The Stagnation of the Knife Industry - See page 3 post

Charlie Mike

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^ yes!

Now the goal has drifted from building the best knife to building the knife that will make the most profit.
 
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Thank you to everyone for the responses. I do not purport to speak for anyone other than myself in these observations and I understand that there are likely entire subgenres and markets of knives and knife-related products that I have overlooked in my assessment. I appreciate your input as I myself am still trying to get a better understanding of the knife industry and learn new things about it every day.

Megalobyte said:
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.

I would agree with you regarding the simplicity of knife technology if it had not been for innovations by makers such as Grant & Gavin Hawk and Stan Wilson. The invention of a pivot that is completely impervious to debris, the invention of a double-action OTF mechanism which completely eliminates blade play, and the invention of a flipper with the characteristics of the Non-Flipper Flipper are to me interesting and practical innovations in the context of the technologies which they respond to and improve upon.

These innovations were as surprising and unexpected to me when they were introduced as I imagine innovations such as the Axis Lock, the Tri-Ad Lock and the introduction of high-performance CPM steels were to the general knife audience were when they were introduced. Therefore I believe I would be off-base if I were to believe that 2016-17 is the year in which no more interesting, practical innovations can be made.

Every era of technology development has innovations whose existence was inconceivable in the previous era, and whose existence seems mundane in the following era.

Charlie Mike said:
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.

I admire your attitude and I would contrast it with makers who are very strict about what kind of materials and designs they will use in their knives. I feel that it is all too common that makers will opt to eliminate a huge amount of variation in their product in order to keep their products consistent for the dealers and collectors with lots of money tied up in their knives.

Makers who have not taken this approach and chosen to either open their orders to customer input to a significant degree or continue to develop the styles and technologies used in their knives are unfortunately less competitive in the Instagram Age of Custom Knifemaking because they are less able to compete with makers who demonstrate more loyalty to high-profile dealers and collectors - that is to say, makers who will choose to restrict their output to certain designs, finishes and materials in order to keep the value of dealers' and collectors' knives high.

However, just as we cannot necessarily fault production companies such as Spyderco, Benchmade and Zero Tolerance for allowing market trends to influence their product lineup, we cannot necessarily fault custom makers for allowing dealers and collectors to influence their output. It is these market trends and these high-profile dealers and collectors which enable knife companies and knifemakers to generate revenue in the first place.

brj said:
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?

I feel that while these concerns are valid, and are certainly concerns I am preoccupied with for other reasons and in other contexts, they may not apply to the cutlery industry and the cutlery hobby as much as you may expect. I contend that the modern knife buyer, hobbyist, collector and even amateur is more aware of the details and nuances of their choices than even 5 years ago. There is a level of sophistication in the discourse and description of production and custom knives that would not be found in previous eras of the cutlery industry.

All too often, however, that sophistication is related to aesthetic subtleties or technical specifications that may as well be aesthetic subtleties because they do not have an opportunity to manifest in any sphere other than conversations about the knives. Damascus versus damasteel, S110V versus S90V, and so on.

Dangerously said:
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?

Thank you for this perspective, I had not considered this. I generally agree and I realized that one factor I failed to address is the fact that custom knifemakers may in these times be more interested in keeping those innovations exclusive to their own knives as this generates exclusivity for their collector base and a distinction which applies to their knives alone. Whether this is a cause or an effect of the Instagram Age of Custom Knifemaking, I cannot exactly say at this time and have to give it more thought.

Gaston444 said:
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...

I agree with what you have noticed and it brings up the idea that perhaps these emphases on minuscule blade steel performance differences, on form over function, of extreme solidity with a veneer of tradition/extreme tradition with a veneer of solidity (very well put), and on the rejection of innovation is a consequence of the types of character traits the knife industry has attracted in recent years. I do not say this to disparage those character traits whatsoever- I suspect that, as a collector of knives myself, I possess some of them as well. It is simply a fact which has caused corresponding changes in the knives that are produced and the way those knives are marketed. Similar character traits can be seen in enthusiasts of high-end bicycles and firearms, for example.

FortyTwoBlades said:
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.

While I agree that this is occurring (the proliferation of an aesthetics over function approach), I only partially agree with your assessment that follows. Many innovations' practical consequences in terms of reliability, durability, safety and user friendliness were never noticeable to a large degree by anyone other than enthusiasts who carefully followed the industry. The innovations I mentioned in my original post are all examples - if knife companies had hypothetically chosen to ignore many of these innovations I doubt it would have caused a significant effect in the capabilities of knives.

However, companies are competitive because of their ability to offer what their competition cannot offer. Introducing innovations into a product line is important for attracting new customers, attracting customers of competing companies, and attracting purchases of their knives by existing customers who are faced with the prospect of keeping an older knife that still works or a newer knife that offers new features.

Companies are still offering innovations, because that is the only way they can hope to be competitive. However, these innovations are overwhelmingly in the "aesthetics over function" category because today's innovations are largely aesthetics over function. With some exceptions, for many companies there are simply no currently available innovations of the "function" variety to incorporate.

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.

This is a very good way to summarize the main principle of why I believe this stagnation is occurring.
 
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Great post. Knives among enthusiasts have ceased to be tools, and have become toys indeed. Collectible toys, bling, jewelry. Rarely used for their intended function. I was just telling a friend how I am satisfied with what I have and seldom see anything new that I really find interesting. I'm OK with that.
 

Charlie Mike

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Great post. Knives among enthusiasts have ceased to be tools, and have become toys indeed. Collectible toys, bling, jewelry. Rarely used for their intended function. I was just telling a friend how I am satisfied with what I have and seldom see anything new that I really find interesting. I'm OK with that.

Yes, same on all points.

If a knife doesn't get carried/used, it gets sold.
 

The Burgh

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Terrific post, Cornsyrup. I am more impressed with your writing and thought provoking talents than the subject at hand.

Wish there were a similarly well-thought, well-written and well-researched piece to replace all the hate-ravaged political posts on BF (or, at least, start the poisonous diatribes off with at least a modicum of intelligent exchange).
 
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I think the industry has plateaued at the present time. I would prefer to think of the cutlery market as maturing rather than stagnating. I doubt there has ever been as much variety available in the market place than today. The variety of knives available is overwhelming.
 
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Exceptional, well thought out and provocative post CS...

This sentence alone was worth the read.
This secondary purpose for knives necessitated extensive feats of branding - in some cases the establishment of a whole subculture - to support these identities.

Well done.
 

AF

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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.

I think this is an important point and well said.
Going back to what I wrote before. Most of the usage we hear about concerning edge holding comes from testers who have to cut through a mile (literally) of cardboard to dull a high wear-resistant steel. So yes this is real testing but it's not "natural" usage in the sense that anything other than the test was accomplished. A tiny, tiny minority of knife buyers need this performance. Many do want it however.
 

SpySmasher

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A thoughtful post for sure but personally I find myself a bit ... uncaring? I have come to terms with the fact that I am a knife collector just as I find myself a collector of other things I never intended to collect such as old video game consoles and comic books. They are collected because I love them and can't bear to be rid of them, not because they are investments. Actually, they're all pretty worthless.

I'm certain that there is a bubble awaiting a burst in the knife collector market. When it does I'll probably pick up some knives on the cheap.

EDIT: One additional thought -- very few of the innovations you list improve the knife as a cutting tool. A small 4"-5" fixed blade in a decently heat-treated and ground steel would provide 99.9% of the cutting that anyone, anywhere would ever need. Most of the "important" (my term) innovations you list were more cultural innovations than anything else and very toy-like from a purely practical perspective.
 
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I think the industry has plateaued at the present time. I would prefer to think of the cutlery market as maturing rather than stagnating. I doubt there has ever been as much variety available in the market place than today. The variety of knives available is overwhelming.

Actually this does not strike me as true, especially for my own personal interests: I like stick tang daggers with light grippy synthetic handles which are as light and sharp as possible, while still having a narrow 7"+ blade and a simple design. I also want big 10" plus stainless steel hollow handle "survival choppers".

In those two fairly broad categories there is hardly anything to buy that is not 30+ years old, except limited run anniversary editions, and very occasional one-off customs...

Even some very basic categories, like thick stock high-end non-decorative stainless steel choppers over 9", are almost completely non-existent: What is the competition out there for the San Mai III Trailmaster, or the very similar Fallkniven Thor? These two are both essentially the SAME 30 year old design... Only the current "tacticool" incarnation of the SOG Tigershark, with its detachable hand guard, could be termed as "recent" and innovative in that category...

I realize my interests are rather unusual, but frankly if the choice was way richer 30 years ago there is something odd going on...

Gaston
 

cash71

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Stagnation leads to innovation. So if it's true the knife industry is in stagnation look for some good things to come from it.
 
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Charlie Mike

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This is the future, God dammit! Where the F are the GD lightsabers?
 

not2sharp

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This is the future, God dammit! Where the F are the GD lightsabers?

The most correct answer is that they, and several generations of important inovations, await the arrival of better performing storage batteries. We will probably get them around the same time we get the Jetson's flying cars. We could make them today, but who would want a 300lb light saber with expensive high maintenance batteries?

jetsons.jpg


n2s
 

cash71

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CornSyrup:

Can you define what you believe constitutes "stagnation of the knife industry" Don't take this the wrong way I just would like to know what you think the facts that lead you to this statement.
 
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^ yes!

Now the goal has drifted from building the best knife to building the knife that will make the most profit.

You condensed my point perfectly. That is exactly what I meant. It's not just knives either it seems like every industry has switched to this model. Coupled with built in obsolecense America no longer takes pride in trying to make the best.
 

not2sharp

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You condensed my point perfectly. That is exactly what I meant. It's not just knives either it seems like every industry has switched to this model. Coupled with built in obsolecense America no longer takes pride in trying to make the best.

I seriously believe that the paradigm is about to change. We are going to go from driving our production through the use of cheap foreign labor to an entirely new model that relies on automated and emerging manufacturing such as 3-D printing. Once we get there, the design becomes the all important component and users may be free to produce (print) a license copy at will from whatever materials they choose to employ.

n2s
 

unwisefool

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^ yes!

Now the goal has drifted from building the best knife to building the knife that will make the most profit.
I just took a quick look through the for sale forum here and I'm shocked that people are paying $1800~2200+ for titanium framelock knives with not much else going for them. I don't understand what drives these prices.

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Well said OP
While I do agree that there too much emphases on the embellishment rather than functionality (timascus this and zircuti that) and I do puke a little every time I see a multi-grind blade
I do not agree that the inventions of yesteryear where that great no offence but spyderhole or emreson wave are hardly "inventions" The industry has been stagnant for many years now with very little improvements in functionality. In defense of the makers it is very hard to come up with functional improvements for such simple tools as knives.

Also, while I do resent the high prices and cult IG following some makers command, in theory, at least, it eventually gives them the ability to employ CNCs and come up with high precision tools which in turn should increase production and lower the prices (sadly it is not always happening, for instance Shirogorovs should not cost more than $400-500 IMHO)

If you ever see SNAFU for $450 pm me ;)
 

SpySmasher

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I just took a quick look through the for sale forum here and I'm shocked that people are paying $1800~2200+ for titanium framelock knives with not much else going for them. I don't understand what drives these prices.
I'm at a bit of a loss there too. From $0 to a few hundred dollars the quality of a folding knife seems to improve along a line of diminishing returns. The quality difference from a $10 knife to a $50 knife is immense. From a $50 to a $100 the quality difference is less dramatic and so on until you reach the midtechs. It's just not possible for better build quality than say a Sebenza.

Above that price it would seem to me that you should be paying for the arts & crafts -- personalization, custom engraving and file work, rare and expensive materials, and the time and skill it takes to craft those -- but what the hell are you paying for when you buy a $2000 folder made from a couple of slabs of titanium?
 
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FullMetalJackass

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Lot of truth in this post. Same goes with guns industry. It's all about looks and style, not anymore about performance, reliability and innovation. Just have a look at the “sport” AR-15 market.

I avoid IG like the plague, and I won't buy a knife from there as I won't have any faith in a blade made by some CAD genius with no blisters or scars on his hands. Sure they look great, with these fancy etchings and materials and shapes and fobs... But what makes them better than a “crude” Emerson?
IG is just another offshoot of grassroot marketing made possible by social medias. And as long as there will be customers, there will be sellers that will get tremendous profit out of this hype factor.

Knife industry stagnates, but IMO it's mostly due from a shift of the customer's values and what they expect from a knife. Knives are becoming trendy, metrosexual jewelry pieces. Those new designers (as I won't consider most of those people as knifemakers) are not making tools anymore, but fashion, novelty items. No need to innovate when all you have to do is to cosmetically enhance other people's concepts to make big bucks.

Knives are slowly becoming hipster's accessories.
 
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