Monday, May 16, 2016

Breaking the Embargo, Part I

I am not sure if you have noticed, but there is scant information out there that contains critical evaluations of custom or handmade knives.  Aaron Shapiro has put out about as much critical information as anyone in the community and he has received quite a bit of flak for it.  But the truth remains--no one really ever says anything negative about custom knives.

I think part of that is a very good thing--negative feedback for a custom maker can be devastating.  It can put the maker out of business and we in the knife community not only benefit from having a large number of creative minds, but we also root for the little guy.

But the other part of the embargo is an insidious thing.  I have had many collectors tell me that they don't want to say anything for fear of being blacklisted by makers.  That is, if they spoke out on a given knife a maker might never sell to them again and other makers might do the same.  For a collector, people that spend thousands and thousands of dollars on custom knives, that sort of punishment is just too much.  And so the embargo on critical information regarding custom knives continues.

Until now.  I am done with this silly game.  

I am not a collector, so I don't care if I get black listed.  If I never get another custom knife again, I am fine with that.  I have plenty and since none of us strictly needs even one, I am okay.  Second, I am probably not willing to pay the prices that some of the really high end makers charge direct.  Finally, if I really want a handmade knife, I can get one on the secondary market.  The prices might be higher, but the availability is greater, so it is a trade off.  Basically, I am assuming that by publishing this, no custom maker will ever sell direct to me again.  If that's the case, so be it.  

In the end I write this website for you, the reader.  I want you to be informed.  I want you to read.  And I want you to enjoy gear.  If you spend $750 on a handmade knife and it is terrible, I don't want you to be stuck with it and miserable.  I rather you know so that you can avoid buying it in the first place.  I want you to be informed and enjoy the stuff you have.  As I approach 300 reviews, I feel like it is getting to the point where you can CTRL+F just about any production knife or light and find a review in my Big List of Reviews.  I like that.  I want to add handmade knives to that list, especially ones that don't rate so highly.  My experiences with Charles Gedraitis, Gareth Bull, and Steve Karroll have all been first rate--both dealing with the maker and the product itself.


But it is not always like that.  

You may notice that there are few knives in my Instagram feed that appear and then disappear without ever getting a review.


Here is why--they all had problems, serious problems.  In most cases I was able to rectify the problem and in a lot of cases it was rectified by returning the knife to the seller, even if the seller was the maker.  But I never mentioned why.  I am not so persuaded by the second reason for the embargo.  I could give a shit. I was, however, persuaded by the first reason.  

I am not so persuaded anymore.  The business of being a knife maker is a challenging one, but in the past three or so years it has been a booming business.  More and more makers enter the field and it has become more and more competitive. The amount of money out there is insane.  Virtually every maker of renown has filled books or isn't using a book system anymore. Lots of makers have deals with production companies to fall back on if business gets slow.  We have reached a point where these are businesses and not necessarily some guy in his garage.  So that "little guy" feel, while still definitely there, is not as strong as it used to be.  With the hobby flushed with money right now I feel like the damage that could be done by a single review is negligible.  Saying someone's knife stinks isn't going to put them out of business, not in this age of perpetually filled books and four figure direct costs. 

There are two other reasons I feel like criticism of handmade knives is okay.  First, I recently bought a knife from a very famous maker and it was not very good.  I confirmed with the maker that there were no machining mistakes or fit and finish problems.  All of my issues were based on design choices.  And so, once I had confirmed that the knife wasn't a lemon, I sent this maker an email with a list of issues I had with the knife and its design.  He didn't lose his mind.  He didn't threaten me over email.  He took the criticisms in stride.  Hopefully they will make him a better knife maker.  Good, well-meaning criticism will help the hobby and the individual crafts person, not hurt it.  Second, there is that pesky business about being in service to the reader.  I have taken enough flak from enough companies by now that flak from a knife maker isn't going to bother me all that much, especially if it is spawned by an article that helps you figure out how to spend your money.  

So the embargo is over.  Up next is a run down of a few customs I have had problems with and what those problems were.


  1. Ive been pleased to notice you being more willing to demystify custom blades, such as your very fair points regarding the Kizer Gemni vs custom original in that review. Even being happy to call out the initial issues with your Brous Folder some years ago was rare at that time. It is definitely a coddled industry, and the buyers themselves are fierce. I suspect you'll meet with more resistance from zealous consumers than from makers themselves. The people who spend the money feel very protective of their investment. I get money blindness too sometimes, but when its these amounts of money, a little crushing honesty is needed. Will read with interest!

  2. This is the most important issue in the knife community in my opinion. I have seen some terrible grinds on some custom knives just to name one issue. Thank you for taking this step in your reviews!

  3. I enjoyed your debate with Mr. Scurvy on the latest GGL about customs. I think you both had very cogent and well-reasoned points, but I think you were right about the need to criticize(as in critique) the custom knives and their makers. If Kershaw or Spyderco or Cold Steel put out a crap knife, the knife community knows about it very quickly. Custom makers should be held to the same if not higher standard because of the price and the supposed increase in quality/artistry/design. If you got blackballed because you criticized a crappy knife, then anyone who blackballs you isn't worth anyone's money in the first place. Even if they make a great product, I wouldn't trust them personally for any future customer service-related needs because of their clearly petty and immature attitude. This is especially true if a maker blackballed you for calling out someone else's products and not their own. Hopefully most makers will be like the one you referenced above and mentioned in the podcast. But if not, that's really their loss, not yours, and it's a gain for the community to know that the maker is going to act in such a fashion.

  4. Very much looking forward to this series Tony! I've always wondered about certain knives that showed up on your Instagram that then never got a review or follow up. It is a shame about the level of coddling some new knife makers get. After seeing a few well liked makers fail with basic fit and finish issues and the backlash from their fans on anyone publicly critical about the knives, I'll admit it's put me off from ever buying anything from makers or products that aren't well established.

  5. Righteous.

    You can buy $30 overseas-made knives today with well-fitted scales, spot-on lock geometry and good primary and secondary grinds.

    While you've convinced me (in earlier writing) that it's unrealistic to hold handmakers to Chris Reeve production standards, I can't imagine being satisfied with a handmade knife that didn't at least reach the standard in the preceding paragraph.

    If this subfield of the knife hobby is about craftsmanship, innovation, and high standards, it should be able to absorb and profit from critique.

    If it's just Beanie Babies for high-income hipsters, that's worth knowing too.

  6. Similar descussions are held about custom clothing and shoes. Rtw shoes, for example, may have more precise fit and finish and may be made on a more refined last than custom shoes. Some will excuse the quirks in shape or finishing as part and parcel of handmade or even part of their appeal. Others think custom shoes should be the best at everything. I think the best custom shoes should be the best at everything, but things that aren't the best are still good.

    The big difference between the use of the term "custom" in knives and clothes is that for clothes it usually means the garment was made for a specific customer, to fit his/her body and stylistic preferences. Whereas for knives it really means one-of-a-kind or small batch, perhaps made by one person or a small team, and perhaps made with a high amount of handwork.

    1. First, I don't think there is any concensus on what a "custom" is. To me, something being "custom" means it is bespoke, made by a maker to the buyer's specifications. Most of these are just small batches of knives built by the maker (or a small group) to the specifications of the maker, to the maker's taste.

  7. I like your honesty. A knife is a tool that should work well and secondly look well. It has to fit the needs of the user with practicality in the first place. If this isnt the case especially with custom high end knives we should be honest about it and like you said tell the maker so he can make a better knife the next time. +1

  8. As a guy who will probably never buy a custom knife, I hope you focus heavily on the positives and negatives of the designs of these knives, moreso than the fit and finish or manufacturing (unless there is something really unique about those elements).

    The reason is, if you (or anyone else) get a knife that has poor or good f&f, that's not really all that interesting - I'm guessing custom and hand-made knives can vary quite a bit in that department from knife-to-knife, so one example doesn't tell us a lot about that maker. But if a maker puts out a really innovative (or even a really poor) design, I think that tells us a lot more about that maker and his talent, regardless of whether the knife has excellent f&f or just merely good f&f.

    In addition to that, I think design ability is a skill that requires feedback for improvement. So I think you'll be doing a service to makers by critiquing the design over the finish.

    Looking forward to the articles!

  9. Well done. There a number of reasons I've basically taken customs off my list of knives I'd like to have, but my experiences with the end product itself is Reason #1. I've yet to own a custom, some from very popular makers and ABS master blade-smiths, that were as good as high end production knives costing significantly less. Grinds being off, misfitting scales, even one with the pocket clip sitting a bit proud of the butt of the handle have been some of the things I've experienced. What bothered me more, however, was the positively radiant reviews these knives got from other fans. It's made me take other enthusiasts reviews with huge grains of salt. I've come to the conclusion other fans are either blinded by being star struck with knife makers or are afraid to state the truth, like you stated.

    It's better for everyone in the community(makers, companies and fans) if we all stop drinking the purple stuff and be more honest with our experiences.

    Thanks again

  10. I wish the "community" would keep @erikolsby from making "knives" and wasting materials to make his fugly tools.

    As Knife Haterz would say, it's all about the mattrails.

  11. I know the maker Tony is talking about and I want to point out that Tony has heaped effusive praise on this maker in the past for designing knives without testing the design and hitting it out of the park for just 'knowing' the knife would work well.