As the main interface between the hand and the knife, the grip scales are of great importance, imparting a certain look and feel to a valuable tool. They must be durable, impact resistant, ruggedly constructed and waterproof.
There are also the intangible factors to think about, such as whether the texture feels good to the touch, if the knife inspires confidence when gripped and if you like how it looks, as well as how it feels when in use.
These factors are sensed and felt in a subjective way, rather than observed and measured. The main channel for sensing and feeling them is through the scales.
Besides bone, antler and wood, two of the most popular grip materials are G10 and micarta. Although there are many similarities between the two materials, they are not identical, and each has important advantages and disadvantages, for the end user as well as for the knifemaker.
The primary difference between G10 and micarta is in the materials used in construction. G10 is made from layers of continuously woven fiberglass, impregnated with epoxy.
Micarta is also laminated, but uses materials such as linen, burlap or canvas. Some craftsmen even use paper, thin layers of leather, or nylon strapping.
These layers are saturated with phenolic resin, a plastic commonly seen in castings such as those found in souvenir shops with scorpions, spiders or minerals embedded in them.
These differences in construction result in different impressions by the user under differing conditions. For instance, most people consider G10 to be easier to grip than micarta when the knife handle is dry.
Conversely, micarta is usually considered to offer a better grip while wet. It’s not exactly clear why this difference exists, but some reasons offered by knifemakers include:
- G10 is smoother because epoxy flows better than resin during construction, so there is more contact surface when dry.
- Because surface fibers in micarta are able to absorb water from where the edges have been worked, it’s possible they swell and improve the texture.
- The differences in hardness mean that micarta offers more friction than G10, because the phenolic resin is slightly softer than epoxy.
Another area with obvious differences between G10 and micarta is in the finish. Because each is laminated of different materials, each has the ability to produce unique designs.
Layers of fiberglass in G10 create linear patterns and concentric curves where the layers have been cut into. Dyeing the epoxy can create a sense of depth and color, and layers of fiberglass can also be dyed different colors to create colors upon colors.
However, the primary pattern produced by the process is limited to variations on the concentric linear motif.
Micarta, on the other hand, has almost unlimited potential for design creation. The colors of the layers are only limited by the availability of colors in the cloth, canvas, nylon or other material.
In addition, phenolic resin lends itself to embedding objects within the resin above the layers themselves, such as coins, leaves, thin slices of antler or stone and the like. The resin also tends to magnify the weave pattern of the cloth used, so even in cases with bland colors like beige or tan, there is a significant visual texture visible in the grip scales.
This texture can be further enhanced through rotation of each layer as the material is built up.
Micarta weighs less than G10, although the difference is slight. On a medium sized knife, the difference might be a couple of grams.
Other differences are found in the care and maintenance of each. Micarta is known to darken significantly if not frequently cleaned with mild soap, possibly because surface fibers at the edges absorb hand oil or dirt.
Waxing the surface can also help keep micarta scales looking new. An occasional wipedown of G10 is all that’s necessary to maintain its shine and smooth finish.
Both types of material are similar in performance, excluding the different grip when wet or dry. Because both are impregnated laminates of fabric, both have great flexibility, impact resistance and are able to withstand repeated torque applications.
The wet grip of G10 can be improved by texturing the epoxy surface, such as adding checkering or ridges, but micarta has better wear resistance when it comes to surface projections wearing off with use, and micarta can also be checkered or otherwise textured further.
Which is Best?
If your preference is for a substantial, smooth, impact resistant and hard handle, then G10 is probably the better material. On the other hand, if the knife is liable to be used wet, as for camping, survival or fishing, micarta would be a better choice because of its better grip while wet.
The different types of designs, patterns and colors available is another reason to prefer one over the other.
In general, both materials make exceptional grip scales, and whether you’re an end user or a knifemaker, you can hardly go wrong with either choice. It’s more about small advantages involving specific details or types of work that should determine the final pick.