Perfectionism

You have two choices as a knifemaker: to continue to turn out knives at the same quality as the previous few, or to improve quality, design, performance, and strength with every blade. Doing the latter requires not just book knowledge, or muscle memory, or experience or least of all quality equipment and machinery, but also, it requires a mindset.

Let me explain.

When I started out, my goal was to “make knives”. A pretty simple goal, and I did just that. I did the bare minimum in accomplishing that goal, in that I only made what could barely be defined as a knife. My knives weren’t beautiful knives, they weren’t even good knives. They were (barely) functional knives, but that was it.

At the time I had the skills, tools, and materials to make a good knife, I just lacked the patience and perfectionism. I’m not naturally a perfectionist and so I had to force myself to make each step perfect and have the perfectionist mindset throughout the entire process. “It’s good enough” became a crime.

You can see the difference between the two images in the header photo. I had the same equipment for knife A and B, same amount of book knowledge, and only time, and of course, mindset, in between the two. The difference in results is obvious.
Just for an example, in the right knife I could have done more even forging, forged or ground in a choil, done more even and straight grinding, centered the tang, finished the guard, done a spacer with more exact dimensions, shaped the antler, and pinned properly. And all these are just what I can discern from the photo.

Many people recommend, when you learn something, just do it over and over and make a whole bunch of whatever it is. At first, do so. This is giving you the muscle memory and basic intellect as to how to do the things. But only doing this, your hundredth knife is not sellable. Why not? It’s not flawless. It’s useful. But it’s not perfect.

After showing my knives to a couple bladesmiths, it became painfully obvious what they were lacking: I did not complete every step as well as I could have. Until I made the effort to do so, I would never become a better knifemaker. It's pretty simple really, but for people who aren't perfectionists, like me, it's tough to commit to.

Per·fec·tion

pərˈfekSH(ə)n/

noun: perfection

the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects.

the action or process of improving something until it is faultless or as faultless as possible.

Once you feel you know how to forge, you know how to grind, you know how to peen, work wood, heat treat, and so on, start your next knife slowly. Take a month to do it if you have to. But when you start, make sure each step is done to the best of your abilities. When you forge out the blade, is it too thin? Throw it away. Is there a deep forge mark? Throw it away. When you grind the blade, if you grind too thin, fix it or throw it away. If the ricasso is not lined up perfectly on both sides, take a week to fix it. If you ground a divet too deep, throw it away. It gets harder after the blade is near finished, and after the knife is assembled. Its easy to make a mark, to cut the wood too far, to skip over sanding a barely visible mark out. Don’t let it happen. Make a mental checklist before you move on to a next step, some knifemakers even have a real checklist.


If you make a mistake and can't fix it, toss it.

It’s daunting and tough, forcing yourself to make each step perfect, but one thing I wasn’t told is that it will become easier to perfect your work over time. It really does. After you force yourself to perfect the knives, and you make a few that way, finishing it becomes habit and it is no longer daunting. You can finish a knife quickly, as quick as before, but it’s still perfect. Habit makes perfectionism a joy, rather than a drudgery. Get through the initial perfectionism stage and it’s smooth sailing from there.

Don't get me wrong, I still get temptation to just skip sanding that last scratch out, to not throw out and start again, to say "It's good enough" (and sometimes I do give in. I'm no master smith). But once you force yourself to ignore those thoughts, focus on perfection, it gets easier over time.

Perfect is good enough