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Custom vs. Customized.

As a knife collector, you may eventually move from factory produced knives to custom made knives.  The move from factory or mass produced to custom or individually made will see a dramatic jump in price.  The move should be done carefully and with extensive research.  Despite what the salesman tells you, exotic handle material or unorthodox knife blades do not mean the knife is a custom made knife.  It may be interesting, it may even be nice, but it can also be mass produced. You need to learn to differentiate between mass produced custom designs, limited runs, customized and true custom knives. Below are some general categories that may help you navigate the world of custom and customized knives. 

True Custom knives.
Custom knives are normally made one at a time by hand. The may be made by an individual craftsman or in some cases made by a team of craftsmen. In some cases the knife maker may make several specific models, but the production of the knife is normally based on a customer's order. Some custom makers may even make multiple copies of the same knife based on its popularity and probable demand. The value of a custom knife is almost always dependent on the knife maker and his/her reputation. In some cases, some custom makers become so popular that their business expands and they need other knife makers to assist in production. At that point, you could technically say the knife is a "Factory Custom" For Example Bob Loveless produced custom knives, Bo Randall started as a custom maker but the company he founded now turns out Factory Custom knives..

Factory Custom:

Custom knives that became so popular that production expanded and required more than one person to build the knives. The knives are still built to the same exacting standards as when the knives were custom, but the ability to produce small batches now exist While technically the knife is factory made, it is not mass produced per-se and remains, for the most part hand-built from start to finish. Depending on the Factory, a Factory Custom can be as valuable if not more valuable that a Custom made knife. The best example of factory customs, are Randall Made knives, which are normally built to customer specifications using specific factory patterns..

Custom Design
Many knife companies employ knife designers to come up with new and interesting designs for mass production. The end result is often sold as a Custom knife but in reality is a Custom Design. Almost every knife company make custom designed knives and because the companies have the ability to produce them large quantities, the knives are in now way a true custom knife no matter how cool they look..

Once designed, a knife company will take this custom design and manufacture it using mass production techniques. The quality of the knife is dependent on the type of steel used in the manufacturing as well as the various heat treating and sharpening techniques employed at the factory.  While the knife will look different than many other knives, the company is able to make as many as they can sell. A custom design can still be a valued knife and many companies provide excellent knives made by true cutlery artisans.

Among the Custom designers would fall Ken Onion for Gerber, Brian Wilhoite for SMKW, Gil Hibbens for United Cutlery, several others.

Limited Run:
As mentioned many knives are produced in limited runs.  Runs are typically limited by two factors.  The first is normally the number of knives the company thinks it can sell at a given price.  The second limiting factor is the amount of raw material on hand at the time of manufacturing.  Often the only difference between one limited run and another limited run will be a shield used on a particular knife handle or the color the cattle bone was dyed.  Other limiting factors may be a particular blade etching or tang stamps.   Custom designs are sometimes produced in limited runs but not always.  Another example of a limited run is when a company produces a knife pattern with a different combination of blades, such a five bladed stockman. Another popular limited run is the First Production Run. Knives will actually be marked in some fashion letting the buyer

For the collector you should look for six things before considering a knife is an actual limited run. 

1) How many knives make up the limited run?  A limited run consisting of 50 knives has more value than a run of 500 knives.. 

2) Is the limited run “numbered” and does it comes with a certificate of authenticity?  If a company is going to produce a limited run that demands a higher price, you should demand proof  Not all limited runs will be numbered and nor will they always come with a certificate of authenticity. But both of these factors will increase the value of a limited run.

3) Is the knife worth the price?  Is the limited run really that much different or better from any other run of the mill line of knives produced by the factory?

4) How similar is this limited run to other limited runs produced by this factory? Is it just a change of handle material or a new tang stamp?

5) Is the pattern appealing? If the knife is god-awful ugly or looks totally impractical or utterly useless, why buy it?

6) If it is a factory produced knife, does the factory have a reputation for turning out quality material?  Do you really want to buy a limited run piece of junk for a higher price than run of the mill piece of junk?

All of these factors are going to affect the potential future value of the knife.  Make sure your limited run is truly a limited run and not just a sales gimmick.

Customized should not be confused with custom made, factory custom, or custom designed . A customized knife normally involves taking a factory made knife and making after market alterations. If these alterations are made by someone of note, it may increase the value of a knife.  In some cases, the alteration may be made to a standard factory production piece, a custom design, or limited production run.  Normally customized knives will be part of a signed or numbered run and they should always have a certificate of authenticity.  The value of a customized knife depends entirely on the notoriety of the customizer and the quality of the knife being customized.

Sometimes factory knives will be customized in house by a artisan on staff or under contract.  In other cases an independent customizer will produce his/her own work using knives provided by popular knife makers. These knives may come from any type of knife maker from Custom knife maker to a factory production models. The customizer will then work his own magic on the knife. This could be done at the request on an individual knife owner, knife maker or factory or at the whim of the customizer.

In the case of factory knives. knife customizers normally take the knife completely apart, do their charm and then reassemble the newly customized knife. The end product is a knife that may remotely resemble a particular factory’s knife pattern but have no other connection to the knife.

Among Customized knife makers you have the Yellowhorse family, Michael Prater and Stacey Combs

The Gray Area.

The problem for the knife collector is that no two people will ever agree on any of the categories I've listed here. And even those who might agree to a point will argue that the categories overlap or that I have left out crucial details. In the end it will be up to you as the collector to decide what is custom and what is just customized. For instance, what do you call a knife made by custom knife maker that was then commissioned to have additional customization person who customizes knives? Do we then have a customized custom knife or just a custom knife collaboration? How many times do we need to split a hair? Over time, as your collection grows, you'll come up with your own definition for what is and isn't a custom knife. As for the definitions here, they help me keep my sanity, in the argument. Hopefully they will act as a good starting point for the novice collector.

Next Section: Steel and other materials

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