Tools made just for you

Is there anything better than designing your own custom tools and either making them yourself (if you’re fortunate enough to have the tools and skills required) or having a skilled toolmaker produce them for you?

For many of us, this is considered more than just a milestone. It’s a right of passage; from simply consuming the copious production tools already on the market, to designing and creating tools that better service our needs, based on the benefits of our experiences.

Whether you’re making your own, or hiring a toolmaker to do the hard work for you, the joy of owning and using tools made to your exact design, for many, ranks highly on the list of personal goals sought by those of us that enjoy much of our existence in the great outdoors.

Tailoring every aspect of the design to meet your needs, both aesthetically as well as, and more importantly, the features and ergonomics that make it useful.

The truth is that there’s more to a beautifully crafted custom tool than just bragging rights, as you’re about to discover.

"Back in the day"

Before the industrial revolution, and the dawn of mass-manufacturing, people whose lives and roles in society required specialist tools and equipment sought the services of independent toolmakers.

Every village, town and city had at least one toolmaker.

These toolmakers would make use of their extensive skills and experience – many having grown up either born to a toolmaker family, or serving as apprentice to toolmakers – to craft, by hand, all that was required to satisfy the needs of the working masses.

The very tools their weathered hands produced would be used for everything from the most mundane of life’s tasks, to creating, shaping, and ultimately destroying the empires of old.

Toolmakers, while considered by society to be part of the working class, would carve out a reputation among the people of their town or village, and the more skilled of them would even earn a degree of reverence.

The services of toolmakers considered to be the best would be reserved by kings, knights and nobility; producing masterpieces of both artistry and utility, as well as the garb and weapons of conquest.

While virtually anyone could be taught to till the fields, to feed, clean and tend livestock, or any other role in life requiring only basic human mobility; producing quality tools has never been “any man’s game,” and this holds as true today as ever.

As much as I hate to admit it, I myself lack much of the skill and experience necessary to craft many of mankind’s fundamental tools.

Though I am able to design and produce considerably more than many of my peers in the modern age – clothing, shelter, hunting tools such as bows and arrows, tools for producing fire, cooking food, sterilizing water and so on – there exists within me a deep regret for the career paths traveled in my life, and – more specifically – the skills I failed to develop as a consequence of those choices.

When I hold in my hand a fine, hand-crafted knife, for example, I genuinely feel a profound appreciation toward its creator, born principally from an understanding of the skills necessary for its creation, and my own personal lack thereof.

The "Old Ways" weren't always perfect

Despite the somewhat nostalgic way in which I have discussed the toolmakers of old, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that the handmade approach did often result in failures and imperfections.

Without the advantages of standardization, even the same tool made twice would have variations, and this was known to cause problems.

To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality.

John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice

There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.

Edgar Allan Poe

You need only consider the number of pre-industrial ships lost to the sea from manufacturing defects to recognize the possible consequences of the handmade approach.

While nobody can deny that the skills and experience of our ancestors’ toolmakers weren’t always perfect, the technologies of today are without doubt a product of their ingenuity.

The Dawn of Mass-Production

In no small part thanks to the toolmakers of old, the Industrial Revolution gave rise to the dawn of mass manufacture, and while there is still a need for skilled independent craftsmen and toolmakers in the world of today, their role in society – as well as their prevalence – stands a far cry from our pre-industrial forebears.

It seems something of a paradox, but the skilled hands that serviced the world’s need for tailored equipment gave rise to the instruments and precision of their industry’s own demise.

In the modern world, tools once built with a keen eye and an experienced mind are, largely, produced in bulk by complex computerized machines, in large factories owned by multi-billion earning corporations, operated by what we now consider to be working class labourers.

Where, in the past, each nut and bolt of a machine would be designed specifically to fit its imprecise mating surfaces; the advent of precision tools from the brilliant minds of engineers has standardized fixtures, replacing the need for human skill and experience with the simple understanding of precise measuring devices.

While we cannot deny the overwhelming industrial and technological advances born of this innovation, the dying breed of the once ubiquitous skilled toolmakers should not be overlooked.

It has been said that, should the complex and precise machinery of the modern world cease to function, there would not be enough people on Earth with the skills necessary for society, let alone industry, to continue.

Fortunately, while significantly fewer in number, and in lower demand than once they were, skilled toolmakers do still exist; and the fruits of their labour, skill and hard-won knowledge are there to be prized by anyone willing to make the investment.

The Old and the New, hand in hand

Today’s toolmakers, while in most cases struggling to eek out a meager living from their once-lucrative trade, benefit from the modern advances born of their forebears.

Though producing tools entirely by hand is still an often slow and laborious task, today’s technologies not only make the once-impossible, possible, they can also vastly accelerate many of the formerly-daunting tasks.

As just one example, where the toolmaker of the pre-industrial age would operate a foot pedal to turn a grinding wheel of stone – limited entirely by the leverage he could bring to bear – today’s toolmaker benefits from that most pervasive of inventions: electricity.

An electrical grinder can achieve in moments what the stone wheels of old could produce in hours, and while the use of modern technologies reduces manufacturing times, you should also consider the advantage it affords in terms of quality.

A pre-industrial blacksmith would forge iron and steel largely by estimation. While it is true that mercury thermometers have existed since 1714, prior to that advent – and in a great many cases even after – a blacksmith would use the colour of the flames as his primary gauge of the forge’s heat.

While this visual method in most cases served adequately to produce moderately-consistent results, it was known to cause problems as blacksmiths got older, and their eyesight – most notably their perception and differentiation of colour – began to change.

In today’s world, electronic and gas forges are capable of sustaining a specific, pre-set temperature; ensuring that the resultant steel is – within a small margin of error, of course – always consistent.

Indeed, the number of modern advantages today’s toolmaker can bring to bear on the most ancient of human trades is legion; and the result is that today’s outdoor enthusiast is able to enlist the services of a toolmaker to produce in a fraction of the time what would once have been only within the grasp of the wealthiest echelon of society.

The best knife to buy?

There can be no denying that, in the world of today, there are a lot of high quality, mass produced knives available to buy.

From the ubiquitous and universally-loved offerings of Mora and Opinel – affordable and functional – to the “big brand” likes of ESEE, Fällkniven, Condor, CRKT, Ontario Knives, to name just a few; the products of today’s “big brands” are a common sight at any gathering of outdoor enthusiasts.

There are many reasons for the virtual omnipresence of well-known brand knives, not least of which is the reputation these brands have developed within the outdoor community.

As both a regular attendee of bushcraft, survival, and camping meets, and an active member – in some cases even moderator – of numerous online communities related to outdoor skills; I see posts from newcomers on a near-daily basis all asking the same thing.

What’s the best “proper knife” to buy?

As with any question of this type, there is no “one true answer,” given how subjective each person’s opinions will be. What works best for me, may not be the best option for you.

Ultimately, the best knife for you is going to be a knife that is not only capable of performing the tasks you want or need to perform, but is comfortable enough when you’re using it to become an extension of your arm.

In general, buying a production knife basically amounts to settling for the closest thing to perfect. How close to perfect that may be is, again, highly subjective.

While there may be a production knife out there that achieves both criteria, finding that knife is likely to be both time consuming, and costly. Especially if your path to finding your ideal knife involves buying and testing different knives along the way.

The only real answer to the question of the best “proper knife” to buy, is essentially the knife that does what you want it to do, provides comfort while you’re using it, and looks the way you’d want it to look. This is where a custom made knife really does offer a massive advantage.

In Conclusion

When all is said and done, the choice is ultimately yours to make.

If your budget isn’t sufficient to commission your ideal knife, then your options are limited to whatever the market has available within your price range.

You either trust in the opinions of others, and buy whatever production knife appears to be well regarded for the specific traits you’re after, or you take a shot in the dark and run the risk of having a knife that doesn’t properly suit.

If, however, your budget does stretch to a commissioned knife – or better still if you can make one for yourself – then it is certainly my recommendation that you go down that particular route.

My own custom knives were made for me by Tim Little of Ammonite Knives, whom has become a personal friend as well as an occasional author on the Packed to Live online magazine.

There are a fair few modern day toolmakers out there, some better-known than others, and you would do well to seek opinions on their work from previous customers, just as you would look for reviews for production knives, before engaging their services.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here