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Custom Knives; Is Your Education Lacking?

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Information on knife makers, styles, materials, and all things custom knives can be found in publications that are primarily knife related and those that have articles or include them in their stories. Combine that with the amount of information on the internet and the membership levels of internet forums. One can argue that you never have to leave your house to find out all you need to know about a knife. You could argue that, but I would submit to you that you are wrong.

Buggy Whips and Bicycles
For centuries, buggy whips saw steady sales. Businesses were built and careers were made crafting this necessary piece of equipment for everyone from the average person to the gentry. Then at the turn of the 20th century many of these stores closed up shop. Why? The introduction of the automobile changed the focus of what consumers wanted. Many gave the public what they wanted and adapted with the times. Some went into the bicycle business and even that morphed into something else. A couple of friends changed the idea of the bicycle and their newest ideas can be seen today all over the roads and in their Headquarters in Milwaukee WI. A couple of brothers moved from Ohio to North Carolina and today you see their ideas; but you have to look up.

Today custom knife making and collecting move at a rapid pace. Techniques, materials, openers, locks from the past are morphed into updated versions of your Grandfather’s, maybe even your Father’s pocket knife. New makers seem to show up weekly if not daily. I routinely receive emails and phone calls inquiring about a new maker. When I reply that I have not heard of them, I am often met with “they have been making knives for 3 months and they are awesome.” No doubt there are some knife makers that show great potential almost immediately. With varied backgrounds, many with newly acquired machining skills from their job or a technical school. While for most the learning curve is a little longer than 3-6 months. In particular, for tactical folders, with the right machines and the training that curve can be cut in half. That said my curiosity is always piqued by the latest knife making savant.

Piqued curiosity and the first “V”
Hearing or reading about the latest and greatest begs a couple of questions.
First, who are the collectors who are touting the work of these makers?
A foray onto the knife forums will introduce you to hundreds of experts. Spending time reading some of the posts can clarify for you that this member actually has extensive experience and speaks with authority on a wide range of subjects. Then there are experts who have compartmental expertise, such as slip joint and multi-blade folders. They can answer questions and usually point you in the right direction. Then there are the other experts; more commonly referred to as fan boys. While in some circles, this is a derogatory term. In fact, they can have their own expertise. However, this is generally limited to only a few makers who in their minds feel that the makers they collect are the best. Often basing this on their personal relationship with the maker and the amount of said maker’s knives in their collection. To quote Abraham Lincoln “If it is on the internet it must be true.”

Second, what is it about the maker that has gotten the attention of collectors. The first V stands for visual, in the form of photos and in some cases videos. If done well, these can give you a good idea if the knife will appeal to you or not. The 2-dimensional format of these media limit your ability to truly judge the knife. Depending on the quality of the photography or video they may hide essential items when looking at knives. Example, is the maker left handed or right handed? Close of ups of the choil area and plunge cuts if not clear can obfuscate the collector’s ability to determine with clarity the quality of the maker’s work. Case in point, while attending a show in Las Vegas in 2014 I was asked by a client to evaluate a new makers work. The knife featured a blade, with two pieces of Titanium for the handle. The entire knife had an acid wash finish. I pointed out an area on the blade, the plunge cut. This is the area in front of the ricasso where the edge starts. Often, acid wash is used to disguise the scratches on the blade where the plunge starts and moves towards the start of the edge. I pointed this area and the scratches that were visible under closer scrutiny. The attached photo of the John W. Smith SD-2 shows you how the blade finish should be. Note the symmetry of the finish on the plunge cut.

The second “V”
The second V is visceral; that intuitive feeling you get when handling the knife. It is at this point that your internet education stops. The advent of the rise of the internet has kept many collectors from attending knife shows; big mistake. Not only do you get to experience the 3D visceral experience of handling potential knife purchases. Shows allow you to expand your knowledge base past the “name only” level. Being able to compare several knives in person allows you to make your determination as to whether the name actually should garner that accolades that have been given on the internet and forums. Being able to handle and inspect the knife will also allow you to confirm or deny the expert label given to some on the internet. You will have the chance to handle some big blades. As you hold the Tad Lynch 16 inch Damascus Sub-Hilt Bowie you will be amazed at both how lightweight it is and the balance for such a large knife.

Period of enlightenment
When I conduct seminars at knife shows I always welcome those in attendance to the period of enlightenment. What makes a knife show a period of enlightenment? Let’s face it most of your friends and relatives to understand your fascination with these edged pieces of art. Explaining it can be difficult, justifying some of the prices more so. Often you will hear from your friends you could have bought a firearm or something else for that kind of money. They generally want to refer you to the local store to peruse their $30 – $40 knives; they are not enlightened.

However, the second you walk into a knife show you will find it is filled with like-minded enlightened people. Where else can you find yourself with people who when you show them a custom knife you just purchased for $2,000.00 nodding with approval that you indeed did well?

The ultimate combination of resources
If being able to handle thousands of custom knives isn’t enough. You can talk with the maker or a dealer and get instant knowledgeable feed back to your questions. Many of those internet experts may be in attendance and be further utilized as a real-time resource. Often these shows feature seminars from those who are recognized as experts in their specialty. Now include the latest in knife magazines and an incredible resource that is the Knife Annual. Lastly, you can utilize your Google-Fu to check after market prices and other factors that may influence your decision.

Knife shows all around the world
Knife shows can be found in Africa, China, Europe, South America and North America. Yes, you may have to do some planning and there will be some monetary outlay for attendance. The question then becomes what is your education worth? The reality is that most of us who have bought custom knives have overpaid or didn’t get exactly what you thought you were utilizing the internet only approach.

Knife show allow you the opportunity to expand your knife education level that will pay benefits moving forward. Usually these shows feature the work of makers from outside the United States. South African Andre Thorburn travels outside his South African home to shows in both the US and Europe allowing you to experience his tactical artistry. Having had the chance to handle and inspect different knives and other makers work. Will allow you to confirm your desire for a particular knife, perhaps change your mind or even send you in a different direction of a makers work you were unfamiliar with. This information could save you thousands of dollars moving forward with your collecting or even those who purchase primarily for use.

As the Blade Show in Atlanta approaches it beckons collectors and users from all over the world. This show approaches and often exceeds sensory overload. Just inside the Renaissance Waverly hotel, through the lobby behind the elevators is the “Pit.” Starting Thursday night and every night after the show the frenzy that is the “Pit” is by itself worth the trip. Hundreds of collectors with over a 1000 knives for sale, trade or just on hand for bragging rights. Combing knives, friends and adult beverages.

Knife show schedules can be found in both print and online. Additionally, you can check out the exhibitor list, seminar schedule and even suppliers that may have what you are looking for. I have attended hundreds of knife shows over the last 32 years and I can honestly say I have learned something at every one of them. They truly are a period of enlightenment!