The Birch tree has many different uses, from its sap, oil and tar to its wood and bark. A traditional use for Birch bark in Northern Europe is to use it to make a knife handle. No glue is necessary for its construction and Birch bark knife handles are highly valued for their comfortable grip and beauty. Birch bark is waterproof, rot resistant and 100% renewable. I will be showing you as clearly as I can how to create such a knife handle using Birch bark. I used scavenged materials where possible.
I will be using a knife blank for this tutorial, since the process of creating a Birch bark handle is quite detailed as it is, without going into how to make a blade from scratch. In a survival situation, you could potentially find a length of rebar or other metal rod, heat one end to glowing red in a fire, crudely flatten it by hammering with a rock, quench it in oil, and then grinding it against progressively smoother stones to create a very crude and makeshift blade/blank.
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Step 1: Tools & Supplies
Blade blank (or create a one yourself)
Birch bark (you can find this yourself, or order it)
Metal plate - for the knife guard/bolster and for the pommel/butt cap (I scavenged some metal plate from brackets that I found in a broken record player. You want it ideally around 3mm or 4mm. Brass is a good metal, or steel, but it depends what you can find)
Ball and peen hammer or a clawhammer (or use a rock)
Hacksaw or Jigsaw
Knife or scissors
Pencil or pen
Awl (or screw/nail)
File or Beltsander (or sandpaper)
Drill (electric or old fashioned manual driven one)
Linseed or Walnut Oil (Other oil like Tung or Olive oil will work though)
Step 2: Prepare the Birch Bark
The bark you use must be as knot/scar-free as possible, you will only want to use the flat and smooth parts. Your Birch bark should also be as dry as possible. Using a knife or other object that can scrape, scrape at the bark in order to remove the papery layer on the outside of the bark. This step is to create a smooth and flat surface so that the bark pieces fit snugly against each other on the knife handle. It does not have to be perfect, just nice and flat. Any knots or scars can be avoided because you will not be using these areas. You can potentially use the pieces that you scrape off for kindling or for making Birch bark tar with.
Step 3: Saw Out the Knife Guard and Butt Plates
The knife guard is the plate of metal that will be on top of the birch bark handle, just below the blade. This protects the softer Birch bark from wear and tear, and improves the knife's appearance too. The butt plate is the plate of metal that will be right at the bottom the knife. This will be riveted to compress and pressure the stacked Birch bark into a firm and functional handle, and will also protect the bark which is comparatively soft.
Depending on what metal plate you find to use for these two parts, the thicknesses of each piece may differ, but that is ok. I had a thicker and thinner piece, so I chose to use the thicker piece for the knife guard that will get far more stress on it than the butt end of the knife. Draw two ovals (or circles depending on how you want your knife handle to be shaped), each about 1 inch by 1.5 inches. The butt plate will later be riveted using the tang of the blade blank (the non-blade part that will be inside the handle), so a hole will need to be later made for the tang to poke through. The metal I scavenged coincidentally had some holes the right size (same size as the tip of the tang) - so for the butt plate part I sawed around an existing hole. The guard part needs to be free from holes though.
Step 4: Finish Forming the Guard and Butt Plates
The guard plate will need a slot wherein the knife blank will snugly fit. To create the slot in the guard plate, first measure on the knife blank precisely how wide it is just under the blade. This is how wide the slot will need to be made. Draw a line of this width on the middle of the guard plate, and make it very slightly shorter in length, so that the slot can be filed to perfect and very snugly fit the knife blade. It will look more professional this way and will make the handle more sturdy too. Every 1 or 2 millimetres, place the screw or other object on the slot and hammer it into the line for the slot that you've drawn. Using a drill, now drill into each impression you've made to start forming the slot. If you are left with tiny pieces in between each drill hole, you can carefully file away at these parts with the drill turned on with some sideways pressure (this may break drill bits if you are not careful or if the metal is too hard!). Or you can alternatively use a very thin rat tail file to file away until you have the rough slot formed.
Now using a small flat file, keep filing until it looks like your knife blank can slide into the slot. Once it starts getting bigger, be Very careful that you do not make the slot too large. It is very easy to do, and this will cause the guard plate to be too loose and wobbly which fitted, which is not ideal. A tiny amount of looseness is ok, as the riveting of the handle later on will pressure the guard plate into staying snug and in place. As shown in the 5th photo, keep testing until your knife blank slides into the slot up until just before the blade starts.
Now to create the hole in the butt plate that will be used for riveting the handle later on, measure the very tip of the blade blank's tang (the non-blade part that will be in the handle) and drill a hole directly in the center of the butt plate so that the tip of the tang can fit through about 5mm. Drill a tiny offset in one end of the hole in the buttplate, as shown in the very last photo, which will give an area for the tang to be riveted into, this will help make a sturdier handle and make the knife look better too.
Using a belt sander, file or sandpaper, now shape the guard and butt plates into a more oval or circular form as you drew earlier. You can now polish them too or leave them rougher if you want a rough look, but polishing will likely look best. If you want to polish these parts, it will be easiest to do now.
Step 5: Stack the Birch Bark Handle
Place the knife guard or butt plate on the Birch bark that you prepared earlier. Using scissors or a knife, begin cutting out squares from the Birch bark that are a little larger then the guard/butt plate as shown in the first photo. Some pieces may still be a bit rough and you can rub these with your thumb to remove more of the papery grey layer of the bark to tidy them up. Stack all of your Birch bark squares now and again to check if you have enough to cover the entire handle length. Cut about 10 more than is necessary, in case you accidentally ruin some squares and to compensate for how the bark will be compressed during the riveting process.
Once you have enough bark cut to shape, in the centre of each square, cut a slot for the knife tang to fit into. My method was to draw the slot, and hammer a nail or awl into each end of the slot, and then to carefully cut from one hole to the other. The reason for this is that it makes it far easier to cut the slot, because otherwise it can be easier to accidentally cut too long of a slot or slip when cutting. Important: rotate every Birch bark square 90 degrees as you create the slots. Due to the grain of the bark, doing this will later create the beautiful striped pattern in the oiled handle. This will also help create a stronger handle due to the grain alternating in direction with every layer.
When the slots have all been made, begin pushing the bark squares onto the knife from the bottom end of the knife tang to the blade. Make sure that your knife guard plate has already been put in place. Often there might be some excess bark sticking out around the tang because it is a snug fit, I removed this excess with a sharp knife so that the layers of bark can fit as snugly together as possible. If you have some object with a hole in (seen in the 5th photo on the right), you can also use this to help compact and pressure the bark onto the knife tang.
Step 6: Rivet the Knife Handle
It is all coming together now!
Place your butt plate onto the end of the knife tang now. You only want about 3mm of metal/tang sticking out of the hole. If there is a lot more, you can cut or sand it shorter. There needs to be just enough metal to rivet/compact onto the butt plate. Some duct tape or cloth to place on the butt plate with a hole for the tang can help protect the butt plate from dents if you accidentally hit it.
Using a ball and peen hammer, or normal claw hammer, begin gently tapping the protruding end of the knife handle tang that is sticking out of the hole. It is very important to not hit too hard. This is a very long process and you must only tap with the hammer using only a moderate amount of force. Tap all over the tang tip. If you are using a ball and peen hammer, alternative between both sides of the hammer's head. The metal is very slowly being mushroomed out by the constant hammering, causing it to eventually place pressure against the butt plate - creating a rivet - sandwiching the Birch bark into a firm and tight fitting handle. It took me a very long time, and depends on the kind of metal of your blade blank and how its been tempered and treated. If nothing is happening, it may help to remove the Birch bark squares and with a blowtorch or strong flame to heat the tip of the tang to glowing red, holding the blade in a wet towel to protect its heat treatment, and then letting the tip slowly and naturally cool. This should soften the tip of the tang and let it rivet easier.
Step 7: Shape and Form the Handle
Using a belt sander, file, knife or sandpaper, you can now begin forming the handle into exactly how you want it. I used the classic Mora/Scandinavian handle shape, which is very comfortable and allows a firm and safe grip for carving and general use. It is important to go slowly with this step. It is easy when shaping the handle to remove bark, but impossible to add bark back on. So think hard about what kind of shape you want for your handle, and perhaps look and feel other knives to decided on the kind of handle shape and size you are looking for. It is also at this point that you can now sand the knife guard and butt plates into their final form. Remember though as with the bark, it is easy to remove material, but impossible to add it back on if you remove too much.
Once you are very close to the perfect handle form, use progressively finer sandpaper or files to smooth the handle - or if you feel skilled enough - carefully whittle the handle to the perfect final shape using a sharp knife.
A good firm and comfortable grip is essential. Birch bark has a wonderful grip and texture when used for a knife handle, but the shape and size of your handle will also play a large role in determining how good and comfortable your knife handle's grip is.
Step 8: Oil and Enjoy Your Finished Traditional Birch Bark Knife!
The last step is the best stage of all for me, it is quite magical to add the oil to the handle and see the beautiful handle take its final form. If you can, heat up the oil and place the knife in a warm or hot place before oiling the handle, it will let the oil absorb more easily into the birch bark, it is not essential though. Let the knife handle absorb the oil for about 15 minutes and then oil it again, until no more oil is being absorbed. Then wipe any excess oil off the handle and blade. Your Birch bark handled knife is now complete!
If your knife blade is carbon steel, you can wipe an extremely light layer of oil onto the blade itself too to protect it against rust. Another option is to create a forced patina by spreading a thin layer of tomato sauce/ketchup onto the blade and leaving it for 30 minutes to an hour. This will considerably darken the metal, but will help protect it against the "bad" orange/red type of rust. I still recommend oiling a carbon steel blade though even if you force a patina like this.
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You can create your own sheath if you like too, but that is beyond the scope of this instructable. Here is a tutorial however for making a simple traditional Birch bark sheath: tutorial
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