Every big box store, sporting goods outlet and woodsman catalog is filled with legions of factory made knives. With that being said, there is nothing wrong with a well-crafted stock blade, but there is a certain masculine elegance in a custom knife. The only problem is that there are some great ones that can be had for $100 or less, while conversely it is possible to buy a terrible one for ten times that amount. Here’s some tips to help pick towards the better end of the spectrum.
Before looking for your new masterly formed edged tool, ask yourself what you want to gain from your knife. If you want something for field use while camping, then a half-tang knife with a fine bone handle and a needle point is probably a bad idea. Do some research into different blade styles and figure out if you would want, say a sheepsfoot blade because you intend to use the knife for slicing, or a trailing point shape for skinning. Then figure out your optimal size for the task at hand. Do you really want a thick Bowie-style blade with a 7-inch length if the knife will most likely be just used to slice the occasional apple?
Recognize what the different options are for the steel used in your blade as well as the material in your handles. There are several grades of carbon steel, which is easier to sharpen, but are often softer and quick to rust or corrode with spots over time. Then stainless steel, which uses high amounts of chromium, is generally harder to sharpen– especially if they are mixed with exotic metals such as vanadium. Repurposed steel can also be a wild card. For instance, many beginning knife makers heat and hammer old railroad spikes to form custom knifes. Beware that the metallurgy on these steels are tricky and these blades are more novelty than function.
Blade handles can range from exotic woods such as olive and teak to man-made carbon fibers. Remember that wood handles can expand and shrink during seasonal changes and can warp if wet, which can be disastrous if intended for use by an angler.
Think even, solid, and honest when inspecting a custom knife. Of course, some irregularities add character to the blade but glaring unevenness in blade polish, handle fitting, or edge sharpness are red flags. The blade likewise should be even overall in thickness through the handle with some thinning allowed in the blade depending on shape. With that being said, should your blade have odd inconsistencies in width, this could lead to weak spots. This is especially true with Damascus steels. Finally, shake the knife and if you feel or see a rattle, that’s a problem. This means there is either an incorrectly sized bolster or pommel, or worse.
How to find a custom knife maker
There are literally thousands of skilled custom blade crafters in the country. While not all are created equal, it can be a challenge to find a standout one. The American Bladesmith Society places strict requirements for membership in their guild and maintains a list of both journeyman and master knife makers. Another good source of makers is Burls who has an extensive directory on their site.
Once you narrow your list, check around for those who have ordered blades from them. If you can’t find much information, don’t take that as a bad sign as people usually only take to the internet forums to slam a knife rather than celebrate its merits. Also, pay close attention to any negative reviews you do find and try to ask for yourself if the fault is due to how the owner may have misused the knife rather than faults in craftsmanship.
Bottom line is do your research, get what you want, and don’t settle for something you don’t.