My little knife came back home

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My little Bill Wiggins knife

My little knife came back home from its trip to the makers shop for refinishing.

Over a year ago Bill Wiggins, who is a friend of mine and a knifemaker gave me a small, fixed blade knife that he made. Since that time it has been used for many of the chores that I regularly use a knife for. These tasks include cutting food, opening and then cutting down shipping boxes for recycling, cutting cord, tape, rags, opening prepackaged items, cutting small sticks, etc. Its small size makes it ideal to carry in a pocket sheath instead of carrying a folder. The blade of the knife is made from 1084 steel and the handle slabs are English walnut. The overall length of the knife is just 7 1/16 inches and the blade at the ricasso is .094 thick.

“If you have only had it about a year why did it need refinishing?” I hear you asking now. I suppose that you think that I must be pretty rough on my knives but that’s not so. What is so however is that I like to sharpen my knives, and sometimes I sharpen them whether they need it or not, and very infrequently I slip and scratch the knife were scratches don’t belong. And that’s what happened to the smooth, hand rubbed sides of my little knife. I asked Bill Wiggins if he would mind “slicking” my knife up a little, and he graciously agreed. What’s more like the gentleman that he is he didn’t rag on me for scratching the blade. Well actually while looking at the scratches he did say “Oh, that’s a bad one.” I did my best to look remorseful, and it must have worked because he left it at that.

Bill is the treasurer of the American Bladesmith Society and a Journeyman Smith in that organization. He is an avid outdoorsman and using knives as tools in the outdoors has helped form his opinions as to steel type, hardness, and blade geometry. One of the things about this knife that I like is the blade geometry; it’s thin at the edge helping it be a good cutter.

Many custom knives are for reasons unknown to me too thick behind the cutting edge, at least that’s my opinion. A knife designed for chopping needs to have a well-supported edge to stand up, a small knife that is used for cutting and that is not abused can, and should have in my opinion much thinner blade geometry. Look at well maintained kitchen knives, most of them are thin and they cut and slice things well. Trouble usually only comes when you use them as a screwdriver or pry bar. So far in my seventy one years I have not been forced to use my knife for prying or turning screws to the extent that the knife was damaged.

Anyway last night the little knife came back home from its trip to Bill Wiggins shop for refinishing and it looks all slicked up and spiffy. I’m glad it’s back.

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Bill Wiggins hand rubbing a blade

Bill Wiggins can be reached at wncbill@bellsouth.net

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

The first custom or handmade knife that I can remember seeing.

My dad had carried the knife through WW2 and my first memory of it was that he kept it in his big wooden tool chest in a small workshop area of the barn. I think that I was about 8 or 9 then and like most other boys my age growing up in the southern mountains I was interested in guns and knives. Sometimes the neighbor boy and I would get the knife out of the toolbox and have great fun throwing it at the barn doors or trees, but that ended when my dad started locking the tool chest. No doubt he noticed the many dings in the aluminum handle slabs that resulted from our poor throws.

The knife is 10 ½”overall in length and the blade is 6 ¼” long. The blade is single edged and has a small, shallow swedge at the top of the tip that is about 2 ½” long. The blade steel exposed under the thin, aluminum handle slabs is about .200 thick, and the handle slabs are fastened on with steel rivets or pieces of peened over steel rod. Overall the knife shows coarse grinding marks, file marks, dings, etc.

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The knife, sheath, and CBI bullion patch

The knife has its original sheath which has my dad’s name, address, and military ID number on the back still visible having been written in black ink. The sheath is thick leather, riveted together, has no welt, and is still serviceable today.

It certainly is a tough old knife; whatever steel and heat treatment was used must have been right for the knife to have survived all the abuse I heaped upon it back then.

I believe that I remember my dad saying that the knife was made by “an old man out at a sawmill”, but from its appearance I think it could also have been theater made. Whatever the truth is about that, and despite its crude construction, it is as old as I am and it brings back good childhood memories for me.

I have pictured the knife with its sheath and his China Burma India bullion patch.

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.

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

What makes a knife collectable?

Recently someone asked me the following, “What makes a knife collectible? What makes a knife a user? Can a knife be both a collectable and a user?” I was of course flattered that anyone at all thought that I knew enough about knives or anything else for that matter to answer questions about the subject. Anyway……they are questions that are not difficult to answer in my opinion.

There are billions of people in the world and my guess is that millions of the billions collect something. People collect almost anything under the sun as far as I can see, animal bones, rocks, empty beer cans, thimbles, stamps, coins, sea shells, paintings, all manner of antiques, apple peelers, pornography, exotic animals, stuffed toys, bottle caps, die cast replica cars, shotguns, barbwire, Corvettes, Elvis Presley memorabilia, and knives to name a few. Some of these items have considerable monetary value and others are not so pricey.

I believe that the person that that posed the question to me was associating “collectable” with dollar value, and when he said “knife” he meant custom knife. For any “collectable” to have much dollar value more persons wanting the object must exist than the numbers of the object that are available for acquisition. If only one person wanted the object it could not possibly bring much on the open market (excluding a few inexplicable incidences). But also there must be sufficient numbers of the object to allow more than one person to collect them or it won’t be a very large market. If there are too many of the object made available the price is bound to suffer. So there must be enough of the object but not too many; it’s the old supply and demand thing.

The value of any object by an individual artist or craftsman can be influenced by factors such as size, materials, form, craftsmanship, design, date of creation, rarity, and condition.

Moving on to “What makes a knife a user?” Well first if a knife is not capable of being used as a knife, then it’s not a knife but something else instead. That’s not complicated at all. Can a knife be both collectable and a user? If “user” means a knife that the owner thinks is collectable but uses it for knife chores as well seeing it as part of his collection, then the answer to the question is yes. Will using it devalue it dollar wise? Yes it probably will unless the owner lives a very long time and the collector value of that particular knife or that maker’s work continues to increase.

That’s all I’ve got about that today. And the reader should keep in mind that the above is just my opinion and is probably worth what the reader paid for it.

copyright Bill North 2013