Story and Photos by Joshua Swanagon
For many, a knife is nothing more than what it is intended to be – a tool. But for some, a knife can be a form of personal expression.
Even though many production knives already have a look or feature that really drew us to it, sometimes they can use a little dressing up. Even if everything about your new knife is great, it might just be missing that special something; that defining characteristic.
For that reason, many people turn to different options to dress their knife up the way they want it – from custom handle scales to custom sheaths. For the more daring, you might even want to strip the factory coating and add your own forced patina.
Whatever the case, personalizing your knife and making it your own can be half the fun of owning it. Not to mention the attention it gets when people notice how unique your knife is, when compared to the same knife straight off the shelf.
Before I get into this section, I want to make sure to discuss a couple of very important things about this procedure.
First, my brother and I have never done this before, and this should not be considered expert advice. I have always been perfectly happy with the coatings that have come on my knives and have never felt the need to strip them. I have a couple knives that have developed natural petinas over time, and they look and function great, but I have never forced one.
We did this because we see a lot of questions online from people asking how to do it, so we thought we would give it a shot and post the details. There were a couple things we learned along the way, and we are going to share them with you here. This is not the only way to do it, but this method worked for us.
Second – and this is the most important part – stripping the coating from your knife will almost definitely void your warranty. So, practice with a knife you don’t care about. We used my design, the TOPS Knives C.U.T. 4.0, because I have a few extras just in case we messed it up – so it wouldn’t have been a huge loss.
If you decide to try this yourself, you do so at your own risk. Knife & Gear Society, LLC cannot be held responsible if you destroy your knife attempting this procedure.
As with any project, make sure that you assemble all of the items you will need before starting. You’re not going to want to get halfway through your project, only to realize that you don’t have everything you need – forcing you to stop prematurely.
To start the project we needed the solvent (to strip the coating), a scraper, two screwdrivers with torx bits (size T10), some rubber gloves, a couple rags, scouring pad, steel wool and a tray of some kind (we just used a disposable tin tray).
Stripping the Coat
Start by taking the two torx drivers and remove the handle scales from your knife. If they are not removable, I do not recommend doing this. But I guess you could tape off the handle scales to ensure that they don’t get destroyed by the process; if you decide to move forward.
Next, place the knife into your tray and apply the solvent.
We had heard that paint thinner would work for this, so we decided to give it a try; to verify it one way or the other. What we found was that after leaving it in the thinner for over 24 hours, we were able to scratch the coating, but not enough to remove it without a lot of work. This was the result we really kind of expected but wanted to be able to report on it.
After finding that paint thinner was not going to work, we shifted gears and moved on to Jasco Premium Paint & Epoxy Remover. What we found was that after about 15 minutes in the Jasco the coating scraped right off.
We then cleaned the knife in a bucket of soapy water, so we could get a good look at the areas that still needed attention – mostly the jimping. We then applied the Jasco to the jimping and the coating came right out. For the areas that still had a thin film of remaining coating we just used the scouring pad, followed by the steel wool, to finish removing it.
Forcing the Petina
For the base patina, we decided that vinegar would be the best option and decided to go with apple cider vinegar, with 5% acidity.
Although it is not a necessary step, we wrapped the knife in a shop rag – to try and add texture to the patina. We then soaked the rag in the vinegar.
At this step, we would have been better off not wrapping it in the rag; because it prevented us from seeing what was happening in real time. We left the knife in the soaked rag for close to 24 hours, before returning to check on it. When we unwrapped it, we found a slightly orange hue (very light surface rust) in some areas of the knife – mostly in the handle – due to overexposure. But the patina itself looked great.
What we learned at this stage is that around a half hour, maybe a little more, would have been perfectly sufficient. But there was no real damage and we were able to remove the hint of surface rust with the steel wool. The only cost of leaving it in for so long was loss of time. But, for your project, I don’t recommend leaving it in longer than an hour, we might have just been lucky with this one.
After we set the base patina, we broke out the mustard and a Q-tip and drew some patterns into the blade and ring. For this we just used regular yellow mustard. We left the mustard on for about 30 minutes and then washed it off with the soapy water, to expose the cool pattern left on the blade.
Finally, we put the scales back on – you can use the ones that came with it, or purchase custom scales, which I will talk about in the next section – and sharpen your edge.
Something to note, when you do a forced patina like this, it will also affect the edge. This might make it look a little dull at first, but don’t worry, once you sharpen it, it will look great.
The good news is, you don’t have to go to the lengths detailed above to have a great looking custom knife, there are a lot of other options that are much simpler and will not void your warranty.
These options will help accentuate your personality through your knife, whether you go full custom mod (like above) or keep it simple and just want custom accessories.
Get a Grip
One thing that can make a huge difference in the look of your knife is a set of custom handle scales.
There are a lot of different companies that make custom scales, and I recommend looking into it further to find what you feel might work best for you. But for this section, there is only one maker that I have personally used before and I have always been very happy with the results – that is Joe Snarski of LMF Knives.
Both my brother’s knife – seen in the full mod above – and my personal Blade HQ C.U.T. 4.0 – pictured here – are sporting LMF Knives handle scales. His attention to detail, ergonomics and beautiful exotic woods can set any knife apart. But, if you are more of a Micarta person, no worries, he works with that as well and creates very comfortable handles.
When getting custom handle scales there is the chance you may have to send your knife in, so they can be fitted correctly. But in some cases, handle scale makers will already have the pattern for different production model knives; so, you will not need to send your knife in.
Although not technically handle scales, there are different wraps that can be done, as exampled by Jose Martin – on Facebook under Ragin Asians Tsukamaki – who does an amazing traditional Japanese tsukamaki handle wrap; with real ray skin liner. Although for this you will need to send your knife. But if you like this style of handle, you will be very happy.
Jose wrapped the handle of one of my personal C.U.T. 4.0’s while visiting at Blade Show. He is very fast and very good.
A good sheath can add as much of an impact as a set of custom handle scales, and is great for keeping your knife protected – as well as providing enhanced carry options.
There are a lot of great sheath makers out there, from kydex to leather, and the sky is the limit regarding design and quality. I personally have sheaths from a few different makers and have had exposure to many others. But, in an effort to not exclude anybody by trying to list everybody, I will only talk about the sheaths in the photos.
I was introduced to Armatus Carry Sheaths – the kydex sheaths pictured throughout this article – about a year ago and have been very impressed with their work ever since. Their sheaths are extremely solid and have amazing retention. They are a marked upgrade from the stock sheath in many ways, from design to build.
The leather sheath pictured in this article was constructed by Reliance Leatherworks. One of the features I really love about the two sheaths I have from Reliance Leatherworks, is the rare Earth magnet retention; which holds the knife securely in place but draws and re-sheaths very smoothly. Along with a smooth retention is a very solid construction, clean stitching and thick robust leather.
Although, as I said, there are a lot of great makers out there, it would be almost impossible to fit them all in this article. But I highly recommend that you search for the maker that suits your needs best.
Throw me a Line
Although there are none pictured in this article – because they just don’t fit the C.U.T. 4.0 – there are many great lanyards, beads, etc. that can also dress up a knife nicely; if that is your thing.
When it comes to lanyards some of the different knife manufacturers offer lanyards for an additional fee and some provide them with your knife. But if you are a little crafty, you can also purchase some paracord and search Google for how to do different knots and wraps; to create your own custom lanyards.
When it comes to beads, some knife manufacturers – such as Emerson, Spartan and Spyderco – have their own branded lanyard beads. Also, there are many custom knife makers that make beads for aftermarket purchase – everything ranging from skulls to simple round beads, you can find just about anything.
If you search Google or some of the Facebook EDC and knife groups you will be able to find some really cool beads, at just about every price level.
Personalizing your knife can be a lot of fun and very rewarding. When you have a knife that you know is completely different from anybody else’s, without having to break the bank on a truly custom knife, that can be a very special thing.
Although going with a production knife and getting custom accessories for it might not make your knife completely different from everybody else’s – it is the next best thing. So be proud of it. Take it out and show it off. You put the money and time into it, share it with others.
Just keep in mind that drastic customizations may void your warranty, so be sure that you know what you are doing and be certain it is the look you want – because there might not be any going back.
If you do any customizations, or have already customized your knife/knives, make sure to stop by our knife photo gallery and submit your photo to be included.
Get out there and enjoy your creation.
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Blade Material: 1095 HCBlade Length: 4.25 inchesCutting Edge: 4 inchesOverall Length: 8.5 inchesBlade Thickness: 0.190 inchBlade Finish: Black Traction CoatingWeight: 6.3 ouncesHandle Material: Dragonfly Tread Canvas MicartaSheath: Kydex with Beta Loop and Pull the Dot Snap EnclosuresMSRP: $175.00
TOPS Knives(208) 552-2945www.TopsKnives.com
Ragin Asians Tsukamaki www.Facebook.com/RaginAsiansTsukamaki
TOPS KnivesBlade HQSmoky Mountain Knife Works
Joshua Swanagon has studied survival in both urban and wilderness environments in Colorado and Michigan for most of his life, while also adding experience in harsher terrains abroad. He utilizes his experience and years of diverse martial arts and combatives training and real world application as a self-defense/combatives instructor, published freelance writer and Field Editor for various magazines in the fields of knives, survival, self-defense and tactical subject matters. Joshua also brings with him his years of experience as Editor of, and Subject Matter Expert for Knives Illustrated Magazine.
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