by Patrick Brewster
Knifemaking is a combination of artistic and mechanical design and fabrication. On one hand, knifemaking is artistic sculpture – the knifemaker envisions the form, flow, and visual balance of the finished work, and skillfully transforms raw material into this vision. On the other hand, knifemaking falls under the category of tool making – the knifemaker must be skilled and knowledgeable in the areas of material science and selection, mechanical design and engineering, ergonomics, machining, and manufacturing. Furthermore, when knifemaking becomes an occupation, the knifemaker becomes a businessman and must be competent in the areas of finance, marketing, customer service, liability, bookkeeping, inventory management, tax compliance, and accounting. Furthermore, the knifemaker must deal with credit card processing, graphic design, web programming, and website and social media management.
Artist, toolmaker, and businessman – generally speaking, each is a respectable and well-paying occupation. As a frame of reference, the average salary in the US is $52,000 – and this number is also the approximate average salary for a plumber or toolmaker. It seems reasonable to think that someone who is an artist, toolmaker AND businessman could easily earn the same as a plumber, but this is not the case. It is extremely difficult to sell knives at a price that is commensurate with the sacrifice, skill, and risk demanded of the knifemaker. This is the fundamental challenge of knifemaking as a business.
Value is determined in the market, and here where this problem is rooted. The craft knife market is composed of a spectrum of knifemakers – scam artists and incompetent makers at one end, master craftsmen at the other end, and everything else in between. Most knifemakers are hobbyists, and for obvious reasons, hobbyists will always sell for less than professionals, which creates an “artificially” low market value. The knifemaker who aspires to make a living from the craft must address the following three questions. How do I distinguish my product from the competition? How do I compete in a market with artificially low perceived value? How do I cope with these difficulties while also maintaining my artistic inspiration and motivation?
The rewards of knifemaking are the same rewards experienced by the accomplished artist, toolmaker, and businessman. The artist enjoys the creative process, result, and public reception of his work. The toolmaker enjoys the inherent satisfaction of solving problems with science, technology, and ingenuity. The businessman gains a sense of accomplishment in treating customers with integrity and making people feel like their money was well spent. The challenges of knifemaking are considerable, but the rewards are profound.