Ultem is the new kid on the block and it’s an awesome option for a handle material. Ultem has a distinctive honey-amber color, and when you put it in direct light, it almost seems to glow. In terms of performance, Ultem improves greatly on other materials commonly used in knife handles. Usually, improvements are really just tradeoffs by another name. We see this frequently in knives. For example, M390 stainless steel is a massive improvement in edge retention over 8Cr13MoV, but at the same time, it is much harder to sharpen. On the other hand, Ultem shows meaningful improvement over FRN, its biggest competition. Ultem is stronger, stiffer, lighter, and more resistant to wear. What does this mean for users? No matter how hard you grip it, it will not bend. Even if you carry the knife for years, you won’t see wear on the pivot or in the handle texture. Maybe best of all, Ultem doesn’t mind changes in temperature or exposure to UV light, leaving you with a dependable material to grip your knife.
Like most knife materials, Ultem was originally developed for another purpose. Micarta was originally an electrical insulator. G-10 was used for circuit boards. Ultem was developed for aircraft interiors to be lightweight, self-extinguishing when exposed to fire, not to let off noxious fumes, and to have the strength that rivals aluminum. The medical and food production industries also love it because it can withstand corrosive environments with ease and is very easy to sanitize. Manufacturers use it because it can be 3D printed into some tooling parts for a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time it would take to fabricate them from metal.
In case you haven’t gathered as much yet, we love Ultem. That said, it is not without some disadvantages. Firstly, you can have Ultem in whatever color you want, so long as that color is somewhere between honey and amber. Ultem is non-porous and does not absorb liquids, so dying it a different color will not yield good results. Since it is so durable, Ultem does not take a patina like Micarta. If you are a big fan of materials that change with time and use, Ultem may not be the right option for you. Finally, Ultem is high-tech, so as you might guess, it comes with a matching price tag. If any of these are dealbreakers for you, there are other rad materials out there. But if you’re like the rest of us, Ultem might just be the best handle material for your next knife!