Whittle Tang Handles

The simplest type of knife handle is a "whittle tang" where the square tang of the knive/tool is driven into a hole in the handle (which may be wood, antler, or bone). While not as strong as other types of handles, it is perfectly adequate for light to moderate duty. Medieval knives found in rubbish fill along the Thames had exclusively whittle tang handles until the early 14th century, and scale tang handles only became dominate in the early 15th century. The holes in the handles of these knives were roughly shaped, but were not well enough preserved to tell if they had been drilled or burned. One had wooden wedges to hold the tang in place in a too-large hole, and others may have originally also had wedges.

I have experimented some with burning holes for tangs, but I have usually found it easier to drill the holes. Getting the hole the right size is a little tricky -- too small and the handle may split as you drive the tang into it, too large and you may need glue and wedges to hold the tang in place (or the blade may seem okay at first, but loosen with use).

Start by roughing out the handle. I like to use branches as they are close to the right size already. You can also split out a section from a larger piece of wood. Start with a piece longer than you need, and use a drawknife and shaving horse to get it to the thickness you want. I usually go for a slightly oval shape. In this example I am making a handle for a bent knife, so I went for a more pronounced over for a better grip. Once you have something that feels good in your hand, cut it to length (handle on the left in image below)

I generally round off the butt end and bevel the edge near the blade just a bit (handle on right in image above). In this case I am leaving the handle with a "faceted" look from the knife cuts. In other cases I have used files and sandpaper to give a smoother finish. I have also cut down one side of the handle near the blade (bottom right corner of handle on right) to make sure the handle doesn't get in the way of using the blade.

Now mark a spot near the center of the handle on the blade end, and drill a hole a bit smaller than the tang of the knife or tool. Softwood compresses more readily than hardwood, so if you're using a fairly soft wood for the handle (i.e. maple) try to make the hole a couple sizes smaller than the tang, but if you are using a harder wood, make the hole only a little bit smaller than the tang.

Now it's time to get the handle onto the tang. It should be a very snug fit, so it's going to take a little persuasion. What I find works well is to hold onto the blade with vise-grips (use a layer to cloth to protect the blade, push the handle on as far as it will go by hand, and then use a wooden mallet to tap it on the rest of the way. If it goes on really easy, try again with a smaller hole (or put some narrow slivers of wood and a bit of glue into the hole before inserting the tang). If it won't go on all the way, either hit it harder and hope for the best, or try to tap it off, and drill out the hole a bit more. If the handle splits, start over and drill a larger hole.

If all goes well, you've got a whittle tang handle! You can use it as-is, but I like to put a couple coats of linseed oil on to protect the wood. Or you can use whatever wood finish you prefer.

Some helpful hints:

This method works best if the tang is fairly square and tapers *slightly* toward the end. If the tang tapers a lot, you may need to make a stepped hole (drill a small hole the full depth, and a larger one only part of the depth). Really try to avoid making a tang that bulges in the middle.

Works best for small blades. If the tang is longer than about 2" it is difficult to get a small drill bit that long. For longer tangs, burning the hole is probably the best option.

For deciding what size of hole to use, a drill bit gauge is very handy! I have a couple of these that were given away as promotional items, but I'm sure you can buy them pretty cheap. Find the hole that your tang will completely fit through, and use a drill bit one or two sizes smaller than that.

A drill press makes it a *lot* easier to drill holes parallel to the handle. If you can't justify the expense of a reall drill press, you can buy a mini drill press that a hand drill clamps into. I found mine used, but even new these are fairly cheap. If you have to use a hand drill, clamp the handle in a vise and drill as straight as you can.

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