A Japanese-inspired Puukko and sheath

On our way to our holiday destination in the south of Slovakia, my girlfriend an I visited Dictum last summer. I think it’s the largest store for traditional tools and supplies, located in southern Bavaria. Judging by the prestige and fame of this shop, I was hoping for a massive store to wander through for hours, picking stuff off the shelves and stacking them in my cart. Sadly, it’s more of a small showroom where you can see and try many of their products. The store is clearly more internet-oriented. Half the stuff I was interested in was not at the actual showroom, but in the warehouse nearby. This was especially so for the materials, such as leather and wood. These I was most hoping to see and pick out myself. Next time I’ll order online.

So, even though the visit was a bit disappointing, I did buy some nice things. One of those things was a little, cheap Japanese blade. The blade itself is 80 mm (slightly over 3″) long and laminated, with a center layer of what they call “white paper steel”. You often see borderline magical properties assigned to certain types of steel, and I had a feeling that “white paper steel” might not be more than a marketing trick. As far as I have been able to find out, white paper steel is called that because it comes wrapped in white paper. There is also blue paper steel that, guess what, comes in blue paper. No really. Some say it’s harder than other steel. Who knows. It might just be hype.

However, this knife was quite cheap, and I saw no reason not to having a go. I decided to make something inspired by both Japanese knives and Scandinavian/Finnish Puukko’s. Puukko’s are the traditional “everyday” knife in Finland and northern Scandinavia. The Japanese thing was kind of obvious: the blade is Japanese. Other than that, I think those horn ferrules look awesome. I used some buffalo horn I had laying around to make a ferrule and some mystery wood I cut down in Germany for the handle. I roughly carved the shape and then sanded it smooth.

Making knife handle

 

After drilling the hole for the tang with my tiny dremel drill and filing it to size, it was time to glue in the knife. I’ve seen people do this with epoxy, but I wanted to keep this thing all natural. My brother, who has some experience with blacksmithing and making knives, tought me how to make cutler’s resin. This is a really simple, really strong glue made from ingredients you could theoretically gather in a local forest. Here’s the recipe we used:

-4 parts resin (also called colophony, rosin, Greek pitch or pix Graeca)
-1 part beeswax
-1 part powdered charcoal

It’s dead simple to make. you just melt the resin and the beeswax together and stir in charcoal. Stir while letting it cool, forming it into a ball of sorts.

Making cutler's resin

 

To put the handle on the knife, heat the tang with a torch or over the gas stove. You might even get away with a heat gun.  It doesn’t need to be glowing red or anything, just hot enought to melt the resin. If the tang is too hot, you will instantly burn the resin (which is not a problem either. Colophony is the main ingredient of church incense. Your house will smell lovely). Melt a thin layer of the resin on the tang. While still hot, push the tang in the handle and whipe away the excess. Some people recommend clamping the knife, but I just held the thing firmly. Do put something around the blade to prevent cutting yourself. I used some masking tape. After 10 minutes or so, the resin has probably cooled sufficiently and you can let go of the knife. It’s probably best to let it cool over knight before using it.

The colophony acts as the actual “glue”, bonding the metal to the wood. By itself it would be too brittle, however. That’s why the beeswax is added. It adds elasticity. The charcoal acts as a filler and gives the glue a homogenous consistency. It also fills up any imperfections from the filing. If you don’t use a ferrule or for any other reason black would not be a good color glue for you, you could use another filler such as ash or wood dust. I’ve even heard stories of people using hair or elk dung. Who knows.

Finished Puukko
In line with the theme, I made a traditional Puukko sheath for the knife. This is a sheath made of veg tanned leather that is wet formed to fit the knife. Typically, it only has one seam that is on the side of the knife. This has the advantage that the knife cannot cut the seam. While the sheath itself is made from veg tanned cow’s leather, the belt loop is made from reindeer leather, also bought at Dictum. The reindeer leather is soft and supple but exceptionally strong. I doubled it on itself and glued the flesh sides together. Then I sewed it between the seem of the sheeth. The sheeth is hand stitched using a saddle stitch. This is a traditional leatherworking stitch that requires the use of two needles, each attached to one side of the thread. This allows for a much stronger seam than most other stitches, including machine lock stitches.

To make the sheath, start by wrapping the knife in some cling film. This will protect it from the damp leather it will shortly come in contact with. Then wrap the knife in the leather and mark out a shape. Cut the shape. I put a groove around the edge to sink the stitches in but that’s not essential. Then punch the holes. Most people use an awl to punch the hole, but I chose to use my lacing chisel. Since I don’t use my stitching pony to hold the piece while stitching since I don’t want to squish the sheath, an awl would be awkward to use.

Start stitching the fourth hole or so from the top. Stitch towards the top, fastening the belt loop to the sheath. double up the four top holes and stitch down to the very bottom of the sheath. Double up the bottom four holes and push the needles between the seam. Make a knot between the two layers of leather. Now your sheath is more or less done.

stitching puukko sheath

After stitching I wet the leather once again. With my bone folder I shaped the sheath to the knife. After the sheath dried I beveled the edges with a knife (i really need a beveler) and sanded the sides smooth with some sandpaper. Then I burnished the sides with some linen and saddle soap. After this I oiled the sheath with some leather oil and finished the thing with my furniture wax. This was an experiment that worked out quite well. It seems that the wax hardly darkens the leather but really does a great job at waterproofing it. So far I have only tried it on this project, which is quite stiff, thick veg tanned leather, so I can only recommend it for waterproofing things like that. I will try it on other things as soon as I can, and let you know. If you do, please let me know too!

Japanese inspired Puukko knife sheath

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5 replies on “A Japanese-inspired Puukko and sheath

  • Gareth Clayton

    Love the knife, also love your leuku too. I appreciate you posting the recipe for the cutlers glue.
    I am also trying to go “all natural” in my knife making.

    Can I ask how the homemade glue has lasted so far? I’m really interested in it’s long term durability. I know there are old swords and knives (100yrs +) that are still holding up nicely.

    Thanks again for the info.

    GJC

    Reply
    • Lieuwe

      Hi Gareth,

      Thanks! Both the leuku and the puukko are still fine. The leuku has seen some serious (ab)use, chopping and carving. Not a sign of the glue failing yet. I do think that the fit of the handle and the type of wood used factor into the rate of success. I’m sure that epoxy will give a more consistent result with less effort, but these two knives do show that the natural home made resin can work.

      Lieuwe

      Reply
      • Gareth Clayton

        Thanks so much.

        I have heard that burn fitting the tang into the wood can help too. I might try that. I have a small puukko and leuku (lauri) that I’m making a set of knive from. I will try out your recipe!
        I love the large leuku BTW, very restrained and classy!

        Reply
  • The Oncoming Storm

    it’s not just hype. they wrap it in the different papers to tell what grade is what, and named the grades after the paper they’re wrapped in.
    from the hida tool pdf on the difference between white and blue steel:

    Shirogami
    White steel (also known as “white paper steel”, named for the wrapping used by its manufacturer) is used to make tools that
    can be sharpened to an excellent edge with good quality natural stones. It is a carbon steel with only very small amounts of the
    impurities P (phosphorus) and S (sulfur). It has a very narrow range of temperatures for hardening (Yakiire and quenching),
    and thus requires the blacksmith to be very skilled. There are three forms of white steel with different carbon contents: #1 (1.2-
    1.4% C), #2 (1.0-1.2% C) and #3 (0.8-0.9%).
    Aogami
    Blue steel (also known as “blue paper steel”, named for the wrapping used by its manufacturer) also contains very little P and
    S, but W (tungsten) and Cr (Chromium) are added to make the hardening temperature less critical and to increase wear
    resistance for longer- lasting sharpness. There are two grades of blue steel with different carbon contents: #1 (1.2-1.4% C) and
    #2 (1.0-1.2% C). There is one more type called the Super Blue Steel, with more W and Cr, plus Mo (molybdenum) for
    additional toughness and wear resistance. This also widens the hardening step; it can be cooled in oil instead of water.

    Reply
    • Lieuwe

      Thanks for the info! I know it refers to the specific types of steel, but what I meant is that terms such as “white paper steel” are often used as marketing buzz-words.

      Reply

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