Saturday, December 10, 2011

Buying Custom Gear

So you have scoured the Internet and saved your pennies for an expensive production light and when you receive it you are still disappointed by the quality.  Or you have been looking for that unusual pocket knife and you finally found one only to have a buddy buy the same one at the same time.  It might be time to step up to some custom gear.  Hopefully I can give you a little primer on what to look for and what to avoid as a consumer looking to buy custom gear.

The Internet's ability to allow a person to reach customers instantly all over the world and to gather people with similar, uncommon interests ("There are other people like you that collect flashlights?  Really?") has been a boon to custom gear makers.  Additionally, the commoditization of goods including knives, flashlights, watches, pens, and other gear means that people are willing to pay more for that piece of custom craftsmanship.

I have entered into about a half dozen transactions with custom makers.  Some of them were great (McGizmo) and some were not (Lummi).  Most were somewhere in the middle.  I am not going to highlight specific people (other than that reference right there) but I feel confident in my determinations after six or seven different experience.  Of course your mileage may vary.  It may even vary with the same custom maker.  These people are not machines, they are craftsmen and if you want quality you have to pay and you have to wait.  That means there is a lot of variability in this whole thing.

Here are some tips to buying custom gear:

1.  Check Reputation

There are places where you can find out about a particular custom maker's reputation.  Forums are really helpful in this respect.  There are tons of folks out there that have tons of gear, custom included.  Forums allow you to interact with people that have the very best stuff in the world.  In addition to all of the forums listed on the "Resources" page, another place to look are forums specifically for custom gear.  Here are a two:

Custom Guns and Knives
JerzeeDevil Forums (be careful at work, some posts are NSFW)

You can find a lot of custom stuff on both of the knife forums ( and  YouTube is also a good source of information on custom gear.  It also gives you a chance to see the stuff in someone's hand to get a sense of size and dimension.

In the best of all worlds you can go to a store or a show and see a custom maker's stuff.  Where I am, in New England, this is virtually impossible.   How awesome would it be to get this in your hands to check out:

One big caveat in this whole reputation check, is post-purchase rationalization, a commitment to one's previous decisions, even if they are wrong.  If you drop a grand on a knife, it may be hard to see it's flaws. 

2.  Email, Email, Email

The more sophisticated folks have a good website that is up to date.  That doesn't necessarily mean that a good website equals good gear.  Plenty of great and talented makers have lots of skill at the lathe or grinding wheel but not so much at the computer.  McGizmo's main storefront is a sub-forum on CPF and he is, without question, the best custom maker I have ever dealt with--quick, on-time, and superb products.  This is what awaits you:

If they return your email promptly it is likely they will be more professional and deliver the goods as promised and on time.  There is always a chance that bespoke goods will take a bit longer to make than predicted and this is when email is handy.  If you have to hound them for updates, it is not a good sign.  They should be sending you regular updates.  I don't mean daily stuff, but when the order with Lummi went south it was weeks after the delivery date before I could get a real response.  That's not the way to do business no matter what your selling.

3.  Make a detailed "contract" or want list

Very few folks will make something to your specifications.  And really you probably don't want that to happen.  Your sketch on the back of a napkin may be impossible to convert to reality.  It may also be more difficult than worthwhile to implement.  If, however, the maker willing to indulge you then make a specific list of what you want.  The more specific the better.

If you are picking from their pre-existing designs, it doesn't hurt to be specific either.  There are usually options and upgrades available and the more specific the better.  If you want wood handles, ask for pictures of various pieces.  If you can, pick out the wood grain you like best, for example.  You might want to grab the piece that looks like this:

If you can get custom anodizing, see a sample of a pattern beforehand.  Ask about details if there are options.

4.  Save your pennies

There is no such thing as "cheap" custom gear.  It is all expensive.  Even slabs of metal without moving parts are expensive.  Most makers will want some sort of upfront deposit, to cover materials in the first instance.  Many will require entire payments up front.  When the prices easily hit four digits, plan on buying gear months if not a year later.    

5.  Wait patiently

Along with the wait for saving up money, prepare to wait once you have paid.  This stuff wouldn't be so sought after if it wasn't amazing.  And it wouldn't be amazing if it were quick and easy to make.  Yuna Knives has an excellent estimated delivery policy.  It would be great if you could just order a custom product and have it delivered, but that is unlikely.  Again, McGizmo usually only posts what he has on hand, but few custom makers have so established a business that they can make multiples of a given item with confidence that they will sell.  That much unaccounted for expense is hard to deal with for small scale folks.  So in most instances it is a waiting game.  And as was said before, be prepared for unforeseen delays.  It is likely they will happen and it is what takes place AFTER that that matters.  If the maker is prompt and makes contact soon that is a good sign.  If you get radio or email silence, that is a bad sign.  

6.  Use Paypal

Paypal is amazing.  You know that.  But what you might not know is that there dispute resolution system is superb.  I have had the unfortunate opportunity to use it once and it worked perfectly.  It gives you so much confidence in buying.  It cuts through all of the legal baloney of dealing with people over state lines and overseas.  I am very pleased with Paypal and their insurance is worth the money.  Nothing else I have found on the Internet offers the ease of use and power of Paypal.  If the custom maker doesn't take Paypal, move on unless there is a VERY good reason to not worry about wonky transactions.

7.  Go to the head of the line

One way to skip the agonizing wait for a custom piece of gear is to go to a custom gear reseller.  There are a host of sites that sell custom knives.  Here are a few with larger collections for sale:

Blade HQ
True North Knives
Plaza Cutlery
Steel Addiction
Knife Art

These sites offer custom knives, at a reasonable price, and offer them for immediate delivery, something that custom makers can't usually pull off.  These sites buy knives from makers, usually at shows, and then resell them for a slightly higher price to customers.  The maker ensures that his products will be sold, the resellers ensure a stock of unique and high quality products, and the customer gets to skip the wait.  You have some selection but not a ton.  You can't, for example, ask for a modified version of a knife you see.  What you see is what you get.

For flashlights, it is a bit more difficult to find resellers.  A reliable place for custom stuff is the B/S/T forum of CPF, found here.  Aside from that, there is little else out there that offers custom lights.  One interesting trend is the combination of high end production lights and custom mods, found at True North Knives.  There LensLight and Starlingear have combined to make some unique looking lights.  You can find more about them here.  They are not my thing, but I can see why people would like them.  They are definitely different. 

There is some really spectacular custom gear out there and the Internet makes it possible for us to have access to unprecedented levels of quality.  You pay for it.  You'll wait for it.  But it is worth it.  My Haiku convinced me.


  1. Whoa whoa... paypal is amazing? I'm not so sure about that. Wait til they decide to arbitrarily hold $1000 of your dollars for no good reason, and then don't tell you how or when you can get access to it.

  2. They may be slow, but Paypal has the ability to settle disputes that could never be worked out in court.

    In my case Lummi took my money and never sent me my light. A month went by, no light. Then 45 days. I contacted Lummi and got the brush off. Then I contacted Paypal. As part of the settlement process they froze his account which all but stopped his business until my dispute was settled. Needless to say, I had a refund in a day or two.

    I could have never worked that out in court. The court fees alone were more than the price of the goods. Plus Lummi is in England and I am in the US.

    Using Paypal as an intermediary might make the transaction a bit slower, but in my experience they have the ability to fix things no one else can and they give you piece of mind when you are spending big bucks on custom gear.

    I have no affiliation with Paypal, but in my experience, they just work.

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