As with sports, scholarship, and home brewing, knife making has many levels of possible involvement. Many start out buying pre-made blades and putting handles on them. This is a good practice, and as long as the maker is honest about the fact that the blade was made by someone else, it’s perfectly respectable.
A lot of people make their own blades but outsource the heat treating. Proper heat treatment for the chosen steel is the most critical element in determining the ultimate performance of the blade, so many choose to trust this to established experts. Perhaps they lack the proper equipment to do it themselves.
Others take pride in their ability to master all aspects of the craft. Whether forging monosteels, pattern welding one’s own damascus, or doing stock removal, many feel that being in control of all of the variables adds value, if not to the blade produced, then at least to the self-perception of the maker. This is usually referred to as “sole authorship,” and there are many, many makers who are very adamant about applying this distinction to themselves and their work. Apparently, “sole authorship” does not involve smelting one’s own steel from ore, growing one’s own trees for handle materials, etc.; one can keep going down that road until the distinction becomes ridiculous.
I make no claim to sole authorship, though it is rare that one of my knives does not fit the general description. Though I make knives for fun, I also make them for profit. Consequently, there are some parts of the process that I have no qualms about outsourcing if the opportunity cost of doing it myself is too high. As a matter of pride, however, I won’t outsource something I can’t do myself, or that I haven’t done, unless equipment is the constraining factor.
For example, I have considered in the future to have a batch of 25-35 blades cut with a waterjet cutter. Since the blades are of my own design, I do not feel that this takes any significant part of the process out of my hands. I can easily profile a blade with my bandsaw and grinder, but not as efficiently or cost effectively as the machine can.
The same goes for heat treating stainless steels. I can do it in my kiln, and have heat treated many stainless blades. By the time I factor in the cost of the stainless heat-treat foil to prevent decarburization, electricity to run the kiln and tempering oven, and the time it takes to quench, cryo, temper, and straighten out the inevitable warps and kinks, it costs me far less to pay a professional, and the professional results are guaranteed. I’ll still do some of my own when it is convenient, but I’ll outsource the rest.
I realize this may diminish me as a knife maker in the eyes of some, but the more efficiently and profitably I can engage in my hobby, the more cash I can put back into equipment and better materials. I’ll be able to make better knives with better tools, and that, to me, is ultimately more important than being able to claim sole authorship in every little thing.