Why Do Custom Knives Cost So Much? - Part 2
Let's take a look at the price breakdown of a handmade J. M. Stevens knife.
The knife we're going to analyze in this post is our El Caballero damascus straight razor. It has a precision ground edge sharpened for a close shave. The spanish clip at the end adds a sophistication to the overall profile and tucks neatly into the carbon fiber encasement.
We'll start with materials. Typically a J. M. Stevens knife will be 7-10 inches long, so our material costs are going to be a little lower with this blade considering it is a much smaller profile than our normal knives. A piece of quality damascus can easily cost well over $100 (plus taxes and shipping). We normally get 2 knives out of a single piece, but for this blade we could probably carve 4 out of the same piece. So the steel cost for this one is around $28. Then we add in carbon fiber handle material, metal pins, and a piece of G10 for inlay. These together total around $30, bringing our material total to $58. This is without even considering a sheath (since it is a razor). A sheath would add in either leather or Kydex costs, plus thread and finishing compounds.
Next is tooling, which we consider the consumable materials needed for the machines required to make our knives, plus electricity. For every knife we build in estimates of how much of our belts and bandsaws we think the project will eat. We have multiple grinders and two different types of bandsaws we use during the production process, and we typically must completely replace belts and saw blades every 2-4 projects. Ideally we would replace these every time. Maybe someday.
Then we try to estimate the electricity used during the shop time and heat treat processes. Heat treating takes hours of running a specialized oven at incredibly high temps (up to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit). As you can imagine, this requires a lot of juice. We have an app that tracks our overall electricity usage, so this helps obtain a fairly accurate estimate.
We also offer additional options that require more materials and time, such as blade polishing, leather tooling, or a leather sheath. For these we charge a flat fee for simplification. For the extra polishing and etching required on this blade, we factored in an extra $35.
All in all, this project required a lot of precision grinding to create the edge and contours you see today. Well over 30 hours were spent making and finishing El Caballero, and we love how it turned out. Typical custom knives take from 20-40 hours, depending on complexity. We do our best to estimate this accurately, but most projects end up taking even longer than we charge for, because inevitably a machine will need maintenance, or a part will go haywire during grinding and I'll need to remake it. There's a world of surprises in custom knife making.
What we charge and we should charge can be two very different things, at least in this season of small beginnings. El Caballero is listed on this very website for $450. Some people may balk at that price, mentally comparing it to the latest online mass-produced razor they've seen. They're simply not the same thing.
If we break down our profit margins by hour, even with a conservative estimate of 30 hours of work, I only get to keep about $7.08 after paying taxes. That's less than minimum wage, folks.
Just for grins and giggles, let's bump that hourly rate up to a reasonable $20/hour take home pay. Taking into account taxes, payment processing fees, etc, that means El Caballero should have a retail sticker with a price of $990 on it. More than double what it's listed at. Does that surprise you?
My desire with this comparison is to shine a light on what all is truly involved in making a custom knife. While this example is specific to J. M. Stevens, the issue of having to underprice handmade goods to appease the marketplace is a widespread problem among craftsman and artisans, especially in this day and age. It's not an easy thing to follow your passion and use the gifts God has given you. But I would choose it all day over the alternatives.
Let's get back to using and appreciating true skills. Let's quit buying cheap junk that we end up throwing out on the next trash day.
Let's create. Let's use our gifts. Let's reclaim quality.
Take a closer look at El Caballero