Tiaan Burger

A quick course in radical knifemaking

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[I]How to be non-conformist non-PC, a quick course in radical knifemaking[/I]

The first step is to start caring deeply for your craft, to the point where you will walk up to a knifemaker at a show and tell him: "Please stop using those generic folder lazer cutout rubbish, come and visit me, I'll show you how to design your own."
Give away your skills, improve other knifemakers who do similar work. They are not competition, they each have hundreds of friends who each in turn will tell their friends about handmade knives, the market expands faster that way.
DO NOT give away your skills to persons who do not deserve it. A genuine passion for knifemaking goes a long way towards someone earning my respect.
If you don't like people taking up your work time, don't waste another knifemaker's time. Do unto others... Respect their time, materials, tools and the skills they have gotten through hard work.

Become a knifemaker's knifemaker: ignore the market, the buyers. Concentrate on getting your work to a standard where other knifemakers start talking about your work in a positive, complimentary way. The buyers will follow. Then aim to get your work to the point where your name will be mentioned in the same sentence as your knifemaking heroes' names. The collectors will follow.

Be a perfectionist, and be brutally honest with yourself and your clients. Honesty will save you a load of trouble.

I realised a while ago that I have an intense dislike for stainless. I don't like the way it works, I don't like the way it looks and I hate the way it does not rust or discolour. So I stopped working with stainless, I gave away all my cut parts, sold the blade steel and 303 I had for half of what I paid for it. For me to make an honest knife I have to work with materials I honestly like. I love the feel of 52100, how it works, how impossibly hard the blades are, how it turns dark gray with use, and how easily it pits with rust if not taken care of. I love how 1070 moves under the hammer... On some subconcious level my clients are picking up on this, and my knives are selling faster than ever.

....and I don't have to be part of the endless debates on which steel is the best. Can I forge it? Does it harden when quenched? Does it rust after hardening? If the answer is yes on all three it is a good steel.

Don't believe what other knifemakers tell you about the market. A couple of years ago, I asked a guy who had a lot of slippies on his table if he made multiblades. He said: "They don't sell". I then asked him if he had any plain high carbon slippies: "They don't sell, I only make what sells." I have made quite of number of multiblades, and a lot of high carbon slippies and multiblades. I own one which I consider a failed knife. I still have to make myself a two-blade or a three-blade. Make the knives you love, and those who love the same knives will find you. Use the materials you love.

Don't believe what suppliers tell you, unless he is an experienced knifemaker who loves his craft. Suppliers have one thing and one thing only in mind: sales. I have in my life met only one seller who told me straight: "Don't buy that, it is crap, rather buy this." and "You don't need that, here is how to do that step without buying that fancy tool." If you think you are been sucker punched, ask an experienced knifemaker where to shop.
And if you do buy a book, and the writer shows how he cuts a thingy with a milling machine, and you don't have a milling machine / lathe / surface grinder, don't panic. Think this way: "How can I do what he shows in his book with what I have?" I have been cutting lockback notches with a file since I started making lockbacks, but the book shows I must use a milling machine. Sometimes the book is wrong. Get over it, make a plan.

Tools will not make you a good knifemaker. It will at worst, make you a crappy knifemaker who has tools. When you do buy machinery, get a drill press and a disk grinder. The rest are just luxuries that will make the work faster and easier.

Sometimes you will have to tell a client to bugger off or to f@@@ off, and if that does not work, you might have to break his knee with a four pound. Some jobs are not worth doing, and some clients are alive only because they are damn lucky not to have walked into a flying anvil. A client has the priviledge of guiding your creativity, not the right to dictate your work.

Try not to accept pre-payment or deposits. If the work is not done, the client has bought the right to harrass you to the point where you return his deposit or deliver his knife. He owns your butt, because you where stupid enough to hand it to him on a plate. Ask me, been there, done that. Never again.

Knifemaking is not a quick and easy way of making money. To become a rich knifemaker it helps to first become rich and then become a knifemaker. Get over the fact that there are knifemakers who are selling knives that only slightly better than yours for double or triple your price. They have paid their dues, you and I are still learning which dues to pay.

Never confuse short term profit with success. Always keep the long term goal in mind. For me that is to be one of the best multi-blade makers in the world. I will not become that if I kept on making crappy knives just to make money. One knife at a time, to the best of my ability, and with each knife my ability grows because I keep on pushing.
If the knives you are making are not a challenge anymore you will be better off playing golf.

Updated 07-10-2012 at 07:01 PM by Tiaan Burger (Text added)

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  1. jeannius's Avatar
    Excellent advice which covers more than one area of craft work!
    It is good to be reminded of some basic principles of making - thanks Tiaan.
  2. Dramako's Avatar
    Amen Brother.
  3. ravingDIODE's Avatar
    This is an old blog entry/article, but was very informative.

    Me, wanting to become a knife maker part time as I just looooove a blade, appreciate articles like this that will give us a heads-up.

  4. alan12690's Avatar
    Tiaan, what if I like playing golf?
  5. BLYQUES BLADES's Avatar
    Good advice. If you read this Tiaan, or anyone else I am new at knife making. Where do you get your material like for handles, pins.....? I know of KMT's but they are not a big supplier.