People who make knives by hand? That's gotta just be a reenactment thing. If I want a real knife I'll head to the sports store. Machines make better knives these days. What's up with handmade knives? Nobody takes them seriously, right? Right...?
Such is the statement and the general opinion we've all heard at least once. I mean, it does sound reasonable. People made knives by hand for the majority of human history, until the industrial revolution when it made sense to increase production rate by machine. Faster production, less work, sufficient quality. Average eight hours for a handmade knife vs a day or two's work machine work for dozens.
On the other hand, we see handmade knives, even forged blades, becoming a boom in the last forty years. Many craftsmen make a full time living off of it, and shows like History channel's Forged in Fire are further showing an attraction to the craft.
Why is this? What does the handmade knife hold that the mass produced one does not?
I believe there are three main answers.
The Process of the Craft. If you ask me, there's precious few processes cooler than the forging and making of the knife. From the raw bar of steel, to the forging of the red-hot bar of metal, to the sparks flying in the grinding, to the science of the heat treating, the perfect fitting of the guard, working of the wood, sharpening of the edge, it is a fantastically amazing process. The same thing that draws us makers to the craft, is often what draws the buyers to the craft. The appeal here is much greater than a machine stamping knife after knife of a plate of steel.
The Aesthetic Quality. An example is Damascus, or patternwelded blades, which ties in with the first reason. The maker can use just about any wood, in an infinite variety of colors, he can personalize the blade, do damascus, switch up the materials, and has an insane dedication to beauty. Mass produced knives are cheap tools, handmade knives are pieces of functional art.
Physical Quality. This is the sturdiness of the handle, the durability of the blade, the capability to hold an edge, etc. There are a few mass produced blades that have incredible quality, but they often have a limit that craftsmen can far surpass. An example of this are the some of the capabilities required for the American Bladesmith's Society Master Smith test; the blade must chop through a one inch thick rope in one stroke, chop through two 2x4's, and yet still shave hair, then must be bent to 90 degrees without snapping.
Some of the many quality handle materials used in knives. Photo by the author
These are the three capabilities that sets the handmade knife apart from standard mass-produced knives. Some craftsmen sell with more of a focus on one quality than the others, and likewise, customers pay the extra price for that quality because it is worth it to them.
Because the handmade knife has these superior qualities, many (not all obviously, but many) people are willing to pay quite a bit of extra cash for these, enough to make up for the extra time, work, and skill put in to the art.
Of course it's not everyone who's willing to dish out the extra cash for these qualities. But there are plenty of people to whom it's worth it. Hunters for instance, require a good knife for field dressing, that can double for standard camp duties. Many will pay one $100+ for a knife that's comfortable, that's durable, holds it's edge, does it's job easily and quickly, and with a bit of beauty to boot. They're hunting or fishing for the sport, but they're willing to pay extra cash for it, just as they would for a better rifle.
How about a chef? Having a knife that doubles the rate at which you can do your slicing and chopping, increases the amount of time per day you can spend at other jobs. Increasing production, increases payoff. If you keep a standard storebought chefs knife and instead pay an employee to save you time, it's a constant cost that over time becomes higher than the knife. So for the person who needs the knife for efficiency, it'll actually save them cash. Add in the beauty, the feel (making slicing a pleasure rather than a chore), and the knowledge behind the process, and the knife becomes well worth $1,000.
Or what about a collector? Same deal as a classic car or motorcycle collector. They aren't exactly what one would call cheap in their purchase choices. Every bit of the knife, or every bit of the motorcycle, are worth it to the respective collectors. It's their passion. Just as it is ours.