How To Install Scales On A Knife Blade


Junior Doughty

I've never owned a really good butcher knife. I could easily sharpen mine and cut up meat or whatever with it, but the next time I used it I'd have to sharpen it again. Same thing with my paring knife. If I peeled potatoes with it, I'd have to run it over a whetstone in order to peel an onion. After successfully making a small sheath knife out of a circle saw blade (click here), I started thinking about making a butcher knife and a paring knife.

The problem was finding material hard enough to hold an edge and large enough to contain a knife blade about ten inches long. I solved the problem when I found the Texas Knifemaker's Supply online catalog. They sold inexpensive blades that were not only properly hardened, for about $3 more they were cryogenically tempered at -305° F. You talk about holding an edge!

So I ordered their:

stainless steel cryogenic Spear Point Utility Paring #BL476C$11.00
stainless steel cryogenic Mid Size Chef #BL531C$14.00
carbon steel non-cryogenic Russell Camp Knife Blade # BLCAM   $6.95

I already had 3/32" and 1/8" brass rods for pins, but since the camp blade and the chef blade both needed 5/32" diameter pins, I ordered a 12" brass rod in that diameter for 75¢.

Note: the catalog incorrectly states that the chef blade needs 1/8" pins.

Total cost including shipping and handling = $39.65. I wouldn't cut three knife blades out of hardened metal for $50, much less $39.65.

I could have ordered scales from Texas Knifemaker's Supply, but I preferred to use cedar from my cache of limbs trimmed from trees my great-grandmother planted around 1907. Besides, heart cedar is very hard, and after it's oiled it looks like mahogany—beautiful!

The following process shows me installing scales on the Mid Size Chef Knife. Let us begin:

Step #1: making the scales

Click thumbnails for full size popup photos.

Click for full size popup photo I had no table saw, so my brother-in-law stood on one end of a limb while I whacked on the other end with a circle saw. The resulting very rough cedar slabs were about 5" long x 1 1/2" wide x 1/2" thick. If you have a table saw, save future grinding time and cut your slabs slightly more than 3/8" thick, around 7/16" or so.

Decide which slab will be the left scale and which will be the right scale and mark them L and R somewhere other than on the smooth side. You want the ends nearest the blade straight and perpendicular to each other. The haft ends do not matter as they should protrude past the butt of the haft and, therefore, will be ground off in a later step.

Using a file (or a belt sander), smooth the haft side of each slab so that when the haft is clamped to the slab and held up to a light, no sliver of light shows between slab and haft. On the left in the above photo you see the file-smoothed haft side of one slab and the rough, out side of the other slab. If you look carefully at the smooth slab on the left you can see evidence of where I traced the outline of the haft. That was an unnecessary step.

Step #2: drilling the scales

Notice one thing in particular about the photo below. I wrapped the blade in duct tape to prevent cut flesh—my flesh. If you don't do that, do this: keep bandages nearby and set your phone's speed dial to 9-1-1. And make sure the closest hospital has plenty of your blood type.

Click for full size popup photo Both slabs now mated to the sides of the haft, clamp one slab to the haft in its future permanent position. Drill holes through the holes/openings in the haft and through and out the slab on the other side. I drilled three holes with a 5/32 bit and one hole with a 5/16 bit. In the photo, you see the 5/16 bit in a hole, a slightly off-center hole if you look carefully at the full size photo. The hole in the haft is 1/2" in diameter, and a 30-06 case fit it perfectly. However, I used a section of 5/16" O.D. copper gas pipe as a liner.

Click for full size popup photo Holes now drilled through one slab, clamp the other slab to it without the haft between them, carefully aligning the perpendicular ends. Everything copasetic, push the drill bit through the first slab's exit holes and then drill through the other slab. You should then have all holes in one slab lined up with their counterparts in the other slab. Now comes the hardest part of the process.

Step #3: fitting the pins

From this point on, the slabs are scales.

You should already have on hand brass pins (brazing rods) of the proper diameter and cut slightly longer than the thickness of your future knife's handle, or a little over 1" in my case. Also in my case, I had on hand a section of 5/16" O.D. copper gas pipe slightly longer than the thickness of my future knife's handle.

Place the scales in position on the haft, then start trying to insert the brass pins. Those pins must fit so loosely they will fall out if vertical or, at the most, require slight finger pressure to seat. Any pin-to-wood stress will eventually result in a cracked scale. You must ream, ream, ream with the drill bit or with a tapered reamer if you have one. If using a tapered reamer, ream from the smooth, haft side of the scale in order to make the resulting tapered hole smaller on the outside of the scale and bigger inside the scale. When you are finished, that gives a closer wood to metal clearance on the exposed end of the pins. Epoxy will fill the gaps around the hidden, inside portions of the pins.

Click for full size popup photo All pins fitting loosely, remove them and douse both sides of the haft and both smooth sides of the scales with epoxy. Use a toothpick and fill the pin holes with epoxy. You can't use too much epoxy, but you can sure use too little epoxy.

Dip the business end of the pins in epoxy and insert them in the holes, turning them as you insert them in order to evenly spread the epoxy. I wore rubber gloves because I tend to get epoxy all over my hands. I'm messy. Everything in place, clamp the scales together. Let the epoxy dry for a day.

In this photo notice that I inserted the pins and the liner even with the outside of a scale. That meant having to cut off only one side and not two.

I used two hammers pushed against the blade to hold the knife in a vertical position while it dried.

Step #4: grinding time

Click for full size popup photo The next day, it's grinding time.

Notice the leather gloves. Wear them. Wear safety goggles. Use a dust mask.

I took this photo just a few minutes into the grinding, handle-shaping process. I used a bench grinder and a grinding wheel on a Dremel® tool. It took almost two hours of grinding and another 1/2 hour of sanding with a Dremel® tool sanding wheel until I was satisfied with the job. Starting with scales only slightly thicker than their finished size would have made the job easier and faster.

Click for full size popup photo A little touch up work with fine sandpaper and a little reaming on the inside edges of the copper liner, and I was finished. After a good coat of boiled linseed oil, I owned a new butcher knife—one that would hold an edge.

From left to right in this photo, you see the camp knife, the paring knife, and the chef knife featured in this article. Note that all three have the same 5/16" copper gas pipe lanyard hole liner. I included a lanyard hole on the two kitchen knives because I thought it would look cool. I can also hang the two knives from pegs if I want. I'll probably always regret not using a 30-06 case as a liner for the chef knife.

The camp knife came with only three 5/32" holes pre-drilled down the center of its haft. I enlarged the top hole with a Dremel® tool cutting wheel so it would fit the copper liner. The liner edge shown in the photo is belled so as to provide a countersink for the lanyard's knot.

The camp knife's four edge pins are 3/32". I used a Dremel® tool cutting wheel and sliced holes in the haft for them. Although the four added pins provide extra support for the scales, I installed them for looks.

The camp knife will do double duty as a butcher knife and as a hunting knife in a sheath attached to the back of my hair-on deer or beaver hide possibles bag—the one on the top of my future projects list. I think it will look very cool there.


Copyright 2002 by Junior Doughty

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