When you buy a new knife, there are a lot of considerations to make. From the size of the blade, the quality of the steel, to the overall price, it’s easy to forget how important a role handle material plays in knife design.
A good pocket knife can be ruined by a subpar handle material. It makes sense: the handle is the part of your knife that you interact with the most directly. It’s responsible for the way you control the knife.
We are so fixated on the technological advances, such as powder metallurgy that make super steels available to us in our production knives, that we ignore the similar advances that have been made in handle materials. We’ve all seen old knives at antique shops or flea markets with cracked wood or bone or plastic scales. Today, things are different: G-10 on a Paramilitary 2 today will look largely unchanged 50 years from now—it’s that durable.
Bob Loveless, probably the most highly-regarded custom knife maker of all time, sang the praises of these space age materials himself.
It’s hard to pick the “best” handle materials because a lot of it comes down to application: different materials are better for different applications. That being said, if we take into account qualities like durability, looks, and weight, I do think there’s a general hierarchy, and I’ve compiled a list of what I think are the top five materials available for modern pocket knives below.
But before we get to the list of pocket knife materials, please take a look at our interactive table below that shows you some of the top pocket knives available on today’s market:
5 Great Pocket Knife Handle Materials
Let’s begin our list with…
5. Modern Polymers
This is a broad category, and the most common of all. It’s full of various trade names, such as:
- FRN (Fiber-reinforced nylon)
- FRCP (Fiber-reinforced co-polymer)
Below, please take a moment to view some of the best-selling pocket knives currently for sale on Amazon:
|1) Spyderco Tenacious|
|2) Kershaw Cryo II|
|3) Opinel No.7|
|4) Gerber Paraframe|
|5) Kershaw Knockout|
Polymers generally appear in the low-to mid-priced knife category, and indeed their affordability is one of their great advantages. It isn’t the only one, though: polymers are also strong, impervious to temperature change, and can be cheaply molded into patterns that help with your grip.
There’s a misleading bias in the knife community against textured polymers. Many seem to think they aren’t as grippy as G-10 or jimped stainless steel. But Spyderco’s Bi-Directional Texturing keeps your hand in place no matter how you hold it just as well as any G-10 scale I’ve ever handled. The Benchmade Griptilian gets its name in part because it stays put in your hand, and it’s made from a polymer as well.
Despite the general qualities shared across the category, there is a lot of variation in terms of in hand feel with polymers. The FRCP handles of the Spyderco Manix 2 Lightweight are rigid and dense-feeling, whereas the polypropylene handles that Svord uses for its folding Spyderco Peasant knife series has a softer, more pliant feel. There are enough variations in polymers to suit practically any taste.
I suppose it could be argued that polymers aren’t as attractive as G-10 or titanium. While looks don’t affect performance, aesthetics are undoubtedly part of why we purchase one knife over another. Personally, I find well-executed polymer handles to be just as attractive as a milled G-10 or anodized titanium handle, but I can see why people would feel otherwise.
While G-10 and Micarta are also mass-produced, commercial materials, polymers are the even more commercialized, streamlined equivalent. They offer 90% of the performance benefits, and tend to make knives more affordable. Polymers get a lot of underserved hate. They really do offer end users the total package.
4. Stainless Steel
For a lot of people, stainless steel is a controversial handle material. It is heavier than a lightweight polymer and slicker as well. It can get painfully cold in low temperatures. But sometimes you want something tough. Steel is resistant to drops and shocks just like a polymer, but with much greater torsional stability—digging, prying, and twisting with your knife puts a lot of horizontal strain on it, and stainless steel can withstand the abuse.
Practical considerations aside, stainless steel can also be anodized just like aluminum or titanium to any color you want. The stainless steel Spyderco Dragonfly 2, for instance, can be had with a custom graphic, if you so choose. And, when it comes to the weight issue, if the steel is properly milled out and machined, as on the A.G. Russell Skorpion, the additional weight is negligible.
Despite more recent controversy, stainless steel knives have been popular for decades. Let us not forget that the original Spyderco Worker, the first folding knife from the company, was made from stainless steel, and that to this day Sal Glesser prefers to produce experimental knives in stainless steel first before switching to other materials.
I don’t think this is just a cost-saving measure, either. Stainless steel is cheap, sure, but it’s also durable, versatile, and reliable. For certain types of knives, and for certain types of users, stainless steel is hard to beat.
Titanium is the handle material of choice for 90% of high-end folders coming out today. Like stainless steel, it is durable and up to 40% lighter. The ZT0450 weighs only 2.9 oz. with a 3.25” blade—you could expect it to be a half an ounce or more heavier if it were made of steel. You’ll also find that titanium handle scales are bead blasted or otherwise machined in such a way as to provide decent traction, a trend possibly started by the Chris Reeve Sebenza.
The Sebenza also started the titanium framelock craze. Although there are other equally strong locks in the world, the knife industry is fascinated by the framelock. And to be fair, it is an appealing lock: easy to use, and fairly durable (if somewhat finicky in terms of maintenance). Framelocks would never have risen to the levels they have if they weren’t made with titanium: the weight savings over steel, and the negligible drop in stability, made it the go-to lock for lightweight, durable knives.
It can also be anodized, either by the manufacturer or by knife modders (a popular cottage industry in and of itself). Again, aesthetics are a definite consideration for most people when buying a knife, and anodized titanium lends the somewhat industrial look of titanium a different character. While some people (myself included) would argue that there is a little too much titanium on the market right now, there’s a reason for that: it’s a great material for any knife handle.
Bob Loveless’s beloved Micarta has been around for a long time, although I think it needed modern knives to really shine: collectors and users of traditional knives favor traditional materials like wood or bone. Once knifemaking started to get interesting in the 70s, Micarta came into its own. Resistant to temperature changes, shocks, drops, and spills, Micarta was arguably the first “modern” knife handle material, and still stands as one of the best today.
There is Micarta to suit every taste. The canvas Micarta on the Bark River Bravo, for instance, feels rougher and grippier. If you’re more concerned with looks, the hand-rubbed linen Micarta on the AL Mar Ultralight series knives is striking. Micarta also develops a patina over time, absorbing the oils from your hand and taking on a deeper hue. This gives it a rustic, personal touch that some people might find lacking in G-10 or stainless steel.
I think of Micarta as G-10 with character. It sits at the crossroads of modern and traditional knifemaking, and seems to take the best elements of both. G-10 will always take the crown when it comes down to raw performance, but if you want a modern knife material with character, you’ll have it in Micarta.
You can find it on knives of every price. It’s more durable than polymer, lighter than Micarta. It isn’t quite as strong as stainless steel or titanium, but it’s surprisingly close, more than adequate in any reasonable use. Even Cold Steel, a company renowned for making super tough knives, is comfortable using linerless G-10 in hard use blades like the Cold Steel American Lawman.
Despite its reputation as a rugged, function over form material, G-10 can be beautiful too. Like Micarta, it comes in every color under the sun, and can actually be “sculpted” for extra aesthetic panache. If you want to see G-10 looking truly beautiful, the recently released Lionsteel T.R.E. in G-10 is the knife to try. The 3D-machined handle scales feature a show side of G-10 like you’ve never seen it before. It feels undisputedly high class.
G-10 may not have the rustic charm of Micarta, or the heavier-duty characteristics of steel or titanium, but it comes pretty close to them in almost all areas, while remaining very light and inexpensive. There’s a reason so many knifemakers default to G-10 when putting together a knife.
Whether you want the added toughness of steel, the exclusivity of titanium, the durable no-worry quality of a polymer, the class and variation of Micarta, or the all-purpose utility of G-10, you can’t really go wrong with any of these handle materials. Each one can bring out the best qualities of a good design.
Remember to pay attention to the handle material of your knives: after all, the handle is the part of your knife you use most, so you want something that’s going to be good quality and last you a long time.
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