View Full Version : Knife Collecting Tutorial

06-23-2001, 07:24 PM
Knife Collecting Tutorial

By Jerry Oksman

Look at knife. Like knife. Buy knife.

There it is in a nutshell, but seriously folks, I said I would attempt to do this tutorial, but even I don't actually understand what it means. Knife Collecting, I mean that's just so broad. What are we actually taking about? Are we talking about what we collect? Or what to look for in a knife? Or how to deal with a knifemaker or purveyor? How to act at a knife show? And each of these questions can be broken down even further. It's so very open ended.

Also I must put my disclaimer up, I am not a knifemaker now nor have I ever been one in the past, by some peoples definitions I am not even a hard core collector. My collecting habits are erratic and not specifically definable. By that I mean that for every rule I have about knife collecting I have an exception. Of course some people will tell you that the rules are defined by their exceptions, but that's too Zen (or too existential if your from the western world) for most. In my round about way I will cover how I personally go about this bizarre hobby we call knife collecting.

Ok, first things first. Just what kind of collector are you? Are you in this for the money? Are you in this for the art or just a using knife? Are you a hunter or fisherman who has passed on the factory knives out there? Are you a martial artist or military combatant that has strayed from your foremost path onto this one? Are you a knifemaker who has started to gather that which normally you would sell? A combination? One from column A and One from Column B. It's a tough question and one that you have to really answer for yourself. It will lead you to how you go about your collecting. Personally, I am not in it for the money, because of that it opens up more collecting avenues for me, as I don't have to worry about whether or not the knife I buy will go up in value or not. That's not to say that I don't value value. Even if it's just to stroke my own ego I like to buy something and know that it going to go up in price. It's another factor in the worth, or my willingness to buy a knife, it's just not the deciding factor. I also do not have a particular type of knife I look for, although a knife collection of a "type" say doctors knives or bowies or whatever can add value to the collection, the sum ends up being worth more together than the separate pieces. Sometimes I want a carry or daily use knife sometimes art, sometimes fixed or folder. I try to keep an open mind and sometimes you'll find something that you never in your wildest imaginings would have expected.

I firmly believe that to stay sane and have knife collecting as a hobby (if you can actually be sane and have this as a hobby), you have to buy what you like. This is "The Rule", as far as I am concerned. I don't think that this can be emphasized enough. After I have decided that "I like it, I like it!" then there are a bunch of things to consider design, fit and finish, materials, the funky factor or uniqueness and finally cost. These various factors can of course affect each other, in the simplest terms ivory costs more than micarta, better believe that the same knife using ivory is going to cost more than the one using micarta and be worth more too.

First on my list of things to look for is design. Design is another broad category that could be a tutorial (or a debate) all by itself. It can be as simple as looks and as complex as ergonomics. Does the knife look good? This really means does it look good to you! Does it look like it can do the job it's made for? Does it seem to be of one piece? This means does it look complete and do the lines flow. Is there something that jars the knife so that your eyes get stuck on it, did the maker throw grinds all over the place or is there just enough. With most art you will find that either the artist is going for an overall effect or they put something striking in to draw your eye. An inlay or mosaic Damascus bolster or ruby thumbstud can all do this. The Question you have to ask yourself is have they gone too far. Has this knife passed from ornate to gaudy? It is a personal decision. What I generally go by is does the knife look right to me.

Next is the ergonomics, which is a nice fancy word for does it feel good in the hand and does it cut well. If you are buying an art knife this is not a consideration. An art knife is to be seen and not to be used. Still there are some people out there who will take their $2000 folder and slice bread and spread the peanut butter and use those knives. It's got to be nice to have money! So as long as the knife can do these basic things it's still a knife, if it can't well then it's not so much a knife as it is a piece of sculpture. "Not that there's anything wrong with that" to misquote Jerry Seinfeld. When you have the knife in your hand does it feel comfortable? Is this a knife that you could use for hours and hours without difficulty, without strain or getting blisters? Is the handle big enough or small enough for your hand? Does it sit firmly in your grip or does your hand slide forward or back? Is the handle shaped to prevent this or is there a guard? If this is to primarily be a kitchen knife do your knuckles hit the table if you were to slice something? What about the blade shape? Is it shaped properly for your tasks? Are you looking for a specialized cutting implement or something that will have to cover a variety of chores? A drop point or clip point are just about the best all around shapes, but a Wharnecliffe will give you more straight edge to work with and a sheepsfoot eliminates a point so you need not worry about stabbing yourself or others if you slip. A recurve gives more cutting power, but sacrifices ease of re-sharpening, but it's harder to make and that can add value. A spearpoint or dagger blade is a specialized tool, but it gives you two edges if one side gets dull. How thick is the blade? Are you buying a sharpened prybar? If you're a police officer or a firefighter maybe you are. Thinner edges will cut easier, but you risk breaking or bending if you do something not covered by the "regular use" warranty. It comes out to a series of compromises and you have to decide which ones you are willing to live with.

With a folder there are more issues. Is the handle much bigger than the blade? Blade to handle ratio is something often discussed. It's not as big a deal with fixed blades. Here the handle has to be big enough for you to get a good grip and the blade length will vary depending upon the intended use of the knife. With folders you want as big a blade as can fit into the handle. Here too, if the knife is a traditional pattern then this goes right out the window. However, with the traditional knife you've got a set standard for the knife to conform to. The folder should be as comfortable closed as it is when opened. The process of opening and closing should also be easy. If it's not then the thumbstud (if the knife has one) is not positioned well. Be careful when judging this, as this will vary depending upon your hand size and finger length and the mobility of your fingers.

Fit and finish, this is what really separates the men from the boys. This also is where the design hits the road, to mix my metaphors. Handle the knife; are there any sharp edges (other than where they are supposed to be)? Are the grind lines even? Are they crisp? Is there solder visible at the joints? Can you feel or see gaps between bolsters and handles? On full tang knives are there gaps between the handle and tang? On folders are there any gaps between the liner and the handle? Do the pins or screws protrude above the handle or bolster or are they flush? Is there any play in the pivot? This is a big issue, it tells a lot about the construction of the folder. Does it move side to side? Expect some play with lockbacks, but there should be virtually none in linerlocks. How does that folder "walk and talk"? This is an old timer saying meaning how does the blade open and how does it sound when the lock clicks in. Does the blade move smoothly? Is there a positive feel when the lock engages? When you close your linerlock does the ball detent pull the knife closed in that last 1/16 of an inch? You really want that. Is there positive feel when you close your slip joint or lockback? When the folder is closed does the back of the blade stick out past the handles? Usually this is not desirable as the protrusion can scratch or snag clothing, but careful here, some folders are built like this on purpose so that the back of the blade protrusion can be used to open the knife. Are there scratches in the knife? Did the maker take the time and effort to sand the knife down to a sufficient grit? This will vary from maker to maker and also by the purpose of the knife. Is everything uniform in shade? Changes in coloring or shade can indicate that a spot was missed in the sanding or polishing stages of the knife construction. Are the grinds even? Are the radii at the choil even? Have the right angles on the knife (like the back of the blade spine) been chamfered or radiused? This is a sure sign of a maker who takes extra care with their knives. Is the knife sharp? I left this for last because it is the least important. What I blaspheme you say! Well I can sharpen a knife so I don't worry about it as much. Also with differing uses different types of sharpness is better. Sound confusing? It's not really. A using edge will last longer if it's not shaving sharp. Hey, I like shaving sharp too, but a rougher edge will make a plain blade act as if it has serration's which can be better if your cutting cardboard or rope. It really comes down to what you will use it for.

Materials, well we are still looking for that super steel and until we find it and everyone starts to use it any blade we get is going to be a series of compromises. First off is this a user or a wall hanger. What's suitable for one is not for the other. With today's metallurgy just about any steel you choose will do the job. But since this is about custom knives generally you stay away from the generic steels that most factories are using. Although this is changing as more and more factories are using the "new" steels, following the trail blazed by the custom knifemakers. I won't even try to tell you what steel to choose, as this is a fruitless debate. What I will say is that if you take a lot of care of your knives you can choose just about anything, if you don't you really want to stay with a stainless steel. Keep in mind though that forged steel knives can be a collecting category all it's own. What is critical with all knives is the heat treat. It can make mediocre steel perform amazingly and great steel perform horribly. I've also been told, by those who would know, that if Damascus is heat treated right it should perform right up there with all the other steels. Damascus is derigor nowadays and I have to admit that I have caught the bug myself. It looks amazing and can do everything you would normally ask of a knife. On to handles
If it's a using knife for you then you are going to want tough materials that are easy to care for. Micarta is always a good choice. G10 and its variants are also good synthetics. More traditionally stag is good, but getting harder to find and while not quite up there in the strength department as the synthetics hardwoods are also good and very appealing. Move to upscale knives and you head toward ivories and pearls. These are great materials, but understand that they have their own considerations. Like the woods, ivories are very environmentally sensitive. If it's humid they expand, if dry they contract. If this happens too often or too quickly cracks can develop. Consider this if your buying from a knifemaker who lives in an environment radically different from where you live. Pearls aren't as sensitive but they are more prone to chipping. Both ivories and pearls are difficult to work with and difficult to acquire and with recent legislation's sometimes illegal to acquire. This will raise the cost of the knife. But just like you get more from the resale of a car that's loaded with all the options so to will you get more dollar value from a knife with all the options.

Funk Factor or uniqueness or coolness or whatever. Some knives just have it. It can be in the design or it can be because they have an interesting feature. A small blade hidden in the handle, a wacky blade shape, a novel locking mechanism a sculpted handle. I say if it's funky go for it. As long as it doesn't take away from a blades intrinsic knifeness then an interesting knife can be a conversation piece for years to come. This deciding factor in knife collecting gets the least press from me because it is the most esoteric and indefinable. But you'll know it when you see it.

Cost. Well you've got to be able to afford it. But as my grandfather was fond of saying "Only rich people can afford to buy cheap stuff" (that's the best I can translate from the original Polish) Cheap stuff breaks and you have to buy a replacement. Quality costs but it last a lifetime. More! With knives you'll be able to pass these along to your grandkids. So buy the most knife you can. Here again this topic can be broken down further and further into more specific subtopics. What makes the knife cost what it does? Well, first off there are the materials. Some materials are just costlier than others are. Damascus costs more than plain steel, black lip pearl cost more than gold which costs more than white pearl which costs more than g10 which costs more than micarta. I think you get the picture. Then there is the process. A forged blade takes more time and effort than a stock removal blade. Bolsters and dovetails are more difficult than plain slabs. Gimmicks and specialized lock mechanisms all this adds to the cost, but also to the worth. The knifemakers name can also add to the cost. With a famous maker you will pay more, hopefully paying for their name will give your knife purchase that much more value. Providence can also raise value in a knife. Providence can come in many forms, a photo in a magazine or a history behind the knife or even a written receipt.

Ok, armed with the information you've gained from reading this you're off to a knife show to buy a knife. (Heaven help you if this is your only source of information) A knife show can be overwhelming; your favorite stuff all crammed into a small area with the guys and gals who've made it! Try and make it a learning experience, ask questions. Most knifemakers are very amiable sorts who are just as into talking knives (especially their own) as much if not more than you are. Realize though that they have to deal with a lot of people and if their tables are swamped they may not get to spend as much time with you as either of you would like. This brings up another point, be polite and patient at these things it will get you further than being pushy and obnoxious. Ask to handle the knives, the knifemaker will appreciate your courtesy and most are very happy to have you do so. Ask them about the knife, the materials etc. they will be happy to tell you what's what. Do not whack the back of the knives to test the locks of folders, it's rude and you can damage the spine of the handle. Do not say, "I'll be back" 95% of people at a knife show do not come back, the knifemakers know this. If you make the knife show more than a shopping excursion it will be that much more enjoyable for you. Remember every knife you handle is one more step in your cutlery knowledge.

Well that's it. I would like to say that without the generous help and instruction of knifemakers and knife collectors too numerous to mention (besides if I tried to mention them either I'd miss someone [likely] or they would disavow knowing me :) ) I would not have been able to write this. To them I say thank you. If you the reader have managed to glean something from this it is to them that you owe thanks. Any mistakes are purely my own. Fin.

&nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp ~ New York City 6-23-01 ~

06-23-2001, 07:27 PM
A while back Alex asked for someone to write a knife collecting tutorial. I volunteered. (yes I know all about volunteering) Here's my go at it. I hope you learn at least one thing that you didn't know before.

Les Robertson
06-23-2001, 09:32 PM
Hi Jerry,

Very well done, you put an awful lot in that "nut shell".

06-25-2001, 10:22 AM
Thanks Les, of course I already have your book on order. You can never know enough. I do hope you'll autograph it before you send it out! I feel for you on writting a book on the subject. I doubt I could have, doing this was difficult enough.

Here's another resource for knife evaluation. From The Knife Collectors List. this ones a little more technical. (

06-25-2001, 11:25 AM
Good Job Jerry!

You have a lot to say about knives that will give folks the ammo they need to buy good ones.

Roger Gregory
06-25-2001, 12:18 PM
Excellent work Jerry. I've printed a copy and I'll make sure I look it over every time I look at a knife I am thinking of buying. Well at least the ones I actually get to handle.

I suppose I'll have to buy Les's book too. Will it stop me making unwise purchases? Probably not, but I'll know where I went wrong :)


Don Cowles
06-25-2001, 03:57 PM
Good package, Jerry!

06-26-2001, 03:52 PM

The best I have read. Fantastic insight.

Thanks for that effort and the thoughts,

07-13-2001, 09:16 AM

That is a well thought out piece of writting - thank you.



07-16-2001, 10:14 AM
Thanks people, I appreciate it.

It really took me a while to write this, it's a lot harder than it appears. A lot of this happens so quickly when you actually do it (and have a knife in hand) it takes so much longer to write it down. You really have to think about what your actually thinking about and what are you looking at, while your brain process's all this info so fast. Then the writing itself, and the editing.