I started learning the craft of knife smithing a few years ago on the South Island with a visit to Ross Johnston, a craftsman knife maker near Nelson. He runs Blackbird Valley forge and makes knives in the traditional way using many good grades of carbon steel from reused car parts and saw blades amongst other things. What he can turn an old metal file into is something to behold, the care and skill in his work is wonderful. I had had a go at reconditioning a couple of tattered bush knives, re-handling and the like, before my visit but Ross was very generous in setting me on the right path with newbie tips and some raw materials. And so it came to pass that I made myself my first bushknife, that most vital of bush tools, for my own purposes in my tramps and outdoors bush living activities. That was about 5 years ago now. Of course, you’re never happy with your first attempt and, being something of a perfectionist, it has taken me several years and many 10s of attempts later to build something I am happy with. The New Zealand bush is a perfect testing ground, and I reckon now that if you can’t hammer your knife with a length wood to split firewood then the knife isn’t up to the job. Many of my first attempts broke in this simple test!

So, in honour of Ross, I thought I’d put a few words down with regards re-conditioning an old knife that you want to use in the bush. Proper bush knives are very expensive, often several hundered dollars, and whilst they are worth every cent not everyone can afford that kind of money. I’m not going to talk here about forging a knife, there are some good videos on YouTube that cover this for starters and it is really a very specialst skill that you need to learn from a good teacher. Before I start I also want to draw your attention to the dangers of knives by highlighting my responsibility code (http://www.martinhunter.co.nz/bushcrafts/bcguide.html). Bush knives are essential tools, but tools that can bite you and require good care in handling…safety is paramount!

Hopefully this post will convince you, however, that it is possible to put something quite adequate for bush crafts together yourself.


There are many ways to fix a handle to a blade and it depends somewhat on the manner in which a blade has been forged as to how to do this. The end of the knife upon which the handle is mounted is called the “tang”. Some tangs are quite narrow, leading you to a style of fixing in which the handle is slid over the tang and either glued or rivoted into place. Other tangs are quite wide, as wide as the blade itself, meaning that you will probably need to manufacture two halves of the handle which you then mount on the tang using rivots or bolts whch go through all three bits. I prefer this latter method of fixing for bush knife handles because in general I feel the result is stronger, but it’s also a question of style. Most bush knives I have reconditioned, however, have narrow tangs and “handling” these can also be a little easier to master in my experience.


Common materials to construct handles from are wood, leather, metals (e.g. brass) and bone or antler. I prefer wood, leather and antler because they are much easier to work. I have found wood is very good for comfort as the material seems to act as a natural wick, which helps keep your hands dry and blister-free when you use the knife over longer periods. Things to look for in selecting materials:

  • Hardwoods are better than softwoods, for a multitude of reasons. Chief amongst these is that the grain is normally closer together which enables a highly smooth finish to be achieved and they are often stronger (which is a good property for a handle). I look for specific bits of wood that have a pleasing natural pattern in them, maybe incorporating two or different three tones, so that the end result is enhanced by this rather than being plain. However, try to avoid knots as these can be a pain to work with and usually represent weaknesses in the wood. I have tried many native NZ timbers (recycled, of course) and two that stand out for me is totara and rimu. These are not truly hard, but they are easy to work and are a quite beautiful wood. Kauri is not one of my favourites as it is far too soft and plain. I have used beech as well, and this can work nicely owing to its attractive grain.
  • Use timber that is well seasoned. If you have collected the wood yourself then you will probably need to let it dry in a shed or other place under cover for several months. Many bits will form drying splits, but it’s better they do that on the shed shelf rather than on your knife, and they can often still be quite workable.
  • Antler can be a tricky material to work, especially young antlers that haven’t had much time to thicken, as the sides can be thin. The inside of an antler is not quite hollow but filled with bubbles of air like and Areo chocolate bar. Some varieties of deer have much finer bubbles (reindeer for example) which is, apparently, much better but I’ve never had the chance to use this material owing to the fact that New Zealand doesn’t have many reindeer. Antler is, however, not brittle in the slightest but very strong and thus can be used for complete handles as well as for decoration ones made from other materials like wood.
  • I use leather a lot in my designs as dark leather (brown) contrasts well with lighter woods and the pure white of antler. Many designs use alternating narrow strips of leather, anter, wood and so on to form an attractive handle. Don’t be surprised though at how difficult leather can be to work. It is much harder to sand than you’d think, especially in contracts to wood and antler.

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Comment by Martin Hunter on April 8, 2011 at 15:23
Hi Sean, Ross is at Blackbird Valley Forge, just out of Nelson in the Moutere region. Not sure of phone numbers etc. but mostrobably in white pages?

Comment by Sean Joseph Delany on April 4, 2011 at 8:16
Kia ora Martin. Great editorial. You don't happen to have the details of the knife-maker Ross Johnston?

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