From software development to knife-making : an interview with Aaron Gough

I had the chance recently to interview Aaron Gough for a class project, along with my classmate Dahye. I find the interview fascinating, so I put it here for anyone who might want to listen. You will find below the transcript to follow along and a short comment I wrote. As always, I’m looking forward to your feedback and comments.

Feb. 27, 2016
With Dahye Kim & Louis Melançon, McGill University
Transcribed by Louis Melançon
39 min 29 s

– Dahye 00:00: Hi, I’m Dahye.
– Aaron: Nice to meet you.
– D 00:03: Nice to meet you, and thank you for taking your precious time for us.
– A: Of course!
– D 00:08: I will start with our first set of questions. First question: how did you become a knife maker?
– A: When I was about fourteen, thirteen-fourteen, I lived in the country. So, you know, having a knife and using it for carving or whatever was a normal thing to do. And I decided I wanted to make my own … and just started, kind of experimenting … and it went from there.
– D 00:38: You used to be a software programmer.
– A: Yes.
– D 00:50: Could you elaborate on your transition from software developer to knife maker? There was a transition from the virtual … building virtual objects to really material objects. I’m curious about that.
– A: Yes, it’s interesting actually. Because I was a programmer, because I lived so much in the virtual word, well … online world let’s say … that actually provided the momentum and ability for me to change over. So, you know, I was on Reddit all the time for instance, and after I made my first real knife recently, which is about two years ago, I posted photos of it on Reddit and … that ended with other people asking me to make them knives. And then that kind of snowballed, to the point where I was still making knives part-time, but I didn’t have enough time to be able to keep up. And the backlog started growing and growing, and then I realized one day that the backlog was big enough to actually be able to support me, if I wanted to switch away from being a software developer. Software development is OK, but as a lifestyle it has a lot of problems. It’s like a never-ending merry-go-round of emergencies. It’s always … an emergency, and bla bla bla. So, I decided to get off that merry-go-round and go make knives instead. The transition was actually pretty painless. I basically just told my work, I gave them a four months notice, this is the date that I’m leaving, and I left, and started making knives full-time.
– D 02:42: You just mentioned, when you were a programmer, you were always in emergencies. Why is that? Just briefly.
– A: Because … particularly in software, people think that every little thing is … a thing that has to be fixed right now. I liken it to … building a house that is constantly being demolished behind you, and in front of you they’re always changing the plans. That’s what it is like, being a software developer. Beyond the next room, you never know what you’re going to be building. And everything behind you, everyone saying how bad it is, and they’re demolishing it constantly. And I worked in a lot of different companies doing software development, and it was always basically the same. It’s a very stressful job actually.
– Louis 03:37: I really like your metaphor of destroying the house, having new plans … how would you describe knife-making with the same metaphor?
– A: Well, what I’m very much trying to do is build one house, and then just keep improving little bits of it. It’s kind of like buying an older house and then doing a fix-her-up, as opposed to a commercial real estate development where you’re constantly building, you know. Really, what I want to do is to get to the point where I feel happy with my knives, and just do little tweaks here and there. For the most part, I want to get to the part where they stay the same, for the next, five years, ten years. I think that’s totally an achievable goal. And at that point, the majority of the work would actually go into the process, rather than changing the design.
– D 04:36: As something related to that … there should be a big difference between your product and industrially-made knives.
– A: Yes.
– D 04:50: How do you describe the difference?
– A: My first priority is always on quality. Which is different, because most commercially-made knives will be … first priority, they’re building it to a price. And then, the second priority for me is that I build knives specifically to be used, by people that are going to use knives every day. You know, guys that are like … hunting guides, that kind of stuff … using their knives every single day. Those are the guys that I want to make knives for. It’s a bit like … driving a little car off-road versus driving a Land Rover. The Land Rover is meant to do that job, and to do it for the next ten years with no problems, that’s what I’m trying to build.
– L 05:52: How did you learn your trade, how did you learn to make knives?
– A: Initially I was just experimenting by myself, when I was younger, when was like fourteen. And then when I was around sixteen I was apprenticed to a guy for about a year, just part-time, like once a week, who was a knife maker, who had been a knife maker for a very long time. But at that age, I did not have the patience to learn what I could from him. Everything was taking too long… I ended up giving it up when I was seventeen. I kind of maintained an interest in it, read about it and so on for the next … ten years I guess? But I wasn’t really making any knives during that period. And then when I was about twenty-eight, I was talking to a friend and told him that I used to make knives, and he said, “sweet! can you make me one?” And… I basically just had to start learning from then. And, really, the biggest resource that I used to learn this kind of stuff, was the internet. I’m so used to the idea of everything being on the internet … that was where I looked to. There are a couple of forums specifically for knife makers, one is called Blade Forums. I watched a lot people’s processes on there, learned stuff. And then most recently … making knives by hand is one thing, and I learned that from the internet, I learned that from trial and error and so on … and then what i do now, making knives with CNC machinery, the automated machinery, is different. The vast majority of my job would not generally be described as “knife maker.” That’s what I do, but what I do in the day-to-day is actually CNC machining. So I had to learn to be a machinist as well. Which is a whole other set of challenges, and that’s actually been really fun. So, lots of training resources, but honestly, mainly through the internet and through trial and error.
– L 08:05: The knife maker who was your mentor, did he do similar machining, or was his technique more traditional?
– A: He was very much by hand. He only made one knife every couple of months … whereas at the moment, I’m doing about twenty knives a month, and my goal is to get somewhere close to fifty. That’s because of the different audience too … the guy that taught me knife making, he made very fancy, ornate knives that were very expensive. And were meant to be used, kind of, but they were meant to be really pretty. Mine … again, like a Land Rover, meant to be used … like an old Land Rover I should say (laughter). Meant to be used … the focus is on function … esthetically they’re pleasing because I think that’s a part of function to some extent, you have to feel a connection with the thing that you are using. But, because it is designed primarily as a tool, that means that it also has to be kind of democratic, I have to give as many people access to it as I reasonably can, because otherwise … if you’re making the best tools in the world but you’re only making one per year, then it’s not accessible as a tool, so it’s not really fulfilling one of its essential purposes.
– L 09:32: The machining, this new way of making knives, does it come from your need to put more knives out there? Where did the idea come from?
– A: It’s mainly driven by… I’m pretty competent at making stuff by hand, I can do a pretty good job on it. But the things that I wanted to make never exactly came out the way I wanted them to when I was making them by hand. Whereas when I’m doing the CNC machining, the computer-driven machine, I can get exactly the result that I want. Really really consistently, every single one can be the same, to within a thousandth of an inch. And that’s more about … the actual result being very very true to my design. The design is a hugely important thing, and I want to replicate the design as exactly as possible, as I can, in the real world. So that was where the goal came from.
– D 10:35: It sounds like there is a huge difference from what you learned from your mentor and what you are doing right now.
– A: Yes.
– D 10:48: What are your influences? Where did this idea of making knives digitally come from?
– A: I think a lot of it is probably influenced by my background in software development. Software development affects the way that I think, in a lot of different ways. When I was doing software development, I did a lot of open source work where … you’re writing stuff for your own needs but then you give it away. And I’ve done the same with a lot of the tools that I make, the jigs and so on. I give the designs away, I don’t really worry about it. I’m comfortable with electronics and mechanical stuff, and software, because of software development, and those three things combine into robotics. And I think robotics are awesome, and they let me do my job better, so… The desire to get into that side of things, the automated machining … was an urge driven by… I wanted to explore those areas of interest for me, as well as my belief that it would allow me to produce a better knife. Which I think has worked out really well. Not everyone gets to say that they have a big robot in their workshop, and that they get to use it every day, you know.
– D 12:16: I see. So I guess your work is very original.
– A: There are other people that do CNC machining of knives, but mainly for … folding knives, not for … fixed-blade hunting knives. I really… I have two main goals. One, to … deliver tools that people will use and will make their lives better. And two, to make my own life better. I want to enjoy the work that I do, and I want to have a nice life, as everyone does. And I personally find that doing things by hand, again and again, particularly if it’s the exact same thing, is very difficult, I find that really hard. So… I have two competing goals there, because I want to make the very best knives that I can, which means that you have to do the same knife again and again, in order to get it better and better. But then I don’t want to do the repetitive labor of machining. So, I kind of sidestepped it by … the most consistent way I can do the same thing again and again is by robotics, and it also allows me to do less … repetitive labor myself.
– D 13:33: You mentioned your users, you’re doing this job to make your users’ lives better. Who are your users?
– A: I can tell you the demographics, it’s 95% men, 5% women … about 70% of them are in the USA. With… Germany, Norway, Sweden… Australia, the UK … all being follow-ups. And then, within that, it’s really kind of broken up into two categories, I think. People that are really into knives, and want to buy one of my knives because they’ve seen the process and they think it’s really awesome. And then the other category is … people that are really avid knife users, guys who are, like, hunters and so on, that have … someone else sent them one of my videos and they see the video and they’re like “man, I want that to be my next knife.” Those are the guys that I actually optimize for. Specifically, the audience that I have in mind when I’m making knives, the guys that are going to go hunting every weekend, you know, dress a deer, butcher game … those are the kind of guys that I have in my head when making knives.
– D 15:04: Is that how you choose the design of your knives? Minding your users?
– A: Yes, absolutely. The design of the knife … is very … utilitarian, and somewhat plain and minimal. The reason for that is because … the more specialized a knife design is, the less applicable it is to a broad range of uses. And really, what I want my knife to be is one knife that you can go out with and use it for … anything that knife-like. So if you’re doing wood carving… I’ve carved a lot of little spoons with mine, when I’m on camping trips. You can use it to butcher and process game. You can use it to cook your meals … for sure, having the users in mind… And honestly really it’s that … a lot of my designs is actually about not succumbing to trends. Because the knife world can be really trendy, like the fashion world, right? At the moment there is a trend towards … knives that are not really rooted in real-world use, instead they’re designed to look cool. For me, there’s a very strong desire to base my design around real-world practicality.
– D 16:32: Interesting. Since 95% of your users are men, would you be interested in designing knives for women?
– A: My question at that point would be, would a knife for a woman be any different?
– D 16:52: That’s my question, so … for example the handle … isn’t your knife optimal for men’s hands, for example?
– A: Unconsciously, probably yes. I would absolutely be down for it. The question, really, for me… I guess there are two questions. What are the differences? Would it essentially just be a scaled-down version, slightly smaller? The answer is probably yes, it would probably just be scaled down. Besides the handle size, I don’t think there are any real limitations that make it gender-specific. And in fact I would actually say that most women… I have reasonably small hands, I would say that most women have hands large enough to use the knife as-is. But… I would have to test that. And then the other side is just a purely practical one, if one 5% of my audience is going to buy this other knife that I make, then it would be really hard for me to justify that from a business perspective unfortunately, because … whenever you try to do two things, whether or not … even if I’m only making five of these knives and then a hundred of the others, it still divides your attention really strongly. That means that I would do a less good job at both. Yeah… I don’t know, I don’t know.
– D 18:25: You offer a life warranty on your knives. Did you get any knives returned yet?
– A: I haven’t had any back yet. I’ve had one guy in Norway who managed to dent the blade on his knife. And that’s the worst thing that I’ve seen so far. He said, “I still love it, I don’t want to return it” and I said, “OK, that’s great, but I’m still going to send you a new knife.” I sent him an extra one basically. He’s been very happy as far as I know.
– D 18:57: Everybody is satisfied.
– A: Yes, hopefully. I do a lot of testing to make sure that … my knives aren’t going to fail, and that’s why I feel really comfortable offering a lifetime warranty. I will stand behind what I do, absolutely, because I think that it’s really important… I hate it when companies … you buy something and a year later it breaks, and they’ll … “sorry, it’s two days out of the warranty period.”
– L 19:25: You said you didn’t have any returns yet, but did you get feedback from your users?
– A: Yes. I’m actually planning to formalize that a bit more. I want to start doing surveys every six months or so, asking all of my existing customers … how much do you use the knife, what are your main uses, what changes would you make if any, etc. The feedback that I got has been overwhelmingly positive so far… I got my oldest customer that isn’t a personal friend of mine, he’s an infantryman, in the US army, he’s a soldier. And he’s been deployed to Afghanistan two or three times since he bought the knife, and he’s used it for everything, says that it’s still performing perfectly, and that was one of my old knives, that aren’t as good as the new ones. Yeah, overall, it’s been good. There was one guy who bought the knife and did not realize that the steel wasn’t stainless steel. I thought that I had explained that to him, but clearly I hadn’t explained it well enough. He got some rust on his blade and was very disappointed by that. That’s actually one of the things that I specifically advertise about the knife, is that it’s not stainless steel so … that was a miscommunication rather than a product failure.
– L 20:54: Still about design, I’m wondering, precisely, how did you choose the size and the shape of the handle, for instance?
– A: Basically, my philosophy with design is that I make things for myself, and then I just happen to sell them to other people. And I think that it’s really important, because if you make things for yourself, and you don’t water it down, you know … give in to the requests of the crowd … if everybody is telling me that something needs to be changed, then fine, but if one guy is like “it would be great if you could do this,” and another guy, “it would be great if you could do that” … I think that kind of watering down of the design is a bad thing. What I do instead is I very much design the knives for myself, because that means that I’m going to use them personally, and I can identify the shortcomings, the weaknesses of the design, by using it myself. And then if other people happen to like that design, then that’s fantastic. I think that… I wouldn’t change the design just to try to get more people … because I think that would actually result in a worse design.
– L 22:15: Are you saying that you modeled the handle after your own hand?
– A: Well, yeah, I mean, I have to. I can’t… I’ll ask other people, “does this feel comfortable to you?”, I’ll ask a range of people with different hand sizes, “does this feel comfortable? » but ultimately I have to make the decision myself, because I’m the only one… I’m designing the knife… I have the first-hand experience.
– L 22:40: Was it a formal process? Or you asked a bunch of friends…
– A: Yes, I basically asked a bunch of friends with different hand sizes, “does this feel comfortable?”, asked them to use it for a bunch of different tasks. And just … one of the things was, looking at people’s hands, was there any spots where it made contact too much, that made their hands sore. Yeah, there is definitely a little bit of user testing that goes on, lending it out to friends to test, but for the most part it really is about me, myself, using it a bunch, and identifying weaknesses that way.
– L 23:22: I was just wondering, since you seem to be so intense, so precise … the videos where you test the strength of the knives… I thought maybe you had a formal process for user feedback, for the design of the shape of the handle.
– A: Not yet, no. As I said, it’s something that I’m actually a bit hesitant to formalize, I think that it is really important that you make things for yourself. And I think that all the best designers have … a style that is very much aimed at themselves. They’re building things that they want to have themselves. And then other people also happen to really like them. That’s pretty much the way that I approach design, is that I want to optimize it for me, and then if there are other people out there that line up with the things that I like, that’s great, but … if nobody liked the things that I was making, I would probably still make them the same way, because ultimately that … the loop of design and making something is about me, it’s not about other people. If you know what I mean. The actual usefulness of the product, of the knives, is about other people, for sure. But it’s still driven by my feelings towards the design, if you know what I mean.
– D 25:07: How do you deal with the dangers of the making process? We saw danger signs while we were watching your videos, and then it seems a pretty dangerous process, at least for me.
– A: Yes, there are definitely parts of it where you could be burnt, or blinded, or lose a finger, all sorts of things. Actually, the computer controlled machinery, the robotics, is actually one of the ways I address that. Because, when you’re working closely with tools, by hand, I think you’re exposed to more danger than if a machine was doing it for you. And I want to be doing this for a long time, so I’m trying to offset the danger by having the machine do the work to some extent. I’m also very fanatical about … having the proper safety gear, and doing things right, rather than rushing through it. I actually had a friend of mine saw off three of his fingers, just a little while ago, and I was the first person to his workshop, to deal with the accident, he came to me for help. So I was already pretty safety-conscious, and after seeing that, I’m even more safety-conscious. I’m always wearing a respirator, a mask. I always have safety glasses on… I’m always looking to find out what the best standards of safety are with a particular tool, and then doing that whenever I can. And, fingers crossed, I haven’t had any accidents yet. I think a lot of that is because I’m not looking to take shortcuts about things. I think a lot of people get impatient and they’ll… “I’ll do this thing for one second”, and then they end up with no fingers. I think that a lot of it is not rushing, you have to really respect the tools, because they’re designed to cut steel and wood … we’re soft and squishy compared to wood and steel, so you have to respect your tools, otherwise they will teach you a lesson.
– D 27:30: We watched your videos … do you think your viewers can actually learn to make knives at home by looking at your videos? Before starting your business, you already had your mentor so … did that experience help you a lot, even though your mentor did a very different job from yours?
– A: I can actually… I get to answer this with facts rather than opinions, which is kind of nice. I know that people can learn to make knives from watching my videos, because I get at least … probably two emails a week, maybe three emails a week, from people who have made their first knives after watching my videos. I have some tutorial videos that are aimed to be more simple. Because, the stuff that I’m doing now is not accessible to a beginner, they’re not going to know where to start. So … making stuff by hand is the entry level for new people, and I have videos that are aimed specifically at teaching people different aspects of that. And yet, people can totally learn, and have, and it’s awesome. I actually really enjoy that part of it. Because I think that too many people don’t have any idea how things are made these days. I really want … part of my goal making the videos is to help people connect with how things are made.
– D 29:08: Your videos are awesome by the way (laughter), really.
– L 29:20: Could you elaborate on why you do it? Why do you make so many videos, take the time to do an interview with us … this will to show how it’s made, where does it come from?
– A: I guess there are two answers to that question, I’ll give you the really honest answer first, that I don’t think a lot of people would give, we’ll see. I think everybody has in them … different fundamental needs, and one of my needs, in some contexts could be seen as a weakness, is that I need approval from other people. Instead of treating it as a weakness, and crying about it, I’ve … harnessed that to drive me to make the videos, and to do the forum posts and so on. Because, interacting with other people about the thing that I love, making knives and the process of making things, it lets me help them, but it also lets them see my work. There’s definitely a selfish aspect of that, but as I said, I try to harness that and make it a constructive force, if that makes sense. And then, the other aspect of it is, as I said I really love connecting people with how things are made, because… I think that a lot of people these days, they don’t understand how computers work, they don’t understand how a car works, they don’t understand how a train works, they don’t understand how … anything works. Because … most people these days aren’t involved in making any of those things. It’s all done overseas, they never see any of it, they just go to Best Buy and they buy a computer, and they never think twice about it. And I think that’s a fundamental failing of society, because in order to keep improving our lives, people need to be able to identify problems in their lives, and then make systems or things for improving them. So, getting people connected back with how things are made, and how to … you know, how to identify … because fundamentally, making stuff is about identifying a problem in your life and then fixing it. I need a thing that holds my stuff off the ground, so you make a shelf. And I think that it’s a good thing for society, for people to learn, about that stuff. And ultimately it’s a good thing for me, I get to interact with way more interesting people, if they’re also interested in making stuff. Those are the two main reasons. I love teaching, and I love interacting with people, and … showing them the things that I make. It works out pretty well.
– L 32:34: I saw something interesting, your slogan changed at some point from “Hand-made knives” to “High-performance working knives.” Why did you change that slogan?
– A: Because … as it stands, calling my knives “hand-made knives” would be dishonest. And … looking back in time, I actually consider the “hand-made knives” slogan to be a little bit of a misstep, because it puts the emphasis on the wrong thing. It puts the emphasis on how they’re made, rather than what they’re supposed to do. If that makes sense. The slogan change was because I changed my processes, I didn’t want to misrepresent my processes as being hand-made. And also because I wanted to emphasize what the knives are supposed to do, rather than how they’re made. I want to be free to change how they’re made however I want, to make them the best working knives that I can, so… I think that that slogan makes a lot more sense.
– D 34:14: Our last question will be, where do you see your work evolving in the future?
– A: Good question… I see it getting better. I think it’s going to be a constant, slow evolution of small changes. It’s going to be one little small change at a time, so for instance I’ve just changed the coating that I’m using on the blades, it used to be a special type of spray paint, and now the coating that I’m using is applied in a vacuum chamber, it’s actually like a diamond film, that’s ground on the blades. The old paint you could … if you got a sharp stick, you could scratch it. The new coating, I can open cans with the knife, there are no marks left on the blade. I see it as… I’m going to keep incorporating better technology on the knives, to make them function better and look better and so on … and on the other side of it … that’s how the knives are going to perform. And then in terms of process, what I want to keep doing is … doubling down on automation. I want to get to the point where the machine is doing as much work as possible, in terms of raw percentage, because it makes my life better, and if I do it right, it makes the knives better as well. The consistency is really important to me. I want every single knife to be interchangeable, because that means that … if someone loses the sheath that holds the knife, I can just send them a new sheath and it will fit their knife perfectly. I want that kind of consistency. So, yeah, the knives actually as they are, are pretty close to how I want them to be. There might be a couple other changes, in terms of what steel I’m using and so on, but the knives themselves are very close to how I want them to be. The process that makes the knives is not. A lot of the changes going forward are going to be changes that are kind of invisible. I will show them in YouTube videos, but … a lot of the biggest changes to come are actually going to be in terms of how the knives are made, rather than what the knives are.
– L 36:55: Do you ever see your enterprise go beyond yourself? You talk about robotics, to be able to create more knives, but did you ever think about having a bigger workshop, employing people?
– A: I currently have one guy that works with me, and his job is just to make sheaths. He and I collaborated… I gave him my process and my tools and stuff, and he comes into the workshop and he works on that, and then we work together to make that process better. The sheaths that he’s making now are better than the sheaths that I made, which is fantastic, I love that. And that’s nice for sure, but it also introduces a bunch of problems. It means that I have to quality-control somebody else’s work … there’s logistics about having another person in the workshop, and so on. So… I don’t know, I haven’t quite made my mind about that yet. I think it would be nice for my own sanity to have another person in the workshop, someone that I get along with really well, that can be a sounding board, that can help me test things. But, that also means that… I have to make more knives in order to cover the cost of having a person there. It’s a balancing act. In terms of the sheaths for instance, what I’d really like to do, rather than having someone else make them, I would like to have an injection mold made, for doing the sheaths. For two reasons. One, the consistency would go up, because they would not be made individually anymore, they would be made from a mold. So every one would be exactly the same, which as I said is important for getting the best quality. And two, the actual sheaths would be better, because using that process would allow me to use different materials, which would be better. So, knowing those things, it’s hard to reconcile the idea of having someone else make the sheaths forever. More than likely, it’s going to become an automated process. And I think that’s probably the way that I’m going to keep going, heading in the direction of automation rather than getting more people into the workshop.
– L 39:13: Very interesting. Thank you very much for your time. Do you have any concluding remarks?
– A: No, you guys have been very thorough.
– L: Thank you very much.
My short comment

Aaron Gough is a knife maker based in Toronto, Canada. Formerly a software developer, he began to sell knives only very recently, in May 2013. Active on web forums as well as on his own very popular YouTube channel, he soon accumulated enough orders to become a full-time knife-maker by June 2015. Gough started experimenting with knife-making when he was fourteen. Around sixteen years old, he became apprenticed to a professional knife-maker. Those part-time, weekly sessions lasted only a year; lacking the patience at the time, he soon gave up the apprenticeship. For about a decade, he maintained an interest in the craft through books, without actually making any knives. Then, at twenty-eight, he made a knife for a friend who had learned he used to make them, and his enterprise grew from there.

Gough’s making process is strongly influenced by his background in software development. This is obvious in his product design, his tools and his online presence. He exhibits a clearly engineering-driven mindset in his making activities. On the subject of his motivations, he says, “ … people need to be able to identify problems in their lives, and then make systems or things for improving them. […]… Fundamentally, making stuff is about identifying a problem in your life and then fixing it.” Gough’s choice of selling one single knife model, as well as the “utilitarian,” “plain” and “minimal” design of the knife itself, evoke the “do one thing and do it well” philosophy of Unix programming. The principle of modularity, also central to the Unix philosophy, can be seen in the multiple work spaces inside Gough’s workshop, one for each step. Each tool has been carefully chosen for one, specific use. For instance, blade and handle materials each have their own separate cutting stations. The concern for modularity is also visible in his rapid progression towards automation. Whereas he started making knives by hand, with a file, a saw and a hammer, he now produces them with a computerized numerical control (CNC) machine, in an automated process where his designs are reproduced very precisely, “to within a thousandth of an inch.” This automation has two main advantages: it replaces otherwise repetitive manual tasks—again, as any good programming aims to accomplish—and ensures product consistency, so that for instance a replacement sheath could be provided and fit perfectly any knife he made. Gough stresses in his steel-testing video that “a blade [needs to] give plenty of warning [to the user] before breaking.” That also resonates with Unix philosophy, in that case Eric Raymond’s “rule of repair,” stating that “software should be transparent in the way that it fails.”

Gough learned his trade mostly through online resources, as he was “so used to the idea of everything being on the internet.” Similarly to the open source software development he participated in for a long time, he creates in his knives “stuff for [his] own needs,” which he then shares with the community, both in process (on YouTube) and product (on his website). There are inherent tensions in this particular design process though. Gough says he prioritizes practicality and function in his knives, yet he insists on making one single knife model, which is supposed to cover all use cases. He explains that developing different products at the same time “divides your attention really strongly,” which means that you “do a [worse] job at [each of them].” Gough also states that he designs his knives with his users in mind, yet his user-testing process has been surprisingly informal so far, aside from the extensive testing he did by himself. Compared to his very elaborate, 200 hours long testing of steel performance, his process of “asking a bunch of friends with different hand sizes ‘does this feel comfortable?’” seems very informal indeed. He explains his design philosophy is to “make things for himself,” that he wants to use himself and will test himself; “the actual usefulness of the product […] is about other people, for sure. But it’s still driven by my feelings towards the design.”

Gough reconciles his uncompromising perfectionism and his need to increase production through automation. He has recently had to hire someone to help him make the sheaths, but he already sees that process automated in the near future. With an injection mold he explains, “one, the consistency would go up, because they would not be made individually anymore […]. So every one would be exactly the same, which as I said is important for getting the best quality. And two, the actual sheaths would be better, because using that process would allow me to use different materials, which would be better. So, knowing those things, it’s hard to reconcile the idea of having someone else make the sheaths forever.” With automation and CNC machining, Gough creates a product which is at the same time very personal, technically perfect and economically viable with only himself as an employee. Unsoiled by the imprecision of the human hand, not even his own, Gough’s knives are created as the perfect implementation of how they exist in his mind.

Sources
The Unix philosophy
– Eric Raymond’s Rule of repair
– Gough’s steel-testing video (failure test at 8:52)
– See the evolution in Gough’s making process: his first order (May 2013)  vs CNC machining (November 2015)

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