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Ed Caffrey's Workshop Talk to Ed Caffrey ... The Montana Bladesmith! Tips, tricks and more from an ABS Mastersmith.

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Old 07-14-2006, 11:46 PM
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Ed Caffrey Ed Caffrey is offline
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Factory versus Custom/Handmade..the way I see it

It's been a bit slow around here lately, mostly due to the fact that I've been really busy, and have not visitied the forums as much as I should. I thought I would throw this out and see what others think. I responded to a post on another forum where the question was asked by a customer...... "Why should I buy a custom rather than a production?" I copied/pasted my response to this forum, because I think it's something that might evoke some thought, and maybe help answer some questions.

The way I see it, it boils down to two distinctly different philosiphies.....

1. Production knife compainies are in business for ONE reason, that is to make money. The line of thinking generally goes something like:
What are the least expensive materials we can use, that are the easiest to machine/manipulate for our factory, that will provide us with a product of ACCEPTABLE quality, that the public would be willing to purchase? This is MY belief from a number of years listening to, and talking with individuals from production knife companies. I at one time was trying to work out a deal with a production company on one of my designs. At the time I was too young and stupid to realize that there had to be some give and take involved. The knife in question was of 52100, and the company did not want to produce the blade in that particular steel, siting that the material was too expensive, and too difficult/critical to work for a production setting. During every conversation the subject of cost before quality always came up, with the factory rep. trying to get me to accept a lower grade of steel because it was cheaper to obtain, and easier to integrate into a production line situation. Again, being young and not really understanding, I held fast to my belief that if my name was going to be associated with it, it needed to be the "right" steel, and I just flat wasn't going to budge on my demands. As it turned out, my attitude toward "compromise" cost me that factory deal, but the experience taught me a lot about the differences between a single Maker in his/her shop, and a production knife company. The name/logo that appears on a factory knife depicts the company. If a knife fails or breaks, most of them will simply send the customer out another knife (if they have a warranty on the product), and think nothing more about it.

#2: After having explained all of that, my belief concerning a "Custom" Knifemaker, or a single individual making knives is this... First off, most of us would like to make money at what we do, but most that endure are also strongly motivated by a shear love of the craft. (meaning most of us would continue to make knives even if we didn't earn any money)
A good reputation within our business is one of the hardest things to achieve, and one of the easiest things to loose. Every item leaving an individual's shop is bearing the mark of that maker. Whether that be a logo or an individual's name, it is a distinct marker of the individual, therefore, to my way of thinking, it is in the best interest of the Maker to ensure that EVERYTHING that leaves that shop MUST be the very best quality it can be, without concern for how much the steel cost, or how long it took, or how easy is was to produce the finished product.... With each an every item that leaves, your reputation is on the line. If something the individual has produced fails or breaks, there is an indelible mark left in that customer's mind, even if the situation is "made right" by the Maker. There's a huge difference when the total responsibility lies on a single individual, rather than several hundered "workers". At the end of the day the custom maker looks at what he/she has produced, and gets a huge feeling of satisfaction and pride about what they have achieved. In the factory, the accountant looks as the numbers, the number of units produced, and the bottom line of how profitable the days was.

I'm in no way trying to paint the production knife companies as evil or bad, just different than the individual, and necessarily so if the production company wishes to reamain a viable business. It's simply a necessary difference in philosophy.

The question of heat treating knowledge is like comparing apples and oranges. The factory chooses the steel for a blade based on how easily and/or "cost effectivley" it can be shaped, heat treated, and finished to provide an "acceptable quality" product. The lone Maker in his/her shop makes each knife "one at a time" (at least I do) and therefore has the incentive, and must take the time to ensure that the heat treatment is the very best it can be, testing each and every one (at least they should), where as the factory MIGHT be testing one out of every 100 or even 1000.


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Old 07-15-2006, 04:26 PM
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Amen bro.Ya doing BACKA next month?


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Old 07-15-2006, 06:54 PM
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Nope, no BAKCA for me this year. Not selling a knife last year, and the huge expense of doing the show made me seek greener pastures. I'm gona stick a little closer to home next month...doing the MKA show and then Blade West will be my last show of the year. (gotta make some time for hunting this year!)


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Old 07-15-2006, 07:23 PM
AcridSaint AcridSaint is offline
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The other day a buddy of mine called me to ask if he should buy a pocket knife branded by some gun manufacturer, who shall remain nameless. Of course,I told him absolutely not, if you have to buy a production knife, I said, for the money Kershaw is the way to go. Later on, he tell me that he's considering buying a Benchmade knife and I tell him, once again, for the money Kershaw is the way to go if you are in the market for a production knife. So, he says, somewhat sarcasticly, "Oh, since you make knives you have to seperate yourself from "production" companies". I was going to try to explain my position to him, but decided to leave well enough alone.

Some people here might want to get on my case for recomending Kershaw over Benchmade. Yes, I do believe that Benchmade has overall higher quality knives, but I can't see spending that money on a production knife. I see knives in two lights, less than $50 and custom. There's really not much in between for me. $30 is a good value for a Kershaw frame lock and they are one of the best cheap knives I've ever owned, but $100 - $150 for a Benchmade just seems absurd when I can buy an EBK from Ed for $175. I expect the best from a custom maker and when I compare the costs of customs and "high-end" production knives, the value of a custom is just greater. You get the opportunity to get to know the person that makes your knife, you know your knife is handmade by a true craftsman and in some way is totally unique, even if it's a semi-production type. You're buying a knife from an artist at best and a skilled laborer at worst, if production knives were made by skilled laborers you would pay 3 or 4 times as much money for them.

Anyways, I guess if someone doesn't see the value in a custom knife than a cheap production knife is in order.


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Old 07-15-2006, 07:37 PM
Pete Parsons Pete Parsons is offline
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Ed,

I hear you about "acceptable quality". Let me ask you this though...Don't custom knifemakers take acceptable quality into consideration as well? Certainly there are different makers who define their entire reputation on high performance. But what about the rest of the knife making community that doesn't forge from ballbearings and triple quench so our blades can be bent in half 165 times without breaking?

What is acceptable quality for a custom maker?

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Old 07-16-2006, 09:10 AM
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Pete,

I think that "Acceptable Quality" is something that the individual must determine. Of course nothing that ANY of us produce is going to be perfect.....but that doesn't mean we shouldn't stirve for it. If a maker can look at "the man in the mirror", and honestly...HONESTLY say "I did the best that I could" on that knife, then as far as I'm concerned, nobody can fault the individual. It's the one's that say...."That's good enough to sell" that sometimes bother me. Their missing the bigger picture. With time and practice a knifemaker will improve, and will find themself wishing they had back in their possession those first few knives that were let go because they where anxious to sell something.

I certainly can't speak for, or enforce any level of quality....all I can do is try to "lead by example", and hope that each individual has the integrity to offer the public the very best product they can.

What I was attempting to relay about Acceptable Quality when referring to production knife companies is that they will tend to place more emphasis on the material costs and ease of production (as far as their facilities/machinery goes) than the lone individual like you or I who are driven by a love of the craft. Their decision process is usually based on the "bottom line", whereas the individual maker tends to dwell on how they can make something to the highest level of quality (both in performance and beauty) that they can possibly achieve, with less emphasis on the "bottom line" money wise.


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Old 07-16-2006, 12:07 PM
Drunkenduck Drunkenduck is offline
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Cool The best that can sell

Ed, I hear what you are saying, but doesn't a custom knife maker get caught between what is best and what can sell. I know that the term "the best" can be a little nebulous but if "best" is given full reign couldn't you end up with a blade that the average Joe Lunchbucket can't afford to buy. Also there is the conflict between what is best and what the knife buying public wants to buy. I know that this point may seem a little out of line from someone who is still learning how to make blades, but it is something that I have thought about. If I remain a hobbiest craftsman who makes knives, I can say to that prospective buyer who wants a bowie knife with a 12" long 2 1/2" wide 1/4"thick extreme clipped blade with a mother-of-pearl handle and nickle silver furniture that I don't take orders and I don't make bowie knives. If I have to rely upon knife making for a substancial part of my income do I tell such buyer that I don't make funtionless knives for people just so that they can feel their manhood or do I produce the best funtionless knife that I can make just so I can sell it to this person?

Doug Lester
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Old 07-16-2006, 01:53 PM
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Hi Doug,

The decision to go to whatever level MUST be made by each individual. If someone orders a $200 hunter from you, my thought is that, for your own reputation, it should be the best $200 hunter you can produce. Anything less is just cheating yourself. "Best" can be a very ambiguous term....I suppose a more accurate wording would be The best all around (functionality, fit, finish, and design) that the individual maker can accomplish. If you base your quality on the price an indivdual pays for the knife, or on the materials used, your setting yourself up to fail in the long run. It all boils down to personal integrity on the maker's part.

Even if a maker feels forced to produce "what sells", it should still be the best they can produce. However, if a maker puts their all into each and every piece they create, then it will show, and the knife will sell. Often times I've listened to folks in the knife world (ones that are not knifemakers) who claim they are directing the trends (what sells)....... What a bunch of hogwash! Knifemakers create the trends based on what they make, plain and simple.


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Old 07-16-2006, 04:30 PM
Pete Parsons Pete Parsons is offline
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Ha! Looks like you might have opened a can of worms Ed!

I hope more people chime in to explore these ideas and offer their opinions.

When I visited Ed Friday and showed him my latest and greatest, he critiqued it (I am a student of Ed's and try to visit him every so often to keep in touch and ask advice. For those of you that don't know Ed well, he will critique your knife, but only if you ask him and believe me...he will critique Despite his honesty...we are still friends! Ha Ha)

Something I took away from that visit was to be honest to myself first...Despite the fact I spent 30+ hours on that knife, It wasn't worth what I wanted to get for it. There were mistakes on that knife I didn't even know how to see much less how to prevent them. Ed has stressed before the importance of showing knives to more experienced knifemakers. In my case it continues to suprise me how I still don't even know everything that determines a quality handmade.

My point is that until that visit, I was satisfied with that particular knife. I had done the best I could with the tools and skills I have. But in reality, there were additional areas that Ed pointed out to me that needed improvement. I left Ed's knowing that the next knife needed to meet a higher level of quality to be accetable to me.

Maybe acceptable quality is a fluid concept that grows with experience and knowledge...

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Old 07-16-2006, 04:42 PM
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Hi Pete!

Your right. This could easily turn into a can of worms...people can "what if" all day long, but to me it doesn't make any difference. Right is still right, and wrong it still wrong. My whole military career, my superiors kept telling me I was too "black and white." I didn't back down then, and I won't now. It's all about being honest with yourself, then being honest with others is very easy. Do the very best you can, at whatever you do, and WHEN (not IF) you mess up, admit it, and go on.


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Old 07-16-2006, 05:35 PM
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Re: the best that can sell

Thanks for the counter point, Ed. I guess that I was confusing expence of material, time consuming production methods, and fancy add ons with quality. You are right, if someone asks me to make them a 4" drop point hunter out of 1080 with a plain Walnut handle and copper pins I am obligated to make that knife to be best of my ability. However, as a full time "professional" knife maker, do you sometimes feel that you are making knives for other people on commision that, on the whole, you would rather no make at all? Or do you feel that you still have the freedom to tell someone that you don't make knives to the design that they want?

Sorry if I sound like I'm nit picking; I just sort of get attracted to a discussion on ethics like a moth is attracted to light. I guess it's the Unitarian in me. I'm sorry that I live so far away from Montana. I think your the type of person I could get along with. You sound like a couple of Senior Chiefs I used to know.

Doug Lester
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Old 07-16-2006, 06:18 PM
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Pete,

This is why I liked taking a class from Ed. I also wish I was closer, Ed is a great teacher, and I think that is one of the reasons. Ed is not mean with his evaluation, but honest, and if you can listen to what is being said, you will learn alot and your work will quickly show it. As an apprentice esp, you can't have ego invested when you ask a Master his/her opinion about your work. It will have flaws, and they will point them out to help you become better.

To be honest, if I asked a Mastersmith about my work and didn't get any critisism, I would wonder. I also try and look at each blade I do and figure out how I could make it better the next time. Be critical of yourself, look at your work and see the flaws, until you can see them, you can't fix them.

--Carl


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Old 07-16-2006, 06:55 PM
R. D. Finch R. D. Finch is offline
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Interesting Guys.
When I started making knives, I was worry about having enough to sell. Now I don't worry about trying to have a bunch to sell, but try to offer the best knife I can make. I'm my worst customer, the knife has to pass my inspection first. As a knife maker we know were to look and what to look for, Im along way from being close to perfect. But I do my best on ever knife with my name on it.


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Old 07-16-2006, 09:30 PM
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Getting your work critiqued is very impertant. I had been asking for input from makers for years, finally I had Ed come to my table and look at my work. He looked and said, " nothing wrong with your stuff" . The I said, well I'm going for JS this year. He took another look and gave me a MS critique on how to pass the JS fit and finish. I learned more in that 5 minutes than I had in years of practice. He was honest and as mentioned previously kind. Doing your best in every aspect is also imprtant. I heard that Bill Moran used to say do not settle for good enough. Now this does not mean beat yourself to death trying to fix every little flaw you may find. There has to be a time you say I need to move on. I had a student walk out of the shop with a 6 inch hunter and came back with a 4 inch caper. He just could not stop fixing the probelms. You need to do THE BEST you can and learn from the experience. Like Ed mentioned none of the knives custom makers produce are perfect. But what can you learn to make it better. Knifemaking is evolving and makers need to evolve with it. If you sit on your laurels and make the same thing over and over you may find your orders lacking.

Rambled enough
Chuck


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Old 07-17-2006, 11:04 PM
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I've been following this thread as it progresses and really like what I'm reading. Ed, I don't think you could have done a better job in your original post that started this discussion. Frankly, it's nice to see a group makers who are genuinely interested in quality. For me one of the great things about knife making is that every time I start a knife it's an opportunity to make the best knife I've ever made. Of course it doesn't always work out that way, but the effort usually results in a lesson. I'm sure every one of you have been asked, "How long did it take you to make that knife?" Well, the honest answer is, "My entire knife making career." I say that because every knife I've ever made and everything I've ever learned about making a knife is reflected in that particular piece of work. It doesn't happen overnight.

I think there are a number of things that determines what will sell, but in the long run it's quality. Trends come and go and we should pay attention to them to some degree, but when the dust settles it will be the quality makers, making their designs, that survive over the long term. The other factor that goes hand in hand with quality is price. The price should reflect the quality of the knife. Not everyone has the same skill level and that's ok if the price is right for the knife. I doubt I'll ever sell a $5,000 knife, but if I've done my best on that $400 hunter and the buyer feels they're getting a lot knife for the money then I'm happy. Let's face it, there are a lot of over priced knives out there of questionable quality. Somebody made the point that they didn't see there own mistakes until they were pointed out. Good for you for having the courage and caring enough to ask. I know exactly what that's about because my work started getting better when I starting asking people I respect to critique my work. But the point here is that if the maker can be unaware of what's wrong with a knife, think about the position most buyers are in. They are really at the mercy of the knife maker. Over the years I've seen people pay top dollar for knives they thought would appreciate only to find out later on they picked the wrong maker to invest in. There's no one out there to police quality in relation to price so we need to be honest with ourselves about the quality of our work and price it accordingly.

Every maker has a right to make money on their knives, but in my opinion, we should be pursuing quality, not the dollar. If the quality is there the money will follow. It usually takes longer to do it that way, but I think it's best for the makers and buyers. That's my rant.
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