Knife Maker's Mark for Jay Fisher Knives

Jay Fisher - World Class Knifemaker


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Overview of the Modern Knife Maker

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Modern Knife Making by Individuals

This page offers an overview of the modern singular knife maker. This page does not discuss factories, boutique shops, or other ventures where groups of people, corporations, or businesses employing more than one individual manufacture knives. This is about the individual modern knife maker and the terms, type of work, techniques, scope of business, and direction of art that modern knife making offers for the individual craftsman and artist.


The Modern Knife Maker Defined

The modern knife maker makes knives, of course. There is, unfortunately, no more specific and elegant term for the person who makes knives. When the term knifemaker is used in contemporary times, it usually refers to an individual, working in a shop or studio, creating knives, daggers, swords, or other edged tools and weapons from raw materials. The term knifemaker is a neologism, a new word that means so much more than the word knife and maker do separately. There are many types of knifemaker (sometimes casually referred to as a maker), and the maker's level of involvement varies. The first distinction is that level of involvement.

  • Hobbyist: People often start out making knives as a hobby. They may purchase kits to finish and assemble, may be given old knives to repair or refurbish, or may make knives from found materials like steel scrap or wood cutoffs. They may work with a minimum amount of tools, sometimes in a small shop or garage (hence the term garage-maker) and enjoy the interest of knife making. This is how I started making knives in 1978-9: as a hobby. My first knives were given away.
  • Part-time knife maker: Part-time makers are usually more serious than hobbyist makers, and are actively selling what they make. Knife making is not their main vocation though, and they derive income from another source, job, or retirement, which often is essential to furthering their part-time knife making. Incidentally, these are most of the knifemakers you may encounter on the Internet, at shows and exhibitions, and in publications. They may work in a small or large shop with minimal equipment or large investments of complex machinery, depending on the type of knife they make and sell. They may spend only a moderate amount of time making knives, or may be deeply involved investing huge amounts of time, up to as much time as a full time job. I was a part time knifemaker for about 8 years, before I went full time.
  • Professional Knife Maker: Also called full time knifemakers, this defines knife makers that have chosen the field of knife making as their job or vocation. Their level of involvement is extremely high, and as professionals they derive their main income from making and selling knives. They must have a well-equipped, professional shop or studio, often have an active and viable business store front in their community, and vigorously participate in the business of making and selling knives year after year. This is what I am now, and have been since 1988. I take my profession seriously, and it is how I derive all of my income for my family and myself. This is my regular job, and I love it!

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Hollow grinding a sword blade offhand in high chromium martensitic high alloy tool steel

Knife Making Distinctions

There are several specific distinctions that describe how the modern knife is made that are important: handmade or custom, and other terms that are more general.

  • A handmade knife is generally described as a knife that is made offhand. What this means in detail is that human hands must be in control of all the functions of knife making, like holding the hammer that forges the knife, holding the blade against the grinder, guiding the drilling, milling, and shaping by direct control of the hand. What this term excludes is any activity that is automated, where the blade or component is clamped in a fixture and an automated machine, such as a computer numerically controlled milling machine (CNC mill) automatically cuts, shapes, and forms the component. The advantage to handmade knives is that subtle nuances of control in the machining and finishing can occur, leading to a much more desirable and often better made product. There is a reason you don't see finely finished knives coming out of a computer automated device. I go into that in greater detail in my upcoming book.
  • A custom knife by exact definition is a knife made to a customer's order. These are knives that are commissioned by clients with specific features and details and are created by the knife maker for that client. While a knife may be handmade and custom, a knife that is not specifically ordered for a specific client may be handmade, but is not custom. There is a lot of lax usage of the word custom on the Internet, in discussions, and in publications. There are even major knife shows that have the word custom in their name, yet the participants in the show do not sell custom knives, but knives made and created to sell to the public at large, in essence, inventory knives. The only way these shows could be called custom is if the knives at the show are ordered by and made individually unique for each client coming to the show. Why would these interests hijack the word? I believe this is because the word custom denotes a higher level of participative quality. If a knife maker makes custom knives, that means he is capable of a wide variety of process and a high level of skill, in that clients seek him out and offer direct commissions, whereas a non-custom maker simply makes and sells knives made by his own design. Read more about the custom knife description on my Custom Knives Page
  • Other terms are varied and non-specific like bench made which is a term that once was used to denote a knife that is made on a tool bench and not by automated process, though that can be vague description. Are knives made on a tool bench simply assembled from components manufactured overseas? Because the term is associated with a knife factory, the term has fallen out of favor and has lost meaning in the modern knife world, and is best avoided altogether. Other terms prevalent in this industry are boutique shop, custom shop, production facility. What do you call a knife made in a small factory or by a group of people in a boutique shop, small factory, or manufacturer? Why a factory knife or manufactured knife, of course, because that is what it is. It is not custom, not handmade, and not unique or original but a mass produced and manufactured product. The reason for these curious names for knife manufacturers is one of advertising only. More information about this topic on my Business of Knifemaking at this bookmark.

Please remember that there is no right or wrong way to make a knife, only different methods. The source of the knife should clearly and easily define how the knives are made, where the components come from, and who supplies them as well as the processes used and their origin, and the alloys and components of construction that are recognized by official entities like the AISI (American Iron and Steel Institute), ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers), and SAE (Society for Automotive Engineers).

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Gas tungsten arc welding in high tech modern art studio and machine shop

Who buys handmade or custom knives?

You might be surprised at who purchases custom and handmade knives. Just like any other modern interest, there are varying levels of involvement and interest in the modern knife client.

  • Knife enthusiasts are simply people who are interested in knives. That includes a tremendous cross section of humanity as every human, sooner or later, will use a knife. Knives elicit a visceral response from nearly every human; in every culture they are recognized for what they are and what they can do. You could not say that about a fork, a car key, a trivet, or an MP3 player. Knives are universally known and accepted. This doesn't mean that they are accepted with positive reactions, and I talk about those trends in my book. What it means is that the level of interest in owning fine knives is widespread, and spans cultures, time, and nations. People may become enthusiasts if they simply own one good knife, but most have more than one. Anyone who is reading this with interest is probably a knife enthusiast.
  • Professional knife users are people who must use a knife in their trade or occupation. This could mean a packer on the line in a slaughtering plant, but that type of knife is cheap and you won't find any fine custom knives at a butcher shop (unless he's a very accomplished butcher). You will, however, find fine and sometimes custom handmade knives in the hands of a fine chef. You will see well-made knives in the hands of professional hunting guides and outdoorsmen. You may find professional knives in the hands of police, SWAT teams, Emergency Response teams, firefighters, first responders, and Paramedics. Most significantly for guys like me who make combat knives, you'll find handmade and custom knives in the hands of military professionals, infantrymen, federal officers, police, and combat soldiers. Professionally made knives are used by combat search and rescue (USAF Pararescue), survival specialists (SERE), Special Forces, Navy SEAL Team members, Special Operations, Marines, and Explosives Ordinance Disposal technicians. Knives used in these fields must excel in performance, construction, wear characteristics, and accessibility as lives can depend on their performance. One of my greatest honors is making knives for some of the top counterterrorism units in the world, lives that can literally mean life and death in their wear, design, construction, and use.
  • Collectors are a special group of people who collect knives because of their interest, the value, and long term investment potential of the knife. Well-made knives by world-class knife makers appreciate in value over time, and most other knives do not. It is not just the increase in monetary value of the knives that make them suitable for collection; collectors collect knives because they love them. You can see why on the many testimonials on this site. The type of knife, the style of a particular maker, a personal interest, or an appreciation of fine knife design and craftsmanship are all building blocks for a knife collector's interest. His interest may be in only a single example from many different makers, a particular style of knife, or a long term association with an individual artist who makes the kind of knife that he likes. As his interest grows and the maker matures, quite a collection can be amassed and the maker may develop a substantial following among specific collectors.

Through the interest, support, and patronage of knife enthusiasts, knife using professionals, and knife collectors, a maker can continue to produce and grow over the years, improving his knives, his skills, and his business.

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Hand-engraving cast bronze pommel made in-house

Value Distinctions

When I started making knives, one could buy the best factory knife made for under $100.00. So most knife makers started their work at $100 and the prices went up from there. Now, there are some factory knives that are price at several times that. The reasons that custom and handmade knives are more valuable than factory knives is usually clear when the knives are put side by side and compared. For an in depth discussion of the distinctions between factory and handmade knives, I've created a substantial page.

  • Materials: though you may read many claims about the superiority of particular knife materials on the Internet and in publications, the materials are not the foundation of the cost and value of a fine handmade knife when compared to a factory knife or a poorly made knife. The reasons companies and individuals tout their product materials as superior to others is typically merely an advertising ploy. Though cheap foreign imported knives are often made of inferior steels, other metals, and handle materials, many factories and boutique shops use good steels in their blades and durable handle materials, yet their knives do not rate of higher value or investment grade due to many other important factors. Today, our civilization creates and has access to the finest steels and materials that have ever existed, and because of information technology, knowledge about the proper application and use of these materials is easily obtainable. Though some materials used may be rare and expensive and may add to the base price of a handmade knife, they, alone, are not the determinant factor in knife value. What are these factors? Read about these distinctions on a special page here.
  • Patterns: Countless patterns of knives, daggers, and swords have existed throughout mankind's history. Any search of textbooks, historical sources, or on the Internet will yield many thousands of patterns. At first, a new pattern may seem novel and unique, but this is rarely the case. It is not simply the knife pattern that differentiates value in knives, though it can play an important role. Read more about patterns, designs, and copyright issues on my Business of Knife making page at this bookmark.
  • Fit, Finish, Design, Balance, Accessories, and Service are the six defining points that usually separate fine handmade knives in value from mass produced, factory, or poorly made knives. I go into these points in great detail on a special page.

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Hand-making military combat grade stainless steel locksheath spring retaining plates at Enchanted Spirits Studio

Understanding Knifemaking Skills and Applications

A great deal of knifemaking is understanding the relationship, manipulation, combination, working, and finishing of a great variety of materials. You could say that knifemaking is perhaps the most wide ranging materials craft known. If you don't believe this, lets do some simple comparison:

  • A jeweler works in precious metals, and so does the knifemaker. But the jeweler does not work in wear resistant, high strength tool alloys, and no jewelry is meant to be a working tool. Rarely do jewelers work in woods, even less so leather, and jewelry is relatively small in size and not really expected to perform (apart from buckles). While a jeweler may work with stone, rarely does he work with any stone large enough for a knife handle, case, box, sculptural stand component, or base.
  • A carpenter or cabinetmaker works with hardwoods and joinery, shaping and finishing, and may rarely work in supportive metal structures. But he does  not typically work in tool steels, super exotic woods that can only be acquired by the inch,  and he doesn't work with any leather, plastics, or manmade materials.
  • A shoemaker works with leathers, but does not work with hardened high alloy metals, engraving, or metals machining.
  • A machinist works with tool steels, but does not work with leathers, woods, or embellishment.

II could go on and on, examining and comparing the materials sets of various art and craft processes, and it's easy to see that a painter, ceramics artist, photographer, woodcarver, clothing designer, sculptor, and graphics artist all have a bit of the knifemaker's trade in them, but the knifemaker, the truly dedicated knifemaker, has some of all of their skills in his toolkit. To give you an idea of how this all works, consider this:

  • Programming, IT, Computer Technology: as a knifemaker, I start with a functional coded, website, and actively use computer technology for conversation, research, illustration, and completion of all of the aspects of the public part of my business. What you are reading right now is coded, by hand, in XHTML markup language by hand. While I've removed the more complicated parts of the coding, PHP and MySQL, computer science plays a big role in what I do.
  • Photography: If you are like me, you take every single photograph of your knives, archive them, arrange them, present them to the public for inspection and record. This also includes shop photos, process photos, and even photos to record arrangements of tooling so I know how to repeat a particularly difficult setup in the machinery.
  • Drawing, Painting: all good projects start with drawings; drawings compose the subtle nuances of blade design, fittings arrangement and are the basis for all stands, cases, and displays. They are also the basis of all embellishment, engraving, detailing, carving, etching, and designing. Painting is done in my trade with micro-brushes and leather dye, in gentle layers of toning, density, color, and saturation for a special appearance on sheaths, stands, or cases.
  • Toolmaking and tool steels are obvious players in the knifemaker's toolkit, and he needs them not only to make his blades, but also to cut them, mill them, drill them, and shape them. A machinist is a major job requirement of the successful knifemaker.
  • Woodworking is a major player not only in knife handle construction, but also in blocks, stands, cases, and displays. Understanding how wood works, moves, shapes, and finishes is critical because rarely is one single wood type used in these projects; I remember one of them I made that had ten different species of wood in the finished product.
  • Leatherworking is an obvious skill set that makers like myself who make their own sheaths must excel in. This is not a decorative belt or handbag project; these are heavy duty holders for razor keen implements that must protect the wearer with logical and sturdy design, hardened construction, and striking beauty. In addition to cow hide, the successful leatherworker in sheaths must understand exotic skins and how to use them. Carving, tooling, and hand-dying are also necessary skills.
  • Manmade materials craftsmanship and applications are critical to understand in the knifemaking world. Loosely called plastics, these materials comprise modern polymers, phenolics, polyesters, and poly-epoxide thermosets as well as pressure stabilized hardwoods and organic materials. Handles can be constructed of the most durable of these materials, and sheaths, fittings, and accoutrements require their use along with metallic hardware and an understanding of how the two combine and interact in the entire assembly. Textile applications of nylon, polyester, polypropylene, and even Teflon are required in military combat gear.
  • Lapidary is a rare application, but in my distinct tradecraft, it is a major player in the completion of my projects. Lapidary requires a very wide skill set, as rock, stone, and minerals are some of the most tenacious and labor intensive materials to work and finish.
  • Chemistry is not often considered part of knifemaking, but it plays a heavy role in the versatile knife studio. Etching, plating, soldering, anodizing, passivizing, bluing, and chemical staining are essential processes to understand and effectively apply in modern knifemaking.
  • Sculpture is seldom considered as knifemaking, but this is really the essence of knives, as they are three dimensional objects. The knife doesn't just need to look good sitting there, it must be held, be comfortable, even inviting to the human hand, while being beautiful and unique. All this while performing the sometimes forceful task of cutting, ripping, and carving. I know of no other objects made by man that fit this profile!

Wow! Who knew there was so much to being a knifemaker? Add to this the essential skills that go on behind the knife; machine tool construction and repair, electrical repair, maintenance, and invention, HVAC, safety process, jig and fixture component construction, and all of the typical things it takes to run a business, finance, and accounting, and the skill set can be signficant!

This is why I love this job. Always something new, always a challenge, and always a thankful reward for the most important thing applied to any work of fine craft or art: labor of the artist's hands guided by the brain God was kind enough to supply.

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Hand-operated three-dimensional pantographic die sinking and engraving milling machine

Blade Smith or Stock Removal

It is the material that determines the maker's methods and techniques; the most refined materials require the most specific and controlled methods. Lesser materials can be handled with casual attention.

--Jay

What is the difference between a blade smith and a stock removal knife maker?

The fact that a knifemaker is hammering out red hot metal on an anvil indicates he is using an inferior, low alloy tool steel.

The highest quality blades with the highest performance cannot be hand-forged.

People who buy the idea that a hammered blade is somehow superior to high alloy tool steels are buying the image, not the reality.

The two names below describe how the knife maker makes the knife blade. Though I've hand-forged knife blades in the past, I currently make by the stock removal method because it allows me a higher quality, better performing, and greater range of high alloy tool steels.

  • The blade smith (or Bladesmith) uses time-honored techniques of hammer and anvil, and forges a blade using heat in an open-air forge and process. In this day, he may use power hammers, gas forges, and modern methods and techniques, but his blades are hammered out of stock, or heat-forged and welded from various steels. He is not usually limited to size and shape of his blades, but is limited in the types of steel he uses. He can only use low alloy steels and plain carbon steels. High alloy tool steels, martensitic stainless steels, and steels that have high critical temperatures are not hand-forged, because they can not be exposed to free oxygen during temperatures at which they can be forged or decarburization will occur, drastically effecting the steel make-up, internal stresses, and thus performance. Also, open air forging furnaces are not capable of maintaining the extremely high temperatures at which forging of these high alloy steels could occur. Most of the high alloy tool steels can not be hand-forged, so you will not see them offered by blade smiths. What you will see are plain carbon steels like 1025, 1095, and 5160. You'll occasionally see steels like D2, but if this steel is hand-forged in open air, significant decarburization will have occurred, severely affecting performance. The low alloy carbon steels have severe limitations of wear resistance, corrosion resistance, and tensile strength, but because they are easily forged, forgiving of error, and cheap, many blade smiths use them.
  • The stock removal knife maker makes blades by cutting, shaping, grinding, drilling, milling stock steels, followed by heat treating (hardening and tempering) in controlled-atmosphere furnaces. Generally, he does not forge his blades, but some forging may occur of fittings and accessories. The advantage of stock removal is that high alloy, exotic, and refined modern tool steels can be used to make his blades, and these are some of the finest alloys and metals available. Heat treating is done in an oxygen-free or oxygen-reduced atmosphere in the high temperature controlled environment necessary to heat treat these steels. The stock removal knife maker can be limited by the size and shape of the stock he uses, but nowadays, this does not have to hinder his creativity. For example, I use a high tech GTAW welder to create the pieces I need out of very large or wide stock when necessary, and the technology of the welder, the alloys, and the heat treating process yields an isotropic, uniform blade of monolithic high alloy tool steel. Most of my military, professional, and collector clients request these fine steels, because they are far superior to plain carbon steels in wear resistance, tensile strength, and corrosion resistance. They are, simply put, the best steels made. More at this bookmark on the Blades page.
  • Which is preferred? There is no technique that is better, only different, though the differences are significant. Each knife maker must prove his qualifications and ability with each individual knife depending on components used and the six distinctions I listed in the previous topic. Each type of knife making has its following, its purists, its enthusiasts and its opponents. I have good friends in both camps, each has a respect for each other's abilities and skills. Often, each type of maker may cross over in techniques of blade creation. No matter how the blade is created, it's important that the knife maker make his own blades, that they are not farmed out or bought from suppliers or as kits. Otherwise, he is not a knife maker, but a knife assembler.
  • Definitions: It is interesting to note that the definition of forging is to form by heating and hammering. It is also defined by shaping metal by mechanical or hydraulic press. Another definition is to form, shape, or produce in any way. So when a factory claims that its blades are forged, it may simply mean that they are stamped out on a die press, which is, technically, not a lie. Shaping metal by mechanical means could also define drilling a hole in a piece of metal, so that, too, could be called forging. Please think about this when you read advertising copy or vague descriptions of process. This is in every standard dictionary.
  • Differences: No matter the method of the initial creation of the blade, the blade must be ground, drilled, machined, and finished in high quality works. Also, bolsters, guards, handles and sheaths must be constructed, and embellishment in finer pieces must happen. Both the blade smith and the stock removal knife maker have more in common than in difference.

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Hand-engraved, handmade stainless steel components, chape detail in 304 stainless steel in "Desert Wind" Persian dagger at Enchanted Spirits Studio

Directions

Modern knife making has progressed dramatically in the decades I've been involved. Steels have improved, as have abrasives, computers, adhesives, and communication which allows you to see the many knives available and read plenty of information on this topic by guys like me who do this for a living. This very site is a service that I had not envisioned as useful or available when I started seriously making in the early '80s. It is now not only essential for my business, but also my sole business attribute. I no longer take dangerous and arduous trips to shows and exhibitions; I create my own knife show on this very website. Communications and web technology allows me access to new materials, design ideas, process information, and suppliers. It is the new medium of knife making. Where else can over two million people see my knives in the course of a month? It's a fascinating and exciting field, and I'm proud to be a part!

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"Malaka" obverse side view: 440C high chromium stainless steel blade, hand-engraved 304 stainless steel bolsters, Cabernet Jasper gemstone handle, black stingray skin inlaid in hand-carved leather sheath

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My Family       Knife Handles: Horn, Bone, Ivory  
What I Do And Don't Do       Knife Handles: Manmade Materials  
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Letters and Emails       Knife Maker's Marks  
Funny Letters and Emails, Pg. 1       How to Care for Custom Knives  
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Funny Letters and Emails, Pg. 3       Larger Monitors and Knife Photos  
Funny Letters and Emails, Pg. 4 Copyright and Knives
Funny Letters and Emails, Pg. 5       440C: A Love/Hate Affair  
        ATS-34: Chrome/Moly Tough  
        D2: Wear Resistance King  
        O1: Oil Hardened Blued Beauty