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:

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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.  

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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:

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

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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):


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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.   

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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.  

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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.  

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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.   

Monday, August 10, 2015

Trolling for Hate: Magical Thinking

A recent study, conducted by Professors Jesse Prinz and Angelika Seidel of City University of New York, posed the following question:

You have one hour left in the Lourve in Paris.  There are long lines to everything, so you only have time to see one more thing.  Prior to your arrival there was a fire and the Mona Lisa was burned to a pile of ashes.  As a replacement, a perfect copy of the Mona Lisa was commissioned and hangs elsewhere in the museum.  Only the most experienced art historians could tell the difference.  Which would you go see: the pile of ashes of the REAL Mona Lisa or the near perfect copy?

Roughly 80% of people said they would go see the ashes.  

It makes little sense, but it does indicate how our thinking is altered by a perception of historical greatness and the power famous figures.  

In the gear world, as we pass out of the Golden Age of Gear and enter the Baroque Period, we are seeing an increase in what scholars like Prinz call "Magical Thinking."  The idea is simple--people attach unmerited significance (and are willing to pay an inordinate amount of money for) to an object simply because it has been associated with a famous person or maker of high popularity.  The recent explosion of OPMTs is a perfect example of this.  Guys that were famous for making intricate, complex, and beautiful knives are now pumping out dozens of one piece metal trinkets that go for insane prices, both direct from the maker and on the secondary market.  

A perfect example of this is the Brad Blount prybar (note: you could substitute any number of other OMPTs here--any of the Voxanes Zoo, the Cypop, anything, I just picked this one because it is the one I would like to buy but won't).  I will admit that I have often marveled at how simple and elegant the design is when it pops up in my Instagram feed, but one check online for prices quickly and permanently quelled my interest in acquiring one.  Its a prybar.  It opens bottles.  That's it.  And I had a hard time finding one under $200.  They were often made of very expensive metals like zirconium, but let's be honest this is "expensive" for the gear world, not in real world terms when there is gold, platinum, and rhodium out there.  In the end I could not figure out why they were so expensive.  It came down to this--people want a piece of something made by Brad Blount, whose Arrestors and other knives are incredibly cool looking.  They will accept anything, even a simple tool.  And so the JBB prybar, via Magical Thinking, has skyrocketed in price.

I am not immune to the power of Magical Thinking (even in the grocery story):

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The same thing has happened with patches.  I recently commented on a Prometheus Design Werx Instagram post of an Emerson patch.  I simply wrote: "Knives not patches."  This is, of course, heresy to some and I was lambasted for my comment.  But the reality is, the patch craze is nothing more than a tactical stickerbook, a memento of non-functional items collected for the sole purpose of being collectible.  Third grade girls want stickers of Frozen characters.  Tact'ed out dudes in their 20s, 30s, and 40s want Emerson patches to velcro to their tactical bags and jackets.  Same impulse, same Magical Thinking.

To me, this is the most obvious sign that we have past the peak of the gear market.  Time and resources are being spent not on new and innovative gear (though some are still doing that) but on trinkets and bobs that show one's commitment and loyalty to the gear world and a particular brand of gear.  That's not something I care about and as a reviewer of tools it is a trend that seems to signify a turn away from utility towards something else.  And yes I know that none of us care about gear for a purely utilitarian reason, but there is some value in a nice knife, while there is no utility at all in a patch.

I also think it is unlikely that any of this swag will have value later on.  Remember your favorite band's pog?  No?  That's because no one cares about these things as they sober up over time.  Only exceptionally unusual things increase in price and have no inherent utility.  Leonardo Di Vinci's paintings are one thing, a PVC patch made to commemorate a brand is something entirely different.  The Mona Lisa will have value in 1,000 years.  An Emerson patch will not.  Its ashes might even have value, as silly as that would be. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Sinner Tri EDC Review

Before I started this site there was always some tantalizing piece of gear I wanted but never bought because I just couldn't get enough information about it.  I wasn't sure if it was the right size, the right battery, some small niggling detail that, if wrong, would ruin the whole experience.  There were also lights that looked amazing but their availability was limited and their producer wasn't exactly mainstream.  CPF is populated by these lights and some guys turn out to be awesome (Enrique Muyshondt) and some turn out to be the forum equivalent of pirates--robbing you over the high seas (Rob from Lummi, get the pun?).

But with this site and its increasingly high profile (thank you, by the way, for reading) and the income stream it provides, I can take those risks, buy some exotic item and if it goes bad, well, let's just say karma's a bitch and Optics Planet changed their site around a bit.  I can risk the site's money so that you don't have to risk yours.  Sinner's Tri-EDC light fell perfectly into that niche--awesome but low profile.  As it turns out Sinner is 100% legit (from my experience and research), a fast shipper, and one hell of a flashlight maker.  The Tri-EDC is not just an awesome light, it is something exceedingly rare in the high end gear world--its a damn good value too.  Sure you can bling the shit out of the light and have it cost half a grand, but for around $130 you get a custom light that competes quite favorably with the best the production world has to offer, in a small form factor, with all of the features you want and none you don't.

Here is the product thread.  The Sinner Tri EDC, as configured, costs $139.  There are myriad of options--different materials, emitters, and battery tubes.  There are are no written or video reviews.  You can purchase the site through Sinner's CPF page, found here.  

Finally, here is my review sample:

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Twitter Review Summary: A high performance, firebreathing dragon made with two small flaws.

Design: 2

The Tri-EDC isn't terribly cutting edge--a tube, a clip, a tail clicky. But it is quite small and the three LED array is very well done.  The form factor is very nice, slipping into your fingers with ease.  I still haven't figured out how to quantify this, but there is some magic ratio between length and diameter and whatever that is the Tri-EDC has it.  I know some gear aesthetes are going to gasp at this, but really aluminum is fine.  It conducts electricity better (though the difference is negligible for our purposes) 

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Fit and Finish: 1

Here is the ding that you will find on most forum posts about the Sinner--the threads are poorly machined.  I am not sure this is the case, but I see why those complaints arise.  Here is what happened to me. When the light arrived the threads were very, very tight.  To get the pieces to screw together completely I had to use one of those anti-skid drawer liners.  Even then it was very tight fit.  I thought this was a problem and agreed with the feedback on the forums.

But this light is a perfect example of why long term reviews are necessary.  Over three or four months of pretty regular use, switching batteries, taking the light apart, and all sorts of other things, the threads have become quite manageable, in fact, if I handed you my Sinner Tri-EDC right now and you knew nothing of the forum complaints, you'd have no idea it is an issue.  

I have gone back and forth on the score in this category for a while and here is where I am at right now--the threads smoothed out on their own and the rest of the light is fantastic in terms of fit and finish.  This wasn't a long process.  Its not like it took a year to smooth out.  If folks tolerate "break in" on handmade knives, I don't see why the thread issue here is a problem.  If you are SUPER picky (Grayson) and things must be buffed to perfection out of the box or package, then this will bother you. But if you give it some time, the end result is a light put together as well as anything even twice its price, such as the HDS Rotary.  This isn't mind-alteringly awesome machining like on a McGizmo or a Cool Fall light, but it is pretty damn good. 

Grip: 2

This is a pretty simple thing to get right on a flashlight--get the right diameter and you are golden.  Here the tapered waist of the light provides just the right amount of stuff to hold on to.  One thing I would note is that because the light is so small, the clip does cause some minor problems if you are holding the light for a long time or squeezing tight.  I very rarely encounter these problems so I don't think it is a big deal.  

Carry: 1

No question about it, the Sinner Tri EDC has the worst clip I have ever seen.  It works okay, but it gets more bent out of shape than one of those annoying manners police, uber PC people on board a pirate ship--you know, one of those people that is constantly correcting you about your language (THEM: "We don't like the phrase 'convict' or 'felon', how about 'justice involved' instead?  ME: What? What the hell does that mean?  Is he in trouble or is he Green Arrow's sidekick?").  I think it is made of aluminum but for all its durability it may as well be soggy cardboard. This is an easy fix though.  Sinner, go source better clips.

Clip aside, though, this thing is quite nice.  It is small enough to fit into the coin pocket on your jeans, though its diameter makes it a snug fit.  It is one of the smaller CR123a lights with a clicky, and that alone makes it pocket friendly.  It also has zero snag points.  But for the clip, this thing would be a pocket superstar. 

Output: 2

One of the problems with production lights right now is that they are ignoring the low mode output. These beasts that high a 1,000 lumens all have proportionate lows, such that the low is some percentage of the high.  I am sure this is a cost saving measure as it allows the companies to use some of the same parts or programming across a series of lights.  While a 20% low is okay on a 200 lumen light, on a 1,000 lumen light it is practically useless as a low mode.  

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With the custom programming on the Tri-EDC, the low here is an actual low, clocking in somewhere under 5 lumens, looking no brighter than the low on my HDS Rotary.  This is the first kilolumen light I have seen with a truly low low.  Even the progenitor of this style of like Mac's Customs still had a very high low.  In my opinion, this alone makes the light worth purchasing.  You get firebreathing highs at the top end and whisper bright lows at the bottom.  You can't ask for more from your flashlight.  

Runtime: 2

Thanks to the slightly larger and higher capacity 18350 battery, the runtimes even on high are awesome.  How do I know?  Well, unlike every other light I have ever tested I have run the Sinner until it killed the battery.  Okay, maybe not me, but my 5 year old son has.  One Saturday while playing we constructed the "Super Laser."  It was a big cardboard tube, the Tri-EDC, a blue marble, and some tape.  The end result was a spectacularly focused blue spot.  I made sure the light was not on high as I did not want to start a fire and I let him play all day.  After playing we forgot about it and I came back the next day--still running. This was on the second highest mode. It was a bit warm but nothing bad.  Then I took the light on vacation and it still ran.  With this battery and judicious use of the high, you can get insane runtimes.  

Beam Type: 2

At some point on the lumens scale, horsepower overrides reflector design and here with no reflector you get decent throw through sheer horsepower.  Still, lets not be silly and think this is a thrower.  Its not, nor was it designed to be.  As a primarily floody light, the Sinner is quite good.  Given the light's size and name, the floody beam is nice and the fact that around a 1,000 lumens can get you a long way is also nice.

Carrying this light on July 4th and navigating a dark crowded city, I appreciated both the ability BOOM hit something a quarter mile away and still have a broad swath of deliciously Hi CRI light to see stuff up close.  I loved the Tri-EDC's beam profile.  

Beam Quality: 2

I was worried that a lack of reflector would make for a messy beam, but there are small optical lenses over the three emitters making them quite smooth in practice.  The three emitter array was also a cause for concern, but you'd have no idea looking at the beam that it was a three emitter array until you are shining the light on something six inches away.  Also, Hi CRI, did I mention that?

UI: 2

McGizmo's clicky UI, with mode memory, is here.  I don't think Don invented it, but he's the guy I associate with the dead simple, click and click again UI with memory.  I'd prefer a selector ring, but if you have to do a clicky, this is the best set up.  Also, no hidden modes.  YAY!

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Hands Free: 2

I mentioned it in the overview, but it bears repeating.  The light can tailstand, but the clicky protrudes just a bit resulting in what I called a "drunken sailor tailstand."  This is nota huge ding, but something Sinner should fix.  An 1/8 inch more of a shroud around the click and this thing would be rock solid.  Also, the clip does prevent a roll away and you can do the soft untreated aluminum between the teeth if necessary.  

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Overall Score: 18 of 20

Its not perfect.  The clip is horrendous.  But...and this is a Kim Kardashian sized but, this thing is an amazing value.  For under $150 (I purposely chose the cheapest configuration) you get a truly world class light.  The threading complaints abate in about a month of use, so don't worry too much.  If you are ultra picky it might drive you nuts, but if not, this is an amazing light and a great foray in to custom flashlights.  Mine came quick with no problems and despite the lack of coating it has held up well.  As a first offering, Sinner, you should be very proud.  This is one hell of a light.  I am glad I took a chance on it.  

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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sinner Tri EDC Overview

I am still working out the schedule for posts, post-baby #2, so for now it will be one a week, guaranteed, on Tuesday, and, if possible another on Friday.  I am not going to kill myself to do two a week, but if I can, like this week, I will.

Anyway, I thought this light deserved a closer look.  Its pretty amazing for the money and it is from a relatively new maker, so here you go (review on Friday):