- Written by Eugene Dimitriadis
Knife - Handle Woods - Australia's Desert Acacias, Part 1
Desert acacias or wattles as they are sometimes called, include woods from the deserts and "outback" regions of Australia. They are usually from small, often twisted trees or large shrubs. They include species like mulga, various gidgees, minneritchie, myalls and lesser-known, yet equally interesting species like waddywood, purpleheart wattle, western snakewood, bowyakka and even raspberry jam! Yes some do smell of raspberries and even flowers, like violets or boronia. These qualities become apparent when grinding and polishing. Neat eh? They all originate from our dry, outback, hot-forged and slow-grown in the desiccating desert sands.
These desert woods have for millennia been used for weapons and tools (eg spears, boomerangs, digging sticks, clubs etc) and most recently also for tool and knife handles. Their low natural moisture contents mean that they don't shrink much on drying or in service. Some compare with the best woods in the world (eg like ebony or Arizona desert ironwood) for their beauty and usefulness especially for fine, custom made knives and in other small turned or carved hand crafts (like pens, jewelery etc).
Most Australian dryland acacias, like those mentioned above, have similar basic wood characteristics. They are popular both here and overseas for good reasons. Their beauty, often dark (yet quite distinct) colours, their distinctive patterns (called "figure") and fine "texture" ie the barely discernible grain, seen gaps between wood fibres, is rarely surpassed.
Gidgee (or gidyea) is usually a dark chocolate-brown although mustard-coloured and mid- brown, even streaked forms are also known. Purple gidgee (becomes purple on exposure to light) is a different species from that above. Western Myall and western minneritchie have similar colours, but bowyakka is a dark brownish-red. The ringed form of bowyakka is every bit as rare (and beautiful) as the famed 'ringed gidgee'. Eastern minneritchie and mulga have similar paler-brown woods which when figured can be very beautiful. Eastern mineritchie has a high lustre which allows its figure (beeswing or fiddleback, both are known) to show delicately. A wattle called dead finish has wood resembling mulga but this name is also applied to other species eg a eucalypt, the purplewood wattle and red lancewood. Common names are source of much confusion. Australian snakewood rarely has much figure, unlike the spotted South American wood. But, it is almost black in colour with very fine, barely discernible, golden flecks. Purplewood wattle and waddywood are rare inland species, strong with very fine, dense woods noted for their bright and dark purple heartwoods (respectively), great for contrasts and where an unusual or bright colour is desirable. (Waddy is the name given to aboriginal heavy clubs.) Raspberry jam wood with its distinctive scent (which dissipates in time) when figured is beautiful mid to dark brown in colour and ringed material is most rare.
Most woods from these desert acacias are very hard and tough and so are durable and less prone to scratching and damage than softer woods. They are invariably high in density; most dense enough to sink in water (densities between 1.1-1.4), This high-density helps "balance" a knife when more mass is need in the handle to offset blade weight and length.
"Wood Figure" (or patterns in the grain made visible on a finished surface) is an important wood term used to describe features or patterns in the wood. It can make an otherwise great knife into an outstanding knife and is responsible for individuality and rare beauty. It adds as much to a handle as good damascus does to the appearance of a blade. It is this individuality of such figure or wood pattern that helps make a custom-made knife different from a production knife. It is what buyers are willing to pay extra for. Patterns can vary from a fine fiddleback (also called a "ringed" figure) to a wavy or curly (larger fiddleback or wavy grain), birdseye, and what I call a wild figure (very changeable irregular wavy grain almost like that in burl,). Sometimes a beeswing figure in visible as well as flame and other colourful terms. Unlike the eucalypts, sadly few acacias produce burls. But when such figure is found in acacias it is most desirable. Such figure can triple the value of such wood but even with the high prices for such ringed and other figured woods, the demand remains strong. Remember, the greater or better the figure, the greater the likelihood of faults (holes, cracks, inclusions etc) and the greater chance from losses in cutting and damage during fitting. Such high figured woods are weaker, even though more beautiful. It is therefore always worthy of making (invisible) minor repairs eg with cyanoacrylates or epoxy. The result is well worth it and can be invisible if done carefully.
Some Acacias like gidgee and the various myalls (eastern and western species) produce naturally 'oily' woods. With their oils and natural stability, they may benefit slightly from the stabilisation process (impregnation with polymers or resins) unless they are used on utility knives where they get wet and dry out frequently. However this treatment makes finishing easier and does improve their stability in service. Grinding to shape and then sequential cutting and polishing to grits as fine as 1000 is well worth doing. Unlike steels, buffing alone is not enough. I believe that a number of applications of a good surface finish are worth applying. This improves appearance, retains the colour, figure and appearance longer by preventing darkening by UV and air. Surface finishes should be hard but need not be thick. Good lacquers, or Danish oil followed by a hard friction wax (not soft beeswax) buffed on, all work well and can be touched-up easily.
Most of these woods are available from the AKG suppliers list (myself included) but don't be surprised to find that some (eg the best and most figured are in short supply and expensive. Within these common names there may be a number of species each with different characteristics so check with your supplier beforehand so that you know what you will be getting when ordering.
Eugene Dimitriadis (Associate AKG)
Eugene is a supplier of a wide range of steels and high quality handle materials including natural and stabilised Australian woods