DIY

How To: Re-handle an Old Hickory Cleaver (or any other Old Hickory)

After the handle scales on my Old Hickory Cleaver came loose in a previous test, I decided it was time to put my training to work and fashion a set of bulletproof micarta scales for it! I also took the opportunity to modify the blade to address the other issues I had with the knife to make it a better camping tool.

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Tools Used:

  • Blade Grinder Attachment for the Ken Onion Worksharp
  • Drill Press with 3/16” metal cutting bit
  • Bandsaw
  • Bench grinder
  • (2) C-clamps
  • Hammer
  • 150-grit sandpaper
  • “Beater” knife blade
  • Sharpie marker

Materials Used:

  • (2) pieces of natural canvas micarta, ⅜” thick
  • (3) 3/16” brass pins
  • Dev-Con 2-ton epoxy
  • Painters tape
  • Cutting oil
  • Disposable latex gloves

Safety Equipment:

  • Respirator
  • Safety Goggles
  • Hearing Protection (if desired)

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The first step to re-handling any Old Hickory is removing the stock scales. This is actually very simple, as the only thing holding them on are compression rivets. Carefully work a beater knife in between the tang and the scale and you will be able to pop them off without too much trouble.

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Next step is to modify the heel of the blade to facilitate easier woodcarving. I achieved this by slowly using a bench grinder, making sure to keep the blade cool with frequent dunkings in water. Unfortunately, I did scratch up the face of the blade a bit… I should have masked it off before starting.

Next I had to drill out the tang holes a bit to accommodate the 3/16” brass pins I planned to use, as the existing holes were more like 5/32” to begin with. This also helps with the rear hole, which is actually a slot, in that it will keep that pin from moving around on you.

The middle and rear hole were a cinch, as that portion of the tang is not hardened (you can actually see the heat treat transition after cleaning it up), but the forward hole resides amongst hardened steel. I had to go very slowly with liberal applications of cutting oil to get that one finished.

After the holes were widened, I selected two pieces of micarta for the new scales, set the steel on top, and used the drill press to match the hole pattern, inserting the pins as I went to keep things lined up. I then traced the outline of the handle onto the micarta and trimmed them close with a band saw.

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Things were starting to take shape!

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Before gluing up the scales, make sure everything lines up properly, and that the pins can be easily inserted without binding up.

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You will also need to finish the top end of the handle scales now, as they are very difficult to work on after the scales are attached. Make sure the shape and level of polish you want is done now.

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Important Safety Tip: Make sure you are wearing a respirator and safety goggles whenever you are sanding the micarta. It is nasty stuff and you don’t want it in your lungs!

Then rough up the sides of the micarta that will be epoxied, as well as the corresponding area of the tang, with a rough sandpaper to ensure proper adhesion. You can also take your beater or craft knife and score the micarta as well.

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After taping off the blade (to keep it clean during this step) I donned a pair of latex gloves and mixed the epoxy. Use all three pins to apply it to the scales, making sure to coat the entire surface, then put the three pieces together and insert the pins, twisting them as you do so. This will ensure the pins are coated in epoxy as well, which will help prevent the knife from rusting from the inside out.

I then peened the ends of the brass (you will need some sort of anvil or hard surface to place them on). This will make the pins swell inside the holes for an even stronger hold. In the days before epoxy, this would have been the only thing holding the scales to the knife.

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After peening, clamp it up and let it cure overnight.

Now comes the really fun part… handle shaping!

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For this part, I used the Blade Grinding Attachment for the Ken Onion WorkSharp exclusively, which was given to me for review by Darex. I wanted to see how well it could do on its own, without the aid of any other grinding/sanding apparatus.

My verdict? If you do a lot of knifemaking or rehandling projects, the BGA is not going to replace a dedicated grinder, but if you are just a hobbyist who does this occasionally, I found it to be a very capable tool. All the different sections available on the unit proved useful for the steps needed when doing handle work.

First, a word about aftermarket belts. When it comes to sharpening, I can achieve better results with the WorkSharp branded belts than with any aftermarket part I have tried, and those include Econoway and Grizzly branded belts. For this project though, I needed some rougher stuff. I picked up some 60-grit and 120-grit Grizzly belts and they worked quite nicely.

Before doing any shaping, the first step is to square everything up… pins flush to the scales and scales flush to the tang.

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Using the small work table and platen on the front of the BGA, the pins were quickly ground down, and it took a while but I got the scales flush as well. Before starting to contour, I also narrowed the handle height right at the neck as well, as this was going to play into the new shape I had in mind.

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Using the upper slack portion of the belt (where you typically sharpen on this unit), I began to “cut off the corners” of the micarta… making a rough octagonal cross section, before “cutting off” the resulting corners and proceeding to rough in the shape.

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The other change I wanted to make to the handle outline was to add a small beak at the end to help with retention while chopping. The wheel at the front of the unit was useful for digging and rolling left and right to make the shape. This same technique can be used to create finger grooves as well, although I did not do that here.

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After everything was roughed in it was back to the slack belt zones, rolling the knife along its axis to blend everything together.

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After finishing the shape I wanted with the 60-grit belts, I then smoothed things out with 120-grit.

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Looking good but the finish was still rough, so I moved up to a 600 grit belt that came as part of an assortment of Econoway belts that I purchased from Amazon. This gave me a very smooth finish without being as slick as some polished handles can be.

And here is my end result!

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I still need more practice as I can see a few places where I was a little sloppy, and my symmetry could use a little work, but I am extremely pleased with the way it came out. I managed to achieve the inverted egg cross section that I wanted for the handle (this type of shape indexes very well in the hand) and the mods to the outline turned out very well. The beak does help a bit with security when choked back, and I tapered the sides at the front for better pinch grips and fine work.

On the blade itself, by changing the convex arc at the heel to a concave one, two things have been achieved. The handle has been effectively lengthened, allowing you to choke up closer to the balance point, and you are also able to better get your hand behind the cutting edge, all without actually losing any sharpened edge in the process. Both make woodcarving more comfortable and more easily done. We will see how things go after more testing, but I am happy so far.

If you have any questions, let us know in the comments, and I will answer to the best of my ability!

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