Bending the blade

A student at the knife making class referenced in the previous post strains to bend his test blade.

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A smiling student and her test blade that passed with flying colors.

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R P hollow handle survival knife

Recently I was talking about knives to a friend of mine who is a knife collector and the subject of R P (Robert Parrish) hollow handle survival knives came up. To the best of my knowledge these knives were made in the 1980s at Mr. Parrish’s shop in Hendersonville, NC.  I remarked that I was sorry that I had not purchased one when they were available especially since I knew Mr. Parrish and had visited his shop in the 80s. Over the years I have lost touch with him and I don’t think that he has made knives and offered them for sale in quite a few years.

RP survival3 copy blogR P hollow handle survival knife and sheath

Several days later I stopped by to see the same friend and he said that he had something he wanted to give me. Opening a bag he took out a R P hollow handle knife and handed it to me! He said that he had two and saw no reason that I shouldn’t have one of them. It was a very generous and unexpected gift from an old friend that took me completely unaware. It is something that I will remember.

RP survival2 copy blogR P knife with 8″ blade

At my age it is extremely unlikely that I will ever have any practical use for a hollow handled survival knife but this R P knife now holds a special place in my collection. As far as I know these knives were made in 5”, 6”, and 8” blade lengths. This knife is the 8”X1½”X ¼” blade version and is made from 440C I believe. The metal handle is knurled under the neoprene sleeve and the knurled, threaded butt cap is fitted with an O-ring and lanyard hole. The knife has a bead-blasted finish and the serial number and maker’s mark are on the front of the guard. The serial number indicates that the knife was made in August of 1986 and it was the 628th 8 inch knife made. In addition to the maker’s mark on the front of the guard the ricasso is also marked “RP”. The nylon sheath has a liner of hard plastic that protects the sheath from being torn by the very sharp saw teeth on the spine of the knife. The knife is 13 3/16” overall in length and weighs 20.4 oz.

RP survival copy blogSaw teeth on back of R P survival knife

This is a very well-made knife by an excellent craftsman made during the 1980s “Rambo” hollow handle survival knife era.

Postscript: Amazingly after all these years, I was able to track down Robert Parrish while he was on a road trip, and he told me how to decipher the date and serial number. He also mentioned that he was glad that I was not dead. I’m glad that he’s not dead either. Text and photos copyright Bill North 2013

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

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 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

Joe Keeslar Brute de Forge knife

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.

keeslar large knife blogJoe Keeslar brute de forge knife

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.

keeslar handle blogHandle inlayed with silver wire

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.

keeslarforgescopyJoe Keeslar forging a brute de forge knife

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.

keesler spineFile worked spine of the Keeslar brute de forge

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