What are Japanese knife handles made of?

With their shape and precise craftsmanship, traditional Japanese ‘wa’ handles embody the idea of kodawari. In Japanese society, kodawari (こだわり) is a deeply rooted notion of striving for perfection. It is the idea that the masters of their craft should strive to achieve perfection in all aspects of their services and creations - not only in terms of external aesthetics, but also their functionality, usability, sophistication, and durability. This ideal is also reflected in the making of Japanese knives.

The wooden handle

When choosing a suitable wood, the qualities we look for are durability, hardness, resistance to moisture, and grip.

For ‘wa’ handles, softer wood is often preferred because it is extremely light and has a nice, grippable texture. These qualities make it easier to shape and more comfortable to use. 

Porosity is also an important quality to consider. With use, the surface of a handle made from softer wood loses its smoothness and gloss, which gives it an even better grip. The rougher handle is more secure in the hand and it ensures that a greasy, wet, and/or slippery hand does not slip forward on the blade during use. This is a traditionally desired feature of wooden handles, especially when it comes to knives designed for fish handling.

When choosing a handle, you should also think about the extracts of the wood. Each wood type gives off its own smell, and they are very different from each other. When in doubt, magnolia wood is a great choice, because it does not emit odors that could interfere with the subtle flavors of the food.

Aside from magnolia wood, the most common types of wood used for ‘wa’ handles are rosewood, ebony wood, walnut, cherry, oak, maple, and chestnut. For more information on wood types, scroll on!

What are Japanese knife handles made of?

What wood is used in Japanese knife handles?

‘Wa’ handles are available in numerous wood types, and, in recent years, other materials as well. The most common is magnolia wood, followed by various types of more exotic wood varieties, such as rosewood or wenge. Other types include pakka wood, walnut, cherry, oak, and many others, which we discuss in more detail below.  

In the past, wood soaked in a mineral solution or a mix of water and ash was used for making ‘wa’ handles. This treatment, which took several weeks, effectively hindered mold growth. Nowadays, more advanced methods, such as oiling and varnishing, are used to impregnate wood.

Prestigious ‘wa’ handles are often made from ebony, and are most often topped with a water buffalo horn ferrule. The material of the handle can have a significant impact on the price of the finished product.

Only special pieces of wood are chosen to make handles, because – with a product of such small dimensions – it is very important that the grain of the wood is even and straight. Curves in the growth rings could negatively affect the appearance and the finish of the handle. 

An exception to this are handles made of burls. Burls are rounded knotty tree growths, which, because of their varied, uneven growth, create interesting and unique patterns and thus truly unique and artistic-looking handle designs.

Some high-end smithies prefer these types of handles. For example, Nigara Hamono and Takeshi Saji use stabilized maple burl wood in many of their designs, achieving gorgeous one-of-a-kind patterns that enjoy wide popularity.

Wood is a raw material of natural origin so it is not always available in the quantities required by modern demand for Japanese knives. In recent years, blacksmiths have been facing problems with handle wood availability. For this reason, a number composite materials - a mixture of natural and artificial materials - have been developed and added to the traditional handle material array.

Japanese Wa Handle Materials: An In-Depth Overview


Japanese Wa Handle Materials: An In-Depth Overview
Magnolia Wood 

Species: Magnolia sp.
Color: creamy white to light brown
Hardness: relatively soft
Durability: not as durable
Availability: widespread, accessible
Special features: ease of carving and workability, antiseptic, no odor

The most widespread and traditional Japanese handle is made of wood from the honoki tree, a species of magnolia wood. It provides a firm grip but feels smooth in the hand. Each handle piece is split from straight-grained wood (wood grain that runs parallel to the axis of the tree), which gives it strength, a smooth texture, and its typical pattern of parallel lines.

The wood is praised as the best handle wood; it is lightweight and has antiseptic properties, and its light colour shows its cleanness, which indicates that the food being prepared is also impeccable. Magnolia also has an extremely low percentage of etheric oils or resins. Consequently, it does not leave or retain odors. This is especially important for Japanese cuisine, which focuses on fresh, delicate dishes, which could be impacted by the smell. As a result, magnolia wood handles are very popular among Japanese chefs, especially skilled sushi chefs. 

Magnolia is subtle in color (it will get darker with use) and it will stain quite fast. That is why it is important to handle it with clean hands only. The wood is still quite hardy and resistant to water, so it is unlikely to fall apart even with everyday washing. With use, the surface of the handle will lose its smoothness and shine, giving it an even better grip. The slightly "hairy" handle will provide even greater safety when used with wet hands. The greater friction offered by such wood is a desirable feature for the grip of the knife itself, as it ensures that a greasy, wet and slippery hand does not slip forward on the blade during use. This is a traditional feature of wooden handles used on knives designed for fish handling.

An additional advantage of magnolia wood handles is that they are easy and inexpensive to rehandle as there is an abundance of magnolia handles on the market.

Japanese knives with Magnolia Wood Handle
Walnut Wood

Species: Juglans regia
Color: rich, dark brown
Hardness: moderate to high
Durability: durable 
Availability: widespread, accessible
Special features: attractive grain patterns - straight, wavy, or curly

This wood impresses with its rich, brown color and attractive grain patterns. It is moderately dense and offers a good grip without being too heavy. It is quite soft and durable, and less prone to warping or cracking than some other wood types. For best results, it should have an oil finish and undergo waxing. This wood is accessible in many regions and is thus a popular choice for manufacturers.

Japanese knives with Walnut Wood Handle

Chestnut Wood

Species: Castanea sativa
Color: light to medium brown
Hardness: moderately high
Durability:  good natural durability
Availability: widespread, accessible
Special features: easy workability, straight grain with a uniform texture

The dark burnt color gives handles with this wood type an expensive, premium look at a regular price. These handles are lightweight and offer a good grip. Due to its lower density, this type of wood is not as durable as some other wood varieties. Some handles, especially those made of chestnut or walnut, are treated with the Japanese technique Shou Sugi Ban, where the wood is exposed to the flames of a fire and darkens. The wood goes through a burning process until it reaches the carbonization stage, and then the surface is made smooth with fine sanding. This gives the wood excellent resistance to moisture.

Japanese knives with Chestnut Wood Handle

Cherry Wood

Species: Prunus avium
Color: rich, warm reddish-brown
Hardness: mid-range
Durability: mid-range
Availability: widespread, accessible
Special features: smooth texture, "cherry patina" aging process

The wood grain of cherry is fine and straight, with the occasional knot and swirl. The wood is elegant and subtle, and takes finishes and oils well, so the wood’s natural beauty is further enhanced. It is popular because of its durability, as well as its color, which ranges from a nice strawberry blonde to reddish brown. It is moderately dense and provides a firm grip. Because of its accessibility and workability, it is a popular choice for knife makers all over the world.

Japanese knives with Cherry Wood Handle

Oak Wood

Species: Quercus sp.
Color: light tan to deep golden brow
Hardness: high, suitable for heavy-duty applications
Durability: high
Availability: widespread, accessible
Special features: strong, prominent grain pattern

It is quite difficult to find in its domestic Japanese white variety. Its colors range from light brown to dark reddish brown. This wood type is hard, strong, and durable, and is a good choice for a simple, sturdy knife. Most varieties of oak wood have an open grain, so they need to be sealed and finished with oil.

Japanese knives with Oak Wood Handle

Maple Wood

Species: Acer sp.
Color: light tan or reddish-brown
Hardness: moderately high
Durability: high
Availability: widespread, accessible
Special features: uniform coloration and subtle grain pattern

Maple wood typically features a pale, creamy-white to light reddish-brown color. One of its distinctive features is its fine, uniform grain pattern, which can be straight or exhibit a subtle wave-like figure known as "tiger stripe" or "curly maple." This unique grain pattern adds a touch of elegance and character to the wood. Maple wood is prized for its exceptional durability, attractive appearance, and versatility in a wide range of applications.

Japanese knives with Maple Wood Handle

Maple burl

The material for the handle is obtained from a burl – an abnormal outer growth on the tree. Because it is not naturally very durable and is prone to cracking, it is usually stabilized with resin, which ensures long-term durability and usability. During this process, a color pigment is added and then absorbed into the wood fibers. After the final treatment and polishing, the handle reveals the grain of the wood. For handles, blocks of maple burl with irregular and non-uniform structures are preferred, because dyes can penetrate the wood in different ways, creating unique patterns. This makes every handle one-of-a-kind!


Species: Dalbergia sp.
Color: rich, dark brown to reddish-brown hues
Hardness: excellent hardness
Durability: highly durable & resistant
Availability: can vary by species and region
Special features: smooth, polished appearance, various species, each with its distinct coloration

Rosewood is a very popular material choice for knife handles. It is quite dense and heavy, but has a lot of resin, which makes it less ideal for finishing. It is recommended to use a light oil finish for this type of wood, no sealer is needed.

Japanese knives with Rosewood Handle

Wenge Wood

Species: Millettia sp.
Color: rich chocolate-brown to black
Hardness: high
Durability: highly durable & resistant (used in applications requiring robustness, such as heavy-duty flooring)
Availability: limited
Special features: bold, contrasting grain patterns with dark streaks and fine, closely spaced lines, smooth, polished appearance

A wood with a unique open grain that has a dark brown color. It requires a sealer, and an oil finish is recommended.

Japanese knives with Wenge Wood Handle

Ebony Wood

Species: Diospyros sp.
Color: ebony black - deep, rich black
Hardness: exceptionally hard and dense
Durability: highly durable and resistant to moisture
Availability: limited, rare and precious wood, can be expensive
Special features: among the most durable and resistant woods, it polishes to a high gloss, creating a luxurious and elegant appearance

Usually a more expensive handle material. It is often accompanied by a water buffalo horn ferrule. This is probably the hardest and heaviest handle out there. If not properly cared for, it is prone to cracking – it requires good seasoning and sealing before use. Just like magnolia, ebony is resistant to water, and it has a cool black appearance, so it is very popular among chefs. It is used to fit high-grade blades. Recently the number of manufacturers of such handles has decreased, making them difficult to find.

Japanese knives with Ebony Wood Handle

Japanese zelkova wood / Keyaki

Species: Zelkova serrata
Color: pale to medium reddish-brown, may darken with age
Hardness: moderately high
Durability: durable and resistant 
Availability: available in regions where the tree is native - Japan and Korea
Special features: good workability, has been traditionally used for outdoor applications like bridges and shrines in Japan

Often called the Japanese elm, this wood has great water resistance and is antibacterial. It is strong and offers a good grip. Japanese zelkova, is a versatile hardwood known for its reddish-brown heartwood, moderate hardness, durability, and attractive grain patterns. It is a favored choice for woodworking, especially in regions where it is native, and it holds cultural significance in traditional Japanese craftsmanship.

Japanese knives with Japanese Zelkova Wood Handle


Species: several different tree species
Color: dark brown to deep blackish-brown
Hardness: exceptional hardness and density
Durability: highly durable and resistant to moisture
Availability: variable
Special features: the hardest wood on the market

Its color spans from creamy yellow to gold, to brown or even green. It takes an oil finish well and, because of its fine grain, will become very smooth when sanded. Some examples of ironwood trees include the American Ironwood [Ostrya virginiana] and the Australian Ironwood [Acacia estrophiolata], among others.

Japanese knives with Ironwood Handle


Composite materials are created by combining different elements with separate desired characteristics. Such materials are popular because of their durability and aesthetics.

Stabilized wood

Hardness: depends on the type of wood used as the base material, as well as the stabilization process itself
Durability: highly durable and resistant to moisture
Special features: comes in a variety of colors and patterns

In order to get stabilized wood, different pieces of natural wood are epoxy-coated for impregnation. They are also often dyed for added color. The biggest advantage of handles made from this material is that they are very resistant to water, grease, and the minerality of the user's hands, which can otherwise harm the wood. Handles made of stabilized wood are very durable and therefore easy to maintain. By adding dye to the epoxy, a myriad of details and color effects can be obtained. This offers much room for artistic expression and individual preferences. Check out our large selection of custom knives and create your own!

Japanese knives with Stabilized Wood Handle

Pakka Wood

Hardness: can vary depending on the specific type and manufacturing process
Durability: high durability and resistance to moisture
Special features: can mimic the appearance of exotic hardwoods

Pakka is a composite laminated material based on natural wood and resin. It consists of 70% wood and 30% resin. This makes handles of this type extremely durable, resistant to humidity and abrasion, and easy to grip and maintain. Pakka wood is often used for ‘wa’ handles because of its affordability, ease of processing, and endless design possibilities. Since it is a mixture of natural and man-made materials, the choice of colors, textures, and finishes is limited only by the imagination of the manufacturer. Many of our knives have a handle made of pakka wood.

Japanese knives with Pakka Wood Handle


Hardness: very high
Durability: highly durable and resistant to moisture
Special features: an attractive, unique appearance, with variations in color and pattern depending on the type of fabric or paper used

Micarta is a composite-laminated material made of epoxy resin, reinforced with glass fiber, cork, cotton fabric, paper, carbon fiber, or other substrates, with fabric being the most common when it comes to handles. It is made by layering these various materials with epoxy resin. The layers are then compressed and cured to create a strong material. Micarta handles are very durable, even more so than many natural or man-made materials, and offer a good grip even with damp, wet hands, just like pakka wood. Micarta is commonly used in ‘yo’ handles.

Western-style handles are usually made from micarta, but often come in wood composites such as pakka wood as well.

Japanese knives with Micarta Handle

What are knife ferrules made of?

The majority of ‘wa’ handles feature a collar at the top, called a ferrule. They come in a variety of materials. By mixing different types of handle and ferrule materials together, blacksmiths create numerous unique combinations!

Water buffalo horn ferrule

Typically, a traditional Japanese handle is topped with a water buffalo horn ferrule (also known as tsunomaki). The material is made from the horns of Asian water buffalos. Its function is to keep the wood of the handle from cracking when the tang (or nakago) of the knife is heated and driven firmly into the wooden handle during the fitting process.

Plastic ferrule

The second most common ferrule type, it is often made of black plastic, but recently a white marble look has been gaining popularity. A handle with this type of ferrule is usually budget-friendly. 

Wood & pakka wood ferrule

A more recent development that is becoming popular as an alternative to plastic and water buffalo ferrule. It usually comes in pakka wood, whereas the more high-end, luxury variety comes in ebony wood.

Stainless steel ferrule

The ferrule is made of silver stainless steel. It is popular because of its resistance to rust and corrosion, as well as its minimalistic look that complements a variety of handle styles. A metal ferrule is also called a kuchigane. An octagonal variety is often used for preparing tuna.


Did you know?
  • In the past, the term Tsunomaki was used only for animal horn ferrule such as water buffalo horn ferrule, but nowadays this same term applies to plastic or wooden ferrule as well.
  • Depending on the region of Japan, Tsunomaki is sometimes called Kakumaki. This is because, when written, both have the same Kanji “角巻” and the difference is only in the pronunciation. 
  • Kuchiwa “口輪” is another way of saying Kakumaki/Tsunomaki “角巻”, but in recent years the term Katsura “桂” has become more widely used to refer to ferrule. These are terms that refer to Japanese ferrule, whereas the term Kuchigane is used for metal bolsters of Western-style knives.

Shapes of Japanese Wa Handles

Shapes of Japanese Wa handles

Knife handles come in a variety of materials and styles, from traditional Japanese wooden handles to high-tech ergonomic marvels. The choice is highly individual; the right handle is the one that feels good to you!

Aside from being available in many different materials, Japanese wa handles also come in quite a few different shapes:

  • D-shape

  • oval

  • round

  • shield

  • octagonal

For a more detailed exploration of Japanese wa handle shapes and their significance, you can read our companion article UNDERSTANDING JAPANESE KNIFE WA HANDLE SHAPES!

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