By Miguel C. Gil
A global ban on the commercial use of ivory served as an impetus for pistol grips manufacturers to search for alternative raw materials. In the early 1990’s we started reading about a synthetic material called Micarta, which was billed as the next best thing to real elephant tusk.
Some pioneer makers of Micarta pistol grips even advertised that their products were sprinkled with real ivory dust, which only served to reinforce the “state-of-the-art” appeal. The downside was that Micarta grips were quite expensive even in the United States… and largely unavailable in gunshops here in the Philippines.
Today, imported Micarta gun grips of all shades and patterns are locally available to those willing to pay the still somewhat prohibitive tariff. Our recent visit to X.O. Knives, however, served to demystify the whole Micarta manufacturing process!
Wacky Gochoco, who is XO’s resident maker of all things Kydex and Micarta, graciously took us through the step-by-step process of making Micarta grips—in this case, for a 1911 pistol. This fellow La Salle Greenhills alumnus is nothing short of an artisan… making both Kydex sheaths and holsters as well as Micarta knife handles and pistol grips by hand.
It all began with about a yard of white canvas. Canvas or Catcha in Tagalog, is cheap and always readily available from retailers in Divisoria or wherever textiles are sold. It has a myriad of uses ranging from ladies tote bags, kid’s martial arts kimonos, photographer’s vests etc.
Wacky then cut the canvas to roughly palm-sized strips. Each strip would constitute a layer in the grip. Around 30 layers of compacted canvas are needed to form one side of the 1911 grips.
Each strip is then laid flat on top of some clear plastic wrapping and then smothered with a mixture of clear industrial adhesive. Adhesives of this kind are inexpensive and can be purchased by the pint or by gallon from select hardware shops, according to Wacky. This serves as the bonding agent to hold the strips of canvas together.
Another canvas strip is simply placed on top of the last one with yet another generous helping of adhesive poured on top. This process is repeated until you have 30 layers of canvas dripping wet with the strong and pungent adhesive. With all layers in place, another sheet of plastic wrapping is added on top to hold the material together and keep it from bonding to surrounding surfaces.
At this stage, the material looks just like any other loosely packed fabric smothered with glue… and certainly nothing like the fine Micarta grips it will become in a few hours. It is at this point that the material is sandwiched between two thick metal plates that are then pressed tightly together. Fabric and adhesive are then left to fuse together on the workbench for several hours under the pressure provided by the metal plates.
After about four hours the steel plates are removed revealing a solidified block of material that almost resembles fossilized bone or ivory! A closer inspection, however, reveals that the distinct texture of the canvas is still visible although now permanently encased in a laminate of adhesive and plastic.
It is at this point that the raw Micarta block is cut into shape using hand saws, files and common power tools. Another 1911 grip is placed on top of the block as it is being shaped to serve as a guide. In no time at all a pair of 1911 grips emerges from the block. Wacky says that the tricky part is in the drilling of the grip screw holes. If this is slightly off, all of that material goes to waste!
Already looking like a pair of very rough 1911 grips, it will then be sanded and polished to form the end product. This must be a slow and deliberate procedure because it is possible to remove too much material or ruin the curvature on the grips. In either case, the material must go to the garbage can!
Fortunately, everything worked out well this time… resulting in a handsome pair of Ivory-like 1911 grips! A closer inspection revealed a seemingly homogeneous material with no trace of the original texture of the canvas. The off-white shade of the canvas raw material further reinforced the Ivory appearance of our end product.
PLAY: Custom Micarta grips by X.O. Knives are the result of low-tech production techniques combined with highly-skilled labor! (Video by IGG)
It is worth noting that X.O. also makes knife handles and pistol grips in various colors and can even integrate ornate patterns on them. For example, pink fabric will result in pink grips (popular with lady shooters) or khaki fabric will result in “desert tan” grips etc.
Ornate surface patterns can also be created when Mongo beans, match sticks and other small objects are placed on top of the wet raw material as it is being squeezed between the metal plates, earlier in the production process. These irregular depressions on the raw material result in lovely designs which are only revealed in the sanding and polishing stage. However, accurately describing this process will probably entail another article altogether!
In any case, we have always been drawn to the classic appearance of Ivory gun grips… particularly in 1911’s pistols. X.O. Knives makes this look locally available at competitive prices and without supporting the illegal ivory trade.
* Custom Micarta Grips by X.O. Knives: prices start at Php 3,000 (basic pair only)