Full Tang Bolster Tutorial

Making bolsters on full tang knives can be daunting to the uninitiated. I found very little info online to help the newbie figure out how to do this, so I with some trial and error and came up with a way to make great looking, perfectly aligned bolster pieces. This is, of course, not the only way to do it, but a way that I have found to be reliable when one is careful and patient.

The bolster is not only stylish, but it adds weight to the middle of the knife and protects the end grain of wooden handle scales. The thickness of the bolster will usually be the same as your scale thickness. I like 1/4" thick stainless stock and find 1/4" or 5/16" scales a good match. 416 or 304 stainless makes a nice bolster, but bolsters can be G10, bone or whatever tickles your fancy.

Although you could make bolsters entirely with hand tools, files, hacksaw and so on, a drill press would be considered an asset when making the pin holes. Start with the most powerful tool in your shop, the permanent marker.

The left and right pieces must mirror each other to preserve symmetry. I normally sketch the bolster out on the knife and determine how it will look and where the pin holes will go.
Lay the left and right pieces out on the material you wish to use as a bolster.

Be sure to leave enough space between the pieces for your hacksaw or band saw blade to get through when you separate L & R later on.
I like to do the bulk of the removal while everything is still on the bar. Then cut the pieces out once you get close to the lines.
Clamp the two pieces together with vise-grips and shape them as a single piece. Pay careful attention to the fronts.
Now drill the holes in the tang. Typically I drill two #30 holes for pinning the bolster with 1/8" pins. Keep the holes at least 3/16" away from the edges so we can round the bolster and not be taking too much pin off.

With the left bolster piece positioned exactly where you want it, clamp with vise-grips and drill the pin holes.

Drilling the first bolster piece while clamped on with vise-grips.

If you want to make a block like I use for the drill press see my page on Drill Press Block #3 for instructions.

Here I like to put a temporary pin to hold the L bolster piece to the tang. Insert it into one of the holes. When the L and R pieces are perfectly lined up, clamp with vise-grips and remove the temporary pin. Drill through the L piece, and tang all the way through the R piece.

Unclamp the pieces and finish the fronts.

After drilling (if your drill press is nice and square) you can put some temporary pins and finish the fronts. I use plain old 1/8" rod from Home Depot.
Remember that the bolster fronts will be nearly impossible to finish once pinned to the knife.

Finishing means, shaping, sanding and buffing. Here are the two pieces after some work on the buffing wheel.

Although there are no rules about what pins to use, generally the same material is used for pinning. E.g. brass pins on brass bolster pieces. There is nothing to say that you cannot use pins to contrast or use mosaic pins.

With the pins cut about 3/16" longer than required for a flush finish, clean them with fine sandpaper so they shine. Clean the pin holes on the bolster with acetone so that no cutting oil or debris is in the holes. Clean the tang with sandpaper and sand the mating bolster pieces. The aim here is nothing remains which may be visible.

Banished list:
No flecks, filings, dirt, fibers or hair is allowed between the metal pieces...period. Brush, blow, clean 100%.

Cleaning detail:
You will want to scuff the interior surfaces with coarse sand paper, (I use 60 grit) and clean all surfaces with acetone or high-test rubbing alcohol.

Sealing detail:
This is where I like to use a small amount of Acraglas to seal the bolster pieces to the tang. This prevents moisture migration and ensures the joint is easy to keep clean. Be careful not to use too much epoxy. Also be careful not to allow the epoxy up into the pin holes. Epoxy in the holes can appear as a ring around the pin when finished.

Ready, Set...Press!

A hydraulic press the your friend when it comes to squeezing the bolster pieces on to the tang. But how do we squeeze them and press the pins at the same time?  The trick is to provide some precise spacers. Two pieces of 1/8" steel with a 3/16" slot cut into them for allowing the pins to stick through. This type of plate will let us squeeze the bolster pieces tightly to the tang, and squash the pins a tiny bit. See my picture, as a small stack of flat washers will work for this as well. If you can figure out a way to do this with a hammer, please let me know.

Once we have the bolster pieces pressed firmly to the tang and the pins squashed just enough to hold everything together, it's time to put the big squeeze on. A hammer on the anvil works at this point too. We need to squash the pins and leave zero space in the pin holes.

After the big squeeze, work the bolster pieces with the belt grinder and the pins should disappear. Here I used a 60 grit belt, but the 120 looks even better.

Shaping the bolster from here is academic. I use the files, small wheels, drums on the drill press or whatever is needed to shape and clean up.

Be careful about heat. Too much grinding will burn the Acraglas. If you are using regular 50/50 epoxy you'll smell it burning and it's not pretty.

Well there you have it. One way to attach a front bolster. Again, not the only way to do it, but one that I can say that produces great results. Please let me know if you have tried this and if you have any suggestions on how to improve the process.



Unknown said...

Do you think that a vise could be used in place of the hydraulic press?

D. Comeau said...

I have experimented with using a 5" mechanic's vise and yes it can be done. It's a little fiddly to get the washers or spacers to stay put as the jaws are vertical. If your vise is able to move to the horizontal position it will be easier. Sufficient force is available with a larger vise.


just another guy said...

Again? Whether I'm building a heat treatment oven or researching whether to build or buy a belt grinder, when I search around you always seem to have the answer.... You're awesome. Thank you for being such a help to your fellow knifemakers

D. Comeau said...

Thank you for your kind words.
I love doing this.

andrew said...

[Very nice tutorial, as always!] Another method that seemed quite intimidating but worked PERFECTLY the first time I (nervously) tried it, is to silver-solder. This worked especially well with the brass I was using, as the solder makes the seam between the steel and brass *completely* invisible, as though the metals were a single piece that just changes color suddenly. The trick I figured out is to pre-"tin" both bolsters with a thin even layer of silver solder (don't forget clean clean surfaces and flux!). Then I put a couple of brass pins through and bent the ends to hold it all together, and heated it up with a torch. The solder flowed like water - no gaps whatsoever. Other protips: wrap the (hardened) blade in a wet rag just as a precaution against overtempering, and rub a welder's soapstone stick/pencil on the front of the bolsters and blade in front of them to keep solder from sticking there and giving you a near-impossible filing job. (Some folks use yellow ochre powder + water - art supply stores carry it.) When done, straighten the pins and peen 'em in. Nice thing - if it goes badly, you can always melt the bolsters off and try again. FYI, I used Stay-Brite and Stay Clean solder & flux. Melt temp about 450°F/230°C. I got most of the info from a YouTube 4-vid series - look up BoseKnives Soldering Bolsters - and added a few twists from other sources.

Unknown said...

I use two small boards one on each side with holes count out corresponding to the pin placement and then I put it in the vice and squeeze the two halves together!

Unknown said...

Thank you for making this site. I have learned so much from reading your articles. Have you ever though about putting this all together with your instruction into a downloadable pdf. I would be willing to pay for a copy to be honest. Your instructions are easy to follow and easy to understand. Thank you so much for time and effort you have put into making this for us less than knowledgable new knife makers.

D. Comeau said...

Thank you for your kind comments.

Unknown said...

Thank you for all the information you have posted here. As a lot of others have said, it is posted in a simple and easy way to follow and is the place I go when I need info. I appreciate all the time and effort you have dedicated to help with answers to my problems.

S Roberts

Unknown said...

I agree with everyone and just wanted to give my thanks as well for helping me learn and get started knife making. there is a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to knife making little steps and little tricks which a lot of videos and instructionals do not include i'm not sure if they are trying to hide their secrets or if they think its somehow not important or they have just done it so many times they expect everyone to know but it seems like you pretty much include all those tidbits and tricks and and very clear an concise with the 3 times i have been to your site and read your articles Thank you very much for being thorough and concise and not leaving things out!!

Evan (Essential Knives)
From Vancouver, BC, Canada