At this point I decided I wanted to stabilize the wood I used for handles. Stabilizing Scales (and handles) helps eliminate the possibility of the handle going bad because of moisture causing expansion or contraction if it dries out. It minimizes or eliminates warping, cracking and other issues that can occur with wood when used under extreme circumstances. It also would allow me to use some spalted wood that wouldn’t normally be a good handle.
The equipment required for Stabilizing Scales is a bit expensive, so if you’re only going to make a few knives, and have no other use, it’s may be best to just buy scales or use wood that’s dry and stable. You may also want to focus more on making knives. Either way using stabilized scales is a great way to get some interesting figured scales.
If you want to stabilize your own however, you’ll need a vacuum
pump, a vacuum chamber, a scale and stabilizing liquid. You’ll also be using
the toaster oven. I chose Cactus Juice (it’s a brand name, not real Cactus
Juice) for the stabilizer. This process also allows you to dye the wood in
multiple colors, although it will add expense for each color.
I dry the blanks in the oven. I built a rack so they would stay separated. I weigh one and put it in for a couple of hours at about 210 degrees. Some documentation says to use 220 degrees, but I’ve had scales start to burn at 220 degrees. Other documentation says to leave it for 24 hours, but I refuse to leave wood roasting in my shop when I’m not there.
After a couple hours I start weighing one piece and tracking
the weight. When it stops losing weight, I give it one more 30 minute cycle and
stop it there. I immediately put it in a zip lock bag, wrap it in plastic wrap
or put it in an airtight container to keep it from sucking up the moisture from
From here follow the manufacturer’s instructions to stabilize it.
In my opinion, A truly exquisite knife, one you just want to carry on your next adventure, will always have a wood handle. Wood is the traditional substance for a beautiful knife handle, and unless it is planed to be used in the most extreme survival conditions, for lengths of time almost humanly unbearable, a wood handle will always perform wonderfully. And nothing really can compare to wood for adding beauty to your knife.
So with that after some time making knives, I decided to add stabilizing to my list of “do-it-yourself” knife chores. I sat down and decided on this vacuum pump, and the 6×14″ JuiceProof Chamber from turntex.com. My first order at turntex looked like this
And with shipping the turntex order came to slightly less than $400. Plus of course the cost of the pump from Amazon making it a fairly substantial investment.
Now I like to make anything I can myself. This is a hobby,
and I do it for fun. I had just cut a lot of spalted beech, so I already had a
lot of nice potential blanks available. Was the investment worth it? Only time
So my first mistake
was miscalculating how much cactus juice I would need. So, my first bit of
advice, leave all dye off your first order. Start with wood stabilizing. It
will save you some grief, unless you’re going to make everything one color and
leave the natural for later. It wouldn’t be my first suggestion, but there may
be a reason for a certain color.
After some testing,
I’ve determined that the equivalence of 12 knife scales (so maybe 6 scales and
3 blocks that may be hidden tang handles and may be split into scales) takes
approximately 1/3 of a gallon. So right off, at close to $100 a gallon shipped,
that’s still more than I expected, but not terrible.
But wait! Stop and think about what you just read. I used
1/3 of a gallon for 6 knives. So, once the next batch goes in I am stretching
the limit of being able to keep the batch completely covered during processing.
So after 12 knives (if you make it) you need to buy another gallon of juice to
really get the total of 18 knives out of the first gallon.
And we haven’t even started talking about color. Think about
it. Once you add dye to your juice, it’s always that color. So if I want to do
a batch of red, I need another gallon. That gallon will get me 12 knives until
I buy yet another gallon and some more dye.
Talk about a rabbit hole!
And should we talk about multi colors? It seems pretty easy
but hit YouTube for advice. The first 6 videos will give you six different
opinions on the best way. Do you vacuum the first color or just let it soak? If
you just let it soak how far does it go? Do you cook between (you better unless
you want some black juice) or do you soak twice then cook? What I’ve found is
it really depends on your wood. For instance, setting that spalted beech in 1/3
soaking will soak up most of the way. Do the same with good solid oak and not
so much. So, the only real way to know is try it. The good news is, almost
anything you do, once on a knife and finished to perfection, will look
fantastic to someone’s taste. It’s still wood after all.
My advice, if you’re headed down this rabbit hole, would be
to start with a single color. A nice grained wood with a single dye looks great
and will get you started. Using that one color is still going to set you back
over $100 if you plan any good size batches.
I have found ways to stretch this a little further by using
smaller containers to vacuum in. This takes less juice, but with fewer pieces.
I also keep some cleaned up pieces of metal I can add to just take up space. There
is often empty space (especially in round containers) that requires more juice.
Filling this space allows you to stretch your juice.
Also doing smaller batches mean you may not need the “next” gallon quite as quick. But then your using your equipment to process enough for two or four knives. It’s a trade off and a practice I’ve employed from time to time.
Drying is a must if you’re going to stabilize. And drying to
zero percent, so you’ll need to cook it. I’ve found the best way is use my
toaster oven that I use for heat treating but be careful. The advice on turntex
is to set your oven to about 200 degrees and cook for 24 hours. Well…….did I
say….”BE CAREFUL”? I set a batch on fire. I suppose that advice is for bowl
turning blocks, but it doesn’t specify. Luckily, I was in the shop and caught
it before anything bad happened. Now I refuse to leave the wood cooking more
than 30 minutes when I’m not on the shop.
Turning the oven off before it’s fully dry means playing
catchup the next day (moisture seeps back in overnight) but it’s better than
burning the shop down. I’ve also unloaded the oven and sealed the wood in an airtight
container. It’s a bit of a hassle, but again, better than burning down the
I start a batch and take the largest piece. I weight it on this scale, and check it every 30-60 minutes.
Once it stops losing weight, I let it cook for another 30 minutes and call it
done. I’ve found for knife block size pieces most will be dry in 12-14 hours.
If all this sounds like a marketing strategy to get you to buy my stabilized wood instead of stabilizing your own, your damn right! And I wish someone had prompted me to dig deeper. The information out there is really really vague. To be honest, as much fun as it is, I would have most likely held off had I known the full scope. The investment is way to close to a heat-treating oven on my want list.