Jay Fisher - World Class Knifemaker
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I am a new knife maker but my family and I have been metal crafters for generations. I do customer order knives as your definition states. I also do ready made, for sale, one-off knife designs. Not custom but no exact copies.
I use 1095, Damascus 1095 15N20, and 440C almost exclusively. I want to thank you for the clear description you have given on the use of custom named products. It is very gratifying to build a knife for a client after you have sat with them and designed the knife to their needs. This is a hobby for me now as I hone my skills and acquire more equipment. One day I hope to be as good as you in presentation however I believe my quality is high even though my finishing skills are developing.
Thank you for posting so much great information. I will continue to search your site and others who share your views to refine my craft.
...Please feel free to publish my comments and name. I believe you are one of the premier knife builders of our times and look for more great information from your site.
Custom knives deserve their own special page on my site; if you are reading this, you probably want to learn more. Part of my service commitment to my trade and art is to clearly and plainly illustrate all of the facets of what I do, and custom knives are a very large and substantial part of my service. I believe there needs to be some plain and clear talk about custom knives: what they are, how they are made, what role they play, and their importance in the fine handmade custom knife world.
There is plenty of misinformation on the internet and in publications about what custom knives are, where they come from, and who makes them. As with all of the pages on my site, when you are done reading this page, you will know more than the average person about custom knives, more than most knife collectors, and even more than most knife makers about custom knives. I won't dance around the details of this topic; I believe that it is extremely important to know just what custom knives are, what they are not, and how the term became a generic and somewhat non-specific catch-all phrase that does a large disservice to our knife community. Then, armed with this information, you will be able to distinguish who is selling a phrase, who is making the real thing, and who is hiding under the umbrella of true custom works and why. If you are a knife maker, you will be able to understand the important role of custom knife making, and why you should be crystal clear to your clients in your knife construction, origin, provenance, and record keeping. If you are a knife dealer, you'll be able to clearly distinguish what a custom knife is and what is not a custom knife, and why you should be honest and forthright with your clients. If you are a knife user, collector, or enthusiast, you'll be better able to invest your money.
Read on, brother, this is information you need to know!
You might think that this is a fairly straightforward and simple question, but it is frequently overlooked not only by people unfamiliar with knives, but also by people who ought to know better. People who call themselves professionals in this field, makers, dealers, buyers, and manufacturers commonly misuse the term custom knives in describing their own work, products, and knives, as well as the works of others. Just to be absolutely clear, this section will define a custom knife.
Custom knives are knives made to order.
Seems simple enough. A custom knife is a knife made to order for who ever is ordering it. For example, if a client orders a specific knife to be made a specific way, and I then accept his deposit, and make the knife just to suit him as he ordered, this is a custom knife.
This is like many other products, works, or creations, if a client or patron orders it and it is then made to fill his specific order, it is custom. There are custom suits, custom cakes, custom homes, and custom guns. There are custom T-shirts, custom wheels, custom hats, and custom saddles. There are custom security systems, custom guitars, custom safaris, and custom weddings. There are custom data solutions, custom business evaluations, custom software development, and custom paint colors for your home. Every one of these activities defined as custom is made specifically to order, and the person who orders them is the buyer, client, patron, or customer.
How could this be unclear?
Occasionally, you'll read about bespoke projects, items, or work. The word bespoke is the past tense or past participle of the word bespeak, and it means custom made, custom ordered, as vs. ready made or off-the-shelf items. In essence, then, it means the same as custom.
This is not typically used nowadays in our American English language; this is more a British term originating in the Oxford dictionary. It dates back to a time when items were custom made (yep, custom) to order by the spoken word of the buyer or client. It's interesting because bespeak means to speak or arrange beforehand, which is just how custom works are commissioned. This term is more distinctly anchored by the conversation, and as you read deeper into this page, you'll see how important the conversation is in custom or bespoken works, arrangements, and endeavors.
Just like the description above as to what constitutes a custom knife (or custom anything), it is very simple to determine what is not a custom knife.
If it is not made to order, it is not custom.
In the knife world, there are, literally, billions of knives. How many and what knives are custom are fairly limited, but if you read advertiser's copy, you might think that these billions of knives are all made to order! Since this is impossible (and a gross misrepresentation or lie), it may help to define what is and never will be a custom knife. That way, you can separate out the exaggerations, advertising hyperbole, and scams. These descriptions may seem harsh and rigid, but words mean things, and our existence depends on clear communication.
Here are knives that are not custom:
You'll see a clear trend in the list above. It seems that any knife that is offered for sale to the public is not a custom knife! Yes, you've got it!
Clearly, custom knives are knives made to order, so they would not, by definition, be offered for sale to the public. Any knife offered for sale to the public is made with only the input and direction of the person or business that makes it, and is not made to order.
Do I make knives that are not custom? Of course I do, and they are what I call inventory or creative works. They are made using my patterns, designs, and of the materials I choose the way I want to make them. I offer these for sale on the public part of this website. I try to make one creative or inventory knife for each custom knife I make, so that anyone visiting the web site may purchase the knife, and so that my own creative ideas flourish and grow, as well as the custom and individual ideas of my clients who order custom knives.
The important thing is that I never misidentify, misrepresent, or lie about the knife. If it is custom ordered, it says so on the description of the knife, If it is not a custom order, I do not claim it to be.
If a knife is claimed to be custom, and the word custom appears in the advertising for the knife, knife dealer, knife show, knife maker, or manufacturer, and it is for sale to the public, this is a gross misrepresentation; a lie.
Yes, shocking but true, and it happens all the time in the knife world. For example, I read on a knifemaker's site: "I have custom knives for sale." Does this mean that he sells knives that were made as custom for some other client and then offers them for sale? Does this mean that he accepts commissions for custom knives? Clearly, the statement is ambiguous at best, and deceptive at worst.
This, I believe, is the most troublesome and misleading thing any knife maker, boutique shop, semi-production shop, small or large manufacturer, supplier, show sponsor, club, or knife owner can do. Misrepresenting knives as custom when they are not does a great disservice to our community, trade, art, craft, and insults every one who is interested in knives, and it happens all the time. All you need to do is put the words "custom knives" into any search engine, and you'll immediately see dozens and dozens of sites misrepresenting their knives as custom. Thankfully, you'll also see true custom works offered by knife makers, but these are actually in a minority! Why would so many sources, sites, merchants, makers, and manufacturers misrepresent (lie) about the knives they sell?
When something is claimed to be custom, that means that the maker has an extremely high level of participation in the process. When you buy something "ready made," or "off the shelf," you simply take what is offered to everyone else. There is nothing wrong with that; most knife sales throughout history are completed as "off the shelf" purchases.
A custom work means that there is communication between the maker and the client, that the client or patron gets just what he wants, just as he wants it, with his ideas and guidance in the creation of the piece. Custom work can only be accomplished by a maker who has an extremely wide range and array of talents and skills, as each knife is different, and each project must receive dedicated and specific attention suited to just the one client who orders it. Custom work also indicates that the work is typically one-of-a-kind, an original and unique piece that may be of higher value than mass-produced works.
Because the word "custom" has such power and influence in our language, this is precisely why the word is stolen and misused to describe mass-produced or publicly offered knives. In no other trade is this word so badly misapplied, and it has been shocking to see it continue over the decades I've been a professional knife maker. It is a very peculiar aspect of this trade that I believe is not often discussed for several reasons:
Lying about custom knives is more about greed than anything else. Throwing in a word like custom is seen as just another insignificant little fudge of the facts, something done "because everyone else is doing it," something done to better the advertising copy to nudge a potential buyer their way.
Let's look at how this distinction plays out in different knife interests:
"Custom" means "made to order."
"Custom" means "made to order."
"Custom" means "made to order."
These comments illustrate to what ridiculous extremes people will go to claim that their work is custom. This needs to stop in our tradecraft and industry. Everybody wants to try to claim their work, their choice, their selection, and their knife is somehow better than others, and they use the word custom to do this. It's sloppy, it's lazy, it's illiterate, and it's wrong. Above all, unless a knife is made to order, calling it custom is a clear and purposeful lie.
Don't do it. If you are a maker, DO NOT LIE about the origin and creation of your work. Our trade is small enough that lying about important things like this is bound to catch up with you. Words mean things, and on the internet, what you write or say will live forever.
Just to review:
It's easy to see why the word custom has such importance in the knife making world. It is a powerful word, and people notice it. Misuse of the word will continue, mostly because those who use it incorrectly want to paint an improved image of the knives they are describing.
How you (who are reading this) use this adjective is your choice. You know the definition, you know why the word is mischaracterized and misused, and you know how to distinguish who is doing this and what their objective is. It's up to you.
Me? I'm just a dedicated semninumerologistical psycoevalutative statistician. Really! Doesn't that make me look better? After all, it's just a word, or two...
By now, you realize that since the word custom is so often misused, it may be hard to distinguish who makes custom knives and who is selling the word as an advertising and sales gimmick. Some simple understanding of how the custom knife process works should clarify that.
There are many individual knife makers who make and sell custom knives. If you are a client, knife user, knife buyer, or collector, you need to know who to contact so you don't waste your own precious time and get hoodwinked into buying a knife that is clearly not what you wanted. People who seek out specific custom knives have their reasons. They need something special, often unique, to suit a particular need or desire they have for the knife. For instance, a soldier in combat may need a piercing blade point, with aggressive serrations, in a particularly tough and hard stainless tool steel, with a handle that fits his hand while he wears gloves, and a sheath that can be worn in a variety of positions. A chef may need an elegant and thin blade, one for a special task in the kitchen, one that will not corrode, is razor keen, with a special shape and handle suited to his grip style. A collector may be looking for a cultural heritage piece suited to his ancestry, or he may want a knife that he has designed made of premium or extremely rare and valuable materials. All of these scenarios are common in my custom knife world.
Perhaps it would be best to first rule out where he will not find his custom knife.
Here's a simple test to see if a knife purveyor of any kind will make a custom knife for you: ask if you can have the handle shaped to your hand. Yep, that's it. Ask about any design they offer, and ask if they will contour, shape, size, arrange, and design a handle just to fit your own hand. When they tell you no, when they offer some universal design they are sure will work for you, it should be crystal clear that the are not a custom knife maker or supplier.
Ask any knife source if they will make a unique handle to fit your own hand. If they don't, they are not custom makers or suppliers.
From this, it's pretty clear that there really is only one source for a custom knife, and that is from the individual knife maker. Factories, large or small don't do it, dealers don't do it, shows and venues don't do it. The singular knife maker (or small collaborative shop) is the only place you can obtain a true custom knife, not a manufactured knife with options or a used knife that was someone else's custom work.
Now, how to tell if an individual knife maker can make your custom knife.
Ask any knife maker if they will make a unique handle to fit your own hand. If they don't, they are not a custom knife maker.
Yep, the same question; will you make a handle to fit my hand on any of your blades? When you ask this, you clear the path for your custom knife quest. If the maker tries to steer you to an existing design, pattern, or style, particularly one he has available for immediate sale, he is not a custom maker. This does not mean that you may not find the knife you're looking for currently available, but I'm assuming you've already looked those over. You need a custom knife, made to order. If he is a custom maker, he will be glad to consider your project.
We know why knife interests claim to make custom knives, and we know how to tell if a maker will make a custom knife project for your specific needs. This topic touches on the real reasons, goals, objectives, and limitations of making custom knives.
When I started making knives, I made some simple, crude, and really cheap knives. This is how a new maker bridges the gap in sales between him and other knife makers. He knows his work is rough; after all, he's a beginner. In order to sell the knives, he has to keep in mind their limitations and the market for the knives. If he sells them for cheap, he'll have enough sales to keep him going until he establishes his own momentum. In this trade, it takes about ten solid years before momentum is noticeable. If you are a new maker reading this, it's probably not what you want to hear, but it is a reality.
My first knife sold was a custom knife. Though I'd made some knives, gave away some knives, kept others, threw others in the trash, my first actual sale of a knife was a commission, a custom knife made for the karateka Master who ran the dojo I practiced in. He wanted it made a special way, with a special shape, in a certain size. This I did for him, and sold it for $30.00.
The experience of taking a custom order is unique. It requires a communication between someone who has a different idea than the knife maker, someone who has an entirely unique life, view, experience, and desires than the maker. This man was a wonder; he could do dozens of push ups in handstands and knock a 150 pound sand-core heavy bag to the ceiling with one kick. No, I wasn't scared into making a knife for him (not much, anyway!). I was deeply honored.
When you make a custom knife, you take in the ideas and experiences of the person who will hold the knife in their hand for decades after it leaves the maker. I look at it this way: since I cannot ever use, carry, and understand knives the way my clients do, I honor their contribution by listening to their ideas and input into their custom knives. This not only allows my creativity and skill to flourish and grow, it absolutely forces me to grow as an artist and craftsman.
If I limited myself to only the knives I'm comfortable making, there is a likelihood that my creative potential would stagnate. My business would be based on only the experiences I've had with knives which, while substantial, is not boundless. There may come a day when I will create only my own ideas, and many makers stubbornly cling to this creed. They claim to know best what knives a client needs, and are narrowly focused on their own ideas as to what constitutes a desirable knife. They may do well; they may not.
I do best with a focus that is broader: I make my creative works that allows my own ideas and execution to grow, while actively considering what my clients want as an exciting new challenge. Though they are the benefactor of the knife itself, I am enjoying the growth of creating and executing their projects. I then add their patterns, styles, material set, finishes, embellishment, and accessories to my record and website, offering their ideas to others, so that their options and creativity can also grow. Talk about win-win (and win)!
A successful man is he who receives a great deal from his fellowmen, usually incomparably more than corresponds to his service to them. The value of a man, however, should be seen in what he gives and not what he is able to receive.
For my own work, whether my creative and inventory pieces or my custom knives, the technical building of knives, is the same. I use the same great steels, the same accurate and superior grinds, the same finishes, fittings, and handle materials. I build the best knives possible no matter who they are built for, understanding that the final owner will cherish the piece and its workmanship for many decades. Simply put, there is no difference in quality between my creative works and my custom pieces. All are handmade; all are excellent.
The differences between creative, inventory, and custom knives that each custom knife maker performs depends on the maker, the client, and the project. Here are some things that makes a custom knife different, and potentially better than what may be currently available:
From this, it's easy to see why a custom knife may be the better option for the knife client, user, or collector.
Like every choice in life, the choice of a commissioning and making a custom knife has its limitations as well as its benefits. Otherwise, all knives would be custom. Here are some of the considerations:
These are the main limitations of the custom knife agreement and process. If a client and maker can overcome the time factor, the cost, and the style, the custom knife may be the only viable way for the client to get the knife he wants to own, and for the maker to make the knife (or knives) he wants to make.
Getting an overall scope of a maker's work and style is the key indicator here. I make a large variety of custom knives, from tactical combat models to working knives, from chef's sets to fine investment grade museum pieces. The best way to know what kind of custom knives I make is to look over this very web site and the thousands of photos I've included. If you like what you see, if you find yourself looking closer at particular models, styles, patterns, or materials, chances are good that I can make the custom knife you want. I often consider new and elaborate ideas; these make up some of the most exciting new projects. Take your time; the internet and this site is free and will be here as long as I am, perhaps longer!
Don't be too uncertain of your ideas about your custom knife project; contact the makers whose works interest you. I want you to get the knife you want, no matter who you commission for your project. Thankfully, you're on the internet, so you have more options for a custom knife than has ever existed in the history of mankind! Isn't that cool?
If you do commission a custom knife from me, I thank you in advance for your patience. You can see on my queue how many very fine people have done so and are patiently waiting for their custom knife projects. With each one, I take great attention to detail and the highest quality process and execution to provide them with exactly the knife they ordered and often more than they expect!
Every knife photo featured on this page was a custom knife order. About half of the knives you see posted on this site are also custom orders; I've been doing this a very long time. If you are interested in a fine handmade custom knife, email me and we'll discuss it!
Finally, if you've read this whole page, you now know more than most people alive about custom knives. I trust you won't be fooled by the hype, suckered into a hasty purchase, or confused about who actually makes custom knives. I trust you'll be able to get the knife you want, the way you want it. After all, a custom knife is made to order, just for you! Thanks for being here.
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