By STEELPORT Engineer Bill Emery
There is more to a handle than just something to hold while chopping vegetables. The size, weight, shape, and contours are all part of what makes a knife comfortable to hold and use.
In the realm of knife making, there are thousands of options for handle materials. Finding a material that will last a lifetime, looks amazing, feels great, and is locally sourced was not an easy task. Luckily, there is such a material growing in our backyards.
The Big Leaf Maple (acer macrophyllum) also known as Oregon Maple was selected as the material to make the handle of every STEELPORT knife.
The Oregon Maple is the largest of the North American Maples, and has the largest leaves of all maples. Oregon Maple trees can grow to a height of 80ft. It’s easily identified by the large leaves that measure up to 12 inches across. The Oregon Maple is a native species and is found in coastal environments ranging from Southern California to Alaska. While its native range is quite large, it only grows where there’s a constant source of water and prefers a dampness that is common to the Pacific Northwest. The current Champion of trees is located in Marion County, Oregon at 88 feet tall and more then 105 feet wide. The Oregon Maple is known as the mother of the forest. It provides food, shelter, and nutrients to all creatures great and small. From the smallest mosses to the largest elk, the Oregon Maple is there for each stage of their life. In the Olympic National Park, the Big Leaf Maple has the highest moss load of any tree. You will often find over 1 ton of moss per tree and an equal amount of wildlife support per tree. Oregon Maple is also found in our homes. You often find it used in countertops and flooring, but the prized tonal wood is used in guitars and drums.
We’re using local Big Leaf Maple burl (more on that below) sourced from our friends at Goby Walnut. Goby is a Portland-based family business co-owned and operated by a father and son team on a mission to close the sustainability loop. They are renowned for their slabs, oversized lumber, and highly figured material. They’re old school, with innovation – harvesting old, oversized, mostly dead and dying trees, as well as growing seedlings and replanting 5 trees for every tree that they mill.
STEELPORT has chosen to only use “burl” wood, resulting in beautiful natural color and truly unique character to each knife. Burl wood is an enclosed growth on the tree that is the result of stress or damage. This stress can be a local injury, fire, or a fungal attack. Because burls are an irregularity, no two burls are ever the same. Burls are considered undesirable for mass manufacturing and are often discarded because of their twisted irregular grain, but when processed with care, their inner beauty is beyond comparison.
We love that every STEELPORT handle has a unique pattern created by nature, and that our process gives purpose to a material that might otherwise go to waste.
Oregon Maple burl wood has to be processed to bring out its stunning patterns. To help ensure consistency in color and size, each handle blank is kiln dried. The kiln drying process removes excess moisture and ensures any shrinkage or warping that could happen occurs at this stage in the process.
A typical kiln dried wood has a moisture content of 8%-10%. To meet the strict standards for STEELPORT use, the Oregon Maple selected has a moisture content of less than 2%. Taking the extra step of reducing the moisture content is critical in producing a handle that will last a lifetime.
With the Oregon Maple blanks fully dried and cut to a rough size, the blanks begin the process of stabilization. STEELPORT uses stabilized wood to ensure a lifetime of use. Stabilized wood will not absorb water, oils, or other contaminants. With fully stabilized wood there is no risk or cracking, warping, splinters, or shrinkage.
In addition to the physical stabilization, fully stabilized wood looks amazing. The stabilization process allows the handle to be polished to a high luster, and it retains this appearance with minimal maintenance.
The stabilized Oregon Maple blank is precision machined using CNC processes to ensure an exact fit. The process of turning a simple rectangle of wood into an elegant contoured handle begins with an idea and a sketch. That sketch is recreated using CAD software and refined using a series of rapid prototypes.
The final geometry is a blend of octagonal geometry and contoured edges. The resulting shape is one that gives you excellent control without fatigue from all day use. Once the feel and contour are correct, the handle fabrication process shifts from prototyping to machining. A CNC router makes multiple passes with numerous carbide tools to transform the simple rectangle into a finished handle.
Machining is only one aspect of the fabrication process. Quality control is critical when creating an heirloom tool. Using a series of fixtures and visual checks, each handle is inspected to identify any defects and only the best handles are accepted.
Each handle is matched to a single high carbon steel blade. Once the handle and blade are joined, they are finished as a matched set to produce a unique, one-of-a-kind knife.
The finishing process begins with a light sanding to match all of the contours and edges to the blade. After an initial rough sanding, each surface is further sanded using finer and finer grits to a produce a fine matte finish. After an initial inspection and corrections, the handle and blade are polished to a high luster. After a final inspection, the handle is oiled and ready for a lifetime of use. What began as a discarded scrap of wood, has been transformed into a tool that will last a lifetime.