What makes a hand made knife, hand made?
Is it because some of the processes of making a knife are done by hand? Many mass produced knives have hand processes in their production. Is it because all of the processes are accomplished by hand? Most of the steels knife makers' start with is produced using some automated processes. Besides, some people call knives produce entirely by hand customs. Is it hand made because the maker uses hand tools for every process? Heck, just about any good knife maker uses some form of bench or floor model machinery nowadays. Maybe it's some combination of all of these things? To my way of thinking, hand made is about being produced using all hand processes and having an original design that reflects the unique style of an artisan. There you have it, my definition of a hand made knife. No need to elaborate further. What? You get the original part, but what the heck do the processes matter to the definition of hand made? Ok, then here goes�let's start with a little background.
Many of those so-called hand made or custom knives you find from resources like eBay or big retailers are not truly hand made. They are mass produced knives that can only be technically called hand made. If a worker, probably an unskilled or minimally skilled laborer, physically places it in a machine, buffs a blade or sands a handle by hand, there you go, hand made. Believe me when I say, hand made is a very different thing. And a custom knife is way different than a production knife that has been customized with an exotic handle material or engraving.
Even among people calling themselves makers of hand made knives there are cheaters. Some of these folks buy blades or kits from suppliers who have the capacity to mass-produce kits. These cheaters then assemble them by hand. They are technically producing knives by hand, but to my way of thinking these folks are hobbyist and not knife makers (No. I don't really think they're cheaters, I just wouldn't call them artisans). It's like calling someone painting watercolor paintings with those by-the-number kits an artist. They may be done artfully, but it's not like they've actually accomplished an original work of art. So I guess that my definition of hand made might actually have to include most people's definition of a custom knife. But it's still all about how it's produced and custom is kind of a side effect.
Knives are produced using several different methods. Mass production nowadays usually involves large sheets of steel being place on a water jet, laser cutter or shearing press and cutting out or gang stamping dozens of blades at one time. These machines produce blade blanks that are identical and with profiles that are accurate within a few thousands of an inch. The blanks are then passed to machines that hold them fast in jigs to be ground, drilled, machined or buffed. Many of these knives are made from simple, predictable steels that can be heat-treated in some inline fashion. Usually they're passed through an induction coil to heat up and then get a quick dunk in a quenching fluid to harden them. The handles are produce using similar mechanical precision. Sometimes they're made in the same factory and sometimes they're outsourced. When these components are brought together they can be mechanically joined rapidly due to the precision of their production. These knife factories can turn out dozens or even hundreds of knives a day. If at any point during the process the manufacture decides to have a worker polish a blade on a buffing wheel or hand sand a handle, it may show up on eBay as hand made or custom. Truly hand made knives go through the same steps, but much different processes.
Even with real hand made knives there are different methods of production. Most are produced using something known as stock removal method and a more specialized form called the forge method. Both methods usually start with bar stock. Some true blade smith artisans produce their own simple steels using arcane forging methods. They actually start with raw iron ore and add carbon and other metals to produce steel. Bar stock is also a raw starting point, although a huge amount of technology went in to producing it before it reaches the knife maker. The maker or client usually chooses the kind of steel as a matter of preference for performance. But that's a subject for an entirely different article. The method and processes are what we are concerned with here. Bar stock instead of sheet stock is usually chosen by makers of hand made knives because you don't need specialized or heavy lifting equipment to work with it.
The first method, stock removal is just what it sounds like. The maker uses cutting and grinding tools to remove everything that does not look like a knife. This is a long and tedious process that requires a steady hand, a good eye and a good amount of patience. First the bar stock is usually marked up for shape, clamped into a vise and ground to meet the layout marks for profile. The blade edge and tang (the part that the handle attaches to) is then ground to a near finished dimension and shape. The blade grind, whether flat or hollow ground is produced by repeatedly dragging the blade over a grinding wheel or belt until both sides are as identical as possible. At this point the blade must be heat-treated. The artisan may do heat-treating in their shop if they are capable or send it to a professional if specialized equipment is required. After the blade is hardened and tempered the waste known as scale, produced during heat-treating, can be sanded off and the blade reduced to its finished dimension. By now the maker probably has at least 15 or 20 hours work in the blade and can just now start thinking about fitting it with a handle.
The forging method requires just as much work and an even more specialized knowledge. The steel must be heated to the proper temperature for forging. The blade smith removes it from the heat and starts to hammer it to shape. Since the steel begins cooling as soon as it's removed from the heat source the smith has limited time to work. If the smith works the steel when it's too cool the molecular structure of the steel can be damaged. If the steel is over heated it can be damaged. The smith has a small window in which to work. And trust me, hitting even red-hot steel with a hammer is not like hitting Play-dough.
Steel resists force, even in a near molten state. It actually feels more like driving a big nail with a little hammer as you strike it. That's why many blade smiths use power hammers. Swinging a 3-pound hammer all day is a lot like work. There are also other things to be considered. As you hammer along one edge to form the edge angle the steel is stretched and thinned out. The smith is pushing the metal's molecules around. That metal has to go somewhere. This tends to bend the thick side away from the edge. The smith must continuously account and adjust for the metals tendencies. After repeating the reheat and hammering process dozens of times the artisan can heat-treat the blade and apply the finish grind. The process of finishing the blade is similar in all methods. Hours of sanding and buffing or polishing to the desired finish quality. Now the smith can start to think about the handle.
In both stock removal and forging methods the opportunities to ruin a blade are many and the time required to produce a blade is very similar. The times can vary greatly with the proficiency of the maker, the tools they have at their disposal and the grade of fit and finish the maker wants. Obviously, a presentation grade knife requires dozens and sometime hundreds of hours to complete. And it will be reflected in the price. But a knife doesn't have to be presentation grade to be a quality collectable that can be passed on to future generations.
Heck, thousands of people collect production knives by Buck, Case and many other makers of production knives. These collectors might buy 3 or 4 of these production knives for the price of one truly hand made knife. But as I said earlier, a production knife and a hand made knife are two very different things. In the time an artisan can produce one modestly price blade of average fit and finish, the mass production makers can make hundreds of functional blades. The difference is that no matter how hard the custom knife maker tries, no two hand made knives will ever be the same. In this respect they are really one of a kind customs. If you want a one of a kind knife, a hand made knife from an artisan you like is the only choice.