Hafting Blades into Knives
Warning: Working with antler and bone dust can be hazardous. Always wear safety glasses and a mask. While I have had no problems as of yet, I have heard horror stories about people who have received awful infections from antler dust. If you have any cuts make sure they are sealed off completely.
As wood and antler can be hafted the same way, I will discuss them both here. The main difference is that wood is easier and can be done without any use of power tools. Antler can too but it just takes a lot longer and is tougher on the tools. Stone is also done in the same way but high powered drills and diamond tools are needed.
Here is a typical style of blade that you see and an antler that I used a saw to cut it to the size I wanted. The first thing we need to do is to place the blade to the knife and determine where the best fit is. Once we see how the knife should be (general look) we place the blade to the area we need to cut.
What we are doing here is finding the area that needs to be worked to fit the blade. We then hold the blade in place and take a marker and draw out the circle where the blade will fit. If we are going to make a slot then we want to determine the thickest width of the tang (the area to be hafted) and draw two cut lines. The finished markings will look like this.
Now we have two choices. One choice is to use a drill with various sizes of bits and drill out several holes to the depth of the tang. You can clean up the hole marks with knives and files. The hole will look like this. Then the knife will fit in the hole. Epoxy or pine pitch will hold it into place.
The other method is just as easy. With the straight lines marked you can use a jig or hand saw. First measure the tang and mark it on both the bottom and top of the handle to give you a clear vision of where to cut. The best method is to cut thin and then use a file to scrape away slowly where the tang is still wide. This method will make a tight fit and is superior to the one I will describe. The only draw back is that it could take 2 hours to do. I use to do this method all of the time till I realized that epoxy is strong and the lashing material will hide the cuts. Therefore, I mostly use the quicker method.
Now take your saw and cut each line from start to mark. Then go down the center and angle it to each side to remove all the middle antler. You can now cut off the remaining pieces with a hand saw. You can finally clean it out with a file making sure not to remove too much from the sides. Test your blade into the slot to make sure it fits and nothing more needs to be removed.
Now as an optional method we can round the sides of the antler. Take your marker and mark the areas to be removed. Now take it to the grinder and remove these areas as well as cleaning up anything on the base of the antler. If you have no grinder then this can be done with steel rasps and 60 grit sand paper. I did the hand method for years and it can be done but takes a lot longer. Finally, once in shape, take 120 grit then 220 grit sand paper and sand it down smooth.
Now the antler handle is almost finished. We need to polish it. There are two methods to use. If you don't have a power buffer then get some polyeurethane spray of semi-gloss, or gloss if you want a high finish. Spray it on after reading the instructions. You will then have to wait 72 hours before proceeding. The other method is take it to your power cloth buffer and add tripoli, a brown soap like substance. Buff it and be careful to hold it good or it will throw it. Also, I always get static shocks that causes me to jump.
Now that we have a finished handle it is time to haft the blade. I got a little careless on this one as doing two things (taking pics) was too much for my little attention span. But it is a good mistake as it shows you how to overcome problems. What I did was cut too much off so that the blade wobbles in the hafting area. This can easily be fixed by adding some wood braces That will be taken out and added after the glue has been placed in the slot.
So that we don't have a big mess it is best to tape off the blade and antler. Now we take viscous (non runny) 5-minute epoxy. One option is to add black India ink, available at any craft store. Only add enough to color the epoxy. This will turn it black and when it dries it will look very similar to pine pitch. Set a timer for 15 minutes and fill in the slot completely with the glue. Now we do a little clean up making sure none of the glue runs and let it sit for 10 minutes. If you made the mistake like I did and the blade does not sit still then you will have to watch it moving it back into place.
Ding Ding! The timer goes off. Immediately set it again for another 15 minutes. The glue should be like play dough now. Remove the tape. Now clean up the glue with a flattened nail or similar. What you are doing here is making sure there are no lumps, no glue away from the hafting area and finally that the hafting area is completely covered. A good thing to do is to lick your finger and push down on the glue spreading it evenly. This will give it a smooth look. Also we are still constantly making sure that the knife remains even and straight, i.e. the blade isn't leaning crooked to one side or the other. It is important to do this slowly and never forcefully. This is why it is important to do it slowly from the start. If you wait too long the glue will have set too much and you can crack the wood handle or break off the tang.
When the timer goes off again check to see that the glue is dry. Once it is, you can lash on any material that you desire. I have used hemp cord, simulated sinew, leather straps and even wool from my wife's sewing cit. A little bit of Elmer's glue will help it stay in place.
Now we let it dry for an hour or so just to make sure. Also, acetone will help take off any spilled glue. And its done.
Traditional (Primitive Methods)
I use to get ticked off at all of those "traditional videos and books" that claimed to use the old ways but would simply say "that the Native Americans used stone, but we will use power tools". But in their defence, now I realize the difficulties. It is actually that simple. They did the same thing that we do but with stone tools but it simply takes too long to show. For example, haft one knife handle of wood or bone with a steel rasp. Now they could do the same thing with sandstone and serrated stone tools but with more time.
It is my opinion that antler was not used as a primary primitive handle before contact with Europeans. Antler is very hard to work with stone tools and the time it would take to do (plus cutting the antler to shape), one could have several knives made and buffalo gutted in the mean time. With that said, one method is possible and that is to boil the cut part to soften the pithy core. Then you force the knife blade tang into this slot and when dried it will hold tight.
I have had people email me saying that antler was a popular knife handle choice. When I simply asked how long it took them to make a "traditionally" made antler handle, they simply replied "well I haven't made one yet."
This Page Was Last Updated March 20, 2011
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