Let’s talk about today’s topic which is the state of the custom flashlight market. I’ll be covering what you need to understand purchasing a custom flashlight, the current problem with the custom flashlight market, and what I’d like to see going forward. I do think that a lot of what I’ve got to say today is applicable to the EDC game in general, but I’d rather not get too broad and would prefer keep the discussion within the scope of a niche I’m knowledgeable about.
What You Need to Know
Foremost, let’s generalize some of what you need to know going into “custom flashlights”. I say quote-unquote custom flashlights, but I’m just speaking about expensive flashlights in general. To put things into perspective, there are many flashlights out there that will run you well over a grand. Very few makers will design you a truly custom flashlight from the ground up, and most custom flashlights are custom in the sense that you have a small say in the components, hardware, and finish that goes into the torch. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to refer to them collectively as custom flashlights.
The first thing you need to understand about the custom world is that you’re not necessarily paying for peak functional performance. By function, I mean the components themself that generate the light and output. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here: It would be better to think of many custom flashlights as functional jewelry. A good number of these flashlights will easily run you a grand because the money isn’t in the function so much as it is in the craftsmanship and materials used. Custom makers use a variety of metals in flashlights such as titanium, copper, brass, and even more exotic metals like mokume gane and damascus. Clearly these aren’t the most practical choices of metal for a flashlight, but they’re desirable because of their unique properties, be it functional or aesthetic. Likewise, custom makers put a level of detail in the machining and assembly of their flashlights that isn’t even comparable to production flashlights.
There are numerous budget flashlights that are functionally on par with or superior to custom flashlights. In fact, the budget flashlight world is synonymous with pushing the envelope in terms of not only cost, but also functionality. This is a stark disparity with the vast majority of products that emphasize upon the former but not the latter. It’s also an issue with the custom flashlight world that I’ll elaborate on later.
Although you generally have very little say in the minute nuances that make a custom flashlight unique, custom flashlights are often designed from the ground-up to be modified and serviceable. That means being able to swap in a new pill, which houses the LED and driver, in the event of failure. Similarly, all moving parts will eventually fail, and it’s often an even simpler matter to swap in a new switch. And because of the build-it-for-life nature of most hosts, the shell of the flashlight, most custom flashlights will last you a lifetime provided you have replacement components.
In essence, custom flashlights appeal to consumers that appreciate something that’s been handcrafted with the utmost attention to detail. In this respect, custom flashlight makers are quite literally artisans of machining and aesthetic design. A good majority of people are shocked by the cost of a custom flashlight, and to them I always make the apt comparison to the watch world or any niche hobby, really, to which the same holds true. If you just want a flashlight that can produce light then you should be looking at budget and production flashlights. Conversely, if you want an heirloom-quality tool that’ll last a lifetime, maybe you should consider a custom flashlight. A custom flashlight is certainly not for everyone, and that holds true for any luxury product.
The Problem with the Custom World
Now that I’ve gone over what I think one needs to understand going into the custom flashlight market, let’s talk about the current problem with it. I’m going to address what I believe to be the elephant in the room: The utter lack of innovation and the perpetuation of the same, much-copied designs.
I know that I’m overgeneralizing when I say this, but there’s two types of custom flashlights, those that use a single-emitter and those that use a triple-LED setup. The former is the traditional orientation that pretty much everyone – even your average joe – is aware of. The latter is an orientation that was pioneered in late 2010 by Mac’s Customs. In case you were wondering, Mac’s Customs is no longer in business, and went rogue after stealing his customers’ money. Regardless, the triple orientation was extremely progressive at the time because 1) it looked wicked cool, and 2) it allowed for much more output and flood which are apt for EDC. The format was largely dead for a while after Macs Customs absconded, but was picked back up shortly after which resulted in the so-called “triple craze”. This became the predominant orientation in the custom market, and still is to this day although the craze has died down somewhat.
To echo a sentiment I made earlier, the custom flashlight market is truly a niche one. Believe me when I say that there are people with collections easily worth tens of thousands of dollars. And as with any lucrative market, there are makers who want in. Custom makers know that the aforementioned people will buy whatever they pump out as long as it’s quality craftsmanship, and they prey upon this foible. They have little incentive to innovate, and we’ve definitely seen the results. There’s been so many new companies and makers in the last few years pumping out the same, tired components with a new, fancy host that I’ve lost count. Although I would posit that the triple market has slowed somewhat, it’s definitely still preeminent. This is predicated most by the insanely inflated secondary market values of torches from certain custom makers. It’s this vicious cycle that has led to the disparity between custom flashlights and budget flashlights that I highlighted earlier.
Budget flashlights have progressively gotten better – and functionally superior – to custom flashlights and the simple answer to that is because they have competition. To draw a more understandable historical analogy, all we need to do is look at the Cold War which pit capitalism against communism. Communism failed because there was no incentive for the people. And so simply put, budget light manufacturers have incentive to innovate. Their target consumer base isn’t willing to buy their flashlights unless they introduce new functions and improved components. I won’t deny that this has led to many a useless gimmick such as overtly programmable drivers, but budget flashlights have beget many a diamond in the rough. It’s sad that the same can’t be said nearly as much for custom flashlights in the last few years. Sure, there’s been exceptions, but they are the far and few between.
It’s not my attention to marginalize custom makers and flashlights. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make money and being intelligent enough to target a lucrative consumer base. And I’m well aware that there are many exceptions to what I’ve said, but I’m looking at the market and trends I’ve seen holistically. On that note, I also want to talk about shifts in the consumer base.
The consumer base, and custom flashlight makers in general, have migrated from the forums that used to dominate the hobby: These forums were called CandlePowerForums and BudgetLightForums. The forums reflected the parallel between more expensive, custom flashlights and budget flashlights respectively. And collectively, they represented – and more than ever do they – concerted, thoughtful discussion on flashlights. While both still do exist as avenues of discussion for hobbyists, they are less active than ever, and the hobby has shifted to social media platforms.
Social media is exemplified most by its fast pace, constant updates, and instant gratification. There is no doubt that it has connected flashlight connoisseurs and EDC enthusiasts around the globe more so than the traditional, aforementioned forums ever could, but it has also left a new type of consumer in its wake. And this isn’t the good type of consumer. This is the consumer that has the money (or sadly, sometimes doesn’t and spends money they don’t have regardless), but doesn’t have the basic knowledge to understand the product they’re purchasing. This is the type of consumer that asks the most mundane of questions that they could find the answer to if they’d just taken a few moments to do a quick search. This is the type of consumer that begets drama because their new, fancy custom flashlight stops working and they don’t understand what a mode lockout is. Such consumers detract from the hobby as a whole, and in fact perpetuate the vicious cycle that I outlined earlier.
Once again, I am speaking in general terms. The good majority of flashlight enthusiasts I’ve conversed with on social media are extremely knowledgeable about the hobby – more so than myself in many cases, I might add – and conduct themselves in an admirable manner. It’s the few outliers that have really ruined the experience for me. While social media has certainly brought merits to the custom flashlight world, it’s also brought many new issues. Don’t even get me started on the amount of scammers its given a new avenue to.
What I’d Like to See
At this point, I hope I’ve outlined my general concerns with the state of the custom flashlight world. What it needs right now is a lot more innovation, and in a way, it needs to find its roots. Customs used to be the ones pushing the boundaries of innovation. But as it stands, the custom flashlight market has mostly turned into glorified flashlight jewelry. I’m not saying that that’s necessarily a bad thing, and in fact, I like that the niche exists. It’s brought many new people into the hobby and gave way to a whole new market segment. But the custom market also needs to see more progression on the opposite end of the spectrum, function.
In the end, the consumer base will dictate what happens in the custom flashlight world. As more of the same, much-copied designs are released by new makers it’ll eventually lead to market saturation. People won’t buy as many of their products or will tire of them altogether; this phenomenon is known as diminishing returns. As a result, some of these makers will realize that the competition isn’t worth it and drop out of the game. And if they don’t drop out, they’ll have to innovate if they want to stay in the game. That’s the simple nature of supply and demand, and I look forward to seeing where it takes the custom flashlight market.
All in all, I hope you guys found this article informative. To piggyback on what I was saying earlier about the new type of consumer that social media has beget, I really think that it comes down to being educated about the conventions of the market. By making more consumers cognizant of the role they play in the custom market, we can effectively shape the market for better, more innovative flashlights.