Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Changes in Comments Policy

Spammers caused me to get a warning issued by Google last night.  The spammers had left spam comments on the blog so there are two things that I am changing:

1.  I will now delete comments.  In the past, in order to facilitate a good discussion, I never deleted a comment, regardless of content.  Now I will.  If it is a real comment, by a real person, and not a spam bot in the form of a Russian prostitute, I will leave it alone regardless of content.  If its spam, though, it is gone.

2.  You now have to have a Google ID to leave a comment.  I know that signing in is a hassle, but the alternative is that the blog gets shut down (either by Google or by me--I am not going to help spread filth).  So sign in and then post.  If you already have a Google ID this should be seamless.  If this doesn't work, I will increase the restrictiveness of the sign in requirement and make commentors join this site.  Its the only way to prevent some jackass from ruining the fun for everyone.

Sorry.  This is not what I wanted to do, but it looks like it is required.  I am very close to migrating the site off of Blogger as it is, and if I had the money I'd do it right now with a new redesign, but it is expensive.  My research showed that a custom site with a transporting of all the content would START at $3,000.  I don't have that right now.  Slowly, but surely.

And FUCK those people that ruined the fun for everyone. 

9/3/15  UPDATE: As you can see from below those increased precautions did not work.  So, all comments will be moderated by me and commentators will have to sign in.  If this doesn't work I don't know what to do.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Trolling for Hate: "Pens" v. Pens

I recently purchased, on air while recording GGL, a Matthew Martin 400 series pen.  I also purchased, around the same time, a Scheaffer Sagaris Fountain Pen.  These purchases made me realize just how different pens can be and how the gear community has, for all intents and purposes, gotten the pen thing completely wrong.

My essential problem with the Matthew Martin pen, along with all of the pens of its ilk--the Hinderer pens, the Tuff Writers, the ZT, Surefire, and Benchmade pens is simple--they are not about performance, but instead about looks and branding.


As a community, we are dedicated to focusing on performance.  We spend large sums of money on small upgrades in steels or insignificant increases in lumens.  But when it comes to pens we are enamored with what is, frankly, a bunch of bullshit.  

Now there are places where these hard use pens are useful.  If you are a police officer writing tickets on the side of the road in 110 degree heat or blizzard conditions, get one of pens listed above and call it a day (though even here you can still do better, see below).  They will write in just about any condition.  But if you aren't, you are settling for a massive downgrade in performance.  This isn't the pen equivalent of me railing against silly overbuilt knives.  There they are ostensibly still knives.  The difference between something like the Matthew Martin pen, even with a good refill, as opposed to the Fisher refill that is the default for all of these pens, and the Scheaffer is essentially an unbridgeable gulf.  

I used to think that these ballpoint refill pens were necessary as nothing as prissy as a fountain pen could withstand the rigors of EDC work, but after carrying a fountain pen for two years, I have put the lie to that claim.  A good fountain pen, like a Kaweco Sport, Pilot Vanishing Point, or the Scheaffer Sagaris, can handle daily use and lots of travel (air travel is a different story, but with precautions taken, they can handle even that).  I get that some fountain pens that don't hold up.  In particular, I have avoided Twsbi, but aside from cheap stuff and a few exceptions, the fountain pens I have had have been able to withstand the rigors of hard, excessive daily use. 


And the performance increase--the writing performance increase (because, after all, these are pens and their task is to write)--is huge.  I switched to fountain pens because I take so many pages of handwritten notes a day that my hand became a claw when I was forcing myself to use ballpoints and gels.  You need so little pressure to write with a fountain pen that I can easily take twenty or thirty pages of notes a day, at a high speed under stress, with no problem.  I can't say the same for a ballpoint.

But its not just the ease of use that demarcates a fountain pen from other pens.  The fountain pen allows for a tremendous amount of variability in the width of the line.  You can get very thin lines for marginalia or massively thick lines for underlining important things.  With a ballpoint or gel, you can't do these things without a ton of effort.  There is also the fact that you can get very precise colors with a fountain pen.  I just bought my first bottle of ink (and at the rate I am using it I will still have it in five years), Pilot's Iroshizuku, and it is amazing.  The vivid colors and the change in tone from the edges of the ink to the heart of the line are incredible.  Your eye drinks it all in and your hand is thrilled at the prospect of continued writing.

In short, the performance difference between a fountain pen and other pens is so great that it is the the same as the difference between a high end ZT and the knife shaped objects sold at Wal-Mart for a dollar.  By focusing on things like the body material or the name brand on the pen, the EDC community has become blinded.  This is the only place where we accept truly subpar performance.  You can put all of the mammoth ivory you want on the body of a pen, but if it runs a ballpoint refill, your still just putting lipstick on a pig.

This is not as simple as fountain pens are better (though they are).   In reviewing pens and using them more than probably 99% of the population, I have come to realize that ballpoints are especially bad.  Gels are better, with better page feel, better lines, and better colors, but they are still not the same as a fountain pen.  I have found that only the Mont Blanc Fineliner refill approaches the performance of a fountain pen.  This is a case where I think it is probably worth having a discussion about performance.  Comparing a Fisher refill and a fountain pen is pointless.  The Fisher refill is awful.  100% total garbage.  But with the Fineliner you get something better and something different from a fountain pen.  These are real pens.  I also think the Sharpie refill is close to being this good.  It is just as "write everywhere" as the Fisher, but it gives you real page feel. 

The trend in EDC pens is pretty silly--massively heavy, overbuilt pens designed to withstand cannon fire, but can't write worth a lick.  If you write every day you owe it to yourself to do better than a ballpoint, roller ball, or gel pen.  If you only jot something down once in a while, well, I am sure the EDC pen will work, but it is no better than a Sharpie, even if it is in a titanium body.  And really, when as minimal use stopped us from pursuing performance?  Very few of us use our knives for hours a day, and yet we have no problem seeking out M390 and ZDP-189.

So it is a mystery--why do we accept clearly inferior performance in our pens?  Perhaps it is because we have reached the Baroque Period of the Golden Age of Gear and only bling, not performance, matters.  But I also think it is possible that some folks just don't know better.  That $600 mammoth ivory pen writes no better than a free bank ballpoint.  But for $5 you can get a damn good writer in a Sharpie.  And for $25 you can get a truly sublime and durable fountain pen in the form of the Kaweco Sport, Lamy Safari, or many others.


And try as I might I can't find anything even close to the performance of a Vanishing Point, thanks to its best in price bracket gold nib, for around $125.

If you care about performance, if you want the very best, or if you care about value, stop kidding yourself with these three pound, ugly monsters and get a pen used by adults.  Get a fountain pen, or at least something that runs a Mont Blanc Fine Liner.  Or hell, get a Sharpie in a metal body with replaceable refills (they are like $7).

And if you can't bring yourself to do that, at least drop that Fisher refill in the garbage and get a Schmidt EasyFlow 9000, the best writer that is compatible with Parker style refill (which is what the Fisher is).  

I'll keep reviewing the ballpoint pens because they can be useful, they do write longer (though a large refill fountain pen lasts quite long as well), and people are interested.  But I think any person interested in EDC and performance should have a fountain pen in their daily carry arsenal.  

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Kershaw Crown Review by RD

What should you expect from a budget folding knife?

First, define price range. Tony set the line at under $20 in his Budget Blade Shootout a couple years ago, and I think that’s still right.

It is a challenging category. Mind you, the next tier up – what I call “affordable” knives, $20 to $40 street – includes quite a bit of good stuff: Ontario RATs; Cold Steel Tuff Lites; some nice Kershaws [Strobe], some Case traditionals; Buck's Vantage Select. Many enthusiasts keep a toe dipped in those waters. While I cherish my Mnandi and Chaparral, I primary-EDC affordable folders maybe a fourth of the time.

But the true budget tier remains tough sledding. Inflation has eroded options: former staples like the Byrd knives, the Kershaw Chill, and the CRKT Drifter now usually miss the under-$20 cutoff. You can’t afford an Alox Cadet, either. This category is populated by the various “gunmaker” branded knives, Opinels, bottom-barrel Gerbers, Schrade, Coast, etc. (I am ignoring Chinese brands like San Ren Mu, Enlan, etc., because they don’t show up on US store shelves and I don’t know them. YMMV.)

Still, carefully selected budget folders have an appeal. They make good stash knives for the glove box or trunk. They provide disposable, no-tears beaters for nasty work. Sometimes a cheap knife can just catch your eye with aesthetics. I sometimes go Twix-bars-at-the-checkout and make total impulse buys of knives in this range – which is a very salient economic fact for knife companies. (The Browning Prisms make adorable stocking stuffers for $13 at your local big box outdoor. Too bad about the 440A steel.) Lastly, there’s an intellectual interest in watching how makers cope with the stern design challenges of a tiny budget. Most home cooks with time and sound techniques can make a memorable dinner for four given a $200 grocery budget. The real bragging rights come when you can do it with a $20 bill.

Kershaw has long been the most committed of the well regarded folding knife marques to offering real options in the budget price tier. This is the first of a pair of reviews in which I’ll explore the tradeoffs possible in this category by taking a look at two Kershaw budget folders.

First up is the recently discontinued Kershaw Crown. This is a clean-lined, Chinese made EDC folder with stainless steel bolsters and micarta handle scales. The designers evidently sought to deliver a visually attractive “gent’s knife” with a sizable blade and good cutting performance, while staying well under the $20 street price limit. On the whole they succeeded impressively.

There is no longer an official KAI USA page for the Crown. Here is the Blade HQ product page. Here is the concise (no, really) Nutnfancy review. Here [Kershaw Crown – Test – from YT user “Tactical”] is a profane but enjoyable review from a dude who carried a Crown for most of a year as a high-use beater. This knife had a large presence at big box stores and was sold at eye-catching discounts; Blade HQ closed out their Crowns this year for $11.99. There was a shorter-lived mini version, the Crown II, which had a 2 7/8” blade and weighed 0.7 oz less than the Crown I. I’ve never tried one, but it looks nice. There was also a special Wal-Mart version (3160BWMX) with a stonewashed clip and blue micarta scales; it came with some subtler differences such as a thinner locking liner and a shallower grind.

The Crown was discontinued in 2014, making this review an “In Case You Missed It.” There must have been a lot of stock out there because the knife is still readily obtainable on Amazon, eBay, and the like. My review Crown is the full sized, black micarta boxed version (3160). I got it from Amazon for $14.99 shipped.

Crown establishing shot lock side

Twitter Review Summary: Dignity through simplicity. Ditching the clip reveals a handsome sub-$20 EDC slicer.

Design: 2

The Crown is visually simple but harmonious. The slight arc of the handle carries over into the shallow drop of the blade’s spine and counterpoints the sweep of its belly. The gently rounded micarta scales lend a visually interesting two-tone effect, while also saving weight over an all-metal construction. The Crown has a 3.25” blade and weighs 3.8 oz, yielding a pedestrian but acceptable blade:weight ratio of 0.86. It has a 4.5” handle, for a B:H of 0.72, also not terrible.

This knife isn’t a featherweight, but it would have been a pig with all-metal handles. Fitting micarta into the tiny budget was one of two design choices that make the Crown work. Everything fits together to suggest a graceful light utility knife, which is what is delivered.

Fit & Finish: 2

The Crown’s good looks carry over into its smooth, rounded stainless bolsters with well-fitted transitions. Edges are lightly chamfered throughout and the scales and bolsters level with the liners. The only complaints are a bit of side-to-side blade play (and centering drift) as the pivot loosens up with use, and a tiny gap between one of the micarta scales and the stainless bolster.

Blade Shape: 2

The Crown’s simple, elegant blade shape is the other stroke that makes the design. It’s a long-legged drop point with an acute tip and a mild swedge.

Crown establishing shot clip side

It proved thoroughly functional for trimming steaks

Crown with trimmed steaks

and other food prep, light wood work, and utility cutting on man-made materials. I liked the 3.25” blade length a lot. I used to think it was silly to make a knife over 3” (which excludes some customers due to legal limitations) unless you were willing to jump up to 3.5” or 4”, but my attitude has changed. The extra little bit of blade actually helps for both coarse cutting strokes and fine work. This blade length falls in the same sweet spot as many paring knives. I grabbed the Crown in the kitchen for lots of little jobs, and when EDCing it along with a larger knife (the Manifold) I defaulted to the Crown for most work.

Steel: 1

My tentative impression is that the Chinese 8Cr13MoV blade steel on this Crown might be run relatively hard, which isn’t a bad thing. The cutting edge is ground thin, and it does tend to get micro-chippy after some work on abrasive materials. However, three minutes or less on the Sharpmaker will put it back in business with a precise, push-cutting edge. (For that matter, the worn edge has its uses. It’s like tiny serrations, hell on cardboard.)

The Crown needs a fair amount of touching up if you like to stay at high sharpness. That said, its 8Cr13MoV is a predictable and functional steel. Not to foreshadow the next review too much, but this is a significant advantage the Crown holds over the Manifold, which uses a 3Cr13 blade steel.

Grind: 2

The Crown is slicey. Its very high hollow grind, culminating in a symmetrical, acute edge, gives it good aggression in ordinary cutting, and it aces the Apple Test. It’s a pleasure to use and a snap to resharpen. The blade features a sharp, precise point too, at the end of a well executed light swedge.

Lock: 2

Liner locks are commonplace on budget blades, and Kershaw tends to execute them well. The Crown has a traditional liner lock with a small but useful run of jimping on the lock bar (actually, it is the only grip texturing on the entire knife). The lock is stable, engages at about 50%, and is easy to disengage. Apart from the moderate lateral blade play that develops with use, there’s nothing to object to.

Grip: 1

This is a close call. Once you get the Crown deployed and in use, its subtly curved and palm-filling handles make for a very pleasant experience, especially after the pocket clip is removed. This is a good knife in the hand, showing how an intelligent shape can make up for an absence of jimping or other tactile grip. However, the smooth sides do sometimes interfere a bit with retrieving the knife from the pocket, especially if you carry it clipless. You may also occasionally need to regrip the knife to get leverage to flick the thumbstuds open.

If you choose to keep on the pocket clip, it improves grip security by about as much as it reduced comfort, so the score stays 1 point.

Carry: 1

The smooth, hitchless handle design pays dividends here. The (clipless) Crown makes a snag free, hand-friendly pocket passenger. The only downside is that it is a bit long and heavy for a drop-in-the-pocket knife.

Deployment Method: 2

Sweet and simple. Two well placed, lightly knurled thumbstuds, plus a proper detent and a smooth pivot give this $15 knife one of the more satisfying coin-flip deployments I’ve tried. It slow-rolls just as well. You get a surprising amount of “fidget factor” for a non-flipper knife.

It’s a small thing, but even the pivot hardware is emblematic of the Crown’s mission to bring a knife knut sensibility to a cheap blade. As you can see in the photo, mixes a phosphor bronze washer on one side with a nylon washer on the other, neatly symbolizing one foot in each world.

Crown pivot and washers

Retention Method: 0

Okay, the budget ran out here. The Crown’s clip is basically a bent, stamped piece of stainless. It’s awkward looking, especially on a knife defined by long, shallow curves. It’s uncomfortable when the knife is gripped, and the protruding blob at the end is notably prone to snag on doors and cars. I have to use the Wal-Mart blue version to show you the pocket clip, because I hated the one on my review Crown so much that I immediately removed it.

The task was complicated by the very poor quality of the Torx screws, which seemed to be Loctited in place. One screw immediately stripped threads and wouldn’t budge. I had to snap the clip in half and remove the fragments before I could wrench the screw out (thanks, Leatherman Charge). Once that was done I happily discovered the Crown’s true destiny as a clipless pocket knife.

The clip does a tolerable job of retaining the knife in the pocket, so for some folks this will be a 1, but the other flaws are so pronounced that I am going to deduct both points. (There’s also a nice lanyard hole with a flush stainless standoff. If you are into lanyards, again this is a 1.)

Total Score: 15 out of 20

Fifteen points for $15 equals a cheap knife to be proud of. The Crown delivers a good sized, well ground blade with decent steel by dint of an intelligently shaped handle that obviates the need to pay for jimping or other machined texturing. The micarta scales add class while keeping the weight to manageable levels. Despite some resultant imperfections (did I mention I was slightly dissatisfied with the clip?), this is a very good set of tradeoffs for the consumer who wants to actually use his or her knives.

A couple years back, when it was the subject of frequent big-box sales, the Crown was often described as “the best $10 knife you can buy.” Today I’d say that it’s still hard to get this much knife from a US brand for under $20 – a price point that the Crown meets with room to spare. If it had a decent clip it would be a potent match for the CRKT Drifter. (Even now, while the Drifter is a great utilitarian design, the Crown has more personality, and I would rather carry it.)

For now, the Crown is still all over eBay for around a Hamilton. Unless you avoid Chinese products on principle or are a rarefied luxe collector on the Jim Skelton plane, there’s little reason not to snag one for a beater, gift or loaner.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Brick and Mortar: Leavitt & Pierce

I had passed the storefront dozens of times.  But it was only after I wanted to find a stand for my badger hair brush, did I bother to stop in.  And once I did I was delighted.

My friend described Leavitt and Pierce as "the old man store," a condemnation as deep as we can muster in today's day and age.  But the only thing old about Leavitt and Pierce is the store itself (it is 127 years old).  It is a traditional tobacconist establishment.

They have loose tobacco of all sorts and though I am opposed to the wretched habit of smoking, this is mainly pipe tobacco and thus has a wonderful aroma (well, wonderful to me, my 5 year old son proclaimed that the store stunk the minute we walked in even though by law, no one was smoking inside).  

But there is stuff for everyone (or everyone that reads this site) inside.  I found a wide assortment of things, all held together by a common thread of quality.  There were very nice, high end fountain pens, some drafting style mechanical pencils, a few oLight flashlights, and a small handful of very nice blades--Spydercos, Fallknivens, Al Mars, and the Japanese SOGs.  Its not a huge selection, maybe 10 knives in total, but on a percentage basis it was impressive.  There wasn't a single stinker in the group. They also carried a much wider array of Swiss Army Knives than I have seen elsewhere.  Their stock of shaving supplies is incredibly robust, from good soaps to nice razors.  They also stock the classic board games in very fine renditions--chess, Go, dominoes, and backgammon--all in sets that range from nice and cheap (around $30) to fabulously expensive.  

There is a small second floor for playing chess that looked like it hadn't seen foot traffic since Nixon was president and an oddly incongruent beauty salon tucked under the second floor.  There are plenty of odds and ends that really are odd as well--giant glass jars of marbles and dice, a few hookahs, vintage signs and posters, and a massive selection of unironic actually-used-for-tobacco rolling papers.  I imagine if I were more of a tobacco fan the custom pipes and mind boggling selection of cigars would have been more interesting, but I am not.  That said, even I could tell this was quality stuff.  

The help was, surprisingly for the store's age, young and helpful.  The guy behind the counter really knew his stuff and informed me that the Al Mar STB I was handling was "made in Seki City Japan and makes an excellent everyday carry."  I smiled when he said that.  Then I frowned when I saw the price--$199.  Eek! Over MSRP.  But the store was fascinating enough that supporting it with a purchase, even that far over MSRP, would be like making a donation to a historical landmark that the public would never see fit to support. 

So, if you are ever in Harvard Square, check out Leavitt and Pierce.  There is no store I have ever been to that is even a bit like it.  And feel lucky you aren't a male in the turn of last century--Harvard and Leavitt and Pierce worked out a deal whereby young Harvard students were banned from the store.  I originally assumed it was because they wanted preserve the moral fiber of those young men, but having been inside I now realize it was to give the professors a place to go, relax, and avoid students. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Gerber 39 Micarta Review

I think you know by now that Gerber has been on a downhill trajectory for a long, long time.  In the 80s they were the best knife company out there, or at least one of the best.  They were the first to use ATS-34 steel.  They brought the Axial Lock to market--twice.  They were the go to tools for US military contracts (and still are to a certain degree).  In short, Gerber earned its moniker, "Legendary Gear", in the 1980s.  After the purchase by Fiskars they went downhill.  In recent years they have dominated two places--Big Box and the government's product safety recall list.  Gerber, since about 2000, has been synonymous with another g word--garbage.

In 2014 they released a knife that did the rounds at Shill Sites, called the Gerber 39.  It was a half-baked piece of trash, 420HC steel, ZINC handles and a price tag near $100.  Only hipsters were interested.  For the rest of us, it was something to avoid.  I had, at the time, dismissed it as yet another attempt by Gerber to take our money out of our pockets and replace it with dog shit knives.  But I was wrong.  The 39 was the first in a series, a herald of something better.  That better thing is this knife, the Gerber 39 Micarta, which is really just a description of the design and not a name.

When I saw the specs and the materials I was interested and so I reached out to Blade HQ and they sent me a review sample.  Then I had what I have now started calling in my head a "Gerber Moment".  I slid the knife out of the box and saw that it was beat up, dinged and scraped.  I opened and it was a little gritty.  Then I tried to close it and I couldn't.  The blade was so off centered that it would not close, absent some truly uncomfortable exertions of force.  That's the Gerber Moment--its playing roulette with a product's fit and finish.  You can score big--like my Dime; or you can strike out--like with the first 39 Micarta.  I contacted Blade HQ and they said I could just keep the knife and do what I want with it, so I decided to make a warranty claim.  

Here is the product page. The Gerber 39 Micarta costs $109.95, though MSRP is an insane $170. There are no written or video reviews.  This is the first.  Here is Gerber's stupid product video where the "model" points out all kinds of things that are just patently obvious (go hire Andrew, please, Gerber).  Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Gerber 39 Micarta, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my review sample:


Twitter: Find a good retailer with a good return policy and give it a try. 

Warrranty Experience:

The initial review sample that came from Blade HQ, as you can see in this video, was fundamentally broken.  The blade was so off centered that it wouldn't close.  There were also dings, knicks, and scratches to the entire knife out of box.  If it had been centered I would have kept the knife, but as it was, the knife was unuseable.  Gerber's warranty claim process is simple enough, go to the site and fill out a form (it is as if they have done this many, many times before...).  I packaged the knife and sent it in.  Within two weeks I had an entirely new knife, one without major flaws.  

Overall the process was good.  It was not like a custom maker, which I am fine with, but it was also well below what Benchmade does, with their dual, receipt and shipped, emails.  With an infrastructure as large as Gerber has you'd think they'd at least do something like that with automated messages (Benchmade's are sent by real people).  Oh well. Good but not great.

Design: 2

There is no denying it, this is a very good looking knife.  Yes, I know the "high density polymer" bolsters are just plastic bolsters, but the combination of the bolster, the contoured, rough micarta and the bead blasted hardware is just impossible to ignore.  After a metric ton of ugly tripe, Gerber has hit the nail on the head with this one.  Some folks on Instagram complained that it looked like the Emerson Mini A-100 and they are right, but that is not a bad thing.

But its not just a pretty knife, this is a knife with some real design chops.  First, the pocket clip/lanyard attachment is the unique and highly functional.  Second, I like the choice of thumb disk, as it reduces the width of the knife, keeping it slim for high pocketability.  Finally, I like the placement of the very nice Gerber logo on the pivot screw.  Its stylish and yet they had the foresight to make the other side a conventional torx bit fastener.  


The performance ratios are decent, neither smoking good or dreadful.  Here is the 39 on top of the badge of hipster, the Field Notes notebook:


The performance ratios are quite good, definitely a step up from the previous 39 series knife which weighed 4.1 ounces because of the zinc handles.  The blade:handle is very good at .77.  The blade:weight is .86.  The blade:handle is the same or better than the SOG Flash 1.  The blade:weight is similar to the Cold Steel Mini Recon 1

Fit and Finish: 0

So the initial review sample was so poorly made that it was not just a bad knife, it was dangerous to use--the blade just refused to go back into the handle.  The knife was also covered in dings and scratches as if it had been in a rock tumbler for a few days.  There were dings on the "polymer" bolster and chips on the spine of the blade.  The micarta was beat up.  In short, it was the worst finished product I have ever reviewed, except perhaps for the Gerber 600 multitool, which will forever hold that title.  

The new knife was great.  Here is the only flaw:


The blade is a smidge off centered, nothing bad, but enough to notice and comment on. I would probably have given the knife a 2 in this category had the second knife been the one that slid out of the initial box.

Grip: 2

Well, the rough cut, contoured micarta works amazingly well in the hand.  The result is a knife that is surprisingly grippy even in moist environments, such as at the top of a mountain shrouded in fog.  I took the knife with me on a hiking vacation in Maine and one particular hike was like climbing on stage at a rock concert--fog everywhere.  The lunch at the top of the peak was delicious (as they always are) and the cutting duties were performed by the Gerber 39 Micarta.  It did fabulous.


Over the years I have really come to love micarta.  I loved it, all slick and polished up, on the Al Mar Ultralight Hawk, but I also like it here with its extra gritty feel that is grippy but not shreddy.  There is a reason micarta is a knife handle material classic.

Carry: 2 

Thanks to a slim silhouette and an excellent placement of the pocket clip, the 39 Micarta rides well in the pocket.  It is not much of a bully either as the "polymer" (and yes, I am going to use quotes every time I make reference to them) bolsters are much more polite to fellow pocket dwellers than real metal bolsters would be.  Overall, for a knife with a blade over 3 inches, this is an excellent carry.

Steel: 2 

S30V is still a good steel.  Its no longer great.  Its not near the top of the scale.  Its not even the best among the steels I give a score of 2 to, but it is still a very good and definitely above average steel.  Here, I feel as though Gerber has benefited from years of others perfecting the processing and treating of S30V because I had none of the chipping issues I have encountered in the past.  Even in dirty tasks like whittling sand-filled driftwood (we are reading Harry Potter with my oldest son and he wanted fifty million wands).  I wouldn't pay a premium for S30V, not when something like the Native 5 in FRN runs S35VN for under $100, but as a steel, in a price vacuum, its definitely good enough for most users, including me.

Blade Shape: 2

A classic, drop point with a front swedge.  No BS, no recurve (its just a poor grind).  The blade shape is just right.  I was worried from pictures that Gerber was tempted to go all funky and drop a recurve on this thing (oh, like its not possible they'd do something that stupid), but they didn't.  Good choice Gerber.


Grind: 2

The main grind is fine.  Even, smooth, with symmetrical plunge lines.  But the cutting bevel is something done by an inexperienced and/or drunken blade grinder.  It does not go all the way to the ricasso, leaving about 1/8 of an inch totally unsharpened.  I suppose I could have it reprofiled to take advantage of the whole length of the blade.  Its not just that it is unfinished either, its also a bit wobbly as you can see in the picture above.  Its as if they didn't know how and when to terminate the cutting bevel.  All of this points to a need for increased finishing steps.  If Gerber is going to sell this blade at around $100, they need to get things like this 100% or people, like me, are going to bitch.  But for all of the silliness here, the grind mistakes don't impact performance.  The knife passed the Apple Test with ease, producing nice, clean slices.  Sure, I'd like more cutting edge if I can get it, but what is there does work.  

Deployment Method: 2 

In many ways thumb disks are, by straight comparison, superior to thumb studs.  Not only do they allow for a lower profile knife, they also give your thumb a place to rest in pressing cuts.  Here, the octagonal thumb disk is very good-easy to hit on purpose, hard to snag by accident.  I actually like more than the Emerson thumb disk or the Cold Steel thumb plate.  The shape not only gives it a different look, it prevents rotation, something that happens on thumb disks as the screw that holds in place loosens.  Good job Gerber.
Retention Method: 2 

For all their flaws, big companies can do some things consistently well.  In this case the pocket clip is just excellent.  It is also a very unique design.  And that is the advantage of being huge.  You can hire someone to do JUST design work and another person to do JUST blade grinds, so on and so forth.  Not only is the pocket clip surprisingly subtle given some of Gerber's previous choices, the lanyard loop is the best design I have ever seen.  Threading paracord through is a cinch.  And best of all, the clip is pretty darn simple.  No curly "q's" or weird protrusions.
Lock: 1

Alas, Gerber's chintzy knife heritage of the past decade or so rears its head somewhere and here it is the lock.  Let me get this out of the way first--the lock works, there is no blade play, and it does not touch the other liner.  What I am about to complain about is merely the impression the lock gives you as a user.

First, it seems especially thin, give the nice, full dimensions of the rest of the knife. Second, like many cheap liner locks, it pushes the blade off center.  If I wedge something into the handle to keep the blade and liner lock from touching and hold the liner lock back, the blade falls dead center.  On nicer locks, the liner does not do this. Third, the lock passes very far over on the rear tang of the knife.  Here is a shot:


I am also less than thrilled with the lock's accessibility.  This is simply not enough room:


But again, all of these things have little to no impact on performance.  Some are just feel issues and others presage future potential problems.  But in all of the important ways the lock works--its stable, easy to engage, and easy to disengage (but for the accessibility thing).  

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

This is a very good folder, even in this market stuffed to the gills with great pieces.  It is unique looking in its price range (it clearly echoes the look of a custom Emerson). It works well. And it has some very unique features.  Even the problems--the lock and the grind--are very minor points.  The bigger issue is the gamble you play with the fit and finish on Gerber products.  It is a roll of the dice.  You can get a very good rendition of the original design or a warped and broken object.  So, if you have an interest in this knife find a good retailer that will let you return things, and try it out.  It is definitely worth a look.

Gerber has the ability to do amazing stuff and the 39 Micarta is proof of that.  This is not just a good knife, it is a very good knife.  I am not sure if this is a good thing though because they continue to put out boat loads of garbage.  What's worse: a company that makes crappy stuff or a company that can make awesome stuff, but chooses to make crap?

Regardless of the business implications, this is a knife I feel good recommending to folks.  It is different and very nicely designed.  The blade is not just serviceable, but very good.  I am still worried about the fit and finish across the product line, but if you get a good one, you'll be happy.  And given my very public dislike of Gerber you know it has to be good for me to give it a good score.

The Competition

Boy there is a lot of stuff in the $100 price range.  I'd always, always, always take the Native 5 in FRN over this knife--its lighter, better designed, and has a strictly superior steel.  But if you are considering the 39 Micarta it is because you want something that looks different and in that regard the Native 5 fails.  I am also worried that there is no reason to but this knife over the Benchmade Mini Grip, but here the steel difference is probably enough to say that its close.  I like the Mini Grip better, but its not a landslide, and that is really a complement for the 39 Micarta.  I also think the Kizer 3404 is a very competitive choice, but again it is a different style of knife.   The bigger take away is this--Gerber is finally making a knife that can hang with the big boys, even if it is not the clear best in class.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Kershaw Knockout Review by Ben Schwartz

While the cutlery industry continues to stagnate, wallowing in high-end frippery as in a tub of old bathwater, Kershaw remains pleasingly grounded. Granted, they’re not totally without showmanship, and are also at an advantage because their parent company has relegated most of the Baroque period lily-gilding to ZT, but I like to imagine that Kershaw, regardless of who owned it and larger industry trends, would always maintain its levelheaded, utilitarian perspective, and continue to add interesting and useful designs to their gigantic catalog.

That catalog is so Borgesian in its size and complexity that it’s possible to overlook a great knife for years. Such was the case, for me, with the Knockout, although t wasn’t just the catalogue’s vastness that stopped me from picking it up: at 3.25”, the Knockout was a bit bigger than I like to carry; and besides, my big knife needs were fully covered with the Paramilitary 2. But, seized by a need to make some kind of knife purchase, and with so much of the upper-end of the market anathema to me right now, I picked up the Knockout. I’m happy I did. Happy, but not thrilled. The Knockout is so plainspoken in its goodness that it’s hard to get excited about. It succeeds less through its uniqueness than its near-perfect representation of idealized knife qualities. In hand and in use, the Knockout feels like what the word ‘knife’ sounds like in my mind. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece or a must-buy, but it simply, totally, Platonically Good.

Here is the product page. Here is Nutnfancy’s review of the Knockout. The standard Knockout costs between $58-75, depending on where you go and what color you get: you have a choice between a black handle and a stonewashed blade, or a green handle and a coated blade. There are also models with brown handles and Elmax blades (one coated, one not); these are about twice the price of the basic model.  You can find the Knockout here and all proceeds benefit the site:

Blade HQ
Finally, here is my Kershaw Knockout (sorry for the not-up-to-Tony’s-standard photos; EDITOR'S NOTE: Ben forgets all of my truly terrible pictures...):

Knockout Full

Twitter review summary: Unadorned and thoroughly useful, a capital-G capital-K Good Knife.

Design: 2

In an interview which I am now unable to locate, Judd Apatow said that his approach to writing comedy was to tell as many jokes as possible in a given stretch of time, because something would be sure to stick. I feel that Kershaw takes a similar approach to knife design: they churn out a bewildering array of fairly similar knives, seeing what lands (Skyline) and what doesn’t (the Asset). That’s an oversimplification, and it doesn’t do Kershaw’s in-house design team justice, but there is an element of truth to it. The Knockout, for instance, is very similar to the Kershaw Piston, but the differences make one knife appealing to me and the other not.

First, the Knockout has regular tiered thumbstuds, whereas the Piston has the godawful angled Blur thumbstuds; even in an assisted opening knife (which both, alas, are) they are not ideal. Second, the Knockout features the deep carry pocket clip seen on the Cryo; much preferred to the Piston’s spoon-style clip; part of what makes the Knockout so carryable despite its size is that it buries deeply in your pocket. Third, the Knockout, though it has a much broader blade, has a shorter one at 3.25”, compared to the Piston’s 3.5”, again contributing to its EDCability (for me). These are a series of small differences that add up.

Comparisons aside, the Knockout is a very cleanly-designed knife. The Sub-framelock is interesting and functional. The handle is devoid of obnoxious scallops or grooves beyond the fairly standard index finger notch. It doesn’t do anything audacious, but what it does do, it does without gimmickry or embellishment, and I like that.

Fit and Finish: 2

I’ve never been disappointed with any Kershaw’s fit and finish relative to what I paid for it, but the Knockout’s is outstanding. All the edges of the handle are chamfered, which is really important in an all-metal knife, and especially important in one this thin. The blade is perfectly centered, and has remained so through a fairly rigorous testing period. The anodizing is clean, and the Parkerizing on the clip and Sub-framelock is great. The blade has a vibrant, even stonewash as well:

Knockout Blade

I’ve never owned a ZT knife before, but this is always the level of fit and finish I imagine those blades having when I read about them. The materials and processes on the Knockout obviously aren’t as complex as those of some ZTs, but I can say that the Knockout is one of the finest-finished blades I own, in a collection that contains a few very expensive and exclusive knives.

Grip: 2

As a subscriber to R.D.’s Law of Diminishing Returns regarding finger grooves, the Knockout would score a 1 here if it had a single ‘ergonomic’ scallop more than it has. As it stands, with one deep groove for your index finger, I like it. The chamfering on the handle makes the knife comfortable even in hard use, and helps the Knockout fill the hand despite it being a thin knife. There’s also a nice, subtle dip in the handle just behind the stop pin to place your thumb during harder cuts. Great.

Carry: 1

So close. You can tell that the team at Kershaw really tried to make this big knife carry small. It is so thin. The problems, however, come from two places. First and foremost, this knife is WIDE. It isn’t quite as wide as the Paramilitary 2 is at its widest point, but whereas the PM2 narrows down after the opening hole, the Knockout stays almost the same width throughout. It’s still very stable in the pocket, but it demands a lot of real estate.

Second, the giant (and superfluous) thumbstuds snag when you take the knife out or put it away. They are super annoying. By themselves, they wouldn’t earn the Knockout a 1, but combined with the wideness, they are enough to make the Knockout suboptimal in the pocket.

Steel: 2

14C28N is a great choice of steel for mid-price knives. Like N690Co, it punches above its weight. It is often compared to S30V. I find S30V stays sharper longer, but 14C28N can get just as sharp, and touches up a lot easier. It also chips less than S30V.

Whereas some steels, even some very good steels like S90V, get ‘coarse’ as they get dull, 14C28N keeps a clean edge, even as it gets less sharp. In my day-to-day cutting tasks I tend to prefer precision over aggression; I’m trying to separate instead of remove material, and for this sort of thing that clean edge is a real boon.

Blade Shape: 2

 As you saw above, a super bold, super wide drop point. It can break down boxes, take chunks out of wood, slice through plastic packaging. I don’t use my knives to cut up food all that often, but this thing slices through apples, meat, and cheese with aplomb. I wouldn’t say it is the best at detail work, for opening letters or the like, but for the things you’d tend to use a mid-sized knife for, it excels.

Grind: 2

The edge bevel is super clean and super even all the way through. The stock is nice and thin behind the straight portion of the knife, but gets thicker out through the belly and the tip; it reminds me of the Benchmade 940 more than anything—especially when you look at it from the top and see the thinning and thickening-back -out even more clearly:

Knockout Grind

I don’t know if all Knockouts are this excellently done, but this one is phenomenal.

Deployment Method: 0

On Judgment Day Ken Onion will stand before the Blade Gods and all the good he has done will be weighed against his invention and popularization of the Speedsafe mechanism, and it will not be enough to save him.

Assisted openings are unnecessary. They are one more thing that can go wrong. They make any knife seem more aggressive; manually opening a Spyderco is far less threatening than the whipcrack of the Knockout being deployed. If they don’t break on you, they age poorly. There just isn’t a valid reason for their existence in this era of IKBS and KVT and whatever other asininely-acronym’d ball bearing systems there are out there. I understand the business angle, in that assisted knives historically sell better than non-assisted knives, but I can’t imagine that non-knife guy users wouldn’t be impressed by a smooth, ball bearing flipper design.

Originally I gave the Knockout a 1 in deployment method, despite the Speedsafe. Then the Speedsafe broke on me when I was closing the knife. I wasn’t doing anything untoward (I know that keeping the blade in a position where tension is on the torsion bar is bad for it), just closing it like I have a hundred times before, when I heard a snick and knew it was busted. This is the second assisted-opening Kershaw I’ve broken. It’s ridiclous. The issue isn’t getting it fixed-I know Kershaw will take care of it for me-but that, by simply making the knife a manual-opener, it could’ve been avoided altogether. I hate Speedsafe.

Beyond the macro issues I have with assisted openers, there’s another problem with the Knockout’s deployment: while it deploys swiftly and surely when you use the flipper, the big doofy thumbstuds are terrible. Unless you put a lot of pressure behind your thumb and flick them at exactly the right angle, for some reason the blade kind of lolls behind its torsion bar detent a bit before it deploys. While not actually dangerous, this does mean that your thumb is pretty close to the blade when it finally does flip out. You’re better off just using the flipper, which is excellent and keeps your fingers out of the way.

Retention Method: 2

This is a clip found in several Kershaw and ZT models now: deep carry, low profile; excellent. For a while I had a thing for big clips, because I thought they kept the knife from swinging around in my pocket, but now I’m learning that it’s really a matter of design, not size (um...that’s what she said?)—and the smaller clips have less of a chance of catching on car doors, door jambs, and the like.

Lock: 2

Steel framelocks are superior to titanium ones in all ways except for weight. The Knockout goes to some length to ameliorate the weight difference by utilizing a Sub-framelock. You probably can guess/already know how it works, but if you don’t, there’s basically a steel lockbar inset into the aluminum handle, so that lock strength is virtually uncompromised but weight is saved. This was a design originally seen on the much-vaunted ZT0777, and, while I can’t say I think it is groundbreaking or anything, the weight savings is much appreciated, and whatever testing may bear out in relation to ‘real’ framelocks, it is very, very good in actual use. No movement in any direction, super smooth to disengage, and the steel will wear much better than titanium.

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

The Knockout is a Good Knife. Design-wise, it does nothing that is not knife-like: there is not a single frill or embellishment to be found on the Knockout, and it is all the better for it. Charismatic, capable, and extremely well-made, the Knockout is a beater with character.

The Competition:

The closest competitors to the Knockout are the Cold Steel Mini Recon 1 and, of course, the Paramilitary 2. Up against the Recon 1, the Knockout wins hands-down; it’s lighter, carries better and is a better slicer, and has a lock that’s equally fit for all reasonable use. Compared to the PM2, the Knockout is a less compelling proposition; as good as it is, it is just not as good of a design as the PM2. The PM2’s profile is better. It has a finger choil, making it excellent for both small and big tasks. It is a manual opener. The locks are comparable in strength for all regular uses. The existence of the PM2 is the reason why I could never recommend the Knockout in Elmax; they cost about the same amount of money, and one is clearly superior to the other. However, the regular Knockout, with its appealing sub-$100 price, makes more sense. I’d still say it’s worth it to save up for the Paramilitary 2, but the Knockout is a great knife regardless.

Friday, August 14, 2015

KeySmart Review

I do not need more shit in my pockets.  If you read this site you are probably in the same position.  The thought of adding yet another hunk of metal, another thing with a pocket clip, or another thing that can be accessorized is not necessarily appealing.  One's pants pockets can only take so much.  

Despite this, over the past three years the number of key holders and key organizers has exploded.  Led by the Key-Bar and fueled by a few big Kickstarter campaigns, key organizers are now an standard part of people's EDC.  I am torn about them.  On the one hand, the old split ring is a horrible design and something akin to a medieval torture device when trying to open it.  But the Key-Bar and a few other designs are just too big for me. 
In the middle between split ring small and Key Bar big, I found the BladeKey, a wonderful design and probably as minimal as you can get.  Its really amazing and it is something I would replace the instant it broke or got lost.  Its an essential part of my daily carry.  But the BladeKey has one drawback--its not expandable.  Sure there are three or five or seven key designs, but if you have a changing number of keys those aren't ideal.  For me, the married 16 years, at the same job 11 years, and 37 year old Dad of two, this isn't an issue, but for those of you with less time worn habits, BladeKey won't work.  But the KeySmart will.

Here is the product page.  This is the second iteration of the original design, designated as KeySmart 2.0.  There are a wide range of accessories from golf divot tools to bottle openers to USB drives.  There is even a titanium KeySmart.  Here is a written review.  Here is a video review.  Here is the review sample (sent to me by KeySmart and to be given away):


Twitter Review Summary: A great organizer for folks with a changing number of keys.

I have been using the KeySmart for about 45 days.  In that time I have gone to work, hung out on the weekends, done about a dozen day hikes (made possible by taking the KeySmart on vacation with me) and I have been very pleased with its looks and performance.  It does exactly what a key organizer should, but without the excess bulk of other options.   


The KeySmart comes to you as two pieces of metal, some plastic spacer washers, and a pair of Chicago screws (a screw on one side that fits into a threaded sleeve on the other).  Once assembled the entire thing looks something like a small dog bone.  It took me a while to assemble mine, not because it was hard (all you need is a flathead screw driver) but because I was trying to figure out the optimal spacing for my keys.  


After a half hour of fidgeting with it, I put everything together.  The next day, in the middle of the day, I realized there was a better possible set up, so I took the KeySmart apart that night and reorganized it.  I am not the only one person I know that was infected with a bit of OCD after getting a KeySmart.  Andrew Lang, cohost on GGL, also had the same feeling.  Its tempting because it always seems possible that with one more tweak you could get the KeySmart just a bit thinner.

The unit itself, once configured, looks and feels a bit like a SAK, with keys nestling next to and in between each other.  I found the plastic washers very effective at preventing clumping, allowing me to rotate a single key out of the KeySmart without disturbing any of the others.  I also found the dog bone shape very nice at giving me access to my keys.  

Overall, all of the parts were well made, went together nicely, and have held up in my pockets over the last month or so.  There is no way around it though--eventually the anodizing will chip off.  Your key organizer is basically in a slow mo tumbler all the time and so expect dings and nicks.  One thing that was extra nice--the edges of the KeySmart were gently rounded over making key retrieval easy and painless. 

None of these key organizers, even the Key-Bar and the Blade Key, have a solution to the problem of car keys, with their bulky fobs.  In those situations you basically have to attach them to the key organizer and live with them dangling around.  In the case of the Blade Key, I use a pair of Nite-ize #1/2 S-biners--one to connect the keys to each other and another to connect the connected keys to the key organizer.  


That set up worked okay on the KeySmart.  It was not, however, as flawless as it could be.  KeySmart anticipated the car key problem and included a small attachment piece, the "loop piece" accessory, in the KeySmart assembly.  It is, however, probably too small.   Even the smallest S-biners had a hard time fitting through.  A split ring of even marginal size wouldn't make it.  This gave rise to two problems.  First, it prevented the car keys from swinging freely and occasionally caused them to lock up into a giant key way, the very thing a key organizer is trying to prevent. Second, on one occasion, it caused the car key S-biner to open up and my car keys fell off the KeySmart.  I heard it happen, so I found my keys quickly, but it is a concern.  KeySmart could fix this pretty easily by making an attachment piece with a larger hole.  I am also certain there are many possible home remedies.  If I were keeping the KeySmart, I would make one.  

The ability to easily add and take away keys makes the KeySmart an ideal key organizer for someone that feels hamstrung by something like the Blade Key.  If you are a student or someone that swaps keys on and off alot, the KeySmart is probably the best and slimmest option out there.  I liked using my review sample quite a bit.  It was small, though not as small as the Blade Key, and very well made.  It is also quite inexpensive.  In short, it is one of the best key organizers I have tried.  

Add in the fact that it has a range of very useful and well-designed accessories, making it a system as opposed to a standalone device, and I think the KeySmart is one of the best options out there.  If you need expansion capacity and don't want bulk, this is it.