Knife shows are a strange breed. Many hobbies have shows--you can go to a coin show or a baseball card show--but knife shows are a bit different. They are a mix of a commercial event and a beauty pageant, or at least they were. Knife shows also come in a wide variety of styles and sizes. BLADE is the biggest knife show with hundreds if not thousands of exhibitors. On the other end of the spectrum is the Tactical Knife Invitational, which is an invite-only show where exhibitors get asked to come and people attending pay a hefty fee. There is the California show, that has gone by many names, where the best and brightest makers from the west coast and Hawaii showed up. Then there are the two east coast shows--the New York Custom Knife Show and the East Coast Custom Knife Show.
But most shows aren't spectacular blow outs. Most shows are put on by local organizations and have local makers and dealers. They are small affairs in the ballrooms or conference rooms at Holiday Inns and the like across the country. But you can find great stuff at one of these shows and no matter the show, you can find custom knives at greatly reduced prices (except for a couple of very high profile makers). The Northeast Cutlery Collectors Association's big show, their Annual Show, is coming up on the first weekend of May and I plan on going (I'll be wearing this T-shirt in green, so come say "hi"), so I thought it would be fun to give people a knife show primer.
What To Expect
Most smaller shows will have tables set up and dealers and makers behind the tables. There are quite a few people selling and buying traditional style knives and fixed blades, but over the years the number of folks selling modern folders has risen. There will be lots of Case stuff and old Remington and Winchester blades, but in and amongst the sea of stag handles you can find gems, traditional and modern.
You'll probably find a few people selling modern stuff, basically in person versions of a website. Their prices are a very competitive and generally speaking this is the reason to go to a knife show (aside from talking to folks). The prices on everything are much lower than they are on line or on the secondary market.
After those two groups you will find a few custom makers. This is how I met Steve Karroll. Its also how I impulse bought my second Karroll knife, this gem:
They will have their wears spread out on a table before you tempting you with never-before-seen one offs and the like. You'll also find a few folks selling uber-expensive art knives. Be very careful here, unless you feel like walking home after selling your car to raise funds for a gilded drop point hunter or an ivory handled Bowie.
Finally you might have a few exhibitors selling knife supplies like handle materials and exotic damascus bar stock. In true knife SHOW fashion there might also people folks displaying their collections and not selling a thing. It is a tradition at knife shows to give out awards for best in show and even though this is less common nowadays there are still folks doing this. These people are a fount of information, so even if you have money burning a hole in your pocket its worth chatting with them.
Have a Plan
Now that you know what to expect, you need to know how to get the most out of a knife show. First, I strongly, strongly recommend you have a budget. If you don't things can get bad very quickly. Even small shows will have a few custom makers and the allure of a unique blade at rock bottom prices can be irresistible. The prices, so called "table prices", are so low that shows are almost always the best way to buy custom knives. Here is why: when a custom maker goes to a show he knows he will have a captive audience with money to spend. So he can set aside some time before the show, make a handful of blades, and come back with a handful of cash. Its rare for a custom maker to sell so many blades so quickly and the shows, if well-attended, can be a financial shot in the arm. Additionally, the overhead of a show is very low--basically all they have to buy is the table. Once there they don't have to worry about wait times, materials issues, manufacturing errors, shipping and packaging. Its basically--have knife get cash, especially in the super hot custom market that exists right now. So a knife that costs $600-800 on the secondary market, can be had for much, much less around $400-$500. This applies only to makers, as purveyors generally charge market prices or a bit more.
So now you can see the problem--stuff is super cheap and there is a lot of it. If you don't have a plan you'll lose your shirt (never your pants though because where would you clip your knives?). Here is what I recommend.
First, set a budget. This is hard ceiling. What I generally do is set aside some money months in advance and use that. I strongly recommend against using a credit card because that means your budget is essentially whatever you want it to be. Bring cash or a check (yes, check, not checkbook). Set the limit and don't go over it. Remember though almost all of these folks are small business people and thus cash is king.
Second, have an idea of what you want to buy in mind. If you don't have any idea, you will be distracted by all of the pretty baubles. A rare TiNives folder here,
a custom drop point hunter there, and oh shit, there is an RJ Martin Q36. Don't do that. Have a target in mind and look for that thing. Not only will this prevent you from spending money on stuff you don't need or want, it will focus your search and make the anticipation fun. You don't have to be rigid about the goal, but it is better than walking into a place with $500 and no idea what you want.
Third, be aware of what's there. With the Internet, so many things are readily available. There is virtually no production knife being made today that you can't just buy if you have the money. But at a knife show there will be things that you might never see on a web page. For me, this is one of the reasons to go to a knife show. You'll probably find stuff there that you have never heard of or things you have heard of only as rumors. That TiNives blade I mentioned might make an appearance. You may find an early production version of the Paul Knife
or some esoteric traditional folder. Try, if you can, to find out what dealers and custom makers are going to be in attendance, so you can whittle down your list.
Early and Often
If you are looking to score a custom blade or a hard to find, out of production knife, it is worth your time to arrive early. The last show I went to I got there about 5 minutes after it opened, I saw a knife I really wanted, and then did a loop of the show. On my second visit, the knife was still available, but that custom maker's stock dwindling. Not wanting to lose the blade I told him to hold it for me. On my third loop around almost everything was gone and I bought the blade. All of this happened in about a half hour.
The custom market is so crazy hot right now that almost every maker's books are closed. So seeing their wares at a knife show, at prices half of what you would pay online, makes it very tempting to just plunk down cash. But everyone is in the same boat. The chance that stuff will be there at the end of the show, even the end of small shows, is almost zero. Sure there will be some guy with a series of $6,000 art knives that don't sell out or someone with a very...um...creative approach to folders that has stuff at the end of the show, but by in large, the market is so hot right now that many custom makers working in the modern style sell out quickly. Get to the show early.
Also, once you arrive, I would recommend making one large sweep of the entire place. Now with a show like BLADE this is not possible. The show is just too big. But for most other shows its reasonable for you to make a loop through the entire show and come back to what you want. There is nothing worse than "settling" for one blade only to find your grail for less than you thought it would be one table down. By getting there early you can afford to do a loop or two. You might be able to persuade folk to hold stuff for you. Don't be a jerk and make them hold stuff for the entire show and not buy it, but if you put a hold on something for an hour and come back, that's not unreasonable.
Just because there are dozens of dealers and thousands of blades, don't feel the need to buy anything. If you have made the circuit multiple times and nothing stands out, save your money. There will always be another show. Mind you, I don't practice what I preach here. The last show I went to I was look for a Paul Knife and came home with the impulse purchase Steve Karroll folder shown above. I am just telling you what you ought to do, not what you will do. I have no doubt that when the wallet is able the will is weak, especially at a knife show.
As great as the knives are, I have found that the people are better. The chance to talk directly to custom makers is a real treat. You can find out if the bleeding edge steel is all its cracked up to be or if it is really just the same old thing. You'll learn a ton about lock face geometry and pivots. You could get an impromptu class on locking mechanisms. And you might run into a mega-collector.
One person I met at a show is probably the last person in the world you'd expect to have a world class collection. Judging by appearances she, yes she, would probably pass for the head librarian at a university before you'd guess she has one of the finest folder collections in the world. She is a fountain of knowledge. She knows knife history and the collector's market better than some dude at Sotheby's. She can tell you when that particular lock was used on a given Michael Walker or when Damasteel became all the rage. She can talk with conviction about the superiority of a bail to a lanyard hole. And she is super nice. Almost all of the folks at knife shows are. Sure there are a few that stand out like sore thumbs, but you'd be shocked at the number of people that will let you handle five figure knives without batting an eye.
Be a listener. Be polite. Be friendly and ready with a handshake and you will learn a ton and meet awesome people. The joy of finding a grail compares poorly to the insights you will gain. As a small, niche community, the knife world is tight knit. And even in small shows held in far flung places you'll find someone that has great insights. That's worth the admission price, even if you come home with nothing.
Just for fun I thought I'd share with you what I am looking for at the show:
1. Any TAD Dauntless flipper with a blade 3" or under
2. RJ Martin Modulator
3. Paul Knife with a blade 3" or under
4. TiNives with a blade 3" or under
5. Northwoods Knives Indian River Jack (this is my current #1 most wanted traditional knife, even over a Bose/Case collab; ATS 34 steel, amazing handle shape, convex grind...its a real killer blade)
6. Kershaw Tilt (yep, still)
7. Blue handled or Orange handled Paramilitary 2
8. Dietz-modded Boker Kwaiken
I could keep going, but at some point its just ridiculous. If I land either of the first two, I will be on a spending freeze for the next millenium or two, but its good to have dream purchases. You never know when one will float past. Oh, and in that case, I'd take a Mayo if one was available at a reasonable price.
If you are going to BLADE or your just going to a local show, have fun. If you are going to Mystic, please say hi.