WHAT’S IT LIKE FOR A CUSTOM KNIFEMAKER TO WORK WITH A COMPANY ON A SMALL-RUN PRODUCTION BLADE?
Many knifemakers go through a stage where they think, “It would be great if I could get someone else to manufacture my best design.” I came to that conclusion myself toward the end of 2021 and partnered with White River Knife & Tool out of Fremont, Michigan, to make a batch of my Utility Hunter knives. Looking back, I had plenty of questions and not many available answers, so I figured I’d share the story.
“What does it take to have a knife manufactured? How long does it take? What kind of tools do they use? How does the process work for getting your design to them, and what’s the process they use to create it? What about supply chain issues? Who builds the sheaths? If I bought a bunch, who would buy them?
For these questions and many more my best answer at the time was, “I don’t know.” From the knife buyer side, many of the questions are the same. How much does a Bark River or Benchmade or White River production knife cost for them to manufacture? Who decides the steel and handle material for each model?
If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to manufacture a knife in the USA, I’ll walk you through the process.
BEGIN WITH A DESIGN
I personally began the journey by making roughly 100 of the same hunting-sized knives over the past 10 or so years. The design was the evolution of my preferences for all-around carry and skinning whitetail deer. For many years, I had this pattern waterjet cut and either outsourced the heat treat or did them myself in batches.
I suppose it’s possible to draw out a knife on paper, decide that you’ve got a winner, then go looking for production. I’m a slow-and-steady type guy, so it appealed to me more to tweak and improve my design over time and have a proven sales record before stepping off into manufacturing.
I knew this knife was a solid design, I had tuned my preferences for specifications, and demand for my handmade versions was greater than my ability to supply.
OUT FOR BIDS
Once I had the design in mind, I had to find a company to do the manufacturing. I talked to five or six companies. One told me that Covid-related shutdowns had left them with a 30,000-knife backlog and they couldn’t do it. Another had a minimum order of 500 pieces. Some quit responding to email. I ended up with firm quotes from several companies. Decisions had to be made that I hadn’t anticipated.
To generate an accurate quote, a manufacturer needs to know the steel type and handle material preference. Steel type turned into a complex choice. Each producer has a few steel types in which they specialize or prefer. Sometimes they’ll offer a better price on steel that they have on hand versus having to order steel for your project.
Sometimes the steel that you want or that they prefer is slow to come from the steel supplier. Do you wait for the steel you want if it adds four months to the project? Do you “settle” for a less preferred steel if it cuts the overall price by 10%? What handle material do you go with that’s the perfect combination of durable, affordable, and desirable?
“I knew this knife was a solid design, I had tuned my preferences for specifications, and demand for my handmade versions was greater than my ability to supply.”
In my case, I gave the companies some latitude, because I wanted them to use their knowledge as well and propose a knife they’d be comfortable making that, in their experience, was a good steel and handle material combination. I know what I like in a custom, but I trusted their expertise as manufacturers to make good recommendations.
Quotes came back as a cost per piece on a specific quantity, but we weren’t talking apples to apples. One company charged the same cost per piece on the first run and future runs, but their cost was lower. Another company charged initial setup fees but didn’t charge as much for setup on future runs. One quoted me Kydex sheaths made in-house, and the other pointed me toward a leather sheath maker with whom they do business.
I turned to my brother, the accountant, and he put together an Excel projection that helped me to calculate the final cost per piece, total cost for the project, and my percentage margin at various target price points.
There were some softer variables as well. Both finalists had been used by friends of mine, and so I was somewhat familiar with their reputations. I had spoken to representatives of both companies via email and in person during the process, and one was much more responsive.
When a small-timer decides to step into having knives manufactured, he bears most of the risk himself. I’ve had people “congratulate” me for the project, which is odd to me because all I have done is pay out a chunk of money to buy some product. The maker bears the deposit cost up front, is responsible for paying off the product, and ultimately is responsible for sales and marketing. If the knife doesn’t sell, the maker loses money.
“The blade and handle finishes were flawless, and the knives came hair-popping sharp.”
What it came down to for me was faith. I had confidence that I had a proven design, that I could sell knives in quantity and make a return for my investment. I didn’t have confidence that the money would “all work out,” but a timely large sale convinced me that the One who has provided for me time and again would bless this project as well. When it came to managing the risk, I had more confidence investing in myself and my knife business than throwing my money at the stock or crypto markets.
LET’S DO IT!
Once a decision was made to go with White River, nothing began until I paid my 50% deposit up front. From that point forward, I expected a four-month lead time based on the company’s initial quotes. We went with CPM S35VN steel because the team had it in-house and it’s one of their specialties.
For handle material, I wanted to use the new Ultrex Suretouch rubber/G10 laminate, but then we figured out that the lead time on that material was too far out to meet our timeline. The rubber component of the Suretouch had availability challenges, so Ultrex couldn’t manufacture in a timely manner.
If you run in to supply issues, it may not always be your manufacturer; it can also be people from whom they purchase. I ended up using other connections to find a supply of Suretouch to cover around half of the planned knives, and I turned White River loose to choose from among its available handle materials to do the rest.
GET ‘ER DONE
Being a knifemaker, I am intimately familiar with how I build my one-at-a-time Utility Hunters. I have a CAD profile of this knife because I’ve had it waterjet cut in the past, so sharing the basic design was easy. Also, I built a prototype and sent it to White River so that the designers could get the handle contours as close to the way I build them as possible.
I also sent a set of detailed notes about which specifications were critical, such as edge thickness and handle contour. Other items were less critical, such as whether to use pins or bolts, or what type or size of bolts to use. I left some of the choices up to the guys at White River.
White River cuts out its blades with a CNC laser. From there, the knives are ground or milled to final contour finish, holes are reamed to dimension, and the blades are sent for heat treatment.
Much like many of us do in our own businesses, parts of our jobs can be outsourced to contractors, while other tasks are best handled in house. Some tasks are fully automated, while others are done one at a time by hand.
Once the blades come back from heat treatment, it’s time for grinding the bevels. I personally grind a blade by holding it in my hand. I use a 2 x 72-inch belt grinder, and I grind them one at a time. How does a manufacturer grind blades by the hundreds? Some manufacturers like Fiddleback Forge have people that hand grind every blade.
White River and most of the larger companies, such as Buck or Benchmade, use CNC machines with large grinding wheels. Blades are ground in batches on grinding machines that have two independent grinding wheels and two sets of X/Y/Z axes joined as one machine.
This A- and B-sided machine processes two different blades at the same time. The right-side wheel grinds the A side of the blade, after which the blade is moved over to the second position on the left machine where the B side of the blade is ground.
During this time another blade has been loaded into the A side so the machine is essentially grinding two blades at once.
One of the challenges in CNC is figuring out the proper fixture to hold the work piece. Each knife design requires its own specially designed fixtures. The shop looks like almost any other CNC machine shop, except that a knife shop also has double disk grinders and bevel grinders. The specialized knife grinders are a fairly rare machine and require a niche skill set.
I specified a stonewash finish on my knives, and White River uses the same finish on many of its production models. Its vibratory finisher uses around 300 pounds of ceramic media and can handle roughly 200 blades at a time. The tumbling operation takes 8-12 hours for the machine to do its work.
Handle material is cut to shape primarily on a CNC mill. Depending on the knife setup, the handle may then be blasted, sanded by hand, or polished on a belt.
ASSEMBLY BY HAND
The knives are then marked using a fiber laser etcher. For my knife, I chose to have it marked both with my name and the White River logo as well as the steel type and USA. If you choose to have your design built, you’ll have to decide how to mark it in a way that will differentiate it from your handmade knives. You also may not want to go with just the manufacturer’s logo if you’re contracting your own design.
Regardless of who builds a knife, it should be sharp when it gets delivered. White River hand sharpens each and every knife at 18 degrees using fine grit belts and finished with a leather hone. The staff who sharpen are diligently trained prior to being turned loose on customer projects. Blades that don’t pass initial quality control in earlier stages of the manufacturing process are used for sharpening practice for the new guys.
A knife without a sheath is not much fun to carry. I went through a similar quote and production process with Smith and Sons for my leather sheaths. One of the company’s standard designs fit my knife, so I purchased some of those, and also had the company build a slightly longer version to my specifications.
Eight months after we began our discussion, and five months after I paid my deposit to formally start the job, my knives arrived. I was personally very impressed by the quality and feel of the knives.
The fit and finish was excellent, and very comparable to my handmade versions. The plunges were dead-even on every knife. The blade and handle finishes were flawless, and the knives came hair-popping sharp.
By contracting with White River, I now have the opportunity to sell knives in bigger batches for gifts or resale. I can also provide a quality knife to my specifications, built in Michigan, at a good price point so that my customers have a knife that will do the jobs of utility and hunting.
WHITE RIVER KNIFE & TOOL: A SOLID, FAMILY-RUN OPERATION
White River Knife and Tool out of Fremont, Michigan, is a family business. Knifemaker John Sr. and his wife Susan, and sons John Jr. and Matt Cammenga are the brains and the brawn behind the company. He started putting the business together in 2010, with manufacturing starting in September 2011.
John Jr. does the in-house design work, computer programming and CAD, and manages the grinding equipment. Matt manages the CAM software and writes code for the CNC machines.
White River’s most popular models include the flagship M1 that comes with a variety of handle materials: paracord, flat G10, and 3D contoured. The company’s Firecraft series is designed for survival tasks. They include a bow drill divot in the handle and have sharpened spines for striking a ferro rod.
White River also has two popular fillet knife patterns, including a floating cork-handled knife that was featured on the How It’s Made television show.
The company also manufactures three production versions of Jerry Fisk’s famous Sendero hunter pattern. It does OEM manufacturing for Exodus Knife and Tool, Rewild, and Argali. It sells direct, and its knives are also available at dealers, including KnifeCenter, Blade HQ, and DLT trading. Certain models are also available at Duluth Trading Company.
Fry Custom Knives
White River Knife & Tool
Ultrex (makers of SureTouch)
A version of this article first appeared in the Sep/Oct 2022 print issue of Knives Illustrated.