Making a Japanese(-ish) saya for a tired old knife blade

In an earlier post I saved a tired old kitchen knife from oblivion by cleaning it up and fitting it with a new handle from some beautiful yew.

I continue by making a wooden saya (or scabbard) for the blade, so that it can be carried around safely. It’s not a true saya because what I have made is more than sufficiently robust to protect the user from the blade, where a traditional saya is so light that the user can easily sever their own fingers should it be used incorrectly!

I selected a cracked, salvaged oak drawer front to make the saya from, there was just about enough in one piece. I traced the outline of the knife on one side of the workpiece and routed a channel for the blade. I’m still new to freehand routing so this is not as neat as I would like but it will be invisible in the final sheath and will have no impact when in use since the blade can be fitted in both directions either way. Then I traced the outline of the knife in mirror image and cut the pieces to approximate size.

Saya (鞘) is the Japanese term for a scabbard, and specifically refers to the scabbard for a sword or knife. The saya of a koshirae are normally manufactured from very lightweight wood, with a coat of lacquer on the exterior.
— Wikipedia - so it must be true.

I counter-bored a couple of 4mm deep 6mm diameter holes to receive strong magnets, these will retain the blade when it’s in the sheath. The magnets were epoxied into place ever so slightly below flush so as not to touch the knife blade. I clamped them using a piece of timber that would fit within the blade channel, with some plastic to avoid sticking to any squeeze out. Originally I was planning on using four of these but a test with the blade showed that two were more than strong enough. After the epoxy had cured, I sanded and oiled the internal space where the blade would sit with food safe oil.

I decided to use tiny dowels in the form of round section stainless steel nails as reenforcement for the glue that I would use to fuse the two faces.

I predrilled holes for these with the faces clamped together to ensure alignment. Then I mixed some 5 minute epoxy. I had to apply this carefully to the faces to avoid internal squeeze out that could potentially impede the blade. Clamping was a nightmare because the nails needed to fit so accurately, so I fitted them in a sequence to optimise the minimal available slack. The last two still needed a little extra weight behind the hammer (I thumped the hell out of it).

Next came the process of shaping the rough block into a usable sheath. I cut the head and tip from each nail using a hack saw. One tip had torn out slightly as it exited the timber but it didn’t matter because I had to take off about 2mm from each side to get a comfortable width when sanding. I gently rounded over the corners and edges before sanding through the same grits that I had used on the knife handle. This time however I tested first with the finest grits to ensure I didn’t end up with the same “smudgy” appearance where discarded grit lodged in the pores of the timber. With hindsight, applying finish earlier, while using the coarser grits would have solved this by filling all of the pores before reaching the finer sanding stages. Live and learn…

Initially I was planning on making the external lines of the saya roughly match those of the blade itself but then realised it would make it less safe to carry. Instead I left it in the form of a single knife block but it looks bulky - ugly if I’m being honest - yet fits very comfortably in the hand when removing or returning the blade.

I sanded through all the grits available to me and this time began applying finish before reaching the finest level, with better results. I inlayed a little block of the yew for a bit of contrast, to link visually to the knife handle, and to act as both a stand and finger rest similar to its military Japanese inspiration.

So at last it’s finished.

  • Does it look ridiculous? .. Yes.

  • Does the simple colour of the oak saya clash with the vibrant tones of the yew handle and inlay block? .. Yes.

  • Was it insane to put this much effort into a cheap mass produced kitchen knife blade? .. Yes.

  • Was it an educational process? .. Yes.

  • Was it an enjoyable process? .. Yes.

  • Is it dishwasher friendly? .. Hell no.

If it was a building it would be a Victorian folly:

Fergus N