a decision based on hand size and personal preference. Generally, 1/4 inch is the thinnest recommended thickness, while 1/2 inch is the maximum preferred upper limit. I have big hands, so I went with 1/2 inch. After sanding, the scales clocked in at 3/8 inch each which, with the tang thickness included was just shy of one inch...a perfect fit for me.
I used a tablesaw for this step. You will need a very flat cut surface to mate to your knife tang. Use any tool available to you with which you can achieve a level, flat cut. If it isn't level and flat, you'll need to sand it until it is.
As you can see, I burned these blanks with the tablesaw. It's okay, that part gets sanded off. No problem.
Step 6: Prepare Your Blanks.
Decide whether you wish to use your knife tang or your old scales as templates for your new scales. My knife has gimping (those little cutouts that your thumb rides) that I didn't wish to cover up, so I used the old scales in their new modified configuration.
Here, the instructions diverge. If you are using a coping saw or other handsaw, you'll likely be required to cut each blank separately. So trace your pattern on both scales and cut them separately. If you are using a bandsaw or scrollsaw...tape the two blanks together with painters tape and trace your pattern on top. If you are confident, add the markings for drilling the pin or screw holes. (This didn't work out for me, but it could have been human error.)
Step 7: If You're Confident...
...you can drill now, and your two scales will have the holes in the exact same places. If you need to countersink screw heads, use some painters tape on your drill-bit to mark your depth. If you have a drill press, that would be ideal. I used an electric drill and it worked fine on the second set of scales when I drilled AFTER the scales were cut (next step)...but the ones I did here didn't match up correctly. Likely human error. The second time, after the scales were cut on the scrollsaw, I lined up each scale to the tang, and when they were aligned perfectly, I marked the scales through the holes in the tang with a pencil, careful not to allow them to shift between the first and second hole markings.
Step 8: Cut Out Your Scales.
Cut OUTSIDE of your lines. Very important. A little extra outside might mean a little more sanding, but as they say...you can always take more off, but you can't put it back on. Err on the side of caution here. I used a scrollsaw, but a bandsaw, coping saw, or careful jigsaw will all get the job done.
Step 9: Glue and Screw.
Use a strong adhesive to glue your scales in place. I used Loctite two part epoxy. Five minutes and its adhered. You can also use Gorilla Glue, Liquid Nails, anything that forms a strong bond to metal. Make sure your surfaces are clean and a little scuffed up for maximum bonding. Some adhesives will need to be clamped and left to cure. The Loctite was ready to go in 30 minutes without clamping. MAKE SURE that your holes all line up. I screwed mine together as soon as the pieces were set in place. Get good adhesive coverage on your tang and carefully set your scale into its proper alignment...then immediately set your screws in place and tighten them. (I'll update this step with pin information in the future).
P.S. - My first set of scales are in the foreground. Measure twice, drill once...or you will be getting additional practice just like I did.
Step 10: Sand, Rasp, File, Sand, Sand, Sand, Sand....
Wrap the blade with painters tape to protect it and you.
If you have a tabletop belt sander, this is the place to use it...you likely won't need to rasp or file. I did this by hand. Use your rasp to rough in your curves and your file to remove material near the tang. Sand often with 100 grit or coarser between rasping-filing, then check how the handle feels in your hand. Do this often. Remove material in the places the handle feels uncomfortable a little at a time, then recheck the feel. When you have a shape that looks and feels good to you, the sanding has just begun. Sand everything with 100 grit sandpaper. Smooth out the curves and any high spots. Sand out any nicks or abrasions. When you are happy with that, start all over with 150 grit, then again with 220, and again with 400. When you're pleased with the results, you can stop...or continue with 600, 900, 1500 and 0000 steel wool. Pictures above are 100, 220 and 400 grit sandings. This took around two hours.
Step 11: More Sanding 600 Grit, 1500 Grit and 0000 Stel Wool (Optional...and From What I Read Today...overkill)
...but boy does it ever look and feel good. From what I read today...320 or 400 is as high as you need to go...but I did a gunstock last year and had the 600, 1500 and 0000 just sitting around waiting on another wood project, so I used it. YMMV...if you are pressed for time or money...skip this step.
Step 12: Make a Little Knife Stand. (Optional)
This is why you didn't throw away those end cuttings like your significant other wanted you to. Pretty self explanatory. Stack 'em up, drill a bunch of holes deep enough for your blade to sit in but your handle not to touch. Connect the hole by drilling on the bias through the partitionary walls of adjoining holes. Screw it together with some orphan screws. Viola! Knife stand. You could also use a clamp. Put your blade between two blocks of soft wood, leaving the unfettered access to all sides of the handle for finishing...or just do one side at a time...but this worked best for me.
Step 13: Cleaning and Finishing.
I used odorless mineral spirits to clean off the scales. Just a dab on a towel and a quick wipe down, then let it dry. Lucky for you, I don't know enough about finishing to get out in the weeds on finishing. There are unlimited opinions on the internet about this finish and that finish. But there does seem to be a universal consensus for beginners. Use a wipe on finish. Boiled linseed oil, and Tung oil are excellent choices, Wipe on poly would also be great. But I chose Danish oil...because I have cherry scales, and I wanted deep red aged cherry color.
To apply Danish oil, put the oil on a towel and saturate the wood surface. Let it absorb for 20 minutes, then wipe off excess. Repeat once. That's right off the can.
I've also used boiled linseed oil on another project. The directions were to saturate the surface of the wood, leave for one minute and wipe excess. Worked great, but the finish was remarkably yellow.
Tung oil is, in my research, the MOST recommended for beginner wood handle projects, but...I have zero experience with it personally.
Step 14: Artificial Aging (Cherry Scales Only)
The combination of Danish oil and sunlight artificially ages cherry wood, making it darker and redder. I set up a little omni-directional tanning booth for my knife, turning it every 30 minutes for 3 hours. It's going out for another 3 hours tomorrow.
Step 15: Epilogue
Hope you enjoyed my first Instructable. Thank you to the editor or editors that featured it. Questions and comments are welcomed and encouraged...even critical comments. If you create your own wood knife scale upgrade...please remember to come back and post some pics. Good luck and be safe...MOe.
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