Tuesday, September 30, 2014

USN Gathering 6 Round Up by Justin Laffer

EDITOR'S NOTE:  This is a guest post from Justin Laffer.  He was kind enough to share with us his experience at the recent USN Gathering 6.  I added the pictures to make this a bit more visual.  If I got the models wrong, blame me not Justin.

Hey guys, Anthony asked me to do a write up of my experience at G6 so here’s some highlights of the trip and some pointers for those looking to go to their first Gathering or knife show.

The trip starts at 9:30AM when I get to the airport in Nashville Tennessee. I pass through security and meet Jeremy Horton and his amazing wife Kristen at the bar. We have a beer and get ready for departure. During the flight we have a blast talking about the industry and various trends and changes we see happening. Turbulence hits. A Bloody Mary winds up in my lap. Oh well.

Touchdown in Las Vegas. We meet Gerry McGinnis at the baggage claim. After getting our stuff together we find another buddy who has rented out a limo. We get to arrive at Planet Hollywood with some style. In the hotel I find my roommate and good friend Eric Ochs and we unpack some and charge our phones before heading to the show floor.

On to the showroom floor and some of my most notable makers and tables…

Steven Kelly brought some awesome folders, the most memorable of which was his Tank model, which is insanely overbuilt.

Image courtesy of GP Knives

I ended up buying a set of titanium-anodized straws for my wife. Steven makes a bunch of great titanium products and is now the guy that makes all the Ti hardware for Strider’s new line of folders.

Eric Ochs had another remarkable show and solidified why he is one of the top knifemakers in the industry. His mokuti open bid folder was exceptional and I loved the V.2 Gyrfalcon flipper he brought as well. Eric brought about 10 knives to the show and his beep beep lottery Saturday was a huge success.

 I was very lucky to take delivery of an Airborne prototype folder from Gustavo Cecchini of GTC knives. It’s a breathtaking design with an entirely new flipper opening system, its very hard to describe how the system works so here’s a link to a video I made on her:



Des Horn brought some very interesting knives to the show from South Africa. Normally Des makes a much fancier knife but he toned it down for G6 and brought some very nice tactical folders that were very, very cool. Des brought some folders in Nitrobe 77 steel, which is really impressive stuff. If you want to have your mind blown, just google it and watch some of the testing videos.

Pat Pruitt debuted a new folder design at G6 and it was exceptional. I tried pretty hard to win one in his lottery but without any success. Pat is a great guy to talk to and his jewelry work is unsurpassed in its complexity and uniqueness.

David Sharp of Sharpwerks was another very memorable maker from the show. What’s so cool about David is that he is putting out a wide variety of types of knives.

Image courtesy of BladeHQ


Yes, David is pretty well known for making Loveless style fixed blades, but his tactical folders are also exceptional and he even makes leather sheathed pocket tools and friction folders, which caught my attention.

A table over Todd Rexford, Jeremy Marsh, Brian Fellhoelter and Nalu set up camp. This was an all-star line up. Notable among them was Fellhoelter’s new axe sheath system, Todd Rexford’s unreal open bid knife and Nalu’s Capitalist XL model, seen below,


Image courtesy of Justin Laffer's Youtube channel
 
which is fast becoming one of my favorite knives.

Next table was Lee Williams who brought his Iceman flipper and Crux models for the show.


Image courtesy of Recon1 

Lee’s work was exceptional and its amazing to the masterful work he puts into his flippers with their kickstop opening system. Though Lee may not get the same name recognition as a Tom Mayo or Bob Terzuola, his work is just as sought after by high end collectors.

It was great meeting the Munroe’s at the show. Jana is just as nice in person as she is online and D is one of the coolest guys you will meet. The Munroe table was dominated by folks trying to score a Sigil MKIII flipper.


Image courtesy of Munroe Knives Tumbler

The demand for these folders is truly insane, I scored one in the lottery before G6, the knife cost around 750 dollars direct from the Munroe’s and I had offers north of 3500 for her…this is a case of the secondary market recognizing the quality of the people and the product. Of course the Munroe lottery was a tremendous success with crowds of people lining up to hear if their name was called.

Ken Onion came back to G6 after a few years of missing the show (it coincided with Burning Man which Ken is a huge fan of) and he brought some amazing models. My favorite from his table was the Military inspired folders. It’s a non-assisted flipper with IKBS that perfectly matches the aesthetics of WWII. Ken is a great guy to talk to and a huge asset to the knife community.

Brad Southard had a very exciting show as he launched his performance line at the Gathering with the Avo model.





Image courtesy of Southard Knives


The first-come-first-serve Friday morning was pretty nuts with around sixty-to-seventy people crowding and lining up to get twenty-five knives. There were some pretty annoyed folks but thankfully another twenty-five knives were released Saturday morning to the lineup of people outside the showroom floor. Brad also brought some amazing custom folders, which impressed everyone that got a chance to fondle them.

This was the second year that John Gonzales of Dervish Knives exhibited at the show and his folder line up was very impressive, notable among them were the Alchemy and the Alchemy XL. John was next to Ram Mramba of Zero knives, who had an equally impressive show with his Mezcal model knife being the real hit Friday night in the Cove.

Strider debuted their performance line MSC SnG at G6 and I was very lucky to snag one. This knife is amazing, incredibly smooth, absurdly sharp with its asymmetric grind and rock solid in typical Strider fashion. Also the new deep carry pocket clip and lanyard attachment area is a welcome evolution to the classic SnG design.

Ok, how about some tips for those planning on attending the Gathering in the future or any large knife show:
  • Get in line early. If you want to have any chance at some cool first-come-first-served gear or knives you better line up at least an hour before the show opens. 
  •  If you see a knife maker and it doesn’t seem like he’s busy, go up and introduce yourself to him. You would be amazed how nice and accommodating these people are and how appreciative they are of all their customer’s support. 
  • Buy drink tickets. This is a great way to save money at night in the cove. You can supplement this by buying a bottle of booze in the mall attached to the hotel. 
  • After the show closes around 4 and before the Cove opens around 7 is prime naptime. You’ve been on your feet since 630 AM, don’t underestimate the power of a siesta. 
  • Find some like-minded people at the show and go have lunch with them. This will give you a different perspective on how another individual approaches the Gathering and some more insight on the best way to approach it. 
  • Bring comfortable shoes. Your feet are going to HURT by the end of the day on Saturday. 
  • As with any knife show, cash is king. Make sure to visit the bank before heading to the airport. 
  • Book your trip early and try and stay at Planet Hollywood. Yes it’s a bit more expensive but the convenience of having everything under one roof is well worth the added dough. 
  • I know this seems counterintuitive and schmaltzy but go to the show with the mindset that it’s not all about scoring knives. If you go with the singular goal of scoring as many knives as possible you will undoubtedly be disappointed. Go for the people, the experience and the chance to come home with something special. 
I could go on and on about the show but hopefully this gives you a taste of the experience of going to the Gathering. I hope all of you get a chance to come to Vegas soon and experience the most personal and friendly knife show on the planet.

If you guys have any questions whatsoever, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email at jlaffer@gmail.com

Friday, September 26, 2014

Masterstroke Airfoil Clicky Review

The original Masterstroke Airfoil pen looked crazy cool, but there were some rough edges, literally.  The fins that gave it is distinctive appearance could, in certain instances, be uncomfortable.  I noted that in the review and Grant (Grant Takara) must have kept it in mind.  The Clicky is an entirely different beast.  It still has the sweet exposed/cutaway look, but all of the edges are pleasingly round.  There is no question this will be a conversation piece pen, something that provokes comments and glances among coworkers.  It did in the two weeks I carried and used it.  Everyone, every single person, that saw or used the pen commented on it's appearance.  It was polarizing--people loved or hated it, but there were many more in the first camp than the second.  It is truly a looker.

But is it a good pen?  Pens are different from lights and knives in that their appearance is part of their function, not necessarily something that follows from it, but being a beauty queen is not enough for folks like you and I.  If you were cavalier with your money or superficial with your purchases you wouldn't be reading this blog (that's what shill sites are for, ZING).  

Here is the Kickstarter (its funded already, so pigpile).  The aluminum version is $57 and the titanium version is $125 on Kickstarter.  There are a wide range of colors and color combinations (including an extra blingy gold plated version).  Here is Brad Dowdy's review.  Here is the pen, and aluminum gray matte version, sent from Grant to me for the review:  

P1040531

Twitter Review Summary:  Sweet looks, weak clip.

Design: 2

A clicky and curvy update of the original Masterstroke Airfoil seems like an obvious iteration, but is one that changes the original enough to warrant a purchase.

P1040530

In many ways, this is a more user-friendly pen.  The original was a tough, wicked, design-first pen.  This is a bit more staid and pen-ish, for lack of a better word, but all of this refinement works to the benefit of the user.  The Clicky is a better writer, if a less bold design and for all of the value I place on design, a tool's performance comes first.
 
Fit and Finish: 2

As before, Grant's care and attention is evident from the moment you pick up the pen.  It just feels right.  All of the curves and cuts are smooth, even inviting to the touch a change from the original Airfoil.  I found the threads smooth and even, the clicky good (this is the same clicky about a dozen different pens use and it is a good one).  I liked Grant's choices of matte and polished metal surfaces in this version of the pen.  No complaints at all, but the gold plated version is probably too much for me.

Carry: 1

The clip on the review sample was pretty weak.  If am I not mistaken it is aluminum or some lesser tensile strength metal.  The end result is that bent almost instantly and did not lay flat against the pen's body, as you can see in this picture:

P1040534

Aside from the puny clip though, the Clicky was much nicer to find in my pocket than its sharp finned brother. 

Appearance: 2

This is, in my opinion, where Grant hit a home run.  I simply cannot state how gorgeous this pen is in person.  It was so gorgeous that the minute I opened it, I ran to my wife and showed her.  She did not share my opinion and gave it a blah.  "Too weird looking," she said.  So I tested this reaction out at work and I got 1 "blah" for every 10 or so "that's sweet."  There was no one in the middle.  For me, this is a no brainer--its damn gorgeous.

P1040536

It in a way the long cutaway reminds me of an iconic picture from the cover of Sport's Illustrated's mid-90s swimsuit issue.   I am not going to go overboard and say that this pen is THAT sexy, but it is pretty damn good looking.   

Durability: 2

Other than the weaksauce clip, I found the rest of the pen to be plenty robust to hold up to my daily and weekly pen torturing sessions that I can court.  Frankly, a two week test is pretty brutal and the Clicky made it through with flying colors.  This is an EDC pen you can count on working for years to come.  

Writing Performance/Refill: 0

Ah, the weakness.  The refill is a Schmidt style refill and while it wrote nicely it wasn't supernal, say, like the Mont Blanc Fineliner.  Additionally it wasn't as "all surface" as the Space Pen refill.  And worst of all, it is not widely available.  The most commonly available swap out is for the G2 rollerball refill, but my local Staples (two actually) didn't sell those refills, though I could buy the pens and switch them out.  In my opinion, its a mistake not to be out of the box compatible with a Parker style refill, but plenty of folks like G2 refills.  I just can't get them.  This, in the end, is my problem.  I could probably drop some kind of round piece into the pen and get it to work with Parker refills (this is what the Tuff Writer does), but that's a lot of hacking for a nice pen.  

Balance/In Hand Feel: 2

I found this pen, like its brother, to be superbly balanced in the hand.  There was no awkward fins to contend with though and the pen is all the better for it.  

P1040533

This is a sterling example of a pen that looks could and works in the hand too.  

Grip: 2

The grip section is simple with no knurling, cross hatching or other "grip enhancers".  You have three lines near the tip, but they are aesthetic.  In all, I liked the pen's grip primarily because of the matte finish my review sample had.  I would worry too much about slipping around with this finish, but a polished finish might be a bit slick.  

Barrel: 2

Aside from being awesome looking, with a polished cutaway, the barrel does what good barrels do--go unnoticed in the hand.  I don't want gaudy furniture (the metal accents) or bulging lines.  I want something simple and clean and that's what we get here.  Excellent.

Deployment Method/Cap: 2

The Schmidt clicky, as I mentioned before, is almost universal for these mid priced, small batch clicky pens and there is a reason--its damn good.  I still have no complaints.  

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

The Masterstroke Airfoil Clicky is a pen that will garner attention.  Its durable, except for the clip, and it writes well with the stock refill.  If you have access to G2 refills, then this could easily be the star of your writing tools EDC rotation.  If not, you have other options.  I'd really like to see Parker-refill compatibility, but the frame here is so sexy it might make you go hunting for refills.   This is not as tough as the Tuff Writer is, but it is plenty tough to see daily rough use.  And it looks much, much cooler. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

The World's Most Popular Flashlight Stinks

If you own an iPhone you own a flashlight.  Since your iPhone is probably always on you, so too is a flashlight.  There are a dozen or so apps, all of which are bit wonky, but with the release of the last version of iOS 7, there was a built-in flashlight feature, in the slide up menu.  The light is produced by the iPhone's flash.  I have seen so many posts where people explain that their smartphone is their flashlight and seeing as I had an iPhone I decided to try it out.  I think my experiences would carry over to other smartphone flashlight features, but I am not sure, so Android readers take this with a grain of salt.

I am always on the hunt for the smallest, most useful, most full featured items to carry with me and if I can drop an item out of my EDC, I am thrilled to do it. I am not a person that believes in carrying a backpack full of gear on an everyday basis. So I thought I'd see what would happen if I dropped a flashlight from my daily carry.  I wasn't seriously considering this as a long term plan, but just an experiment--I like flashlights too much to leave them at home permanently.  Think of how sad my Spy 007 would get, just sitting there on my shelf all day.

I carried just an iPhone as my flashlight for about five days, two of which were consecutive, and here is what I found.

First, the tint on the light is quite good, better, for example than the tint on stock 47s cool emitters.  There is very little in the way of purple or blue or green.  This is probably due to the fact that it needs to be able to take relatively lifelike pictures.  

Second, I have to commend Apple for a great interface--the ability to access the light on the slide up menu is awesome.  It is easy to use and intuitively place, exactly like Apple products should be.  It also blows away the fiddly apps out there that just never seem to work right. 

Third, I really did try to like the flashlight feature.  I hoped that I would be persuaded enough to occasionally leave a light at home even if it didn't replace the lights entirely.  

But there are few problems with the iPhone flashlight that convinced me that it was not a replacement for a standalone light.

The iPhone itself is an awfully expensive piece of equipment.  Out of contract replacement costs start at $600.  That is more expensive than all but one of my flashlights and I have a pretty darn nice flashlight collection.  So the idea that you would want to use your iPhone as a flashlight instead of a $60 Zebralight doesn't make a whole lot of financial sense, especially when you consider that at least some of your flashlight use will occur in adverse conditions (down in a basement with a water leak, outside in the cold and dark, etc.).  

Additionally the shape of the iPhone does not make it easy to use.  Holding a slick, thin, wide device is awesome for talking and browsing the web, but when you need to point your iPhone light at something it can be quite awkward, bringing to my its replacement cost. Additionally, many times I use my light in my teeth, doing handsfree work.  This is impossible with an iPhone.  

Then there are the limitations of the emitter itself.  First, it has no reflector at all.  This means you cannot get a focused beam and a ceiling bounce is impossible.  Second, its not all that bright. Essentially the iPhone flashlight is as bright as an LRI Photon.  In fact, the iPhone light is almost a perfect replica, in performance terms, to the Photon.  Its great at illuminating doorknob in front of you (though the grip problems make this unadvisable), but forget about checking around your yard for bumps in the night.  

In short, the iPhone light is not good enough, even though it is essentially free (in terms of space, additional cost, and batteries) to make it worth not carrying a good, compact modern standalone light. If you carry nothing, its a good feature.  I'd probably never buy a Photon style light if I owned a smartphone with a light feature, though I have a special hatred for button cell lights.  

The iPhone light is basically the equivalent of keys for people that use their keys to open packages--it sometimes, under perfect circumstances, can do okay.  If that limited use profile is good for you, then you probably aren't a regular reader of this site.  Furthermore, with the improvement in emitter technology over the past five years, the size and capabilities of standalone lights has improved so much. Your not lugging around your Surefire 6P anymore.  Its probably something with a single cell that is no bigger than your index finger.  And given that competition, the iPhone light stands no chance.  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Kershaw Emerson CQC6K Review

There is a fine line between imitation and innovation.

For many folks Emersons are the very definition of a hard use knife.  It is hard to dispute this, having owned two.  They are truly simple, overbuilt tools.  They have beefy liners, no-nonsense G10, and thick blades.  But for the average person, they are hard to carry around, and as I pointed out in the Mini CQC7 review, they are chisel ground on the WRONG side (we know an Emerson's handedness based on the clip placement and the need for the knife to be tip up and we know the proper side to grind a chisel based on...well...real chisels).  They are not tools for the masses and I think Emerson fans dig them more because of that. 

When Kershaw announced the collaboration there were a lot of strong reactions.  From a business point of view it makes a ton of sense for both Kershaw and Emerson.  Kershaw gets the benefit of the collaboration and the use of the Wave.  Ernie gets the royalties from the use of the Wave in what is probably one of the two or three last years the patent is valid (patents generally last about 17 years from the date of issue and the Wave patent was granted in 1999 meaning it is likely going to expire in 2016).  But there was also a lot of grumbling about the Kershaw Emerson's being "fake" Emersons.  Emerson fans loudly proclaimed that they were nothing more than a way to migrate new folks to the Emerson brand.

ASIDE:

To be frank, this claim is a little silly.  It echoes what you hear and read online about the difference between production Emersons and the very hard to get custom Emersons.  With waitlists years long, most folks have to "settle" for a production.  Really, aren't the production Emersons just mass produced versions of the customs?  And if that is true, aren't they another form of simulacrum?  

END ASIDE

So is the CQC6K an imitation of the true Emerson or is it an innovation on an Emerson--a knife with the functionality of an Emerson but the features needed for more everyday use?

Here is the product page. The Kershaw/Emerson CQC6K costs $35. Here is a written review (More than Just Surviving is one of my favorite new sites, BTW). Here is a video review.  Here is Edge Observer's overview of the entire Kershaw/Emerson line.  Here is an amazing Reddit review of the knife.  Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Emerson CQC6K, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my review sample (purchased with my own money):

P1040125

Twitter Review Summary: An Emerson for the rest of us.

Design: 2

In my experience with "true" Emersons I have found the simplicity of the knife to be a huge boon.  There is nothing frivolous or extra to screw up how the knife works and feels in your hand.  Such simplicity is often missing in Kershaw knives where they seem to think that an extra flourish here or a pattern there (see: "K Pattern handle") will make the knife feel more expensive than it is.  The reality is that Kershaw knives feel more expensive than they are because they are well made, but the temptation for adornment is hard to resist.  And yet, when forced by the tastes of the collaborator, to go simple Kershaw pulls it off very well. The Kershaw/Emerson CQC6K is just great.  The blade shape is simple yet useful.  The handle is simple yet grippy.  The entire knife is like this--simple and great because of it.  Watch and learn fellow production companies (Quartermaster I am looking first at you): simple is best.  

The size of the CQC6K is really nice.  Its out of my sweet spot of under 3 inches, but thanks to well proportioned materials it is easily carried and used.  It is not as thick as a production Emerson, but for EDC use that is a good thing.  This knife carries like you hope the smaller Emersons would but never do.  Here is a size comparison shot using the classic Zippo as a size comparison:

P1040127

Here is the Zippo and the Emerson:

P1040128

The performance ratios are average.  The blade:weight is .65 and the blade:handle is .72.  The blade:handle is slightly better than average and the blade:weight is slightly to moderately worse.  Even though this is a thinned out Emerson its still chunky.

Fit and Finish: 2

Kershaw's Chinese OEMs are, as a rule very good.  The fit and finish here is just a step above good.  Everything was spot on and even the relatively complex stuff, like the two different finishes on the blade, was well done.  Here is the lock up on the frame lock:

P1040129

Simply put, there is nothing to complain about whatsoever. Really, really great.

Grip: 2

The combination of a good size finger choil, a thumb ramp, and and excellent shape to the rear of the handle makes the CQC6K very good in the hand.  I would note that the G10 here is virtually texture free, being the mildest G10 I have ever had the chance to touch.

P1040135

Worse yet, given the ready comparison, it is nothing like the production Emerson G10, which is perfect in its grippiness in my opinion.  Its less grippy than the offensively grippy stuff on Cold Steel knives, but more grippy than the stuff here.  Its not a big deal because of the other things this knife have going for it, but it is worth nothing.

Carry: 2

With its slimmer dimensions and exceptional rounding of all major points on the handle, the CQC6K is great in the pocket.  Having just owned an Emerson Horseman I can tell you this carries better. You are, of course, giving up some durability, but in an EDC role that won't matter as much as easy carry does.

Steel: 1

8Cr13MoV is a mid-tier steel.  In some instances it is better than others--in particular I find the AG Russell knives with 8Cr13MoV are great at taking an edge.  In the CQC6K it was utterly unremarkable, both in a good and bad sense. It is perfectly average, better than 440A, 440B, and all but Buck's version of 420HC.  I also have always liked the 8Cr13MoV as used by Kershaw better than the same steel used by Spyderco.  I don't know it if is a different heat treat or if it is attributable the finish given, but whatever it is, Kershaw's 8Cr13MoV is better.  Not good, not bad, just average.

Blade Shape: 2

Clip point.  Perfect belly.  No recurve.  No bullshit.  Thanks Ernie.  Done.

P1040131

Grind: 2 

All right, I know Emerson fans, members of the Order of the Black Shamrock, as they call themsevles, love the chisel grind.  And I do to.  They love its keen edge and simple straightforward sharpenability.  The problem is, for close work, its hard to use.  For example, in making firestarts and feather sticks, it is uncannily difficult to register the cutting bevel to start a cut.  The reason is simple--the chisel is ground on the wrong side.  In a woodworking chisel, which Emerson discusses when hailing the benefits of a chisel grind, the flat side of the cutting tool is placed at the line and then the cut is made ABOVE.  Here, on an Emerson chisel grind, the flat is on the top, forcing the angled part of the blade to register the cut.  This is very, very difficult to do.  Because we know Emerson knives are handed, we know this isn't an issue of user error.  Simply put, the grind on a right handed, chisel ground blade on a production Emerson is best set up for a left handed person.  The edge is still super keen and easy to maintain, but you lose the ability to performa great deal of precision work.  The chisel ground cutting bevel on the "v-grind" Emersons is better, but the problem still persists.

In the end, I can't say the chisel grind is done correctly.  Its just not. It is, in my opinion, a problem and one there is no fix for--except for buying a collab (to be fair there are a few sources for waved knives with correctly ground blades: a few Spydercos, a Southern Grind Bad Monkey, the Kershaw collabs and the ZT collabs; then there are the "wave like" blades which includes DPx's HEST/F).  The traditional grind on this knife is much better than the "chisel" grind on the Mini CQC7 I had and better (though not significantly so) than the grindon my Horseman.  Now, if the grind on the Emerson chisel grind was on the correct side of the blade, well, then we'd have a real competition.  As it is, this is the biggest reason to avoid the production Emerson and opt for one of his many collabs and licensed blades, including this one.

Deployment Method: 2

We all know the Wave is awesome and here it works exceptionally well (I would note that my experience tells me you need a liner or frame lock to make the Wave work optimally well, otherwise you get jumping where the force of the wave action bounces the blade off the lock face before it can engage).  This is no surprise.

P1040130

What is a surprise is how much I have come to appreciate thumb plates.  I like them quite a bit more than the average thumb stud.  Not only do they not mar the blade's appearance as much, but they are also a bit easier to use.  Bernard over on the original Everyday Carry Tumblr once explained why he liked the Spyderco hole better than thumb studs. His point was this--with a thumb stud you have focus on keeping your finger on the thumb stud, but with a hole, your thumb is "captured" and thus you have very little to focus on when opening the knife.  This makes it eaiser to open a knife with a thumb hole. Much the same can be said of thumb plates.  Your thumb is essentially just butting up against the plate.  Push and the knife opens.  Its not a easy as thumb hole, you do have to think about it a bit, but I found it worked with less effort than the thumb stud opener.

Retention Method: 2

The Emerson clip is, like virtually everything else on an Emerson--simple and very useful.  The clip here is virtually identical.  There are three differences--first the material is not as robust, second the edges are rounded, and third the clip is bead blades with the logo lasered in.  None of these small changes alter the clip too much.  Sure, I'd like it not to have some garish skull on it, but whatever.  The little changes don't take away from the clip's function--its still great.

P1040134

Also, if you have ever used the Wave you know that a deep carry clip wouldn't work (or work as well).  By giving you some space at the top of the blade you can grab the tip of the handle and pull the blade out activating the Wave.  A deep carry clip would make that much more difficult.

Lock: 2

You know the frame lock has gone totally mainstream when it shows up on a budget version of a liner lock knife.  Who would have thought, ten years ago at the peak of Sebenza mania, that the frame lock would reach the point where its a cost savings feature--eliminating the need for a second G10 handle scale?  That's speculation, but it doesn't seem to far off.

P1040126

The lock here is quite good--no play in any direction, easy to engage and disengage, and wonderfully easy to use with the Wave.  Some knives with Wave features, like the Delica and Endura, have lockbacks and when waved vigorously, have been known to not engage.  I was accutely aware of this and tried on a number of occasions to get the frame lock to fail to engage.  No luck. The lock works exceptionally well,especially given the price point.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

Is it heresy to say I like this better than a "real" Emerson?  I think the hard use traits of an Emerson just don't suit my uses and needs.  For me, this is a better knife.  Its easier to use, more functional, and vastly more affordable but still possesses many of the traits that make production Emerson's great (not the least of which is the Wave feature).  This is an awesome knife and for the money you'd be hard pressed to find better.  I am not a huge fan of the bulky look and the skull aesthetic, but I know a lot of people are.  And even if you aren't this is just a solid knife.  Kershaw's Chinese OEMs are very good.  This is a damn good knife, regardless of price.

The Competition

Against the readily available benchmark, the SOG Mini Aegis, this is a substantially better knife.  It is not lighter (few knives are), but it is better designed and has much better features.  It feels like a real knife compared to the Mini Aegis which sometimes feels like a toy.  That one point is a big deal at the top end of the scale and here this is just a better blade.  It is every bit the winner that the Blade Show trumpeted it to be.  It also achieves that final bit of design innovation that has evaded Emersons for so long--financial accessibility.  

  

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kershaw Emerson CQC6K Overview

Well, I, like a lot of other folks, took the plunge and bought an Kershaw Emerson collab.  As it turns out its not just good, its quite good.  I have owned and carried two Emersons and there are reasons to buy this knife even if you: 1) own an Emerson; 2) swear you'll never buy an Emerson; or 3) have no idea what an Emerson is, but still like knives.


If you are interested in the CQC6K you can get one at Blade HQ or KnivesShipFree. Purchases on either site help the blog. That said, if you have a knife store in person, try them out. I got this knife at Merrimack Knife and Tool in Nashua, NH. Tell Josh and Jeremiah I said hello.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Knife Thursday's Discussion of Custom v. Midtech v. Production Knife

In case you haven't heard, the Knife Thursday podcast is dedicating the entire third seasons (10 episodes) to a discussion of what it means to say a knife is a custom, midtech, or production.  They plan on asking a bunch of people--knife knuts and industry folks--about what they think each of those things is.  It is such an interesting discussion, I thought I'd offer my two cents.

First, let's clear the ground of weeds--the terms here are MARKETING terms.  People claim their knives are customs to make them seem more prestigious and more exclusive.  There is an element of craftsmanship about these things, no doubt, but really this term allows makers to ask for higher prices for their knives.  A knife being a custom doesn't mean that it is better than a production.  It doesn't mean that it has better fit and finish.  And it doesn't mean it has better materials.  It could mean those things, but it doesn't have to.  Custom means money, hence the proliferation of the term.

Thus far everyone on the podcast has focused on how something is made and I think that is a logical starting point.  The problem is that how a knife is made rapidly becomes unhelpful once you consider boutique brands and unusual cases.  Instead, I think the best way to capture what knife knuts mean by these terms is to focus on WHO made the knife.  After all, we don't say a knife is a Bob Smith custom, if it was ground by Bob Smith at the Spyderco factory.  Instead we call that a production knife and the reason why is because WHO made it is 1) not necessarily important; and 2) no single person did everything.  Additionally, the how definition starts to make less sense when you consider some of the high tech toys at the disposal of some of the best makers.  Brian Tighe's machining ability dwarfs some manufacturers, but he is still a one man show and thus I think his stuff is most properly considered a custom.  

Some History

The distinction between custom and production is a relatively recent one.  When the advent of mass production capabilities brought about by the Industrial Revolution, humans gained the ability to make objects quickly and in large numbers.  One of the hallmarks of a production item was the fact that it had interchangeable parts with others from its production line.  Production pieces looked and functioned the same.  Their parts were identical.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution EVERYTHING was custom.  

Until recently, the idea of a custom item, pejoratively called handmade/homemade, meant that it was basically a homemade take off on a production item, a lesser piece.  The term "homemade" conjures up images of a ghost sheet halloween custom and a lumpy, ugly cable knit sweater.  In some areas custom always had a positive connotation--furniture, cars--any item that is sought out for how it is made.  But in many areas, the idea of something being handmade implied it was a patchwork, a rough fascimile of the original.  Handmade suits were of suspect quality because while a few could tailor them better than any machine, most did not have that skill and so the suit was, in some way, of lesser quality than the production suit.  

But in the past 50 years or so, we have had a desire to get back to authentic roots.  We have also seen a proliferation in craftsman with superior skill and machines that allow them to capitalize on that skill. And so, over time, the term custom or handmade has become a marker of quality.  And so it is in knives as well.

The Definitions

Single Source ("Handmade") Custom: a knife designed, fabricated, ground, and finished by a single person holding themselves out as the creator.  Essentially the person is using only raw materials and maybe a few common off the shelf parts (a pivot, screw, or bolt).  I don't think it is important that it be made solely or even partially with hand tools so long as all of the work is done by a single person.

Custom: a knife designed, ground and finished by a single person with a few off the shelf parts or the use of fabrication operations in certain stages. 

Midtech: a knife in which the designer had some hand in the final creation of the knife.

Production: a knife in which no single person is holding themselves out as the creator of the knife; a knife designed by one person and made by another or many others.

Modified: a previously finished knife changed by someone else other than the person or company that made it.

Applying the Defintions

First, lets look at the most hands-on of hands-on makers--Aaron Gough.  Gough made the "viral video" rounds when this video surfaced:



Gough makes fixed blades and he does virtually everything not only by himself, of course, but with hand tools.  He cuts the blade shapes with a hack saw.  He does the grinding with a file (though he has upgraded to a motorized grinder).  He does the handle work the same way.  Gough, it seems to me, is someone that virtually everyone on planet Earth would agree makes a custom knife.  Its easy to apply the custom label, any custom label, to him.  But some would say that a custom knife uses NO off the shelf parts.  If you look at a Yuna knife, he doesn't just fabricate the blade and grind it, he makes everything himself going so far as to make his own screws.  


Image courtesy of Yuna Knives.
 
By this definition, basically Gough, Yuna, Howard Hitchmough and a few others would truly be custom makers.  

That doesn't seem fair.  It also doesn't seem to capture what we knife knuts mean by the term "custom."  It is a definition with virtually no utility because it doesn't mean what we want it to mean.  But, if you apply the "who" made it definition, these definitely work.  They are customs by the "how" it was made definition, and the "who" made it definition.  So it works there.

Let's jump to the other end of the "how its made" spectrum with guys like Brian Tighe and John Grimsmo.  If custom requires handwork these guys ain't custom makers, but that doesn't seem to make sense.  It would be like saying that a person is only the author of a book if they wrote it with pen and paper.  The fact that they have new technology in the production phase seems, to me, to be immaterial.  They designed the knife.  They made it (with the help of machines).  They finished it (again with the help of machines). The problem is that what constitutes a machine? A grinder is a machine.  It has a motor.  And so you fall down a rabbit hole that, in the end, has to do with defining "machine" instead of trying to make sense of what constitutes a custom knife.  But if you take the "who made it" definition, these are easy cases.  Both Brian and John designed, fabricated, ground, and finished the knives AND they hold themselves out as the creator.  


Image courtesy of Grimsmo Knives.

These are single source custom knives, too. 

But the single source custom seems to miss a lot of folks out there, folks that have real talent but are limited in some way by either a level of demand and/or a lack of certain machines.  These are the guys that use water jetted parts or outside heat treaters.  As a woodworkers I can identify with these folks--I use premade hinges and drawer slides (though the best drawers I have ever made were ones I made of wood).  I also don't have the room or money for a lathe, so I used premade turned legs.  For knife makers in this category, they face similar limitations.  The monetary investment a proper heat treating oven represents is just too large.  Additionally when you have a list three years long, having mass produced lockside and show side handles is huge boon.  These aren't the parts that knife folks find interesting and so I am not averse to knives made this way (though I do not own any; the Pathfinder, the SES, and the Dauntless are all, to my knowledge, single source customs).

Many folks fall into this category.  TuffThumbz has been very open about his use of water jet.  I also think that many, many folks use outside heat treaters.  Lots of folks think that using outside produced parts makes a knife something other than a custom.  Its not fair, it seems to me, to say that these folks are in the same category as the Yunas and Goughs of the world.  


Image courtesy of Blade HQ

At the same time, these folks are clearly not production scale makers or even midtech makers. One on needs to look at the lavish detail and amazing individuality of a TuffKnives creation to see that it is far from the world of production blades.  By separating out single source customs from other customs we can still capture the essence of what we mean--knives that are designed and finished by a single person are special and worth distinction and more money.

Midtechs are knives that move much closer to full production.  Often the designer (the name on the midtech) creates the CAD drawing and then outsources production of nearly everything.  The only hands-on work is in the final grinding, assembly and fitting.  The designer/maker might grind the blades or tune the lock up, but the parts are made by someone else and usually assembled by someone else.  Chad Nichols is doing a lot of the midtech work right now.  Jon Graham's recent midtech release seems like the emblematic knife of this class.  Jon does some final work on the knife and designed it, but everything else is done by others.  Similarly the "semi-custom" Bodegas offered by Todd Begg fall into this category.  


Image courtesy of FortHenryCustomKnives.com

There is nothing wrong with this at all, but it is different in substance from the other two classes of knives.  It is also something worth less, it seems to me, though not much less.  It is even further removed from the custom idea and is edging closing into the production world.  There is, obviously a spectrum with customs on one hand and midtechs on the other.  The less the knife maker does on the final product the more it is clearly a midtech until the maker does nothing in which case it is a production collaboration.  Not all midtechs are created equal, but when you start talking about outsourcing more than a few water jet parts or heat treat, I think it is clearly a midtech. 

Lisa Pelton of DPx Gear contends that midtechs are knives that are limited in number.  I don't share that opinion.  To me, the limited number of knives produced is wholly immaterial to its status as a midtech.  Afterall, Kershaw only made 211 Blue G10 Blackwash Skylines, but that is no one's idea of a midtech.  Midtechs tend to be limited in number because, as Steve pointed out on the podcast, the amount of work a maker has to do, while greatly lessened from a full custom, is still time consuming enough to make the final numbers tiny by comparison.  But limited numbers are a secondary attribute of a midtech knife, an effect, not the cause.  A midtech needs to be touched, worked on, by its designer. Otherwise it is just a small batch production knife.  The issue of limited numbers is a secondary thing, not essential to the nature of a midtech.  It would be like saying all loud cars are fast.  Many cars are loud because they are fast, but a jalopy can be equally loud but no where near as fast.     

Production knives seem easy to define, but throwing things off are knives like Bark River blades.  They are handmade.  They assembled by hand.  They are ground by hand.  They are assembled from raw materials and very few off the shelf parts.  But they are assembled in mass with interchangeable parts (returning to the original definition of production outlined at the time of the Industrial Revolution).  They are very nice, but they are still productions.  

Finally, modified knives.  In a real sense these are the knife equivalent of fan fiction.  They take something that pre-exists and is crafted by others and change it.  But having had a few modified knives (I refuse to use "pimped"; giving that work a good connotation is something I refuse to do--a pimp is a sex offender and a slave trader) and they were great.  The Dietz mod to the Burnley Kwaiken, for instance, is actually better--from a design standpoint--than the Burnley flipper.  It retains the beautiful elegant silhouette of the Kwaiken, AND offers better flipping action.  Tough to beat that. 

Conclusions

In all, I think the distinction is really a classic Wittgensteinian language problem (see: Wittgenstein's quandary over the definition of the word "game").  We have a general intuition about what the words mean, but the closer we inspect them the less certain we are of their meanings.  Human brains do not do well with these problems.  They are particularly vexing to how we think because generally get greater insight with closer inspection, not less.  But in terms of the gear world (departing quickly from the philosophy world), I think the better way to figure out what these words mean is to first focus on not the how, but the who, and then second distinguishing from types of customs.

More importantly, we have to realize this is a spectrum.  Watching Gough take that slab of steel and G10 and transform it into a very elegant blade is fascinating.  But putting the bar there for custom knives is not only silly (sort of like insisting that Willie Mays is the standard for Hall of Famers), it robs the terms of meaning.  The differences are ones of degree, not kind.  Gough is on one end of the spectrum, along with a handful of other folks, and Spyderco is on the other.  Guys that buy, as oppose to make, their own screws, but nothing else are much closer to Gough.  Guys that get parts water jetted are substantially further away from Gough, but I think still properly seen as custom makers.  

For some folks, the work done by the "custom maker" is important.  Some kind of work is more true to the sense of a custom knife than others.   In my mind, having someone else anodize the knife is not as big a deal, for classification purposes, as having someone else grind the knife. It seems to me, whether I agree with this proposition or not, that most people feel like the most important thing a knife maker can do to impart his or her own touch to the knife is to do the final grind.  I'd argue that fitting the lock is just as significant, but I think most hold out grinding the blade as the emblematic way of put a person's authorship on a blade.  

In the end, this is about money.  Customs demand higher prices.  And if you could claim something you are selling is worth 600% more depending on the label its given, you'd call it a custom too.  I'm not saying that to imply that any custom maker is dishonestly claiming something to be a custom when it isn't (though I have reason to believe this does happen), but simply to remind people of why the terms matter in the first place.  Its about money and then probably about pride.  Its not about fit and finish, craftsmanship, or materials because in the modern market you can find productions that rival the vast majority of customs on any one of those counts.  

Interestingly for me, this exercise is not so much about knives, but about language.  We, as the knife community, have a vague intuition about what these terms mean, but at the edges these intuitions fail.  I think that the definitions I laid out above, both meaningfully distinguish between different kinds of knives and, at the same time, match up well with those intuitions we all share.  I hope this helps and I hope it contributes to the excellent discussion on the Knife Thursday podcast (though from when I started writing this until I finished, Chris and Steve seemed to have moved on somewhat to other topics).  I'd love to hear everyone's take, so comment below.        

Monday, September 8, 2014

Freedom Bottle Review

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Freedom Bottle is a water bottle produced by individuals associated with the American Water Federal PAC.  I did not know this at the time I accepted the review sample, though knowing this would not have changed my mind.  The American Water Federal PAC is a group that provides funds to candidates that "support and understand America's water infrastructure."  I have no idea what that means.  Who exactly is opposed to water?  Cacti, I guess, but they can't be a large percentage of the electorate (though you never know in Chicago).  I mention this because if you google the bottle you'll find the link right away.  For the record in 2014 they gave 34% to Democrats and 66% to Republicans. I mention this in the same way I mention the Strider scandal--I don't think it bears on the product at all, but it is something some folks will be interested in and deserve to know.  And this concludes, hopefully, the one and only discussion of politics on this blog.

Sometimes folks offer stuff for review that looks interesting, but when I get it I realize that it is so different that my normal scoring systems won't work.  This is one of those products.  As such, no water bottle score.

The Freedom bottle is a collapsible water bottle.  It is not insulated and is made of a plastic material.  The bottle, when fully extended, bears a passing resemblance to a disposable water bottle.  It has a pull top lid, a see through body, and tall cylindrical shape.  But this bottle is not designed to be disposable. Instead, its designed to fold down to a small shape and be easily carried.  If you do day hikes or have lots of people on your hiking crew, this little bottle is quite handy, especially for the $5 cost.  

Here is the product page.  The bottle costs $7.99.  There are no reviews.  Here is the review sample (sent to me by Freedom Bottle and kept, per the review policy, no one wants a used water bottle):

P1040451

Twitter Review Summary: Limited use, but does things no other bottle can do.

The design of the Freedom Bottle is clever, but it takes some getting used to.  If you think of this bottle as a replacement for your bladder system or your stainless steel water bottle, you missed the point.  This is not what the Freedom Bottle best use is. Instead this is a perfect bottle to be used in conjunction with other, large insulated water carriers, so as to take advantage of his packable nature:
 
P1040456

This summer when me, my wife, and my four year old son went hiking, we'd take some large insulated bottles of water with us and drop the Freedom Bottle in the backpack.  It was easy to carry and when we took a break for lunch, we could unfold (unfurl?) it and drop some ice cold water in it for our son.  I would imagine that a collection of Freedom Bottles would do well with an even larger insulated water carrier and it would save on space and weight too.  Instead of having one heavy bottle or bladder per person you could have one big insulated container and a bunch of Freedom Bottles.

Here are two size comparison:

Collapsed:

P1040457

Open:
P1040453
The fit and finish is fine for the given use.  Its not a Hydroflask (review coming), but given what you would use it for, it is fine. It definitely doesn't feel like the cheap crinkly plastic used in disposable bottles.  That said, this is not something that has an indefinitely lifespan.  It will break or degrade eventually.  The collapsible section seems especially prone to failure, but for the money, it will work fine.

The botttle is not super easy to clean as the collapasble section is just a bear.  I cleaned it by pouring water inside with some soap and swishing it around.  After flushing it out, the bottle was fine.  One note--using the bottle with its pull top cap blocks most odors, but as a plastic bottle odors are something you can't avoid.  They are there, you just might not smell them.  

The bottle has no insulation at all, but that's obvious from the outset.  And again, the ideal use for the bottle gets around the need for insulation.  

Overall, the Freedom Bottle is not a bad camping or hiking option.  I would never have it as my main way of carrying water, but as a back up or an packable, its quite good.  At $8, its not a bargain, but it does something very few bottles can do--pack well.  I suppose you could use a bladder system, but they are hard to pass around to folks, difficult to clean, and strictly limited to use with a backpack.  With the Freedom Bottle you get most of the packability of a bladder.  For $8, its an interesting option.