A knifemaker and other knife pros take different approaches to the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
The ravages of war often have global impact—even when the fighting is half a world away and the devastation is seen through pictures and words rather than bullets and bombs. War, anywhere, tends to touch the lives and livelihoods of many.
The knife industry, both factory and custom, is no different. The war in Ukraine has brought devastation to the country, and its end was nowhere in sight as BLADE® was going to press. Ukrainian resistance is robust, probably in sharp contrast to the results anticipated when Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to invade his sovereign neighbor. While the resilient Ukrainians defend against such aggression, where and how does the knife industry feel the long reach of war?
Oleksii Nesterenko is a custom knifemaker. He is also Ukrainian.
“On February 24,” he commented, “Russia, with the support of Belarus, launched an open military attack on Ukraine. My city, Kyiv, was one of the main goals. After systematic rocket attacks on the city, my wife and children were forced to evacuate to Germany.”
The war came home to Oleksii, and his life may very likely never be the same. He has responded to the call to defend his country. “I signed a contract for a territorial defense volunteer and stopped making knives,” he said. “As far as I know, the work of some knifemakers who work in the cities where there are no active hostilities has changed too. Many have abandoned the making of collectible knives and make simple, utilitarian knives and other devices for the military.”
Purveyor Dave Stark of Steel Addiction Custom Knives sells Oleksii’s work, and despite the fact there is a temporary suspension of custom pieces from the Ukrainian maker, Dave praises the quality of his knives.
“Oleksii’s fit and finish and his attention to detail are what set him apart from his peers,” Stark noted. “His choice of materials and the manner in which they are finished really make his work stand out. His hand-rubbed satin finish on his blades is some of the best I’ve seen. The knives feel great in the hand and mechanically are spot on. I would say his style is ‘dress tactical.’ He uses Damasteel’s pattern-welded steel, damascus, mother-of-pearl, mokuti, zircuti and zirconium.”
Perhaps current events will make Nesterenko’s knives even more highly sought after in the future. Meanwhile, he is consumed with the dirty business at hand.
“Now in the Kyiv region where I live, Russian troops are defeated and active hostilities have ceased,” Oleksii reported. “But I am still on duty at checkpoints and volunteer. We help the civilian population in the villages near the front. I think that in a few weeks I will have time to partially return to knifemaking.”
While he is hopeful and actively involved in the defense of his country, Nesterenko has kept an eye on the conditions of the knife industry in Ukraine and anticipates some adaptations.
“Currently, there are no problems with the supply of materials for the production and shipment of knives abroad,” he advised, “so I look forward to returning to work. I am sure that a knifemaker can make a quality knife only if he uses it for its intended purpose. That’s why I used to make only EDC knives. Thanks to the war, I understand what requirements a tactical folding knife must meet. I have already drawn several designs and am waiting for the opportunity to get started.”
Changes in demand are not noticeable at this time, according to Oleksii, and orders are in the queue for delivery around the world into 2023. Still, he warned, “I think that the consequences of the war in Ukraine will affect the economies of many countries. And over time, that will affect collectors.”
In much of the domestic knife industry, little in the way of change has occurred due to the war thus far. Custom knife purveyor Les Robertson said that by mid-April FedEx service to Ukraine had been suspended. Therefore, the volume of knives conventionally being sent to Ukraine has probably been curtailed, at least somewhat. Neighboring European Union countries are still moving mail into Ukraine.
“No one is sending knives directly to anyone in Ukraine,” Les noted. He went on to comment that factory sales to “armchair warriors” may in fact tick upward as the war persists.
Purveyor Neil Ostroff of True North Knives agrees that the current custom knife market is maintaining its status quo. “In my opinion, as a dealer,” he commented, “we have no change from the customers concerning knives from either Ukraine—now on hold—or Russia. Several Ukrainian knifemakers have set up in Poland, and they do not want to be named.”
Still, Ostroff is somewhat insulated businesswise from the turmoil in Eastern Europe. “Going forward, I see no issues coming through, as there have been none so far,” he observed. “And most if not all of my clientele prefer to buy only USA-made items, which is what I prefer to supply as well.”
From the factory perspective, Joe Bradley, director of sales and marketing for KA-BAR, has noticed virtually no changes in activity. “The war in Ukraine hasn’t had any impact on us at all,” he remarked. “As far as production, and even consumption, the impact has been zero.”
Bradley added that supply and demand are in line. “We have not seen an increase. Currently, we are seeing the market being more impacted by inflation than anything else. I think most of the people, at least Westerners, in the Ukraine already had their supplies and as a result didn’t have a need to buy anything new. Production and logistics have been a problem since the start of COVID,” he observed, “and are just now starting to get back on track and return to a semblance of normalcy.”
KA-BAR has experienced no changes in product offerings or knife styles as a result of the war in Ukraine. However, Bradley offers one interesting point of view. “If anything, this war has shown the merits of what some might consider antiquated weaponry like the AK-47,” he pointed out. The AK-47 is perhaps the world’s most famous assault rifle, arising in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, experiencing authentic production models and knockoffs made in the millions, and arming military organizations around the world for well over half a century.
“Free The Oppressed”
Spartan Blades is located in Fayetteville, North Carolina, near the gates of Fort Bragg, home of the U.S. Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps and Special Operations Command. Spartan owners Curtis Iovito and Mark Carey, both Special Forces veterans, have seen a groundswell of support for Ukraine. Knife sales bear the unmistakable mark of the conflict.
“Most of the sales are to people here in the U.S. with notes that they are purchasing for folks in the Ukraine,” explained Curtis in acknowledging the market uptick. “Several orders have had short tags like ‘Free the Oppressed in the Ukraine’ or ‘Support the War against Russian Aggression.’ Because we are at Fort Bragg, we have several Special Mission units from friendly foreign countries drop by the shop to pick up knives for their use. While that isn’t uncommon, it’s happening more than usual. We’ve noticed during our discussions with them that things have a more serious tone.”
Others buying more knives from Spartan Blades include people from all walks of life and military involvement. Curtis said, “Our Gold Line knives are going to more of the military professionals and contractors, and our Silver- and Bronze-grade knives are selling to folks across the spectrum. Many of the knives bought are by civilians that later donate the knives to NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that ship in bulk to Ukraine.”
As far as production, it’s business as usual at Spartan Blades, a longtime producer of knives that go to war. There are a few new items on the horizon, and the owners expect business to be brisk in the days ahead.
“Honestly, the war in Ukraine hasn’t affected how we do things here at Spartan Blades,” Iovito asserted. “We’ve made knives through the last two decades for troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, so things are kind of par for the course.
“We have several new knives coming out around the end of this year,” he continued. “We had planned on releasing these later but have sped up because the price point and style match some of the requirements we have seen lately. They are being designed by William W. Harsey, Jr.—a fighter, a Nessmuk and a kukri blade. They will be in 1095 Cro-Van blade steel and made in conjunction with KA-BAR Knives. Pricing has not been determined yet, but we are shooting for a sub-$200 retail price. The first one produced will be a fighter later this year.”
Surveying the knife landscape today begs a few questions as Iovito and Carey plan for the future, uncertain as it may be.
“We have seen a slight increase in steel prices, but we haven’t raised our prices in over a decade,” Curtis stated. “We assume we will continue to see price increases soon in commercial, off-the–shelf parts but are keeping our fingers crossed. We believe we will see an increase in knife demand as it appears the conflict in Ukraine [will not end as soon as many thought it would].”
The war has had other effects, including dampening attendance at European trade shows.
“We were very surprised that most of the U.S. knife companies did not attend the IWA show* in Nuremberg, Germany, this year,” Curtis noted. “We even had people thanking us for attending, as you could tell they are counting on U.S. support even if it is just showing up to support them in spirit. There was definitely a new and urgent concern about military spending. The German government approached two companies that I know of and bought their whole inventory—cutting checks the same day!”
In wartime, uncertainty often reigns. However, awareness, preparation, and the desire to return to the shop are evidence that the ongoing conflict in Ukraine will influence the future of the entire knife industry for the foreseeable future.
*Held each spring, the IWA OutdoorClassics (iwa.info) is the European equivalent of the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor, Trade (SHOT) Show stateside, and is a place where many new factory knives are debuted.
More On Custom Knifemaking:
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- Shop Dump: Kirby Lambert, Mike Quesenberry, And Rick Eaton
- Veronique Laurent Is Winning In A Man’s World
- Making A Knife With A Legend Bob Terzuola
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