Handle Treatments


Active Member
Hey guys
I’m making more and more kitchen knives because, frankly, they sell better. But the question is what’s to be used on wood handles to keep 'em shiny and nice? I'm using the usual suspects in hardwoods (maple, ebony, ironwood, walnut) and some stabilized wood material. My default finish is Mike Mahoney's walnut oil which I use as a lubricant when sanding the higher grits, like 220 and above. This seems to permeate well and leaves a good "utility shine" finish on the wood and brass pins after 600 grit. After sanding I apply another couple of coats of oil until the wood's not thirsty any more.
But then along comes the real world, blood and guts, soap and water and ... the thrill is gone.
So, what is another good, food safe finish for wood handles on kitchen cutlery?
I stopped using walnut oil after it smelled rancid after a couple years in the bottle. Since then I've gone to pure tung oil and most recently I'm experimenting with a citrus oil mix .
Do we need "food safe" finishes on a kitchen knife handle? Are there health code issues in commercial kitchens?

I can't really see the potential for ingesting any amount of finish from a knife handle. That would greatly increase the options for much tougher finishes. When you think about it, the stabilized wood folks use that naked and certainly that resin is not good to eat, yet it doesn't cause issues from touching food.
For me, it is not the issue of contiminating the food as much as it is the protection of the handle from the elements. In my own experience, it is the banging around and sometimes left in the sink that influences the longevity of the handle’s finish. Even well applied, multiple coats of TruOil doesn’t last very long. I use stabilized wood mostly, but I have natural wood scales that are the right size that I would love to use and that won’t survive stabilizing.
Manmade materials are just too heavy sometimes.
Can’t guarantee that someone will give the knife the love it deserves.
Do we need "food safe" finishes on a kitchen knife handle? Are there health code issues in commercial kitchens?
In my experience, this depends on the specific owner. There are chefs/owners that follow the letter of the law and want, for lack of a better term, 'synthetic' handles (ie, not wood). I've had other chefs not worry about this and request stabilized wood handles. I think @Chris Railey is right about the reason for the laws, and like almost everything, it depends on each individual inspector who is doing the enforcement of said laws.
If you want to make knives to market to the general use commercial kitchen, then I'd suggest using plastic handles to be on the safe side.
TruOil works like a champ for me. I have hard daily-use kitchen knives with a TruOil finish that have lasted several years now and still shines. Oils, fat, blood, soap, water, and a gazillion washes. I’m just not seeing problems. The knives i’ve made that are in professional kitchens are still going strong.

The only kitchen knife handle that I’ve had come back with the finish damaged went through the dishwasher on high heat.
I'm not speaking for John, but my routine with it is apply it ( by the couple of drops) rubbing it till dry. Then let it set for a few hours. Repeat. Usually, about 5 to 10 coats.
How many coats & what's the drying time between coats?
My process is really simple. The first coat I put on heavy. I give the wood as much as it will take. Then wipe off the excess and rub the handle with my fingertip until it gets warm and tacky. That heavy first coat usually takes a day to dry.

Once dry, buff with 0000 steel wool to smooth. Then the second coat. A couple of drops will do the whole handle. Rub it dry. I normally let it cure overnight between coats because I’m not in a hurry. Buff lightly with the steel wool between coats.

I typically do 4 - 6 coats. After four coats I usually have a deep lustrous finish. I know most guys do a lot of coats like Bruce mentions. I think the reason I don’t have to is because I get so much into the wood on the first coat. Even on stabilized wood that first application takes a good amount of oil. The subsequent coats just add depth.
Why not used stabilized wood? That with a good buff would be pretty much impervious to Kitchen Elements.
I use Tung Oil (100% stuff, not the solvent laced stuff) on all of my knife handles. Tru Oil is also good, but I like the feel of the Tung Oil.
I put Truoil on a kitchen knife I made about 2 years ago or maybe a little longer. I just started to notice the other day that it's lost a bit of its shine. This is a knife we use everyday at our house and always handwashed. I think 1 or 2 coats of truoil and it would be good for another couple years. I know that is probably not ideal for a knife you sell...but like anything knives require maintenance. I still find it to be one of the best finishes for natural wood.