On Knives and Such. Or, Finding Out that You are an Amateur

So you have dabbled a bit with the fire and forge and think, "Now, I am a blacksmith, now I will make a bad ass weapon."

Think again.

Actually, no, go ahead and give it a shot. It is absolutely a learning experience that you should take part in. Word of caution: it will not go as planned. Hooks and bits of hardware are one thing. These items are usually made from mild steel and are fairly easily formed and not much is required for them to perform as needed. For sake of argument, we'll call weapons tools... they are, after all, designed to do a particular job.

Tools are something that require a considerable amount of skill and experience to make well. Part of this will be present in the actual working of the metal. Part of this, however, starts before you pick up the hammer. In this day and age, just about every question you have has already been answered on the internet, so your life is considerably easier than it would have been in previous generations. If you are setting out to make a particular type of tool (weapon) make sure you consider what metal you are going to use. How much carbon should be present, what other elements are desired, what elements and metal types should be avoided, what is the desired hardness, what should be used to quench, how long and what temperature (or color, if you don't use a heat treat oven) for tempering, what (if any) edge should be applied, how should it be applied, what type of scale material to use, what type of pins or rivets?... the list goes on and on for the types of questions you should consider and, better yet, have an answer to BEFORE you get started.

Research, man, I know.... And you just wanted to hit some steel.

This is what separates a smith from a hobbyist from an amateur that should probably just go do something else. I am not saying you shouldn't give it a try, we are all amateurs at some point in our lives. What I am saying, however, is that everything requires time and commitment. If at any point you think, "Damn! this is starting to feel like work!" then congratulations! You have determined that you have no desire to go beyond being an amateur. And, you know what? That is okay. Truly. If you don't feel like making the commitment to advancing your knowledge, and thereby advancing your skill set, then don't. But, I implore you, all hobbyists and professionals implore you, do not make things like knives and what-not and try to sell them.

Here's why: Tools, as we already know, require a great deal of skill and time. Many require an investment in not only the commitment to learn, but a monetary investment in equipment and proper resources. These commitments and investments carry a cost. One that is often blemished by an amateur trying to sell his wares.

Historical tidbit: There is not a Blacksmith Union in the United States of America. Why? Back when many trades were starting to unionize, smiths actually worked against protections afforded by unions. Their argument was that a union would protect the failing/inferior  blacksmith while making them equal (and greatly reducing the perceived quality) of professional blacksmiths. Without the protections of a union, the inferior smith would fail and close shop, leaving only competent smiths in the arena of commerce. This would guarantee that all works created would be of respectable quality and the perceived value of the products would be similar to their actual cost. In short, they believed that if inferior smiths were protected by the union then all smiths would suffer. They would be expected to perform superior work for inferior wages to compete with those that produced inferior work for the same wage.

To boil years of debate and argument down to a simple example: You and I both make a knife. You are committed to your trade and have made the investment to improve your skills. I, on the other hand, am doing this because I can but have not trained as much, have not read as much, and do not have the drive to become superior. When we have finished our knives, they look similar. Your knife, the professional knife, has a nicer appearance but does not look (from a consumer's perspective) that much different than mine. The apparent difference (an average consumer will have no concept of grain structure, plasticity, rigidity, flexibility, hardness, bevel and edge structure) is that your knife costs considerably more than mine. The average consumer will see these similar knives and purchase mine, thinking that the price difference comes from you overcharging rather than that your knife is significantly superior.

People are cheap, this is not a surprise. They are (almost) always looking for a deal. If they cannot tell that there is a difference, they will almost always go for the cheaper option. So they buy the inferior knife (meanwhile, you wasted untold hours of work), it underperforms... It might chip, crack, bend, or dull very quickly (or all of the above). Most, but not all, people will blame this on the fact that it is handmade rather than blame the smith that made it. They will either buy a mass produced knife or buy another cheap blade made by either me or some other amateur rather than spend the money on your knife. Because I am an amateur, I have taken a sale away from you and harmed the reputation of smiths in general. I have set an expectation that the price for your labor should be lower and created a price-point that is unreasonable for a skilled smith and a competently made product. 

So, if you are going to make something, make it right. Do the leg work. If you are too lazy or disinterested, then please, PLEASE, do not forge. And, if you say, "The hell with you, I'm going to do it anyway!" Then please don't sell or compare your work to professional smiths that have spent years of their lives training and countless dollars making sure they have the tools, equipment, and resources to make the product right.

There is nothing wrong with being an amateur, as long as you know are one.