Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What Makes A Custom Knife “Good”?

What Makes A Custom Knife “Good”?

This is part of a post taken from the Don Fogg forum. Since I haven’t posted here in a while, I though I’d expand upon it for my own use.

Right now I am working on the pieces for my Mastersmith stamp. Actually, I am working on the pieces the will be the foundation of my MS pieces. None of the stuff on my bench currently will be part of MS suite (I don’t think), but they are intended to teach me the things I need to know to make those piece, if that makes sense.

So if you , my presumptive reader, are looking at a custom knife, what should you be looking for?

Let’s start with a knife you have, if it’s a production piece, so much the better. I have a ‘60’s era Old Timer folder on the desk as an example.

Are the spine and handle back straight and in line. Mostly this is true and the few times when it's not are special cases
(like the Bowie #1 http://www.historicarkansas.org/collections/knives.aspx?id=56 ).
In the example on my desk the spine of the blade rises to a point and then dips down to a clipped point. It’s a style, but not one I particularly like. When you are looking at the knife, there is a slight jarring of the eye as it traces the profile. At a show, or in a picture those small things make the difference of a potential customer passing a piece by, or stopping to take a better look.

Ideally, I think a piece should “flow” from the handle, through the body of the piece, to the tip of the blade. Looking at a piece you should not encounter places where your eye catches or hangs up. This is not say that some parts (like a damascus blade) shouldn’t catch your eye, but the overall look should be clean and attractive, unless the maker is going for that “Made in Mordor” look.

Do the lower line of the of the handle and the lower edge of the blade, be it edge, ricasso, or what have you, match up? If your eye tracks along the line of the blade to the handle without a break, the piece seems harmonious and balanced. Again, there are special cases, often larger pieces break this “rule”.

Sight down the length of the knife. Is the handle proportional and symmetrical? Does the handle twist, or have more mass on one side? Is the blade in line with the handle, or does it kink to one side? These are signs of some lack of proper design. On my Old Timer, for instance, the blade kinks to the left slightly, and the liner lock makes the blade sit off to one side, there is a double brass liner on the right side. On my example the blade does not sit straight when it’s closed, either. On a custom folder that is one thing you should see, the closed blade sitting square in the handle.

Let’s look at the handle. Do you see scratches, dips, bumps, an uneven level of finish? Those detract from the piece. On my Old Timer there are some signs of honest wear, those are not a problem on a vintage piece. However, there are three pins holding the scales on. One has a spun head and the other two are ground flush. That looks bad. On a custom piece, you’d expect a consistent look.

There is a shield on the scale that says Old Timer, it’s a nice touch. However, with the blade closed and the piece sitting on the table, the logo is upside down. What’s more, the shield sits just proud of the surface, so the edge of it catches on your hand. This is typical of a production piece, but on a custom you should expect to see a much greater attention to detail.

Are there gaps in the fit of the handle and bolsters? A custom piece should be near perfect. On a production piece, not so much. My Old Timer is pretty good. You don’t want to see epoxy filling gaps, or worse, light through places where the fit should be tight.

Have a close look at the guard or bolsters. I have to take my glasses off to see at this level. You don’t need a magnifier, but you want an eyeball level, tight, even fit and finish. Is the guard side to side even? Are the bolster edges even where they hit the tang? These are signs of care and skill.

Let’s look at the blade. On a production knife you may see what is sometimes referred to as “deeply scratched and finely polished”. I won’t mention a name here, but it begins with a “B”. You should not see this on a custom knife. The level of polish depends on the desires and skills of the maker. Some of us like a hand rubbed finish (me for instance) some prefer a mirror finish, but you shouldn’t see scratches, uneven surfaces, fishhooks, or that kind of stuff.

Look the plunge cuts, are they at the same level of polish as the rest of the blade? Are they even and the same shape? On my OT, they are not even, not symmetrical, and not the same shape. On a custom they should be eyeball perfect, or nearly so.

Look down the blade from the tip. It should be straight and symmetrical. Again, my OT is not. That could be the manufacture, or it could be a previous owner doing a bad job sharpening it. On a new blade, particularly a custom blade, you should not see this kind of problem. Most hand makers have to fight their natural right/left tendencies. You tend to grind differently on each side. A skilled craftsman knows this and figures out how to compensate.

Are the handle and blade balanced and proportional? I built a clip point utility a while back and I was trying to get a particular look in the handle. By the time I was done the handle was too small, both visually and in terms of feel. The blade was very point heavy and it was always trying to fall out of your hand.

The width of the blade is a strange thing. A big chopper, or a chefs knife, can have a big wide blade and it looks fine. Shorten that by a couple of inches and it starts to look "hatchety". Some times taking an 1/8th or less out of the width of a blade changes it a lot. I have a dagger I'm working on right now, (in fact, daggers are ALL that I'm working on right now, and I'm getting sick of them ). I think that the blade is too short, either that or the blade is too wide. If you took an 1/8th off of each side, I think it would change everything. In this case, I'm stuck with it as is, too much damascus involved to be grinding it down.

Sometimes the handles are too long. Most new makers have problems with this aspect of their work. It’s another place where a 1/4 of an inch can make all of the difference. For most knives up to 6 or 7 inches, 4.25 to 4.5 inches of handle is good. For small blades you can go even a bit shorter. For big blades, like big bowies and swords, you can get away with 5 inches or even a bit more.

This may all seem kind of fussy, after all, it’s just a knife. I see it this way. If you, as a person who just walked up to my table at a show, are going to spend the money to buy one of my custom, hand made, one off, custom knives, you are entitled to get the best work I can do. That work should be able to withstand the scrutiny of a critical eye.

If I can see a problem, then I assume my customers will see it. Now often, that’s not true. I have a finer eye (just from practice) than most of my customers. But I don't want to be in the position of knowing that there is a flaw, but figuring that no one will find it, and having a customer pick up the piece, look right at the flaw, and give me the fish eye and walk away. Or worse, ask me about it, putting me in the position of having to explain the problem.


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