Operating in upstate New York since 1889, the Ontario Knife Company has produced the same simple, functionally designed knives for over 120 years. Not a Canadian company, Ontario Knife is named for its birthplace in Ontario County, New York. Its “Old Hickory” line of kitchen cutlery is made for butchering, boning and paring duties with designs that are clearly from a time when the family home, not the supermarket butcher, prepared meat for the table.
The high-carbon 1095 steel is forged and heat-treated in a manner that makes resharpening easy on basic stones or steel. The handles are a flat, rectangular wood design attached via brass rivets. Some blades have horizontal grooves to break up the secondary edge, but the majority are of a simple flat grind.
When you come across an Old Hickory in kitchen drawers, barns, basements or grandpa’s box of stuff, there is a good chance it can be 50 to 100 years old. Old Hickories found their way into American homes via individual salesmen, family hardware stores and mail-order catalogs throughout the years. When one turns up, its patina and handles may show its age, but with a reverent bit of home-shop attention, these knives can be restored to their rightful place in any family’s cutlery lineup. Unlike most items produced today, a century-old Old Hickory will not likely be overly worse for the wear. Its DNA and design are solid. However, a few passes of attention in the home shop can restore and even improve upon the knife’s functional quality and appearance.
The Old Hickory handle material will likely show the greatest wear over time. Designed when dishwashers did not exist, the Old Hickory wood handle scales are riveted to the knife tang. You will likely find some warpage away from the tang and slight cracking at the rivets or the front/rear of the handle scales. One approach is simply to fill the cracks with epoxy or super glue, sand it, and then apply several layers of tung oil. This is certainly a very practical option, but the Old Hickory handle material was clearly chosen for heavy use and economy, and this approach doesn’t significantly improve the appearance or feel of the handle.
The best all-around option I have found is to replace the old handles with a material designed to withstand moisture and corrosion. One excellent choice is Dymondwood, produced exclusively by Jantz Supply. Dymondwood is an inexpensive but beautiful American hardwood laminate material produced in a variety of color patterns and combinations. For less than $5 per knife, Dymondwood handle material adds color, longevity and the option for a custom-shaped handle. Micarta and G10 are also excellent synthetic choices, along with synthetic ivory.
Replacing The Handle
The first step in the handle replace- ment process is to remove the existing brass rivets by drilling/tapping down the center of each. A drill press with the knife in a vise is ideal. If you don’t own a drill press, a hand drill will do. As a note of safety, it’s a smart move to apply masking tape to the entire blade with several layers over the primary cutting edge.
This will prevent an accidental cut or inadvertently scarring the blade. Properly drilled, the rivets will fall out, and the handles can be easily removed. The tang will look unfinished and may benefit from a light sanding to knock off any high spots and remove buildup.
The hardened tang now becomes your template to mark the handle material. In the case of Dymondwood, the slabs come in 3/8″ x 1.5″ x 10″ sections, so you can trace one side us- ing a marker or scratch awl, then pivot the knife on its pommel and trace the other side. The sides look the same, so mark which is which (i.e., front/back, left/right) to make the process easier when fitting the handles.
Most of the Old Hickory knives I have disassembled used a 5/32-inch rivet, which makes it hard to find pinstock to replace the handles. I went down to the local hardware store and tried some shiny nails until I found a size that would fit. The galvanized nails polish up nicely, and the nail head helps assemble the scales when you are gluing them to the tang.
You can widen the hole to accommodate the larger pinstock, but you will be drilling into hardened, heat-treated steel. So if you don’t have a carbide drill bit and a substantial vise on your drill press, the nails are the cheaper and safer option.
The handle scales can be cut with a jig or band saw. Dymondwood cuts just like wood, but you will need to slow down and wear a dust mask with the synthetics. You may also elect to add contrasting, colored spacer material between the blade and handle as an accent.
After you trim the handle material to the pattern, drill a few shallow divots into the inside of the handles. This will help the adhesive hold the mate- rials together. I used Devcon 15-min- ute epoxy to attach the handles to the tang using the nails for structural rigidity. Finally, I clamped the pieces with C-clamps and vise grips to hold the parts in place while the epoxy set.
After 24 hours, the clamps can be re- moved, and the nails trimmed with a band saw or hacksaw or ground down with a belt sander. The next steps are up to the user, based upon what feels best in terms of a handle shape. Rather than stick with the original, flat Old Hickory handle scales, I prefer to create a palm swell in the handle, the center of which is about two-thirds down the length of the handle.
I used a 120-grit, 4-by-6-inch belt grinder, then sequentially finer strips of sandpaper (220-600) to round and smooth the handles. I finished with fine and extra-fine buffer wheels on a 6-inch grinder to bring the handles to a smooth, high gloss. I experimented with several handle-shape variations, and the Dymondwood revealed a variety of colors as the various layers were exposed. The colors also act as a de facto depth gauge, making it easy to grind symmetrical handle scales.
I also built one set of synthetic ivory handles of material ordered from Tombstone Silver and added red and black G10 spacer materials. With brass pins contrasting the white handles, the overall look turned out surprisingly nice. The Micarta handles also shaped well and were slightly heavier than the other options.
Because of their high carbon content, Old Hickory knives may carry a significant patina and possibly some rust. It is up to the owner how much the blades should be resurfaced. Some like a patina; others do not.
At the very least the blades should be cleaned with a mild abrasive to remove any organic surface buildup. I used Comet, a sponge and warm water, taking care to work from the spine to the edge. The New Pioneer editors swear by a product called Evapo-Rust. It can handle the toughest rust-removal chores around the home.
For most of my Old Hickory knives, I chose to gently grind down the exterior surfaces. Doing so gave the blade a uniform appearance and smoothed the secondary edge (the sides of the blade just above the cutting edge), which is a critical but often overlooked element to properly sharpening a working knife. The primary edge (the sharp part) makes the initial cut and the surfaces just above it move through and divide the material. Minimal surface texture in this area makes for a more efficient knife.
While the 1095 blade steel can be sanded and buffed to a mirror polish, a satin finish is likely the most practical for a high-carbon working knife. The steel isn’t extremely hard, so the edge can be easily restored using most conventional sharpening meth- ods. However, if you are confident with your grinding skills, using a 120-and then a 220-grit belt on the grinder at a proper angle will set an edge very quickly. I set all of mine with a 20-de- gree (40-degree included) angle.
Old Hickory At Work
One consistent advantage of the Old Hickory knives is that they are not over-built from a thickness standpoint. The blades are slightly thinner than on most modern cutlery, but not so much that it weakens the strength of the knife. The thinner, and thus lighter blade, with a properly sharpened and maintained primary and secondary edge, will perform with surprising efficiency. Keep in mind that Old Hickorys are high-carbon steel, so wash and dry them after sharpening and apply a light coat of olive or mineral oil to protect the blade. Avoid washing them in the dishwasher.
Re-handled, polished and sharpened, the Ontario Old Hickory can walk directly to the front of the line in your kitchen cutlery inventory. The small bit of love and attention paid with simple home tools will restore a piece of American cutlery history and give you and your family many more years of reliable service.
When it comes to tools—tools that are truly up to all tasks—there are few things more preferable than a working knife with a history in which you get to play a part.
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Ontario Knife Company