Jay Fisher - World Class Knifemaker
Quality Without Compromise
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People have often asked what sets my work, my passion, and my success apart from other knife makers, and this page will illustrate that, along with the Six Distinctions that are detailed at this link. Style is such and important topic, I believe it deserves its own page.
There is no right or wrong way to style a knife, unless it leads to a weak and inferior performance. It is, however, a mistake to think that every handmade knife is alike, particularly when considering value. I've taken great efforts to clearly define all knife characteristics on the many pages of this website for all to see, no matter what your land or culture, and available any time to anyone who can reach the internet. If the distinctive differences are ignored, unknown, or unrecognized, the knife maker, patron, client, customer, or person with a knife interest may think that all handmade knives are alike. There is nothing farther from the truth.
Style of knives is a huge factor in what sets an individual knife, and an individual knife maker apart from his contemporaries. On this page, I'll identify some typical modern styles, and elaborate on a style I'm most familiar with: my own!
This page and most pages on my site are created for the knife client, patron, and person interested in knives. It is then important to make clear, detailed and illustrative comparisons and distinctions between my works and the works of others.
No maker or individual can make every style of knife, and as each artist grows, he should endeavor to make the style that pleases him and his clients. Often, the clients themselves will let him know what style they like, simply by spending their hard-earned money. Styles that appeal are quickly snatched up, custom ordered, or requested, whereas styles that do not appeal to his clients are simply not mentioned.
A maker (or any artist) can make a big mistake looking to his contemporaries for a viable stylistic version. This happens a lot because we are living in an age of information, and access to other knives, their descriptions, photographs, and information about specific styles may dominate a particular medium. For instance, there is a large following on bulletin board forums for the style of knife that has a fairly straight carbon steel damascus blade and a stag or mammoth ivory handle. Guys who prefer this type of knife call themselves "collectors" because nothing can be really done with a knife that easily rusts, often has carbon steel fittings that can also rust, and more importantly has fragile handle material like stag or ivory. Though I make this kind of knife occasionally, the relative fragility of the materials limits use, longevity, and functionality of this kind of knife.
Often, these guys will comment on the postings of gemstone handled knives, usually complimenting the knife, but throwing in the comment that it's "not my style." What they might not realize is that it is the style of hundreds of paying clients, who are on a four year wait for just such a style of knife. Fortunately, the style the commenter prefers can be purchased at literally hundreds of other makers' sites, as it is fairly common. It's a safe bet that he will find like-minded stylistic contemporaries who also agree their style is the preferred one...
"Art exists not in objects, but in a way of seeing."
This page is about the style of my knives, and how that characteristic style differs from other handmade and custom knives. I won't describe factory, semi-production shop knives, or manufactured knives in any way, as that information is on a dedicated page on my site here. What I will detail here is how my style differs from other independent and singular knifemakers.
When my work comes up in public forums, bulletin boards, and discussions, most of the comments are positive. The participants almost always concede that my skill level and craftsmanship is high; I would hope so, since I've been doing this professionally for decades. With thousands of knives made and in the hands of happy clients, I would expect that even the harshest critic would have to claim that I know how to make a very good knife. Because people are always critiquing, their concession may then be followed with the comment, "Fisher's work is not my style."
Upon reading this, have you wondered just what their style is? In the world of handmade and custom knives, there seem to be several very distinctive genres of knives that occur so frequently that they have become less of an inspiration, and more of a typified class or cliché. What are these common styles?
This is a short list of predominate types. There are more, but these will apply to 90 percent of what you will see available for purchase in any manufacturers, dealers, or knifemakers site. I make some of these typified styles too, as they all have their place in the world of knives. But this page is about my particular style, so let's move on.
The Duhovni Ratnik has to be the best you have created in that style.
What amazes me is how you can come up so many different themes. Most knife makers stick to one or two styles and call themselves artists, they would do themselves a service if they looked at your web site and actually tried to learn something from it. I am sure their egos are to big.
It may be helpful to first define what style means. Style is defined as "distinctive or characteristic mode of presentation, construction, or execution in any art, employment or product, especially in any of the arts."
The mode of presentation of my work can be seen right here on this website. No other knife maker presents their work the way I do, and that is distinctive. In this mode, there are several considerations:
The mode of construction of my works is also distinctive. There are key words that I keep in my mind while I'm designing and making knives and teaching others who are interested in my style of work.
Refined is the most important descriptive term of what I create. Every project I create is highly refined, not crude, not rough, not imprecise. If you are a person who likes sophisticated work, my creations and the creations in Enchanted Spirits Studio in collaborative form will probably appeal to you. In the sub-topics below, I'll detail how my knives differ in refinement from most other handmade knives.
Some people say my work is instantly recognizable, that my style is distinctive and bold. I like that. With the reasons noted above, my particular style should continue to stand apart from the rest. I want my knife clients to know just exactly what they are buying, why it's different than other knives out there, and what to expect from me. My work is distinctive, characteristic, and refined.
To the people who don't like refined styles, and like crude, rough, primitive, coarse, dark, and basic work, please note that this is not my style. I do not make knives and works of art that are basic, antique-looking, archaic, replicas, or relate to early ages of the world and humanity. There is a following of this type of knife and artwork, particularly represented by hand-forged works. I have nothing against hand-forging, but it is not my style for the reasons listed above.
Though I am educated in the early styles of knives, swords, and weaponry through contemporary sources, I rarely try to copy those early styles and techniques. For example, the ancient gemstone handles I mentioned in the section above can be ground and finished with coarse rock rubbing, sand and water, and bamboo or hardwood blocks, and this would be a primitive approach to handle construction. I do use jade, but it is cut with modern diamond saws, and ground and finished with modern abrasives like diamond, silicon oxide, aluminum oxide, tin oxide, and cerium oxide on modern, motor driven equipment. Understand, too that the stone is worked offhand, my hands guide the rock throughout every step of creation and finishing. I guess you could say that my way of hand-working is also something I try to continually refine.
There are some people who consider that if you do not hand-forge your own blades, you are not a knife maker or are somehow less than those who do. This is an antiquated concept which is, thankfully, trickling away with each passing year. While there are many reasons for its existence (which I will detail in my upcoming book), there only needs to be one consideration: if hand-forging produced superior steels, you would see every machine planer blade, every ball bearing, every valve seat, every lathe and milling cutter, every injection die, every high-wear axle, gear, steam or jet engine turbine blade, or industrial, military, or medical tool of every kind replaced by hand-forged steels. Since none of these essential tools use hand-forged components, we must only conclude that the engineers who design them have a substantial reason. There are no longer any blacksmiths in the machine tool trades, and make no mistake: modern knifemaking with the most advanced materials is machining.
Often, in this tradecraft and art, people equate hand-forging with hand-work, and stock removal with machine work. So there is a tendency then to think that a knife made by stock removal is made by machine, and not by hand. Nothing is farther from the truth as in my studio and the studio of nearly every other singular and individual knife maker, stock removal knives are made by hand. Even the term "stock removal" is not adequate or descriptive of the process. What is the term that is adequate and specific to this process? Off-hand machining. These hands are holding the steel, guiding the cuts, the grinds, the embellishment, the finishing, and all the making of the components and accessories. We use machines, in many ways are machinists, but do not surrender control of the intricate and sensitive accomplishments to the limitations of a machine (like a CNC mill).
Some may be surprised to learn that modern hand-forging is done with motor-driven fan and refined gas-fueled forges, electrically-powered hydraulic driven presses, electric wire feed welding machines, electric and hydraulic power shears, and electric motor-driven trip hammers, followed by electric surface grinding machines, belt grinding machines, and motor driven electric drills. Don't think the guy that hand-forges blades is making holes in the blade with a poker while it's hot. Know that the individual maker of hand-forged knives is typically guiding all of these operations by hand also, so he is off-hand machining as well. In some manufactured damascus steels, this is all done with automated machinery in controlled atmosphere enclosures by computer controlled machines in an industrial setting! Though there are some makers and operations that take a hammer in hand daily, please note that the stock removal knife maker also takes a hammer in hand, in forging, shaping, cutting, and forming metal against an anvil, too.
No matter how a knife is handmade, it helps to understand the differences in character, execution, and how the materials play a role in the overall style of a fine handmade knife, sword, or edged tool.
Why would I put this title in the context of styles? It's because, as a professional knifemaker with over three decades of experience, I believe I have enough standing in this professional community to define some clear concepts about knives; to offer an intelligent opinion based on facts and understanding of the field.
A great deal of importance in the field of knifemaking is based on the important tool and weapon concept. What I mean is that first and foremost, knives are tools or weapons, and only after that do they become collector's pieces, investment grade works, or knife sculpture. It may surprise you to know that many knifemakers have never actually made a working tool of any kind, only decorative works made to collect stares and collect dust. There is a great deal of savvy required to make a superior tool, and even more to make a dependable, desirable, and exceptional weapon. Even more important is to have those weapons and tools desired by and used by critical professionals, such as in my Counterterrorism Knives. This is why I believe that the greatest practices in knifemaking are rooted in making fine weapons and tools for active duty soldiers and the military, hard working field professionals, guides, outfitters, and chefs. If a knifemaker does not have this experience, this track record of working experience, the durability and functionality of all of his works must then be closely examined. How can you trust a knife, an art knife, a sculptural knife, a collectors knife if the hands that have made it have never actually made a true working or tactical knife? There are things that are learned in creating working and utility pieces that are not applicable in collector's knives, and that realm of experience can often be recognized. I know of several successful makers who have never made an actual "real" knife, and to the experienced professional, this shows in their work. However, this is not always apparent to the public.
I won't go into all the details of geometry, force application, materials choices, mechanical attachment methods, chemical bonding and treatments, and serviceability factors in this text; I'll save that for my book. However, if you want to get a very good idea if a maker makes "real" knives, there are several things to look for:
It is through the experience of building real knives that the seriousness of a knifemaker's commitment is established. Many true knife aficionados won't even consider a maker who has not made the real thing. This is because if a style is established through actual working knife proficiency, the stability and comprehension of the knife form is carried to all types of a craftsman's or artist's creations. First, a sound foundation is built, and then the solid structure. The detail and embellishment comes after that.
Man has made knives for millions of years, even before man as we know him existed. Knife, weapon, and tool making is ingrained in our very roots. There have been literally millions of types and styles of knife made, and you might think that all of them have, at one time or another in history, been tried. This is not true.
It's not true because there are always new materials, new methods, new equipment and processes, and new means of presenting knives. Take the example of steels alone; how they have reached our current level of high sophistication, and how our abrasives technology has allowed us to bring numerous blades to a high mirror polish, something that would have taken many months in the not-so-distant past. That's just the steel. What about access to other materials and methods, other presentation means and expression, other information that allows a singular craftsman into a wide field of continual study and growth? All of these developments mean new stylistic and expressive means for making knives, and I'm certain it will continue to grow.
When new makers ask me to give them the best advice for their success, they can be a bit put off to hear that it isn't about recommending a particular steel type, or handle material, or accessory package, or presentation and sales method. I don't recommend particular courses of study (there really are none) or directions necessary for their journey apart from one, and this is what I recommend: make your own knives. I've even written about this experience on my FAQ page at this bookmark.
It's easy to see photographs and drawings of knives; our media access has been greater than ever before in the history of man. In fact, the amount of images of knives alone we have, share, and have access to can be overwhelming. So when seeing a particular stylistic feature that is attractive, it's only logical to try to incorporate that into the individual craftsman's work. If it's attractive to another maker it will be attractive to the new maker, and it will likely be attractive to the knife client. To make it even easier, why not just copy another's work, wholesale, particularly if that maker is successful? That way, the maker is sure to have an attractive item that is desirable, and more sales will be likely.
This is an extension of the old activity of find someone else's work and copy it, hoping to steal away their clients, hoping to be successful on the coattails of an established professional. Many people consider this in their lives, and this is the creed that they live by. They see and envy another's success, and try to copy it, they see and envy another's possessions, family, and way of life and try to copy it. We have entire social media megacultures based on envy, and people become depressed and even suicidal because they can't quite get what others have! Our modern media claims that instant gratification and satisfaction are accessible to anyone who happens to purchase whatever is being sold in these venues, and this feeds the envy and want, driving sales.
How can someone tell if a maker is copying their particular individual style, as opposed to simply being influenced by their style? Here's how it typically breaks down in the world of handmade knives:
I can clearly state that no one has ever accused me of copying another's work, and that is the determinant factor. No one has said, Jay, your work is just like so-and-so, living or dead. This is a fact I'm very proud of. No one has or will claim that I don't have a distinctive, recognizable style, and that my knives are cookie cutter or reproductions of another's work, particularly and distinctly in the stylistic presentation. It might even surprise you to know that I have clients that want "my stylistic take" on ancient and historically significant knives, swords, and artwork, simply because my style is that distinctive and desirable!
I well know that I've had an influence on the knifemaking field in the decades I've been a professional knifemaker. What you are reading here is an example, with hundreds of pages, tens of thousands of photographs, and thousands of completed knives cherished by their owners. I also know that my works are often copied. Not only are the copyrighted patterns copied wholesale, but my very distinctive style is copied by other makers. They are making gemstone handles, mirror polishes, intricate filework, inlaid sheaths. Some even boast that their clients request a "Jay Fisher" knife! They try to make their knives look like mine, or are at the least using stylistic methods that I use that will result in a knife that looks like mine. They even cite me as their source or inspiration for knifemaking, while trying to emulate and copy not only the knives, sheaths, and cases, but the very presentation of my website with text, photo sets, and even the knife names!
One could be flattered by this, but it's kind of sad. The reason this is disturbing is that those same makers (usually young or inexperienced) are only hurting themselves by doing this, and here is why:
Take all of these into consideration, and the guy who copies another's work lives in their shadow as an afterthought and a follower, takes the easy path, and limits his potential for growth and creativity. Worse, he will be known publically as this! Why do this?
While there are many people who try their hand at making knives, the range of distinctive and unique styles is actually small, and is extremely well known by people who move in our particular field of fine knives. Most well-read and educated knife enthusiasts, collectors, users, and makers know my work when they see it, instantly claiming, "Well, that's a Jay Fisher knife!" Even laymen now recognize my work after thousands of knives and decades of professional knifemaking. I receive comments and communication all the time letting me know that someone is copying my work, that their work looks like mine, that they are emulating my style, simply because my style is so distinctive.
Considering the opposite, why not make an effort to be a leader in creativity and growth, live boldly and originally, and help develop independent ideas, forms, designs, and styles? Yes, it's hard, but knifemaking as a creative art and profession is never easy.
Naturally, makers ask me, "How does a maker develop his own style (rather than copy parts, ways, components, methods, and features of another's)?" How does a maker break into his own distinctive realm in this tradecraft and art? What really is the best advice I can give a new or young maker who is actively trying to develop his own style and following?
Here is some really great advice, and this is important not only to the new maker trying to establish his own style, but also to the knife client who seeks original, valuable works:
The neat thing about how we are made is that God made each one of us entirely different. No one has seen the same thing, experienced the same thing, or has the same ideas. I don't believe He wants us to simply copy each other blindly; I believe He wants us to grow and flourish individually, on our own path. We have unique experiences with unique clients and patrons as well; this is not simply chance, but intention by forces greater than we can know. I do believe we are here for a reason, and whether that reason is to inspire, direct, or develop, these are certainties we all share. In having this relatively short gift of life, I believe we are expected to grow and contribute using our own unique being and connections as a guide. We are fortunate indeed, to be alive in a time when all of this is possible.
If knives are meant to simply be copies of other knives in style and form, what is the point and desire of making knives at all?
I needed to include this topic in greater detail because, as usual, there is plenty of hype and misrepresentation on the internet, in publication, in video, and on television about modern knives. This is not surprising; people have differing opinions, methods, and styles in every vocation, tradecraft, and art. What you are reading now may be one of the clearest comparisons and descriptions you will see from any knifemaker, simply because most knifemakers are careful to not step on one another's toes.
I write in a provocative style, and that challenges some people. They think differently than I do, and that's okay. What I owe you who are reading this is the distinction of style that comes with making knives the way I do. In order to do this, I must make some comparisons and illustrate them with facts. This upsets some other knifemakers, some are okay with it. But this site is not built for knifemakers, even though plenty of them use it for reference. It's built for clients, patrons, and people who wish to understand knives from the perspective of my experience, otherwise they (and you) would not be reading this. In order to be of service to my tradecraft and art, to my community and patrons, I'll try to be as clear as possible.
This page and most pages on my site are created for the knife client, patron, and person interested in knives. It is then important to make clear, detailed and illustrative comparisons and distinctions between my works and the works of others.
I've been in this business a very long time, and I've made a lot of knives, literally thousands. I've done the show circuits, I've been a member of the major organizations, and even a founding member of one of them. I know a lot of knifemakers, seen just about every kind of knife, and heard or read just about every claim you can find.
It saddens me when I read misinformation, lies, and misleading statements, because we are in the information age and there really is no reason for lies and exaggeration in our trade. If you've read a good portion of this site, you're clear that a significant part of what I do is to try to clarify the reality of knifemaking, and identify what is the truth, vs. what is opinion, salesmanship, hyperbole, trickery, omission, or falsehood. I think it's important from an educational standpoint, not only for the patron or client that is seeking a particular knife, but for future generations who will use what we have learned and what we know as a guidepost and foundation on which they will build.
For decades I've seen two types of knifemakers pitted against each other, when both are clearly and simply making knives. One is called a "blacksmith, bladesmith, or hand-forger" and the other is called a "stock removal" knifemaker. I detail these two on my Overview of the Modern Knifemaker page. Some knifemakers use both methods (I have) to make knives, and I want to clarify the differences related to this particular page, the processing of the knife blade.
Simply put: all hand-forged blades made of typical hypoeutectoid and low alloy steels are inferior to stock-removal or machined hypereutectoid, high alloy and stainless steels in many characteristics: wear resistance, strength, toughness, and corrosion resistance. When it comes to performance, high alloy steels are dramatically superior, and they are only made by stock removal and machining, and are not and can not be hand-forged. The reasons for this are detailed below.
There is value in both types of blade making. A hand-forged knife may have a more interesting visual appeal (damascus, rustic, or hamon lines) and this is preferred by some collectors and knife owners. I often sometimes make knives with damascus pattern welded steel and even low alloy carbon steel pattern welded with nickel for high contrast. Some knife owners prefer that their maker employs a traditional way of working with steel, and are not interested in extremely high performance, high quality blades. They are only interested in a certain look, and the attractive style of appearance above function is what they are looking for.
The issue occurs when people compare performance of the hand-forged knife blade to a high alloy and stainless steel hypereutectoid knife blade, which is pointless; the two are in totally different realms. The main reason some makers, boutique shops and manufacturers make exaggerated claims about low alloy, hypoeutectoid, and plain carbon steels is to make the knife buyer think the blades are better than high alloy steels, strictly for sales purposes. Uneducated and inexperienced knife enthusiasts then repeat these claims. When they state that low alloy, hypoeutectoid, damascus pattern welded steel blades are in any way superior in performance to high alloy steels, this is not only misleading, it's a lie. It is, perhaps, the biggest lie perpetuated in knifemaking, and it's been going on for decades, which is ridiculous, as we live in the information age, and there simply is no reason for it.
Understand that most knifemakers and businesses don't do this, they are clear and distinct about the performance properties of their knife blades. I'm simply offering a word of caution, because some clearly mislead.
Remember, I'm not writing about fit, finish, design, balance, accessories, and service: I'm only writing about the knife blades. Once a blade is complete, both types of knifemakers typically use the same method to make the rest of their knives and accessories. They attach fittings, bolsters, guards, or fit the knife to liners, and attach handle material, finish the knife, embellish the knife, and make the sheaths, stands and accessories the same way, whether they make blades by stock removal or by hand-forging.
The difference then, is in how they make the blade, and since this is a detailed description of knife blade steel properties, some more information needs to be presented here.
Hand forging is an old process based in blacksmithing, centuries old, perhaps millennia old. It can be done with the simplest tools, or it would never have been possible 200 or 1000 years ago. Steel is heated in a forge, it's hammered into the shape of a blade. While modern knifemakers who hand-forge also create pattern welded steels (steels of different alloy content or blades and fittings with different metals), once the blade is forged, shaped, and sometimes heat treated in the forge, the blade is ground or machined to completion. Finishing proceeds like any other blade made by any other means, usually by grinding, shaping, refining, and finishing with machine tools, typically offhand on a belt grinder or flat sander.
Stock removal is a machining realm for the blade. The blades are cut from a bar or billet of steel stock with power saws, laser, or water jet, profiled with a grinder, shaped with a grinder, and finished. This is also typically done on a belt grinder by offhand machining method. The term "stock removal" is fairly weak, because this is what a machinist does, and you wouldn't call him a "stock remover." I've always suspected that the term was a bit insulting, created by those who try to diminish this way of working with knife blade materials as simply removing what is not a blade to leave one with a blade. We could say a lapidary is also a stock removal artist, as is anyone who creates with raw stock, including the guy who forges a blade and then grinds, sands, drills, or removes the steel to complete the blade. By the way, the greatest sculptors of all time (think Michelangelo) sculpted by "stock removal."
"I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free."
1475 – 1564
Since, after the blade is made, the two methods of knifemaking are so similar, it becomes important to understand what, why, and how these methods are chosen considering the aspect of the blade only.
Because I'm a blunt and provocative writer, some of what I write raises eyebrows, and some of it obviously causes discontent if it is not agreed with or understood. This is the issue in writing overall; if you write what you believe, you may alienate all those who don't believe the same way. In writing about a material or tool that can be measured in performance by scientific study, belief alone has no bearing. Facts do, and this is the reason studies are done, to ferret out these facts, and present them with a level of understanding that encourages development and improvement of materials, devices, uses, results, and the human condition overall.
In my decades doing this professionally, I've encountered all types of people, all types of knifemakers, and all types of businessmen. To some who read this page, they may think that I believe that the hand-forging of knife blades has no business in the modern knife world, and that I'm anti-hand forging. This is not true at all. Hand-forging is the root of metalwork, and will always be an attractive and interesting field for man in creativity, study, history, and art.
I've been told and read again and again that my knives are ornamental only, not meant to be used, mainly because of the appearance, and this commentary almost always comes from other knifemakers. This is humorous, indeed; because people who believe this have apparently never looked over my Combat Knives page, and don't realize I make knives for some of the top Counterterrorism teams in the world. These warriors don't live in a world where appearance is the reason they buy knives, they clearly are based on performance, alone. They have helped me create advanced works, entire ensembles of functional weaponry, for the most serious of use in our modern world. Not a one of them has ever asked for a damascus or hand-forged blade with a hamon line!
The very basis of every knife I create is the durability and performance of the blade, no matter whether a knife is a daily working tool or a fine art sculpture: both have high performance blades. Some makers believe that these knives are too pretty to use; I've seen this over and over and over and write about it on my FAQ page. Just because I have clean, crisp grind lines, and a mirror polish, this doesn't mean the knife isn't excellent in performance, and that is based in the material first, it's geometry second, and its treatment third.
Conversely, if a knife is hand-forged and left sanded, etched, or roughly finished, many guys think this means it's made for working. So the rough look becomes associated with working tools, and the fine finish becomes associated with non-working art. The reason that hand-forged works are desired is because of the appearance, not the performance. Other reasons include tradition, a stylistic presentation, and simple personal preference. While some (typically other knifemakers) decry mirror polished knife steel blades as being "for appearance only" the truth is that damascus and differentially hardened and tempered low alloy steels are chosen for mainly for their appearance, since the steels used to make these knives are typically of low alloy content.
This is not always the case, occasionally, a maker who mirror polishes a blade will use a lower alloy steel, and once in a while a person hand-forging a knife will use a higher alloy steel, though I would be suspect of that practice, since it is detrimental to the high alloys. I write about this much more on my Heat Treating and Cryogenic Processing of Knife Blade Steels page.
Could it be that mirror polished stainless high alloy steels are superior performers? Could it be that the steels that are commonly hand-forged and made into damascus blades are chosen because they are pretty? Could our masculine idea of beauty be based in rough, primitive, macho, and old styling? Could the idea of pretty be wrong? I ask these questions only as a consideration, for each person has their own ideas, and each knifemaker should answer to his own clients. I believe that the client deserves the right to know as much information as he wishes and desires, and this is key to the success of the knifemaker, and the success of the client in obtaining the knife he desires.
Economy is a big issue, and is a huge factor in this discussion. Knives made by stock removal are actually knives made by off-hand machining, something few can do extremely well. If you don't believe this, you might consider why off-hand machined knives in high alloys are so expensive. If it were easy and cheap to make knives this way, guys like me would be out of business, because the market would be flooded with finely made off-hand machined knives, and it is not. Some people believe that the cost of the steel and other materials is why these finely off-hand machined knives cost so much, and this is not true. The very best high alloy blades consist of steel that may only cost $20 to $50 per knife. It's the cost of the off-hand machining the constitutes the value, in labor, operations, and skill. In labor first, secondly in equipment, maintenance, repair, and operations. Thirdly, the skill established by the maker's own hands sets the fundamental value of his works. These high alloy steels are not for the timid, at least if they are made into high performance knives.
Why I may seem blunt about hand-forging is that some makers lay claim to superior performance, or superior method, as if it is the final word on knives, all while using inferior, low alloy, hypoeutectic steels, which are proven lower performers. If they were of higher performance value, there would simply be no need to ever create higher alloy and stainless steels.
One example is a very successful maker who is "hand" forging (using electric power trip hammers and electric hydraulic press methods, with an electric wire feed welding machine) and is adored by the media. He's making chef's knives, and claiming that his experience is key, because he is using the knowledge of thousands of years of hand-forging as his basis. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?
If he really had this knowledge, he'd be using some of the most advanced steels available, because the steel he uses will rust and corrode at the first exposure in the kitchen, not to mention the inferiority of the blade performance in wear resistance, toughness, strength, longevity, and durability overall. But he's hugely successful, and people buy this image. The media likes to see sparks flying; the general public knows little about steel, and the fascination of welding layers together still catches eyes, because it's pretty. The thing that bothers me and others like me, is that the premise of value of these poorer steels based on superior performance is false. Just like the falsehood of Japanese knives and superiority, just like the falsehood of German knives and superiority, just like the falsehood of French knives, English knives, and others, when every culture and every country has made good knives, bad knives, and all those in between.
It's time that we, as professionals, spread the truth; about steel, about method, about all the components and details of our tradecraft. There are no secret processes, no mystery or mythical traditions in knifemaking. Knifemaking is the oldest tradecraft man has ever done, actually predating man as we know him today, so we have plenty of information and data on the subject.
If you are a person who desires an attractive hand-forged damascus or temper-line steel blade, I'm certain you will find many makers who do this very well. They will be glad to make that type of knife for you. Once in a while I'll make a damascus knife myself, but not often, simply because my clients do not wish to have that kind of knife. Most of my clients prefer the very best steel available, treated by the very best methods and science we know.
Other knifemakers are are a source of interest, humor, and some have outright contempt for me, my opinion, and my knives. This is nothing new. Back when I started making knives seriously, in the early 1980s, other makers at shows would come by my table, stop and look over the knives, and stare, glare, grunt, and shake their head, turn their backs on me and hurry away. I'm not remarking about only a few makers doing this; I'm talking about dozens and dozens in those early years. When one would stop and offer to give me some "free advice," I'd listen carefully, because I believe it's always good to have another perspective for the success of my business, trade, and art. This, by the way, is why I try to share what I have learned on this very website, which is the most voluminous, detailed website of any knifemaker in the world, completely because I'm willing to share and do all the work to put it down.
In my early career, when other makers offered advice, most would distinctly and clearly tell me that gemstone handled knives would never work, that I would fail, that gemstone handles were impractical, unworkable, unsalable, and some went so far as to tell me that they were ugly. Then, they would start on the finish. The mirror finish is not for a working knife, not a tool finish, not salable, it's impractical, and I would ultimately fail as a knifemaker if I continued to make mirror finished, gemstone-handled knives. This they insisted on, and that only wood, stag, Ivory, or Micarta® phenolic should be used as a handle, and only satin, sanded, rubbed, or etched and blued damascus finishes would be accepted.
They claimed this for several reasons, and though I ignored them, I believed that most of them had good intentions. I've come to find out that it was naive on my part; the main reasons most of them disliked my work is it was different than theirs, and some were downright jealous. But in the early years, a new maker does not have much to go on, unlike now, when information awaits eager at our fingertips, if one would just read and try to see who is making, who is selling, and who is successful in the trade.
By the way, an interesting version of this is on my FAQ page at the topic: "What if I tell you it's too pretty to use?"
There were times when I tried to make what others did, simply because I didn't know any better, and every time I did, I would be left with accumulating inventory, fewer custom orders, and the knives I did have took a long time to sell. It wasn't because of the workmanship; my workmanship and work ethic has always been very good (thanks, Mom and Dad, for teaching me that). It was because by making knives the same as everyone else garners approval of those other makers, but the important fact is that other makers aren't buying knives. In fact, those makers often have low prices, accumulating inventory, and meager sales because, simply, they are copying each other, sharing the same information, lack creativity, and limit what they do.
Whenever I started having difficulties in knifemaking, there were two things I looked to. Before I reveal this astounding breakthrough, I'll claim that other contemporary mainstream knifemakers are NOT who I look to, ever. It's like any creative artist, say a painter, who looks at other paintings and tries to copy the style. This won't work, and all the artist who does this will accomplish is moving his work into direct competition with the original artist and his creations. But to most people, this is how the world works: find someone else's idea, and copy it, hoping to steal away their business. Sadly, this is an unevolved, uninformed human trait that seems impossible to overcome. I've had guys trying to directly copy my work, even steal my exact copyrighted photos from this website, to post and use on their website, promising to make what is in my photo! Of course, they can't, so these lame attempts come and go.
What are the two things that I look to for my success in my tradecraft and art? It's incredibly simple, and though I've repeated it again and again in countless citing and detail here and in public forums, publications, and interviews, it always seems to be ignored, particularly by other makers who like to claim that no one wants, uses, or seeks out my style of knives. The sources are my clients, and our world history of knifemaking.
To look to the knife client for success seems so ridiculously simple that it amazes me how many makers overlook this. They look to other makers for the answers, not to the very people who would buy their knives! While I'm writing this, I'm thinking how ludicrous the whole thing is: I simply ask my clients what they want, I listen to them, consider their needs and desires, and if those fall into line with my skill level, interest, and price range, we have agreement. Agreement, after agreement, after agreement and a successful career is built. Sure, there are some stumbles along the way, and some clients may request things I don't do, but for the most part, those that see my style already know what to expect from me. They can also read the hundreds of testimonials on this website to see what other clients think of my work.
The second important factor I look at is our world history of knifemaking. Now this one can confuse some readers, so I want to make it clear. I don't look at knives made in the past and try to copy them. A lot of makers do; they make Japanese style knives and swords, they make medieval style swords and daggers, they make 17th to 19th century primitives and bowies. This is not what I'm writing about. I look to ancient history as a source of value creativity, both from style and function. For instance, the knife we call a khukri in contemporary style actually has its basis in an older style, the Egyptian kopesh. There are interesting similarities between an English executioner's sword, a Chinese battle sword, and a sword with a broken tip! The most valued and most prized and well-preserved knife handles in the history of man are gemstone. Even prehistoric man is mostly known by his stone points, knives, blades, and cutting tools, which have outlasted all organic or metallic components he may have left behind! And the highest value, most sought after and difficult to accomplish finish man has ever done with metal is a mirror polish. This is history. We have a greater history of making knives than any other thing man has ever made, and in this, we have tremendous references we can look to for inspiration, guidance, and creative style.
But what about the working knife? What about the makers who claim that knives made in the style of mirror polished, high tech blades and gemstone handles are not for the working class, not for the field, not for any serious use? This is a claim I've had hurled at me for decades, usually by other knifemakers.
Let's be very clear here. A gemstone knife handle will outlast every other knife handle made, even steel knife handles, titanium knife handles, and (yes) even a solid gold handle. This is because rock is very hard, and most of the stone I use is also very tough. Why do you think that even the glassine obsidian blades have remained on earth, left by the Paleo-Indians, and even earlier prehistoric peoples, and they have lasted for tens of thousands of years? And that's the glassine gemstone obsidian! What about ancient jade tools, sculpture, and art? What about Neolithic jade tools? What about the earliest stone tools ever found? They were unearthed from the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya, and date to 3.3 million years ago! Where do you think the term "stone age" comes from? Good grief, it's a rock! How much effort does it take to destroy a rock? Only crushing will do this, but wood, horn, bone, ivory, and manmade materials can rot, tear, be dented, be scratched and abraded, swell and shrink, get cut, absorb water and fluids, dry out, discolor, burn, melt, soil, and stain. They rust, they deteriorate, and they eventually disappear. Rock does NONE of this. More on gemstone knife handles here.
And mirror polishes? I've got a working chef's knife I made 25 years ago in 440C stainless steel. I sharpen it once or twice a year. It is shiny, clean, clear, and tremendously easy to clean, with just a rinse. It does not rust, pit, stink, or stain, it has never, ever been oiled, babied or coddled, and it will absolutely outlive me, my children, and my grandchildren. Sure, there are scuff marks on the mirror polish, just like any knife blade made with any type of finish anywhere after decades of use, but the finish remains and aids tremendously in cleaning and corrosion resistance, and it looks great, too! Mirror polish finishes outlast all others, and I've clearly and technically described it at this bookmark on my blades page.
Do I make knives that do not have gemstone handles, and are not mirror finished? Of course I do, and the reasons are clear: my clients request their knives made this way. In nearly all tactical knives, they are made with media-blasted finishes so there is no glare or reflection, and that's not just the blade, it's the fittings, bolsters, tang, and guards, and even the sheaths, components, fasteners, and accessories are also blasted for anti-glare. I also make mirror finished tactical knives, and these are used by some of the top counterterrorism, military, and law enforcement agencies in the world. A lot of them don't like the gemstone handles either; a shiny, hard, and reflective gemstone is not appropriate on a blasted blade, so I use manmade materials. I also use horn, bone, and ivory if my client requests it, but it's rare. I'm not talking about local law enforcement here, or a local hunter wanting a skinning knife for the deer season, and you can read much more about who I make for on my Military and Tactical Knives page and my Counterterrorism Knives page.
Other knifemakers may disagree, but they are not my clients, they do not pay my wages, they do not feed my family, keep me years in backorders, and not a one of them has contributed in any way to the tremendous success I've had in the nearly four decades I've been honored to make knives. When you read these comments, know that they will often acknowledge that I make a good knife, and that I have plenty of good information on my website, but they will never acknowledge that I'm tremendously successful in my field, make for some of the top military and best clients in the world, and that my style, though my own, has value. I'll just keep trudging along, knowing the next knifemaker who claims to know what my clients want will pipe up; they always do.
One more important point: for those who think ancient tradition and old hand-forging process is the be-all, end-all reason for making knives, I have them historically beat. Working with stone predates human knowledge and use of metals by literally millions of years, and predates even homo sapiens sapiens. Talk about ancient tradition! Stone IS the oldest tool material; there's your argument about tradition, skewered and served on a stone plate. The next time you read that hand-forging, flat or sanded rough finishes, and wood, horn, bone, or ivory handles are the only ones that are based in old traditions, you now have some perspective on history and what really old knives are made of! This should help understand that traditions are completely subjective, and people who lean on tradition are not citing accomplishment or value based in performance or style.
When my name, my knives, and my photos of my knives come up on discussion boards or forums, it's amazing how many times the phrase "It's not my style" is repeated. There are a few variations of the comment, like "not my cup of tea," or "not the kind of knife I like or buy," or "not mainstream," or others that pop up by members, posters, and respondents. I wrote about this repeating statement on my "Business of Knifemaking" page at this bookmark quite a while ago, and since this is my "Style" page, I thought I should give it some more examination.
I've made knives a very long time, and in doing so, I've developed my own stylistic version of knives. For instance, in fixed blades, I tend to use super high alloy stainless and hypereutectoid steels, and mirror finish most of them. For handles, I use a lot of gemstone, more than any other knifemaker in the world, and that's a huge distinction. For bolsters, I use them on nearly all of my knives, and other makers simply don't. When I do use them, they are nearly always austenitic stainless steel (304 to be specific), for the highest corrosion resistance and highest toughness possible. I even hand-engrave them, in my own distinctive style which is not bank note, bulino, or any of the more commonly seen types. Rather, I create each one in a unique style, often deeply engraved, and carry the design throughout the knife: in the blade, the bolsters, and even on the sheath or stand.
In my tactical knives, they have distinctive styles as well. They are made for real use, not just a tactical appearance, and that means the very best steels possible for the application, the very best grinds, the best uniform non-glare finishes, and the best handle materials followed by the absolute best sheaths made by man. You might think I'm boasting, but I would put my knives and sheaths against any other ones made for durability, usefulness, longevity, wearing, mounting, and interfacing with real tactical equipment, and overall desirability. That's why I'm about 5 years in backorders and can't keep up.
The largest current discussion board (forum) mainly caters to people (almost always men) who are mainstream knife enthusiasts. This means that most of the knives featured are factory knives, followed by small boutique manufacturers, new custom makers, part time knifemakers, and sprinkled with a few fine knives. But fine knives, works of knife sculpture, are still mostly unheard of and unrecognized in the field. There is nothing inherently right or wrong about this; it's a simple fact that the buyer's world of any item is a pyramid. At the base is the majority of people who buy knives for use or collection, and these are the most affordable knives because, most people don't have a lot of disposable income for finer knives, so the less expensive knives are more popular, and more units are made and sold. In the middle are the more pricy factory knives, and the boutique shop knives (small knife manufacturers using a singular maker's name). At the very top are the finest knives, made by hand, by highly experienced and highly skilled makers who have developed a reputation for fine works, and their rarity and limited number commands a high price. This high price is usually far out of the range of people who buy factory knives. Again, there is nothing right or wrong with this, it's simply how it is.
Many years ago, when I created Pacifica and Dragonslayer, I posted them and showed them in some public venues, and the responses were less than I had hoped. Most men will only consider a knife for use and abuse, and not as an independent sculptural object, in the realm of high art. You might notice that even in the highest “art” knife realms, there is a typified style, mainly Damascus blades, stag or mammoth ivory handles, and banknote engraving, with few exceptions. Even the occasional pieces that have a more defined artistic theme are often made by a variety of people: a knifemaker, a separate engraver, a separate scrimshander, and sometimes a separate sheath maker. They are always photographed by a separate photographer. How many fine knives are summed in one cookie-cutter photograph, assembled in Photoshop of three knife views? This is standard and cliché in our field. They also never have any detailed in-depth description of the vision, idea, process and materials that went into the building of the piece. Notice how I use the word "piece" instead of "knife?" This is because as knives become more developed conceptually, visually, and physically, they become objects of art, and history shows us that the finest knives, swords, and daggers in the world are some of the highest valued objects of our humanity.
Surprisingly, most knifemakers don’t even heat treat their own blades, much less perform cryogenic processing in their shops. How many feature a 10 to 50 photo illustration set? How many develop the entire theme of the knife, from the point of the blade to the feet of the base with the inspiration and direction by their clients? The point is that rarely are knives presented as entire and complete coherent and cohesive works of sculptural art, completely made by one individual. I’ve always believed that this is the highest order of the field, and that someday it will become more recognized.
I remember several galleries in Santa Fe that were interested in my sculptural works. Santa Fe is our country’s third largest art market surpassed only by New York City and Los Angeles. The gallery owners were completely fine with the sculptural aspect, but when they considered that the focus was an actual functional knife, they claimed that the liability of having such an item in their gallery wasn’t worth the risk. I was curious about that, wondering if they thought someone would snatch up the knife and start hacking away at the tourists… In their conceptual framework, which they held as being extremely advanced and elite, their preferred type of art is always at the edges of accepted norms and shocking and profound. Yet a knife sculpture? Whoa, that's too far out there even for them! Or perhaps it's just too real.
Since a knife is also a tool, many people are flatly confused about sculptural knives. It’s like an extremely fine custom vehicle made by hand. They are incredibly expensive, they are stunningly beautiful, and they drive and work extremely well. They are the highest form of the function, and they aren’t used for commuting to work. They honor and exemplify the form and function, and will always be the highest valued, most appreciating investment in the field. But there are a lot of guys who just don’t see the point, since their idea of a vehicle is a daily working implement.
Now for the most important point, the one that gets missed over and over and over again by knifemakers, knife critics, and knife owners, particularly those who insist that the style they see is not the style they prefer. There is one reason guys like me make knives they way they do. It's my clients. My patrons, customers, or whatever you may call the people who pay their hard-earned money for the creations do so because they see something valuable in the process. Knives as sculptural works are more than a blade and a handle, a piece of steel and a sheath. The patron is the very inspiration that keeps me making knives and they have a very specific set of values of style they prefer, otherwise, I'd be an industrial electrician, or a firefighter, or one of the many careers I tried on for size when I was young. These patrons are people with lives, with intensity, with passion for what they see, hold, and experience. The very greatest honor I can receive is to know that they are inspired by the work, whether it is used to slice a tomato, dispatch a terrorist, skin an animal, or grace a home and handed down to future generations. When someone takes a piece of art that has left my mind, my hands, and my studio into their very own personal home and hands, with their family, to be cherished and be a source of inspiration not only for the current members, but also for the future ones, unborn generations yet to come, it's clear that the style is not only theirs, but that a piece of me will live on long after I'm gone. And someone in the future may understand that in a world full of common styles, typified types, cliché assemblies, and accepted styles, that I had a connection to my patrons, through this art of form and function, and that they inspire me more than my knives inspire them!
Though having and expressing my own individual style can cause some conflict, it's important to keep it all in perspective. The hundreds and hundreds (actually thousands) of clients, well-wishers, knife enthusiasts, aficionados, and other knife professionals who encourage me are why I do what I do. Without their support, I couldn't express my own individual style in my own work and in the public realm. Simply put, they are why I do, what I do, the way I do it!
As an artist and craftsman expresses his own type of style, he can take many routes. What I have discovered is that working particularly and individually with my clients has given me insight that I wouldn't otherwise have, and the determination to see just how far I can take what I do. This can cause some pressure, as it evolves growth, learning, development, and practice in all areas of this field, and I've never been one to settle on the steady, predictable pace of repeating a cliché or hackneyed way of knifemaking.
Many years ago, I had United States Air Force Pararescuemen come into my studio when I was in Magdalena, New Mexico, and ask if I could create knives they could actually use in combat, knives made to high durability, knives that they could trust their lives to. They also asked for some unusual features, and one of them was a positively locking waterproof sheath. This led to the development of what I still offer and make for my clients, one of the few and what I believe is the very best locking sheath made. You can read more about the PJs and their knives on a dedicated page, another page focusing on the most popular Pararescue knife I've made, the PJLT, and another page on the locking sheath.
A United States Navy Seabee needed a very specific sized and shaped knife, and more, he needed a device to lower the entire ensemble (knife and sheath) so it wouldn't hang up in tight areas of the ship. With his input, I designed the belt loop extender, which evolved into the ultimate belt loop extender on my accessories page, a device that I often include on many tactical rigs.
A chef requested a strong blade, but with devices and milling to release foodstuffs which allowed me to develop the popular milled styles of chefs knives.
Clients often want to pair certain knife handle and blade patterns, leading to the stylistic creation of my popular Helicon-Horrocks (Helhor), or my Cygnus-Horrocks. Many stylistic variations in enlargements lead to my "Magnum" series, such as the Magdalena Magnum, the Mercury Magnum, or the Troll Magnum. The opposite variation results in "LT" styles like the PJLT, the Treatymaker LT, or the Last Chance LT. Extended blade lengths result in "EL" variations, and shorter blade lengths result in "ST" variants. All of these were suggested by clients, directed by their interest, and help develop the styles and results.
All of these have helped me developed my style. It extends to my engraving, my stands and sheaths, even my writing, as decades of questions and ideas involve deepening and understanding of my tradecraft. I've even been blessed to be chosen to make specific counterterrorism knives by some of the finest warriors alive, and am honored to continually develop that very specific type of knife with continual input.
In all this, I try very hard to be true to myself, and the way I create and build. I still farm nothing out, still heat treat each knife myself, in studio, still make all my own accessories, do my own embellishment, still use only the very best materials possible for my knives, and go into extreme detail sharing what I have learned. I'm honored to be a part of this, very excited about the older projects, the current projects, and the newest ones, and look forward to the ones I haven't even considered that are sprouting in the minds of my clients and patrons.
What a great time to be doing this, and I owe all I am to my Creator, who has made me the way I am for a reason. To Him the glory belongs, and I'm humbled to simply be given this chance, for a brief time, in this world, to do what I can, learn, and grow.
Thanks for reading this and being a part.
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|Funny Letters and Emails, Pg. 1||440C: A Love/Hate Affair|
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|Funny Letters and Emails, Pg. 4||O1: Oil Hardened Blued Beauty|
|Funny Letters and Emails, Pg. 5||
Heat Treating and
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Knife Blade Steels
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