Why You Should Consider a Custom Knife as an EDC Alternative
Tony Sculimbrene 01.06.15
In this series on EDC alternatives, I have made the case for all sorts of different kinds of tools that you can carry instead of a regular production folder. Most of the time these suggestions have been cheaper or not much more expensive.
But now it’s time to make the case for something expensive: a custom folder. This is the time of year that you’ve got some gift money burning a hole in your pocket, and while custom knives are expensive, they aren’t (usually) buy-a-car-expensive. There are lots of little details about buying a custom knife that are hard to sort out: wait lists (so-called “books”), materials options, steel choices, etc., but I promise, if you choose correctly, the wait and hassle is worth it.
What You Won’t Get
The state of the art production folder, something like the ZT0562 or the CRKT Hi Jinx or the Spyderco Rubicon, has never been nicer. These are tools that have features that weren’t even dreamed of a decade ago–breathtaking looks with bearing pivots and carbon fiber or titanium. The choices and performance are truly high end. But as the production market has grown and improved, the price of productions has risen and many production knives are close to or the same price as some of the less expensive customs. You can get a Three Sisters Forge Beast for $300. The Spyderco Rubicon costs $320, and that is street pricing.
So the first barrier, price, isn’t that much of a barrier, especially at the low end. But price is not, and can never be, the reason to buy a custom. They are almost by definition a bad price/performance proposition.
I am not going to espouse the supposedly superior fit and finish of a custom. It’s true that some customs have better fit and finish than any production knife. Having handled quite a few customs, Ron Lake’s knives are almost different things when compared to production knives. But the reality is that today’s machining from the major players is so good the difference is gone, especially in the sub-$1,000 custom knives market. Sure you can find some good, inexpensive customs with better fit and finish than a production knife, my Charles Gedraitis Pathfinder being one, but the average custom is not superior to the average high end production knife in terms of fit and finish.
I also want to take a second to address the idea that custom knives can be an investment. The market is very hot right now. It has been for about 18 months. The hottest knives, like Mayo folders, have increased in price about 250% in that time. It seems like a reasonable notion that you could buy a custom and sell it for more than you paid for it, especially if you buy directly from the maker. But there are two problems with this thinking.
First, if you are going to EDC the knife, it probably won’t remain in LNIB condition, something collectors demand. Second, and more importantly, looking at the market, it has all of the features of a bubble. Custom knives seem like the infamous Tulip Market of old. Buy what you like and don’t think of it as an investment. What are the chances, after all, that the knife you order is actually the one that collectors want 100 years from now.
What You Will Get
The real reasons to buy a custom knife and carry it as an EDC are twofold. First, custom knives present you with unique and interesting designs that could never be done in the production world. Second, custom knives have a wide variety of materials, finishes, and steels that you could never find on a production knife.
Production knives are designed to be sold to a wide variety of people, even the high end production knives, and so they have a certain design. They are made to appeal to a wide variety of people and therefore they have some “lowest common denominator” features. Blade shapes and sizes all fall within a few different categories. The materials are generally the same. But in a custom you can get some truly unique designs. Take my Steve Karroll SES, seen here:
This is a knife that is very small, very robust, and designed to be used with a lanyard. It sounds strange, but the knife is merely good without the lanyard and amazing with it. That sort of out of the box design is something that no production company could take a chance on. They are selling hundreds of knives, even in their most limited runs, and something as unusual as that might not sell, so they skip it. But Steve is making one knife at a time. And so he can afford to do something truly unique. He doesn’t have to worry about machining and parts for 500 blades. He can make one and sell one. With this freedom comes truly amazing designs.
Look at some of the knives Jeremy Marsh is producing. They have wild swooping lines that are not only hard to make, but are also not universally appealing. But with such a small market, those things don’t make or break the product. The reins are off and the designs are totally unique.
The other thing you can find in custom knives is a wider range of materials. Superconductor, Desert Ironwood, Lightning Strike Carbon Fiber–the list goes on and on. Sure, exotic materials appear on some very high end production knives, but the reality is that you can’t get them on every model. But if you have the cash and are willing to wait, you can get your dream knife with your dream materials. I love the look of a bolster, and bronze just seems to go so well with cream micarta. I asked Charles Gedraitis to do that, and he did. The damascus blade and carbon fiber backspacer coordinating with each other was just a pleasant surprise he left for me to discover when I opened the package. (You can see a picture of this knife at the top of the page.)
Custom knives are hard to get. They are expensive. Most makers’ books are closed or long, and they don’t necessarily have build quality superior to the best production blades (though of course they can). But they are worth the effort. Freed from the constraints of needing to sell 500 or 50,000 knives, custom makers have produced amazing and unique designs, and you can get the exact materials you want on those designs, giving you a tool made just for you. And as you use it over the years you will come to appreciate that individuality more and more. They are certainly not a necessity, but they are a fun treat.