Editorial

Todays Handmade Knife Market. What’s Happening, Why, and Whose Fault Is It?

How many times have we all heard the term “It’s the sign of the times”?  Whatever it is that we love seems to constantly change around us to where we eventually catch ourselves saying “back in the good old days”. What I don’t understand is why we as humans are so prone to be creatures of habit and seemingly scared of change in a world that constantly promises it. We all know people or maybe even know ourself that maybe has not taken advantage of a opportunity because we were uncertain of the outcome. Who knows, sometimes choices are good, and obviously some are bad, but one thing that is for certain, change is going to happen. It needs no approval from you or I, and it definitely is not going to wait for us. So you might as well embrace it, because change its coming.  

As we all know, one thing that is not immune from change is the knife market, or more specifically the handmade knife market which is where I make my living. Again, sometimes change is good, and sometimes not. In this article, I am going to give you my logic on what I think is going wrong and what we can do as a knife community to turn it around.

Understand that my goal here is not to anger my whole reading audience, but instead be the guy that steps up and says, out of respect for the craft that we all love so much, it’s time to cut through the stuff that comes out of the back of the bull. Someone needs to be the guy that addresses the elephant in the room, and if I have to be that guy for the purpose of benefiting us all so be it, because the way I see it, we have lost the ability to speak to each other man to man.

My guess is it goes back to a kindergarten mentality of fear of being rejected. We say things to be nice and sometimes that leads people down the wrong path. I think a lot of that happens in the knife community. Its no big secret that this group of like minded people are some of the best folk to ever grace the earth, but sometimes being overly nice can be destructive. I’m not saying we should all strive to be insufferable S.O.B’s, but there comes a time when we need to be honest when our opinions are asked. This by no means says we cannot do it respectfully and not give good advice without being insulting. Believe me, we will come out better in the end. I am reminded of a quote I heard one time. Unfortunately I don’t know who originally said it, but it goes like this. Correct a fool and he will hate you forever, correct a wise man, and he will thank and respect you forever.

In my last article, I wrote specifically about what is good and often overlooked about the annual BLADE show. One thing that I didn’t mention and is equally good is BLADE is a great place to feel out the market, get fresh ideas, see what’s selling, and try to plan and anticipate where the market is going. I gotta say this year was the strangest year for me as far as seeing what’s going on out there.

What I usually sold out of the years before never got so much as picked up, and things I took expecting to bring home, sold out without the weekend being even close to half over. As I spoke to many makers, this seemed to be a common thing. A lot of folks saw a decline in sales especially in knives in the 3 to5 in. blade lengths. Why you ask? Simple. The easy answer and the truth is that the market is flooded with them, but going deeper than that, why is the market flooded? That’s easy as well. Change. Who’s fault is it? Well since we are being honest. it’s yours!

Now of course I don’t really mean that you the reader are singlehandedly responsible for the possibility of a total collapse of the knife world, but I do mean that we as a knife community need to be more responsible and most importantly educated. Educated as a consumer, and educated as makers altogether.

This craft has taken huge popularity leaps in the recent years and more so in recent months with popular shows like Forged in Fire and various survival and woodslore shows. We need to slow down, calm ourselves and don’t forget that this market was and should be based on craftsmanship, good design and performance of a good tool. Not how many likes it gets on social media, and sure as hell not because some YouTuber with no credentials tells you to go out and buy it.

Allen Surls make some fantastic examples of how you can take a comfortable, functional knife and make it unique and beatiful at the same time. Im my opinion, Allen is one of the finest makers of fixed blades in the industry today.

We tend to value things by how they captivate our attention and have gotten away from the things that really make this community great. That is hard work, skill, and honesty just to name a very few. I’ve been to many shows where the most talented maker in the building didn’t sell well while people were paying three times his prices on knives that were supposedly hand forged only to find out upon my own investigation that the knives where stock removal knives heated up to beat hammer marks in them. These knives were carrying Master Smith pricing with not so much a Junior Smith rating by the maker.

Another fine example are people, and worse yet, makers that don’t know simple terminology. I know of some people that consider themselves makers and can’t tell you what a distal taper or a roller platen is. Why is this? Because they obviously don’t do the work. They pay for their blanks to be water jetted, stamped or lasered out. They might or might not grind the bevel. They pay for cnc handles, they pay for heat treating, they pay for laser engraving or for cerakoting to cover up horrible grind lines they put on it, then they may pay for someone to make a sheath for it. Then they put their name on it and call themselves a knifemaker and jack their prices up to cover their costs.

This isn’t knife making folks. Sure, there is nothing wrong with utilizing or farming out work if demand for your product is that high and your o.k. with it. Nor do I have a problem with the man or woman that hires their designs to be made by other makers as long as that person knows what they are talking about. But if you are only one step of the process and don’t know anything about the other ones, let alone have enough respect for the craft to actually try to learn about it, get out of the way and let the ones that work there cabooses off make a living.

Brutally honest I will admit, but these examples will continue to get away with it because of the uneducated consumer.

Now, before you all get the torches and pitchforks out and form a posse against me, let it be known that I watch the shows, even the YouTube videos. They have their place, and I believe they are part of what is drawing interest in this craft – which is good – but everybody jumping into it without properly learning technique and/or design logic is bad, very bad, and that’s where being a responsible and educated consumer is important. Being able to know the difference between quality and crap is essentially going to be the rise or the demise of knife making.

Blade field editor Ed Fowler has devoted his life to form and function of his knives and has written many books on his experience and findings over the coarse of his life. One of my biggest influences since I was a young boy, Ed is a living legend and what can be learned from him and others like him in the industry is endless.

As far as YouTubers go, there are some that are knowledgeable and put out good information, but honestly there are far too few of them. Most are bad ones with no credentials and really have no business telling you anything about something they aren’t knowledgeable enough to understand anyway. We are grown adults, we don’t need people telling us, we need people teaching us so we can draw our own conclusions and make responsible choices of what we want to spend our money on.

I have about three to five YouTubers a week ask me for knives to review, and they promise you a good review if they can keep the knife. Honestly, that appalls me. They have no desire to give you good info, it’s just a way for them to get a knife without paying for it. How is this honorable and beneficial to this craft? So, let it be known, if a YouTuber is reviewing a knife that I sent to them, it’s because I respect and value their opinion, not because I care about Facebook likes. As far as the rest of them, take the information that works for you for what it is but draw your own conclusion. You have your own mind, your own brain. Use it. You might surprise yourself.

So, now that I’ve ripped on all of you for a while, I’ll give you a rest and let you in on what you should expect from me (or any knife maker in general).

Chances are if you know anything about handmade knives and you are going to buy one, you know that it’s going to be costly compared to mass produced knives. What are you buying? Well taking into consideration that if the maker is full time or not, he or she has expenses. Materials, electric/gas bills, maybe pays an employee or two and has insurances and countless costs we all have.

Besides all of that this is another thing you should be paying for. You should be buying a piece of the makers logic and design experience as well as the end product (the knife). For example, I do not design and make golf clubs. Why? Because I don’t know anything about golf. Sounds pretty simple right?

But ask yourselves how many people out there make and design knives that very well may like them, (knives) but ask how much time using them do they actually have? What do they really know about their own product?  Is the handle shaped well with comfortable ergos? Is it the correct handle for the knife at all? Is it the correct grind and blade shape for the intended purpose? Is the steel the right selection and if so is the heat treat done properly? These are just a few things you should be paying for in a custom knife.

Again, we get back to the word educated, as in an educated maker that knows and understands these things. In short, not only are you paying for an awesome knife that should last many generations, but you are also paying for the maker’s knowledge that has been obtained, in many cases, through many years of hard work.

Pictured here from left to right, Gaston Dugger, Scott Whittington (USA Made Blade) myself, and James Gibson. The man behind the ESEE woods-lore knife. At a skills weekend in Butler Tennessee. Mr. Gibson is a wealth of knowledge in all he does ranging from knife making, survival skills, and martial arts only to name a few, and offers classed to anyone that wishes to learn.

Just because someone draws a knife on a piece of paper and it looks cool means less than squat when the rubber meets the road, and nothing is worse than spending good money on something that will not perform. Its is not hard to make a visually appealing knife. It’s a little harder to make a purpose driven knife that is visually appealing. Making a knife that is functional for its given task, comfortable to use, made of high quality materials correctly with good craftsmanship AND is visually appealing is a different ball game. It’s what you should expect from a maker, and it’s what a maker should strive for with each piece.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to tell you where or on what to spend your money. To each their own, and if it pleases you and makes you happy at the end of the day, good for you. I’m simply trying to iterate that education and knowledge is the key to better results, whatever the topic or situation may be.

Don’t believe me? You all think I’m off my rocker? That’s fine, I got broad shoulders and can take it, but all I have to do to prove my point is encourage you and hope you will get off your rear and get some dirt time. It will take you no time whatsoever to figure out what’s good, what works, what is just the next fad and what makers know their stuff and which ones don’t.

Our very own David Andersen, founder and chief designer at Nordsmith knives is another fine example for totally different reasons. Dave is very knowledgable on how a knife should work for its given task. While not a hands on maker himself, Dave employs a very reputable maker to produce his designs, while at the same time, attends many skills weekends and grind ins to learn all he can about the craft and the industry. His Canteen knife (pictured) is a fine example. I have one here in my shop that has seen a lot of use, especially when the grill is fired up. I dread the day when he asks for it back.

There are plenty of skills weekends and knife gatherings out there, many of them free of charge. Get out there. Understand how a distal taper can help with the balance of a knife so it doesn’t wear you out during use. Understand why a certain steel is better in different regions than others due to corriossion resistance or why one is better than the other for edge retention. Learn what handles work, the difference between the different grinds and the best uses for them.

There is so much to learn if you just push away from the keyboard long enough to do it. There are also a lot of very fine and talented makers and craftsmen out there that understand said things and can execute them flawlessly. Many, I’m not ashamed to say I find inspirational and honored to call friends, but on the flipside, there are a lot of clueless hacks out there whose only concern is to get into your wallet. They give all of us a bad name. You’ll do yourself a favor by knowing the difference.

In short, be a good maker. Be a good consumer. Do both of those two a favor and understand what makes both. This is how we all preserve this craft for us and future generations.

Stay Sharp!

Discussion

27 responses to ‘Todays Handmade Knife Market. What’s Happening, Why, and Whose Fault Is It?

  1. For those of us serious about knives and limited resources like time, stock removal when done correctly and professionally is perfectly fine. In the end, stock removal methods will create some of the finest knives out there. Much of the article here is agreeable but promoting the notion that only forging is the way to make quality knives is misleading….reminds me of the same animosity between Harley owners and riders preferring a motorcycle more reliable and well, modern….

    • Actually Travis, that wasnt the notion at all. I make my knives via stock removal. Both disaplines have there qualities, pros and cons but I equally respect both. My point was that people need to understand the difference. Passing knives off as hand forged when they are only heated up to beat hammer marks in them is not hand forged. So, dont fall in the trap of paying master smith prices for such knives.

    • Reading it, I found the point wasn’t that hand forged is better than stock removal, but that there are guys out there (I won’t call them knife makers) who are deceiving buyers in how their knives are made. Every trade will have its liars and thieves, which is why it is important to educate yourself so you can spot them.

  2. Todd, have you considered addressing the company or companies that are falsely advertising their knives as hand forged with those who run Blade Show? For me, such a company has no place there and only lessens the value of Blade Show and what it represents.

    • No I havnt taken it up with Blade. What I have seen in the blade community is that usually said folks that decieve usually weed themselves out. Because you can only screw so many people before the word gets out. But being educated enough to see it before your a victom of it helps dramatically. My point of the article was not to call any one person out, these are examples. My point is to help the consumer to know what they are buying, and to educate the makers that may not know, what they should be selling. Its for everyone to take the info and learn from. Because the people that get screwed from the bad examples are the consumer and there wallet, and the makers that are in the industry for all the right reasons.

  3. Thank you, Todd, for pointing out the “Elephant” or is it an 800# gorilla. Anyway, you’re right, nobody’s talking about this. This is a conversation I’ve not heard in my 40 plus years of knife making. There have been trends and fads come and go over the years. In the “70’s it was knives for jungle warfare, the ’80’s saw the scrimshaw fad swell and crash on the beach, ’90’s with combat-utility knives. Now in the 21st Century we see technical inovations, beyond the imaginations of the previous century. But, I have never seen a market like this. It’s hyper fluffed up over the latest glitz and bling whipped to a stiff merengue by all the knife content on the internet. I greatly appreciate your stand on quality, craftsmanship and performance. How many of those glitzy folders will ever cut anything, if they will at all. My market used to be the World, but hardly anymore. Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany and Australia have all declined to next to nothing. In America, there isn’t the holophobia like Europe, but there’s financial future shock. Meaning, American customers see the price of daily life increasing much faster than their wages. I still sell higher-end knives, but fewer, and fewer of my working models. So, it’s up to us, the real knifemakers to educate the knife buying public, not mislead them. I could say so much more, but you’ve pretty much saisd it all. I would like to see this discussion continue and perhaps deliver some insights.

    • Thank you for your reply Sean. I figured on of the best things I can do for this community is just be honest. Honest in my business dealings and honest as far how I treat people with my opinion. This is a craft I love, obviously you do as well. Any positive influence we have will only help the future of it.

  4. Great article Todd. Much truth in what you wrote. I’m a loner knifemaker, always have been, always will be, who prefers to do everything in house, no outsourcing. I do this for a living and yes making money is important but making knife buyers happy is more important. I love what I do and hope my customers feel the same way.

  5. What is killing the knife market is that I can get a perfectly good knife for $40 that will last me several lifetimes. They are getting so good that the functional difference between them and a handmade knife is that one costs more and you are worried about losing it.

    Mainstream customers care about fancy knives in the same way they care about fancy cars. They are fun to read about, but why would I buy one?

    • There is absoultely nothing wrong with a $40. Knife it it suffices for your given tasks and it makes you happy. But the difference between the two is not just the price. If the same materials where used in a quality handmade piece in most cases, that was used in said $40. knife there is no way it would be $40. Makers in most cases do not get rich off of the prices they ask for there peices. Sure, you got some that are asking crazy unjustified prices, and my point is people will pay it because they dont know any better. Education, like I stated earlier is key and Knowing the difference between a $40. knife and a properly exicuted handmade knife is part of that education because obviously you are not familiar with the latter. While I respect your opinion, I disagree with it.

    • Todd Hunt, I would completely disagree with you. There is in no way that you can compare the fit, finish, and material qualities of a good custom made knife to a factory knife. I will say you can get good factory knives. However to say they compare to good custom knives is not factual nor confirmable in my book, having been around the industry for 20 years.

      • O.k. so, maybe you need to re read my comment because I cant figure out why you completely disagree with me. We just made the exact same point, I said that a $40. Knife does NOT compare to a handmade knife.

  6. As someone who started cutting out a shape then learning to grind a knife to now forging a majority of my blades. I do see exactly what you are saying in the Many Facebook groups I cruise through. I am still a young one when it comes to making knives , but I see a strong comparison to the trend of “building” AR15 type rifles. Where a guy buys a stripped or complete lower and drops a complete upper on it and says he is a builder. In the knife world where technology makes it easy to replicate a style blade over and over and where others can mimic the design. It is causing a overkill of blades.
    It has taken me a while to accept that people like what I produce but as a buddy explained that my customers love the fact that it is truly handmade and has my soul, sweat and blood sometimes in the blade. Thank you for a great article.

  7. Till one has a good hand made knife, one would not know what they miss. A good hand made knife is a want, that once in hand turned to a need. Those who crtisize the hand made knives and their makers/sellers, either don’t have one, or can’t afford one. Grow up.

    • telling people who don’t have what you do or cannot afford to purchase such a blade to grow up is not the ideal way to win someones appreciation in what you believe and recommend.i am a great lover of knives and have been collecting and using them for 51 years and i don’t own an hand crafted knife simple reason is a knife is a tool but it can also be a work of beauty and some of the asking prices would compel me to lock them in a display case and nullify their original function.i was given my first knife,a ten inch bowie,when i was seven by an ex-hells angel and i have used it ever since it does everything i ask of it ,it was my go to knife through my army service and everyday tasks at home and out in the wilds since.it would break my heart if i was to lose it or break it but in 51 years it has never let me down how can i be so sure of the same reliance from what you offer you might have a great item but would i feel totally comfortable leaving my trusty bowie at home and totally relying on your knife to be brutally honest no but that is not a reflection on your knife but the trust i have in my knife far outdoes anything i could feel for any knife i have or consider buying there are some beautiful functioning knives available but i do not want to buy something i would be reluctant to try in the wilds and ultimately become an expensive wall hanger made by some renown master cutler

  8. Being a beginner knife maker, and reading this artical, leaves me to believe that the way YOU make knifes, and the many years of education that YOU have is the only way to make and sell knifes. Sure I know how learning metallurgy, and proper geometry is huge in knife making, but it’s not the only thing today. I am a metal worker and an artist. Turns out I can make knifes that are very disirable, and I cannot keep up with the orders. But I can tell you this, nobody wants boring old fixed blade hunters anymore. What I’m getting at is I can guarantee that you were selling knifes that weren’t of the callaber that they are know, and one way or another you were the problem in the knife market at one point in time.
    This was a strange read. I agreed with you, and disagreed with you several times.

    • Well, you certainly are intitled to your interpretation, but I certainly do not recollect me ever saying that the way I do it is the only way it should be done. Quite the opposite really. There are many ways to acieve excellence in anything we do, not just knives. My point is if its worth doing, have enough respect for it to know something about. The examples in the article are just that, examples of how you can identify good over bad, and even if you disagree with it, at the end of the day its got you thinking so therefore its done its job……
      As far as your comment about boring hunting knives and how nobody wants them. I know people that want them. They are called hunters. Knives are not a fad my friend. Sure, some styles are more popular than others, but they arent something you should buy just because they match your fanny pack or because all the cool kids have it. They are tools. Hunting knives are (or should be) made for that specific reason.

  9. Supply and demand ! Makers like Emerson, Mayo, Terzuola and others have a following and worked hard and maybe a little luck to get to where they are today.
    Remember not all makers have to forge their own steel to be a success !

  10. Well I’m 65 years old so I guess that qualifies me as a grown up been to many knife shows and drooled over makers like Phil Hartsfield and JD Smith I remember when Benchmade was Pacific cutlery what I know you buy want you can afford . I, I managed to pick up a few Customs along the way but there also mortgage, kids and such. It amazes me when people in my groups say they going to carry that 3 grand custom folder they just got not me my friend my luck it will be taken by some cop(live in NY). And no disrespect but half of today makers couldn’t even get into a 1980’s Blade show

    • Excellent point William, and you are 110% correct. These makers that you are reffering to “not being able to make into a show in the 80’s” are demanding prices 4X higher than people that have been in the biz and know there stuff. But, people are paying for it. Thats my point of the article. Educatuon on both sides. Thank you for your response.

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