Saturday, April 18, 2015

Quick Hits: The SO Close Edition

NOTE: This post contains my only political statement ever.  I have never and will never tread these poisonous waters again.  The political discourse in this country has never been more fallow or base.   

Prometheus EKO

Prometheus, as a brand, is basically to EDC gear what Terrence Malick is to films.  He doesn't make a lot of stuff, but the stuff he makes is totally awesome (fuck you...Tree of Life was genius).  The EKO is definitely good, but, in my mind it falls short in one crucial aspect.  That's not to say its a bad tool, its not, but it is not quite the revelation that Jason's other stuff was.  Here is the Kickstarter page, where the EKO goes for $50 (early bird and second chance were less at $40 and $45 respectively).

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The package is quite nice, coming in a small piece of 1/8th inch plywood.  The EKO is intended to ride on your keychain, but in the plywood piece, I found it did well in my wallet.  The EKO has three tools--a "cutting edge", a cap lifter, and a hex bit hole.  All work well, with the caveat that the cutting edge is really just a long snag edge.  It is great at dicing up boxes and opening packages but it can't slice paper or make feathersticks.  If you accept that limitation, it is a very good design and I had fun chopping down boxes for recycling.  Some folks might object to the inclusion of a purposely dull blade, but they miss the point.  This is not a knife replacement, this is a keychain multitool and an exposed edge wouldn't work well there.  The cap lifter works but it is a bit odd in how it does so, but once I got it, it popped bottles open with a few pulls.  Not ideal, but not wretched.  The size is just right too, matching a real key's dimensions.    

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The main problem I have with the EKO is a simple one--it lacks a pry edge.  There are a number of ways to integrate one on the current design.  I am not sure if I want one because every other OPMT has one, but the reality is--we have been conditioned to expect it.  I have also found that of the OPMTs I like, the pry edge is the second most used implement after the cap lifter.  There are two other things that keep the EKO from the upper echelon of scores--its material and its price.  Titanium is a great material, I love it, I really do.  But, with an edge, even one that is purposely not sharpened, titanium is lacking.  It just can't hold up over time.  More importantly, even if I wanted to sharpen it, I couldn't.  Bummer.  I'd prefer this tool in stainless steel.  It might be heavier, but given its overall size, it would be that burdensome (many keys on your keychain are made of brass after all) and it would then allow you to sharpen the edge as you see fit.  I rarely mention price, but here, three tools for $50, is really striking.  That's a lot of money for what you are getting.  The Shard, an all time great OPMT is under $10.  TT PockeTTools makes a lot of stuff in this price range with more implements.  The price is not a deal breaker, I bought a RUT after all, but it is striking.

And if you are curious, you can pledge on KS with no risk--the project, like all of Jason's stuff, is already funded. 

Overall Score: 17 out of 20 (1 off for Materials for an unnecessary and actually detrimental use of titanium (prevents sharpening of the edge and raises cost); 1 off for Tool Selection for the missing pry edge; and 1 off for Tool Performance for an awkward cap lifter)

Malkoff MDC

Its a question that people love to ask--would you rather come close to greatness and fail or live a life of relative success without ever truly trying for the spectacular?  Would you rather be Tom Petty, consistently cranking out very good albums or a director like Richard Kelly (who wrote and directed the amazing Donnie Darko and the...um...less amazing Southland Tales)?

Gene Malkoff, long famous for his drop in emitters for Surefires, is a great light maker.  The MDC, found here, is his first run at a true everyday carry light comes perilously close to perfection at a budget price of $99.  But, in the end, one small thing, one little detail sends the design careening towards silly.  So...damn...close.

The pocket clip here is a design abortion.  It is horrendously bad.  Not only does it ding everything it comes in contact with, it is TOO deep seating to easily retrieve the light and borks any possibility that the light could tailstand.  This is grounding-into-a-triple-play-with-the-bases-loaded-and-no-one-out bad.

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The rest of the light is phenomenal.  Its plenty bright, its got a legit low, its solidly built and the head is fully potted.  The UI comes in two flavors, high first or low first, and I got the WRONG one (my fault, I hit the wrong radial button), but overall the MDC does so much so well that the light is still worth considering despite the bullshit clip.  Hell, just take the clip off.  That's an awesome light.  

Its not small but it is not lardy either, with extra bulk for extra bulk's sake.  Here it is next to a Zippo.

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In many ways the MDC is an ideal EDC light, except for one glaring issue.  Ugh.  It kills me for something to be this close, yet so far away.

Overall score: 18 out of 20 (1 off for Design because of the wretched placement of the clip; and 1 off for Hands Free because this thing can't tailstand)

AG Russell Acies2 

AG Russell is, without question, the most underrated folding knife designer of the past 20 years.  If you randomly purchase a knife from his site, chances are very good that it will not just be a good knife, but a favorite of yours.  Until I got the Acies2 the streak of good knives ran three long.  But alas, the Acies2 is a Sebenza built by committee and it was a committee that knew buzzwords and tech but not the essence of what makes the Sebenza special.  This is a knife built with great materials that has great specs but is lacking in crucial ways. You can find the Acies2 here.  It was part of the Sebenzalternatives Shootout, found here (it came in second). 

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Let's start with the good.  The steel is awesome.  You know my love for ZDP-189 by now and I think it is still one of the top four choices for an EDC blade (M4, M390 and S35VN being the other three).  Similarly you know my love for efficient handles and blades.  The Acies2 positively crams in blade, not just length but height as well.  This is a long wide blade in a short knife.  Prestidigitation required.  And then there is the excellent grind.  The dished high hollow grind is excellent and the cutting bevel was something of a miracle.  A major hat tip to AG Russell on that front.

But this is where the train goes off the rails:

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No, no, no.  This thumb stud is wretched.  I know some folks like it, but they don't write this blog (Scurvy...you really should write for this blog or start your own...for now, the comments work).  As for me, I hate it.  I hate it both conceptually and as implemented.  Conceptually, it fails because it violates one of the primary heuristics of good design--it dictates how it is supposed to be used instead of allowing the user to decide.  There is one and only one way to approach and use this thumb stud.  All other methods-coin flips and slow rolls--will be punished with skin splitting agony.  And as implemented I just can't see it.  It is too close to the handle and too sharply cut to be effective.  I am not sure if it has to do with the fact that this is a Kershaw stud that was originally on knives with assists, but whatever the reason, I hate this thumb stud more than any other I have tried.  It is a major problem with the knife.  The other problem is more of a cosmetic issue, but it is a "car that was keyed the entire length of my driver side" level cosmetic issue.

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The clip is large, thick, protruding, and ugly.  Surprisingly because of how it is positioned its not a screaming hot spot, but it is just brutally ugly.

Like the MDC, there is so much potential here, but again, these two products prove how challenging it is to make a good piece of gear.  Even the greats, like AG Russell, can't win them all.     

Overall score: 17 out of 20 (2 off Deployment for the worst thumb stud ever; 1 off Retention Method for a pretty ugly clip)

Osprey Flare 24/7

What do you want in a general use backpack?  For me, the Pygmy Falcon II is pretty darn close to perfect--tough, riding the organizational balance between the Sarlaac Pit-like hyperorganized computer bags of the world that seem to eat more stuff than they store and the Dora the Explorer bullshit that was the Topo Designs Daypack (not the lowest scored item, but the only thing I have reviewed that I truly hated with a bile-filled passion).  Despite owning and loving a classic I still want to try new stuff and that's why I bought the Osprey Flare (purchased with my own money). Here is the product page.

Normally I have a hard time trying out bags, as I work using a briefcase, but this pack went with me to the hospital when my second son was born and then suited up yet again for our trip back to the hospital 4 days later when he needed emergency treatment.  I lived out of this bag for 5 days and in the end, it turned out to be quite nice.  

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Osprey makes a positively staggering range of packs and the Flare is from their general use line.  Their heritage as a technical pack maker shows and their roots as a company based on custom bags made by one dude also shows.  Even their general use stuff is very unique.

The Flare is a light bag, without bulky, overbuilt fabrics.  It is also extremely comfortable, both in hand and on the back, even when fully loaded.  The grab handle is truly grand as are the shoulder straps.  I would note that the waist and sternum straps are very thin, feeling like dental floss across your torso.  Inside, the bag has a sleeve for a laptop that is not removeable (boo), but it is thin and works well as extra padding.  The interior is covered in neon yellow to make sure you don't lose anything.  The middle pocket is very organized with lots of slots and places to stash stuff.  The outside pocket is a mesh number that you can easily access without undoing the buckle.  There are two water bottle pockets in the normal location and both are made of stretchy fabric that doesn't lock the bottle in place.  The zippers are excellent and have yet to mismatch.  There are two lash points on the rear of the bag which function very well and are thankful reprieve from the overtly tacticool MOLLE found on a lot of bags. 

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The balance between hyperorganized and minimal is hard one to hit and I feel like the Flare 24/7 comes down too close to the hyperoganized side.  Its not as bad as many of the bags out there, but it is a bit too busy for me.  Compared to the PFII or the Bihn Synapse, it seems like someone went pocketastic at the design computer.  That said, its not as bad as Tumi bags that have a million pockets 999,999 of which are so specifically designed that they only hold one thing (no more "chord pouches" please).  This is clearly the bag's biggest weakness.  The other issue I had was with the lack of a waterproof bottom.  The more I look at bags, the more I think this is a requirement.  You put your bag down all over the place and a piece of rubber or plastic on the bottom makes such a difference.  You can just wipe your bag clean and roll on.  Here, you can't.

This isn't a stinker by any means, but it is clearly a step below the Synapse and the PFII.  Very good but not great.

Overall score: 17 out of 20 (1 off of Materials for a thin overall build and lack of a water resistant bottom; 1 off Organization for being a bit TOO pocketastic; 1 off Straps and Belts for floss-thin front straps)

Friday, April 17, 2015

Go Outside, Snap a Pic, Win Triple Aught Design Gear

Father Winter was downright abusive this year, crushing us with foot after foot of snow.  But Spring has made its way back from its long trip and all sorts of spring-ish things are happening--grass is growing, the trees are budding, I even opened up my son's sandbox yesterday.  And this weekend, we are going back to our old wilderness stomping grounds.

Raquel, from Triple Aught Design, was an awesome guest on GGL (found here) and was kind enough to send along a piece of gear for a giveaway.  The gear in question is a sweet little custom multitool from Jim Burke.  Here is the product page.  Here is the Dog Tag in the wild:

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and

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The tool is quite a clever design with an oxygen wrench, a 1/4 inch bit holder, an integrated cutter (with cleverly hidden corners), the obligatory bottle opener, a flathead driver, and spanner (for those pesky custom pivots).  Think of this as a field take down tool for your knife that can pop a brew and cut some webbing. 

You could go over to Triple Aught Design and buy one, oh wait, you can't, they are all sold out.  So how do you win this gem?  Simple--post a picture on Instagram of your outdoor Spring adventure with the hashtag #TADventures.  No repost, no do this do that bullshit.  Just snap a picture of you on an outdoor adventure and use the #TADventures hashtag and your entered.  Two Friday's from today, May 1st, I'll pick a winner and send the DogTag out.  Also, I will throw in some Triple Aught Design patches to the kit.      

Monday, April 13, 2015

Why the Apple Watch is a Non-Starter for Me

Judging by the press it received on the Internet this past week, apparently Jesus is delivering Apple Watches to people one at a time, along with a bit of salvation.  But for all of the hoopla and my fervent devotion to Apple (I am a happy owner of an iMac, Apple TV, iPad, and an iPhone; my wife is an academic and well, they get such good discounts its hard to buy something else), the Apple Watch is just a non-starter for me.  It is the exact opposite of what I want in a watch, and right now I am on a serious watch hunt.

Andrew of 555 Gear and new cohost on GGL put it best--you buy a watch so that you can get to know it and it will serve you for the rest of your life.  A good mechanical watch, in a way, is not just an anachronism in the modern marketplace filled with quartz, it is also a consumer good anachronism.  It is already obsolete and that, in a way, makes it impossible for a mechanical watch to fall into the mill of planned obsolescence that is the beating heart of modern consumer goods (and Apple's long term growth strategy...I am on my THIRD iPhone).  You aren't buying a mechanical watch because it is the latest and greatest, you are buying it because it offers an experience that is the opposite of seeking the bleeding edge (though of course there is a lot of good tech in watches...).  

At this point I want a watch I can wear and beat up and count on.  I want a watch that doesn't need a firmwear update or a charging cord.  I want a watch that I can glance at and see the time, and nothing else.  I want at watch that keeps me on schedule, not distract me from a task at hand with Instagram, Twitter, and email notifications.  I have a phone that does all that.  And when I am in a situation that calls for me to look at my watch, it is the exact opposite situation of one where I can look at my phone.  

This is not to say that the Apple Watch is a bad product or even something that I would never buy.  If I were in the market for a FitBit or a G-Shock, I'd prefer an Apple Watch.  But given what I am looking for right now--a simple, robust, mechanical watch, the Apple Watch holds no sway over me.  This does:

Image courtesy of Sinn Watches
In a way, the Apple Watch has helped crystalize what I want in a watch.  I don't want it to do everything, I want it to do one thing, tell time, and an automatic watch does that very well, even without (or perhaps because it is lacking) an LED screen and a Wi-Fi connection.  I want something that is off the grid, something that works as well in the woods as it does in the rest of the world.  

But also want something that won't appear on the wrist of every human on earth within three years.  This isn't (solely) a desire to be different or a trend busting drive.  It just happens to be that I don't like the look of the Apple Watch more than I do the clean clear face of something like the Sinn 556 (the watch above).  I have enough sqaure, rounded over, bubble things in my daily existence. I want a bit of the real, and something that feels and looks substantial, as oppose to something that looks like a tin for breath mints.  

You might be happy lining up at the Apple Store, but for me, I'm hoping the Damasko DA36 goes on sale (sure, not going to happen, I know).

Friday, April 10, 2015

Karas Kustoms Ink Review

Karas Kustoms is the kind of company making the kind of products that I love to highlight on this blog.  They are uniformly excellent designs, made by and for enthusiasts, and they are a small business making stuff here in the US.  Dan Bishop of Karas Kustoms reached out to me after I was on the Pen Addict Podcast and asked if I wanted to review the Ink and I told him I'd be thrilled.

In the months that I have had the Ink I have come to love it.  Its not perfect, but few things are.  What it does have is an abundance of character.  I think it is fair to say that the fountain pen world has some...um...staid designs.  To be sure there are some great pens out there, even ones housed in bland bodies, but truly eye catching, never-before-seen pens are rare, especially for under $100.  Karas Kustoms changed that with the Ink and I think there is an argument to be made (which, of course, I will make in this review) that between its gorgeous strong look and robust design, there is nothing quite like the Ink--it has no true competitors.  And when you have a product like that, its worth exploring in detail.

Here is the Ink product page.  It costs $85.  Here is a video review of the Ink.  Here is a written review of the Ink.  Here is my review sample (provided by Karas Kustoms and to be given away):

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Twitter Review Summary: Like nothing else out there.

Design: 2

In the 1970s there was a phase of architecture and building construction, especially on college campuses, that came to be known as the Brutalist style (the name comes from the French for raw concrete, not its brutal look, though both are appropriate).  Huge, hulking buildings were made that looks like cinder blocks writ large.  They were sprawling structures that looked like they were defensive positions in a futuristic castle (and, in fact, according to urban legend these buildings were popular for government facilities and universities because of the perceived threat of occupation by protestors and/or students--this is, of course, not true).  The hallmark of the style is the use of raw concrete and heavy structural elements with little concern for grace or beauty.

I mention this because by comparison to the overwrought, gilded lilies of the fountain pen world, the Ink is a "Brutalist" fountain pen.  It is angular; clean almost to the point of sterility, and seemingly without concern for comfort.  There is Industrial and then there is the Ink.  But underneath that sharp edged look is a grace entirely lacking from Brutalist structures.  This is not the Humvee of Fountain Pens.  Its something else, something more complex and more interesting.  This is a pen that looks tough, but writes fluidly--an M1A1 Abrams tank with the nimble handling of a Lotus Exige.    

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In that sense it is utterly unlike anything else in the fountain pen world.  And because of that difference from the crowd, despite its flaws, it was something that charmed me.  It is so uniquely different that it has a beauty and logic all its own.  The Ink is truly a hard use fountain pen, for all of the contradictions that statement has in it.  Its design is a testament to the skill and eye of its creator, Dan Bishop.  

Fit and Finish: 2

The difficulty of making an aluminum pen as nice as a resin-based pen are pretty obvious.  Given the comparative hardness of the materials, everything in an aluminum pen is just more difficult to do--smooth threads, parts mating up, and consistency of finishes (anodizing is particularly fickle).  But given Karas's history as a machine shop and parts maker for hot rods, they know how to make metal work.   Karas could have taken the easy way out and used a plastic insert for the threads but they didn't--the threads are cut into the aluminum body here.  

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Every piece of the Ink is very nicely made.  The threads are smooth, the body tube parts mate well, and even the screws on the clip look clean and polished.  There is no slop or movement anywhere.  Even the grip area is well done, something that is problem on machined pens, where graceful curves are hard to do.  The anodizing is like a good cup of coffee--clean, rich, and dark (on the light colored ones it pops appropriately).  In short, there is nothing concerning about the pen from a finish perspective.

Carry: 1

Simple, obvious problem:

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This isn't so much a pocket clip as it is a pocket hook.  It worked okay, but the pen didn't stay put in the pocket because the clip failed to make contact with the pen's cap.   It would either slide around on the lip of the pocket or it would actually slide out.  The clip is plenty strong, but not super secure.  Aside from that issue, the pen carried well.  It wasn't particularly bulky and its solid body did not make me worry about where and what I did with the pen while it was in my pocket.

Appearance: 2

Going back to to the Brutalist look, the Ink certainly looks like a tool and less like a fancy ornament found on a banker's (or lawyer's) desk.  The exposed screws, the thick, sturdy pocket clip and the resolute lines make the Ink look solid.  That said, if you are looking for something that communicates "fancy", which is one reason to carry a nice pen, the Ink won't fit the bill, not because it isn't nice, but because it doesn't look like a conventional higher end fountain pen.  There are a few options at the $85-105 price point that would fit that bill.  I am not a "fancy pen" guy, so the nontraditional appearance doesn't bother me in the least.  

Durability: 2

In a pinch I feel like someone could shoot this thing out of a shot gun with little problem.

There are very few pens, let alone fountain pens, that can withstand the crazy travel, weird writing surfaces, and long writing sessions that I put pens through.  The Ink is one of them.  I can't think of a fountain pen as tough as the Ink.  

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Writing Performance/Refill: 2

The nib, a Schmidt nib, is marvelous.  This was my first fine nib and it was perfectly precise, which is why you get a fine nib.  The page feel with the fine nib was excellent--scratchier, of course, than my preferred medium nib (the medium GOLD nib on my Vanishing Point is like writing with a stick of butter on a hot pan...smooth, smooth, smooth), but better than I thought it would be.  The feedback was JUST right.  You can feel the texture of the paper, but at the same time you don't feel like your writing on speed bumps.  Very impressive.  I'd love to try this in a gold nib, as my VP has spoiled me. 

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The piston filler converter is definitely NOT EDC friendly, but the Ink can use standard international cartridges and its big enough to piggyback (put one cartridge in and another behind it in the body tube).  This set up gives you as much writing stamina as the converter with MUCH, MUCH less mess.  I am sure I would get better over time using the converter, but refilling it three times during the review period was enough to convince me that absent surgeon-level hand eye coordination there is going to be some stray ink somewhere in the process.

Balance/In Hand Feel: 2

This is where the Ink really surprised me.  You'd never think the interior of a Brutalist build would be plush and comfortable, but with a pen designed in a similar style that is exactly what you get.

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The pen's balance is exquisite and its length is just right.  You don't feel like your writing with an 8 foot long 2x4, but at the same time you don't feel like you stole a kindergartener's pen.  Put some orange or topaz ink in this puppy and color me surprised.

Grip: 2

As you can see above there is some real curve to the grip section and that makes the Ink positively inviting to the hand.  There are lot of machined pens (aka Kickstarter pens) that look awesome but feel like a medieval torture device in the hand.  Its easy to machine knurling, straight lines or round holes, but curves--that is a different matter and with the Ink the Karas guys flexed their machining muscle and did it just right.   

Barrel: 2

Its not the tortoise shell or resin swirl beauty that many expect with a fountain pen, so if that's your bag, this isn't your pen, but I have said that before.  If you can look past or don't need the traditional aesthetic, the clean stocky barrel is sweet.  The machining is so fine that it is a pleasure to handle (or more honestly caress...).  The chamfering at the end is a nice touch and prevents the pen from being too crisp.  

Deployment Method/Cap: 1

It doesn't post securely, so that's a point off, but it also doesn't feel flimsy or breakable like some of the Twsbi caps out there (honestly that is the sole reason you haven't seen a Twsbi reviewed here).  I'd like a truly postable cap, but its not the end of the world.  

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

This isn't the best pen I have reviewed.  This isn't a perfect pen.  But the Ink, for me, is a beloved pen.  I can overlook the weird clip design and the fact that the cap doesn't post because the in hand feel is great, the nib is nice, and the build is unique, striking, and durable.  Dan over at Karas Kustoms has made quite a few nice pens, the Render K, the Retrakt, and the Bolt, but the Ink is truly next level design.  Its not just a solidly made object, its one with soul, and in the end, that's something I always want.  When you toss in the fact that its build like an M1A1 (or A2 if your a techy), it just might be the perfect pen for a hard user like myself--durable enough to stand up to travel and lots of writing, but with a nib nice enough to spare your hand from cramping after an intense note taking session.   This is a damn good mid-priced fountain pen. And with all of the color combinations, you can certainly find something you'll like.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Trending: Q1 2015

Like you, I watch the forum boards.  They are the beating heart of the gear world.  This is where ideas start, trends emerge, and the coolest stuff in the world is shown off before everyone has one.  It is like the dumping ground for all of our googling and research.  And so I thought it might be useful to highlight some trends I have seen.  Not all boards are equal.  Some are more newb friendly than others. Some are more focused than others.  So if I highlight things you aren't seeing on your forum of choice, that's why.  I peruse a bunch of forum boards, but the ones I frequent most regularly are: Watchuseek, Fountain Pen Network, Mulitool.Org, Blade Forums, EDCF, CPF, and the USN.

Trending UP

1.  Traditionals are HOT

I used to be in the "I hate traditionals" camp.  But a few years ago I came around to the charm of wonderful slipjoint with jigged bone handles.  Since then I have been regularly checking in on the traditionals scene and it has absolutely exploded.  The recent issue of the Fremont Jack in Elephant Ivory by Knives Ship Free, was like the detonation of a nuke at the Bikini Atoll.


Image courtesy of Knives Ship Free

Not since the production Dauntless has there been as much online clamor for a non-custom knife.  Between Derrick Bohn's Northwoods Knives and GEC, the traditional knife scene is as hot as I have seen it in five years of gear watching.  

2.  Tom's Choice is Everyone's Choice

The Fremont Jack in Elephant Ivory was a one time shot.  But the Tom's Choice line of barlows, produced by GEC has been a series of knives that seem to be endlessly popular.

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Its not exactly easy to find them either--they are commissioned by an individual, who then sells them to stores and sells a few himself.  Who gets them and when is basically a crapshoot.  If you hop on the right traditional knife retailer at the right time you might get one.  And if you find one on the forum boards, just buy it.  It won't last more than an hour.  The barlow form is so pleasing to the hand, pocket, and eye, its easy to understand why folks love TC Barlows.  But the handle selection, including a few varieties of saw cut material, is really the driving factor.  These TC Barlows are a collector's dream, but they are great users too, because, after all, that is the a barlow is at the end of the day--a pure user.

3.  Tain is Killing It

Tain's line of simple, single cell custom lights with musical names have been the hottest lights in the flashlight world for about a year now.  A wave is announced, fills up, lights are made, then a few are sold on the secondary market for a 100% premium.  Browse the BTS boards of CPF and you will see entry after entry after entry that simply reads: WTB Tain.  The reasons are easy enough to understand--the light uses a staged twisty (like the Aeon) with common batteries and delivers good output.  The trit slot in the tail of the light is the flashlight equivalent of a cherry on top.

4.  ZT is the King

The sheer volume of threads that reference ZT0XXX are staggering.  ZT's formula of custom collaborators, high end materials, and in-the-moment design choices is a huge reason why they are so popular.  But in the past two years things have been taken up a notch as they have started to make knives that non-gorillas can use (thanks for the phrase Derrick).  With the introduction of the ZT0770 (a criminally underrated blade), ZT has started to make knives that you can EDC and the result has been a white hot glow around the brand.

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It doesn't hurt that Spyderco's new stuff in the past two years has been bland and Benchmade's stuff has been more boring AND confusing.  ZT has both changed for the better and struck while the iron was hot.  That is the REAL formula for success.

Trending DOWN

1. Custom Flashlights

I remember it like it was yesterday (because it almost was just yesterday).  2008...the halcyon days of the custom light revolution.  There were dozens of dudes making lights, all led by the light master himself McGimzo.  There were ArcMania lights, HDS torches in Ti, MilkySpit mods...it was a flasholics paradise. But then folks started to fold up shop and things just got weird (exactly what was the problem with ArcMania? He made people mad on CPF?  Ugh...is there anything in the world less important and less interesting the forum board politics?).  Since then we have a few guys banging out great stuff, but not like the good ole days.  Fortunately, the production light makers have stepped up.  Everyone offers a Ti bodied light now.  Selector rings are everywhere.  There are even touch screen controlled lights.  And then there are the semi-custom makers, folks like Peak and TorchLab and Prometheus.  Good lights are still out there, they are just being made in different ways and, are, for the most part, cheaper.

2.  Hinderer Herd Needs Some Thinning

Ready?  The Cryo, Cryo II, Thermite, Ember, ZT0560, ZT0566, ZT0562, ZT0392, the XM-18 with four blade shapes and two sizes, the XM-24, and an assortment of fixed blades.

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But its not really the proliferation of his designs that is cramping the market, it is the fact that its not clear what Hinderer wants to be.  Does he want to be a knife designer?  Does he want to be a custom maker?  Does he want to run his own production line?  Does he want to be a supplier for KAI?  Right now he is all of these things and it is clear, watching the forums, that this has over saturated the market.  He has produced XM-18s in staggering numbers recently and this, couple with the prodigious output from KAI, has lowered the price of XM-18s.  I bought mine and sold it about a year ago and I lost zero dollars.  I sold it for $636.  Now you can find them all day long on boards for $450.  Good sleuthing will land you one for just over direct prices--$425-430.  The days of $1000 XM-18s are over.  And if you bought one hoping to flip it...well ask Goldman Sachs.  This is a perfect example of why knives make bad investments.  But I think a bigger drop is coming.  There is only so many ways you can slice the baloney, and with all of those models and all of those knives in the market, I think we are going to see a collective overdose.  But what do I know, the ZT0562CF has been sold out everywhere.   

3.  Where is the middle?

Remember the Delica?  It is a damn good knife.  And the Mini Grip?  Its damn good too.  With the market booming, everyone is wisely getting while the getting is good, but this means that the average price of a newly released design is probably 50-100% more than it was five years ago.  The Benchmade Valet is $170 knife and for the steel, it is a good price.  But five years ago that would have been a VERY expensive knife.  Now, its almost like a mid-priced blade.  Geez.  When did that happen?  And then there is the San Ren Mu-ification of knives.  There are a ton of cheap knives from lesser brands and even some well known brands are dipping their toes into the bargain basement OEM waters.   The Delicas, Mini Grips, and Skylines of the world are starting to look quaint.

See you in three months.  

Friday, April 3, 2015

SAK Modder Custom Pioneer Review

If you are a bit like me, your favorite page on a custom knifemaker's site is, invariably, the one labeled "Shop Tour."  I am a person that loves being in his shop and so when I look at other shops I always pick up a tip or two.  One really cool experience is going to the someone else's shop in person.  You can learn a lot, not just about their work, but HOW they work from their shop.  One fun experience I had when I went to a furniture restorer's shop is just walking in and standing there, trying to figure out why everything was where it was.  It made no sense to me, I just couldn't figure out what he was doing.  Then I stepped out of the way, he got saddled up to the bench and suddenly everything became clear.  What I saw as a hindrance (a rack in the middle of the bench) became a huge boon--as soon as he was done with a rag it would go there either for another pass with the same finish or to dry out and not explode.  And it was like this again and again--as I saw the man work, a man who had restored furniture for more than twenty and maybe even thirty years, it was apparent that everything was done with a purpose.   

So too with a Swiss Army Knife.  From the perspective of the modern knife, it appears to be woefully antiquated--beleaguered by old designs and outdated materials.  But, like all things rounded into shape by the currents of time and experience, nothing is accidental.  The steel is soft, like butter knife soft, but its like that because the steel is cheap, highly corrosion resistant, and easy as pie to sharpen.  The soft steel, in the hands of someone with even a modicum of sharpening skill (such as myself) can remain razor like for a very long time.  Its not maintenance-free, but my SAKs are as sharp as any knife I own for the very reason that they are easy to sharpen.  Then there is the nail knick opener.  Its not fidget friendly like a flipper or elegant like a Spyderco Hole.  But it works to open the knife and it makes the knife much more people friendly and more broadly legal.  Victorinox, which now owns both Victorinox and Wenger, doesn't have to make different knives for different jurisdictions.  One knife does it all.  And then there is the lack of a pocket clip.  I will confess, this is the omission that bothers me the most, but with two great handle materials--Cellidor and Alox--Victorinox can get away no clip.

But for all there utility and time-tested greatness, there was no knife that matched my ideal set up and so I turned to the booming and robust custom SAK market once again (here is the review of my custom Rambler, a jewel I still own and delight in).  There are quite a few folks that do custom work, Swiss Bianco and SAK Modder being the two most notable.  One of my internet friends, Mario from the now defunct sticktodrum YouTube channel, recommended SAK Modder.  I contacted him, Robert Lessard is his real name, and away I went.  I wanted an Alox-handled knife with scissors and a clip added.  Not too complicated.  I have no idea why Victorinox doesn't offer a knife in this configuration, but they don't.  After some back and forth I had my order straight--a Pioneer, with custom blue anodizing, an over the top clip, and scissors.  This was in addition to the normal SAK Modder upgrades--screwed (instead of pinned) handles and new heavier duty backsprings.

Here is the stock Pioneer's product page.  As seen here, the mod cost exactly $200--about 40% was the Pioneer and the "donor" knife.  The other portion was parts and labor.  That is about five times the cost of a stock Pioneer, but a bargain compared to other heavy mod items I have purchased.  As this is a custom order there is no product page or reviews.  Here is my custom Pioneer (purchased with my own money and bound to remain in my collection until the end of time):


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Twitter Review Summary: So good it made me want to sell the rest of my EDC gear...

Custom Maker Feedback:

As I have done in the past, I want to give you some feedback on the purchasing experience. SAK Modder was, in a word, perfect.  He was fast, clear, and shipped on deadline.  He is, in my experience, in that upper echelon of custom goods providers that, until now, had only one person in it--Don McLeish aka McGizmo.  If you want a McGizmo light, contact Don, send the money, and the light is one its way.  I ordered the giveaway Haiku, all those years ago, and it arrived two days after the PayPal was sent.  And it was coming from Hawaii. 

My other experiences have been good, but not like that.  Tuff Thumbz took a very long time, but was communicative and responsive.  Smock also took a long time, but again, was communicative and responsive.  Then there are the other custom makers I have orders with--they have me on a list and my name might come up in a year or two or whenever they get around to making knives.  It is part of the process, tied to the fact that they are essentially craftsmen and not business people.  It doesn't bother me, but it seems less than ideal.

SAK Modder was another experience entirely.  I contacted him at the beginning of November and I had the tool by mid to late November.  He emailed me, gave me prices, made the knife, and then sent me a PayPal invoice and picture.  It was that simple.  Three weeks from start to finish.  SO DAMN AWESOME!  Now I will confess--modding a SAK is not as hard as making a knife from scratch, but the increased wait time is not commensurate with the difficulty increase.  SAK Modder just has his stuff lined up, he knows the process, and he communicates well.  

I could not have asked for a better experience. 

Design: 2

Like a lot of what is good about this tool, it starts with the fundamentally solid production model.  The Pioneer, a tool slightly bigger than the Cadet, is a damn fine knife-based multitool.  The slim Alox handles and the just right collection of tools makes it very good.  The blade is a good size as well.  But...well...I can't get around the fact that I want scissors on a knife-based multitool.  You have to have scissors.  And, since this is a genie-granting-me-wishes scenario, I also want a pocket clip.  Then bang, I have both.  SAK Modder's improvements are both important and well done.  The production model would be a 2, so this one is clearly a 2. 

The tool:weight is good at 2.47 (8 tools:3.24 ounces).   This is always a bit dishonest with SAKs because you have to count that silly notch that, in theory, is a wire stripper.  Nonetheless, this is a compact took capable to doing a lot of work and the tool:weight is representative of the overall feel. 

Fit and Finish: 2

Victorinox has superior fit and fit to begin with, but with SAK Modder's diligent improvements, the tool is taken to another level.  First there is the deep blue anodizing, unlike anything you can find from the factory, both in terms of color and in terms of durability.  This is a deep sapphire blue that seems to be as tough as tank paint.

But the touches go beyond surface treatments.  Instead of pinned construction, like from the factory, the SAK Modder Pioneer comes with screw construction, allowing you to take the knife apart if needed.  Here are the torx head screws:

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Then there are the new backsprings.  The scissors snap in and out of place with the walk and talk of a fine traditional knife.  I am simply blown away.  

Theme: 2

The Pioneer, in stock form, is a slightly larger Cadet with awl--clearly designed as a compact, knife-based EDC multitool.  But the omission of scissors is baffling.  With them in place, and the addition of a pocket clip, you'd be hard pressed to find a more compact EDC multitool with as full functioning of a blade as the Pioneer has.  Its simply an alox and steel sandwich of awesome:

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Grip: 2 

The Alox texture and the overall form factor of the Pioneer is wonderful.  The size and shape of the new, slightly thicker knife is probably about as nice as you can get in a SAK--not too thin and not too thick--just right.  I wouldn't baton with the Pioneer, but in role, as a SAK, its great. 

Carry: 2

SAKs always carry well, but never rest at the top of the food chain for me, because absent the money clip model, none have a pocket clip.  Though I like the scissors a great deal, for me the clip is the addition that made the customizing cost worth the money.  When you add the clip to the slender cigar shape you have EDC heaven.

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Finding a better carrying SAK will be very hard to to--tough, damaging hiding scales, great size and shape, and an awesome over the top pocket clip. 

Materials: 2

I love Alox.  I love the new Type III HA.  Owning and carrying this thing extensively since November and here is the only noticeable ding in the anodizing.

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See it?  It is at the very end of the second row of squares from the bottom all the way over to the right.  See it?  Oh, okay, never mind.  GREAT job here.

I also, in role, like the 1.4116 steel.  As I referenced above, its soft.  Really soft.  But it is so easy to sharpen...well, let's just say I know I can get it as sharp as I need for any task, despite my rudimentary sharpening skills.

Deployment/Accessibility: 2

When you customize a SAK you are tinkering with a very refined design.  The addition of a tool could throw the whole balance off and result in a tool wad that has pokey stuff in the wrong place and is impossible open up.  SAK Modder knew exactly how to add the scissors and the overall result is a still wonderfully accessible multitool.  

Retention Method: 2

Simple.  Over the top and deep carry.  Its perfect for a SAK.  Keep moving...

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Tool Selection: 2

I have said this before, like in the PS4 review, but you just can't get around it--multitools of any kind NEED scissors.  The Cadet was so good, so darn near perfect that I still recommend it more than any other piece of kit, but with scissors this custom SAK moves in to hallowed territory occupied by some of my favorite gear--the Dragonfly 2, the Aeon, the HDS Rotary, and the 940-1--this is thing is awesome.  

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One thing I am not certain of is the awl.  It is a good awl and I have used as a clam shell cutter quite often, but I am still not 100% it is necessary.  If you can fit it in without losing anything else, like SAK Modder did (he actually left it in place), why not?  But it still has limited utility for me.  

Tool Performance: 2

With SAK Modder's custom backspring, the entire unit is completely factory perfect and on a SAK that means something.  This is a very solid knife, a very solid pair of scissors, and a very solid everything else.  Even as a Phillips driver, it is pretty good, though not as good as a dedicated Phillips driver. 

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Everything is very good and all together this is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

Overall Score: 20 out of 20

I am not sure why it doesn't score a perfect.  It might.  I might come back to this review and update it.  As of now, its just freaking amazing, which should be enough to make it in to your pocket.  The more often I carry this the more I am aware of the fact that I don't technically need a whole lot more than this tool to get me by.  I don't REALLY need some giant flipper, though they are fun.  I don't really need a massive Charge TTi, though I feel better knowing I have one.  And in a way the SAK Modder Pioneer proves the truth of an idea I have had in my head for a while--the test of how great a piece of kit is is how much it makes you want to sell the rest of the stuff you have.  In the end, if I ever leave the gear world or fate hits me with a financial sucker punch, this is probably the last thing that will go.  Its so useful, so people friendly, and so darn well made it just might be the best multitool around. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The All Time Ugly EDC

The core of my EDC is a few items--a light, a knife, a pen, and a watch.  Its supplemented by the normal person's EDC--keys, a wallet, and a phone, but the light/knife/pen/watch combo is the heart of my carry.  With the discovery of the $65K Sly Stallone Montegrappa Chaos Fountain Pen, I have decided to outline the ugliest pocket dump possible. If your gear is in this dump, I am sorry.  I didn't intend to offend you, only point out the stupidity of your decisions.  With that non-caveat out of the way here we go.

Ground Rules

To reach the level of truly hideous requires more than just a few mistakes, it requires a blind devotion to tastelessness.  In that blindness, there were a few themes. 

For whatever reason the skull motif is strong in the gear community.  Perhaps it is because the cocks sketched out in Super Bad are trademarked or something, but regardless of the reason, the skull is everywhere.  Especially on the All Time Ugly list.  I guess you could have a tastefully done skull motif, but the Golden Age of tasteful skull motifs died out with Black Beard the Pirate and his favorite flag.  No, what we are treated to is the Vegasification of the skull motif--skulls smiling (without lips), skulls with knives clenched in their teeth (without muscles), and skulls laughing with baseball caps on. They carved on hideous pocket clips, and laser etched on blades, or worst of all worked into the barrel of a pen.  

But, oddly enough, there is another common theme among hideous gear and that is Sylvester Stallone. The Lyle designed Rambo knife was truly awesome, a beautiful piece.  The Hibben design was...um...less so.  But aside from those two things, anything Sly touches gearwise is pretty terrible.  If you knew nothing else about the piece of kit, not even what it was or what it looked like, but merely the fact that at some point Sly Stallone has something to do with it, you can just steer clear.  Its not just a pile of steaming cow shit, its a pile of steaming cow shit infected with Ebola, that as a severed human finger sticking out of it.  So, for the sake of simplicity here is the Gear Design Axiom:

Sly + Gear=Chunk-from-Goonies ugly.

Its like the Pythagorean Thereom of Gear.  Its a bed rock princple, an unshakable foundation of knowledge.  Now that we have first principles articulated, lets get to the gear.

The Pen

Image courtesy of Luxury Magazine

Oh my...the Montegrappa Chaos is just insane.  I am Italian, so let me do some translating for you.  Montegrappa is Italian for "mountain of crappa".  And Sly Stallone is Italian for "I saw what he made and I threw up in my mouth a little and then swallowed it and realized I had chili for dinner last night".   After digging and doing some real investigative journalism, I found this--a transcript of the design meeting between Sly and Montegrappa:

Sly: "Uh, yo, what do you think if I put a skull on dis ting? Dat'd be cool, right?"

Montegrappa: "Si.  Skulls-a are awesome-a"  

Sly: "Uh, yo, what do you think if I put a snake on dis ting? Dat'd be cool, right?"

Montegrappa: "Si.  Snakes-a are awesome-a"  

NOTE: I am Italian, so according to some unwritten cultural rule, I can make fun of Italians.  You can't because your not Italian, but I can. There has to be SOME benefit to having hair greasy enough to lube engine parts and having to shave twice before lunch.

The only piece of man iconography missing from the pen's barrel is a penis.  So Montegrappa and Sly, let's see a Gen 2 of this pen with a giant gold penis on the barrel.  That's what could take this thing to the next level.  

Montegrappa: "Si.  Penises-a are awesome-a."

The Light

 
Image courtesy of Monkey Edge

Starlingear.  Oh Starlingear.  What happened?  And Lens Light, you should know better.  

What we have in the light category is both ugly and stupid.  First you have the "engraved" skull bead from Ryk Maverick.  And then you have a digicam flashlight.  What?  A device to help you see in the dark and it is camouflaged?  Yep. Of all the times when you DON'T want something camouflaged, reaching for a flashlight is #1.  You are reaching for your light because YOU CAN'T SEE.  You definitely don't want a light that you CAN'T SEE, too.  This is the pocket frosting trend taking to its (il)logical and silly extreme. Skulls, camo, SKULLS AND CAMO.  AWESOME.  And ugly.

The Knife

There are quite a few contenders here.  If there is a skull on a pocket clip, especially a three dimensional one soldered in place, that knife is ugly.  If there is a giant laser etched skull on the blade, ugly.  Really ugly.  But that's not what we are talking about.  We aren't talking about run of the mill ugly, or superficial ugly.  Lots of DPx Gear has a skull here or there, but it happens to be lasered on to some pretty good looking knives.  That's like a super model with a pimple.  Not what I am talking about.

No, in the knife category, skulls get you some ugly points, but the truly hideous stuff is, unlike with pens, skull free.  There are really three contenders, a multi-horse race, like the debate between greatest pitcher in the last twenty years (Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, or Pedro).  

The first contender is from a company that knows how to make some truly gorgeous knives.  Some of William Henry's stuff is very impressive with engravings and other touches that seem impossible for a production company to pull off.  The subjects of that engraving, well, lets just say their not museum worthy.  Sure there are a lot of Merica Rocks engravings, and I am giving them a pass because, well I am kind of a silly patriot and you know what...Merica does ROCK (if you would like you can reread that sentence while listening to the Hendrix rendition of the Star Spangled Banner).  No, its the other engravings that get WH in trouble. Tigers, skulls...you know.  But the Pinnacle of Hideous (or one of the Triple Peaks of Hideous) is the infamous "Pirate" engraving, seen here:


The engraving work is fine, the image is the issue.  I am not sure why WH wanted to celebrate the long and storied history of pirates having seizures while steering a ship, but there it is. This isn't nearly as cool as the villainous pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean or from my son's Imaginext toys.  No, this is something much worse.  This is all time ugly.  

The second contender again is not just somewhat ugly.  Its not Boker Batman knife ugly.  No, it too, like the WH Pirate knife, is REALLY barf worthy.  And it is the soon to be released Mike Draper Spyderco.

 
Image courtesy of Knife Center
 
With each leak and picture that knife cements its place in the history of ugly gear.  Its not just the web mofit on the handle though.  Its the fact that the blade is awkward looking AND that the web mofit has blue sparkles on it.  If there was ever an official knife for the Championship Team of Pairs Rollerskating circa 1974 this is it.  

The third contender is not really a knife, but a theme used on knives--blood.  You have seen these knives--neon green handles, neon green blades, and blood spatter (not splatter, haven't you seen CSI?) everywhere.

 
Image courtesy of Knife Center

A lot of the gear on the All Time Ugly Pocket Dump comes out of that part of the brain that remains unchanged since the knife designer was 12 years old.  A la Herman's Head, that part of the brain says:

"Okay guys, ready for this: BLOOD!  Let's put BLOOD on the knife, out of the box."

The reason this idea made it through all of the sensible voices in the person's head was because inside the knife designer's head, the crazy little voice was actually a raving psychopath and MURDERED everyone else.  And so, we are treated to blood soaked knives, out of the box.  If there is one thing people can point to and say to us "you are a bunch of infantile morons with an obsession with violence and knives AREN'T tools..." this is it.  Finally odds that one of these knives shows up in a legislative hearing in the next twenty years to illustrate how violent knife owners are are better than even.  Thanks dumbass knife companies that put blood colored paint on their knives.  Ugly AND stupid.

The Watch

The watch is easy.  Its anything made by those hoaxsters from Florence, Italy (Italy is showing up a lot here...hey, we also have Michaelangelo and Da Vinci...just remember that).  The ugliest watch is any Panerai. Its not just the twee face or the obnoxious crown guard.  Its not the dinner plate size. Its not just the faux retro art deco styling.  Its not the uber pretentious look.  Its the fact that they did stuff like the Brooklyn Bridge edition.

 
Image courtesy of Chrono24.com

Ugly on the outside is one thing, but Panerai takes ugly to a whole new level, cramming in parts from a K-Mart watch in its hideous cases and selling it to suckers for tons of money.  That's truly and purely ugly.  That evinces not just a lack of taste, but a lack of morality.  This is a whole different level of ugly.

Oh and just so you don't think this is the only reason why it is the ugliest watch, here is the other piece. Panerai was a brand from the early part of the 20th Century and was revived when...wait for it...Sly Stallone bought a few vintage models and gave them to friends.  Remember the Gear Design Axiom?  Bam, confirmation of the hideousness of a Panerai.  

There you have it, a collection of gear that puts the "dump" in pocket dump; daily carry from Hell's sewer system.  If I offended you, your taking this exercise to seriously.  Remember the date after all.  But this isn't a "HA! I fooled you" piece.  I believe everything I wrote here.  This is more a "HA! You got fooled if you bought any of this junk" style April Fool's Joke.