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 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
I saw quite a few “blacksmith” or roughly forged knives before I ever heard the phrase “Brute de Forge”. These knives were for the greatest part unsophisticated and homemade in appearance as opposed to the better brute de forge knives by skilled makers that we see today.
Today the more refined brute de forge knives that we see may feature forged in finger guards, file work, silver wire inlayed handles, and engraving. Some areas of the blade are usually left with an as forged surface.
Joe Keeslar is an ABS Mastersmith and the chairman of the American Bladesmith Society, he is also known for his brute de forge type knives. I believe that it is safe to say that the example pictured here is typical of the style as done by Joe. Overall it is 9 13/16” and the clip point blade is hollow ground. The tiger maple handle slabs are decorated with silver wire and pins and the spine of the blade is file worked. The bolsters are engraved and the file work on the spine is enhanced with engraving.
The forged in finger guard is wide and a smooth curve making it comfortable to the fore finger. This is an area where many other knives of this type that I have seen have fallen short. The balance point is just behind the finger guard and the knife rests comfortably in the hand.
copyright Bill North 2013
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
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.
Bladesmith Mike Christenson using a power hammer
In the custom or handmade knife world there are two popular ways of making the blades, forging and stock removal. In the stock removal method the maker starts with a piece of appropriate steel and uses cutting tools or abrasives to remove everything that does not look like the blade that he wants to create. In the forging method the maker also starts with an appropriate piece of steel but he heats it to a malleable state and uses hand or power tools to force it into the shape he wants.
Actually, when it comes to forged blades in most cases the blade is only forged to shape in its earlier stages, and then stock removal takes over, at least that is how it normally is done. Different makers forge the blade to varying degrees of the final blade shape before stock removal takes over. Some makers forge very closely to the final shape and others not so much. Despite how much or how little forging is actually done in the shaping of the blade process, if knives have been forged at all by the maker, the market seems to refer to them as “forged blades”.
Some people say that forging makes a better knife but they don’t say exactly how much better or what independent lab evidence they have to support that position, at least I don’t have knowledge of it if someone has. Please note that I said “independent lab”. I have heard it said that forging is more economical in terms of material, but knife steels are not that expensive considering the price of finished knives and they fail to mention the extra time and materials used in cleaning up a rough forged blade. Proponents of forging say that forging allows the maker to create shapes that other methods don’t, but I doubt that is so; computer controlled machines can do remarkable things. I also have heard it said that forging allows the maker to use different shapes of steel as raw material, and as true as that is, I doubt very much that it matters much to most collectors what shape the steel was before it was a blade. In fact I bet that nothing in this paragraph matters much to most collectors….of course that’s just a guess on my part, but I would still bet money that way.
One excellent quality that forged blades by good bladesmiths often have is distal taper. It is a tapering of the blade thickness from guard to tip and helps avoid “nose heaviness”. This is easily roughed in during the forging process but would require much grinding to accomplish by the stock removal method. This distal taper is what gives some knives such a well-balanced feel in the hand. It really makes the difference in how Bowies, fighters, and other large knives feel. Large knives with good distal taper can feel very light and quick and many collectors like them.
Forging capabilities do allow makers to make laminated blades and Damascus or pattern welded blades, and currently collectors are drawn to both those blade types. There is something archaic about forging, the fire, the anvil, the whole “Under a spreading chestnut tree the village smithy stands” thing. To most of us, forging as a way for a solitary craftsman to produce a knife blade is very far removed from the computerized world we live in. And therein probably lays a great deal of the reason for its appeal.
So why is it then that many collectors are drawn to the forged blade? What is the allure? Are they in fact drawn to the forged blade or is it that they are drawn to a particular knife, knife style, or makers work that just happens to be forged? Certainly there may be collectors that collect only forged knives, but it is probably a small segment of the collector population. I am only guessing, but I imagine that most collectors with sizable collections have knives of both forged and stock removal genres.
copyright Bill North 2013
Are there too many custom knife makers? I have heard this question for several years and some months ago it was the subject of a thread on an internet knife related forum. While following the thread I vacillated between agreeing with one side of the discussion and then the other. I was easily swayed and seemed to have no real opinion of my own. Annoyed at my shillyshallying I stopped reading the thread.
Recently the “Are there too many makers” question came to mind and I decided to actually try to make a decision as to my opinion of that topic. So here goes….
Are there too many custom knifemakers? Well I suppose that depends on your point of view. I would imagine that established makers who feel that they have lost sales to newer makers and the poor economy would say quickly that there are too many makers for the number of customers today. Others may disagree.
Let’s not ignore that these established makers might also have lost sales for reasons related to price, quality of work, business practices, ethics, personal habits, priorities, personalities, etc. The economy certainly has had a hand in many makers loss of sales, and so has the large number of makers, many of whom interestingly enough some of the more established makers helped train. In a way established makers trained the thing that bit the hand that fed it. If you are one of the makers that chose to train it, please don’t complain about getting bit.
I have heard it said that if there is a “thinning of the herd” it will help the makers that survived the lean times and be a good thing for the business in general. One part of me thinks it might be a good thing, another part of me thinks, “not necessarily so”.
The entry of new makers into the market does some good things in my opinion. It gives the buyer more options. Some new makers acquire skills very rapidly and push upward the level of design and craftsmanship that buyers want. This of course forces other makers to move forward and not remain static if they don’t want to be left behind. These are good things for the enthusiast, collector, and the business in general.
I imagine that just like always, makers will come and go and some will stay. Of the makers that want to sell knives, the ones that probably will survive the skinny times are those that offer the knives that the buyers want at a price that the buyers are willing to pay. And of course in the long run, the best business person has the best chance.
As usual the foregoing reflects my opinions and thoughts based on what little knowledge of the facts that I possess.
copyright Bill North 2013
It used to be that the American Bladesmith Society held cutting contests at its hammer-ins and had a yearly championship event at the Blade Show in Atlanta, GA. These interest creating events were not only fun to watch but were a great way to promote the forged blade I thought.
For reasons that I am not privy to but suspect have something to do with the lawsuit happy society we live in, the ABS may have stopped having cutting contests, at least on the scale that they once did. I’m guessing that the powers that be feared an injury at one of these events and saw their options as either stopping the contests, or working at making them safer.
To the best of my knowledge there is a cutting championship at the Atlanta Blade Show but it is no longer within the purview of the ABS. It is put on by an organization called BladeSports International. Videos of the BladeSports cutting events can be found on YouTube.
I miss the ABS cutting contests not only because of the fun factor but because they were educational as well. Of course there was skill involved on the part of the cutter but the knife had to perform as well. ABS makers were publicly testing their knives against other makers’ knives, and that took courage on the part of the maker. One of the most interesting things to me was not who competed in them but who did not. It is no doubt easier to talk about how well your knives perform than to pit them against others knives in front of an audience and have to back up your words.
Currently the ABS has been having something they call Battle of the Bladesmiths at some hammer-ins. These are a contest between several makers who must complete a forged knife in either 2 or 3 hours, I’m not sure which. Then the spectators vote on which is their favorite. These “Battle of the Bladesmiths” are interesting but lack the excitement and variety that the cutting competitions had in my opinion. I suppose that if you are a knife maker they hold more appeal than if you are not. That is to be expected as the ABS hammer-ins are by their nature geared more toward makers and less toward collectors.
I believe that the first Battle of the Bladesmiths was held at a hammer-in in 2010 at Haywood Community College in Clyde, North Carolina. The participants were Jim Rodebaugh, Burt Foster, Jason Knight, and Russ Andrews. Each made a knife in the allotted time and the spectators voted to determine the winner.
Copyright Bill North 2013
In my dealings in the custom world I have experienced transactions ranging from excellent to abysmal. Regular visitors to some of the online knife forums as well as some custom knife collectors probably know exactly what I am talking about. Many of those that have ordered custom knives have no doubt experienced the same things that I have.
Today I am going to ignore the better transactions that I have had and focus on the poor ones. Before you grouse about that being negative, it is still a valid and interesting topic to me and in later posts I will write of the great transactions I have had with fine and honest makers that kept their word. If you don’t want to hear some negative things about some un-named makers of custom knives don’t read further.
I have seen makers who did excellent work and that got plenty of publicity disappear from the knife making scene entirely. I am not referring here to makers that are forced to leave the business because of health issues or other legitimate reasons, or those that lost interest and chose to move on to other pursuits. I speak here of makers whose business practices were so bad for whatever reason that they put themselves out of the custom knife business. I suppose the worst offenders are the ones that took payment and never delivered the promised work or returned the money. I suppose that many, if not most of that group should be considered thieves. Although it has never happened to me I have heard of makers selling materials that belonged to customers. I would say that most of us would probably consider that stealing.
The problems that I personally have experienced have not amounted to outright theft of funds but certainly loss of my time as I worked to turn bad transactions into something less bad. Because of makers poor practices I have had to devote phone time calling in order to get knives already paid for actually completed and into my hands. Sorry but stealing my time is still stealing as far as I am concerned. Another thing that I have experienced is makers that promise a delivery date and then don’t make it and don’t have enough respect for the customer to notify them of the delay. This happens so often in the custom knife world that it would be funny if it were not such a sad comment.
Maker’s excuses for why they haven’t made or delivered your knife are varied and so often used that it must be a struggle to find original ones. Below are excuses I’ve heard when the promised delivery date had passed and not having heard from the maker I checked to find out the status of my order.
1. Sickness or injury. I’ve got to consider that legitimate most of the time but there are limits.
2. Been making knives for our servicemen. Well that is a good thing for sure but did you take that into account when you took my order and gave me a delivery date, or is that something that you started doing since you took my order.
3. Moving or building new shop or house.
4. Been very busy, having problems with the wife, ex-wife, significant other, etc. I’m sorry but we all have problems of some sort and many of us are busy. Those things have nothing to do with me or our deal.
5. “Your knife is not back from the sheath maker”. I called the sheath maker and he said he did not have the knife…..so…..I can only assume that there may have been some prevarication involved.
6. “I dropped the ball on that one.” My favorite since it was a surprisingly honest and accurate statement. This was said to me by a very skilled maker who was at that time a highly touted ABS Mastersmith. As far as I know, he is now completely out of the custom knife business.
I have received knives that I ordered with different materials used than were specified and agreed to, knives with obvious flaws, and unbelievably enough a new custom knife directly from the maker that was rusty. The maker of the rusty knife went on to become a well-known ABS mastersmith but soon he succeeded in putting himself out of the business entirely.
Certainly not to cast aspersions at all ABS Mastersmiths, but sadly I have experienced poor business practices and broken promises just as often with ABS Mastersmiths as with other knife makers. Apparently these makers can sell all the knives they want for the prices they want and therefore are able to do business the way they want. I personally know of buyers that as of today are still waiting for long overdue and paid for or partially paid for orders from an ABS Mastersmith.
Some years ago I had a hunting knife on order with a maker who was an ABS Mastersmith. In a few months the maker said that the knife was completed but that it was several hundred dollars more than the agreed upon price. There was no clear explanation for the price increase, but I suppose that for some reason he foolishly thought I would go along with it. I have watched his status in the knife world diminish over the years and I am not surprised.
Most makers who have achieved ABS Mastersmith status seem proud of the fact and I see no reason they should not be. These makers passed tests that included the ABS standards for performance and craftsmanship that the organization has set for obtaining a Mastersmith ranking. But, there is no guarantee that all knives offered by those makers will be of the same quality that their test knives were. In some cases the makers work will continue to evolve and improve and in other cases makers seem to me to rely on their name or Mastersmith rating to sell lesser quality, rapidly produced work. Recently I saw a well-known ABS Mastersmith offer for sale a knife that was visibly crooked and crudely finished. In the long run I think instances such as this will hurt not only the maker in question, but the ABS and custom knife collecting in general.
I believe that makers, collectors, and the custom knife world as a whole would all be so much better off if more makers adhered to good business practices. That would include such things as actually making the knife that they agreed to make and if unable to deliver it in the agreed upon time frame the maker would be courteous enough to notify the customer.
copyright Bill North 2013