Here’s Not Quite Everything You Wanted to Know About Phenolic Knife Scales
I don’t know about the rest of the knife geniuses out in the world, but the first hundred or so times I heard the phrase “Micarta handle” I didn’t know what the hell it was. Even after I handled a few Micarta knives, I wasn’t sure what I was handling. I became doubly confused after picking up something with G-10 scales and it kind of felt like basically the same thing as Micarta, just not as good. Apparently.
After a while I got tired of pretending to know what I was talking about and actually go find out for myself. The easy way to answer the question is that both Micarta and G10 are actually what’s called phenolic laminates, and in that sense they’re the same thing so we can all go home now. Except anyone who’s looked at or picked up both a G10 and a Micarta handled knife insist there’s a significant difference and yell at all of us about it on the forums. So I’ve explained what I found to the best of ability here for anyone else who’s tired of pretending to know what their knife handles are actually made of.
What is Micarta?
The short answer is that Micarta is some kind of linen or fiber cloth material in a thermoset resin. Basically one or several kinds of cloth materials soaked in resin and cooked to hardness.
But when you talk about “Micarta” specifically you’re actually talking about a business. Norplex Micarta is the company responsible for the materials on a lot of the resin handles we see on knives today, and over the years they’ve become so prominent as to make themselves the Kleenex of the resin materials world.
Generally when we say Micarta, though, we’re not just talking about any kind of resin composite. There’s a reason we talk about G-10 handles and then we talk about Micarta handles. Micarta usually means a handle has a base material of linen, canvas, or paper. It generally covers a broad range of materials though including wood and denim.
So What’s G-10?
It’s fiberglass in a resin thermosetting. More or less. Specifically it’s grade 10 Garolite, which is a range of composite materials mixed, heated, and pressed together to make it a lot tougher and smoother than regular fiberglass. Also that term “Garolite” is a brand name like Micarta, but I’ll be damned if I can pin down the company that actually has the copyright to it.
But basically G-10 is the same thing as Micarta, but fiberglass instead of linen. There are some additional hazards involved in manufacturing this stuff, because, you know, fiberglass, but it also comes out cheaper just on a materials cost basis. G-10 specifically is made with resin soaked fiberglass cloth, because apparently it can also be pressed into a sheet. I’m assuming it’s not as tough in that form than as a cloth-type structure. That sounds like it makes sense, but I’m also too lazy to research this enough to know for sure.
The great thing about G-10 is that it’s really easy to customize. Generally when a knife company makes a knife with G-10 scales, they’ll offer it in at least three or four different colors. It’s also typically lighter than linen-based phenolic handles. And while I’m inclined to say that most Micarta handles will be tougher than G-10, I’m pretty sure if you were to do a side by side impact test on them (assuming both are made well) they would come out about the same, or close enough not to matter.
That’s It, Nerd, Now Go Away
Supposedly there are slight differences in texture between the various types of phenolic laminates but usually not enough for us to notice unless we’re really paying attention, or the base material itself is grooved somehow. With both Micarta and G-10, any prominent texture we see in the end product is added after the resin has been heated, which might add to the labor price a bit, but adds a lot to the versatility. That’s why there can be such a huge difference in picking up my Kizer Begleiter versus my much rougher but cost effective Esee Zancudo, even though they both sport G-10 scales.
This stuff has a wide range of uses in the industrial world since it’s fairly tough and cost effective, and has a lot of useful properties like insulating electricity and being highly heat resistant. For our purposes, though, it’s as close to a perfect balance of lightweight and tough as we could ask for in a knife handle.