The Perils of the Custom Knife - A Beginner's Guide to Buying a Custom Knife
By Matt, 05/01/2018
Oh, the thrill of a custom knife. I am sure that, like myself, many a reader has been enticed by the irresistible siren call of a custom at one point in their collecting life. There is something positively titillating about having a knife built to your exact specifications by a skilled craftsman. The advent of the internet has only further expanded the reach of custom knife makers and enabled poor cutlery addicted souls, the likes of me, to connect with them.
During my two-odd decades of collecting, I have had numerous custom knives pass through my hands. Along the way, I have made some good friends and ended up with some exceptional knives. I have also had some disasters which cost me a hefty amount of money, time and effort. The unfortunate reality is that there are some real and present dangers which an innocent collector should be aware of before venturing into the deep dark world of the custom knife.
First things first, what exactly is a custom knife?? Years ago, this question wouldn't require discussion. However, in today's knife world things have become much more complicated. Trying to get agreement on where a custom knife stops and a midtech starts is akin to negotiating peace in the Middle East.
But we must battle on, for the purposes of this article I will consider a custom knife to mean a skilfully handmade product built to the specifications of the buyer and/or whims of the maker. I would consider many of the current ‘new hotness' makers (i.e. Grimsmo) to fall outside this definition as they allow the customer little to no deviation from a set CNC pattern. Not that there is anything wrong with this, but I would consider these products ‘midtech' or ‘small batch production' knives rather than a full-blown custom.
Choosing your maker is the most important part of any custom knife purchase. The personal connection you forge with a knife maker is an integral part of the overall custom knife experience which will directly impact your enjoyment and emotional attachment to the final product. It goes without saying that not all custom knives are made equal. In my experience, there are custom knife makers and there are ‘custom knife makers'. As is to be expected from a handmade product, a custom knife will often have flaws with the number and severity of said flaws dependent on the skill of the maker. Unless a maker is Western Australian (in which case they would be entirely trustworthy, attractive and abundantly skillful), it is worth doing your research before agreeing to part with your hard-earned buckaroos.
Established makers with a good track record for both quality products and treating their customers fairly are generally able to charge more for their knives. It is understood that these guys have ‘paid their dues' and have earnt the right to charge more. For a customer, they are ‘a known quantity' and represent a lower risk proposition than up-and-coming makers. However, even if you are prepared to pay the higher asking price, there are some other drawbacks to going with an established maker. Firstly, assuming their books are open, wait times for popular makers are typically measured in years. Secondly, some established makers get so set in their ways that they restrict the extent of customisation and/or experimentation they are willing to undertake. Instead, they stick with the tried and true knowing they have a long line of customers ready to buy whatever they produce. If a maker adopts this attitude it can have the unwanted side effect of making customers feel like just another number in the queue.
I recall one instance where I signed up for a slipjoint knife from a well-respected maker. I was told that the wait time would be around 3-6 months and we would work out the design details as the build date got closer (mainly because I couldn't quite make up my mind). The trouble was that in the interceding months the maker seemed to lose interest in traditional knives and embrace the boon that was/is the titanium framelock flipper. No doubt that this turn proved to be a very successful venture for the maker. The trouble was, that as the months rolled by more and more framelock flippers were being made and sold without a peep about my humble slipjoint. Every three months or so I would reach out and ask how far off my order was. The response was typically along the lines of; ‘oh another month or two away, I've been really busy'. This sort of exchange went on for two years…
Then one day out of the blue I got an email; ‘Oh Matt, I made your slipjoint knife I hope you like it! Plz send me money now!! Thanks'. I was a bit shocked and somewhat disappointed I didn't get a chance to have any input into the final product, but, as the knife looked okay, I sent the cash. A few weeks later the knife rocked up and to say I was disheartened would be an understatement. The quality of the knife was poor and it seemed rushed. I felt like I had been taken advantage of by this maker, strung along until he needed some quick cash. I held onto the knife for a few years but never carried it due to the bad associations it had and eventually sold it. The maker has gone on to bigger and better things, however, for me, he is forever tainted and while I like many of his products I would not buy another.
On the other hand, newer makers represent more of a gamble for the customer. Unlike an established maker, these up-and-comers do not have a long track record or a proven skill set. Often, they have not even grasped the finer points of managing a knife-making business. There are numerous horror stories about new makers who have got in over their heads and it has all gone pear-shaped. These situations usually end up like a sharp and pointy pyramid scheme where customers are paying deposits so the maker can fund the build of previous orders. This usually holds together for a while but comes crashing down when the cash flow stops. Sucks if you are at the bottom of the pyramid at that point in time.
These risks are offset by the potential for a really great experience for a fraction of the price of an established maker (although some new guys seem to think they can charge big bucks right off the bat…). Wait times are typically short and they are eager to please in order to build a positive reputation. Personally, I have a penchant to gamble on newer makers. There just an optimistic streak in me which makes me think I will stumble on the next Tony Bose. I recall fondly my experience with a young Brett Dowell when I placed an order for a single blade ‘Zulu Spear' early in his career. The price was more than reasonable and Brett had great communication throughout the whole process. In a couple of months, I had received the knife, which is to this day one of the finest pieces of cutlery I have ever handled. So, all was well in Matt-Land ™ until one fine summer's day my brother was admiring my little Zulu. I must have been mildly intoxicated at the time as I gifted it to him, thinking that I would just order another. Little did I know that Brett's secret was now well and truly out and his wait time had ballooned to over two years… I did eventually end up getting another Dowell, a little ebony serpentine, and the wait was well worth it.
Regardless of the maker you choose there are some golden rules to abide by (all of which I may have broken at one point or another…). Firstly, don't be afraid to ask lots and lots of questions regardless of how dumb they are. This should include any details of the knife you are unclear on and any clarifications you need to feel comfortable with the maker (i.e. have done a knife of this type before? What steels are they most comfortable with? What are their warranty terms? What is their return policy? etc.). It is essential that you clear up any assumptions up front. I have been guilty more than once of thinking ‘oh, surely they will do it this way' or ‘they wouldn't do that' and inevitably the maker does just what I assumed they wouldn't! I generally like to send a final email summarising the order clearly. You would be surprised how useful a simple email can be two or three years down the line when your knife is ready to be made.
Speaking of timeframes, while most makers are quite good, it is very common for a maker to ‘over promise and under deliver', or put another way, ‘underestimate and overshoot'. Typically, I assume that a quoted wait time will be 50% longer. Usually, I am pleasantly surprised, but not always. One thing I like, and normally ask for (but hardly ever receive), is a warning email a month or so before my knife is going to be ready. Like most folks reading, I blow any spare cash I have on knives, so being able to ensure there is money in the budget when the big day comes is always a plus.
Earlier we briefly touched on the business practice of pre-payment. The generally accepted rule is that a small deposit is okay, but you should walk away from any maker that requires you to pay in full up front. The trouble with pre-payment is that once a maker has your money he has very little incentive to get your knife out the door. You also have relatively little bargaining power if they don't meet the agreed timeframe (especially after the PayPal claim period has expired). I have experienced this first hand with an established maker who initially quoted for a three-month delivery period and required payment up-front. Because of my consumerist lust and the maker's reputation I made an exception to the rule and handed over my cash. Big mistake! A year went by, all the while the maker churned out knife after knife for big online dealers. Frustrated, I asked for a refund, but the maker cited some fine print somewhere on his website to the effect of: ‘No refunds! Your money has already been spent on materials for your knife' (which, by the way, is a BS claim). So I waited, hoping that the maker would find it in his heart to make me my knife, all the while stressing that I had lost my cash. Eventually, I got the knife, but it wasn't a pleasant (or acceptable) experience. Lesson learned, don't pre-pay under any circumstances!
So, one day after years of waiting you finally get that email with a few photos attached. Congratulations your knife is ready! At this point, it is always a good idea to inspect the photos for any flaws and ask for more shots if needed. If you are not happy with the knife because the maker has missed the brief or misrepresented his skill level, sometimes hard to see from photos, don't be afraid to decline the purchase. I've had an occasion where I commissioned a jackknife (i.e. blades at the same end), only to be presented with a moose pattern (i.e. blades at opposite ends). The maker was not happy with me when I said I did not order nor want the knife. But then nor was I happy with the maker…
Finally, the day comes when your knife arrives in your hot little hands! Oh, the anticipation as you wait for the postie. What a glorious day this will be, well hopefully. Sometimes it is hard not to be let down as you handle and micro analyse the knife for the minutest of flaws. This is the point where I normally remind myself that I may have built things up in my head a bit too much and drop the knife in my pocket (or store it away) and enjoy it. Hopefully, there aren't any undisclosed issues, however, if there are you can consider yourself ‘burned' and at the mercy of the maker to rectify. Thankfully in my experience, this is a rare occurrence.
In the days, months and/or years after that initial rush, the less exciting, yet still important, aspects of custom knife ownership will become apparent, namely resale value and warranty.
I'll start with resale value, which like anything in the free market, can and will vary wildly depending on demand. It goes without saying that the ‘hotness' right now will likely not be so ‘hot' in a couple of years' time. Established makers generally have the advantage here as their products tend to hold their value better and there is an existing secondary market which can be researched. Newer makers are potluck, with some going up in value as they become more well-known and others being worth a fraction of the purchase cost as they fade into obscurity.
The warranty is often an underrated aspect of knife ownership but is one which can be worth its weight in gold. The trouble with a custom knife's warranty is that unlike a production company, which typically has a service department staffed by people not personally invested in the product, the worth of the warranty for your custom is entirely up to the one person who made it. I've had a case where a maker vehemently denied that there could possibly be an issue with his knife and it took me months of pestering to get him to accept there was an issue. It is also the case that some makers consider warranty work as their lowest priority due to the fact that it is not bringing in the $$ like pumping out new knives would. Frankly, these makers are stupid as they will not only lose repeat business but also new business when their tardiness gets publicised.
The final and oft not talked about aspect of custom ownership is what will happen when a maker passes away. Typically, if the maker is popular the value of the knife will increase, at least for the years while customers are alive who remember them. Obviously, at this point, any warranty will be null and void unless there are alternative arrangements made by the maker prior to his death.
So, the big question. Are custom knives worth it? The short answer is that they must be, I keep buying them after all. However, the correct answer, as with most things, is that it depends on the customer. On paper it can be easily argued that production knives represent a better value proposition; they are usually perfect (or close to it), of known quality, worth the retail price, are typically backed by solid warranties and avoid most of the pitfalls associated with ordering a custom knife. On the other hand, custom knives provide benefits not found in the production world by allowing collectors to obtain unique handcrafted knives which exactly meet their desires.
To sum it all up, custom knives are great! I hope that this article has been of some value to those looking to start their custom knife collecting journey.
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