Many thanks to Edgewise for writing this for my poor old collection of pages! After I read Bo Bergman's book on knifemaking and Scandinavian knives, I promised myself that I would one day make some wooden sheaths. That day is yet to come because of being busy with many other things - but I am fortunate enough to have some wooden sheaths. "Sheaths made out of wood have issues with shrinkage and expansion", is what many of us have heard a lot of.. I would just say that there is a tradition of wooden sheaths from the arctic to the hottest and wettest jungle. What the pictures don't and can't show is the practicality of the design, and the "fit" of a wooden sheath in the wilderness. For some of us, natural materials are more appropriate in what we take to the wild - and enhance our experience..
So far, I haven't made two wooden sheaths with the same design. The design for each sheath evolved from
(1) characteristics of the individual knife;
(2) special considerations regarding the use of the knife;
(3) the particular piece of wood that I wanted to use.
The knives and sheaths are described right to left - and the one on the far right is really a Mora - with a custom handle. Edgewise has already brought back the bevel and convexed it, so that's another reason why you might not recognize it for what it started as..
The Mora and the Lucie (Scagel-type) knives are both "handle-heavy". A leather sheath (other than a pouch sheath) would tend to tip over and make the knife easier to lose. Therefore, I wanted to put enough wood into the sheaths to move the center of gravity to a point below the place on the sheath to which the belt loop was fastened.
For the Mora, I chose two pieces of curly Maple that had a nice "tiger stripe" pattern (probably "quarter-sawn" to produce that effect) that I thought would make a nice contrast to the dark(Mahogany?) of the custom-handled Mora (which I found at a flea market for $20). The wood was already about the right thickness and was tapered. I had a piece of 1/8" oak that could be cut to fit around the blade and, (not wanting to bother carving a space for the blade) that also became a design factor!
I traced the blade on the 1/8" oak, added a bit to the top (maybe 3/16") so the sheath would cover the top of the blade; and added enough to the bottom so that the bottom of the sheath so that it would be flush with the bottom of the guard. The idea, here, was to make the sheath look like it was covering a blade that was as deep as the guard…and remember, we wanted to lower the center of gravity, and the extra wood would accomplish that. It was cut using a jig saw. Hint: be as careful as possible; it is better to be a bit on the tight side. You might even want to make the blade opening smaller than the blade and use a Dremel or other tool to cut a groove in the bottom of the blade opening to accept the knife edge.
Next, I glued this "blade guard" on to a piece of the Maple using ordinary "weatherproof" Titebond wood glue, and (when it was dry) cut the 1st Maple "scale" (or side of the sheath) with the jig saw, using the blade guard as a cutting template. Hint: be as careful as possible. You want to minimize the amount of carving and sanding that you will have to do later…but if you saw off too much…you can't "saw it back on".
Repeat this process for the other "scale": Hint: don't be too careless with the glue, because it's difficult to wipe off any excess that squeezes out inside the sheath.
To "convex" the sheath, I began with coarse sandpaper…but that was taking too long, so I started carving the sheath (with the Mora, of course). I found that, especially because the grain was so curly, it worked best to carve the "corner" of the edge starting at the tip of the sheath and working back toward the opening (where the blade goes in). Naturally I was carving TOWARD the tip ...so on each successive cut the knife edge cuts into the space left by removal of the previous chip. That's what prevented splits from running with the grain of the wood and into the part of the wood that was to remain in the finished sheath.. By doing it that way, I didn't have any problem with the wood wanting to split into parts of the wood that I wanted to keep. I worked from the tip to the opening until I had a good "bevel", then turned the sheath over and tried to make a corresponding bevel on the other side. I just kept repeating that process until I had a fairly close approximation to the finished appearance that I had in mind (a convexed "blade-like" appearance).
Finally…I went to work with the sandpaper. (Garnet, 80, 100, & 180 grit). When I was satisfied with the smoothness and the "flow" of the wood, I applied 4 or 5 coats of Tung oil (painted on with a foam brush) letting the oil soak in overnight between coats. I was hoping to get a nice "hand rubbed" finish with just the Tung oil, but it wasn't as glossy as I was expecting…so I added 4 coats of Tung oil varnish. The 1st two coats were brushed on with the foam brush and for the last two coats, I dipped the whole sheath in the varnish. Again, letting the sheath dry over night between each coat.
The belt loop/keeper is basically a "L" shaped piece of Elk leather. One leg of the "L" wraps around the sheath and the other leg of the "L" (which I cut to the same width as the knife handle) forms the belt loop. I positioned the leather so that the belt loop would be in the right place and then glued that part (the corner of the "L"…and ONLY that part at this point in the construction) to the sheath to hold the belt loop in the right place. When that was dry enough to withstand "tugging" (I let it dry overnight) I pulled the leather tightly around the sheath and marked (with a needle) where the center of the snap should be. Then attached the snap. Before gluing the rest of that piece of leather around the sheath, I cut a piece for the "keeper" (Hint: allow extra width where the keeper goes over the guard and where the snap will be…trim to finished size after attaching the snap) and glued that along side the "outside" of the corner of the "L" (i.e., so it would be parallel to the belt loop. Then I put glue on the back of the leather that was to go around the sheath and pulled it tightly around the sheath. I wiped off all of the excess glue, wrapped a piece of scrap leather over the piece that I had just glued on, and then wrapped that scrap leather with some synthetic sinew to keep the leather in place until the glue dried. When the glue was dry (I gave it about 20 minutes), I removed the sinew and scrap leather, then pulled the keeper tightly over the snap on the sheath and marked the center of the snap with a needle. Then, attached the top of the snap and trimmed the keeper to fit tightly against the handle but without rolling/folding and folded the end of the keeper under (and glued it) to provide a good thumb grip for unsnapping the keeper. Finally, I trimmed the keeper to have an even margin on both sides of the snap. To finish the belt loop, I folded the belt loop ½" from the end of the leather (and glued that ½" together). When that was dry (20 minutes) I glued that part to the belt loop just above the opening to the sheath. When that was dry (another 20 minutes) I punched 3 holes in that thick part (i.e., the bottom of the belt loop) and stitched it with synthetic sinew. Elk leather is very soft, but also very tough…so "don't knock yourself out" trying to push a needle through it…just punch holes where you want to sew. DONE. Well, almost. I wrapped some synthetic sinew around the top and bottom of the leather that goes around the sheath. The sinew crosses on the back of the sheath (to "discourage" the sinew from slipping off the leather). After tying off the sinew, I split each of the two threads of sinew in two to give me 4 threads to work with and then square-braided those "tag ends". Just for the heck of it…and it does prevent the knot from coming loose.
For the Lucie (made by Dr. James Lucie; Fruitport, Michigan), I chose a piece of American Chestnut that I got from my Dad's property (where he lived at that time was far enough North that the blight did not seem to hurt the Chestnuts). I used my table saw to cut a groove in the branch, but didn't cut all the way through…so the edge guard and sides of the sheath are one solid piece. Since the blade of the Lucie (Scagel-type) knife is tapered, I carved a tapered "plug" for the top of the sheath. This forced the cut (made by the table saw) sufficiently far apart near the knife handle that it provide a good fit. After carving and sanding the outside dimensions to the desired shape (convex, tapered, blade-like) I glued on the belt loop and then wrapped it with leather lace and copper wire. Then I dipped the whole sheath in varnish to the top of the sheath. The keeper is a piece of leather shoelace with an antler medallion. The shoelace ends both go into one hole on the edge of the medallion closest to the handle of the knife; but each end of the shoelace comes out a separate hole on either side of the "Eagle's Beak" on the opposite edge of the medallion. The friction of the medallion on the shoelace is "adequate" but to really secure the knife in a "failsafe" mode, it is only necessary to tie a simple overhand knot over the top of the "Eagle's Beak". DONE
For my Fish/Bear Knife (a knife I made 20+ years ago after being stranded in "bear country" without an adequate knife while trout fishing): This was the first knife sheath I made entirely from wood. The 1st sheath I made for this knife (also shown in the picture) had a wooden liner with a semi-pouch-type leather over-sheath. On the back side of the sheath, you may be able to see a buttonhole. I attached a large button to my fishing vest and carried the knife behind my "fly patch". Carrying the knife on my chest was the primary reason for wanting a wooden liner for the sheath…so, that was probably the "Genesis" of my interest in wooden sheaths.
Because my (O-1 steel) knife was getting rusty sitting in that first sheath, I decided to make the whole sheath from wood. But, I liked the buttonhole "dangle" carry for my fishing vest knife, so I incorporated that design feature into the new sheath. This sheath was very simple because the wooden part is made entirely from 1/8" stock. Also, the Ivory Micarta handle is flat (only the very edges are rounded), so the idea of a "wooden pouch" came to mind. This (along with the buttonhole/dangle carry) keeps the center of gravity of the knife well within the confines of the sheath…making a "keeper" largely unnecessary.Like the sheath for the Lucie knife, I wrapped this one with leather lacing and copper wire and dipped the entire sheath in varnish. In this case (i.e., carrying a knife on my chest) I wanted to make sure that, in a fall, the knife would not split the layers of wood apart and "unleash" the blade. The belt loop was then "sewn" to an extension of the sheath through holes drilled in the sheath and the belt loop. DONE.
For the Patch Knife, basically it is a leather cover over a blade guard. In this case, the stitching is on the back (like the typical pouch-type Finnish sheath). One unique feature of this sheath is that the belt loop slides to fit the width of the belt.
For the Flint Knife, I wanted a material that would provide more support (i.e., more than a simple leather sheath) for the flint and be a low-tech, natural material. What could be better than Birch Bark??? There are two complete wraps of Birch Bark around the blade. I just soaked the bark and wrapped it carefully, then "stitched" it at the tip with leather shoelace and wrapped the lace around the rest of the sheath in such a way that two strands of the shoelace on the back of the sheath form a belt loop. The sheath is intended for a cross-draw carry because that places the knife at an angle (and on a part of your body that you naturally protect) that minimizes the chance of breaking the blade.
The Khukuri and the Bowie sheaths were made using similar techniques to the above, with the notable exception that the thickness of the blades allowed the use of strips of inlayed wood as blade guards and to give a nice finishing touch to the sheaths. Hint: use double thickness of inlay on the blade edge side of the sheath. Also, on the Bowie sheath, I used two bamboo shish-ke-bob skewers as blade edge guides; I glued them to the blade edge part of the blade guard, so that when inserting the blade into the sheath, the edge of the blade was guided by the two skewers
The original kukri sheath.
If you have questions, criticisms, or things to add - email me please. Edgewise can be found posting on the outdoor survival forum at Knifeforums, and a thread applying to wooden sheaths is here