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Making a Birch Bark Knife Handle
A photo essay/tutorial
Date(s): February 21, 2004. Album by Tom Mills. 1 - 33 of 33 Total. 41109 Visits.
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Enlarge photo 1
I have all the material and tools necessary to make a birch bark knife handle.  A knife blade (forged from an old file), some birch bark, a bar of 1/8" thick brass, a drill, a hacksaw, a jewler's saw, and some other tools that we'll talk about later.  The tang on this knife is about 4 1/4" long.  In addition to a brass bolster and a brass end-cap, it will take approximately 40 - 50 squares of bark to make this handle.  The bark is about 1/16" thick.

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First, I'm going to prepare a brass bolster.  To cut a tight fitting slot for the knife tang to fit through, I'll first drill two holes in the brass.  In the photo, I'm using the knife blade as a guide to the location of the holes.  After I drill two properly placed holes, I'll use the jewler's saw to cut between the holes and make a slot.  The trick is to cut the slot slightly smaller than you'll need the opening to be.

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I have a drill press, so I'll use that to make the two holes.  A hand drill works just fine if you don't have a drill press.  Use a punch to make a small depression where you want the holes to be so that the bit doesn't dance around and go off target.

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After drilling the two holes, I'm ready to use my jewler's saw to remove the material between the holes.  I bought the jewler's saw a short time ago, and I've got to tell you...I love this thing.  It's amazing!  The blades look like thick hairs (they come in differnt sizes).  The blades are very fragile, but they cut amazingly well, and they are very accurate.

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The saw itself looks a lot like a coping saw.  I've inserted the blade through the hole, and clamped it back into the saw using the thumbscrews.  In about 20 seconds, I'll be finished cutting the slot.

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Here's the rough opening.  I'll now use small diamond files to enlarge the slot so that my knife blade fits as perfectly as possible.  Notice that I'm making the slot in a long piece of brass.  After it's fitted, I'll cut the brass down to bolster size.  It's easier to hold the material in a vice with it long like this.

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I'm using a flat diamond file to square up the sides slot.  I also use a little square file to clean up the ends of the slot. With a little patience, this just takes a few minutes of work.

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I'm testing the opening as I go.  I need to do a little more file work. To get the best fit possible, it's best when shaping a knife tang to have the thickest part be right up next to the blade.  If it's a store bought blade, you should check this out, and if necessary, do some file work on the tang.

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Perfect!  Well, almost perfect. There are some small gaps, but hey...I'm not a perfectionist!  Good thing I like my knives a bit rough around the edges, eh?

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Once the slot is cut and filed to fit the blade, I'll just round it off a bit in order to bring it closer to the final shape.  Brass is real easy to shape using a file, or a grinder, or a belt sander (and watch out...it gets hot as hell real quick.  Keep a cup of water nearby and dunk it frequently.  I usually hold the brass with plyers while shaping).  I could just put it on as is and shape it later, but I've found that it's easier to do most of the work before the knife handle is assembled.

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Okedoke.  The brass bolster is roughly shaped and placed on blade.  Things are looking good.  Time to start the birch bark handle.

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I've already used a scrap piece of bark as a template and am going to cut some rectangular pieces.  From past experience, I know that I need to make the rectangles quite a bit larger than what my finished handle will be.  As you'll see, I'm going to thread the bark rectangles onto the knife tang and stack them up all the way to the back of the handle.  Then I'll be putting a brass end-cap on the back of the tang.  The end-cap will have a hole in it and the knife tang will stick slightly through.  I will then peen over the end of the tang, and that will snug the whole handle up tight.  No glue needed!

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Here's the first square of bark (this was actually my test piece that I used as a template for the rest of the bark rectangles.  I'm going to make a simple barrell shaped handle, so I just need a little bit on top and a little on the bottom of the brass bolster.

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I'll need to cut a slot in each of the rectangles so that they will snugly slide onto the knife tang.  It is VERY IMPORTANT that the slot be oriented perpendicular to the grain in the bark.  The grain runs parallell with those little stripes.  If your slot is with the grain, the bark will split when you thread it onto the knife tang.  This is a template that I will use to position the holes on the other pieces of bark.  The slot here is actually too big.  As you'll see, I will just drill two holes in each piece of bark, and then make a slit between the holes.  That will help them to grip the tang, and to make the handle strong and sturdy.

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Placing my template on top of a small stack of bark rectangles, I'm going to drill two holes through the stack - one at the top of the template's slot and one at the bottom.  Again, it's VERY IMPORTANT that you orient the slot against (at a right angle) the grain of the bark.

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This photo is poor, but you should be able to see the two holes I drilled in the bark.  I'm now going to use a sharp blade (in this case a small chisel) to make a cut between the two holes - kind of like this: 0--0

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After wrapping the knife blade with some leather, I've clamped it in my vice with the tang sticking straight up.  I've slid the first piece of bark down onto the tang.  As you'll see, the birch bark has two sides; one side dark brown, the other side tan.  You'll want to orient each piece of bark the same way.  I'm going to thread them on with the dark side up.  They fit very snugly.  Once you push them on, it is almost impossible to remove a piece of bark without breaking it. You'll also see that because the fit is so tight, there are small flaps of bark that get pushed up against the tang, threatening to get in the way of the next piece.  I use another knife to trim them away before putting the next piece on top.

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Here's the second piece.  The fit is so snug, and the bark so "grippy" that I really have to push pretty hard to get the pieces on.  That's good...that's what I want to happen!  As you slide new pieces on, make sure that there isn't any "junk" about to be sandwiched inbetween the pieces. Little bits of bark fall below sometimes.  Best to clear them away so that each piece of bark lays flat against the one below it.

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Here's another tool that I use to snug up the pieces of bark.  All it is, is a length of copper pipe.  I've smoothed one end a bit with some sandpaper so that it doesn't damage the bark.  I'm sliding it over the knife tang, and  going to use a hammer to tap the bark down.  It's not necessary to do this after each piece of bark is added.  I usually put on about 4 or 5 pieces before using the copper pipe to tap things together.  It's not necessary to hit the pipe very hard at all; just a tap or two will do.

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I've gone about half way.  It's a good idea to check the fit between the blade and the bolster and make sure that it remains snug as you progress.  Things are looking real good. When I forged this knife blade, I had a birch bark handle in mind.  I intentionally made the tang flat as that helps keep the bark from rotating (not much of a problem, but if the cross section of the knife tang is more of a square shape, the bark can turn slightly over time.  With the big, flat surface area of this tang, the bark isn't going anywhere!

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With all of the bark in place, I've prepared a brass end-cap by drilling a small hole in its center.  The knife tang is just barely protruding from the hole.  I will use a ball-peen hammer to peen over the knife tang into a little rivet.  Not only will this hold the brass in place, but it will compress the bark to such an extent that it locks the whole affair in place.  I told ya...no glue necessary!

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Here's another shot of the brass end-cap with the tang just protruding above.

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Ball-peen hammer time!  There's a trick to this peening stuff.  I learned the hard way.  First, you want to make sure that the end of your knife tang has been softened by annealing before starting your handle.  Second, you want to use a small hammer and use light blows.  Hiting it hard will either drive the tang right out of the handle (yes that can happen, despite being held in a vice), or bend the tang inside the bark, or both!  Very light taps with the hammer, directly in the center of the tang.  It seems to help if you tap lightly and quickly.  Be patient.  At first, it seems as if not much is happening.  Whatever you do, DON'T start hitting it harder to compensate!

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Light, quick taps.  It hepls to use your fingers to press down on the bark (and brass, if you dare). Keep in mind that all this tapping might be pushing the knife blade right out of the handle!  Keep the blade tightly in the vice, and more importantly, keep an eye out to make sure that your blade is remaining snug against the bolster, and all the bark is staying snug together.

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Presto!  A birch bark handle.  Not much to look at yet, but the bark is in place, the brass end-cap is snug as can be, and I'm ready to shape the handle.

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Another view from the bottom.  Again, I'm going to make this a simple shape - one that I've found that I like the best - a tall barrell shape.  Before begining the shaping, I'll tape the blade so that it doesn't hurt me, and so that I don't hurt it with the shaping tools.  I'm going to use a bandsaw to do a first pass (a coping saw works fine).  You don't really need to use a saw at all.  You can take it directly to the belt sander if you want.  You can also shape the handle by hand by trimming it with a sharp knife and by using sand paper.  I want to finish today, and I have the power tools, so I'll use them this time.  Most others I've made I just use a knife and hand sanding.

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Close-up of the end-cap and peened over tang.  This is actually a pretty poor job!  How embarassing!

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Here's my first pass with the bandsaw.  Basically, I've just taken off the uneven edges of the bark.

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After the bandsaw, I've taken the handle to the belt sander.  I'm using a 120 grit so I minimize tearout and so I end up with a smoother, more finished appearance.

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Some more sanding.  I'm being careful and going slowly.  Even with 120 grit, I've messed things up mighty quick with power tools like this.  I sand for a while and then take a break and really look things over.  I like to use pencil marks to map out areas that are too thick, etc.  I usually start the sanding at the front bolster, taking it to almost finished dimensions.  Then I go to the back of the handle and shape the brass end-cap.  Once the back and front are where I want them to be, it's much easier to visualize the handle I'm seeking.

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After about 1/2 hour on the belt sander, I'm pretty much done.  I'll leave it like this for tonight, and consider doing a bit more shaping and finishing tomorrow.  As I spend the evening looking at the new creation, I'll undoubtedly see things I'd overlook right now.  Best to call it quits and sleep on it!  This one looks like a keeper!

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Here's the "flip side."  I'm really liking this knife.  The handle is a bit thick yet, but I'll do the rest by hand.  I sometimes get tempted to get fancy with a handle like this, and end up regretting it.  My favorite working knives have plain handles that are a little on the fat side.  Feels better in my hand, and less taxing on the grip.

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The finished knife and birch bark sheath.
"Do you have instructions/info on mak..."
"I've used this one and like it. h..."
"Ian: Have you ever used rawhide, as ..."
"This has been an excellent tutorial ..."
"Very well done. I like they way you..."
"(from England) Thanks for taking th..."
"Adding my thanks for the step by ste..."
"where do you get the handle birch ba..."
"Very nice. Well explained, too!"
"Beautiful work! I have a simple ques..."
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