The Stagnation of the Knife Industry - See page 3 post

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This post represents my personal take on the stagnation I see in the knife industry, both in the realm of custom knifemakers and production knives. These thoughts are based on what is ultimately a very limited worldview informed by aspects of the knife industry that I have a personal interest in, and so may not take all or even most important information into account. I welcome any and all disagreement with my opinions as disagreement often helps me to see viewpoints that I had not considered before or information I had neglected to factor into my observations.

Specific examples are here used neither to endorse nor to oppose these knives, manufacturers, or their enthusiasts.

In my view, the main culprit is Lateral Improvement and the encroachment of the Instagram Age of Custom Knifemaking. At first this may seem like a knee-jerk reaction, and after these explanations this may still very well be. However, I believe the lack of enthusiasm for both recent production and custom offerings and the proliferation of knives which seem to merely be visual variants on a theme can be attributed to this phenomenon.

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In the earlier days of modern knife history, advancements in materials and technology were undertaken with an attitude that I will call "innovation based improvement". That is to say, unprecedented uses of technologies and materials, and sometimes technologies and materials specifically born out of the desire for their implementation in knives, resulted in features which fundamentally changed both the capabilities of knives and the way the end user interfaced with them. Some notable examples that come to mind are:

  • R.W. Loveless's use of ATS 34 steel in knives.
  • Chris Reeve's development of the titanium framelock as a variation of Michael Walker's liner lock.
  • Bill McHenry and Jason Williams' invention of the Axis Lock.
  • Robert Dalton's single-action OTF button lock design.
  • Sal Glesser's pocket clip and opening hole innovations which became the basis for Spyderco knives.
  • Andrew Demko's invention of the Tri-Ad lock.
  • Ken Onion's invention of the Speedsafe assisted opening mechanism.
  • The development of powder metallurgy steels optimized for knifemaking use by outfits such as Crucible Industries and Carpenter Technology Corporation.
  • Tom Mayo's substitution of materials such as Talonite and Stellite for ferrous steel in folding and fixed blade knives.
  • Ernest Emerson's discovery of the Wave Feature and the feature's subsequent implementation into folding knives.
  • Kit Carson's invention of the flipper opening mechanism.

An important thing to note is that these innovators were also knifemakers of a very high level in their time. With the possible exception of Sal Glesser, all of the above were capable of producing sole-authored custom knives ranging from the practical to the tactical to the true art showpiece. They were custom knifemakers through and through- not inventors. However, as evidenced by their forward-thinking innovations, they all focused at least in part on this "innovation based improvement".

In recent years, however, came the prominence of the Instagram Age of Custom Knifemaking. This is knifemaking characterized by three major factors:

1. The new recognition of knives as status symbols, decorative ornaments, displays of wealth or of ingratiation with knifemakers. Enabled by the proliferation of image sharing via forums, Facebook and Instagram, this new recognition placed a newfound priority on the visual impact a knife would have on an audience.

2. Knives as metaphors for identity. "This is a knife to give as an heirloom to my children." (i.e. I am the type of person who thinks about the future- not only do I have material possessions to pass on to my children, but I also have intangibles such as work ethic, morals, manners, to pass on as well). "This is a knife capable of penetrating body armor or causing massive internal bleeding." (i.e. I am the type of person who has a prepared mind and is unafraid to defend myself, my family or my country from threats using the tools at my disposal). This secondary purpose for knives necessitated extensive feats of branding - in some cases the establishment of a whole subculture - to support these identities.

3. Knives as toys. As the ease of accessibility increased for folding knives, so too did their potential to be used as toys. Unlike fixed blades and vintage traditional folders, these knives provided tactile as well as aural stimulation that many consumers found irresistible. Knives produced for these consumers must therefore be capable of providing this function.

These newfound realities meant not only a change in the custom knives which were produced but in the improvements the custom knifemakers chose to pursue. These improvements I will call "Lateral improvement". These "lateral improvements" concerned changes that primarily affected one of the three factors outlined above - visual impact, branding and toy purpose, with little impact in the way of performance or usability by metrics which characterized innovation based improvement. With this in mind, let us take a look at the most notable recent innovations in custom knifemaking:

  • Tom Ferry's technique of folding of different titanium alloys into layers in a fashion similar to modern pattern-welded steel.
  • Flavio Ikoma & Rick Lala's development of the IKBS bearing pivot system.
  • Jake Hoback's invention of the Hoback Rolling Detent.
  • Kaj Embretsen's development of Damasteel, a pattern-welded steel which has increased stain resistance.
  • J.L. William's invention of the Kickstop flipper, a flipper tab which is concealed in the frame following deployment.
  • Gus Cecchini's integration of a bottle opener into the flipper tab of a flipper framelock knife.
  • Todd Begg's use of an inset ceramic ball bearing in the pocket clips of his folding knives.
  • Multiple grind styles of various heights and widths on a single blade, popularized by makers such as Mick Strider.
  • R.J. Martin's invention of the "pivotless pivot" visual effect.
  • Sergey Shirogorov's development of the Multiple Roller Bearing System pivot.
  • Walter Randolph and Peter Carey's use of forged alloys such as Carbo-Quartz and Zircoti in knife handles.

You may notice that these innovations follow a pattern of appealing to visual impact, branding and toy purpose, with little in the way of improvements in performance or usability. While these are not inherently negative or positive things, their audience is limited to a small subsector of the overall luxury goods market - an audience with plenty of disposable income, with the wait time of what can be 10+ years waiting for a custom ordered build, and who are willing to demonstrate their wealth and their savvy to an extremely small segment of the population (You can show off to more admirers with a Rolex than you can with a Zero Tolerance. Furthermore, you can show off to more admirers with a Zero Tolerance than with a Peter Carey custom.)

You may also notice I have left out talented, forward-thinking innovators such as Grant and Gavin Hawk and Stan Wilson. These makers show commitment to innovation based improvement with their designs and ideas. However, consider that their current competition is in fact the Instagram Age of Custom Knifemaking; consider also that compared to their competition, their designs have an even narrower audience and appeal.

The unfortunate reality is that the Instagram Age of Custom Knifemaking is propped by what could be described as a serious speculative bubble. Dealers and collectors alike have inflated prices on custom knives immensely, and this inevitably results in significant inertia. If you look at trends on the secondary market, you will notice that inflated prices are beholden to the fickle tastes of Instagram and the forums. As an illustration of how much value may be lost over a small span of time, here are some average price decreases on once popular & commonly exchanged knife models, calculated from pricing data obtained from sale posts on forums and dealer websites. I began collecting this data in 2015 and while it is not all-encompassing nor completely accurate as some sales may have been completed for less than advertised asking price, I believe it demonstrates the trends in question well.

  • Brad Southard Downing: -$1100
  • Tom Mayo TNT: -$550
  • Tom Mayo Dr. Death: -$700
  • JB Blount (JBB Knives) Arrestor: -$1500
  • Peter Carey 50/50 Nitro: -$400
  • Emerson Custom CQC13: -$300
  • GTC (Gus Cecchini) G-Force II: -$1200
  • Tom Krein Alpha: -$600
  • Terzuola Titanium A.T.C.F: -$250
  • Jeremy Horton Tac 4: -$1200
  • Peter Rassenti Snafu: -$450
  • Peter Rassenti Druid: -$350
  • Deryk Munroe Sigil Mk III: -$500

The keystone in this dilemma is the fact that knifemakers, on average, still charge reasonable prices for their custom order knives, even when the secondary prices are inflated. However, an increase in practices such as bidding auctions, lotteries, and the sale of accessories (beads, tags, shirts, etc.) means that the knifemaker's income may still be appropriately supplemented if interest in his knives is high. This creates significant inertia among the owners of that knifemaker's knives, as they do not want to lose money on knives they purchased at inflated rates, and for the knifemaker themselves, who must produce something identical to or similar to the product which created that interest in the first place.

How does this inertia trickle to production knives? Knives are a durable good, and indeed one of their key selling points is their durability. A lack of innovation in durable goods for a significant length of time can create a very specific type of market saturation - one in which not only similar items with small variations are constantly being offered for sale, but the items which were bought in the previous season are still around. In other words, the new product with a small variation must not only compete with other offerings available today but must also compete with the extant offerings which were purchased yesterday and are still around.

Ultimately, this approach to innovation which emphasizes lateral improvement- improvement relating primarily to visual appeal, branding and toy use- results in insignificant, unremarkable differences between individual products in the context of production knife economies of scale and target demographic. The lack of innovation based improvement in many of today's custom knifemakers corresponds to a general lack of these improvements in production knives, reducing interest for the non-collecting, non-specialized audience of production knives.
 
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Some fair points, and yes, the IG crowd does love their expensive, shiny things, but, knives are a fairly simple thing. It was unavoidable that over time you'd have less and less revolutionary ideas, and having reached a point where the technologies and innovations that can be applied to a simple tool mostly have been, the knives are now better than ever, so it's now about refinement and evolution, which may include a nod to the artistic by makers who want to visually impress a suitable audience with really interesting materials and aesthetics. Knives have always been IMO a mix of art and function. The art is important too, box cutters cut pretty well. :)
 

Charlie Mike

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Probably one of the best posts I've read all year.

Seriously though, the emperor has no clothes. The bubble will burst in the "instas" and RW Loveless will still command a stable price. The problem with "instas" is they are ALWAYS changing hands... Hot Potato... The question is how long can the potato be passed until it is no longer worth (profit margins) passing?

Then there are guys like me. Every knife I make is a custom, entirely in house and by hand. I typically have between 2-4 orders in queue at all times. No desire for insta fame... I just have a passion for knives.
 

brj

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Very cool post, CS.

There are maybe several other dimensions that concur to this train of thought, ranging from mundane ones, such as the 'boys and their gadgets' mentality (i.e. pushing the need to show off somehow lower than it should be on Maslow's pyramid) to more philosophical ones, such as the overall stagnation of today's society or even its dystopian slide (i.e. since we already oversimplify our language via the use of emoticons to convey happiness/sarcasm/etc and supposedly in 2-3 generations this would leave us crippled to sophisticated wording, seeing the Instagram age of cutlery items should not come as big surprise), but yeah, I feel you are spot on. A sign of the times, maybe?
 
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Great post. I agree completely.

I will say Hogue is one of the few companies that seem to be truly innovating, or, in your terms, contributing to innovation based improvement.
 
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Yes, a great post, indeed.
"A passion for knives." This says it best.
Being a knut for a long time and sorting through all innovations that have come down the pike, the Hole and the pocket clip keep winning.
rolf
 
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Great post. And I agree that it feels like the market has moved from function to jewellery. But there are some measurements missing to prove that it is so, rather than just one of our human cognitive biases.

I pose this as a question, not a rebuttal: could there be as much real innovation today per decade as there ever was, but it is hard to see, because we're flooded with mostly cosmetic improvements from the larger custom market of today?

It's easy to add up all the older improvements you list and forget that they were made over decades of time. That means a lot of space between them. Yes, Sal made the hole in he 80's, but I remember the 80's as mostly filled with Rambo junk. I think G&G Hawk invent locks at a rate faster than the entire industry did in most decades. And the explosion of cutlery steels and heat treat improvements seems to be a more recent phenomenon. So maybe it's just harder to see in the noise, without the benefit of hindsight?
 
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One of the problems I see with innovation is that the fault for the lack of it is not entirely down to the makers: There seems to be no real customer interest in actual design performance, except as a function of materials, by which of course I mean blade steel, which is a particular, and rather sterile, obsession...

For instance, if custom or high end knife makers were really interested in the best "grippiness", they would have invested in mould making technology for custom Kraton-like grips... Even basic pyramidal checkering is rarely seen... Few knives are sold today based on their superior ergonomics performance alone... The Sebenza is not particularly great in ergonomics, especially the thumb stud, or that secure in grip...

I remember the Benchmade AFCK as one of the last notable new releases that was advertised, and sold, mostly based on what appeared to be well though-out, and innovative, design and ergonomics... That was 1995: Twenty two years ago... I did not find it all that great "in the flesh", because of hasty blade grinds and some flex in the handle, but the way the design was "attempted" was certainly oriented on a form follows function emphasis... Hardly any folding knives today are designed like that: To innovate while still being after the simplest most functional shapes.

Look at the SOG Fatcat: One of the rare, if not the only, expensive folder to have Kraton scales... It does innovate with some simplicity in places, yet its edge design has a needless and inappropriate recurve... While ergonomically functional, it seems very looks-oriented in some areas... It feels a bit over-designed, which never used to happen before...

There is also more interest from customers in extreme solidity with a veneer of tradition, or extreme tradition with a veneer of solidity. This is especially true of fixed blades, which often revert back to Carbon steel, which is pretty much like sticking to carburators in a modern car...

I really see little customer interest in actual performance through design alone, which would drive innovation. For instance, a real interest in short-term edge performance would drive an infinite myriad of serrated edges variations and concepts...: Relatively few high-end knives have serrations, especially high end folders...

In fact, from what I see, many knife owners actively reject innovation: A disproportionate number of locks are still framelocks: This is like absolutely every car being a two-door four seat four cylinder front-wheel drive...: Nothing wrong with that, but tedious...

Gaston
 

FortyTwoBlades

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I see a part of the problem being that the "toy/jewelry" factor of the "aesthetics over function" paradigm is bleeding out into lower priced offerings from even major companies. As a result we have, arguably, a market currently dominated by tools that were designed without a strong concept of their intended utilitarian context in mind. Designs abound that are all flash and no substance, and are only classed in that nebulous category of "EDC knives" which is really not very demanding on design factors for it to at least accomplish the tasks asked of it. However, the difference between an "okay" knife and a superb one are usually about how well it accomplishes the tasks it was envisioned for rather than merely whether or not it can do them at all, and so a lot of people who've never known better have a favorable opinion of many of these knives because they get the job done better than the garbage they likely had before, but have little clue of the yet-still even better performance they could be getting out of a knife that was designed for their more narrow contexts of use.
 

AF

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Interestingly customers often want functional upgrades even when they have no use for them. Think of steels like S110V which is now found on many regular production Spyderco models. It can cut cardboard forever. How many customers can really utilize this increased performance?
I compare it to the top speed wars that used to reign in motorcycles. Practically speaking, top speed is meaningless for street riders. Far more important is midrange power. Torque over horsepower.
Is steel toughness like torque while wear resistance is like horsepower?
 
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I guess I look at all of this a bit differently. I see the "stagnation" of this industry to be a simple plateau in innovation. Granted, there were a lot of improvements made by individual smiths which affected the market place, but that innovation has trickled down into the more pedestrian offerings by the factories. It's just a fact of life in a market-driven economy. In retrospect was it the "golden age" of knife making, or a flash in the pan?

It's sort of like the intermittent windshield wiper circuit. It was done in the automotive market place as a stand-alone option where it was initially an "exclusive" to a market. The big boys (Ford & Chrysler) decided they didn't want to pay for the patent use & just started making cars with this feature. Years later the law suit was settled, but cars all have this feature now. It ended up in the market place because it was simply a good idea which helped everyone who drove a car.

This question of utility vs. function vs. art form will never be settled, since it's a subjective feature of the knife which is hard to place a value on or a price. How much innovation is needed to cut a string? Who will pay a premium for this ability? How will the market react to this cutting of string? Will some "collectors" corner the market on string, knives or razor blades to make a killing?

I also wonder if this conversation hasn't already happened. When Ogg was talking to Ugg about flint knapping and the use of a rock vs. a chunk of meteorite to make the best, sharpest & most durable edge, was it ever really resolved?
 
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CS, I gotta agree with CM, w a well written and thought out post that deserves the same consideration in answering as you put into making the original post. I have a few questions for you before I offer up my opinion that'll help me understand why you collected the data and your understanding of the current marketing trends and the demographics they're targeted too. As a quick one I'll use Charlie Mike as an example, (sorry Matt :) )

Matt's been into tactical SD blades both fixed and folders from the likes of CRK, Busse, Darrel Ralph and a host of custom designed to his exacting specs. If ever there was a man who bought and buys things not for their status symbol but their claims not only by themselves but by enough members to command the higher prices on the secondary market which they do. Matt even began making knives like many do because he wasn't satisfied out there. I've watched his quest to find a perfect or as near to perfect collection of EDCs out there. Based on his own testing criteria. A man who learned about the characteristics and how to exploit them from the steels he's got experience using. My long winded point here is Matt's an entirely different demographic than me yet we share very similar tastes in knives. Matt's currently happy with his but he'll find something better than one of his current favorites and the search rolls on, it never stops, just takes a rest. Again Matt sorry to drag ya in brother but you were the first exception to the rules I thought of. ;) MHL&R. Matt's a part of the group in constant search of the best material , designs and fit to his purpose. A quest for that perfect toolset that I fear he'll spend the rest of his life in search of. There are enough people like Matt out there not afraid to spend the green to get what they want driving the manufactures and custom makers decisions on what current models/designs they offer, (sell what makes money right?).

There's several different styles of knife buyer with their own often eclectic reasons for buying what they want and how it's used in their collections, (remember it only takes three to make a collection ) and there are so many knife collections out there based on manufacture/makers whose product line may consist of all they've made to date which these days might only be 3 or 4 variations. Do that with a few similar makers and it's not unheard of to see so many 3 knife $3K-$8K mini collections not only because of value and degree of difficulty in obtaining but because of the cool factor.

I apologize in advance if this seems a little scattered but I haven't slept in 48 hours and I'm punchy and noddin' off while typing this but I wanted to make sure I was subscribed to this thread so I can ask you some question I had about your background and reasons for collecting the data. Let me put a little sleep behind my brain and I'll have a more coherent reply and a better grasp on what what you're lookin' for enabling me to give you my best educated opinion.

Well good night, it took me 10 minute to write the last paragraph I nodded off. Lookin' forward to readin' more opinions and therories explaining the phenomenon you notice.

Later folks, I'll be back with a coherent opinion after some sleep.

Peace Out everyone. (~);-}

Ted E.
 

FortyTwoBlades

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This question of utility vs. function vs. art form will never be settled, since it's a subjective feature of the knife which is hard to place a value on or a price. How much innovation is needed to cut a string? Who will pay a premium for this ability? How will the market react to this cutting of string? Will some "collectors" corner the market on string, knives or razor blades to make a killing?

From a functional standpoint, this isn't hard to figure out. Performance-based optimization should include eliminating excessive or frivolous specifications or features, and then if you want to gussy it up from there you just add your decorative elements in ways that minimally impact the function of the tool for its intended range of applications. What the market wants, however, is often less realistic and based on impulses at seeing something shiny or novel. Again, often with knives a lot of this comes down not to a can/can't dichotomy, but rather is a question of efficiency.
 

Charlie Mike

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There are people who are about the knives and there are people who are about the money... And knives are how they are getting the money.

If I was set for life (multimillionaire status), I'd start building stuff that people fork over $5k+ for... And flood the market with them at my loss.

Just to f*** s*** up :D
 

not2sharp

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... Designs abound that are all flash and no substance, and are only classed in that nebulous category of "EDC knives" which is really not very demanding on design factors for it to at least accomplish the tasks asked of it. ....

We have to acknowledge that for most of us there is little use for a knife outside of the kitchen. Just about everything is prepakaged and easy access, and the great outdoors continue to retreat to a vanashing point. Just look at our exchange and see how many of these pre-owned knives have actually seen any use.

We love knives and we go out of our way to play with them, but outside of a few work trades (which mostly rely on disposables anyway), the environment has changed. It is hard to get real functional feedback from users who primarily buy knives to display or collect.

n2s

Edited to add:

The real innovation in recent years has been in production and manufacturing methods.
 
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CPP- Yes. RWL-34 was named after R.W. Loveless.
Carry on, please.
rolf
 
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This isna great post by the OP. I said in another thread designers are no longer looking to make "the best knife" a knife they want to put in the hands of everyone. Designing the knife and then setting a cost based on that design process. Instead they want to design a knife with Ti scales and S100v steel so they can charge X price for that knife.

I feel like in the past when people made products they wanted it to be the best and highest quality product they could make. Like when they designed the first iPod it was supposed to be the best mp3 player.
 
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