The subject of whether to pay a custom knife maker a deposit or not, comes up on a regular basis. This is discussed in my Custom Knife Buying Guide, as well as, articles I have written for Blade and Knives Illustrated. What I have learned (sometimes the hard way) over the last 32 years comes down to these categories.
These are my 3 rules for knife maker deposits:
1) If the knife maker is building you a standard model, there is absolutely no reason for a deposit.
2) A partial deposit can be given if you are requesting things such as semi-precious gem stones, precious gem stones or precious metals. You can expect to pay for those in advance. I have recently added a 4th item to the list, Fossil Ivory. Given the prices these days, it is becoming a expensive addition to the knife.
3) Payment in full before the knife is built. This is something that should never be done with one exception. You order a knife that is so hideous or has such a horrible design that should you decide to back out the maker will not be able to sell this knife.
What about makers who ask for a deposit? They should be questioned as to why they need it. You can determine if the reason is legitimate (check rules 1-3). These makers generally do not put your deposit into an escrow account, taking it out when the project starts. This money can and will go to a variety of expenses.
Most makers have told me they prefer not to get a deposit. As this then allows the client to “check in” on a regular basis. Unfortunately, many collectors become a nuisance wanting to know about every step of their knife build along the way.
My advice to both makers and collectors is to agree that the maker will contact the collector when the knife is ready to be started. This meaning the knife will be completed within a couple of weeks. This also allows the maker to check and see if the collector still wants the knife. As well, the collector can double check the order (especially if it has been a year or more.) This way, everyone understands what is being built, with what materials and what the cost will be.
Ordering a custom knife should be a pleasurable experience! The level of communication between maker and collector will be enhanced by open and direct communication. Remember, it is best not to pay for the knife upon ordering it. Many knife makers have told me, “The hardest knife to build is the one that has been paid for.”