As a knife person, you know a thing or two about micarta, but did you know that it is also used in the making of propeller blades, auto parts, guitar fingerboards, pool cues, and much more? Micarta is a popular material amongst manufacturers and can be used in many capacities. It takes many forms and makes many durable products. Our personal favorite application is knife handles. We’ll go over the ins and outs of micarta as a material in knifemaking and beyond!
What is Micarta?
If you find yourself asking, “What is Micarta made of?” and you notice a subtle woven texture or layering in your micarta knife handle, you are halfway there already! Micarta is a composite formed from layers of a substrate (cloth, paper, and carbon fiber, to name a few) compressed and set in resin. As a result, micarta is lightweight, strong, dependable, good-looking, stable, and cost-effective. For example, when it comes to aerospace, it’s used to make passenger compartments and window frame supports because it’s a good insulator, and it’s lightweight, which are essential in an aircraft setting. The fact that micarta can weather extreme temperatures and that it does not become brittle over time makes it the perfect material for things like electrical insulators. When it comes to the outdoors, micarta is ideal and some even argue that it provides a better grip when wet.
The origin of micarta dates back to the year 1912 when a man by the name of George Westinghouse, an American entrepreneur, used a phenolic resin (“Bakelite”, specifically, created by Leo Baekeland) on paper and cotton fabric to make high-performance electrical insulation. In the beginning, he called micarta “Risienite” but that name was lost in favor of its current name. From 1912 on, Micarta has been owned by predecessors of its current trademark holder, Norplex/Micarta, by whom it’s produced today. A caveat before we continue: Micarta is a brand name and only applies to the laminates created by Norplex/Micarta in the United States. However, since its beginnings as a material for knife handles in the mid-20th century, it’s become the Kleenex or Velcro of the knifemaking world. In this article, we use “micarta” as a generic term for all laminates made with phenolic resin.
How is Micarta Made?
Making micarta starts with deciding which substrate you want to use. This could be anything in the burlap, linen, or canvas family of materials, or a composite material like fiberglass or carbon fiber. Then, soak sections of your substrate in phenolic resin, which is the glue that holds substrates together. Layer the resin-soaked sheets together, tightly clamp the layers, and let them dry.
When considering the performance of your micarta, the resin is the lynchpin of the operation. Phenolic resin is a thermosetting resin, meaning it can stay virtually unscathed in working conditions up to 480 degrees Fahrenheit (250 degrees Celsius) and is resistant to steam. At 480 degrees and above, phenolic resin chars until it hits its self-ignition point at around 1,000 degrees. The good news is that, as a knife handle, you will likely never need to test the structural integrity of the resin holding your beloved micarta scales together at such high temperatures. If you found yourself in a situation where the ambient temperature is 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, I’d venture to guess you have bigger problems than your knife handle.
From a manufacturer’s perspective, micarta is one of the more expensive materials to make a handle from. Micarta requires that each layer of substrate is properly treated so that the material is uniform throughout. Additionally, micarta must undergo heat treatment under pressure for the best results. These requirements, and others, make micarta a labor-intensive material to produce, upping the price considerably. But for consumers, micarta is available in sheets, tubs, and blocks, so knifemakers need only purchase micarta in the form that suits them. Then, they can mill, craft, and shape the handles and scales to their hearts’ desires. Knife makers have it easy when compared to the manufacturers. As a knife handle material, micarta is cost-effective when compared to the beneficial traits it imbues.
Outside of making knife handles, micarta has many uses. In aerospace engineering, micarta is used in braking systems. If you think about it, an aircraft produces a lot of heat when it lands and there needs to be a buffer between the hot disk and the tire. A tube of micarta along with other materials does the trick.
In the medical field, micarta can be used instead of metal for equipment like stethoscope pads, x-ray machines, and surgical tables because of its ability to withstand the chemicals and temperatures required for sterilization. Additionally, micarta parts like bearings don’t need lubrication to perform well, which makes them perfect for environments where lubricants would be a health risk.
In the game of pool, cue sticks include a component on the tip called the ferrule, which provides a buffer between the striking tip and the wooden shaft. Most ferrules are made from micarta for their ability to withstand impact without adding unnecessary mass. The average pool ball is anywhere from 5 to 6 ounces and the average break speed in professional circles is around 23 mph. I’m not going to do the math but anything hitting your pool cue at that speed is going to make a serious impact force. When made with other materials, the cues are more likely to break because they don’t have the lightweight durability that micarta does.
Benefits of Micarta
Micarta comes in many shapes and varieties, and there is something for everyone. With all the layers of materials that go into making micarta, and the intense heat and pressure it is put under in the production process alone, micarta is a very durable handle material that can easily stand up to whatever you can put it through.
When compared to G-10, micarta and G-10 have a similar recipe: layer material and cure the layers with resin. However, while micarta is made from layers of substrate soaked in phenolic resin, G-10 is exclusively made from fiberglass soaked in epoxy resin. The tight weave of fiberglass makes G-10 the smoother, denser, and therefore heavier option of the two materials. The tightly woven substrate also increases the water resistance of G-10 and prevents oils from penetrating the material; Micarta, on the other hand, has a looser weave due to how commonly cloth is used. The benefits of this are that per square inch, micarta is lighter than G-10 and micarta gains a unique patina to your hand over time. While G-10 excels in density, durability, and resistance to water and oil, both materials are still super durable options for a knife handle that will last you a lifetime.
Another competitor with micarta is carbon fiber, which is made of carbon atoms and resin. Carbon fiber has a high strength-to-weight ratio, a high chemical resistance, and a high temperature tolerance. It is shatter-proof and the slicker of the two in hand. You can mill carbon fiber to make a better grip, but there is the risk of chipping the handle. Micarta tends to be the more textured handle type and is a lot easier to texture. When compared to carbon fiber, micarta can be styled more flexibly with different colors. Micarta is the wise choice for the outdoors when you need a secure grip. When wet, micarta outperforms carbon fiber. However, carbon fiber’s ultralight toughness does make it the higher-end (and pricier) option of the two. But if you’re looking for a performer for any price point, micarta is an excellent direction to go.
Its high performance in all weather conditions, lightweight nature, unique texture, and variety of colors make micarta a serious competitor for the title of best handle material. With micarta, there also is the risk of your knife handle absorbing liquids and moisture if the resin didn’t fill in all the spaces, but other than that, micarta handles are strong, durable, and long-lasting.
Types of Micarta
Made with layers of paper, paper micarta can be sanded or polished to look like ivory or bone and provides a vintage look and feel. Paper micarta is most often used for handles of kitchen knives. It is easy to cut and shape but is also nearly indestructible. Check out some of our favorite knives with paper micarta handles:
The paper micarta handle makes it, so the knife is lightweight for all your outdoor needs, where every ounce matters.
Black paper micarta adds visual interest to the handle in tandem with the burl wood and carbon fiber, resulting in a kitchen knife that deserves to be shown off.
The paper micarta gives the knife a wood-like look without the wood. It also gives the knife old-school style and a silky-smooth tactile experience.
Due to the fine weave of linen, linen micarta is the most elegant looking of the three types. It is the most popular form of micarta for good reason. Linen micarta can be textured in many different styles. A lot of the style comes from different ways knifemakers contour and mill their knife handles. Take a look at the following knives with linen micarta handles:
This knife’s handle is contoured to have a natural feel in your hand, with a thicker midsection and an indent for your top fingers. It’s milled out to provide increased texture and grip.
The way this knife is contoured makes the knife comfortable to hold, with a natural palm swell to keep the knife securely in hand. The micarta provides all-weather performance without weighing you down.
The linen micarta handle scales of the Parrot lend a clean, classic look to this EDC. If you’re looking for a knife good enough to pass down through the generations without breaking the bank, this is the one.
Canvas micarta has a more rugged appearance and a grippier surface. It is the toughest version of micarta. This type of micarta is denser and thicker than the other two. With a thicker micarta handle, you are more likely to have a handle that is milled, textured, and carved for style and grip. Here are some knives with canvas micarta handles:
The handle on this one has been sanded down smooth, which seems like a problem at first glance but proves to be the right move, as the Makro 2 is comfortable with no hot spots.
The milled pattern on the handle provides a unique and beautiful look. Not only does it look good, but it also has a bunch of texture on it which adds greatly to its grip.
This knife is an example of how canvas micarta looks when it is really sanded down and polished. Multiple colors of canvas and careful sanding provide a beautiful wood-grain pattern, but with all the benefits of micarta.
A subset of micarta is “vintage micarta”, a term used to describe any phenolic laminate produced by any brand from the 1990s and before. Because micarta has been mass-produced since the early 20th century, there are still scraps and sheets of micarta in circulation that were produced decades ago. Vintage micarta provides much the same collector’s value as vintage textiles and can be used for a one-of-a-kind knife handle. Take a look at some of the creations we carry that show off a piece of history!
Vintage micarta takes this EDC fixed blade to the next level, bringing in stunning black weave with flecks of white. The beauty of vintage micarta is that there will never be a custom quite like this one.
How to Maintain and Clean Micarta
The best way to clean your micarta handles is to wash them with soap and water, but there are other ways to clean them too. Some say that spraying them with WD-40 and letting them soak for a couple of hours does the trick. Others say that using a rust-preventative solution works too.
If you’re not sure where to begin, try the all-in-one kits we carry for knife maintenance! The Flitz Knife Care Kit has all the degreasers and polishes you need to keep your knife looking its best years after you first picked it up. Another great option is the FrogLube Complete Weapon Care Kit, a set that even includes a brush to scrub out any stains in your micarta handle. Whichever cleaning method you opt for, micarta is a low-maintenance material regardless that takes minimal work to get back to its good-as-new self.
Shop Blade HQ Micarta Handles and Knives
Take a look at all our knives that have micarta scales, they are hard to beat. Blade HQ is the place to find your next knives with micarta handles! Also, see micarta in action with this video detailing how to make custom micarta handles!