Changes in the Custom Knife World

Maybe it’s just me but I don’t think so; the custom knife thing in the U.S. has changed a lot in recent years. Some portions of it have improved and moved forward with the times, and others have not kept up and moved backward.

I have seen knife makers of all skill levels come and go. To me it is not surprising to see the less talented or less committed disappear, but it does make me wonder when good makers that have had their share of recognition quit. I suppose it is simpler than I tend to make it; probably they simply disappeared because of poor business practices, economic reasons, health issues, or burn out. I know from personal experience that it is disappointing to have purchased an up and coming makers work only to see him drop out of sight the following year.

It is not as hard to learn knife making as it was 10-15 years ago, information on the topic is much more easily accessed than it was in the past. Through the internet, bladesmithing schools, community colleges, makers teaching in their own shops, etc. many hopefuls have learned knife making and been able to communicate with other students and makers. Some of these become really skilled makers and others not so skilled, but as a group they fill the slots in the already crowded world of knife makers that were vacated by those that left. I have heard it said by more than one maker, that makers themselves as well as the schools are hurting established makers business by teaching the craft to too many hopefuls.

No doubt some newer makers may be taking sales from more established makers by turning out the work that collectors want at a price collectors want to pay. I think this is a good thing in that it gives buyers more options and makers are forced to refine their methods, products, and business policies. At the mid and higher levels of the custom knife world, as the quality of the work offered increases there is more and stiffer competition for the buyers’ dollars.

I clearly remember the first American Bladesmith Society cutting competition that I saw. It was when The Spirit of Steel Show was still in Mesquite, Texas and I was fascinated by it. Later I saw more ABS run cutting contests and they were interesting and exciting I thought. Apparently the powers that be didn’t see the value in them because cutting competitions have now become an event put on by another organization and is dominated by stock removal knives.

From my position on the outside it looks to me that some of the non-organization sanctioned events held by knife makers are doing well and are attractive to collectors. These makers obviously have some insight into what collectors want to experience at these events.

Without being specific, there are very strong suggestions of cronyism, and elitism in some knife related organizations and by some members of those organizations.That is of course a real turn off to many, causes ill will between makers, and in the long run hurts not only the organizations and makers but the custom knife business as a whole.

 A large sign of the changing times is the fact the Blade Show, the large knife show that has been held in Atlanta for years has changed its name to the Blade Show and Living Ready Expo. The name has changed and so has the overall makeup of the seminars and the table holders. I know that many custom knife makers will not like the new format, but I understand that the show promoter needs to sell tables and get admittance paying visitors through the doors. It’s just business.

It used to be that there was great emphasis placed on nice, clean hand rubbed finishes and Japanese style hamons. Today these beautiful indicators of skill and good craftsmanship have become passé and many makers have moved on to laminated blades or Damascus blades in an effort to keep up with the changing market or to try to keep their work a little different from that of the competition. Rough, textured, or forge finishes on unground portions of the blade are currently in vogue. Sometimes the texture is applied as a design element and other times it is the finish on “user” knives. It remains to be seen as to how long these types of blades these will be popular with buyers and what the next “in thing” will be.

There are some good makers that I know of who experienced a drop in sales of their more expensive knives and compensated by producing knives of simpler design and construction that could be sold at a price that was attractive to customers. Other makers experiencing the same drop in sales have refused to make less expensive pieces saying that it would devalue their top line knives. I am not qualified to judge who is doing the correct thing, but of the few that I have information about it looks like the makers that have adjusted to what the market will bear are doing better.

I don’t think that it can be denied that the internet has had a great effect on the world of custom knives. There are forums about the making of knives, the collecting of knives, maker’s forums, etc. Internet savvy makers can use the internet to promote and sell their work and do not have to rely entirely on dealers or shows to get their work in front of potential buyers. I think that too few makers take advantage of the opportunities the internet offers them to reach potential buyers. Today it is not that difficult to have a basic website or blog, and it could easily and probably successfully be argued that a maker that does not have one is missing an excellent opportunity to get and keep his or her name out there.

Certainly it can’t be denied that there are plenty of makers to go around but I doubt the same can be said of collectors, and I wonder if the number of new collectors is increasing as fast as the number of new makers. I imagine that there will always be makers of custom knives that would make knives just for the pleasure of doing so, but many makers want or need monetary compensation for their labors. Without collectors there will be a lot fewer makers of expensive custom knives.

Please remember that the above is just my opinion acquired through my own experiences and what I have heard from others regarding their experiences and opinions. Admittedly my knowledge is limited and your experiences or opinions may differ greatly from those expressed here, and that’s probably normal since often people view the same thing differently.

Copyright Bill North 2012