Why do some knives cost so much? Quality Vs Price
This is probably the question or at least a variation of the question we get asked most.
So, in this article we examine why knives cost, what they do for you, and where exactly those costs come from. Is it the materials? The time? The machining? Or something else entirely? We will also look at the difference in price between production and custom knives. Then, round up by answering the questions . . . why do some knives cost so much? And; Does price equal quality?
Where to begin . . .
Conventional wisdom tells us that price equals quality, and that the more you pay you better quality product or service you get. This applies also to knives. However, it seems that many people either don’t understand why knives cost what they do, and what actually goes into them in order to get the finished article.
In order to make this as easy to follow as possible we have broken this article down into clear subheadings of each area that contributes to the cost of a knife, and where we can try and work out how much of the cost comes from each area. We will also look at the differences between the cost breakdowns of production Vs custom knives too. That way you can see exactly where the cost differences lie.
Materials cost money
From the guys and companies we have spoken to it’s seems pretty clear to us the biggest cost in terms of materials is steel.
Taking for example one of the cheapest steels around. At the time of writing this we could get hold of a single 1.5m sheet of O1 Tool Steel for about $11 (that’s a single purchase, not even a bulk buy). Which is pretty cheap, but and this steel you will find in generally lower priced items. Flip that on it’s head and you want a CPM or even a ZDP steel. You cannot just buy these steels, you have to contact the individual manufacturers, and you will not be able to purchase these steels in a big quantities.
In basic economics there is something known as economies of scale. Which essentially means the more you buy the cheaper the cost becomes per item. With more common steels these economies of scale allow for more knives to be produced at a cheaper cost per knife. However, if we look at Rockstead Knives as an example, these aren’t produced on scale, and the steel is extremely expensive. This means that Rockstead knives automatically have a much higher starting value. The limited supply of the steel to the market keeps costs high. But, these ZDP steels aren’t hundreds of pounds more expensive simply because of supply, they are also much more complex to produce, and are much better in terms of qualities than lower end steels from your D1 steel to the 440C and 1095 stainless steel.
I’m going to use a car analogy here now which some of you may find easier to understand. Essentially, think of a Toyota Aygo, then a Land Rover Discovery, then a Bugatti Veyron. All of those cars will get you from A to B, but not all of them will get you from A to B in the same time, or necessarily in the same level of comfort. The Bugatti Veyron will get you to B in the fastest possible time, the Aygo will get you there the slowest. Also the aesthetics and comfort you will get from the Bugatti will be far above that of the Toyota. But, as with knives you get what you pay for. Sure, they both have four wheels, an engine and some seats, but the difference in quality is incomparable. Now not to forget the Land Rover, a mid-high end car, slotted in between the two. It’ll get you to your destination pretty quick, and will be better for certain activities like going off road than either of the other two, but is it going to make people turn their heads, probably not. Is it exclusive or limited edition, not particularly.
The exact same works with knives. More expensive and better quality materials including steels will help the job be get done quicker and more efficiently, but they do cost more.
If steel is the equivalent of a car’s engine then. Surely the scales can be likened to the seats and car’s interior. The rivets, pins, gimping and all the other accessories are your wheel rims, your tinted windows and the like. Generally with knives higher end steels mean higher end other materials.
An example of this is the Rough Rider Custom Shop Handle Slabs we sell here at Heinnie Haynes, they are just £4.95. Great handles, but compared to the Ironwood Handle Material the £4.95 scales aren’t as good in terms of quality, aesthetics, grip and longevity.
To summarise this section we’ve worked out roughly that 70% of the average knife’s material costs come from the steel. The rest comes from the scales, rivets, pins and so on. This is just a rough guide though, as you can find many knives with slightly higher spec steels and less good quality handles and visa versa.
Time is money
A common phrase, but it is very relevant in the knife industry. Starting with production knives; Even with the latest modern manufacturing technologies, knives can and do still take time to make. Time is money, the longer to produce, the higher cost per item, which ultimately leads to higher selling prices.
The more complex the design the longer it takes to produce. If we take for example a fixed and a folding blade with the same steel and handle slabs. The folder knife is going be more expensive to produce. This is because of all the joints, locking mechanisms and pivots take time to put together.
With mass produced knives the time costs are slowly coming down, but with the increasing demands for sprint runs and limited edition runs of knives the time costs rise again. Each new knife has to be designed, prototyped, test run, approved and re-designed if necessary. All of this takes time and costs money.
Moving on from mass produced knives and looking at smaller scale custom built knives and custom designers time is even more a cost centre. Custom knives take a lot of time to design and produce. They are often unique and as the name suggests the knife could simply be a one off. This increases costs a fair bit over their mass produced counterparts.
Something else to think about especially in terms of custom knives. A custom knife can take anywhere from a few hours to even a few days, even weeks to make. Imagine they were to charge just £10 per hour to make the knife (which is pretty cheap we think). If it took them say 3 days to make from design to finished article. That’s about £240 in time alone. That knife is starting to seem like pretty good value for money now, right?
Trying to simplify this again, this time with a computer analogy. You can buy a standard, computer or laptop for any given price from any shop that sells computers. But, if you want more memory, higher ram, or additional processing power, you have to pay more, because these are extras and time time to make, and install.
The manufacturing process
The things included in the section include machining, detailing, and heat treating.
Smaller runs cost more to set up and programme machines with all the correct information. Detailing as you can imagine takes time. Although machines are becoming better at detailing all the time, it does still take time.
With custom knives and specialist small runs of knives these costs are multiplied considerably, it’s the same sort of principle as ‘economies of scale’ mentioned earlier. The more knives produced at a certain standard the lower the production costs per knife. But, a company will have to lower quantities produced otherwise the excess stock sitting around will cost the company even more. Its a fine balancing act.
Heat Treatment can be a major cost to knife production, or it can be a major cost saving. The way in which steels are heat treated can make a huge difference to the performance of the knife.
There is a really interesting article on heat treating here: http://www.anvilfire.com/article.php?bodyName=/FAQs/heattreating.htm This is a great read and shows exactly what goes into the process.
From chatting to a number of different knife makers, we’ve seen that the way in which certain steels are heat treated can make a huge impact of the knives’ performance either positively or negatively.
There are a number of factors at play in this section. The first is simply the place name. Are you going to be willing to pay more for a US or UK made knife than a Chinese made? Likely answer yes, that’s not necessarily knocking Chinese knives, it’s just they don’t have the same standing, reputation or image that some of the western manufacturers, or places like Seki City, Japan have.
Let’s look at Spyderco as an example. On their website they have a dedicated section to look at where their knives are produced. The most expensive knife in produced in China is the Spyderco Resiliance, this knife retails here in the UK at £43.95, and as mush as it’s a pretty good knife, it’s definitely at the lower end of the price range for Spyderco knives of similar shapes and sizes.
Now, it’s also not just the perceptions that cost money, and the perceived quality of production. It’s also the actual costs of running a business. It’s been well documented that at least in the past, production costs in China have been much lower when compared to those of western economies. If you couple production costs with taxes, distribution and marketing costs you can see why knives that are produced in the west can command a higher price than those which are produced in the East.
The final consideration in terms of place, looks at experience. Places which are known to produce knives and have people who are regarded as ‘experts’ in knife making, generally have slightly higher priced knives. Why? Well, as with any business, you generally get what you pay for.
Experience is a really asset when it comes to knife production, and the knowledge that an expert or well trained expert has been making your knife surely adds to it’s value?
Brands and Names
Some knives may cost a little bit more because of the name(s) attached to them. This isn’t always the case, but sometimes you do pay more because your knife is (x) brand, this could simply be because of the name.
Being honest with yourself, do you look for a brand first, before you look at a knife? Do you only buy a specific brand? It’s not necessarily a bad thing if you do, because there must be something that’s really good about that company to keep you coming back. But, if all knives of that brand were to increase in price, would you still buy their brand or would you look elsewhere?
Brands, can can mean a lot to people, whether it be the name of a brand like Lansky or CRKT, or designers like Allen Elishewitz and Liong Mah. These names cost money because of the reputations that are attached. You know exactly what you are going to get from that brand. If you want quality you know a Rockstead Knife will deliver that.
But, brands can also work the other way around, as some brands will be associated with budget knives, again not a bad thing, but that exactly what their branding says. So, if they raised their prices likely you’d stop buying because their image is with lower priced products.
Does price equal quality?
Generally yes. A knife which cost £10 compared to a knife that costs £500+ is like comparing a garden shed, to a Victorian manor house. There almost isn’t a comparison. Even a £100 to a £300 knife, there is a difference.
The quality of materials, the heat treatment, brand, the make up of the steel.
Is the cost worth it? Well, that depends on you the individual. It all depends on your budget, what you want the knife for, and what qualities you think is important for your knife. A £100 is generally better than a £50, but not every time.
Ok, so now let’s analyse what we’ve talked about above.
From our research there are a couple of main areas which seem to make up the basic costs of a knife. Materials, Time, Process, Place, Brand. Materials for both production and time seem to be the largest contributors to knife cost. Materials obviously for production. But, time is not only time to produce, but to create, design, and prototype.
There is a lot that goes into a knife, and for some people a high price, can be justified, but for others it can’t be.
At the end of the day everything comes down to personal preference, if you are willing to spend £100, £200, £300+ on a knife then you will get something that’s really good quality, with a great brand name, and made by experts who have been making knives for countless years.
If you are after a tool that will last a lifetime, then generally the more expensive, the longer it should last, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule, I mean we’ve all been handed down an Opinel knife that’s been in the family for generations haven’t we?
Even after ready this, we have no doubt, that some of you will still question the value of a knife, but hopefully this has gone some way to actually show why knives cost what they do.
If you have any comments or questions, we’d love to hear them so please post a comment below!