Thursday, December 18, 2014

Zero Tolerance ZT0770CF Review

Out of the ashes...or so the saying goes. In this case it wasn't so much ashes as it was a flaming shipwreck.

KAI is never one to go lightly.  They either don't show up or they do and they bring the thunder.  Case in point--the Zero Tolerance ZT0777.  It was an insane, blank check blade, coming off the heels of another stellar design, the Tilt.  The ZT0777 had Vanax steel on the cutting edge, damascus on the spine, a contoured carbon fiber body, a subframe lock, a sculpted pocket clip, and a bearing pivot.  It was, frankly, a knife no one other than KAI could make.  No custom maker has the ability to do the composite blade and no other production company has the time to fidget with all of the crazy components.  And the reality is that version of the ZT0777 was a knife even KAI couldn't make.  After a few stops and starts, the sale of a handful of blades, they through in the towel.  It wasn't for lack of trying, but they just couldn't get the blade to work on any kind of scale.  They took a long time but in the end it wasn't meant to be.

But the design was beautiful and others took notice.  After the ZT0777 was announced but before it was released (or they gave up) another knife, the Microtech Matrix was announced and it bore more than a passing similarity to the ZT0777.  Here is a piece on the controversy.   In the end, the Matrix made it to mass market first and the ZT0777 had to be scrapped and reinvented as the ZT0777 M390, a knife with all the features of the original but for the composite blade.  As a spin off, KAI announced a smaller version of the knife, the ZT0770, which was also beaten to the market by the Microtech...wait for it...Mini Matrix.  The whole thing is a really sad commentary on the knife industry--a company's willingness to push the envelope is rewarded with a blatant ripoff.  Despite all of that hassle and bullshit, something good came of it--this knife.

Until the ZT0770 (hereinafter the 0770) most ZT's ranged from boat anchor to trade paperback in terms of their carry profile.  They are great knives, built like vaults, but man are they big.  The ZT560 was positively massive and the ZT350, their small knife, is giant too.  This says nothing for the Bunyanesque ZT0200 (7.8 ounces! Ahoy Matey!).  When Derrick sent me the 770 he prefaced it by saying it was one of his favorite knives.  The minute its slim profile slipped out of the box I knew why.  This is a ZT knife in EVERY SINGLE WAY--the materials, the fit and finish, and the design.  But it is also a knife that regular folks in regular jobs can carry and use.   

Here is the product page. The Zero Tolerance ZT0770CF costs $180.  There was an aluminum handled version, but that appears to have been discontinued.  Here is a written review. Here is a video review (he either got an uber rare version or he got the steel wrong--its Elmax not M390). Here is a link to KnivesShipFree, where you can find the ZT0770CF, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:


Here is my review sample (to be given away; I am trying a new set up for pictures, let me know what you think in the comments):


Here is my video overview:

Twitter Review Summary: THE ZT for non-sasquatches--an awesome EDC blade.

Design: 2

The angles and cuts on this knife, the things that give it its shape, are so cool looking.  This is a knife that looks like a human muscle attached to the skeletal frame--taut, purposeful and poised.  I love the handle shape and lines of the knife.  Visual tension is here in spades.


But this isn't just a pretty knife, its a well designed one too. 

Here is a size comparison:


The performance ratios are very good: blade:weight is 1.08 (thank you Mr. Carbon Fiber) and the blade:handle is .76, the same as a SOG Flash I.  That last comparison is something I find stunning and testament to how great this knife is.  This is easily in the same class as the Benchmade 940-1 and the Spyderco Paramilitary 2--truly rarefied company in the production world. 

Fit and Finish: 2

At this point it is a cliche to talk about how wonderful the fit and finish is on a ZT knife.  Frankly I am at a loss as to how to do it other than to say that it is awesome.  Take a look at the decorative pivot screw borrowed from the ZT0777:


It fits the knife nicely and provides a bit of silver bling to match the flawless carbon fiber.  The centering is superb and that is something given how thin this knife is and how thick the blade steel is--there is no room for error.  The  stonewashing is even and excellent.  Everything is just great.  I feel like a Motor Trend writer trying to find new ways to say that a Ferrari is fast.  You get the point though--ZT is making some of the finest production knives in the world and the 0770 is no different.

Grip: 1

In a nod to the EDC role of the 0770 the jimping, which can be positively skin shredding on some ZTs, is toned way down.  The excellent grip, instead, comes from a wonderful handle shape.


As you can see the knife just nestles into my hand, with the flipper doing double duty as a finger guard.   Its a great shape.  One thing I would mention, not as a criticism so much, but as an explanation of a difference, is that the aluminum version, which was discontinued (probably because it was too much like the Mini Matrix) and the Microtech rip off, both had some sculpting to the handle and that did feel better.  The CF, especially on the clip side, is slick.  That's not to say the grip here is bad, its not, as the score tells you, but it could be better.

Carry: 2

I originally bought a ZT0200 as my first ZT.  Oh my god was that thing huge.  It felt like I was carry a hand grenade in my pocket (the scale's texture helped convey that sensation in addition to the knife's portly dimensions).  Fortunately I was able to exchange it for the diminutive (by comparison) ZT0350.  The effect was immediate--that knife seemed manageable. But when I got it home I was struck by how it felt compared to other knives.  It too was too big in the pocket.  In the end every ZT has had the curse until now.  The 0770 is just great in the pocket, truly superior. ZT now makes and EDC blade and the ZT0770 is it.

Steel: 2

This my fourth or fifth knife with Elmax and it never once let me down.  This is a great cutting steel and not hard to maintain.  In the holiday season my knives get a real workout.  I am still processing some firewood and I am also breaking down boxes like a fiend.  Our extra tiny recycling can has been, perhaps, the best thing that could happen to my knife testing regime.  The 0770's Elmax has been great.  Perhaps all of the Elmax haters out there haven't had enough experience with the blade, but as my number of reviews approaches 250 items, I feel confident in saying that Elmax is one of the better steels on the market.

Blade Shape: 2

Its too much to say this blade shape is innovative.  It bears more than passing resemblance to the modified sheepfoot on the Mini Grip 555hg. But it is not a stretch to say that it is different, and in this case


the difference is very good.  I like the less aggro shape, perfect for EDC and I truly appreciate the loss of a recurve edge. The ZT350 was a beast to sharper, what with the hard S30V steel and the recurve.  Thankfully, none of that exists here and the the 0770 was both easy to strop and sharpen.

Grind: 2

The high grind is even and thin (VERY thin compared to other ZT knives).  It is also very well done.  The cutting bevel is wide allowing the knife to register well for use on sharpening stones and the like.  I appreciated the true ricasso here as well.  Not a single problem with the grind. 

Deployment Method: 1

You can de-assist this knife, but the action is mediocre.  I know that assisted openers sell well, but this is an enthusiast knife, priced at $180, so I don't know why they left it assisted.  Enthusiasts do not like assisted knives.  They just don't.  If they did, there would be more assisted customs (I can't even think of any off the top of my head).  This knife with a bearing pivot or good washers would be awesome.  The flipper is a great shape and size, I just dislike assisted opening knives.  In addition to that, the assist felt balky in some ways.  It wasn't slow, it just seemed to engage at different places along the opening path at different times and for no real reason.  If you like assists, ignore this complaint and go back to your collection of half-serrated knives you philistine.  I kid, I kid...not really. 

Retention Method: 2

Look familiar?


Its the clip from the Cryo and it is one of my favorite production clips.  I don't need over the top but it is done so well here I don't mind.  It is also quite stable, long enough to lock the blade in place, and keep it from moving (though that probably has more to do with the size of the knife than the size of the clip).  Its not a paint scraper either.  Very good.  

Lock: 2

Man I agonized over this score.  The lock works.  Its strong and stable.  It engages easily. hard to get at.  The scales, as you can see:


Are cut up right around it, making it hard to wedge your finger in to disengage the lock.  The lock works perfectly, its just not brain dead easy to disengage.  If the scale were a little more refined, I would have given this something like a 1.5, but its not so I give it a 2 and note the shortcoming in the text.  If you have thin fingers, this will be a non-issue.  I don't have Polish sausage digits by any means and I still had a little trouble.  

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

There are three places I am not perfectly satisfied with the knife, but none are huge deals.  Each is a little niggling thing, like a mediocre side dish in an splendid seven course meal.  As a package, the ZT0770CF competes with the best the production world has to offer in terms of high end, larger EDC knives.  It is certainly in the same league as the PM2 and the 940-1.  Its also the cheapest of those three, other than the S30V PM2 (is it time to stop calling S30V a premium steel?  I think so...).  I liked the 0770 a lot and I can see why Derrick liked it.  If you don't have the coin for the 940-1 or you want a flipper, get the 0770.  Its heritage may have been godlike, but this blade ain't no slouch.  A demigod of larger EDC knives perhaps?


Monday, December 15, 2014

Two Cool EDC-related Celebrity Videos.

Adam Savage from Mythbusters really knows what he is doing with his EDC.  Here he lays out all of his daily carry and though I wish he had a better light and I get the sentimental reasons for the Rolex, everything else seems pretty darn good.  

If you haven't taken a listen, the Still Untitled podcast is a pretty great show. Its not EDC-related but the topics are varied and the hosts are interesting.

The second video, found only in link form, is this video from the Travel Channel showing Jacques Pepin deboning a chicken.  I post it here because this is a master demonstrating some very precise knife techniques, all used to perfection.  There are "faster" guys out there (Martin Chan) but none a quick and precise.  When I say "knife skills" this is one of the more practical demonstrations of what I mean. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Chris Reeve Mnandi Review

Man has this review been tough.  Not because the knife is bad or complicated.  It is simple, subtle perfection.  The problem is what to do with the new model.  Cohost of the podcast, Dan from Blade Reviews, lent me his Mnandi for testing and it is an "old model". The new model, released in 2013 and produced since is a much worse knife ("worse" being relative, its still a great blade, just not as good as the old model).  So how do I review the Mnandi? What I have decided is this--this review will cover only the old model Mnandi.  I haven't extensively used the new model, though I have played with it, and while I THINK I can guess at a score, I am not sure.  Its not fair for me to guess though, and so this review will apply only to the old model.

What's the difference, you might be wondering?  Well, the Mnandi has a thumb cut in the blade, kind of like a very wide nail knick.  On the old model, the top most edge was perfect for grabbing the meat of your thumb and allowing the knife to open with one hand.  That edge was just sharp enough for you to get some traction and pop open the knife.  On the new model that edge has been rounded over and while it is possible to open the knife one handed still it is a MUCH more difficult task.  If the Mnandi has started out as a two-hand opening knife I am not sure anyone would complain--after all I love the Indian River Jack and it is a two hand opening knife--but when the original was a one hand opener AND the Mnandi (and all of Chris Reeve's knives) is done in the modern style, the loss of a great and interesting one handed deployment method is a big deal.  I know I am not the only one that dislikes the  change.  Virtually every Mnandi posted on BST boards specifies that it is the "old style" nail knick, if it happens to be one of those models.  Its a selling point because its something people like.  

Of course the problem is that you can't go to a store and buy an old model (though retailers would start advertising used ones or new old stock if they were paying attention).  So this review is not exactly the kind of review I like to put out--it is a review of something that is not readily available.  That said you can find Mnandi's of the old style on forums, so look closely.  Perhaps if there is enough push back, Chris Reeve Knives will offer both versions or revert back to the old style nail knick.  As it was, the old model Mnandi just happens to be one of the best knives available.  Read on to find out why.

Here is the product page. The CRK Mnandi comes in a wide variety of handle materials and there are also damascus steel versions.  The base version costs $375. Here is a written review from the knife's owner. Here is a video review. Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Mnandi, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my review sample (borrowed and returned to BladeReview's Dan): 


My video overview:

Twitter Review Summary: A combination of looks and performance that is stunning at the price point.

Design: 2


In many ways the Mnandi is the knife the Sebenza should be.  It is a more elegant and refined design.  Chris Reeve has talked about how he had conceived the Sebenza as a knife designed for inlays, but the Mnandi is the knife that carries that promise to its logical endpoint.  The Mnandi is to the Sebenza what the Wave is to the PST--a new generation of tool with all of the improvements in design and implementation that were not available when the first generation was made.  Instead of a stamped pocket clip (which is a very good design, BTW) you get an elegant 3D sculpted clip. Instead of strips of inlay/onlay material you get a handle that is almost entirely an inlay, but done in a way that is both beautiful and still quite useable. Then there is the opening method--instead of a boring thumb stud, you get an elegant and effective mega-sized nail knick.  The opening method is especially nice because, unlike the thumb stud, it is not a wart you have to ignore when evaluating the aesthetics of the knife, but something that is part of and complements the looks of the knife in general.  The Mnandi is, in many ways, the Sebenza evolved.  And the fact that Chris Reeve could iterate on one of the best knife designs in the world and both make it better and make it different, is a sign of just how incredible of a designer he is.  

As a blue print, the Mnandi is a knife of singular beauty--a blade that matches or bests the aesthetics of custom knives ten times its price.  The Mnandi, like the Sebenza, is such a good value because it has the good attributes of a custom--superlative fit and finish, a beautiful and unique look--with the good attributes of a production--availability and sane(ish) prices.  Its odd to say that a knife that STARTS at $375 is a good value, but there is just no way to avoid that conclusion, given what you get for the money compared to other knives like it on the market.  

Sizewise, the Mnandi has delicious ratios thanks to its featherweight.  The blade:handle is .76, respectable, but not insane.


The blade:weight is 1.83, which is VERY good. 

Fit and Finish: 2

I could simply say this is a CRK knife and move on, but that's not enough.  All of the normal nitpicky things knife knuts care about are dead on perfect.  Here is a rare shot of blade centering where I was able to get the camera almost perfectly head on:


If it appears even slighlty off, know it is my fault, not the knife's.  Everything is like this, of course, but the inlay deserves special mention.  Inlays are tricky business--too gaudy and the knife is done and they are a bitch to put on.  Here, leveraging CRK's machining prowess and 3M UHB industrial tape, CRK manages to make a classy inlay that is seamlessly integrated and beautifully implemented.  This is, simply put, the best inlay I have seen on anything short of a megabucks art knife.  Sure the Howard Hitchmough's of the world do this better, but those knives start well north of $5,000.  For us mere mortals, this is as good as it gets.  Additionally, unlike many knives, the insane level of fit and finish isn't just a machinist's masturbation, it serves the overall function of the knife--the inlays are great and they work.

Grip: 2

Its very surprising to find out you can get a full four finger grip on the Mnandi. A knife of this size is usually a three finger plus grip, but here you get all four fingers.  I am not exactly sure why that is, or more to the point why other knives of this size can't do the same thing.


The grip is also quite secure thanks to some real jimping on top and a nice curve for your two front fingers.  The inlay and clip are also nice, staying out of the way, and not causing hotspots.

Carry: 2

You know by now that I like options and the Mnandi gives you two.  Dan prefers the slip case carry and I don't blame him.  A knife this elegant deserves something a little better than banging around your pocket with some keys and a few dirty coins.


But if you are a true minimalist you also get a very nice pocket clip that both works well and looks nice.  Another area where the Mnandi is just awesome.

Steel: 2 

The old style Mnandi came with S30V, while the new version comes with S35VN.  We are right at the point where technology is pushing hard to make S30V a 1 instead of a 2 steel.  I have found that it is chippy and hard to sharpen.  But the Mnandi's S30V is a little different than the average because CRK heat treats it to a lower HRc, addressing both problems I have with the steel.  Honestly I am not sure how much longer "regular" S30V will get a 2, but here, you have something different than "regular" and it is better for it.

Blade Shape: 2

As with almost everything about this knife, the slender clip point is not just wonderfully effective it is also absolutely stunning.  This is a great cutter and a great looker.  Its pointy enough with out being unnecessarily frail or thin.  I could go on, but it would be pointless--this is a great blade shape, it fits the knife well, and looks amazing.

Grind: 2 

You can go watch the Blade HQ video on Chris's new grind for the 25 and it might get you thinking.  But really there is nothing wrong at all with the CRK high hollow grind you will find here and on the Sebenza.  This is simply one of the best grinds out there.  I loved cutting stuff with the Mnandi.  It was razor sharp, quick through material and steady on the line thanks to a superb grind.  If you watch Jacques Pepin's cooking videos (which, as a knife fan you should, dude has more knife skills than just about anyone on Planet Earth), you'll see the master chef slice and cut meat effortlessly (or debone a chicken in about 56 seconds).  The Mnandi worked the same.  Dan sent it razor sharp and the grind just made it all the better at cutting.  I actually prefer the Mnandi to the Sebenza when it came to cutting.  You just don't need all that thickness in an EDC knife.

Deployment Method: 2 

Ah and here we arrive at the big difference between the two Mnandi models.  The wide nail knick with the sharp upper edge is awesome.  It is one of the very few deployment methods that does not subtract from the visuals of the knife but remains easy to open.


Flippers, holes, disks, and studs all, at best doesn't clash with a knife's style, but here we have something that actually accentuates it.  The minimalist look doesn't sacrifice ease of use, either.  The old style knick is a reliable and easy one hand opening knife.  Its just that good.  The new knick, is, however, something a botch job, like Tara Reid'  The new knick, just doesn't work.  Its too rounded over to get a purchase on and as a result it lessens the functionality of the knife.  I can't say that I am fan of this change.  Perhaps CRK can produce both--one for the US and other jurisdictions that allow for one handed opening knives and the other for more restrictive jurisdictions.

Retention Method: 2

The Sebenza clip is great. It really is.  But it is not a looker by any means.  The Mnandi's clip, like the rest of the knife is both great looking and highly functional. 


Its remarkable to find a fully 3D machined pocket clip on a knife this price.  Many customs don't offer such a feature and those that do are rarely this well executed.  The fact that the attachment point is both a stand off and a fastner is really a clean, clever touch.  

Lock: 2

I am not an adherent to the early lock up mentality.  To me, basic physics seems to favor a large surface area of contact to ensure firm lock up.  The Fellhoelter Dauntless has a lot of contact.  There is some worry, I suppose, about wearing out the lock, but if it is properly made that won't be a realistic concern, especially in an EDC knife.  Here, as you can see:


lock up is late.  The entire lock face meets the rear of the blade.  The lock was easy to engage and disengage and there was no play in any direction.  Excellent lock.  

Overall Score: 20 out of 20  

In my mind the Sebenza is a piece of furniture from a Bauhaus designer--spare, reduced to its essential components, and without flourish of any kind.  In that same mode, the Mnandi reminds me of Greene and Greene furniture--elegant, purposeful, with sneakily difficult to pull off flourishes.  As a woodworker, the Greene and Greene style is definitely my favorite.  It looks quite simple, but execution of even their simplest piece is maddeningly difficult.  So too here with the Mnandi.  The inlay is so large, so perfectly integrated into the knife, that only upon consideration do you realize how difficult it was to do. CRK's trick is the use of an industrial bonding tape, 3M "tape" used to adhere window curtains to skyscraper frames.  Its also made possible but CRK's insanely great machining.  A couple of sources, videos and posts from folks in the industry, reveal the source of CRK's machining greatness--he insists on standards and tolerances that exceed even those in the aerospace industry.  Then there is the third front of greatness: the look.  The Mnandi's shape and curve is subtle, but like nothing else on the market.  In silhouette, it appears graceful and agile.  This is a knife that has visual tension in spades.  

And so we arrive at a perfect knife through three amazing feats--superlative and tasteful adornments, a leveraging of production methods that are higher than those anywhere else in the industry, and a shape that, while not looking avante garde, is unlike anything else.  Anyone of these attributes would make the Mnandi great, all three make it worthy of that stylized CR logo on the pivot.  This is probably one of the two or three finest production blades available for EDC.  It is also good enough that I am going to rescore the Sebenza.  Having had this knife, I realize just how much better it is than the Sebenza.  The Sebenza is great, don't get me wrong, but this knife does everything the Sebenza does as well and it does other things too.  

Some folks will prefer the Sebenza because the Mnandi is "too small."  I like small knives so that doesn't bother me.  What bothers me is that they screwed up the new models with a dumb nail knick. 

The Competition

I have handled a few knives that are good rivals for the Mnandi--the William Henry EDC-6, the Strider PT CC, the Spyderco Caly3, and the Indian River Jack.  I have a strong dislike for the EDC-6, thanks to its reptilian like handle scales and dinky feel.  The Strider is a great knife, but not as refined and is not as good a slicer (thanks to its thick full flat grind).  The Caly3 is quite good, but lacks some of the inventive touches that the Mnandi does--its not quite the looker and is a little bigger than what I find ideal.  This leaves the Indian River Jack.  For me, it is a tough call.  Both are amazing blades.  If you favor more modern styling the Mnandi is the way to go.  If you don't and like the traditional look, obviously the Indian River Jack is your choice.  If you have no preference, opt for the Indian River Jack, its $250 less.  Both are great knives and both make excellent higher end EDCs, but one is very expensive and the other is merely pricey.  This is like picking between a Ferrari and a Lamborghini, so there is no bad choice.  I also like the pocket slip on the IRJ better, but that is such a small point.   

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

HL Human Sponsor

Brad Dowdy, friend of the site and Pen Addict extraordinaire, has, as many of you know, launched a business that makes really damn good pen cases and other stationary stuff called Nock Co.  I loved my Nock Co. Lookout.  He and his business partner Jeff have branched out into EDC gear at their new site HL Human.  They reached out to me and we set up a link to the right.  They are helping out the blog.  Go take a look at what they have.  Right now they have a good selection of 47s lights and a really interesting and exclusive design for a key hook called the Pelican.

I never mind sending people to businesses that do stuff the right way and Nock Co and HL Human do just that.   

Monday, December 8, 2014

Trolling for Hate: Why I am Struggling with Watch Reviews

Since I launched the site I have wanted to do watch reviews.  I have tried a few times and each time has ended in failure.  Watches are much more complicated than knives and flashlights.  Their  long history and technical sophistication make it difficult to penetrate watch jargon and speak with confidence when evaluating watches.  But there are a few other issues that watches present that make it hard for me to review them.  In essence, the problem is this--watches are fashion items.  As handy as they are, watches aren't tools and I review tools.  I like pretty tools as much as the next dude, but watches aren't tools first and foremost (or at least the watches people find interesting aren't).  Here is how you know they aren't tools--the more expensive watches do not perform their designated function better than less expensive watches.  That is, a quartz watch keeps better time than a Rolex.  And when price is wholly detached from performance, you are not looking at tool you are looking at something else.


Watches do a lot of different things--tell time, tell the day and date, act as a stopwatch--there are myriad functions of some watches (called complications).  And the guts of a watch are literal engineering masterpieces.  Coiled springs and escapements and the like all make watch evaluation complex.  Its like reviewing a computer or a AVR--the more functions and the more complex something is the hard it is to fully evaluate.  Watches are the EDC equivalent of the massive $4,000 Denon receiver--there is just a lot going on in that little case.  All of these extras bring up an issue fundamental to consumerism--feature creep.  How many of these doodads matter?  Do you REALLY need to know the phase of the moon?  They are complicated and, in many was, unnecessarily so.  


Let's face facts--alot of what we carry we carry because it looks nice.  It is, as Andrew put it, pocket frosting.  The knife, the light, the OPMT, they all have functions, but if it were strictly about performance we'd all have Dragonfly IIs in ZDP-189.  Its not and we like ornamentation (I don't really, but even I have a Damascus bladed knife).  But unless you have a collection of William Henry knives, a knife is, first and foremost, a tool.  Its looks are secondary.  And we know this because increased cost is linked to increased performance.  Of course, at the top end, marginal performance improvements come at a very high cost, but that is the way all goods function.  But comparing the top and the bottom of the market is illustrative--a San Ren Mu 605 does not out perform a Spyderco Dragonfly II or a Jon Graham Midtech Stubby Razel.  But with watches, the same is not true at all.  A $12 quartz keeps better time than a $12,000 Rolex.  And because that is true, watches are not tools, first and foremost.  Your money is paying for things other than performance.  Its paying for looks, for jewels on the watch face (another hint that watches are jewelry), and it is paying for some mythical quality called "exclusivity".  You know what things that cost more solely because of exclusivity are called?  Veblen Goods.  High end watches, to a large degree, are Veblen goods.  The sole purpose of a high price tag is to make the good seem exclusive.  

There are a few good ways to ferret out BS in the watch market.  Many movements are made by ETA.  Search for a given movement and then look at the prices of the watches with that movement.  Next, look to see if the watches have exotic materials that could otherwise justifiy the cost difference. If not, then the cost difference is based on some mystical "brand exclusivity."  In many ways this strikes me as stupid as things like "premium vodka."  The legal definition of vodka is that it is a tasteless and odorless spirit.  How can their be PREMIUM vodkas when they are required to be the same and not just the same thing, but similarly devoid of distinguishing characteristics?

I was looking at a Sinn watch and a Hamilton.  They had similar materials--steel, sapphire crystal, leather band--and they had an identical ETA movement.  But they were $1000 apart, with the Sinn being more expensive.  This particular Sinn did not have the "tegimented" steel or the inert gas interior. It was the 556. 

The Hamilton was the HML-H70455533. 

What's the difference between the two watches other than looks and "brand exclusivity"?  Nothing.  They have the exact same movements. 

And that is one reason why watches are hard to evaluate. The differences are stylistic and brand based and not, well, reality based.  I appreciate good looking tools, but evaluating them solely on that basis is something I am neither good at nor interested in.  Frankly, many premium watches are jewelry and that is fine, but I am not interested in jewelry.  Skull rings or dinner plate sized five figure watches just don't interest me.  

Out of Step

The last reason I am struggling with watch reviews has to do with my tastes.  While this is a gear blog and gear are tools, I am a person that appreciates style.  The problem is, the style I like in watches--quiet, muted, and durable, is not the style that is in right now.  We went from 38mm up to 46mm and larger faces.  The problem is only Randy Jackson can get away with wearing 50mm watches.  The rest of us look silly.  But increasingly that is all there is.

I am also not a huge fan of the dive watch look.  If it was about function, that would be one thing, but the dive watch look is worn by divers about .01% of the time and posers the rest of the time.  The Humvee look is just something that blinds my mind's eye and offends my sense of style (what little I have).  I like the aesthetic some of the time, but is WAY over done, especially when combined with the other trend I don't like--big watches.  I don't want to wear a dinner plate on my wrist, even if it does have dominos on it so I can tell time.

Finally, there is the distinct lack of minimalism.  I get that complications show of a watch maker's prowess, but I buy gear to use not to show off (and yes, I begrudingly do Instagram...frankly I hate it, but so many gear folks are there, I figure I have to participate).  And so faces like this one:

just about kill me.  A quick glance at the face of the watch and you can find about 15 mortal design sins, things that would never fly in my favorite design book--Design of Everyday Things.  But here is the issue--watch design is not about telling time, it is about jewelry, and there, in the end, is the rub.


I wear one piece of jewelry--my wedding band.  I got married to my wife on my grandparent's 50th wedding anniversary.  As their gift they gave us their bands when they upgraded theirs.  The sentimental value is huge and so I make one exception and wear exactly one item of jewelry.  No Rolex, Patek Phillippe, or Breitling will ever be as meaningful and so I am not going to break the rule for them.

In the end I am going to review watches, and maybe I will work my way up to the Rolexes of the world, but I just don't have the heart to do it right now.  I hate paying for a brand.  I hate paying for exclusivity.  These two burnings hatreds were the fuel that made me start this blog.  And now that I have come to watches I am saddened to realize that most of what makes them what they are are things I disdain.  The watch industry is bent on selling an image, and I get that most things are doing that, but in the watch business it seems like it is 99% image and 1% thing on your wrist.  Unlike what the ads tell you watches don't make you interesting.  Being interesting does that.  Watches won't make you wealthy, having wealth does that (and in fact, given the meteoric rise in prices of Swiss made watches they seem to do the opposite).  And watches certainly won't make you a person of distinction, doing the right thing will do that.  So take the celebrity photos, Bond movie product placements, bathyscape stuns, and other watch marketing bullshit and shove it.

I will probably end up reviewing a few $100-$1000 watches, but beyond that, I am not sure what I am paying for, and when that happens, you have left the realm of rational purchases and entered a bizarro world where spending money results in poorer performance.  Watches, after a certain point, are all style and no substance.  My opinion is always subject to change (one smart man told me that a wise person is always one good argument away from changing their mind), but for now I can't wrap my head around pure luxury watches.

Tell me I am wrong.  I really want to learn and thus far, after three years of on and off research, I have failed.   

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Triple Aught Design Fellhoelter Compact Dauntless Review

EDITOR'S NOTE: I am not ashamed to admit it--I am as biased as the next person.  I have preferences.  But as a reviewer I want to do what I can to limit their influence on the score of a product.  Most of the time that involves me stating what they are and noting where opinions may diverge.  In some instances, the biases are so strong I don't feel like I can do a good job reviewing a product.  This was one of those instances.  Ben stepped up and filed in quite nicely.  I'd give it the same score, 20 out of 20.  I am not sure if I am willing to give it a perfect score, maybe over time I will.

Despite setting trends that are followed in the production knife world (titanium, framelock, flipper, zzz...), the custom knife scene operates largely on a maker-by-maker, owner-by-owner basis: the purchase and ownership of a custom knife is often about, or at least often becomes about, what rings the buyer’s cherry, and questions of utility and design fall by the wayside in the rarified air of grail knives and acquisition. This is a shame, at least from a gear reviewer’s perspective, because while most customs are doomed to lives as safe queens, and indeed often seemed designed with this end in mind, just as often they are extremely well-designed, and of such a degree of quality that not using them is almost an insult to the knife. I’m happy to say that the Compact Fellhoelter Custom Dauntless (forthwith for brevity’s sake the Compact Dauntless) falls into that second camp. It is beautiful, yes, and certainly collectible, but it is first and foremost a wonderful knife--that is to say a wonderful tool.

Here is the product page on TAD’s website. This knife, which is, of course, not readily available, costs $630. I couldn’t find any written reviews. Here is Tony’s overview, which is the only video commentary I found.

Here is the review sample, Tony’s personal Compact Dauntless:


Twitter Review Summary: Unassailably good design, a wonderful aesthetic, and definite utility make this knife a pleasure to use.

Design: 2

The Compact Dauntless is a product of the Dauntless Project, a sort of design initiative from Triple Aught Design, who led the charge with their own Dauntless knife, and then had custom makers all put their spin on the central concept. This was/is a brilliant idea, and going to TAD’s website and looking at the Dauntless page is, I should warn you, a foray into extremely explicit knife porn (the Jarosz Knives Mod 75, hummuna hummunna).


The conceit for Brian Fellhoelter’s Dauntless is right in the name: it’s compact. Most of the other Dauntless knives, including the flagship production model, are quite large, usually in the neighborhood of 3.5”. Larger knives have their place, and can even be reasonably EDC’d, but to have those Dauntless bones scaled down into something, well, compact and easily pocketable is a wonderful thing. That is the core of the Compact Dauntless’s greatness, but there are many small touches that contribute as well: the way the length of the clip keeps the knife in place in your pocket, the control afforded by the two finger choils, the texturing on the inside of the framelock for disengagement, the raised, jimped area for greater comfort when you’re cutting at an’s all good. There’s nothing avant-garde about the knife; the Compact Dauntless’s design greatness doesn’t come from wild innovation, but rather from a relentless attention to what works for a knife of its size, and the near-flawless execution thereof.

The blade: length is .77, nothing inspirational, but this the glory of the Compact Dauntless isn’t in the broad strokes stuff; the details make it great. Also, you’ll notice that the custom TAD hardware looks badass yet still needs just a standard torx driver to disassemble. Hmm, wow, it’s almost like there’s NO REASON to use proprietary screws on a knife, period...

Fit and Finish: 2

No surprises here. We know that production knife companies are capable of absolutely stunning fit and finish, but what I think you get when you step up into a custom is what could almost be called “warmness”: everything that can, and should be smooth, is: all the edges are chamfered, and the seam between the G10 scale and the titanium lockbar side is so tightly done that it passes the fingernail test. I mentioned it above, but there is texturing on the inside of the disengagement area of the lockbar, and it is done so perfectly: it catches your finger without being abrading at all. The fact that the designer’s name and the year of manufacture are machined into the inside of the G10 scale is just too cool. Stunning.


Grip: 2

This knife is a thick little chunk of G10 and titanium, and that, along with the forward choil and smoothed-over overall polish, makes it pretty great in the hand. That being said, there is a small issue with that forward choil: my finger has a tendency to push forward a little bit, right on to the cutting edge, when I’m making a cut of any force. I’m not sure this would be an issue for all users, but if you compare it to the choil on the Strider PT CC, which has a more defined ricasso, or the one on the Caly 3 CF, which is a lot wider and more accommodating, you’ll see that it is lacking.


It may just be the way I hold the knife, and at any rate a modicum of knife sense will alleviate the issue entirely, and so while it’s worth noting, it’s not worth docking this knife a point. And, as also mentioned above, the raised jimping on top not only facilitates traction, but indexes your thumb perfectly for downward cuts.

Carry: 2

This knife is thick, but not obtrusively so, and the long clip keeps it from knocking around at all in your pocket.


It doesn’t disappear, but it doesn’t intrude. Along with my Three Sisters Forge Beast, this knife convinced me of the benefits of a long clip. Very good.

Steel: 2

154CM has always been an underrated steel. In my experience it outperforms VG10 in edge retention (what doesn’t?), sharpens about as easily as AUS-8, and is more durable than S30V. I class it alongside N690, although I’ve never been able to get my 154CM blades as sharp as my N690 ones. This blade uses CPM 154, the powder metallurgy variant of 154CM, which enhances the qualities I like in the standard iteration. I didn’t sharpen this knife, because as this isn’t my blade I didn’t want to wear it down to the point where it would need sharpening, but I do own an Northwoods Knives Indian River Jack and had absolutely no problems getting that thing nice and sharp.

Also I really like the finish on the Compact Dauntless. It looks almost as if it were beadblasted and then stonewashed; whatever was done, the end result is a muted but very attractive finish that I’d imagine, were this knife to be used hard (Tony you should try some batonning!), would wear very well.

Blade Shape: 2

An almost squaloid drop point blade that is proportionally narrower than that of the production Dauntless, with a gracile curve from the main edge up to the point, this blade tells me that Brian Fellhoelter intended for this knife to see actual use: it performs just about any reasonable cutting task with ease.  I always find that if I don’t have a lot to say about the shape of the blade, that’s usually because it’s great, and that is certainly the case here.

Grind: 2

The lines of this grind are beautiful. Although I tend to be ambivalent about swedges, the one on the Compact Dauntless is, in keeping with the rest of the knife, perfectly done, and I find that it contributes to the sleek machinist aesthetic of the knife, instead of coming across as “tactical.” The knife is ground from fairly thick stock, and often thicker knives sacrifice too much cutting ability in favor of extra durability. However, the balance is just right here, with the flat grind on the Compact Dauntless, which starts about a third of the way down the blade, steep enough, and the cutting bevel wide and even enough, to ensure good, although not stellar, all-around performance. The beauty of the blade, and the general competence in cutting tasks, as well as the bump in durability over other smallish slicers like the Dragonfly, are enough to warrant two points.

Deployment Method: 2

Tony, in the update to his overview, illustrates the way he found best to open the Compact Dauntless. You may have to think about deploying this knife a little more than you would something with an opening hole, but the tradeoff is a reliable and fast deployment, every single time. That is a point that bears emphasis: the detent is perfectly balanced, and this knife FLIES out of the handle. Even trying, I couldn’t get this knife to open only halfway, or not lock up properly.

Lock: 2

Framelocks are probably my least favorite knife locks. They have their benefits, I know, but I’ve always found that they are more finicky and require more care than a liner lock or a lockback (which, the longer I use and handle knives, the more I appreciate). Even something more mechanically complex, like an Axis Lock, has been more reliable in my experience. That being said, the Compact Dauntless has the best framelock I’ve ever used. Its lockup is as sure and confident as its deployment.


I can’t tell if the lockface is carbidized or not, and I didn’t get to handle the knife when it was brand new and not broken in, but there is no stickiness at all, and disengagement is effortless, in part due to that great texturing on the lockbar. It’s not going to convince me that framelocks are the way to go, but damn if this isn’t a perfect implementation.

Overall Score: 20 out of 20

When looking at custom knives, there’s this question of whether it’s fair compare them to production knives. This line of thought is to the detriment of the discussion of custom knives: they’re treated as something other than just knives, when in fact, that is often exactly what they are: the ultimate expression of a knife, something in which form and function can meet, unhindered by concerns for budget or manufacturing costs or mass appeal or any of the bullshit that plagues a knife company at the drawing board. Sure, there are display customs, and all custom knives are collectible, but so many makers are out there, putting out knives that are amazing tools in addition to being one of a kind.

The Compact Dauntless is such a knife. I cannot say enough good things about it. The aesthetic is super badass, and the size and fit and finish are unbeatable, but it’s the usefulness that leaves an impression. It’s kind of knife you really appreciate if you’ve already handled and used a bunch of different knives. Almost every detail is thought out and well-realized. This is a knife knut’s knife. The biggest issue here is availability. TAD and Brian, you guys want to get started on a production version?


Monday, December 1, 2014

Topo Designs Day Pack Review

"I hate this bag, I hate this bag, I hate this bag."

That is what I said almost the entire trip to and from NYC.  I took the Day Pack as my only luggage and I rode the train and walked almost everywhere to give the pack a good test.  And the end result was that mantra, repeated over and over again.

"Where is my goddam Maxped PFII?"

In fact this review period is a perfect summary of the problem with hipster gear--form over function.  When I left for the trip, a friend at work said to me "That's a nice looking bag" and she is right.  But everything else about this pack is positively wretched.

The only point to read on any further is to see if the Topo Designs Day Pack breaks the record for lowest score.  Don't buy this.  Don't gift this.  Don't fill this full of shit, light it on fire, and toss it on the porch of your enemy.  It does nothing well.

Here is the product page.  There are lots of colors and the bag was $129 (MSRP is $149).  There is a smaller version of the pack, which may as well be called the Dora the Explorer Edition, but this version is the 22L version.  Here is a review (they inexplicably like the bag, well okay, maybe not inexplicably...).  Here is the bag (sadly purchased with site funds, think of this as a PSA--now you don't have to waste your money):


I am not posting an affiliate link.  Why spread the cancer?

Twitter Review Summary: Hipsteritis as its worst--looks cool, works terribly.

Design: 0

As with most things this bad, it started at the drawing board.  Fundamentally, the problem is this--how the bag works was secondary to how the bag looks.  Here is a case in point--the side pockets, which are ostensibly for water bottles (that's what these pockets do on 100% of other bags that have them), did not work consistently.  If I packed the bag full, they didn't function.  If, however, I didn't stuff the bag full, they sometimes worked. It was a tight fit, but if you really wrestled with the bag, you could slide a Klean Kanteen in.  These pockets were designed to look minimal and clean, which is fine, but they still should work, or, they shouldn't be there at all.  To leave them there, in a place where we EXPECT a bottle pocket, and have them work some, but not all of the time, is just annoying.  

All sorts of things were like this about the bag.  The main straps were good, but they lacked a sternum strap, something that should be on a bag that was this expensive.  Undoubtedly such a strap would, again, take away from the clean look.  The end result is a less than comfortable carry.  The Topo sternum strap itself was a separate purchase and it too was garbage.  

Time and again, there were things about this bag that were simply wrong and they were wrong because to do otherwise would take away from the look Topo was trying to achieve.  I have yet to review another product more hellbent on achieving a certain look at the cost of functionality.

But if it was just that, I'd be okay, I'd give the product a 1 here, but there is more.  The bag's design has two other mortal sins.  First, the pen slot/small item organizer is in the main compartment.  When the bag is packed this is all but inaccessible.  To get stuff you have to either take things out or hope you can get to them.  Even when I wasn't in NYC and I was using this bag, the place of the small item organizer annoyed me.  When I actually packed the bag, it rose from "annoyance" to "pissing me off."

Then there is this--the bag doesn't do a great job of protecting your stuff.  In my Maxped bag, a bag that was $50 cheaper, BTW, there is a lot more padding on the back and stout non-permeable material on the bottom of the bag, in case you want to sit it down on something less than perfectly dry.  Nothing like that can be found on the Day Pack.  There were a couple of times when I set the pack down and heard a worrisome thud, caused by my iPad hitting the surface unprotected. There is a version that has a leather bottom, but from the pictures it looks like suede.  Ugh.

Fit and finish: 2 

For all of the design miscues, there is no disputing this is a well made item.  The stitching was flawless, the fabric was cut nicely, there were no stray threads of any kind.  This gives me hope for Topo as a brand.  They know how to do fit and finish, they just didn't incorporate that with a good design in this pack.

Carry: 1

The lack of a sternum strap out of the box is a bit annoying when competitors include one in bags half the price.  But that's not the real problem.  The real issue here is how the lack of organization and the placement of the small items organizer impacts carry.  When the pack is full, and a laptop is included (or in my case a iPad) it becomes very rigid.  There isn't enough padding to comfortably mold the pack to your back.


When its not packed full, the lack of internal organization makes the pack feel sloshy on the back as stuff swings around and moves with momentum.  This is not a pack for day hikes or public transit commutes. You will constantly feel off balance.

Materials: 2

Again, a win for Topo as they picked all the right materials from all the right places.  The cordura is nice, the zipper pulls are great...I just wish there was a little more padding on the back and bottom of the bag, but those are problems associated with other things.  The materials chosen were great.

Accessibility: 0

If I would have stored my belongings in the mouth of a living alligator, teeth and all, I would have had an easier time getting to them.  Simply put, this is a fatal flaw, regardless of what else the Day Pack does wrong.  I was at a conference, taking notes and my pen ran out of ink.  I had to basically do the homeless person thing and unpack the entire bag to get access to the pen.


The rear compartment is even worse.  It is so shallow and thin I only put small things in it, like my earbuds or a thin magazine, but when the pack was full, I couldn't reach anything.  Add to that the lack of organization, and I am flummoxed as to how Topo thinks this bag is a competitive offering.  That rear pocket is useless.  

But again, for this level of crapulence, you have to really dig and Topo did here.  The main compartment is basically a sack, other than the underwhelming pen slot/small item organizer.  At 22L this is a medium sized bag, but with almost no structure in the main compartment, I was left with the old "leave it on top" organization method.  That was fine in the 80s when everyone had packs that had two pockets and only two pockets.  But in a marketplace where Maxped's Pygmy Falcon II is $50 cheaper and Tom Bihn's Synapse is the same price or slightly more ($170 MSRP to $149 MSRP), this is just unacceptably awful. 

I'd give this thing a -1 if I could without breaking the scoring system.  IT WAS AWFUL.

Ease of Packing: 0

While the Day Pack can hold a lot of stuff, given its external appearance, its 22L interrior is not put to good use.  Additionally because of a shorter zipper track than many packs, such as the Maxped packs or the Tom Bihn packs, you have to be very strategic with how you put stuff in the Day Pack.  That  would be a 1, but here is the real problem--the more you pack it the less useful the other pockets are.  At one point in my trip, I had the bag packed, not to the brim, but well packed and I simply couldn't slip my water bottle, a Hydroflask, into the bottle pockets.  Try as I might, with force and manipulation, I couldn't get the bottle in.  It was so tight at one point I pushed, the pocket closed, and the bottle make a load banging sound on the table underneath the pack, attracting unwanted attention.  I then took stuff out of the pack, rearranged it, and put the bottle in.  Screw that.  This pack is just fundamentally broken.  It is a bad design, with cues that make you think it can do certain things, like carry water bottles, but with functionality that makes those tasks difficult.  Packing this bag is one of those things.

Pockets/Organization: 0 

I am sure you have guessed by now, but the lack of organization here is really stunning.  I get the minimalist aesthetic.  Not everything needs to be covered in MOLLE, but here they took that to the extreme AND even with the little bit of organization they did include, they did it poorly.  The pen/small objects organizer should NOT be in the main compartment.


You shouldn't have to rifle through your clothes to get a pen.  This is such a fundamental lesson of pack design that even the barebones LL Bean and Jansports of the 80s knew this.  Putting the ONLY organizer in the bag in the main compartment is akin to putting the steering wheel of a car in some place other than the passenger compartment.  This is another fundamental failure of the Day Pack.  

Snaps/buckles/zippers: 2

The ZIPPERS are great.


They are smooth, they never mismatch, they can take a lot of pressure and still close.  The ZIPPERS are, however, comically large.  If you can get over their appearance, which I can, they are wonderful ZIPPERS.  The buckles are fine and there are no snaps on the bag.  Its all about the ginormous ZIPPERS.

Straps and belts: 0

Okay, so this is a $130 and there is no sternum strap.  How 1980s of Topo.  Worse yet, the sterum strap (sold separately) Is utter garbage.  During my testing it fell off about once every hour or so of use.  It is also terribly thin.  Once snapped in place, and assuming it doesn't fall off, it works okay.  But the built in sternum strap on my Pygmy Falcon II is way better and the waist/sternum combination on the regular Falcon is light years ahead of this sad excuse of a strap.  Even the top hand strap was thin and cheap:


Modularity/expansion: 0

This pack can barely work without add ons, which Topo offers, I am not sure how they would incorporate here.  Unlike the Tom Bihn line or the Maxpedition line of packs, there is virtually no way to expand the pack, other than to just buy smaller bags that fit inside.  That's not really modularity though, especially compared to other options on the market.

Overall Score: 7 out of 20

Not quite the record, the Artifact seems poised to hold that title forever, but the Topo Designs Day Pack gave it a good shot.  This is like Sammy Sosa chasing Mark McGwire.  It feel JUST short.  In all seriousness, this is just a terrible design and joke of a pack in the modern market.  My Fieldline pack that was $11 at Wal-Mart is, in many real ways, better.  Aside from the superb, utterly perfect zippers, the Topo Designs Day Pack is just awful.  As I was walking through NYC and the sternum strap kept coming off I wanted to take the pack, throw it to the ground and light it on fire to warm the hobos nearby.  At least then it would be serving a purpose.  As a backpack it was a punch in the nuts.

Do not buy the Topo Designs Day Pack.  Its absolutely wretched. It is also emblematic of the problem with hipster gear--form over function in the worst possible way.  Throw this thing on the pile of junk that includes cutely named, painted handled axes from a company with a red cross logo.  If you want something that looks old fashioned and works, try a Filson bag.  If you want something that looks good and modern, try a Tom Bihn bag.  If you aren't afraid to go a little GI Joe, the Maxpedition line is much better and cheaper.  If you want an amazing and functional bag, try the Triple Aught Design Lightspeed. Simply put, there is no comparison that comes out in Topo's favor in the current market.  This is not a pack folks like us need to consider.