Jay Fisher - World Class Knifemaker

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"Last Chance" obverse side view in CTS-XHP high chromium stainless powder metal technology blade, 304 stainless steel bolsters, Lapis Lazuli gemstone handle, buffalo skin inlaid in hand-carved leather sheath
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Overview of the Modern Knife Maker

"Argiope" tactical art knife: 440C high chromium stainless steel blade, hand-engraved 304 stainless steel bolsters, Polvadera Jasper gemstone handle, ostrich leg skin inlaid in hand-carved leather sheath
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 fashionable or more 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 the 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!

I have been a professional full time knifemaker since 1988.

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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

Handmade
The saw, the waterjet, the conflict

It's interesting to see the confusion about the simple word handmade, and this has gone on for decades in our profession. People who buy fine knives obviously prefer handmade knives, since there really is no finely made and highly priced collector's grade factory or machine-made knife. There are no extremely finely made combat knives made by machine either, and that escapes most people who do not realize that there is a large demand for an extremely high quality tool and defensive weapon that is necessary in combat, counterterrorism, search and rescue, and emergency situations. It's common knowledge that the minute a particular operation is handed over to a machine, and taken from the control of the human hand, the product is less desirable and less valuable overall.

The reason for this is simple: a machine has very specific operations, and very specific and controlled functions, and has no ability to create, grow, advance, learn, and improve the product it creates. It simply repeats a function, over and over, usually at great speed. Because of this automation, machine-produced products are cheap. Creating cheap products means that they must be sold in great volumes, and since most of the world does not have significant money to spend on knives, the masses only buy cheap knives. Machine-made and machine-produced products are and will always flow in a downward fashion, when concerned with quality, price, and options.

Machines are created by man for many reasons, but let's just look at one: drudgery. When I think of the word drudgery, I think of a flock of sweaty, laboring women crouching at the edge of a stream, pounding clothes on rocks to wash them. The clothes are filthy because they belong to their men, who are sweaty and laboring in the fields, guiding a plow, bent over, pulling weeds, prying big rocks out of the earth so the crops to come will flourish. This was the plight of my ancestors here in this country, dating back to the Revolutionary War times. Most of my ancestors, when researched far back enough, were farmers, laboring, sweating, working, and suffering to stay alive. Most people can claim this.

This is the main reason machines were created, to make easier and faster the labor, particularly repetitive, monotonous, difficult labor like washing clothes and tilling soil. In knifemaking, one of the most laborious, laborious, wearisome, and repetitive operations is cutting out steel, or blanking. The reason is because even in the annealed and softened state, cutting must commence slowly, with some force and plenty of control, particularly in the higher alloy steel types. Since metal cutting bandsaws mostly cut straight lines, this is a particularly frustrating experience to produce highly curved forms. Do you then wonder why most knives are fairly straight pieces of flat metal bars? And the bolsters? Those little, thick, tenacious blocks of metal everyone wants to eliminate, simply because they are so difficult to produce. More about Bolsters here.

For knifemakers, sawing or blanking blades can become a wearisome issue. I've seen makers do just about anything to not have to saw out a blade, including employing plasma cutters, grind-profiling, water jetting, and even convincing their wives to push metal through their bandsaws (I'm not kidding)! Rather than approach the problem head-on, they want to make it easier, and that's understandable. They want to get to the fun stuff, the part of knifemaking that makes a bar of steel look like a knife, the grind, and the handle (mostly the handle, since wood, horn, bone, and plastic is far easier to work than metal). In the last decade, with the advancement and availability of the computer aided design (CAD) programs and computer aided machining (CAM) operations, would-be knifemakers can simply sit on their fluff at a computer monitor and mouse, click up a design (and call it "work") and then email their creation to a company that will cut out their blades with a water jet, and sent them the blanks.  I see this more and more in our trade, and it's easy to see why; it's simply easier. But as in this section on my "Heat Treating and Cryogenic Processing of Knife Blade Steel" page, easier and cheaper is not a good road to embark on, if the journey is to lead to a successful artistic and desirable knife profession.

When they have knives cut out with a water jet, they may be surprised to learn that they and their knives are not welcome at knife shows, and they can be looked down upon by other makers. There are a few distinct points to this.

  • The first is the word "custom" and it's misuse to describe a handmade knife show. This has been going on for decades, and it's not likely to stop, but there are no "custom" knife shows, even though they claim to be. Custom means made to order, and the knives at most of these shows are handmade. Usually, the word handmade conjures up images of folk craft: quilts, barn decor, furniture made from rough branches, and blue bottle trees. Seriously, put the term "blue bottle tree" into a search engine and look at the images; what an incredible fascination with this form and color! In any case, the word handmade is less desirable than the word custom in the public show venues, so custom is the standard misuse at these events. More about that on my Custom Knives page.
  • Handmade knives only. This has been ongoing for decades, and the concept is this: as more knife shows appeared in the 1980s, knifemakers in organizations (the Knifemakers Guild, the American Bladesmith Society, the Professional Knifemaker's Association) were confronted with more makers who were surrendering their operations (the creation of their knives) to machines. There were some pretty big-name makers doing this, and they would have bits, pieces, and components even farmed out to outside contractors while they did the assembly of the knives. These knives they then called "handmade" in order to qualify for shows. I know we had quite a huge split in the Knifemakers Guild about this classification and qualification at that time, as these essentially machine-made products were being called "handmade," in direct conflict with show rules and the direction of the organization. I'll go into this more in my book, but the members then demanded that at the very least, documents (certificates of origin) were required so that the method of knifemaking employed was disclosed to potential buyers of the knives presented at these shows. Even today, some shows require that operations of knifemaking be disclosed. Some of the shows prohibit knives for sale that are even partially made by machine control, and that includes water-jetting blades.
  • Machines and machine control: Some people get confused by this. Machines are used to make knives, nearly every knife you see has, at one time, been touched by a machine. Even guys who hand-forge are using machines: electric fan-driven forges, machine welders, power trip hammers, hydraulic presses, and grinding/sanding/finishing of at least one component of the knife ensemble. So, with very few exceptions, we are all using machines. The distinction is with machine control. When control of the machine: positioning, movement, indexing, motion, action, or any operation of the machine is controlled by a computer, it is no longer considered handmade. Holding a blade by hand against a grinder qualifies as handmade, because all of the grinding is directly controlled by human hands. Having a blade clamped to a tooling plate while a computer-controlled CNC (computer numerical control) machine moves a cutter against the blade is not handmade, even though a hand guided a computer mouse in clicking out the design. Neither handmade is a blade blank that is clamped against a table while a computer moves a water jet (high pressure water cutting device) around the periphery to create a blade blank. It's pretty easy to understand. If any part of the making of the knife is under the control of a computer or automated system, it's not entirely handmade.

When new makers are confronted with this, they are often upset. After all, the rest of the knife is handmade; why is it important how the blade is cut out? After all, it's only one operation, one step.

This illustrates the slippery slope of knife making method and disclosure. People want handmade items, hand crafted, hand-created, made one at a time by hand. This is where the higher value lies. Some new, inexperienced, or less aggressive makers want a shortcut. They want to go to a handmade knife show, but sell items that are not entirely handmade. The problem is that there is no stopping on this slope, and pretty soon, other machine operations are ignored, like grinding, tumble finishing, and component milling, and where exactly will this stop? Does a knife made 50% by machine under the control of a computer still qualify as handmade? 70%? 90%? This is the problem.

A knife that is handmade means a knife that the most critical steps are under direct control of the human hand. There will always be machines that we use to create or works, chemical processes to do the work for us, heat (and cold) automation in our process control. Some completely monotonous tasks (like surface grinding a bar of steel) are automated on purpose; they eliminate drudgery and aren't critically necessary to the final blade shape or geometry. This is why operations like surface grinding are sometimes performed at the steel supplier, even before he ships the steel. In heating and cooling, there is no hand on a big switch turning on and off the oven or cryogenic refrigeration system; we use automated controllers to do this. In our trade, handmade means designed, cut, blanked, milled, ground, heat treated, finish ground, fitted, handled, and (hopefully) sheathed using direct control of the maker's hand. Above all, the process should be clearly disclosed by the maker when asked by a client who will purchase the maker's work.

There is nothing wrong with automated blanking, but it should absolutely be disclosed to any interested client or buyer; it's their money. And the operators of knife show venues have the right to include or reject any knifemaker's works based on their classifications of how the knives are made. It is, after all, their show.

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"Korath" Tactical Combat Knife, obverse side view in ATS-34 high molybdenum stainless steel blade, 304 stainless steel bolsters, coyote/black G10 composite handle, hybrid tension-locking sheath with full accessory package
More about this "Korath" Counterterrorism Knife

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. These are knives designed with the input of and used by the some of the top counterterrorism teams in the world. 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 counterterrorism 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 priced 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. Add to this the advanced knife artist creates sculptural stands, fittings, and displays and you might find him sculpting in clay, wax, or other media and hand-casting the display sculpture in bronze. I do! 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 significant!

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
A simple, hand-operated three dimensional engraving and die-sinking 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.

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. In reality, hand-forged D2 is ruined steel. You may see some stainless steels hand-forged, and this is possible on the lower alloy types, but performance of these alloys are considerably limited, making one wonder why the are hand-forged in the first place. 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 main reason that these lower alloy types are hand-forged is because of a certain look, the look of pattern-welded damascus, a temper line (hamon line) and appearance only. These knife blades are created this way because it can be done in a fairly inexpensive method (no high temperature furnaces, cryogenic process equipment, or high accuracy tempering ovens are required), and the visual appeal only is the desired effect. This is the only reason (visual appeal) that I have and do use this technique and material for some blades, at the significant cost of lower performance.
  • The stock removal knife maker makes blades by cutting, shaping, grinding, drilling, machining, and milling stock steels, followed by heat treating (hardening and tempering) in controlled-atmosphere furnaces. This is followed by finishing steps. Generally, he does not hammer forge his blades, but some hand-forging may occur of fittings and accessories. The advantage of stock removal is tremendous. 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 in the world today. Heat treating is done in an oxygen-free or oxygen-reduced atmosphere in the high temperature  accurately controlled environment necessary to heat treat these steels. The maker can and should use cryogenic process and equipment to handle these steels, and follow heat treatment and cryogenic quenching and aging with deep cryogenic thermal cycling between tempers. Tempering is specifically controlled in a high-accuracy oven designed for a laboratory environment. The stock removal knife maker may 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, counterterrorism, and collecting 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? The techniques and materials are different, and the differences are significant due to the different steels available for use, and his control and utilization of the process, based on his experience. 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. After blade construction, 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

Too much modern?

When thinking about modern tools and technology in knifemaking, there is a natural progression from hand-forging low alloy carbon steels to machining high tech high alloy steels. The technology then focuses away from the handwork and onto the machine work. Because machines themselves are technological wonders, and new devices and operational methods are being developed all the time, the machine becomes such a central part of the work that, at some point, it overcomes the product!

This is true in many fields, and knifemaking is no exception. Take, for instance the belt grinder. It's a very simple machine, a motor driving a wheel that drives an abrasive belt around other wheels. The nuance of the machine is not in the wheel arrangement or accessories, it's in the hand of the guy that holds the blade against the abrasive. He controls what is happening via his bare  hands, thus, the machine enables speedy work of hand-grinding. Like all human endeavors, the idea pops up to make the entire affair, well, easier. After all, hand-grinding is hard work, and it doesn't always come out right. So the knifemaker may try jigs and rigs, and devices and contrivances designed to make the job of hand grinding easier, more predictable, and faster. In the decades I've been making, I've seen every type of device made to do this one simple step in hand-grinding, and as yet, not a one of them is worth the time it takes to bolt them on the tool rest.

The reason is simple. The human hand, when trained and skilled, can sense, adjust, and correct an incredible amount of geometries, angles, directions, pressures, an movements, all instantly. A jig simply holds a blade and allows it to be moved side to side. The jig cannot create a radiused hollow grind, cannot create varying angles and thicknesses along a curved blade length, and cannot accommodate a recurved hollow grind that is narrower than the belt. Worse still, a jig cannot create subtle differences in pressure, direction, and flow that allows ten steps of increased grit size for proper and accurate mirror polishing. This is why very few knives are mirror polished at all, and of those, fewer still maintain accurate geometry that is not destroyed by an overzealous buffing wheel.

Learning this stuff is hard. The guys that I teach in my studio can tell you just how difficult it is, and also how valuable this skill and its results are to a patron and client. Rather than study and train for years to achieve this result, craftsmen continually search for an easier way. The truth is, if it were easy, everybody would be doing it, and then it would have little value. But the search continues in an effort to shorten, quicken, and improve the work, and because we are enamored with the machine, we try to build and use more complex machinery to do this work.

The CNC machining center is a good example of this. The machine uses the logical commands programmed into a computer to establish a set of functions for the machine to execute in order, and the human hand has little to no contact in the operation. Machined parts can be cut, drilled, milled, ground, shaped, radiused, slotted, and created almost wholly under the changing turret of cutters. The advantage of this is tremendous speed and uniformity of operations, so the machine is well-suited to production. Naturally, knifemakers are all about production, so one of these sounds like a great solution.

If this were true, we artists and craftsmen would be out of business! But we are not, and there are some simple reasons that the answer is not always in the machine. It comes back to that human touch. The machine cannot apply this, no machine can. It is the union of the machine with that variable, adjustable sensitivity that allows microscopic tweaks of movement and pressure to create flowing, finished, and artful forms, forms that simply don't look like they were cut out by a machine. And that is really all you get with a CNC: forms cut out by a machine. The total piece then becomes an assembly of parts that all look like they are cut out by a machine, and because machines mass-produce, the value is low.

There is a type of consumer, however, that is more enamored with the process than the creation. He would rather describe to his friends the complexities of the computer-driven process and the big machining center that milled the knife than the knife itself. After all, it's flatly ground, squarely jimped, with all parallel surfaces, and a flat and lifeless surface, which wouldn't even be called a "finish." Some are step-milled, in a machine attempt to build a hollow grind that ends up looking more like a set of stair steps than a blade grind. Perhaps the blade is sprayed with paint and baked. Perhaps it has bolted-on handle scales with three simple rivets or screws down the centerline. And it may not even have a functional sheath. But the machine that made it... well, you just won't believe it; it's a magnificent work of technology!

I don't use the newest and fastest ultra-modern computer driven technology in my studio. This tech actually would limit what I do, because nothing can replicate the creations of the human hand, eye, and touch. If it did, I would be out of business! Since this shows not the slightest hint of happening, I can only surmise that the role of the human hand has not been supplanted.

In recent years, great advances have been made in machinery, particularly with  computer interfaces and control, and we all certainly hope that they can help us create a wider range of specialized items. But for now, the operations of a machine limit what can be done, they don't extend it, amplify it, or improve what can be done by skilled hands. And a knife made by a machine is less in value, appearance, and desire, than what is made by hand.

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"Ari B'Lilah" Tactical Combat Counterterrorism commemorative Knife, obverse side view in CPM154CM high Molybdenum Powder metal technology stainless steel blade, 304 stainless steel  bolsters, Sardius (Jasper) gemstone handle, tension-locking sheath of kydex, aluminum, stainless steel, 6AL4V titanium, ultimate belt loop extender
More about this Israeli Defense Force YAMAM Unit "Ari B'Lilah" counterterrorism knife

What is a Professional Knifemaker?

Seems simple, right? It's a knifemaker who does this as a profession, as his main, full-time source of income, officially, legally, and in a business environment, right?

I've read several online sources, discussions, and articles about "Professional" Knifemakers, and there seems to be a lot of confusion and misplaced descriptions about what constitutes a professional knifemaker. I'll get into the reason that this is a confused title and I hope that for the sake of the knife client, owner, patron, or customer that this section will help clear that up.

In this context, the word professional typically means that a professional knifemaker does this for a living, as a profession, and this is his main and central focus, way of earning a living, and is registered legally and officially by local, state, and through the federal IRS and governmental agencies as an occupation. A professional, then is a full time, occupational knifemaker.

A part-time knifemaker is not a professional knifemaker, nor is a hobbyist, amateur, or person who simply likes to make knives. There are all sorts of uses for the word professional, such as acting like a professional, having professional standards, or being in a profession. Perhaps this has confused the identity of the professional knifemaker, and frankly, everyone, from amateur hobbyist to part-time knifemaker wants to call himself a professional, because doing so paints his practices and skill as, well, professional! This is done for one reason, to portray a picture of one as better than they are, because it's assumed that a professional occupational knifemaker will have a greater understanding, knowledge, and skill as a craftsman, tradesman, artist, and business professional. But calling yourself a professional for these reasons is frankly disingenuous, inauthentic, and lacks integrity.

How to tell:

The person who claims to be a professional knifemaker would (by law in the United States) have these essential and critical items and traits:

  • A Federal EIN (Employer Identification Number) is absolutely required nowadays by every professional business; there simply is no way around this. If one is a hobbyist, part-time knifemaker, or amateur, the determinant factor is often this very number. This number means that the professional business files a Schedule C IRS form (Profit or Loss in a Business) and is federally registered, and regulated, indexed, and identified by the United States government.
  • A business license is typically required by the state in which the professional is located. This is critical to define, regulate, tax, and inspect any business, in any state. It defines the business and typically registers its name and location. It's also used to access tax information, filing, and other business essentials defined by the individual state. In our state, it requires us to collect state taxes on any in-state sales.
  • A business registration, accessible by local authorities and jurisdictions. This may vary somewhat, but usually any person doing any kind of business is required this. Cities, towns, and counties typically require this for any professional occupation, and it's fairly easy to look this up in the local business directories of those entities.
  • A certified, inspected, and unique business address and storefront is usually required by professional businesses. Certainly, when a part-time maker is working in his garage, this is not the case, but a part-time maker working in his garage is not a professional, either. While the part-time maker may be required by zoning and local laws to have a state business license or local business registration, there is a level of commitment that may be in question when a client considers the environment where a knife is made. Without a professional business address and storefront, the official entities (Local, State, Federal) can and do question whether this is a hobby, an interest, or a profession. Some professionals work from home, but rarely does a home contain a professionally outfitted, full time knifemaking shop or studio.
  • Full time employment as the main source of income is the determinant factor that most official entities use to certify, regulate, and classify a professional. Since there is no standard of education or certification for what constitutes a professional knifemaker, the full time employment distinction is essential for official and legal identification. While it may be a difficult issue for the client to determine, it's clear to federal, state, and local authorities where the knifemaker's money comes from, how much of it he makes, spends, and invests in knifemaking, and this is what makes these legal authorities license, accept, and classify the business. It is a business, and sooner or later, the professional business aspect will be clarified, after all, it's the law.

Other related items not necessarily required but important to the knife client, patron, or customer that accompany a professional business are:

  • Visitation by the client. If people are not allowed to visit the studio or shop because the location is residential (typical in part-time knifemaking), this also suggests the non-professional, non-occupational method of knifemaking. Visitation may be tightly controlled or restricted (mine is, conforming to local laws), at least the client knows exactly where (and how) his knife or knives are made.
  • A business and professional bank account is necessary so that business related transactions are conducted separate from personal accounts. Bank transfers, credit cards, payment methods and other business transactions are conducted in the scope of dedicated professional means. This goes hand-in-hand with the Federal registration and business codes require above, and reassures the client that the professional business is on good foundation with an established financial institution.
  • A functional, detailed website is absolutely critical in today's professional business world. I've stated before that most professionals will have this curriculum vitae available, and today's method is through the internet. Curriculum Vitae means "a brief account of a person's education, qualifications, and previous experience, typically sent with a job application." You may not think this applies, but consider that if you are going to buy a knife, you will be employing the individual knifemaker, and therefore, your contract together is an agreement that the knifemaker works for you. Every knife made and sold is a job application. If I, as a singular professional knifemaker can provide hundreds of pages of detailed, researched text, tens of thousands of photos of made and sold knives, hundreds of testimonials of satisfied customers on this very website, there is no reason that any other knifemaker who calls himself a professional can not and will not offer this insight into his professional business. Maybe other professional makers aren't able to offer this type of illustration, but let's cut this down to 10% of what I do. With only 10% of what you see here, that would mean a professional knifemaker's website will have at least 50 pages of related data and about 700 unique, original photographs. Again, this is not a requirement, just an indicator of the professional standing of the knifemaker being considered by the client.

There is a lot more to this, and I'll go into it in great detail in my book, but guys will take the name "professional" and interpret it to mean something else that justifies the title for themselves, and this can be quite humorous. I've seen discussions that claim that if the maker can grind a bevel (technically called a grind or hollow grind), fit a handle, dovetail a bolster, and tightly fit a guard, he can call himself a professional. I've also seen it written that if he buys 50 sheets of sandpaper at a time, he's a professional. I laugh at the claim that if a knifemaker has a bathroom in his shop, he's a professional. I hope these are seen as "trying to make knives in a professional way," and not the statement that these simple comparisons are what constitutes a full time professional occupational knifemaker.

A professional knifemaker is one whose main or sole source of income is making knives and their related accessories. He is registered and accounted for by Federal, State, and Local authorities, has a professional business storefront, and an easily accessible reference to his works, method, and business practices for whatever time he's been making.

Patience, willingness to learn, and dedication alone do not make a professional.

Full time employment, scope and detail of applied knowledge, specific legal requirements, and clear record of achievement and experience make the professional knifemaker.

Conduct is the determinant factor.

Nature has made occupation a necessity to us; society makes it a duty; habit may make it a pleasure.

--Edward Capell
1713-1781

More about what constitutes a professional and the standards associated with this declaration on my Business of Knifemaking page at this bookmark.

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"Antheia" custom knife sculpture; chef's knife set in 440C high chromium stainless steel blades, hand-engraved 304 stainless steel bolsters, handles of Thulite, Blue Willow Sodalite, California Nephrite Jade, Australian Black Jade gemstones, stand of hand-cast bronze, pecan hardwood, Black Midnight granite
More about the "Antheia" Chef's Set

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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