Knife collectors and the forged blade

As far as I can see there are two main ways that custom or handmade knives are referred to. They are “stock removal” and “forged blades” or knives made by bladesmiths. But to be accurate both types normally require stock removal to some degree. There is some dividing line between the two types, at the Blade Show in Atlanta these two types are separated from each other in the room as if to avoid contamination. Why this division exists within the custom knife world I don’t know but imagine that it has to do with egos, jealousies, insecurities, old hard feelings, etc.

When it comes to cutting, slicing, or chopping anything that most of us cut, slice, or chop, there are probably plenty of reasonably priced factory made knives that will do the job just fine. The fact is that relatively expensive custom or handmade knives are not needed by most of us to perform the tasks we normally use knives for. We don’t need them, we just want them.

DSC_7374Forging a blade with hammer and anvil

Most of the custom knives that I have purchased over the years have been made by bladesmiths, and recently I began wondering what is it that draws collectors to the forged blade? I suppose that a lot, maybe most of it is the romance and historical aspect of the forging process. Perhaps the collector thinks that he is getting something that requires more skill or that more work is involved. Maybe he is attracted to Damascus or laminated steel. The collector might believe that the forged blade is a better blade when it comes to performance.

As to the last sentence in the above paragraph. I don’t know of any published, scientific tests performed by an independent laboratory that show a forged blade to be a better blade than a stock removal blade when it comes to cutting or edge holding. Claims are easy to make, proof is apparently not so easy to offer. Besides, the majority of expensive custom knives receive very little hard use if any use at all, and this fact is not unknown to makers.

When it comes to the amount of skill or work involved in creating the blade itself, I would say certainly that more work is involved because the forging process creates another step or steps, and it’s fair to say that additional skills are required to properly accomplish the forging phase. When it comes to Damascus steel, San Mai, or the carbon/stainless laminates that are popular today even more skill is required on the part of the bladesmith.

DSC_7574Grinding a forged blade (stock removal)

Collectors or users should probably keep in mind that most bladesmiths do their own heat treating and the better, more experienced among them probably know what they are doing. Often times though the maker has very little in the way of accurate temperature controls in his shop or a lot of experience under their belt. The processes of forging, laminating, or making pattern welded steels, and then heat treating them offers opportunities for things to go wrong. All knife makers including bladesmiths come in all levels of skill, experience, and aptitude.

Advertisements

Watermarking my photos

I post photographs here on my blog and occasionally on knife related online forums. Not that my images are of the finest quality, or that I imagine that many others would want to steal them, but they are my pictures and I want to control access and usage of them as much as possible. And so, I often watermark them. Of course watermarking does not always entirely stop theft though it certainly discourages it.

Recently I received a negative comment about my photographs because of the watermarks. A recent example was that a poster said that it was a “shame” I had text on top of the two following images.

eye brand stockman2 copy eye brand stockman copy

This puzzles me. Why is it a “shame”? What pertinent information does the watermark block from view?  Or does it mean that others can’t easily steal my photographs thus avoiding the trouble of taking his or her own photos, or obtaining copies of my photos (although I don’t know why they would want them), through appropriate means?

To me it is an enigma, although I suspect that it has to do with people wanting to obtain things easily and for free.

Since I am unable to solve this puzzle I believe that the best course of action is to stop wasting time on it and just continue watermarking my photos. So that’s what I’ll do.

Bill North

The full time, custom knife maker’s balancing act.

DSC_6100 800 wide

 Ivory handled knife by Tai Goo

In order to be successful, a full time custom knifemaker the maker must maintain a balance between art, craftsmanship, and business acumen. Those three things are like the three legs of a milking stool, if one leg is far out of proportion to the other legs the foundation becomes unsteady. In my experience those makers that seem to me to be accomplished in all three areas are far fewer in number than those that are not.

A knifemaker that naturally has an inclination or understanding of the art, craftsmanship, and business sides of the craft has a tremendous advantage over much of his competition. Many makers seem to be strong in one or two areas and weak in the others. I have known many skilled craftsmen that that were adroit at the craftsmanship aspect and/or the art aspect but sadly lacked at the business side of the endeavor. As a result they were unable to make a go of it, and having to seek some other source of income either left the craft entirely or nearly so.

My experience has been that the business side of knifemaking as a commercial undertaking is where most makers are weak. Makers that have someone to help them with that aspect are fortunate. Without good business practices, no matter how nice the knives, the venture probably does not have a bright future, at least as a full time occupation.

Once again the above is just my opinion based on my observances and experiences.

To see more knives by Tai Goo visit his website at http://www.taigoo.com

copyright Bill North 2013

The custom/handmade knifemakers pie

The big pie of custom/handmade knife makers can probably be said to divided into three segments or wedges of unequal size. There are probably sub groups or wedges as well but for today I will talk only about the three main groups or wedges of the pie.

Group 1: This is the smallest wedge of the pie and often although not always the best and most desired makers come from this group. These are full time makers that get up every day and work at the business of making knives and these makers deserve respect for their strong work ethic, and the skills that they have acquired and honed. It is their profession. Their knives are for sale. In my experience knives from the top level makers in this group sell well in the aftermarket, often at a profit. The best and most successful makers have a good grasp on the three legged stool of art, craftsmanship, and business concerns; they are able to keep the stool level.

Group 2: This is a large wedge of the pie. These makers are part time makers and often they have other jobs or additional sources of income. They don’t rely on knife sales to buy groceries and they make knives when they have the time or when the spirit moves them. Many of these makers are skilled and make very nice knives. Often their production, limited as it may or may not be is for sale. Some of them are able to sell almost everything they make and others not so much.

Group 3: This huge portion of the pie is made up of knife enthusiasts that want to a make a few knives for fun, for the experience, to learn more about knives, or to fit into a group of like-minded people. In my experience few makers in this group ever become highly skilled because they don’t for whatever reasons devote the time necessary to learn, to practice, and to actually complete projects. In my opinion it is unlikely although not impossible that a knife purchased from a maker in this group will appreciate much unless the maker moves up the ladder of wedges of the pie.

I know that sometimes makers in group 1 are concerned that their sales are damaged by makers in groups 2 and 3 pricing their work much lower than group 1 makers think is fair or correct. I doubt there is much validity in that thinking. A part time maker is unlikely to be able to do much damage to the sales of the best known full time makers providing that the full time makers are good business people. What will more likely than not damage sales are poor business practices and not moving forward with the business as it changes.

I don’t have any actual numerical data that supports the above. Like much I have written on this blog it’s just my opinion based on what I have observed. So if you disagree or think I’m full of it that’s fine; you can and should have your own ideas.

copyright Bill North 2013

Knifemakers and the internet.

The internet becoming so universal and easily accessed almost anywhere has changed many things in the custom knife world just as it has in many other areas. There are many types of knife forums, dealer websites, organizations websites, manufacturers’ websites, etc. Today knifemakers can have their own websites, blogs, or forums much, much easier than ever before. Many makers are taking advantage of what the internet offers them, the degree of this advantage taking varies from a little to a lot.

It is very difficult for me to imagine why any maker that is able to access the internet and is serious about his knife making, does not make use of the internet to whatever degree is best for him. Maybe I have just answered my own question…perhaps the maker is not serious, or maybe the maker thinks that it is best for him to not make use of the internet, although I can’t make sense of that thinking.

The various knife related forums can be a great place for a maker to show off his work, draw attention to his own site, announce shows he plans attending, post work in progress, etc. Well established, popular makers more often than not receive warm receptions on the various forums, not so well established or lesser known makers may or may not get the same reception. The forums are a keen edged sword that cuts both ways, the makers image can easily be enhanced or just as easily damaged.

It goes without saying that makers posting on forums should show their best work, and one would think that it also should go without saying that makers should be careful about how they come across on the faceless internet. Of course no one likes to have their work criticized, but if a maker posts his work he has to accept that everyone might not give it the glowing praise he hoped for. Getting sucked into arguments, becoming defensive or even worse losing one’s temper needs to be avoided like the plague by makers. Lots of potential customers may be watching.

The internet and having a website in particular not only allows makers to show off their work but can assist them in taking orders and selling knives. By doing these things the maker’s website potentially reduces the number of shows that the maker feels that he must attend, and thereby expenses are reduced. A maker can use a blog in many ways to maintain interest in his work, and they are simple to have and maintain as well as being free in many cases.

If the maker does have a blog or website it needs to be updated and not allowed to go stale. Most of us will soon tire of visiting a site that does not have new content over a long period of time. This morning I looked the blog of a certain ABS Mastersmith and could not help but notice that it has not been updated in 3 years and 10 months. You read correctly, I am not exaggerating; there have been no updates to the maker’s blog in almost FOUR YEARS!! All I can say is that it is truly baffling to me why the maker does not grasp that it would be better to take the blog down than to appear so lacking in focus and organization.

As usually is the case with this blog, the above is just my opinion based on what little I know and my own experiences.

copyright Bill North 2013

Steel Silliness

DSC_2296A forged blade cools in the vise. The makers steel rack is in the background.

In the following I am addressing “using” knives and not “collector” knives:

For years I have seen on various internet knife related forums posters who may or may not know what they are talking about, commending the virtues and/or decrying the faults as they see them of various steels used in knives. I know of makers that are so focused on steel and heat treating that they seem to pay little attention to other important aspects of the business of knife making. I have heard claims that some batches of well-known steels are supposedly superior to other lots of the same steel, and maybe that’s so, I certainly have no way of knowing. I have seen makers claim their heat treating methods were superior to other methods, and I have heard makers criticize other maker’s heat treating methods as being wrong, too basic, not advanced, etc.

I used to try to pay attention and attempt to sort through all this input and to get to the bottom line; what steel and heat treatment is best for my knives? Soon I was overburdened with information and I found myself easily being seduced by the promise of a better steel or better heat treatment. I spent more time wading through mountains of others opinions and thoughts on the matter than I did actually using any of my way too many knives. Just when I thought I had it narrowed down to what was the best steel for me, some new steel would be put on the market or some cache of desirable but hard to get steel would be suddenly be discovered and available.

After several years of wasting time at this never to be fruitful “steel silliness” I made a decision that seems obvious now, I’d just use some of my way too many knives and figure out what worked for me. I found out some things, and some of what I found out was not what I expected at all.

One thing that I found out was that in a large percentage of the knives that I tried, the steel and heat treatment seemed adequate or better to meet my daily use requirements. When it comes to the factory made knives that I own, I just have to believe that most factories that produce and sell thousands upon thousands of knives probably have the heat treatment of their chosen steel pretty well down. The factory knives that I own and use work just fine at what I use them for. If they don’t I get rid of them or throw them in a drawer to be forgotten.

As far as custom knives, I suppose most of us have to take the makers word for some things. If I decide to buy a knife from a custom maker, I am probably forced to accept what he says as far as the steel goes and how it is heat treated. That is sort of an uncertain position to be in. My experience with ordering custom knives is that sometimes I get what I think I am going to get, sometimes more, and sometimes less. As far as I am concerned, if fit and finish are sloppy, or promised delivery dates are missed by a lot, then other areas of a makers work could and probably should be suspect. The custom knives that I use I could not be happier with performance wise.

Another thing that I found out was that while the steel is very important so are other things. Now days not being so pre-occupied with the steel selection or how the steel was heat treated I am able to focus on other things. Things like is the knife ergonomically pleasing to me, is it reasonably easy to sharpen, is it’s edge holding and strength acceptable for my purposes, and does it have blade geometry that works best for me at the tasks I would put that knife to? Is it constructed in a manner that is satisfactory to me, and if it is a knife that I am going to carry, does it “carry well”? All these things are important to me in a knife that I am going to use more than casually. And all those things are probably more important that the “steel silliness” that I was caught up in.

copyright Bill North 2013

HEPK, a new knifemakers organization.

This year a new knifemakers organization was announced by Ed Fowler. It seems to me that Ed is a polarizing character in the custom knife world. Most of the controversy that I am aware of centers on his heat treating methods and the results he says that he has achieved. I would think that a lot of the controversy could be put to sleep if Ed would publish the metallurgical results from a recognized, independent lab but for whatever reason he chooses not to do that. And to be fair, as far as I know none of his detractors have had an independent metallurgical lab test one of Ed’s knives and published the results either. And so as it is so often in life, it’s a case of “he said vs. he said”

Ed is an interesting person who has authored articles in Blade magazine, one or two books about knifemaking, and also has made DVDs about his knifemaking methods. He teaches his bladesmithing methods at his shop in Riverton, Wyoming. Visually Ed’s knives are a style of his own and that style is repeated whether the knife is large or small, at least that is normally the case as far as I know. The examples of his knives that I have seen and handled had sheep horn handles, brass guards, and what I would describe as long ricassos. At least longer than what is generally seen.

Visually I like Ed’s knives in that they are different than what is currently in vogue, and to me reflect an independent spirit. The ones that I have handled were comfortable in the hand and had very durable appearing sheaths. I have never owned one of Ed’s knives and am not able to comment from personal experience as to how they perform.

Ed has some followers that are knifemakers who emulate his knives partially or wholly as to blade shape, ricasso length, steel type, handle material, and guard material. I assume they may partially or wholly use his heat treating methods as well.

This year Ed resigned from the American Bladesmith Society and later announced a new knifemakers organization, the HEPK. I believe that stands for High Endurance Performance Knife. It appears to me to be very loosely organized, and Ed has published on his forum the mission statement and requirements to be a HEPK Mastersmith.

The HEPK, like the ABS, uses “Mastersmith” to distinguish a particular level of skill that a smith has reached.  Although the word is the same the tests to award that status are quite different. Both organizations have their own Mastersmith performance tests but the ABS also tests for design, fit, and finish.  I believe, although I do not know for sure that the HEPK as an organization is performance oriented and less concerned with fit, finish, and embellishment.

I do not know if the HEPK has a website but some information about it can be found on Ed’s forum http://www.knifetalkonline.com/smf/ . I was not able to find a membership list, a list of Mastersmiths, any planned events, a mailing address, an email, a phone number, or any of the other things that one normally associates with a new organization looking toward the future. One thing that Ed has categorically stated is that there will never be any dues.

The ABS was first incorporated in 1976 I believe. From a small beginning to the present it has grown to now having about 1100 dues paying members. The ABS has done many things to boost its membership and further its goals. It has its own yearly show, puts on hammer-ins, has schools, has established a ranking system for member smiths, publishes a magazine, advertises, etc. Despite doing all those things, the current membership is just about 1100. That is approximately the number of students and staff at the High School in the town where I live. To me that speaks as to how small the custom knife world really is and how hard it must be for like organizations to get members. Since Ed has stated that the HEPK has a no dues policy, members might be easier to acquire; many people do want something for nothing.

Free, volunteer help in organizations is great, but in today’s world some money is needed to accomplish much. Without dues, and unless financing comes from somewhere else, I am unable to see any way that the organization can grow to be very large. Eventually, if the organization does grow, things like printing, advertising, stamps, phone bills, publishing newsletters or a magazine, office space and supplies, etc. will require money. Perhaps the goal is to keep it small and informal, in that case very little money would be needed.

I would think that a maker wanting or needing to sell knives would ask himself if being a member of an organization is going to be beneficial to him, and if the prospective customer will take the organization’s standing within the industry into account when considering a purchase. Whether or not you are a fan of the ABS it is an established organization and a Mastersmith ranking helps makers charge more for their work. It remains to be seen if being a HEPK Mastersmith will be as helpful.

Of course getting paid for the knives one makes is not always a motivating factor for the maker. If that is the case then as far as financially speaking goes it makes little difference what organization the maker is or isn’t a member of.

What the future holds for the HEPK I have no idea and could only make pointless speculations. In ten years we should have a pretty good idea, and in thirty six or seven years those of us that are still around will know for sure.

I for one think that the more pro-knife related organizations we have the better the future will be for knife makers, knife owners, and knife enthusiasts.

copyright Bill North 2013

Postscript: Since I originally wrote the above I have seen the link www.hepk.org When I went to that address it took me to Ed’s forum and not to a HEPK dedicated site. Perhaps that was temporary and the link will go to its own site in the future.