Friday, April 25, 2014

PART TWO: Replacing the Plastic Handle on a Malaysian Parang

The traditional Malaysian parang comes with a wooden handle.  The handle is sometimes sloped with a flare or bulbous end that helps maintain control of the tool when chopping.  Some handles are well made while others are crude and poorly conceived.  Plastic handles have replaced wooden handles in many models—particularly those found in hardware stores and other shops.

Bidor Parang with plastic handle

As detailed in the previous post the handhold section of the plastic handle is about 3 1/8 inches.  The overall handle length is 5 3/8 inches.  Using my Bidor parang for general brush cleaning and assorted bushcraft endeavors around the cabin proved uncomfortable as a result of the small handle and I soon relinquished the parang to storage.  After a while, however, I decided to replace the plastic handle with a wooden handle that mimics the handles I make for my Woods Roamer knives and larger choppers.

The new handle is made from mesquite.  It measures 6 5/8 inches long and incorporates a 3/8 inch long copper ferrule at the fore-section to support the parang’s stick tang at its widest part.  The handle’s circumference increases from fore to aft.  This allows the user to choke the handle nearest the blade when performing detailed woodcarving tasks.  The end-swell helps control the knife during light chopping.  I also rounded the steel nearest the handle to allow the user to grab that section more comfortably.  (Refer to photo)  Most of my Woods Roamer knife handles range about six-inches long but I decided to go a bit more on this knife  My biggest concern, as noted in the previous post, is the short and somewhat flimsy stick tang used on these parangs.  Honestly, I don’t believe I’d want to trust my life to this parang.  The tang, measuring only 2 7/8 inches long, is simply too insubstantial for any genuine survival use.  We should remember, however, that Malaysian parangs are made by villagers or in small shops and sell for a few dollars, a price well within the affordable range for rural customers.  Malaysian parangs were not designed for foreign markets nor were they intended to suit the needs of urban bushcrafters or survivalists.  They are inexpensive, quickly replaceable tools made from recycled steel and as such fit the needs of Malaysians—if not the needs of bushcrafters who end up paying from five to ten times (in the US or Europe) what the knife is actually worth.

Allow me to analyze the parang’s stick tang and its typical handle a bit more.  The stick tang is placed within the wooden handle via a hole drilled and filed directly into the wood.  As a sidebar let me add that on a YouTube video a Malaysian acquires a piece of green wood and then begins tapping a sharpened stick tang into the wood driving the sharp tang downward until it is fully inserted into the wood.  Apparently no cross-pin is used to help hold the tang in place.  The wooden handle (with the blade now attached) is then placed next to a fire to allow the wood to dry.  I think any knifemaker will look at that video and shake his head.  First, as the wood dries around the stick tang it will shrink in size and thus pull away from the tang.  This will loosen the tang within the handle.  Second, placing the blade so close to a fire creates the potential for destroying the steel’s temper particularly as heat travels up the blade towards the cutting edge.  In other words, this video serves as a good example of people doing things with little to no knowledge of either wood or steel dynamics.  Now let’s continue: If you drill a hole into a piece of wood you are weakening the wood’s strength around the hole.  The extent to which you weaken the wood depends on how deep the hole is drilled.  As an example, a short tang, as seen on Malaysian parangs, drilled under three inches does less damage than a five or six inch tang might create.  In that sense, the short stick tang, as seen on these parangs, works okay as long as we acknowledge that the concept is a compromise.  In other words, it works given the needs of those who use it.  If one intends to use a longer stick tang then I suggest instead of drilling a hole, one should cut the handle in two and then carefully inlet the tang into both sides (or scales) and then pin and epoxy the three parts (two scales and tang) back together.  This makes for a stronger handle since the tang is mated firmly (via inletting) into the wood with no void of any sort.  Note that the hole drilled into the wood to insert the stick tang in Malaysian parangs is often filled with epoxy.  This is good but not necessarily as strong as direct contact with wood as seen in proper inletting.  Let me add that one should avoid the urge to simply drill a large hole into a piece of wood in order to drop the stick tang into the hole and then fill the gap with epoxy.  That will not make for a strong core even when pinned.

I triple pinned this tang.  One pin is underneath the copper ferrule and two other pins are directly behind the ferrule as seen in the above photograph.

When I see pictures of Malaysian parangs I come to one of two conclusions.  Either I’ll think, “This fellow knows knife design,” or I’ll think, “This guy is a novice.”  I saw a post a few years back where a guy makes a handle for his parang.  I liked the way he carved the handle with his Mora knife but otherwise the finished product failed ergonomically.  I think the man even admitted that fact in a later post.  Good for him.  First of all, if you want to make a new handle for a parang you should find a branch with a natural curve and start your handle from there.  Don’t simply get a chunk of wood or a big, round branch and attempt to make your handle—unless the wood is big enough that you have enough to work with to form a sloping handle.  Also, some of these Malaysian parangs have a bulbous belly that despite its intentions crowds the hand, interferes with chopping and does little to keep the blade controlled.  If you want to see how a handle ought to be designed then please refer to the handle I made for this parang.  There is nothing original with this handle.  As mentioned in the previous Part One section of this post I am simply copying the handle of the great Colt Peacemaker that in my opinion is the most comfortable handle ever designed on any “working tool” bar none.  The Colt’s handle rolls with the recoil and thus does not bury the grip into the hand.  The handle on this re-worked parang does the same thing.

So there you have it, folks.  Will I use this parang now?  Of course, I will.  But I will use it knowing its limitations.  I am amazed at the videos I see where people take parangs even kukris and start chopping huge branches.  Hint: Use an axe!  The parang is designed for rainforest use especially in places with bamboo.  It works quite well in the desert Southwest and Brushlands as a bushcraft tool.  Machetes with longer 24-inch blades work as well if not better most of the time.  The parang’s short tang is decidedly disconcerting and every time I examine my Bidor parang I use my X-ray vision to see that tiny little bitty tang underneath and I think, “Hmmm, I wonder.”


  1. The nicest most common sense piece of writing that I have seen for a while on the subject of knives.

    1. Thanks, Tony. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  2. Agree with the comment from Mr Lawlor. Interestingly Mr Longoria the knives you've made remind me a little more of Japanese Nata's than Parangs.

    1. That’s an interesting observation because I too have been thinking about the Japanese “hatchet.” Over the last year or so I’ve examined a number of Malaysian parangs and coincidently have looked at several Japanese chopping tools. The main differences are that the parangs all look forged from leaf springs while the Japanese hatchets or “Nata” tools seem to have been taken from flat bar-stock and then shaped into either a cleaver configuration or what I think of as a large straight razor, or at least they resemble the straight razors used in barber shops sans the chisel grind. There are Nata hatchets made from leaf springs but from what I’ve seen the object is simply to straighten the leaf spring by pounding it flat and then shaping the tang in order to fit into the wooden handle. Parangs, of course, come in so many shapes that it’s hard to claim any one configuration as representing a primary design other than they all conform (some more than others) to the commonalities associated with hand forging (the gentle upward sweep) and the miniscule stick tang. Handle shapes vary greatly from short and stubby to long and rather straight. I think the European would be better served in any case with a larger handle though not necessarily the straight configuration common to the Japanese Nata. I opt for a gentle S-shape that allows the hand to roll in the grip during chopping thus lessening the impact on the wrist and fleshy part of the palm. You’ve got me thinking now about making a couple of Natak chopping tools. Thanks for the idea.