It's easy to overlook one of the most important aspects of a knife: the handle. But you should give it some serious thought. Otherwise, it's like buying a car without considering the seats and steering wheel - none of the other features will matter if it feels uncomfortable to drive. Similarly, an unsuitable handle can ruin your knife experience. Most of the time, this is a matter of preference. But that's why we prefer one of the most widely praised handle woods: magnolia.
The Magnolia Handle: The Structure of This Article
In this article, I will teach you not only about magnolia wood but also about Japanese-style handles known as wa handles. I'll give you an overview of this exceptional method of making handles and explain why magnolia is widely used in Japanese knife making. As a bonus, I'll also give you tips on taking care of your magnolia wood handle.
The Japanese Wa (和) Handle
There Are Two Broad Categories of Handles: Wa（和） and Yo（洋）
To begin with, here's a quick overview of the two different categories of handles to give you an idea of what's different about a wa handle as opposed to the typical Western yo handle. All of our magnolia handles are wa style.
Wa refers to the Japanese-style knife handle, which has no metal rivets and is almost always made of wood. The tang of the knife (the thin spike-shaped tail of the blade, which is hidden inside the handle) is heated and hammered into a hole in the handle. Sometimes glue or resin is added inside the hole before hammering to help keep the handle in place. This ancient method is simple and effective at making securely attached handles.
Yo is the Western style. This type is made with a full or half tang (going all the way or halfway to the bottom of the handle) inserted into the handle. Then it is secured in place with two to three rivets. With this design, you can often see the top edge of the tang. It is made with more steel and is heavier in the handle than a wa handle.
Wa Handle Shapes
Wa handles come in several different forms. None of these designs are necessarily better than the other; it's mainly a matter of preference. The shapes are as follows: octagonal, oval, D-shape and shield.
This is the most common type of wa handle. It is, as the name implies, octagonally shaped. It should have eight sides with slightly rounded edges to fit comfortably into the hand. These types of handles are popular and have a nice feel. In addition, the edges allow for more leverage giving the user a more secure grip and superior control.
This shape is a simple, smooth oval. It's one of the most comfortable. However, as it's completely smooth, it can sometimes be hard to grip if your hand gets wet or oily. But, generally, it's easy to hold and is a classic design.
D-Shape or shinogi handles are particularly interesting and one of the least common. They are oval-shaped but with a ridge running down the handle's left or right side. Because of this asymmetrical design, they are not ambidextrous, so you have to have careful when buying a knife with this type of handle. However, the unique feature allows for excellent control of the blade.
The shield or hinoura is similar to the octagonal shape. It still has eight surfaces, but instead of being the same width at the top and bottom, it tapers down and gets thinner at the bottom. This design makes it easier to maneuver and is better for people with small hands.
This Type of Magnolia Is Native to Japan
There are many magnolia trees under the genus of magnolia in the world. The one used for Japanese wa handles is magnolia hypoleuca, also known as magnolia obovata, a tree species native to Japan. You may also sometimes find it under the name 'Ho wood' or mistakenly called hinoki, which is the Japanese cypress tree.
A Favorite of Experts for Its Well-Rounded Qualities
Magnolia is beloved by Japanese artisans for its easy workability, strength, and lightness. It is also highly water-resistant and reasonably priced. Because of these qualities, it is used for many things; chopping boards, sheaths, furniture, and knife handles.
And All of These Attributes Are Good News for Your Knife
The qualities of this wood will be imparted to the handle of your knife. You can expect magnolia handles to be extremely light and tough. They are water resistant (not waterproof, mind you) and feel good in the hand. And the clean brightness of the material is beautiful to look at.
How to Care for Your Magnolia Wa Handle
You won't necessarily need to maintain your handle with as much regularity as, say, sharpening the blade of your knife. But, it's good to care for it nonetheless, as handles can break if neglected or misused.
Keep the Handle Dry
Ensure that after you use your knife, you dry it thoroughly. It's even a good idea to leave it out for a little while after towel drying it to let the air dry any remaining water residue. Keeping the handle dry will prevent the wood from becoming damp. Excessive and regular dampness can warp the wood, leading to cracking or splitting - it can even make the blade slip out!
Always Wash Your Knife by Hand
For the same reasons above, never put your knife into the dishwasher. But also, it can chip the blade of your knife (or cause serious rusting and erosion of carbon steel knives), and the heat can potentially detach the handle. If you want your knife to stay in top condition, be gentle with it. Wash it by hand with only dish soap and warm water.
Oil the Wood
It isn't vital but rubbing some food-safe oil onto your magnolia handle once in a while is a good idea. It makes the handle more water resistant and can darken the color slightly, which some may find aesthetically pleasing.
Why Choose a Magnolia Wood Wa Handle?
Magnolia Just Feels Good
There are many reasons that home cooks and chefs choose to go with a magnolia handle. The foremost is that they're incredibly comfortable and feel perfect in the hand. The importance of this can't be understated - a knife that's easier to hold is easier to cut with.
Easily Replaceable If Damaged
If you've ever broken the handle on a Western-style knife, you'll know that it's difficult to replace the handle, and it's often less hassle to buy a whole new knife. However, with a magnolia wa handle, this isn't a problem. In fact, with a few standard tools around the house, you can easily attach a new handle.
Offers a Different Cutting Experience
Because wa handles are so light, the knife's center of mass tends to be on the blade side. So, you can save your wrist some strain by letting the weight of the blade do some of the work for you. It can feel unusual at first, but many people grow to love this unique cutting feel and even come to prefer it.
Give magnolia wood handles a try if you want the full traditional Japanese knife experience. I guarantee you won’t regret it!