How to make an antler handle knife
To avoid enforced redecoration during the COVID-19 lockdown, Barry Stoffell digs into his antler box to fashion a truly personal companion
Every stalker I know has an “antler box” — a collection of cervine debris that has gathered dust for some time, awaiting the rainy day when they would be turned into all manner of useful household items. With self-isolation, that day may have arrived.
Making a deer antler knife
Most stalkers will, at some point, have made something from an antler. My own experience began like many others, with walking sticks and corkscrews, before moving on to knife handles some years ago. Making a deer antler knife has become an end-of-season activity that I relish, but when I put the antlers aside last December I could never have imagined what a welcome diversion this year’s batch would turn out to be.
A wonderfully versatile material, antler has been used by our forebears since time immemorial. Its grooved, irregular surface makes for an excellent grip even when doused in blood, sweat and tears, all of which are fairly frequent features of stalking. It requires little upkeep bar cleaning, and, over many years of faithful service, it moulds itself to your hand, creating a truly personal hunting tool.
Delighted to see the Puronvarsi antler knife in this week’s Shooting Times! These carbon steel blades from Finland strop so beautifully I’m almost tempted to try a long-overdue ‘lockdown haircut’… pic.twitter.com/VDMFPOWC2R
— Barry Stoffell (@MunsterHuntster) April 15, 2020
Selecting the best antlers
Selecting the best piece of antler from your collection is easy. Simply grip each piece in turn and see which feels most comfortable in your hand. My collection is dominated by sika antlers; the section between the brow tine and the next fork of a three-pointed antler is often perfect for a knife handle. Each beast is unique, but the symmetrical curve of the antler pair usually means that one antler is more suited to a left-handed handle, while the other is more comfortable for right-handers.
Having selected the perfect handle, you’ll need to find a blade. This will be set into the core of the antler so you’ll need a “hidden tang” blade, a popular design in the Nordic countries where making your own knife is commonplace. There are numerous excellent online suppliers of knife blades, many also selling the glues, leather and threads necessary to complete the whole job.
One Swedish knife brand, Karesuando, even offers complete kits — the wooden block supplied for a handle can easily be substituted for your antler.
Choosing a blade for a hunting knife is a bit like choosing a calibre for a rifle — the options are overwhelming and you need to think carefully about what it will actually be required to do. Unless your quarry is mostly larger deer, the knife blade needn’t be very sizable; indeed, a smaller blade can be far easier to use when field dressing.
In terms of material, the main choices are between differing grades of stainless steel — from the ubiquitous Sandvik 12C27, all the way up to high-end blends such as N690 and Elmax and carbon steel. The vast majority of modern hunting knives are made from stainless steel because they are resistant to rust and require little maintenance.
Carbon steel, on the other hand, is harder and will usually take a better edge. However, it tarnishes easily and, even with careful maintenance, develops a characteristic patina of oxidation over years of use that many find rather attractive.
Some blade manufacturers — notably Mora of Sweden and Helle of Norway — have begun offering laminated blades that promise the best of both worlds; a super-sharp, carbon-steel core sandwiched between outer layers of stainless steel. These tend to be pricier but do offer an excellent combination of the benefits of the two steel types. As well as the blade, you’ll need to buy or make a bolster, the metal plate that separates the blade from the handle.
How to make your own deer antler knife
Using a knife you made yourself is quite the most rewarding feeling – and now, when we’re all confined to barracks during lockdown, is the perfect time.
Putting it together
Once you have the components, putting the knife together is quite straightforward. First, make sure that the blade and the bolster fit snugly together, filing the bolster if necessary. Next, cut the antler to the right size by gripping it as you would a knife and marking where you feel the blade ought to start. This is more art than science and you are the best judge of what feels right. At this point you could add a puck of hardwood between the antler and the bolster for decoration.
Clamping the antler firmly in a vice, carefully drill out the porous centre where the “tang” of the blade will sit. Depending on the size and shape of the tang, you may need to use the file again to get a good fit. You may also have to shorten the tang; persevere until you can sit the blade neatly inside the antler.
You’ll need a fairly serious epoxy to make sure that the blade stays put. Slow-setting epoxies generally have the highest bond strengths and are far more relaxing to work with; the quick-setting ones may appeal, but assembling a knife properly in under two minutes before the glue goes off can raise the blood pressure.
Before you mix the adhesive, be sure to cover both the blade and the upper part of the antler with protective tape; an epoxy resin fingerprint is not how you want to personalise your knife. Mix the two-part glue thoroughly and add it bit by bit into the hole, stopping to push the tang in every now and then until just a little adhesive spills out. Wipe it off, clamp the knife and leave it overnight.
Once the glue has fully set, you can start finishing the fit between the antler and the bolster. This may only require a little light sanding, or it may need some serious work with a rasp and progressively fine grades of sandpaper to achieve the finish you want. The metal bolster can be finished with wet and dry paper then a fine wire wool to remove all scratches and set it gleaming.
Lastly, thoroughly oil any hardwood that you’ve used. There are plenty of blends available; the most commonly used is Danish oil. Apply the last coats with fine wire wool to get a smooth and weatherproof finish.
If you feel like extending the challenge further, you can make your own sheath, though there are numerous leatherwork studios across the country which will gladly undertake this for you. Though a blow-by-blow account of this process is beyond the remit of this article, it is no more complex than soaking a vegetable-tanned leather template in hot water and moulding the wet leather to fit your knife before drying it and stitching it together.
With this period of enforced inactivity there may never have been a better time to have a go at making your own bespoke deer antler knife. At best, you’ll have made good use of yet another part of the animal and created a functional tool that will give many years of faithful service.
At worst, you won’t have had to redecorate the spare bedroom.