Pocketknives or razors which have celluloid handles are colorful, bright, durable and ornamental. This synthetic material was widely used from just before the turn of the century until about 1940. You might hear some negative comments from collectors concerning celluloid, all of which are most likely true; but for the most part, the average knife collector knows little about this handle material. I am hopeful that this article will clarify some of the aspects of celluloid; but more importantly, I want to make everyone aware that all celluloid knife handles are a potential time bomb. A ticking time bomb, which no doubt, can and could destroy some special knives that you have in your collection.
Celluloid was cheap, easy to work with, tough and colorful. Some say the reason for the change to celluloid was to replace the ivory used in making billiard balls. However there was a bit of a problem because a perfect shot could cause the celluloid ball to explode. Celluloid was combustible and extremely flammable. After all, its chemical composition is very close to certain explosives!
The raw materials required to synthesize celluloid include cellulose fibers, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, water, alcohol, camphor, colorant and fillers. For a more technical treatise on celluloid, go to the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation (JAIC 1991, Volume 30, Number 2, Article 3 (pp. 145 to 162).
This article appears in the December 2022 issue of KNIFE Magazine. Since we have not yet put the paywall back up, everyone can read it by clicking the blue button below.