WHETHER YOU WANT TO USE IT, DISPLAY IT, OR INVEST IN IT, FOLLOW THESE KEY TIPS TO CHOOSE A CUSTOM KNIFE
I’m not sure what would happen if one day I woke up and everything and everyone in the world were honest, straightforward, and accurately represented. I’d think I had been abducted by aliens or something, because the world I’m familiar with is often deceptive, or at least has yucky consequences for my bad choices.
“…two main areas that are important to knife collecting satisfaction: accurately judging the quality of a knife, and accurately managing the economics…”
When it comes to buying and selling collectible and custom knives, I’d love to say, “It’s all good, just go buy one. Maybe buy a dozen, because it always works out great!” But we instinctively know from observing the world around us that it’s not “all good” all the time.
There are two main areas that are important to custom knife collecting satisfaction: accurately judging the quality of a custom knife, and accurately managing the economics of collecting.
Fit and Finish
Let’s dive first into the category of knife quality often described as “fit and finish,” the degree to which the elements of a knife are clean and tight. Fit and finish often vary with price. You may expect a few errors on a $100 knife that would be unacceptable on a $300 knife.
Once you get to the mid-level, around $500 to $1,500, the knives had better be darn good, and any errors had better be small or well hidden. At the high end, there is an expectation that there will be very few points of error, or none altogether.
There are many elements of a custom knife that must fit together tightly. A quality knife should not have any gaps on the handle between the scales and tang. There should not be any gaps or lines between the handle material and bolsters or guard.
There should be no gap between the tang of a knife and pinned bolsters, and there should be a tight fit between the guard slot and ricasso of a stick tang knife. Black glue can hide some minor gaps on dark material, whereas wide gaps are a major error even when filled with glue.
As a knife’s complexity increases, so does the opportunity for fit error. A full-tang knife may have as few as two joints, those between each handle side and the tang. On the other hand, a frame handled Bowie or fine folding knife may have a dozen or more points that must be fit up tightly without gaps.
Folding knives have a few other areas of fit that are critical. The blade should be centered evenly between the liners. The various elements along the back of the knife (liners, spring, back spacer, etc.) should be flush and uniformly fit.
Next for consideration is the quality of the knife’s finish. There are several key points. One, the finish of the blade, handle, and fittings needs to be uniform.
Whether the custom knife is “forge finished” or mirror polished, and whether the handle is Micarta or ivory, the finish of each element needs to be consistent, with no underlying scratches.
The pattern on the blade should be clean and uniform. In my opinion, a custom knife blade can be called “finished” at a minimum of 400 grit, but I know others who would disagree in both the coarser and finer directions. Only the maker and buyer can decide if the finish is acceptable, but regardless of the final grit, there should be no unintentional marks.
I mentioned the finish of the handle material. Some materials, such as stag, are best left with their natural texture, with just a few parts ground away and finished cleanly. Other materials, such as canvas Micarta or horse mat are good at “hiding” underlying scratches, and you can get away with a uniform 220- or even 120-grit finish on occasion.
Ivory and bone are some of the hardest to finish, as any underlying scratch is going to stand out very badly. Areas to look for underlying handle scratches are inside any low spots like palm swells or finger grooves, and on the sides right at the butt between the back pin, and the back edge of the handle.
Common places to inspect for underlying scratches on the blade include the spine (particularly in the top middle of the knife), the low points of any finger grooves, and the blade finish right up against the plunge cuts. These are among the hardest areas to finish cleanly.
Symmetry also falls under the label of fit and finish. The shape of the finished custom knife should be symmetrical, particularly side to side. Handle shaping should result in a uniform oval or upside down egg shaped profile at the butt, with no variation in shape or thickness in one side or another.
Any guard or bolsters should be evenly fit and symmetrically shaped. If it’s different but not obviously intentional, it’s not right. Sometimes even if it’s intentional, it’s still not right, but design and proportion are discussions for another day.
The plunges of a knife are an area where symmetry is critical. Whether the plunge cuts are square, rounded, or even slowly swooped isn’t relevant here, so long as the edge is centered and the plunges are the same on both sides. When a discerning customer picks up a knife off my table and immediately checks the plunges, I know they’re the real deal.
The plunges should also terminate at the same height and angle at the top of the blade. This is an area that takes skill and effort to get right. This is also an area where the range of what’s acceptable varies a little bit with price, but if the price is high, the plunges better be “dead nuts” correct.
THE DAILY GRIND
The main bevel grind also merits further discussion. Any dips, bobbles, or bumpy areas in the grind are errors, even if they’re polished out to a uniform finish. A flat grind should be flat. A hollow grind should be evenly ground across the length of the blade.
One common place to find grind errors is 2 inches in front of the plunge. Sometimes the maker concentrates so much on getting the plunges right that the other edge of the grinding belt digs in a little. This 2-inch divot can appear on both flat and hollow ground knives.
“Demand will be lower for last year’s hot thing, and so will the resale price.”
Another factor of the blade grind is the edge geometry. The final edge geometry should be suited to the intended use of the knife. A thick convex grind may be perfect for an axe or even machete. A nearly invisible secondary bevel and a super-thin edge is desirable on a kitchen knife. Hunting knives should be somewhere in between the two extremes.
One way to visibly check the edge thickness is to look at how wide the sharpening bevel is. If the bevel is wide, the grind may be too thick. If the bevel is very narrow, the edge is thin, and the knife may fail if the heat treat isn’t just right.
Folding knives have another critical point to examine, the “action.” Whether slip-joint or locking blade, the knife should open and close smoothly, with no gritty feeling or sticky spots. A slip-joint should “walk and talk,” that is open and close smoothly with a discernible snap at opening and closing positions and half stop.
On a liner-lock knife, the detent should be clean feeling, and the lock should not stick. The “right” action for a folding knife can be a very personal preference.
SHARP KNIVES MATTER
I am of the strong opinion that a custom knife should come at least sharp enough to shave hair along the entire edge. While there are sharpness tests more discerning than arm hair, cutting hair is a good place to start. Occasionally a maker may miss this detail, but remember that we’re talking about knives here. A dull knife isn’t much of a knife at all.
At the same time, a factory knife that comes duller than you want it should be considered an annoyance. Get out your sharpening system, not your phone to call and complain, unless the maker touts their sharpness or the knife is expensive.
When it comes to fit and finish, there are many different points of error possible on a knife, both custom and factory. The discerning collector should strive to spot as many errors as possible and realize that no knife is 100% error free.
Only the maker can decide when a knife is “done” to the point where the mistakes are within the margin of error for the intended function and price point. And only the buyer can decide if those errors are “too much to live with” for the price they are going to pay. The important thing is to “inspect what you expect” and make a solid informed buying decision.
If you agree to pay an asking price, and the maker delivers the product when you pay, then that’s a “good” deal. An old dickering buddy of mine used to say that a good deal is one where both parties feel like they “took” the other guy just a little bit. Your goal is to pay as little as possible, and their goal is for you to pay as much as possible, but if you agree on the price, a deal’s a good deal.
Here are four things to consider about the economic factors that can potentially bring joy or pain to the knife collecting process. You’ll have to do some homework if you want to get “good deals.”
Lesson 1: Don’t Buy the Hype
Some people want the latest and greatest thing and get great enjoyment out of buying what is the ultimate “grail” knife of a given season. For these buyers the thrill is in the hunt, and in the showing of the trophy.
Just like a hunting trophy, the story of the pursuit and the reminders of the hunt become a prized possession. If you want to be that kind of buyer, buy what you want and enjoy the heck out of it!
Demand will be lower for last year’s hot thing, and so will the resale price. I won’t go so far as to say don’t buy the hot knife. Many of us spend money on experiences (what do you gain long term from a concert or a trip to the movies?) or on depreciating possessions like cars or boats. In some ways if you enjoy it, it doesn’t matter if you lose some money on a knife or it’s not a good “investment.”
Many of us “regular” folks have to be a little more careful with our funds. If you chase what’s hot, you’ll end up buying at times of peak demand, which means you’ll pay a higher price.
By the time you get tired of that knife or want to sell, everyone else just might be tired of it as well, as the knife world will have moved on to the next hot thing. If you’re one of the folks for whom a sour ending ruins the whole experience, don’t buy hot. If you have an eye toward appreciation of values and want to “make money” on your knife collecting hobby, don’t buy hot.
For some people, the thrill is in finding the next hot one, before it gets hot. Wouldn’t we all have loved to have purchased a bunch of Microsoft stock in 1993? If we were better at predicting the future, we’d make better knife picks for our collection, just like we’d make better choices in our stock portfolio.
Still, if you “hit” one once in a while, buy the maker’s work right before he hits the big time and make lots of money, it can be quite a thrill and keep you buying knives on a regular basis.
Another point of caution when it comes to hype has to do with the “flash in the pan” types who grow smoking hot quickly, beyond their market position or ability to produce.
It has happened in the knife world and will happen again that someone may be better at marketing than knifemaking, or better at Instagram videos than filling knife orders. If the hype of a particular maker turns you off or looks suspicious, trust your gut and hold off on purchasing. Sometimes makers flame out as spectacularly as they rose to fame.
Lesson 2: Don’t Overspend at the Beginning
“Walk before you run” is typically decent advice. Knife collecting is about finding joy in knives, and at the beginning, small mistakes hurt less. If you start with $500 dollars to spend and buy five quality production knives at $100 each, you may enjoy them a long time.
If you start with the same $500 and buy a custom at a show from an overhyped maker who quickly fades away, you may sour to collecting altogether.
When you gamble more, the losses cost more. The opposite is somewhat true as well, however. If you spend your $500 on fifty $10 gas station knives, you’ll have a great big pile of crappy, worthless knives when you’re done. The trick is finding a good balance between price and quality, and finding that balance takes time to learn.
As you learn more about the market segment you’re interested in, don’t be afraid to invest more as you grow. You may reach a point where you don’t want the Chinese ones, but rather the American ones.
Or maybe you don’t want production, you want midtech. Or maybe you won’t want the midtech one with the maker’s name on it, you may want the custom one made by the maker himself. Hopefully your budget will grow to accommodate your growing expertise and preferences.
Lesson 3: Buy the Person, Not Just the Knife
When you invest in Amazon stock, you are just working toward making a rich man richer. You’re buying a piece of paper or an electronic data point that says you “own” a tiny piece of the company and you expect a mathematically increasing return for your investment.
“When it comes to knife collecting, only you can decide what knives you like, what knives are ‘worth it’ to you to pursue and purchase…”
I believe buying a custom knife isn’t much like buying a blue-chip stock. When you buy a knife, pretty good odds your money won’t go to that knifemaker’s yacht payment or summer home fund.
When you buy a knife from an individual knifemaker, you’re more likely sending his kids to daycare or piano lessons, paying for his electricity, and buying his wife new shoes.
If you buy at a knife show, you probably literally bought the maker’s dinner. When you invest in a custom knife, you support a specific person, not “the man behind the curtain.”
Even if you find joy by investing in a person by buying their product, you still owe it to yourself to invest wisely. Of course, you should buy a knife you like, that you find useful, or that may make you a decent return on your money.
At the same time, you should be looking for people to help, individual makers whose lives you will improve by your relationship and the purchases you make over time. You may be making friends, not just money, which can add another degree of magnitude to your enjoyment of knife collecting.
Lesson 4: Buy What You Know
The more you know, the fewer expensive mistakes you’re likely to make and the more good deals you’re likely to find. The less you know, the more likely it is that you’ll get a bad deal, purchase a knife you’ll be dissatisfied with, or a knife you later regret.
The more you know, the better. This seems to be a universal principle of life and economics, and it applies to knives as well.
First off, buy knives from brands or people you know have a good market position. Many times, a well-known brand is successful for good reasons. A classic brand, such as Case or Spyderco, may be a great place to start, or a well-known Knifemakers’ Guild member or somebody from the “Slip-joint Cartel.”
When you have the chance to know the maker or seller personally, that knowledge makes your purchases more likely to bring you joy or a good return on your investment.
Second, buy knives from reputable dealers or purveyors. While you may get a great deal from a pawn shop or somebody’s cousin who is a knife collector, there is some measure of protection in buying from well-known retailers such as Blade HQ, AG Russell, or Arizona Custom Knives.
Until you become familiar enough with the market to know exactly what you’re looking at, it’s wise to stick with the major dealers.
As another example, consider buying from the folks who advertise in the knife magazines. If their business is legitimate enough to afford the expense of advertising in print, they’re more likely to be honest and stick around.
Third, buy the knives you’re familiar with. You may get joy out of buying a knife the first time you’ve ever seen or heard of it. On the other hand, in my opinion you’re even more likely to enjoy a knife that you know in your heart is a great one, because you’ve studied it, chased it, pursued it, and finally purchased after careful consideration.
Sometimes the journey is as fun as the destination, and the pursuit of the grail is worth as much as the grail itself. You may get in a rut and feel like you’re buying the same knife over and over. That’s no good either.
Balance your knowledge with both width and depth. You may dive deep into one model, one maker, one brand, or you may spread your collection broadly by buying one knife from as many different people and places as possible.
Either way, you’ll get familiar with the knives that you like, and you’ll end up going as deep or as broad in your collection as you like.
Let’s wrap this up with two stories. In one story, Bob buys a knife, then another, then another. He wanders aimlessly through the knife world throwing money everywhere. One day he wakes up and finds himself surrounded by knives that he doesn’t like, knives of poor quality, knives he can’t sell for a profit, knives that don’t even cut.
After his untimely death, his wife sells the whole collection for pennies on the dollar at a garage sale. Was Bob a good knife collector? He may have found some joy in knives, and that’s good. Other than that, he seems to have done poorly.
Larry on the other hand started as a hunter and purchased a custom knife to go with his hunting rifle. He then did some reading on custom knives and found a few makers whose styles he preferred. He began to buy knives for his sons and business partners, and then started buying knives for his own collection.
Eventually he found so much joy and knowledge in the knife world that he began to purchase knives that he knew were underpriced for their value.
He kept good records of what he bought and from whom, and his spreadsheet included price paid and retail value.
After his retirement, he gave the best of his collection to his boys and sold the rest at a handsome profit. Was Larry a good knife collector? He seems to have been knowledgeable and wise, and found both joy and profit in his collection. He died with zero knives to his name. Other than that, he seems to have done very well.
When it comes to knife collecting, only you can decide what knives you like, what knives are “worth it” to you to pursue and purchase, and whether knife collecting adds to your overall joy in life. By carefully considering who and where you purchase from, by doing your own due diligence regarding quality and price, and by continual learning, you can have a wonderful knife collecting experience.
213-543-1001 and @tonybakerknives
A version of this article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2022 print issue of Knives Illustrated.