The author’s handmade tools

I came across a recommendation by British teacher and author Paul Sellers for using a Swann-Morton® scalpel as a marking knife. I bought the scalpel, sold as a handle alone, and a box of 50 blades. One handle and 50 blades for about $20 (Cdn.) sounded like a good deal in dollar terms, but perhaps a waste in practical terms as I am a woodworker and not a surgeon!

After trying it out, I liked the long, stiff blade that marks or cuts inside the corners of deep tails. With the spare blades in abundance, re-sharpening would not be a concern for years to come. I decided to make my own handles to put some of those spare blades to good use. They make great gifts for friends too, whether the woodworking kind or not.

Some of the handmade tools the author uses in his shop.

The scalpel is ideal for laying out tails or pins

The sharp and stiff cutting edge makes this scalpel ideal for laying out tails or pins.


Stock Preparation

The small size of the knife makes it an ideal project for using the hardwood from your scrap bin. I made mine out of cherry, mahogany and walnut blanks. I cut the blanks on the table saw into paired strips (1/4" x 1/2" x 5") with the grain running in the same direction. See the diagram for suggested measurements and adjust them to suit the blade you will use and the handle size you prefer.

1. Teeth set just shy of the thickness of the blade. 2. Use the nick on the strip to set the next saw cut. 3. Cleaning up the channel’s bottom.

Cutting the Blade Channel

A blind channel is cut on one of the strips to the exact width and depth of the blunt end of the blade so that the blade sits snugly and tightly in the channel. A sloppy job will ruin the tight fit and spoil the strip. You can cut the blind channel on a router table or table saw.

Using the blade, I set the depth of cut on the table saw to just a hair less than the thickness of the blade. After making the first cut to establish one edge of the channel, I made a knife mark to locate the opposite edge and reset the fence to make the second cut. I cut away the waste with multiple overlapping passes. To cut the channel to its final depth, I levelled the bottom with a router plane, an indispensable tool for precision work.

To avoid overcutting and test cuts, set the teeth just shy of the thickness of the blade.

Use the nick on the strip to set the next saw cut.

Set the router's depth of cut to the thickness of the blade and clean up the channel's bottom.

Use the depth stop on the drill press to control the boring depth on the blind hole

Drilling the Holes

Using the blade as a template, I located and drilled the bolt and nut through-holes together. After boring the recess holes for the bolt and nut, I reset the stop block and drilled the pin holes, a through-hole on the channelled strip and blind hole on the other. I cut a short pin from an aluminum rod to length and used cyanoacrylate (CA) glue to affix it to the through-hole. (You can also use epoxy glue.) After the glue was cured, I hand sanded the pin flush.

Use the depth stop on the drill press to control the boring depth on the blind hole.

1. Shaping the profile on the handle. 2. Maintaining the angle of cut.

Shaping the Handle

With the strips bolted together, I outlined the shape on the face of the handle. Since the grain ran in the same direction for the strips, I shaped them with a spokeshave without any worries of tear-out. See the sidebar below for some tips on using a spokeshave. If you choose to use rasps for shaping, ease the edges with abrasives, a small plane or a cornering tool.

Depending on the grain direction, use push or pull strokes to shape the profile on the handle from both ends.

To maintain the angle of cut, slightly press down at the front to steady and guide the tool as you push or pull.

1. Canted cutter. 2. Skew the shave in your cuts.

Using a Spokeshave

A Canted Blade

I set the blade at a slight angle to the sole so I can vary the depth of cut by re-positioning the spokeshave rather than re-setting the cutter.

Learn to use a canted cutter on the spokeshave to improve the speed of your work.


A dull blade, tricky grain or pressing too hard on the heel of the shave can cause chattering. Skew the shave slightly across the direction of travel to reduce this.

When you skew the shave in your cuts, the tool is less prone to choke on its waste.

Firm and Steady Strokes

During your push or pull strokes, keep steady pressure on the toe without hesitation to the end; this is not the time for timidity.

Exquisite tool

Finishing and Assembly

After dry fitting, I disassembled the knife and signed and dated the inside faces of the handle. I applied a few coats of boiled linseed oil on all surfaces of the handle with light sanding between coats. I cut a short section out of a spine clip to make the blade protector and completed the assembly.

When the time comes to resharpen or replace the blade, the owner of one of your knives will be reminded of what an exquisite tool you have given him or her!

Now you're ready to hand out your gifts. But did you just make a batch of fine layout tools or a bunch of box cutters? It depends, of course, on whether you are giving the knife to a woodworker or someone who knows little about precision tools!

Photos and text by Charles Mak

Charles Mak, now in retirement, is an enthusiastic hobby woodworker, teacher, writer and tipster. He formerly worked part-time at his local Lee Valley Tools store.

Further Reading

Mak, Charles. "Handmade Hand Router." Good Woodworking. Issue 256. August 2012.

Mak, Charles. "Turned Multi-bit Screwdrivers." Woodworker's Journal. June 2011.

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