Written by Todd Swanson Friday, 02 November 2012 17:05
You may know that one knife-scale material available on the market today is bamboo. But if bamboo is new to you, then like me you might not realize what knife-makers are using is actually engineered bamboo.
Commerical bamboo is a laminate, sometimes called lamboo, which is epoxied bamboo fiber. It has many heavy-duty uses besides knife handles, including furniture, doors, truck decks, flooring, veneers, even as a structural construction material.
The process begins with bamboo strands or thin slats, which are then cured, meaning they are boiled and dried. The fibers or slats are then saturated with a formaldehyde-free adhesive and compressed under intense pressure – a process similar to the manufacture of Micarta and Micarta-like materials.
Lamboo has several properties that are appealing to bushcrafters. The epoxy in the handle makes the scales resistant to swelling by deep water penetration, and yet like the birch handles on traditional Finnish knives, water does make the lamboo grippier when wet – the opposite effect of water on other materials like plastic and Micarta.
And because bamboo contains 35 percent more carbon than most hardwoods, lamboo boasts material properties three times greater than that of oak. Bamboo is resistant to thermal expansion and endures forces over 2500 psi. While batoning, I hammered my Rogue Bear by WoodBearKnives with several stout batons, on the back and bottom of the handle, yet the bamboo scales showed no dints or scratches or other wear. It’s nice to know I can enjoy the look of my bushcraft knife without stressing about nicking or scratching the scales, like I worry about a walnut rifle stock, for instance.
Note that lamboo quality varies based on manufacturer and depends partly on the type and age of the plant from which it was harvested, so do your homework if buying from other knife-makers.
The only downside of the bamboo is that the dense material, combined with a baby-smooth finish, makes a slippery surface for a handle in arid conditions. The first time I experimented with a bamboo-handled knife, a slight easing of my grip resulting in the heavy knife slipping from my grasp: I was holding the tool point up with a fist grip when it fell, and the razor edge cut a finger on its way down. I was lucky. It could have been much worse.
My grip was improved with leather-palmed gloves but diminished by cloth ones.
But a little preparation should mitigate this problem. If your knife comes with a bamboo handle, or if you purchase bamboo scales for your kit, consider applying a paracord or leather wrap on the handle for better traction. Or if a deep sheath or makes that impossible, you might prefer to make a trip to a gun maker to carve a light checkered etching on the bamboo. Some knife-makers might also offer this service.
An even easier option is to use bamboo scales on a knife with a reliable finger guard, such as the generous guard that Paul Scheider of Hedgehog Leatherworks designed into the Ontario Blackbird model SK-5.
Most bushcraft knives omit guards for a reason: pronounced guards can get in the way when splitting wood, especially when splitting along the length of a log, rather than the top. But in combination with bamboo, shallow finger grooves and guard ramps may not be enough protection against your pointer finger jumping that ramp and landing on the blade any time you are pushing firmly forward or working the tip.
However as I have mentioned already, an unexpected advantage to the bamboo is that it became grippier when it got wet. I found that sweaty palms alone were enough to improve my hold. And heaven knows camping trips are damp as often as not.
As a hunter, I’m curious as to whether field dressing a deer is easier after the bamboo scales get blood on them? Time will tell.
All told, I’m impressed by the superb performance of bamboo as a scale material. A bamboo handle provides the durability of modern materials like Micarta with the traditional look and feel of wood, and at an affordable cost.