Fit and Finish 101: How to know it when you see it on a knife

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David Mirabile achieves a nice, tight fit between the habaki (collar) and tsuba (guard) of his Asian-style piece.

By Pat Covert

Fit and finish is bandied about so often in cutlery circles it’s almost become one word, pronounced something like fittenfinnish. A newbie collector who hangs around seasoned custom knifemakers, purveyors and collectors soon learns the “fit-and-finish thing” is a mighty nice trait for the knives in his or her stable to have.

All that being said, is fit and finish the key to a knife being all it can be, or does a knife exhibiting it simply look nicer and cost more? Or does the answer lie somewhere in between? We recruited a panel of authorities to help sort through it all, including purveyors Neil Ostroff of True North Knives, Dave Ellis of Exquisite Knives, Dan Delavan of Plaza Cutlery, and seasoned custom maker Tim Britton.

We started by asking our authorities how they define fit and finish. Britton, who makes highly finished customs, said, “There should be no adhesive or solder showing anywhere. No gaps in inappropriate places. Metal-to-metal joints should be indiscernible. And no visible scratches or grind marks, period. One thing custom knifemakers should be able to do well,” he observes “is finish metal.”

Having the grinds match on each side of the blade as on Marcus Lin’s Andalusian bowie is an indication of fine fit and finish.

In addition to being a purveyor, Ellis also is a retired ABS master smith and knows fit and finish from the maker’s point of view as well. “I define fit and finish of a custom knife to mean is it overall appealing to the eye,” he begins, “are there any obvious gaps in guard or handle fitting, is it a design that will truly work?” Ellis stressed that good, sound design is a factor. “The first thing I look for is the overall appearance. Is the design clean? Is there an organic flow? How does it feel in the hand in different grips? Then I look at the finer details such as guard fit, blade finish, handle design and comfort,” he explains. “As an ABS master smith I also look at things like edge geometry, tapered tangs and plunge cuts. All of these should be [executed properly] in a piece with excellent fit and finish.”

Equality of all aspects on both sides of the knife is one sign of top fit and finish. Greg Cimms achieves it on his kitchen knives.

“Fit and finish is a standard required for all knives,” Ostroff says. “It used to be almost exclusively for custom knives—which are at a higher price level—but more and more the buyers are demanding the same standard for a factory or mid-tech knife which will sell for a remarkably lower price. Fit and finish is generally a well-centered blade—in the case of a folder—no blade play in either direction, flush-fitting bolsters, and a blade finish as the maker intended. By this I mean one cannot expect a stonewashed blade, or handle, not to have scratches. Recently the matter of the strength of the detent has become an issue—again, another subjective item.”

The late Bruce Bingenheimer centered the blade of his folder in the closed position (right), splitting the gold anodized standoffs right down the middle. Note the symmetry between each side of the knife (left) and the slick fit between bolster and handle material (center).

“The criteria for fit and finish depend on the expectations of the buyer,” Delavan qualifies. “Plaza Cutlery also believes design as well as craftsmanship is important. Most important is the design. It has to make sense to me. Any guards should be clean with no gaps, bevels should be the same and no 2-inch glitches. Also, handles have to be clean to the tang or guard with no gaps.”

According to Tim Britton, metal-to-metal joints should be indiscernible. Note the partial knife image second from left. The seam between the blade and backspring of BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Ron Lake’s tail-lock interframe is invisible.

 

PERFORMANCE

Does fit and finish affect a knife’s performance? “Poor fit and finish will really show when a knife is put to hard use,” Ellis advises, pointing out potential problems such as hot spots from badly designed and finished handles, guards or buttcaps with sharp edges, bad edge geometry that might cause the blade to dull quicker and be difficult to remove from the sheath, and so on.

David Mirabile achieves a nice, tight fit between the habaki (collar) and tsuba (guard) of his Asian-style piece.

Britton’s take was interesting, to say the least.

“One of my first knives was made in 1972. It was ugly and poorly finished,” he recalls. “[BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member] Frank Centofante helped me sell the knife to a hunting guide from Montana. The guide later wrote to me wanting four more just like it. The knife skinned and dressed three elk before needing sharpening. Steel was Latrobe D2 and Paul Bos did the heat treat. Fit and finish had little or nothing to do with function. Quality of steel, heat treat, grind and sharpening angle were much more relevant.”

Mark Bartlett gets the bolster of case-hardened mild steel and gold-anodized titanium spacers to meld seamlessly with the curly koa handle of his fixed fighter.

“A good finished knife just has a better feel, but a lot of people will not use it,” Delavan notes. “A knife with a lot of cosmetic issues can still be a good tool, and there are makers that don’t worry about those details. Most makers say a knife is meant to be used, not to sit in a safe.” Ostroff tends to agree. “Performance is not typically an issue [with fit and finish]. For example, a knife with an off-centered blade will still function as well as one that is centered—but the customer has the right to get what he or she wants, so we do whatever it takes to make them happy.”

Top fit and finish includes the knife exhibiting no visible scratches or grind marks. Tim Britton’s lockback follows this dictate. As Tim noted, “One thing custom knifemakers should be able to do well is finish metal.”

 

F&F: OVERRATED?

Are there cases where fit and finish is overrated? In other words, are there knives that perform very well even though they may not have the polish of an expensive model but have excellent heat treat, blade geometry, comfort and a more affordable price?”

“Fit and finish is not overrated when trying to satisfy the buyer,” Ostroff opines, “but taking out the collector/safe-queen members of our community, all knives are meant to cut, and all will do so if built to industry standards.”

“I have seen a few knives that performed well with poor fit and finish,” Ellis says. “Usually if a maker takes the time to finish their piece to tight tolerances, they also have taken the time to be sure that the piece has a credible heat treat, edge geometry and an overall good feeling in the hand.” Adds Delevan, “Many of the small production companies do a good job. Fit and finish is good, not perfect, but you have an excellent tool at a more affordable price.”

Note how each grind, bolster and slab mirrors its opposite on the Fenix fixed-blade hunter by Evgeny Khokhlov.

 

WHAT do YOU WANT?

Our authorities made excellent points for and against performance being a factor in fit and finish. Though there were several substantive points about design, in this writer’s opinion it isn’t really a fit-and-finish issue. Design is, of course, very important because no matter how well a knife is made, if the design is poor so will be the performance. From an aesthetic standpoint fit and finish is everything, but, as Delavan points out, many collector-grade knives become safe queens, never seeing action in the field.

A good analogy here would be comparing a Bark River Knives fixed blade to a comparably sized one made by ESEE Knives. Both companies have a huge, extremely dedicated following. Bark River’s fare is finely finished while the ESEE knives are more roughly done, but the latter are half the price or more of the former, depending on materials. Will both knives perform well? You better believe it. Both have stellar performance records. It really depends on whether you want to pay extra for a nicely finished knife or a rough finished one. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and both do their job in spades.

Bottom line is you have some very good options available—and choices make the world of knives go around!

Note the tight fit with no gaps between the color-case-hardened bolster, stainless steel spacers and stabilized ringed gidgee handle of Steve Filicietti’s bowie.

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