Sunday, May 1, 2016

Perceval Le Francais Review

It's hard to get a comprehensive base of reviews of knives.  It's relatively easy to provide critical feedback about the "mainstream" brands like Spyderco and Kershaw, but if you really want to have a wide range of knife reviews, you have to branch out.  This review is me branching out.

Like law and politics, all knives are local.  Local environments, plants and animals necessitated different knives in different places when knives were tools that everyone used one or two centuries ago.  Even today, in a globalized marketplace, there is still a lot of local designs.  I found an old asparagus knife in my basement when we moved in ten years ago and I assumed it was something like a snake killing device.  Color me surprised when it turns out that the knife is actually for cutting asparagus stalks under the ground.

So when I first saw a Perceval knife in a review, tip of the hat to the always excellent Stephan Schmalus, I knew I needed one.  It was so radically different from what we see in America--natural materials, uber simple designs, and unusual proportions--that it's hard to categorize what their knives really are.  The company is more straightforward: Perceval is a knife company based in Thierrs, France, one of the hubs of cutlery in Europe.  They produce knives in a very old fashioned way--by hand.  The bulk cutting is done using machines, but then the cutlers at Perceval finish everything by hand, from grinding the blades to fitting the locks.  In some circles of the IG and Internet community, this means they are "custom" knives, as a lot of the new generation of custom makers do the exact same thing.  I don't really care so much about the label, but the result of this process is a knife of unquestionable quality. 

But quality is one thing and utility is another.  This is a knife that I have mixed feelings about--it's not exactly like an EDC knife and it is not exactly what I look for in knives.  But over the months of use I have come to realize this is because my taste in knives is immature and stunted by the same same offerings we get by the mainstream production companies.  It was a challenge to carry this knife everyday, not because it was bad, but because it was so different than normal.  The reason is simple--this is basically a folding kitchen knife.  It is immaculately ground to an edge so thin it literally disappears from the naked eye.  It doesn't have a flashy deployment method or a "name brand" steel.  It's hard to fidget with and it lacks a clip.  In short, it is the anti-knife of today's IG-obsessed ADD knife fidgeting world.

Here is the product page, though be warned--ordering is a nightmare as you are going through a British site which is, in turn, relying on the original French site.  There are a variety of handle materials available and the Juniper on mine is one of the cheapest versions.  The knife cost $170 but the price fluctuates with the exchange rate.  Higher priced versions come with carbon fiber handle scales or even tortoise shell, which I find to be exceptionally beautiful.  Here is Stephan's review, which, of course, is enchanting and informative.  There are no written reviews.  There is no US distributor, so no affiliate link, though there is a British distributor (also Best Made has some Perceval knives every once in a while, over MSRP, of course).  Here is my review sample:

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Twitter Review Summary: Really damn good at doing knife things.

Design: 2

In many ways the Le Francais is hard to categorize.  It is not a modern folder by any means.  It is exceedingly simple but with quite a few modern conveniences missing.  There is no brand name steel or flipper.   As a folding kitchen knife these missing elements don't matter too much.  As an EDC it's a bit old fashioned.  I don't mean old fashioned as a proxy for bad--I can do without a clip and without one hand deployment--but buyers should know, this is basically a traditional knife.  But in that world you expect a few things--bolsters, shields, certain handle materials, and most importantly an historically informed design (a pattern).  There is none of that here.  In short, the Le Francais is so different from what we in America expect in a knife that it's taxonomy is a bit hard to pin down.  I feel like the biologist that first inspected a platypus--lots of familiar elements unified in an unfamiliar way.  

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But taxonomy aside, this is a few solid design.  The handle is excellent and simple.  The blade is clean and functional.  But there is not much to fidget with here.  It is so unknife-like compared to say, a ZT, that I had trouble wanting to carry it during the testing period.  I loved USING it, it was the first knife I ran to when I needed to do stuff in the kitchen or outside (if it was not fixed blade work), but actually dropping it in my pocket for a day was something I had a hard time doing.  Knives have become so much more than just things that cut for me.  This isn't a knock on the knife though.  It is more a knock on me.  

The performance ratios are very good.   The blade:weight (3.54 inches to 2.46 ounces) is 1.44.  The blade:handle (3.54 inches to 4.29 inches) is .82.  Its not quite Al Mar Hawk stuff, but, boy, is it good. 

Fit and Finish: 2

The fit and finish of this basically handmade knife is exceptional.  Everything is perfectly aligned, smooth to the touch and gleams with the warmth of a knife made by a person and not a CNC machine.  There is literally nothing I can complain about here.  This is one of the best made knives I have reviewed, on par with a Chris Reeve knife or an Al Mar. 

Grip: 2

The elongated oval shape of the handle, along with the smooth, but not slick juniper scales make the Le Francais good in the hand.  The length of the handle is also nice, giving you tons of grip options.

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It's not like this thing has a Becker handle, but given the likely tasks it will be doing, what's here is very good.

Carry: 1

This seems like as good a place as any to mention it, so here goes--I love the look, feel, and elegance of juniper handle scales but the smell is overpowering.  I have had this knife for more than 4 months and even now, it is still a strong whiff.  My Gerstner chest that I use to store my gear smells like juniper.  My other knives stored in different drawers smell life juniper.  And my pants and hands smell like juniper if I carry this knife.  I don't actually mind the smell itself, it's quite nice.  But here it is overpowering.  I get that it is a very stable wood, resistant to rotting, and very beautiful, but when your iPhone smells like gin it's a bit weird.  

Other than smell, the knife carries like a dream, even without a clip.  It's just the right length and thickness to make things very comfortable.

Steel: 2

19C27 is not some fancy steel.  It's not a powder steel.  It's traditionally a razor blade steel and in this role it is excellent.  It has more carbon than the other Sandvik steels (13C...and 14C...obviously) and  can get very hard (around 60-62 HRc), though Perceval, like Chris Reeve with his steel, leaves it soft around 57 HRc.  It's an uncommon steel too.  This is my first 19C27 knife.  But the steel just kills it as a slicing steel.  I realize that this is primarily a function of grind, but there is zero to complain about here.

Blade Shape: 2

Dead simple spear point.

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Excellent penetration, plenty of belly, and man does it look good.

As my review library approaches 300 reviews it takes an awful lot to stand out from the crowd.  Some stuff is good and some stuff is very good, but it is rare to find something that is so much better than everything else, when you have reviewed as much cutlery as I have.  It is simply a matter of math--the more you see, the bigger the sample size, the less likely you are to have something outpaces the crowd.  The cutting performance on the Le Francais is way at the tail end of the bell curve.  I doubt anything will come close for a long, long time, if ever.       

Grind: 2

Ah...the secret sauce of the Le Francais's insane performance--the grind.  This is a very mild convex grind and the grind is so well executed that the cutting bevel is almost invisible.  This is a slick knife with an edge like no other I have ever reviewed.  Sharp does not begin to describe it and it is because the thickness of the blade just behind the cutting bevel is really slim. 

In use I have found no knife, kitchen or otherwise, that sliced, cut, and carved with the grace of the Le Francais.  Frankly, it breaks the scoring system right in half.  The grind is so perfect, so immaculate, that I really have had to recalibrate what I expect from knives.  How often is it that you encounter a familiar object so far superior to its counterparts that it requires you to re-evaluate how everything else works?  Not often.  Let me put it another way--if I would have reviewed this knife as my first review, no other knife would get a two for grind--it's that good.  SOG's grinds are nice and clean.  My customs have had great grinds.  But nothing, nothing, is even close to this knife.

Deployment Method: 2

The nail nick (note the editorial/style change: "knick" to "nick"; research into the origins of the phrase, thanks Allusionist, has shown me that the likely correct term is "nick," as in a nick in the blade...) works here.

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This isn't a blade needs a quick deployment and the nick works thanks in part to an extra smooth pivot.  You only encounter resistance when the detent ball hits the blade.  Nice, clean, and smooth--what more could you ask for from a knife?

Retention Method: 0

Okay, this knife is big enough that a clip, especially a cleverly designed one like a spine riding clip, would be a welcome addition.  In the past I have given clipless knives a 2 here when the design calls for it.  Usually they are small knives, but here, this is actually a knife that is quite big.  It might not be the best thing for the grip of the knife, but that is always part of the push and pull of knife design when it comes to the question of a clip.  Heck, I even thing those cumbersome clip cases, like you see on some smaller fixed blades and on some William Henry stuff, would work well here.  There is a case, but it is sold separately and doesn't include a clip.  Bottom line--if the knife is this long, even if it is slender, the maker should really consider how it will be carried.  Perceval probably thinks this knife will drop into a pack or a picnic basket (BTW: can you even type the work "picnic" without thinking of Yogi Bear's pronunciation in your head?) and so a clip or case is unnecessary, but that is more a sign of how different the French knife market and the US knife market are than any design consideration.  This is a good EDC knife and a clip would help.  Honestly I could have gone either way here, but the knife is bigger than the traditionals I have liked without a clip.     

Lock

I was surprised at just how good the liner lock was here.  It was strong, stable, thick, easy to engage and disengage and quite nice.

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It slides in and out of the locked position with a clean click.  I liked it a lot and it goes to show how much fit and finish matters in locks.  Good fit and finish almost always equals good lock.

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

The Le Francais is a beautiful cutlery tool.  It is superbly finished, ranking next to some of the best knives we in the US are more used to, but with a different feel.  I would not recommend the juniper handles as they overpowering, but there are bevy of other options.  My big issue, more with me than the knife, is the fact that it was not as fun to fidget with as other equally nice, but different knives.  If you don't carry about that or you want something completely different than a SpyKerMade offering then you should look at Perceval's stuff.  It ranges from the nice, mid priced knives to the insanely expensive tortoise shell handled blades.  And if you are a picnic, wine-and-cheese type then you have no choice--this is the best knife possible for that option, unless you want a knife with a cork screw.  Great, different, and slices like God's Sword.  

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Perceval La Francais Overview

This is one of the most interesting and difficult to review knife I have ever tried to squeeze into my review scoring system.  In many ways, they break the system--pointing to its inadequacy because of the rigid formulation of the score.  Here is the overview:



Watch for the review on Friday.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Best Folding Knives--Redoing the Top 5 Folding Knives

Its been a while since I have redone the Top 5 list.  In that time I have come to realize that a numerical ranking is not capturing exactly what I want to say.  It's not like you go down the list and say, "Boy do I want knife #4."  You come to the Top 5 looking for a specific recommendation--a knife to fill a role.  And so I have decided to change the list from my five favorite knives to a list "Best Of..."  a la my favorite review site (other than www.bladereviews.com) the Wirecutter.  The categories are work in progress.  If you aren't thrilled or you think something is missing, make a suggestion.  All gear is production gear.  Handmade knives are world unto themselves and I think a lot of the reasons people buy those knives has less to do with what they do and more to do with how they look.

Without further ado, the Best Folding Knives:

Best EDC: Spyderco Dragonfly 2 in ZDP-189

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There are a quartet of steels on Dragonflies that are, from various perspectives, among the best available steels available.  The Super Blue is amazing, stays sharp forever and sharpens like a dream, but tarnishes quickly.  Then there is the HAP40 version.  That steel, a high end tool steel, is ultra hard AND ultra tough.  Then there is the almost completely rust proof H1. Despite all these choices, I still like the high end, high tech ZDP-189--ultra hard, super sharp.  Take your pick. Given the task, it is unlikely you will be disappointed by any of these steels.  But the magic of the Dragonfly goes beyond steel--it is amazing in the hand and in the pocket--doing a bit of everything and doing it incredibly well.  At just over 1 ounce and home to a four finger grip (if you don't have bear paws), there is no knife I like better than the Dragonfly 2.  And if you won't or can't pony up for one of the top shelf steels, you can opt for the VG-10 model.  It still has the great ergos of the other knives, just at a bit lower price point. 

Best Big EDC: Spyderco Paramilitary 2 in S110V or the Benchmade 940-1

Some people don't like small knives.  It might be because they have bear paws, because they have bigger cutting chores, or because they are compensating.  Whatever the reason, if you want a folder that carries like a small to mid-sized piece, but cuts like something much bigger, the Spyderco Paramiltary 2 is for you.  Like the Dragonfly you can find it in a range of steels, especially if you are willing to hunt on the forums or the less-visited places on the Internet.  Given all of the steels it was made in, my favorite is probably the current high end version made in S110V.  It's an awesome steel on an awesome knife.  The compression lock is quite good too.  Paramilitary 2 fun fact--the Kershaw Cryo in stainless steel weighs more than the Paramilitary 2 and has a blade length that is almost an inch shorter.

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The 940-1 is probably a better EDC as it is lighter still.  The steel and lock are a draw with the PM2 in S110V.   Its not as good at flexing into a hard use role as the PM2 thanks to is slender, less grippy handle, so I'd probably choose the PM2 if I wanted the flexibility.  My big problem with the 940-1 is the Benchmade tax.  The knife is about $270 and is slowly falling out of stock.  I can't see why it is that much more money than the PM2 (and no, carbon fiber isn't worth $70).  I also like the very thin grind on the PM2 better than the chunky grind on the 940-1, but if you are picking between these knives its like picking between Kate Upton and Abigail Rachtford.

Best Production Flipper: Kizer Gemini

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I have reviewed a lot of flippers.  Lots.  And this one is the best.  The flipping action is insane, right up there with the Tilt (thanks Elliott) and the ZT454, which are, to this day, the high watermarks for production flippers.  This thing crushes all of the "normal" ZTs, which have a weird lockbar pressure issue.  The design is clean and very functional.  The only thing about the knife that isn't super awesome is the clip, which is merely very good.  

Best High End Folder: Chris Reeve Mnandi or Triple Aught Design Dauntless

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If you have ever considered buying a Mnandi, just do it.  It works its way into the "Want" center in your brain like that thing from Star Trek 2 and it never, ever leaves.  This is a glorious tool, one of the finest knife designs ever and one of the most beautiful production blades of all time.  It is classy enough for a suit and yet it is knife enough for real cutting tasks.  You will not be disappointed, even with the change in the nail nick.  Oh and as a woodworker, I really appreciate the inlays.  They are all gorgeous. 

If you are an F-150 kind of guy, the Mnandi might be a touch too genteel for you.  If so, the Dauntless is hard to beat.

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Its a bit big for EDC, but in your King Ranch pick up you won't notice.  The beefy size belies a simple fact--this is a very finely made knife with great materials, great design choices, and a whole lot of style.  

Best Knife in Places with Legal Restrictions: Spyderco Roadie

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In a world where knife laws are all over the place and going in opposite directions at the same time, it is impossible to know what you can and can't carry from afar.  Go ask local law enforcement.  If they say the knife can't have a lock and it can't open with one hand, the Roadie is an awesome choice.  In fact, if you want a super small knife, its a great choice.  If you like the idea of a traditional pocket knife in terms of its size and pocketability, but you want modern materials, this is a great choice.  In reality, the Roadie is great regardless of your legal restrictions.  

Best Ultralight: Al Mar Hawk Ultralight


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Sure AUS8 is less than AUSome (had to), but there is no knife that has better performance ratios than the Hawk.  It is a superbly crafted blade with incredible fit and finish.  Very few knives, even ones made in Idaho, come close to matching the fit and finish on an Al Mar.  Toss in the splendid micarta handles and you have a recipe for success.  You can find lighter knives, but they come at an extreme cost--most are no better than a naked utility blade--they are floppy and easy to break.  Here you get a real knife, one that can do real knife tasks (not batonning Cold Steel fanboy), and one that you can carry on a daily basis even if you aren't hiking the Appalachian Trail with a handleless toothbrush.  

Best Budget Folder: CRKT Drifter in G10


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Many have come and gone.  Many have challenged the King.  But like Sobhuza II, the Drifter is was and probably always will be King of the Budget Blades.  This is my favorite CRKT and one of the best knives out there under $30.  As I stated in the review, they really cranked on this one--pinching pennies in all the right places.  The end result is a sweet blade you will have no problem using and carrying.  

Best Traditional Folder: Canal Street Cutlery Boy's Knife in Gold G10

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I am not a huge fan of multiblade knives, unless they are Swiss Army Knives.  Traditional pocket knives with multiple blades tend to be heavy and so I like traditionals with a single blade.  In the four or so years I have been really looking, this is the best, edging out the Indian River Jack (which is still a great knife and has better steel...the fit and finish can be spotty though).  Here Canal Street, RIP, really paid attention to the details and made a superb folder, one with fit and finish that rivals a custom.  The fact you can still find them in stock for under $100 is crazy.  Go buy one now.  I like all of the wood handles, but the G10 in Gold, exclusive to AG Russell, is a real eyecatcher.  

Best Folder to Replace Your Kitchen Knife: Perceval La Francaise


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Perceval is a French brand that has made ZERO inroads into the US.  Its sad because they make some extraordinary cutlery and the La Francaise, their simplest model, is one of the best folders out there.  This thing cuts better than any folder I have ever used.  Much better.  Much, much better.  Its like comparing a chainsaw to deli slicer.  You can bend around bone, shave the skin off a grape, and still cut open a package with ease.  Its a long blade so you can easily halve an apple.  And its good in the pocket too.  Me love this grind.  

Best Knife at Big Box: Kershaw Skyline

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The Skyline is the secret handshake of knife knuts--a great blade that is hidden right in front of you.  You can buy the Skyline at almost any Wal-Mart.  The flipping action is very good.  The weight is excellent.  The clip is simple and effective.  And the steel, 14C28N, is one of my favorites--the best budget steel on the market.  Even with a trio of price increases over the last 5 or 6 years, this is still an amazing starter knife and one of the best you can find in person regardless of where you live.  

There you have it--the Best Folding Knives 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Flaws with Cold Steel's Test Videos

By now we have all seen the Cold Steel test videos where they pit one of their Tri-Ad locks against a competitor and show how the competition fails while the Tri-Ad lock succeeds.

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They are interesting to watch.  Demko seems like he kind of doesn't want to go through with the tests (especially the Paramilitary 2 test, he is definitely singing that knife's praises in a subtle way), but much like the strongest kid in your elementary school he is cajoled into showing off by some big mouth.  But there is more than odd interpersonal tensions in the video.  They are an example of one of the oldest tricks in marketing--the false comparison.

Have you ever shopped for a car online?  You go to various manufacturer's websites and do their "comparison" views.  Somehow, all or almost all of the green check marks line up for their car and not the competitors.  Then you go to an independent site and do the same comparison with much more mixed results.  What gives, right?  Well, often the devil is in the details.  Those comparisons on the maker sites are stacked to give you results.  For example, one comparison I did, I noticed that they used HIGHWAY MPG as opposed to both or an average of the two.  When I did the same comp on Edmunds, they used an average.  In the first comp, one truck one.  In the Edmunds comp, the other truck did.  This was a carefully selected set of criteria--choosing highway MPG--to make one truck look better than another when it really isn't.  Even sneakier?  When I did the comp on the manufacturer's site for another vehicle, they used Average MPG.  If I wasn't looking I wouldn't have even noticed the switch.  

In many ways the Cold Steel Lock Tests are doing the same thing.  The Tri-Ad lock, which is unquestionably one of the best locks on the market--is very good at a large number of things.  It's strong, low maintenance, and very easy to use thanks to the fact that it mimics at lockback.  It's mechanical advantages are all focused on one thing--vertical strength.  It can hold a lot of weight on the Y-axis, in either direction.  

But that is not all a knife must be able to do.  Conspicuously absent are tests that focus on horizontal pressure or torsional pressure on the blade.  I wonder how well the Tri-Ad lock would fair on that account.  Also missing is data on how well the knife locks up.  The complex geometry and openness of the lock interface portion of the tang, in my experience, invites gunk to jam up the knife lock.  In one instance, when I was testing the Mini Recon, I got some dirt and lint in there (stuff that is likely to be in one's pockets) and lock up was not automatic.

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Once I cleaned out the lock interface, the Tri-Ad lock worked fine.  Finally there is the fingers in the blade path issue.  Lock backs and the Tri-Ad lock usually prompt the user to close the knife with their fingers, at one point or another, in the blade path.  It is possible to close the knife without it, but doing so is not intuitive and can result in a less than sure grip on the knife.  And let's be honest--which is more likely: you are using a folder to the point of lock failure or you accidentally close the knife on your fingers?  The big, beefy blades of Cold Steel knives make the second option about 200 times more likely than the first option.

In the end, other locks would or do fair better in these three areas.  But these aren't things seen on the Cold Steel videos because, shocker, their lock might not fair so well on these tests.  Any time a maker does a comparison video, they are stacking the deck, no matter how transparent or fair it seems.  Sure, everything is on video here, but what aspect of the knife they choose to test is the thing that makes the comparisons unfair or inaccurate.  Their claim that these tests demonstrate which lock is superior (which Demko notably backs away from on a number of occasions) is absurd.  It is marketing and it's a particularly old and obvious marketing trick.

Claiming that this vertical hold strength is the end all, be all of knife lock strength is silly.  It's like saying the only thing that matters in pitching is velocity.  Sure, velocity matters, but durability, deception, control and movement matter too.  Who would you rather have?  The guy that throws the ball the fastest ever or Greg Maddux?  Right...

And here is the most condemning thing, at least for me, this kind of lock strength, the kind on display in these videos DOESN'T MATTER.  Only morons use their knives in a way that requires this lock strength.  Normal use NEVER needs this kind of lock strength.  In normal use, all well made locks pass the test.  And some don't have the flaws mentioned above like the Tri-Ad lock does.  

The Tri-Ad lock is a great lock.  One of my two or three favorites (liner and compression locks being the other two).  Andrew Demko's design is truly remarkable.  And if they just said "This is one of the best locks out there for the following reasons" I'd have less of an issue.  But they don't.  That's not the Cold Steel style.  Instead they go way over the top.  In fact, so over the top that the lock's inventor (and reasonable adult) Andrew Demko seems uncomfortable in a number of these tests.  The lock is great.  The knives are great.  But Cold Steel's marketing, as it has always been, is offensive and misleading.

In the age of Blade Magazine this kind of stuff was probably not that big a deal.  But today, with the online communities, content creators that work hard at getting good information to folks, and a vast number of choices, this kind of marketing is probably hurting Cold Steel more than helping.  The people that love Cold Steel love these videos, but they will be buying Cold Steel knives regardless.  For the rest of us, armed with better information than we were twenty years ago, these video ads are not compelling anyone to click the "Buy" button on Cold Steel stuff. 

The knives are good.  The steel is (now) good.  The lock is great.  Sell that stuff.  Leave the bro science to morons on Youtube stabbing cinder blocks with their 3V knives. 


Friday, April 15, 2016

K'roo Sheepsfoot Review by Grayson

When can a handmade knife be considered a good value? For most people, they just aren’t. Prices often begin at half a grand and go up from there. In many cases the final product is not a bespoke item, but rather a minor variation of an established design. The knifemakers that expect or allow a truly custom approach are few and far in between. Even when you run into one, their prices are higher than the already astronomical prices of batched knives.
Enter Mr. Willem O’Kelly, also known as K’roo on the USN. I had seen some of his work on the forums, and on a whim asked what his normal rates were. At first I wasn’t really serious; I assumed his prices would start at Sebenza levels and go up from there. The actual rates he sent me were much more modest, and before I (or my wallet) knew it I was asking for a spot on his books. Because he lives in South Africa, his rates fluctuate quite a bit depending on the exchange rate between the rand and the dollar. When I sent the final payment in February 2015, this knife cost me $175.00 (after shipping). I do recommend upgrading your shipping...this knife took a month to arrive, and for a friend of mine it took at least twice as long.

The end result is the subject of this review. As far as I know, there are no other knives just like mine (though many are similar), so there are no other reviews available, written or otherwise, nor is there a product page I can direct you to. The best way to get in contact with the maker is through the USN or his email address (willem@whitesmoke.co.za), but be aware it may take some time before you hear a reply. He lives in a fairly remote area and often experiences power outages, but his reputation is otherwise stellar.

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Twitter Review Summary: Imperfect, but just what I asked for.

Design: 2

Writing about the design chops of this knife is difficult, as it’s a handmade product built to my specifications. At the same time, the design language clearly belongs to Mr. O’Kelly. Personally, I think that’s all the more credit to the maker, as he took my list of bullet points and made a knife that is undeniably a K’roo knife. The minimalist, yet organic aesthetic his knives possess makes them both eye-catching and non-threatening. I’ve never had someone make a disparaging remark about this knife, even on university campus.

Overall the process was pretty simple. K’roo emailed me somewhere around a hundred photos of his work, and essentially told me I could mix, match, and alter to my heart’s content. Through an email exchange we hashed out the details, including the offset pivot which hides the tang. You can request just about any combination of materials, provided you’re willing to pony up the extra cash. The majority of materials shouldn’t require a significant premium. Bonus points for accessibility here – though expensive, I don’t know of any other makers that offer the same level of customization at this price.

Willem’s iteration of a slipjoint boasts some pretty solid performance ratios.

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The blade length measures 2.5 inches (with a cutting edge of 2 inches), and the handle is 3.25 inches long. Weighing in at 2 ounces, the knife with no name’s blade::weight ratio is 1.25 (or 1.0 if you measure by cutting edge) and the blade::handle ratio is .77 – all solid numbers.

Fit and Finish: 1

As much as I love this knife, there are flaws. The micarta cracked when the lanyard hole was installed, and there is some leftover steel from the press on the interior of the knife. Were they on a production knife I would have sent it back to the manufacturer to be addressed. As it stands, Mr. O’Kelly lives on the other side of the planet. I’d rather not deal with shipping times that exceed three months, so unless the crack spreads I’m not going to worry about it. This doesn’t seem to be a common occurrence: neither my friend’s K’roo knife (nor the copious knives examined online) had any such flaws. I’ve been carrying this knife for nearly a year now, and the flaws haven’t proved to be anything more than cosmetic.

Grip: 2

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There is no jimping here, nor is there much in the way of a “traction plan.” However, the ivory micarta scales are nicely contoured, and handle bears quite a bit of resemblance to the classic Barlow teardrop. With the lanyard taken into account, the grip on this knife is comfortable in a number of different grips.

As an aside, this knife really captures the “warmth” that handmade knives are frequently credited with. All of the hard edges are rounded over, every surface has been buffed, and the result is a knife that feels like a river rock in your hand. I have the unfortunate tendency to fidget with my knives, to the point of driving friends and family insane. Slip joints don’t really have that kind of fidget factor, but here the ivory micarta has been polished to such a level that there’s a joy to just palming it.

Carry: 2

This is one of the few knives I can carry that lacks a sheath, a pocket clip, or a slip case of some kind. Most slip joints are too long for that sort of carry: in the main pocket, they’ll settle at the bottom and generate some discomfort; in the coin pocket, they’ll ride too high and dig into my hips when sitting down (I drive 140 miles per workday, so I spend quite a bit of time sitting). However, this knife is short enough when closed that neither concern bears out. The robust materials also safeguard against damage from keys or other pocket clutter, and the offset pivot keeps the tang of the blade from snagging on anything.

Steel: 2

The steel I chose for this knife is N690co. Some folks don’t like it; I happen to like it quite a bit. It sharpens easily, is very rust resistant, and holds its edge for a reasonable amount of time. I’m a big fan of “working steels” like N690co, 154cm, and BD1: all perform very well and are brought back to life without much effort. Last I heard K’roo was offering some higher end tool steels, but I don’t know if that came to fruition.

Blade Shape: 2

This iteration of the sheepsfoot blade shape is really quite nice.

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There’s hardly any belly, but the tasks I use the K’roo for don’t really warrant it. The uses I have for a knife at work are wildly different from those I have at school, and the K’roo is definitely a knife I picked up with the latter in mind. This really wasn’t intended to be used for food prep, but it excels at opening packages and breaking down cardboard boxes. If you’d rather opt into a blade shape that has more belly, Mr. O’Kelly can accommodate you.

Grind: 1

Functionally, there’s nothing wrong with the grind. It takes a thick stock and thins it out as much as possible. It isn’t quite capable of passing the apple test, but it’s performed admirably otherwise. Why the score of 1? If I’m nitpicking (and I am), the grind is a bit uneven. On a cheaper knife it wouldn’t be much of a fault, but at just under $200 you’re not wrong to want something better.

Deployment Method: 0

The most common remark I hear concerning this knife is how difficult it is to open, and that’s an irrefutable charge. The backspring is fairly stiff, and there is no nail nick (or similar aid) for deploying the knife. Personally, it’s never been an issue for me. Bear in mind that K’roo asked if I wanted a nail nick, but he and I agreed that the lines were too clean to ruin like that.

Retention Method: 2

If you haven’t guessed from the pictures, there’s no pocket clip. There is a very handy lanyard, which I use to fish this out of my pocket and get a bit of a firmer grip on the knife. You could certainly carry this in a slip case, but the micarta handles pocket wear well enough that I’ve never felt the need.

Blade Safety: 2

While the high tension of the backspring makes this knife a bear to open, it also leaves me feeling pretty secure about my digits. The half-stop is also a welcome addition. Like most good slipjoints, exercise a little care and there shouldn’t be any cause for worry.

Overall Score: 16 out of 20

This knife is odd. If I had ordered it from a catalog, I would probably have been disappointed by some aspects of the fit and finish. I’ve got a bit of reputation for nitpicking, and by rights the flaws here should bother me more than they do. But part of the charm of a custom, handmade knife is the collaborative nature: knowing that I had an actual hand in the process (and not just the finishing touches) gives the knife a great deal of charm.

The Competition

The competition in the production world is surprisingly stiff. Great Eastern Cutlery makes some of the nicest traditional knives available; the same applies to Canal Street Cutlery, though unfortunately they’re in the process of closing shop. To drive the point home, their knives often come in at half the price of most knives by K’roo (check the exchange rate just in case).

However, I don’t know of many competitors to K’roo in the handmade knife world. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of talented slipjoint makers out – there are – but none that operate in this price bracket. That opinion could be borne of ignorance, though. Feel free to enlighten me below.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Selling High End Knives in the 21st Century--New Approaches to a Different Market

Liong Mah is, by any account, a talented knife designer.  Some of his designs have been huge in the custom scene and his collaborations with production companies have all been good, even if a little underrated (the Eraser is particularly good and particularly underrated).

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But its the work he has been doing on his own that I think might set a trend going forward.

Leveraging his excellent design sensibilities and modern overseas manufacturing (Reate), Mah has produced a number of knives that offer his unique style, very good fit and finish, and excellent materials.  They have also been used as the foundation for collaborations with knife makers, like Jonathan McNees.  The breadth and range of the designs is not tremendous--yet.  This way of selling knives is new and so I am sure Mah is starting out with safer, more conventional designs.  If the Eraser is any indication, Mah has more than a few impressive designs uncoiling from is muse-enchanted brain.  I, for one, can't wait.

But Liong Mah is not the only one going down this path.  No one less important than knife maker turned reality TV star Todd Begg has embraced this new way of producing knives.  He used to make the Field Grade Bodegas in the US, but since the Kwaiken project went so well, the Bodega line is now made by Steelcraft (an offshoot of Reate).  

All of the folks working for the Custom Knife Factory are doing something like this too--a Chinese company makes all of the parts and the knives are finished in Russia, though I am not sure if that means the maker himself or someone else.  Despite this, their knives sell for prices I would have though impossible only a few years ago.

The Jasmine/Gemini project proves to me that others should go down this route.

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Laconico is one of the best DESIGNERS working right now.  His customs, from accounts other than mine, are amazing, but I am not sure how, other than ornamentation, they are superior to the Gemini.  Evaluating his work purely as a design, he is among the best out there right now.  He could go down the Mah route, too, and I and a lot of other people would be very happy.

I have written before that certain makers are destine to always play in the handmade realm, not because of the complexity of their designs, but because their designs buck trends in a way that makes a large production collaboration impossible because of profit margins.  Karroll's blades are so different and distinctive from the majority of handmade knives out there--they are almost always small in a market that basically starts at 3.5 inches.  They are massively thick and with an extreme hollow grind, they are definitely meant to be used (again, something most handmade knives these days seem to look down on like nobles getting snooty because someone has a job).  A guy like Steve Karroll is probably not served by the Mah model--the outlay on the custom designer's end is huge compared to the materials of making a one off, but eventually, with additive manufacturing, I can see the prices coming down to suit even folks like Karroll.

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But if costs don't come down there are other ways Steve and those like him could reach a bigger market.  Massdrop makes it possible for custom makers to make larger runs with guaranteed buyers, batching out handmade stuff to lower their time commitments and production expenses while at the same time having much less risk than traditional "custom" sales.  Jesse Jarosz has wisely moved in this direction with his M75 Wharncliffe found here (as of this writing 14 knives have been sold at $545 a piece).  He had previously done well with Massdrop selling his Globetrotter through the enthusiast driven marketplace.  Yet another iteration of this new method of knife sales is the use of crowdfunding sites, which I wrote about here

The way in which Liong Mah and a few others have leveraged their design skills and the high end machining capacities of overseas makers has opened up a new way for folks to sell knives and I think it is an interesting one.  I imagine we will see a lot more people go down this route in the future.  And if this doesn't work Massdrop and crowdfunding sites offer another way to turn good designs in large batches with much less risk than individual makers face using traditional sales channels.  I feel like Mah's model, Jarosz's model, and the precedent set by DPx Gear shows we are in the midst of a huge change in the knife industry.  Its one that is ultimately good for the industry as it lowers the threshold between good designs and final goods. 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Production Titanium Framelock Flipper Shooutout

There are a lot of titanium framelock flippers out there.  I have reviewed my share.  So inclusion here is not just a matter of there only being three, but these three being the best I have handled.  First a word on some notable absences.

You might be surprised to see ZERO ZT knives here.  The reason is pretty simple--they all have weird lock bar issues.  It's like their VERY sensitive actors--if you put even a bit of pressure on them, they get stage fright and stay inside their handles.  It was pretty bad on the ZT0450, but even bigger knives like the ZT0456 have this issue.  Until ZT fixes it, I will like them, but not love them.  It's also fair to note that while the issue is barely there on the stunning ZT0456, that knife is decidedly out of the price range here.  I wanted nothing more than around $200, though I know the TRE G10 can retail for more than that in some places.  The funny thing is I had to think long and hard as to why the Skyline doesn't make this list.  That knife is so damn good, even now.  I love the steel, one of my favorite non-PM steels, and the flipping action is first rate.  Oh and it is still under $100, despite Kershaw bumping the price up a few times since its release.  

Spyderco's flippers have been pretty uneven.  The two Southards (Positron and Southard) have been less than stellar (it pains me so much to write that, Brad Southard is one of my absolute favorite knife makers and Spyderco just makes great stuff), the Dice and Domino are too wide in the pocket, and the Carey stuff never excited me, though the Rubicon might be more tempting if you could actually access the lockbar.

Benchmade's exclusion is easy--they don't make a titanium frame lock flipper.  Yep, that's right--one of the major production companies is completely absent in the fastest, most profitable part of the market.  Come on, don't pretend like your surprised, it's Benchmade.  Just be thankful that they updated the Griptillian line, it's only been a decade or so since they touched it (compared to Spyderco, which releases high end steels on its evergreen stuff once a year).  If they were a car company they'd still be trying to convince us of the benefits of low gas mileage engines.  

Similarly, Chris Reeve has no entry into this market segment.  He does not believe in flippers (despite what my April Fools post showed!) or even flipping open his knives and he is busy making a slightly different version of the Sebenza to sell his fanboys.  This one will be called the Iripzuof and it will be between the Small Sebenza 21 and the Inkosi, with a 2.80 inch blade.

Also, note the dearth of Boker stuff.  Boker just hasn't turned the corner yet, no matter how much I like my Mini Kwaiken.  Their fit and finish is still suspect and this says nothing for their choice of steels.  I'd love to see better steels in their knives.  VG-10 just doesn't cut it anymore, well it does cut it, but well, you know what I mean.  

Finally, I wish CRKT would release another premium steel knife like the Hi Jinx.  The flipping action on CRKTs is among the most refined of any production company and they are getting this level of performance out of lesser materials--no ceramic ball bearings, high end steels, etc.  The GSD was a sweet knife, but it was a boat anchor.  Similarly the Eraser flipped like a dream (there is a reason some folks think of it as a budget Tilt), but the steel keeps it from being competitive here.

The one area I don't feel 100% comfortable with is Chinese knives.  I wish I had more experience with the new high end Chinese flippers, but they have gotten so expensive so quickly and there are so many of them that it is hard to keep pace.  Between Custom Knife Factory (made in China assembled in Russia), Reate, Kizer, and the private label stuff for folks like Liong Mah and Todd Begg, the Chinese release a new titanium frame lock flipper a week. 

The three knives left standing after all this consideration are all uniformly excellent.  If you stopped now and chose one at random, you'd be satisfied for a long, long time.  They are all GREAT.  But as usually, I will pick a winner here.  The way it works is all three knives will be scored compared to each other in all ten categories of the knife scoring system.  The best in a given category will be given a 5, the second place will be given a 3, and the loser a 1 (this prevents bunched scores and bars a knife with three really good features but wretched everything else from winning).  After that I will break down the scores by the price, to determine which is the best value.  If the knife with the highest score is also the best value it is the winner.  If not, I'll discuss why.  No matter what, no bullshit ties or inconclusive results like the comparison reviews done in Blade Magazine (Note: I do not sell ads for knives, so I can review them unencumbered by ad dollars...just sayin').

The three knives that are part of this shoot out are:

1. The Lionsteel TRE G10 (designed, I thinks, by Paul Molletta)
2. The Kizer Gemini (designed by Ray Laconico)
3. The Spyderco Mantra 1 (designed by Eric Glesser)

Each of these three knives scored a 19 or a 20 and each of these three knives is somewhere between $165 and $200.  Though they are not cheap, they are modest compared to other offering out there and I think these three are representative of both what people are looking for when buying a knife like this.  

Design

Gemini: 5
TRE: 3
Mantra 1: 1

There are touches on the TRE that I really enjoy, like the rounded spine, but by in large I find it a smidge busy.  This, it seems to me, is the downfall of many Lionsteel products, especially the actual Three Rapid Exchange version of the TRE.  They can't resist going for it.  If it can be done machining-wise, they go for it.  The end result is a machining feat but a busy design.  This knife would be much better without all of the cuts and divots and machining marks.  A smoothed out version in micarta would be smokin'.

The Mantra 1, by contrast, is as about as by the numbers as it gets.  It is literally a Delica with a few improvements and a flipper. This is not bad, it's just not all that creative.  And when the knives are close in quality as these three are, I can be nit picky and award or deduct points for things like creativity of design.  It, like the TRE, works wonderfully, but it is not the most inspired thing I have seen.

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Fit and Finish

TRE: 5
Gemini: 3
Mantra 1: 1

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All of these knives are very nicely made.  You won't find a single flaw on any of them.  Centering, blade finish, handle finish, lock up--everything is just perfect.  but the TRE's appearance is most complex with lots of machining and contouring (the Gemini has contouring too).  And so, just like in Olypmic diving, its going to win because while it is equal to the others in terms of execution, what it is executing has a higher degree of difficulty.  And so to with the Gemini compared to the simpler Mantra 1.  Still, this is so close that differentiating the knives by score is almost frivolous.  

Grip

Mantra 1: 5
Gemini: 3
TRE: 1

This is a place where there are meaningful differences.  The Mantra 1 and the Gemini are close, but the TRE is far behind, relatively speaking.  The issue with the TRE is that with all of the curves and cuts on the handle there are times when the knife generates hotspots.  I found the index notch/lock access cutout to be exceptionally sharp.  The Mantra 1 and Gemini, by contrast are great in the hand.  The only thing that makes the Mantra 1 stand out is the knife feels more "solid" in the hand thanks to heavier beadblasting.  It's grippier without being offensive.  But this is a very slight difference from the Gemini.

Carry

TRE: 5
Mantra 1: 3
Gemini: 1

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This is pretty simple--the TRE is the lightest of the knives and so it is the best to carry.  They pretty much go in weight order, though I do think the rounded spine on the TRE is another small bonus that puts it at the top of the heap.  The Mantra 1 is not a trade paperback by any means, but it is wider and a smidge heavier.  The Gemini, again, while not bulky, is bigger and heavier still.  

Steel

TRE: 5
Gemini: 3
Mantra 1: 1

Boy is this complicated.  M390 is probably my favorite or second favorite steel on an EDC knife, so it's hard not to put it in the top slot, but M4 is just so incredible at cutting and holding an edge.  And S35Vn is just an all around all-star.  In the end, I think this is a tight bunch, but the tarnish potential of the M4 puts it at the back of the line.  As between M390 and S35Vn, it's a photo finish, with the differences being so small as to be negligible in theory and undetectable in use.

Blade Shape

TRE: 5
Gemini: 3
Mantra 1: 1

I love the TRE's blade.  It is just so pretty.  The rounded spine and slight drop point have worked on knives for decades and here it is just as sexy as ever.  GREAT.  The Gemini's drop point is also good, but a little too droopy for me.  It matters little in the real world, but every once in a while I feel like the point should be higher than it is, or at least my hands tell me so.  The Mantra's blade shape is classic Spyderco, which I like a lot, but it is quite wide, probably too wide for what you get, hence the last place finish.  The finishes are pretty staggered here with the TRE leading, then the Gemini, and then a real space and the Mantra 1 at the end.

Grind

Mantra 1: 5
Gemini: 3
TRE: 1

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Neither the Gemini or the TRE is chubby, but the grind on the M4 on the Mantra 1 is so razor thin, you can shave with it.  In fact, while horsing around with the knife, I DID shave with you.  You know the story--your convinced it is the best slicer you have seen and so you put it to the test, lather up your face, and give it a peel or two.  Okay, maybe that's just me, but I do want to be thorough...and I love playing around with steel.  The Mantra 1 leads by a large margin here with the other two merely sharp, as compared to atom-splitting keen.

Deployment Method

Gemini: 5
Mantra 1: 3
TRE: 1

There are many, many customs I have handled that have worse deployment than the Gemini.  Among production knives only a few, like the Tilt (insert choir music, and thanks Elliot for the loan) and the ZT0454, have had better.  It's smooth, snappy, and responsive.  The flipper tab is just the right shape too.  The Gemini wins here by a country mile.  The Mantra 1 is very good, just not elite.  I like the flipper tab's shape as well (NO JIMPING ON FLIPPER TABS PLEASE) and unlike the Gemini the detent is strong enough you can't shake the knife out of the handle when closed.  But the action is not quite there.  It feels a little gritty or more like a set of bike gears than a top spinning on glass like the Gemini.  The TRE's flipping action is good, clearly above average among production knives, but the sharp edges of the handle in the "landing strip" (the place where your index finger goes after flipping open the knife) are sharp and the flipper tab is a bit too small.  Overall, all three are above average, probably well above average, but the Gemini is just amazing.

Retention Method

Mantra 1: 5
TRE: 3
Gemini: 1

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Spyderco doesn't get enough credit for the innovation that is the wire clip.  It is sturdy, discrete, and rarely creates hotspots.  I like the one here as it is more Dragonfly II stiff than Techno floppy.  The sculpted clip on the TRE is also good, generating no hotspots and holding the knife in place.  I was surprised that it could handle thicker material like jeans, but there were a few pair that felt like they were pushing the clip beyond the comfort zone.  The Gemini is the clear loser here.  The clip works well, but it does create a few hotspots.  This is the last part of the Kizer game that needs attention.  They do everything else so well that even average or slightly above average clips stick out (and cause) sore thumbs.

Lock

Gemini: 5
Mantra 1: 3
TRE: 1

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None of the locks exhibited any play at all and all engaged easily.  The only real differentiation is between the ease of disengagement. Here the Gemini is just a smidge better than the Mantra 1 and the Mantra 1 is better than the TRE.  But the clumping is pretty straightforward--the TRE is behind the other two because the edges on the inside handle slabs are a bit sharp, as all the edges are on the TRE's handle. Its not a big deal, but when forced to rank great knives, you have to find some way to distinguish great from merely really good. 

Scores:

Gemini: 32
TRE: 30
Mantra 1: 28

Value Score (dollars per point):

Gemini ($169.99): $5.31
Mantra ($167.97): $5.99
TRE ($199): $6.67

Conclusion

This was an incredibly close shootout and I think it is actually closer than the scores indicate because there is a lot of bunching in terms of performance in Grind, Blade Shape, and Carry.  In those three categories its essentially a three way draw, but minute differences gave them they ranks they got.  Honestly, I wouldn't say any of these three knives are worse than the other two.  It is close enough that preference alone should make the call for lots of people.  But having reviewed a ton of knives, I feel confident in my opinion that the Gemini is the best of these blades.  It all goes back to that genius Laconico design.  Sometimes I feel like Lionsteel is just making things difficult to make them difficult and though the Mantra is an improvement on the Delica, its not that much of an improvement.  The Gemini, based on the Jasmine, is just a beautiful blade in the hand, and in a picture.  It works and looks great.

I never plot these out before I write them, and so, to a certain extent each of these Shootouts is a surprise to me.  Fortunately I have never had one were the rankings didn't match my intuitions.  If I were standing at a counter at a knife store with you and all three of these knives were available, I would tell you pick which ever one you like.  If you didn't have a preference I would tell you go for the Gemini, then the Mantra, then the TRE and that's how the numbers come out.

In the end, all three of these knives are simply fantastic.  The steels are great, the flipping action is at least above average.  There is just so much to like with each one of these blades, its hard to complain about any of them. I also feel like these are hard ahead of other titanium framelock flippers I have handled.  But man, I love that Gemini quite a bit.