How to pick Colours and Material Combinationslewis.yoole
Colours and material
combinations are important for the function and look of a knife. What colours will make it eye-catching? What materials are suitable? Will these bolsters clash or compliment my scales? These are all questions that inform design. So, how do we make the “right” choices?
First off, aesthetics are subjective. What you like may not appeal to everyone, and what others make may not appeal to you. The aesthetics must be informed by the intended use of the knife, but also based on what you like. I believe we as makers should only make what we want to. I wouldn’t accept an order for a whacky blade with materials and combinations that I don’t like. My knives bear my name and I am the main influence in the design and aesthetic. Collaborate with your clients as long as it’s something you would be proud to make and isn’t too “them” to be hard to sell if they drop out of the order.
So the two major concerns are whether the colours are practical and look good.
If the colours are not driven by practicality, there‘s more wiggle room. If your knife is going to be used hard and in tough situations, practicality takes the forefront.
Once practicality is determined, explore the suitable colour options. Pick what colours complement each other, or aesthetically contrast. If you can connect the knife’s colours to its purpose, that can merge form and function with deeper meaning. For example, this filleting knife will feature an “oceanic” handle. The client fillets at home, so large amounts of salt water and dropping it were not a practical concern. Had they been, I would have suggested G10 or Micarta. Instead, I was afforded the flexibility to connect the colour scheme of the handle with the purpose. The blue and turquoise stabilised wood will do that nicely.
Likewise, the knife below left has its colours suited its purpose. This is in my Kingmaker style and I used a white handle as it was a custom wedding knife. The white and gold colour combination is classy and clean, while also evoking connection and memory to the wedding for many years to come.
With all that said, colour combinations are subjective. If your personal tastes are subtle and “classic” then pick accordingly. If you like bold and vibrant, spice it up.
Classic tastes would suggest that if you have an unnatural coloured thing like dyed burl (demonstrated below right), it can look good matched with something plain like black or white. Vibrant tastes would allow you to pair this with something else dramatic like pale yellow (suggested by the cheat sheet above).
Intended use is even more pertinent to material choice than colour. Some materials may be scroll stoppers, but are they “right” for that particular knife? For example, unstabilised wood is fine for most EDCs, especially if the wood is dense and kept well oiled. However, many chefs would prefer stabilised timbers. They’re easier to keep clean and polished and aren’t as affected by the washing needed. Exceptions to this are woods like Gidgee, African Blackwood and Purpleheart. These are naturally dense and oily and won’t stabilise anyway. Even better from a practical standpoint is G10 or Micarta, both of which look classy when done well. Both are water, oil and acid resistant, durable, easy to work and aren’t affected by humidity. My Kingmaker model and Vespa (above and below respectively) use G10. When rounded it has a topographical grain like wood, and when faceted it looks like subtle carbon fibre.
Shown below is an example of heirlooming. Both these timbers were stabilised, so the heirlooming is mostly artistic. However, the woods may shift. Heirlooming them prevents this from ever becoming a problem, all while adding to the flair of the knives.
Once we’ve identified what materials would be suitable, we need to pair them. Colour choices inform this, but also the look and feel of materials. The same tropes apply as combining colours. If you’re a fan of subtle and “classic” then natural material parings will feel right. If you like vibrant, tactical or modern styles, material combinations aligning with that will feel right.
A clear example: You’re unlikely to see (or like) the combination of a mustard etched, saw back tanto with white mammoth ivory bolsters and pink and blue resin scales. Technically, all those colours work together, but the combination is stylistically disjointed.
A mustard etched, saw back tanto with black G10 bolsters and pink and blue resin scales may be too much for some, but it fits a style.
A tanto bladed folder with a polished hamon, mammoth scales and domed gold pins on the other hand… classy.
Another key point is continuity. Material selections that create continuity within a design will bring that design together in a pleasing way. It’s not something the casual observer may immediately be able to point out, but it creates pieces that feel more right and catch eyes better. Pairing a san mai blade (which has black and silver colouring) with a black and shiny element in the handle works well, as below.
A plain stainless blade can be amped up with a loud, colourful burl. However, classic tastes suggest a patterned blade should be paired with a quieter handle, eg. natural wood that matches/compliments the patterns or something quieter that allows the damascus to speak for itself. Coloured burls can work, as long as they’re not loud, distracting and disjointed. However, some makers can pull off vibrant handles with loud damascus patters, which appeals to some customer too, so this is not a rule.
The following are some breakdowns of my knives to demonstrate these points.
Here you can see the African Blackwood bolster matches the black on the blade, and the (shiny) brass and (white) faux ivory spacers mirror the (shiny and “white”) stainless in this san mai. This continuity connects the handle with the blade aesthetically and allows the Tasmanian Blackwood to stand out. The blades would look great with just Tasmanian Blackwood, or any other single piece handle but this extra factor adds to the aesthetic. I used increasing thicknesses of faux ivory spacers to create an visual flow into the rest of the handle. I couldn’t match the angle of the wood grain with the angle of the spacers as I had to get both handles out of one block, so I contrasted it by angling in the opposite direction.
Here I used small copper spacers to soften the aesthetic transition between the woods and thick metal spacer. Without, it may have looked a little too bold and thick, but nestled between the copper spacers it blends more seamlessly into the whole. I used three different grains here as subtle marrying too. The Tasmanian Blackwood bolsters have clear, straight, vertical grain. The damasteel spacer then has curved, angled and slightly random “grain”. This helps the transition into the highly random flaming maple burl. The dark tas bolster sharpens the mirror shine of the damasteel and pairs well with the warm yellow/orange of the maple.