Just As Important As Knowing What To Ask A Knifemaker When Looking To Buy A Knife, Is What To Not Ask A Knifemaker.
Editor’s note: Last time we outlined the questions you should ask the maker. This time, we cover some of the things that you either probably should not ask—or at least should think through thoroughly before doing so. You can read part 1 here.
Custom knifemakers are, for the most part, reasonable people. Actually, they’re a pretty likable lot. Engage one in conversation and it’s likely to be a pleasant experience.
Ask a maker about a knife and the discussion enters another dimension, particularly if it develops into one between a seller and potential buyer. Questions are part of the exchange of information, and just about any inquiry is fair. However, it pays to be courteous and respectful and to remember that courtesy and respect go both ways.
So, are there questions that are off limits when discussing the merits of a custom knifemaker’s work, their background, experience, or perspective? What are the potential hot buttons and how much is too much when it comes to probing a maker? Well, if you have to ask yourself whether a question is appropriate, then think twice about asking it. If it might not sit well with you on the receiving end, just remember those principles of kindness and respect.
How Long Did It Take?
“Asking a maker how long it took to make a knife is not polite etiquette,” offered veteran Vince Evans, “and it could also be misleading. An experienced maker may take 40 hours to make a really nice piece, whereas a beginner may spend 100-plus hours and come out with a poorly executed knife. On more complex knives and swords, the process may take months, or even years, to complete. So, a maker may not keep track of how many hours he has in a piece.”
David Broadwell has more than 40 years of experience making custom knives, and the time factor is always a bit contentious for him. “This is probably the most often asked question of me,” he said candidly. “I don’t know how long it takes! I don’t punch a time clock on each project. Most of my knives are fairly complex, and I do each step or operation until it’s right, regardless of the time. Simpler knives are easier to track with regard to the time involved.
“Another thing related to time,” David continued, “is that it’s easy for someone to start believing that because I, for example, with four decades of experience in grinding, can make a knife more quickly than another maker, so I should charge less per hour. But that’s not a fair comparison. I have all that experience, so some operations are quicker for me—but I should be paid for that experience.”
From a practical standpoint, BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Dan Delavan of plazacutlery.com added, “It doesn’t hurt to ask, but most makers make knives in batches, so it’s hard to say.”
Even if the potential purchaser is bold enough to ask about the investment of time in a particular knife, the response may not be helpful. “It may not give you the answer you’re looking for,” commented longtime purveyor Les Robertson, “Why? Often the time to make a knife will depend on the maker’s experience level, the equipment in their shop, and the complexity of the knife. There is no set time for how long a particular knife should take to build.”
How Did You Make It?
Beyond the time element, looking at a particular knife may prompt questions of a sensitive nature, particularly about the process itself. When credibility is on the line, what should the potential buyer do?
“Hmm, I’d say watch his eyes and study his body language,” Broadwell advised, “and, of course, a buyer needs to educate himself to be able to spot fakery.”
Most often the knifemaker’s work speaks for itself and to an educated buyer the quality or lack of quality in a handmade knife is readily apparent, but there are telltale signs when the presenter is blowing smoke. “If he or she does not look you in the eye, it’s a good indication,” Delavan related. “Hesitancy in the voice is a tip-off as well.”
Developing rapport is a big part of any relationship, and becoming friendly with custom knifemakers is often part of the enjoyment of buying and collecting their work. Still, personalities vary. The outgoing, talkative individual and the introverted, quiet one may accept inquiries on a different level, and of course, there are the pressing factors of time commitment—particularly during shows. Monopolizing a maker’s table time is bad etiquette when he or she has other customers or prospects to interact with. So keep it polite and to the point with an awareness of the clock.
What Knife Do You Carry?
One of the more interesting questions for a custom knifemaker might revolve around the knife the maker carries. You may be going out on a limb, putting the maker on the spot, or even offending him if you want to know what’s in his pocket. Ask at your own risk!
“I’ve always been surprised to find out a custom folder maker was carrying a factory knife,” Robertson observed. “This made no sense to me. Carrying a folder made by them would allow the makers to field test their knives regularly. For makers who build larger fixed blades, it can be difficult to carry these knives regularly. However, if they hunt, camp or fish, they should be using their knife, again to field test it. I feel it gives the maker more legitimacy when they tell what their knives can and cannot do.”
Broadwell added, “This is very important to me. Personally, I believe if a maker carries on his person a knife from another knifemaker or a factory, he is saying, especially to the newer and less educated buyers, that knife is better than the one he makes. That is not good salesmanship and marketing of your own brand.”
Are Your Prices Negotiable?
Possibly the biggest question of all relates to pricing. Is it OK, fair, chippy, or downright irritating to ask a custom knifemaker if a price for a certain piece is negotiable? Once more, depending on the depth of the existing relationship between maker and potential buyer, take stock of the possible outcome of the query before making it.
“In some cases, you will insult them,” Delavan said bluntly. “But on the last day of a show, some makers may give a better deal.”
Robertson sees a subjective exercise in the dollar dilemma. “Pricing is something each knifemaker must figure out for themselves,” he remarked. “As the buyer, you need to educate yourself as to what it takes to build a particular style of knife. This will help you determine what you feel the price of the knife should be. My advice to knifemakers is to price their knives according to their position in the marketplace they are competing in. By doing so, you are offering your work at a fair price, and you should not lower your price. As the buyer, you can ask the maker to lower their price, but don’t do so just because you think you should haggle on the price of a knife. You are not buying knives at a flea market.”
Tact and diplomacy work better than the “ready, fire, aim” approach. Knowing something about the knifemaker may indicate whether the door is open for negotiation. “This is a tricky question,” Broadwell said. “If the buyer is polite and respectful, it’s all right to ask. However, if the maker does not want to bargain, it should be dropped. What ticks makers off is a potential buyer who says he will just give such and such for a knife and that that’s all it’s worth. That’s arrogant and disrespectful!”
Concerning guarantees and 100-percent buybacks—the latter involving the maker buying the knife back from you if you buy it but then don’t want it—consider the accountability on both sides.
Like so many interactions between two people, the questions asked and answered relating to custom knives revolve around the delivery. Mutual understanding is essential. One individual is plowing his or her hard-earned money into the purchase of a knife, while the other is expected to accept payment for the time that is gone forever, and for the cost of materials, equipment, shop, and general overhead.
Choose words and ask questions wisely—always.
Editor’s note: In the final analysis, it’s your money that’s involved in a knife purchase, and the questions you ask a maker about their knife you are considering buying are up to you. One thing to remember: If it’s a knife you simply must have and you ask a question that is out of bounds and upsets the maker, the chances of you having that knife may be nil to none—not to mention the chances of you buying any knife directly from that maker in the future.
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When you get in to high quality knives, I don’t think many questions are off limits. Many times you are buying the maker’s story as much as his knife so any question you ask about a knife or knife maker should be answerable.
Many makers won’t know the hours but can tell you every step of the process. A maker also has to make finished knives pay for the blades that warp in heat treat and get trashed or recycled in to much smaller blades. You should be able to ask, just don’t expect a clear answer.
As for what a knife maker carries, if they make kitchen knives their EDC might be a factory folder. It doesn’t matter because a maker always has the excuse of “I’ve been busy making customer knives”. If they hunt and make hunting knives, they probably should carry one of their own but maybe not at a knife show.
As for bargaining, if I don’t have enough cash I might tell a maker “I want this knife but I don’t have enough cash” if they are flexible they will work with you. If they know they can sell to another customer at full price, probably not but they shouldn’t be insulted by that approach.
Any way, that’s all for high quality knives. At a knife show, even Blade Show, I would say more than half the knives you see are not high quality. When your questions will expose that, that is when a knife maker gets “insulted”.
I have probably insulted a handful of makers like that but not many because quality is pretty easy to spot by eye.