Collecting Custom Knives

For the Collector

There it is in a nutshell, but seriously folks, I said I would attempt to do this tutorial, but even I don’t understand what it means. Knife Collecting, I mean that’s just so broad. What are we talking about? Are we talking about what we collect? Or what to look for in a knife? Or how to deal with a knifemaker or purveyor? How to act as a knife show? And each of these questions can be broken down even further. It’s so very open-ended.

Also, I must put my disclaimer up, I am not a knifemaker now nor have I ever been one in the past, by some peoples definitions I am not even a hardcore collector. My collecting habits are erratic and not explicitly definable. By that I mean that for every rule I have about knife collecting I have an exception. Of course, some people will tell you that their limitations define the rules, but that’s too Zen (or too existential if you’re from the western world) for most. In my roundabout way, I will cover how I go about this bizarre hobby we call knife collecting.

OK, first things first. Just what kind of collector are you? Are you in this for the money? Are you in this for the art or just a using knife? Are you a hunter or fisherman who has passed on the factory knives out there? Are you a martial artist or military combatant that has strayed from your first path onto this one? Are you a knifemaker who has started to gather that which you would sell? A combination? One from column X & One from Column Y. It’s a tough question and one that you have to answer for yourself. It will lead you to how you go about your collecting. Personally, I am not in it for the money, because of that it opens up more collecting avenues for me, as I don’t have to worry about whether or not the knife I buy will go up in value or not. That’s not to tell that I don’t appreciate value. Even if it’s just to stroke my ego, I like to buy something and know that it is going to go up in price. It’s another factor in the worth, or my willingness purchase a knife; it’s just not the deciding factor. I also do not have a particular type of knife I look for, although a knife collection of a “type” tell doctors knives or bowies or whatever can add value to the collection, the sum ends up being worth more together than the separate pieces. Sometimes I want a carry or daily use knife sometimes art, sometimes fixed or folder. I try to hold an open mind and sometimes you’ll find something that you never in your wildest imaginings would have expected.

I firmly believe that to stay sane and have knife collecting as a hobby (if you can be sane and have this as a hobby), you have to buy what you like. This is “The Rule,” as far as I am concerned. I don’t think that this can be stressed enough. After I have decided that “I like it, I like it!” then there are a bunch of things to consider design, fit and finish, materials, the funky factor or uniqueness and finally cost. These various factors can, of course, affect each other, in the simplest terms ivory requires more than micarta, better believe that the same knife using ivory is going to cost more than the one using micarta and be worth more too.

First on my list of things to look for designs. The design is another broad category that could be a tutorial (or debate) all by itself. It can be as simple as looks and as complex as ergonomics. Does the knife look good? This means does it look good to you! Does it look like it can do the job it’s made for? Does it seem to be of one piece? This means does it look complete and do the lines flow. Is there something that jars the knife so that your eyes get stuck on it, did the maker throw grinds all over the place or is there just enough. With most art, you will find that either the artist is going for an overall effect or they put something striking in to draw your eye. An inlay or mosaic Damascus bolster or ruby thumb stud can all do this. The Question you have to ask yourself have they gone too far. Has this knife passed from ornate to gaudy? It is a personal decision. What I go by is does the blade look right to me.

Next is the ergonomics, which is a nice fancy word for does it feel good in the hand and does it cut well. If you are buying an art knife, this is not a consideration. An art knife is to be seen and not to be used. Still, there are some people out there who will take their $2000 folder and slice bread and spread the peanut butter and use those knives. It’s got to be nice to save money! So as long as the knife can do these basic things, it’s still a knife if it can’t well then it’s not so much a knife as it is a piece of sculpture. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” to misquote Jerry Seinfeld. When you have the knife in your hand, does it feel comfortable? Is this a knife that you could use for hours and hours without difficulty, without strain or get blisters? Is the handle big enough or small enough for your hand? Does it sit firmly in your grip or does your hand slide forward or back? Is the handle shaped to prevent this or is there a guard? If this is to primarily be a kitchen knife do your knuckles hit the table if you were to slice something? What about the blade shape? Is it shaped correctly for your tasks? Are you looking for a specialized cutting implement or something that will have to cover a variety of chores? A drop point or clip point is just about the best all around shapes, but a Wharncliffe will give you the more straight edge to work with, and a sheepsfoot eliminates a point, so you need not worry about stabbing yourself or others if you slip. A recurve gives more cutting power, but sacrifices ease of re-sharpening, but it’s harder to make, and that can add value. A spearpoint or dagger blade is a specialized tool, but it gives you two edges if one side gets dull. How thick is the blade? Are you buying a sharpened prybar? If you’re a police officer or a firefighter, maybe you are. Thinner edges will cut easier, but you risk breaking or bending if you do something not covered by the “regular use” warranty. It comes out to a series of compromises, and you have to decide which ones you are willing to live with.

With a folder, there are more issues. Is the handle much bigger than the blade? Module to control ratio is something often discussed. It’s not serious with fixed blades. Here the handle has to be big enough for you to get a good grip and the blade length will vary depending upon the intended use of the knife. With folders, you want as big an edge as can fit into the handle. Here too, if the knife is a traditional pattern then this goes right out the window. However, with the regular knife, you’ve got a set standard for the knife to conform to. The folder should be as comfortable closed as it is when opened. The process of opening and closing should also be easy. If it’s not then the thumb stud (if the knife has one) is not positioned well. Be careful when judging this, as this will vary depending on your hand size and finger length and the mobility of your fingers.

Fit and finish; this is what separates the men from the boys. This also is where the design hits the road, to mix my metaphors. Handle the knife; are there any sharp edges (other than where they are supposed to be)? Are the grind lines even? Are they crisp? Is there solder visible at the joints? Can you feel or see gaps between bolsters and handles? On full tang knives are there gaps between the handle and tang? On folders are there any differences between the liner and the handle? Do the pins or screws protrude above the handle or bolster or are they flush? Is there any play in the pivot? This is a big issue; it tells a lot about the construction of the folder. Does it move side to side? Expect some play with lockbacks, but there should be virtually none in liner locks. How does that folder “walk and talk”? This is an old-timer saying meaning how does the blade open and how does it sound when the lock clicks in. Does the blade move smoothly? Is there a positive feel when the lock engages? When you close your liner lock does the ball detent pull the knife closed in that last 1/16 of an inch? You want that. Is there feel when you close your slip joint or lockback? When the folder is closed, does the back of the blade stick out past the handles? Usually, this is not desirable as the protrusion can scratch or snag clothing, but careful here; some folders are built like this on purpose so that the back of the blade protrusion can be used to open the knife. Are there scratches in the knife? Did the maker take the time and effort to sand the knife down to a sufficient grit? This will vary from maker to maker and also by the purpose of the knife. Is everything uniform in the shade? Changes in coloring or tone can indicate that a spot was missed in the sanding or polishing stages of the blade construction. Are the grinds even? Are the radii at the choil even? Have the right angles on the knife (like the back of the blade spine) been chamfered or radiused? This is a sure sign of a maker who takes extra care with their knives. Is the knife sharp? I left this for last because it is the least important. What I blaspheme you say! Well, I can sharpen a knife, so I don’t worry about it as much. Also with differing uses, different types of sharpness are better. Sound confusing? It’s not really. A using edge will last longer if it’s not shaving sharp. Hey, I like shaving sharp too, but a rougher edge will make an ugly blade act as if it has serration’s which can be better if you’re cutting cardboard or rope. It comes down to what you will use it for.

Materials, well we are still looking for that super steel and until we find it and everyone starts to use it any blade we get is going to be a series of compromises. First off is this a user or a wall hanger. What’s suitable for one is not for the other. With today’s metallurgy just about any steel, you will do the job. But since this is about custom knives you stay away from the generic steels that most factories are using. Although this is changing as more and more companies are using the “new” steels, following the trail blazed by the custom knifemakers. I won’t even try to tell you what steel to choose, as this is a fruitless debate. What I will say is that if you take a lot of care of your knives, you can choose just about anything, if you don’t think you want to stay with stainless steel. Keep in mind though that forged steel blades can be a collecting category all it’s own. What is critical with all knives is the heat treat. It can make mediocre steel perform amazingly, and high iron plays horribly. I’ve also been told, by those who would know, that if Damascus is heat treated right, it should perform right up there with all the other steels. Damascus is de rigor nowadays, and I have to admit that I have caught the bug myself. It looks amazing and can do everything you would normally ask for a knife. On to handles
If it’s a using knife for you, then you are going to want sturdy materials that are easy to care for. Micarta is always a right choice. G10 and its variants are also safe synthetics. More traditionally stag is good, but getting harder to find and while not quite up there in the strength department as the synthetics hardwoods are also good and very appealing. Move to upscale knives, and you head toward ivories and pearls. These are excellent materials, but understand that they have their considerations. Like the woods, ivories are very environmentally sensitive. If it’s humid they expand, if dry they contract. If this happens too often or too quickly, cracks can develop. Consider this if you’re buying from a knifemaker who lives in an environment radically different from where you live. Pearls aren’t as sensitive, but they are more prone to chipping. Both ivories and beads are difficult to work with and difficult to acquire and with recent legislation’s sometimes illegal to purchase. This will raise the cost of the knife. But just like you get more from the resale of a car that’s loaded with all the options so to will you get more dollar value from a knife with all the options.

Funk Factor or uniqueness or coolness or whatever. Some knives just have it. It can be in the design, or it can be because they have an interesting feature. A small blade was hidden in the handle, a wacky leaf shape, a novel locking mechanism a sculpted handle. I say if it’s funky go for it. As long as it doesn’t take away from blades intrinsic knifes, then an attractive knife can be a conversation piece for years to come. This deciding factor in knife collecting gets the least press from me because it is the most esoteric and indefinable. But you’ll know it when you see it.

Cost. Well, you’ve got to be able to afford it. But as my grandfather was fond of saying “Only rich people can afford to buy cheap stuff” (that’s the best I can translate from the original Polish) Cheap stuff breaks and you have to purchase a replacement. Quality costs but it last a lifetime. More! With knives, you’ll be able to pass these along to your grandkids. So buy the most knife you can. Here again, this topic can be broken down further and further into more specific subtopics. What makes the knife cost what it does? Well, first off there are the materials. Some materials are just costlier than others are. Damascus costs more than plain steel; black lip pearl cost more than gold which costs more than white pearl which costs more than g10 which costs more than micarta. I think you get the picture. Then there is the process. A forged blade takes more time and effort than a stock removal blade. Bolsters and dovetails are more complicated than plain slabs. Gimmicks and fundamental lock mechanisms all this adds to the cost, but also to the worth. The knifemakers name can also add to the cost. With a famous maker you will pay more, hopefully paying for their name will give your knife purchase that much more value. Providence can also raise the value in a knife. Providence can come in many forms, a photo in a magazine or a history behind the knife or even a written receipt.

OK, armed with the information you’ve gained from reading this you’re off to a knife show to buy a knife. (Heaven help you if this is your only source of information) A knife show can be overwhelming; your favorite stuff all crammed into a small area with the guys and gals who’ve made it! Try and make it a learning experience, ask questions. Most knifemakers are very friendly sorts who are just as into talking knives (especially their own) as much if not more than you are. Realize though that they have to deal with a lot of people and if their tables are swamped they may not get to spend as much time with you as either of you would like. This brings up another point, be polite and patient at these things it will get you further than being pushy and obnoxious. Ask to handle the knives; the knifemaker will appreciate your courtesy and most are very happy to have you do so. Ask them about the knife, the materials, etc. they will be glad to tell you what’s what. Do not whack the back of the knives to test the locks of folders, it’s rude, and you can damage the spine of the handle. Do not say, “I’ll be back” 95% of people at a knife show does not come back, the knifemakers know this. If you make the knife show more than a shopping excursion, it will be that much more enjoyable for you. Remember every knife you handle is one more step in your cutlery knowledge.

Well, that’s it. I would like to say that without the generous help and instruction of knifemakers and knife collectors too numerous to mention I would not have been able to write this. To them, I say thank you. If you the reader have managed to glean something from this it is to them that you owe thanks. Any mistakes are purely my own. Aran.

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