As you look at some of the custom knife makers’ work on our website you will notice that some have the designation “Master Smith”. I am often asked what this means so I thought I would write a brief synopsis.
I was introduced to forged blades in the late 1980’s. What drew my attention were the custom Damascus knives being made by some of the ABS Master Smiths. The top makers were asking $100 an inch (this included paying for the tang) for their knives, plus handle material and a sheath. A 10” Bowie with a 5” handle would routinely be priced at $1600 – $1800 (depending on handle material). Remember… this was the 1988 price!
This lead me to look for less expensive options, which at that time primarily meant carbon steel. Not knowing what I was looking for, I became an ABS Associate Member in 1988. It was then I started to be educated on what the MS designation meant and why it was important to me.
To become a Master Smith some basic requirements, have to be met.
- Eligibility: The candidate for MS must be a Journey Smith member for at least one year. At this point, they can take their performance test with an ABS Master Smith; however, they must have been a Journeyman Smith at least 2 years before they can test for MS.
- Performance Test: MS candidate can only test with a pattern-welded Damascus blade per the test knife specifications. There are guidelines for the knife to be used. The test is a 4-part event. All 4 parts have to be passed in order for the MS candidate to become eligible to test for MS.
- Rope Cutting: The purpose of this is to test the edge geometry and sharpness.
- Wood Chopping: This is done to demonstrate the edges toughness. A construction grade 2X4 is used for this test.
- Shaving Hair: The is to demonstrate the edge retention of the blade.
- Bending: This test is done to show the applicant is able to heat treat a knife with a soft spine and hard edge. This is known as “differential heat treat.” On a hard use knife, this type of heat treat could be an advantage.
Once the time requirement and performance test have been met. The MS candidate may now test for their MS Stamp (the MS in script you will see on their blades.)
The candidate will submit five knives. At least one of these knives must be an art knife meeting the ABS requirement of a traditional pattern welded Damascus European Quillion type dagger with at least three hundred (300) or more forge welded layers. Please refer to the link at the bottom for the specifics of what is required for the Quillon dagger. The rest of the knives are required to be of different designs and varieties and can be of different steel types to demonstrate the applicant’s ability to make a wide range of classic blades. While not required, a folder with a Damascus blade can be submitted as one of the candidates’ test knives for their MS stamp.
In addition to the performance test, most ABS makers will spend time with other JS or MS makers learning this craft. Some will attend the Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing at the Texarkana College in Texarkana, Texas. Additionally, there are hammer-ins set up across the country. These are usually done over the weekend and will further enhance the attendee’s skills and abilities with regards to making forged custom blades.
As you can see, makers with the MS designation have put a lot of time and effort into becoming a Master Smith. The knowledge they have gained can be readily seen in their knives. As with any endeavor some MS makers will be better than others.
Over the past 28 years, I have had the opportunity to visit several custom knife makers’ shops. It is always interesting to watch their “process.” I have attended classes on making and judging forged blades. And have had the opportunity to judge finished knives at several shows both in the US and Canada.
At this point I have developed a pretty good eye for quality work at all three levels: AS, JS and MS knives. In addition to the current work and/or potential, the price the makers charge for their MS-designated custom knives is also very important to me. Once a maker earns the MS stamp, there is no further testing required. Unfortunately, there are several MS makers who are resting on their laurels. Many of these makers would have difficulty earning the MS stamp if they were to test today. Given the prices being asked by some of these makers, it is imperative that the collector know what to look for in an MS maker’s work. Mistakes on a MS knife should be looked at more critically than on a JS maker’s knife.
What I look for is:
- Quality: Their fit, finish and flow commensurate with the rating in the ABS and their time making knives. Example: There are several JS makers who are better custom knife makers than some of the MS makers.
- Position in the market: Where is the maker compared to their competitors in the current market? This is especially true in the MS knife market. Considering there are only, according to the ABS website, 113 active Master Smiths worldwide, understanding each of these maker’s position in the market is the best way to get the best quality knife for your money.
- Price: This should be influenced by #2. Additionally, materials used, demand and how their retail prices hold up in the aftermarket. Right now, too many makers prices are not commensurate with the position in the market.
- Improving Skill Set: Master Smiths should be able to move comfortably between carbon steel and Damascus and all other forms of forged blades. Their fit, finish and flow should be excellent. All should be able to incorporate a vast array of handle materials including Stag and Ivories.
- Communication: Do they answer emails or return phone calls in a timely manner. Do they make sure (to the best of their abilities) you are receiving the knife you want? Point: Communication is a two-way street. It is essential that both the customer and custom knife maker communicate in a clear and concise manner.
When you see a custom knife maker with the MS designation on my website, you can be sure they have been vetted by me personally. I spent a lot of time developing the skills on what to look for. I feel I am working with some of the best Master Smiths in the world. I would encourage you to spend time looking at their knives on my website and continually develop your own knowledge base when it comes to forged blades.
For additional information on what it takes to become a Master Smith I would recommend you follow this link the ABS website: http://www.americanbladesmith.com/index.php?section=pages&id=172
Robertson’s Custom Cutlery is your source for custom knives from today’s leading custom knife makers. We only feature the highest quality knives at value prices. Our custom fixed and folding knife selection includes tactical fixed and folding knives, presentation fixed and folding knives, bowies, hunters and skinners, and a large selection of forged blades. Les Robertson, author and owner of Robertson’s Custom Cutlery, is also a Field Editor for Blade Magazine and an instructor at Blade University. If you have questions about the content in this article or about any knife or maker on our website, you can contact Les directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (706) 650-0252.