Two Top Custom Knifemakers from Opposite Ends of the Technological Spectrum

THE GREAT custom knife boom that began in the 1960s started because only big companies made knives, and by and large they never did anything new or exciting. Knife buyers weren't pleased with this situation, but then custom smiths came along and changed all that. They did much better work than the factories did and were willing to experiment with exotic new steels and other materials.

Forty years have now passed, and we still have big factories and little one-man operations, but we also have small companies that produce very high quality work on a regular, commercial basis. Bold and venturesome, they often employ custom smiths to design for them, and boy, do they turn out good stuff. The following is about two companies at opposite ends of the technological spectrum.

BLACKJACK CLASSIC KNIVES (blackjackknives.com)

Modeled after Randall Knives, the oldest and most famous of the custom makers, Blackjack produces its knives in Michigan. There are two to choose from. One is a combat knife; the other is a classic hunter and general outdoor knife called the Trailguide. It has a heavy, 4¾-inch clip-point blade, a nickel-silver finger guard, and an optional aluminum pommel. Both are heavy, solid knives that are put together with care and are meant to be used.

The blades are forged from a very simple steel that's been around forever. Called 1095CRYO, it's a nonstainless alloy that will rust if you don't give it minimum maintenance. In the tempering process, it's cryogenically quenched (cooled) at ultralow temperatures. This imparts old 1095 with wonderful properties that this steel never had in its original form.

Afterward, it's given what's known as a rolled edge. If you look down the blade from the point, you'll see that the sides of the blade are not straight, tapering to an edge, but are actually convex. Rolled edges--put in with a slack grinding belt--are very strong and exceedingly sharp. They're so difficult to create that I know of only one other company, Cold Steel, that offers the feature. You will not find a keener edge this side of a barbershop.

About the sheaths: These days many companies seem to lose interest when they get to this part of the equation, but Blackjack makes gorgeous ones of heavy leather. It's enough to restore your faith in humanity. As for handles, you have a choice of leather-washer (shown), ivory or black micarta, or sambar stag with or without cap. Prices range from $230 for the leather handle to $310 for the all-stag. The classic knives are sold through Knifeware (304-832-6878; knifeware.com).

MIL-TAC KNIVES (877-645-8226; mil-tac.com)

For a vast change of pace there is Mil-Tac, which stands for military-tactical and makes knives for cops and soldiers. In a time when many similar products look as if they belong on the belt of Ming the Merciless, Mil-Tac sticks to practical designs of superb quality. Of interest to us here is a folder that is eminently suitable for the outdoors.

The MTF-1 is a drop-point folder with a 4-inch locking blade made of a German steel called N-690CO. It's a high-cobalt-vanadium alloy (about as high as you can get) that's extremely strong and rust resistant. Designed by knife maker Allan Elishewitz, it has a stainless-steel frame and G-10 handles. (G-10 is a superstrong glass-based phenolic resin, impervious to everything but nuclear blasts, that can be machined like steel for a nonslip surface.)

Weighing only 5.5 ounces, the MTF-1 is ungodly strong due to the fact that it has two blade locks: a conventional liner lock and a small abutment lock that lies under your thumb. Unlike many folders with handles that are too small for heavy-duty cutting, this one is big enough to make anyone happy. There is a pocket clip on one side if you want to carry it that way, or you can get a ballistic nylon belt sheath for $30 extra.

Even though their steel resists rust, Mil-Tac offers a choice of ceramic or black Teflon coating on the blade. I used a Teflon-coated version and it worked just fine, although I think the ceramic might wear a little better. At $169, the MTF-1 is an incredible bargain.