Are there too many custom knife makers?

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

ABS Cutting Contests and the Battle of the Bladesmiths

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.

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Jason Knight’s winning knife.
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Copyright Bill North 2013

Business Practices in the Custom Knife World

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

Forge Finishes

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Today it is in vogue for bladesmiths to leave portions of the blade with a rough finish as left from the forging process or to use intentionally created roughness. These “unfinished” areas can be a wonderful design element when used by a skilled maker, but all too often these unfinished areas on a blade look to me to be exactly what they are, unfinished. Sometimes makers create special texturing hammers or dies that give the surface a pleasing appearance, other times, not so much.

I have seen knives with blades done in this manner touted as being “working grade”, “user grade”, or some other creative name for unfinished looking knives. I may be wrong but I think that a rough finish on a working knife made from carbon steel is just asking mister rust to start in all those little rough places. If rust does show up it would be harder to clean the blade I would think. Also it seems to me that it would be much harder to clean the blade of blood, grease, etc. after dressing game, fish, or preparing food. Pair a rough blade finish with a cord wrapped handle and you have lots of little bitty bacteria friendly places.

A knife maker suggested to me that perhaps the forge scale left in the depressions of the rough areas might protect those areas from rusting. I suppose that is possible, I don’t know, also I wonder if the forge scale will stay there on a knife that is used. I once knew a blacksmith that kept his fresh from the supplier steel stored outside because he said it rusted and that removed the mill scale.

Certainly I won’t go so far as to call all smiths that use a forge finish lazy or accuse them of taking short cuts to a finished product, but I do think it applies in some instances. No doubt as time goes by areas of the blade or its fittings textured or left as forged will continue to be used as design elements by skillful smiths. Knives with areas of “forge finish” by the less talented will doubtfully command much respect or many dollars.

Copyright Bill North 2013