As you look at some of the custom knife makers’ work on our website, you will notice that some have the designation “Master Smith.” So often, I’m asked what this means, so I thought I would write a brief synopsis.
In the late 1980s, I was introduced to forged blades. What drew my attention were the custom Damascus knives made by the ABS Master Smiths. The top makers were asking $100 an inch (including paying for the tang) for their knives, handle material, and a sheath. For example, Master Smiths would routinely price a 10″ Bowie with a 5″ handle at $1600 – $1800 (depending on handle material.) Remember, this was the 1988 price!
This led 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. Then I started to be educated on what the MS designation meant and why it was important to me.
Requirements for the performance test to become a Master Smith (MS):
- 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 for at least two years before testing for MS.
- Performance Test:MS candidates can only test with a pattern-welded Damascus blade per the test knife specifications. There are guidelines for the knife to be used. A test is a 4-part event. The MS candidate must pass all four parts of the test to become eligible to test for Master Smith.
- Rope Cutting: This aims to test the edge geometry and sharpness.
- Wood Chopping:This test demonstrates the edges’ toughness. A construction grade 2X4 is used for this test.
- Shaving Hair: This is to demonstrate the edge retention of the blade.
- Bending: This test demonstrates the applicant can heat treat a knife with a soft spine and hard edge. This process is known as “differential heat treat.” This type of heat treat could be an advantage on a hard-use knife.
Having met the time and performance test requirements, 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. This testing occurs at the Blade Show and several other locations during the year. 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. The rest of the knives must be of different designs, varieties, and varying steel types to demonstrate the applicant’s ability to make a wide range of classic blades. While not required, a folding knife 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 learning this craft with other JS or MS makers. Some will attend the Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing at Texarkana College in Texarkana, Texas. Additionally, there are hammer-ins set up across the country. These are usually done over the weekend and enhance the attendee’s skills and abilities in making forged custom blades.
As you can see, makers with the MS designation have put a lot of time and effort into becoming Master Smith. The knowledge they have gained can be 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.” In addition, I have attended classes on making and judging forged blades. And have had the opportunity to evaluate finished knives at several shows in the US and Canada.
I have developed a good eye for quality work at all three levels: AS, JS, and MS knives. In addition to the current work and potential, the price the makers charge for their MS-designated custom knives is also significant to me. Once a maker earns the MS stamp, there is no further testing required. Unfortunately, several MS makers are resting on their laurels. Many of these makers would have difficulty earning the MS stamp if they were to test today. With the prices asked for by some of the Master Smith knives. Collectors must know what to look for in an MS maker’s work. Collectors should be more critical of mistakes on an MS knife than on a JS maker’s knife.
What I look for is:
- Quality: Their fit, finish, and flow are commensurate with the rating in the ABS and their time-making knives. Example: Several JS makers are better custom knife makers than some MS makers.
- Position in the market: Where is the maker compared to its 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 makers’ position in the market is the best way to get the best quality knife for your money.
- Price:This should be influenced by #2. The materials used, the demand for their knives, 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. In addition, 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 on time? Do they make sure (to the best of their abilities) you are receiving the knife you want? Point: Communication is a two-way street. Both the customer and custom knife maker must communicate clearly and concisely.
When you see a custom knife maker with the MS designation on my website, you can be sure I have vetted their knives. Over thirty-five years, I have developed the skills on what to look for in all aspects of the knife. As a result, I feel I am working with some of the best Master Smiths in the world. I would encourage you to look at their knives on my website and continually develop your knowledge base regarding 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 email@example.com or (706) 650-0252.