For such a ubiquitous, everyday tool it is far from uncommon to experience sticker shock when assessing the prices of knives today. From conservative folding pocket knives to elaborate, large, fixed-blade knives suitable for the battlefield or the backcountry, it is a simple thing to spend $75, $100 or even north of $200 on a production knife made by a major manufacturer.
Ouch! That is no small chunk of change for a tool that is going to get a rigorous workout, and potentially be broken or lost before it reaches the end of its life span. There is little doubt you get what you pay for when it comes to working tools, but how did we get here? Was the knife market always this way?
Why are knives so expensive? The cost of a knife is determined by far more than just the quality of its steel, though that certainly is a factor. Design and revision costs, production tooling, quality control and, yes, branding all play a part. In the case of bespoke knives designed by artisan makers and bladesmiths, costs include significants premium for their time, expertise and failed iterations that you never see before your customized, finished blade is produced.
We will dig a little deeper and investigate all of these factors in the remainder of this article.
One of the major contributors to a knife’s cost is, of course, the steel it is made from. Almost any modern steel is a marvel compared to the primitive steel of years gone by, but suffice to say not all steels are made equal.
Cheap, budget-oriented steels can certainly get the job done with a knife, but they will not take a particularly sharp edge or keep that edge, and they might give up other qualities like corrosion resistance in the bargain.
On the other hand, the latest and greatest in advanced blade steel or high-end tool steel can afford you incredible strength, unbelievable durability, and hair-popping edges that will last and last even through rigorous use.
Sometimes you can face a fork in the road when buying a knife: You can get the exact same model, whatever it is, with one of several steel options.
Do you save some money but give up performance and get the knife with a budget steel like Japan’s AUS-6, or go all out and get an ultra-performance steel like M390 and double or even triple the price?
There is nothing easy about knife design, and manufacturers great and small will go through many revisions before they settle on a finished product that is worthy of a customer’s hard-earned coin.
Aside from the R&D, testing, and revision processes that soak up budgetary funds like a sponge, the design of a knife will directly contribute to manufacturing costs.
Simpler designs typically require fewer machine or human worker processes before they are ready to go out the factory door, and more complex, intricate, or innovative designs requiring more of those same processes.
The more processes, the higher the cost, end of story. Also consider that a particularly simple knife that is made from premium materials, or materials that a manufacturer has convinced the consumer are worth a premium, might be significantly more expensive than its design suggests.
Conversely, an intricate and interesting knife could be offered for a surprisingly low price if the materials are cheap, easy to work with, and easy to come by.
Better manufacturers employ better quality control, and will throw away or reject many more knives and parts of knives then they give their stamp of approval to. All of that lost potential profit will drive up the cost of the products that do make it to market; they have to recoup their investment somewhere.
Before you roll your eyes at the notion of quality control, you should know that quality control is one factor that contributes just as much to the durability, longevity and user experience of a product, including knives, as does the materials, design and production processes.
You might not ever have a problem from a knife made by a manufacturer that pumps out cheaper knives in greater quantities, but chances are there will be plenty of consumers who will. A remorseless dedication to quality control will only send product prices skyward, but so long as the price rates the manufacturer’s attention to detail it is money well spent.
“Boutique” Knife Costs
Considering the edge, pardon the pun, that we enjoy in manufacturing throughout first world nations, it seems like something of an anachronism when you can find old school bladesmiths cranking out knives one at a time, not too far removed from the processes of our ancestors.
From hand forging and shaping to tempering, finishing, sharpening and even producing the scales or handle slabs, some knife makers are uniquely responsible for every, single part of the production process when it comes to their bespoke products.
If they are skilled, their knives will command a substantial premium over their nearest competing mass production counterparts, no matter how good they are. Why? Simply put, you are paying for a premium product produced solely by an artisan of the craft.
The price of the knife is often factored into the reality that many of these knife makers produce their knives as their sole source of income. This is how they put food on the table for their family, and keep the lights on in their business.
Is also reflected in the years of study, apprenticeship, trial-and-error, and ceaseless effort that has brought them where they are in that craft. All admirers of knives lust over and desire these remarkable blades, but few are willing to pay the price for them.
The price of quality, modern knives might surprise you considering how plentiful they are, but there is far more that goes into the design, production and finishing of these handy blades then you might be thinking.
The quality of the steel, intricacy of the design, and difficulty of production along with quality control processes all directly contribute to the bottom line.