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JohnCenter

Confused about stabilized wood

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Wasn't sure what to call this thread....

Basically, I am thinking of making a few 'puukko and/or maasepan' inspired knives. In doing some research it seems the majority of knives made across the sea use unstablized birch (please correct me if I am wrong). The maasepan knives use a block of wood with blade nailed in, while others use the block between various other materials with peened tang. Even Enzo's are sold with unstabilized birch scales.

This leads me to believe that unstabilized wood is not as 'bad' and 'shifty' as North American culture would have one believe. It seems that in NA knife culture I often read statements like  'must use stabilized wood'  because 'why would you give your customer any less?!'

Also, the over seas makers make knives for use in varying climates and I presume if there were real world issues (such as cracking, shifting, expanding, shrinking, etc.) they would stop using unstablized wood.... yet over here the verdict appears to be different...?

 

Please help me to better understand what appears to be conflicting information on the suitability of wood for handles...

 

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I just ran into the very same issue recently when I took a class on making pukko knives....as part of the class all of the raw materials were supplied with the end result being create a pukko and associated leather sheath.  When I questioned the raw unstabilized birchwood the answer was in the sealing process of using a variation of boiled linseed oil with multiple coats...the way they do pukko sheaths is different as well....the sheath seam is on the flat end of the blade so there is no welt strip to prevent you from cutting the interior of the sheath when you put the knife into the sheath and take it out....and yet the construction process works well....overall I tend to categorize it as simply differences in culture and fabrication techniques.. 

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4 hours ago, JohnCenter said:

Please help me to better understand what appears to be conflicting information on the suitability of wood for handles...

I'll be happy to explain.

Opinions are like ***holes, everyone has one and they all stink. Stabilized wood is one of those technological marvels that has been elevated to magical, must-have status by people who really only understand the smallest part of its nature. The concept (as you may be well aware) is that the voids and airspace inside the wood have been replaced with a resinous material that hardens, by using vacuum to draw the resin into the "pores" of the wood block. 

Whereas most wood is a porous and degradable material, the infusion of a hardened resin, presents a method of preventing the degradation of an otherwise organic material. So the neophyte will take this information and say "eureka! All wood must be stabilized or it will ultimately fail". Well, that may be true, but the amount of time that failure needs to occur, is the main issue.Another issue is what actually causes this degradation of material, and are there other ways to prevent, or at least slow the process down enough so that it takes several human generations to occur?

So, we have all sorts of objects from the 1700's and 1800's that have wooden construction and they haven't fallen apart yet have they? Why is that, if wood is so prone to self-destruction? The answer is use of specific finishing products. Keep the moisture away from the wood, and the aging process slows considerably. Raw, unfinished wood is a bad choice for anything that you want to last for a long time. There are many ways to finish and protect wood from degradation without advanced stabilization.

Some woods are so dense to begin with, or so oily/waxy by nature that modern stabilization techniques are useless on them anyway.

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Posted (edited)

How did we ever put a wood handle on knives before the invention of Cactus Juice?  Mom had a hickory handled butcher knife that she used for decades to prepare meals and it was as good the day that we packed out her apartment as the first day that I remember it.

Doug

Edited by Doug Lester

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Just now, Doug Lester said:

How did we ever put a wood handle on knives before the invention of Cactus Juice?  Mom had a hickory handled butcher knife that she used for decades to prepare meals and it was as good the day that we packed out here apartment as the first day that I remember it.

Doug

Exactly. People simply took care of their tools and furniture. One of my weekly chores as a kid was to clean and wax the furniture. I find it strange that people still expect to have to paint the house, but turn their noses up at the thought of oiling a knife handle.

People have become lazy and ignorant. They don't want anything to require any maintenance. Thus the popularity of synthetic handle materials and stabilized natural ones.

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Exactly.  Where stabilized wood comes into its own is on kitchen knives, because 9 out of 10 people who buy a fancy one still don't know how to care for a knife.  That said, even stabilized woods won't survive a dishwasher.  

Yes, it's easy care, no muss no fuss, but you the maker can't stain it or use any of your little tricks of wood finishing to spiff it up.  It's just plastic with a cellulose skeleton.  Which, again, is great for kitchen knives.  You can tell people "it's carbon steel.  It will take on a patina, and that's harmless" and that knife will come back to you with the complaint that they sliced tomatoes and now their knife is black and gross.  You can say "This wooden handle should not be left to soak in water, wipe it off immediately or bad things will happen" and that's exactly what will happen.  So, stainless steel and stabilized wood to the rescue.  But always include a statement with the info sheet that comes with the knife that says something like "all workmanship is guaranteed.  However, DO NOT put this knife in a dishwasher.  All warranties and guarantees are null and void if the knife goes through a dishwasher.  Hand wash only, like all fine cutlery."

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38 minutes ago, Joshua States said:

I'll be happy to explain.

Opinions are like ***holes, everyone has one and they all stink. Stabilized wood is one of those technological marvels that has been elevated to magical, must-have status by people who really only understand the smallest part of its nature. The concept (as you may be well aware) is that the voids and airspace inside the wood have been replaced with a resinous material that hardens, by using vacuum to draw the resin into the "pores" of the wood block. 

Whereas most wood is a porous and degradable material, the infusion of a hardened resin, presents a method of preventing the degradation of an otherwise organic material. So the neophyte will take this information and say "eureka! All wood must be stabilized or it will ultimately fail". Well, that may be true, but the amount of time that failure needs to occur, is the main issue.Another issue is what actually causes this degradation of material, and are there other ways to prevent, or at least slow the process down enough so that it takes several human generations to occur?

So, we have all sorts of objects from the 1700's and 1800's that have wooden construction and they haven't fallen apart yet have they? Why is that, if wood is so prone to self-destruction? The answer is use of specific finishing products. Keep the moisture away from the wood, and the aging process slows considerably. Raw, unfinished wood is a bad choice for anything that you want to last for a long time. There are many ways to finish and protect wood from degradation without advanced stabilization.

Some woods are so dense to begin with, or so oily/waxy by nature that modern stabilization techniques are useless on them anyway.

Something that is important in stabilized wood is that  the cellulose fiber of  the wood gets impregnated with the resins which then harden.  Since the fibers are saturated with the resin, they can't absorb any liquids and swell which stabilizes their size.

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1 minute ago, Gary Mulkey said:

Something that is important in stabilized wood is that  the cellulose fiber of  the wood gets impregnated with the resins which then harden.  Since the fibers are saturated with the resin, they can't absorb any liquids and swell which stabilizes their size.

Quite true. Prevent the moisture from getting into the wood, and you stop swelling, cracking, and checking. Any decent penetrating sealer will also accomplish the same thing though, no?

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Yup, water is exposed wood's worst enemy.  Unfortunately, "any decent sealer" won't really bond the fibers of the wood cells sufficiently.  I have all the equipment and have my Cactus Juice and will be stabilizing all my wooden materials.  It's especially good when working with burl woods because often they are rather punky.  The resin "pulls" it all together, filling all the microscopic "gaps" and makes what might have been a powdery mess in a few years a beautiful handle on your project.  I can't speak more highly of stabilizing and I've got a lot of burl material cut up waiting for me to clear my schedule enough to start the process. (guess that makes me lazy)

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2 hours ago, Joshua States said:

Quite true. Prevent the moisture from getting into the wood, and you stop swelling, cracking, and checking. Any decent penetrating sealer will also accomplish the same thing though, no?

They do the same thing but differently.  One  blocks the moisture from getting in.  The other doesn't allow  the wood to  absorb it.  Similar but different.;)

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4 hours ago, Gary Mulkey said:

They do the same thing but differently.  One  blocks the moisture from getting in.  The other doesn't allow  the wood to  absorb it.  Similar but different.;)

That reminded me of a saying one architect I worked with for a few years had. "the best way to stop something from leaking, is to stop it from getting wet"  :P

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5 hours ago, Chris Christenberry said:

(guess that makes me lazy)

No not at all and not the way I intended it. I love stabilized wood and use it a lot. I also use woods like Cocobolo, Ebony, Blackwood, and Ironwood that really don't take stabilizing well.

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No, no.  No offense taken...........you simply misunderstood my comment.  What I was saying was I've taken the time to cut up a bunch of burl and haven't gotten to stabilizing it yet........so I must be lazy.  Hope that clears up the misunderstanding.

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A negative to the stabilizing is that it makes the wood more brittle and prone to cracking with specific forces.

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I would like to add that unstabilized wood can be carved and scraped easily, many of the traditional puukko makers used to still shape their knife handles with a knife. decorative woodcarving is also a lot nicer when you're not cutting  plastic.

I use mostly natural woods that are hard enough to work without stabilisation, but many of the cool burls and spalted woods  that are popular today need stabilising.

I personally like the patina that natural wood gets from handling, I think a patinated carbon steel blade looks a bit odd on a handle that is till as shiny as when the knife was new.

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After taking a trip from wet Wisconsin to dry New Mexico, and seeing the movement of unstable materials, been thinking on the subject, Don,t feel like there’s any real magic bullet, but rather a weighing of goals , as each has positive and negative aspects. I also agree with the idea of materials that match in the long run. 

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Threads like this is why I love this place. :)

Problem is simple facts like you need to take care of your wood handle and your carbon steel blade can seem like excuses to people that know nothing except amount they paid for the knife. 

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Very informative.

 

I know there is a list on Bladeforums of woods that can be used unstabilized,  but it is long and somewhat confusing and I found it does not really answer the question very clearly. This thread has really given me a much better understanding.

 

So typical woods I have seen used unstabilized that are not magical (eg. ironwood): Birch, hickory, and maple,.

 

Any others?

 

 

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As far as my personal preference, the only woods that need to be stabilized are spalted ones.  Or Black Palm, maybe.  

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Oily or waxy woods like cocobolo and some species of Blackwood cannot be stabilized. Purple Heart and other very dense hardwoods also reject stabilization. 

 

You don't “need” to stabilize most woods, but you do need to provide some water resistant finish. That’s a whole discussion in itself.

Edited by Joshua States

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A while back I made a small kitchen knife for personal use. It was full tang with bullet wood scales. This wood is very dense and hard, like its name suggests. Even with protection, the wood shrunk a little over time. So now I can feel the pins and tang edges a little. It probably wouldn't have been a big deal with a hidden tang design but it's a bit annoying with a full tang. 

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