Doubtless, you know what the blade and handle are on your knives, but few people can name all the parts. Professional chefs and bladesmiths usually know all the bits by their proper names, but the rest of us don’t usually use the terms. Among the most mysterious is the bolster. Many people have never even heard the name for this part used. I’ll explain what a knife bolster is, where it’s located on the knife, and why it exists. Knifecrafting is more complex and far more sophisticated than most people think about. While our ancestors got along with just a simple chipped rock, sometimes tied to a stick with some rawhide, things have come a very long way since then. The Bronze Age over four thousand years ago saw the first humans making metal knives, and we’ve only improved designs since then. The bolster was one of the better upgrades.
What is a knife bolster? A knife bolster is the thicker metal or metal cuff between the blade and handle. Bolsters are most noticeable when they are more prominent or a different type of metal. This protective part helps ‘bolster’ the stability of the blade and keep it from breaking off at the handle.
Why Do Some Knives Need a Bolster
Good quality knives are extremely sturdy and durable because they’re made that way. However, without a bolster, some knives would break. The handle can crack, and blades snap off of badly made knives, which is why many include a bolster. This part quite literally ‘bolsters’ the joint between the handle and blade to add stability and prevent those sorts of accidents.
Knives with handles that are two pieces, attached on either side of a full tang blade, may not need a bolster. The screws or pins that hold that style of hilt in place provide stability. Moreover, the blade and handle interact differently when you apply pressure. Since a two-piece handle doesn’t encompass the whole blade, pressure, as you cut, isn’t transferred into the handle-pieces.
In addition to adding a thick metal part where the blade and handle join to prevent breakage, bolsters also add weight to the knife. By using thicker metal on the blade or band, the knife not only gains mass but the way that weight is distributed changes to in your favor. Bolsters shift the weight and balance back toward your hand.
Individual preference matters in knife handling. However, knives should be balanced in your hand. With the weight moved away from the blade end of your knife, you will have better control of your blade, which allows greater precision. Additionally, having the weight in your hand is more ergonomic and leads to far less fatigue than trying to move a massive blade and tip with little handle weight.
Some knives add length to the handle or a metal cap to add weight at that end. Unfortunately, other methods for balancing the weight do nothing to prevent cracked handles and broken blades. Furthermore, some knives need both an endcap and a bolster.
Types of Knife Bolsters
There are two very distinct types of knife bolsters. One primarily prevents the blade from breaking under pressure, and the other type is made to keep the handle intact under heavy cuts. Not all knives need a bolster, but both are essential to making some knives durable.
Kitchen Knife Bolsters
The first knife bolster is commonly seen on kitchen knives. Because these knives are used repeatedly in a single session, the pressure at the base of the blade is more than normal. As a result, the bolster is a thickening of the blade near the handle.
A culinary knife bolster is usually created during the forging process, though they can also be added later in some styles. Since it’s not sharpened or thinned like the cutting portion on a blade, it is usually the same thickness as the original piece of steel the knife comes from. A bolster can be thicker than the knife’s spine or the same width. While this part of the blade can also act as a finger guard, that is not it’s intended purpose.
Bolsters at the bases of kitchen knives are left dull to prevent accidental finger cutting. As chefs and cooks choke up on the blade, they tend to touch the bottom of a knife, and having a sharp bolster would increase kitchen accidents. The dullness is essential since most kitchen knives don’t have a finger guard. Moreover, styles with finger guards often lack the bolster because of the shape of the blade.
Hunting & Outdoor Knife Bolsters
Hunting knives are typically used differently from kitchen knives. These multi-use tools are often made for skinning, whittling, self-defense, and other short term activities. Instead of being used at a steady pressure over a long time, outdoor blades are frequently subject to high pressure for shorter periods. Resultantly, a different sort of bolster is used.
On a kitchen knife, the bolster is part of the blade. Conversely, on an outdoor knife, the bolster is almost always a separate part. This type of bolster looks like a cuff that encircles the top of the handle. Additionally, they are often made of brass or some form of metal that is different from the blade and handle.
By adding a bolster to brace the top of the handle, the metal can help prevent cracking, splitting, and damage along the handle. Pushing down hard for a shorter period, puts more pressure on the handheld part of the knife than the blade itself. Thus, this is the part that needs more support. In knifemaking, handles often split when the blade is inserted, so the sensible solution is to cap the area that takes that pressure.
While you might find rare blades with both types of bolster, it’s more common to have the style best suited to the knife’s intended purpose. Though some knives don’t require a bolster at all, you will often see one where the handle and blade meet.
How Do You Sharpen a Bolster Knife
Knives with bolsters have several advantages like weight distribution and lower risk of breakage while in use. However, the bolster on your knife is also a complication in one notable way. Having a culinary bolster makes it harder to sharpen your blade near the handle end.
A bolster bumps into a whetstone preventing you from running the full edge along the stone. For some people, this is not a problem, and they are content to leave the very end of the blade dull, but there are other solutions. Which option you choose is at your discretion.
First, you could thin or remove the bolster. By sanding or sharpening this part of the knife, you are easily removing the hindrance. Some people even delicately blend the bolster into the rest of the blade with a belt sander or some sandpaper. Sadly, thinning your bolster changes more than the shape.
A thinner bolster affects the balance of your knife. It can throw off the weight, and naturally, it counteracts the benefits of having a forged-in bolster at all. For this reason, I do not recommend this technique.
Secondly, you can use a much smaller whetstone. Rather than using a full-sized kitchen sharpener for your blade, you can either sharpen most of your knife with the regular whetstone and then switch to the smaller option, or you can choose to use the small stone all along. This technique means spending a bit more time on sharpening, but the smaller surface area lets you get closer to the hilt.
You can opt to use a belt sander to sharpen your knives. For those using this technique, extra caution is wise. Belt sanding your knives is not the safest method, and you risk your fingers, among other potential damage. Alternatively, you can hand sharpen a blade with a small piece of sandpaper if you are especially dedicated and determined.
Lastly, you can opt to take your knife to a professional sharpener to handle the tricky areas. Thus, you won’t need to risk your own fingers for a fully sharpened knife. Plus, many of the high-end knife companies offer sharpening services with the purchase of their blades, so you needn’t worry about it.
Some bolsters are formed out of the blade metal itself, while others are a separate part that is wrapped around the blade’s base. Although they look very different, both variations are called bolsters. Whether incorporated or not, the extra metal gives strength to the area where the blade joins the handle.
In kitchen knives, you are more likely to find the bolster is a thickened part of the blade’s base. People often mistake culinary bolsters for finger guards. Alternately, on hunting knives and decorative knives, this part is a cuff adding to the aesthetic and strength.
Bolsters on your knives help prevent blade and handle breakage, but all knives need them. Some people prefer to avoid the issue completely, but a good bolster is part of a good design.