Thursday, September 18, 2014

Kershaw Emerson CQC6K Review

There is a fine line between imitation and innovation.

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

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

ASIDE:

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

END ASIDE

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

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

Blade HQ

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

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

Design: 2

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

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

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Here is the Zippo and the Emerson:

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

Fit and Finish: 2

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

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

Grip: 2

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

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

Carry: 2

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

Steel: 1

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

Blade Shape: 2

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

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Grind: 2 

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

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

Deployment Method: 2

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

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

Retention Method: 2

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

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

Lock: 2

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

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

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

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

The Competition

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

  

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kershaw Emerson CQC6K Overview

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


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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

Some History

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

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

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

The Definitions

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

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

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

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

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

Applying the Defintions

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



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


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

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

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


Image courtesy of Grimsmo Knives.

These are single source custom knives, too. 

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

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


Image courtesy of Blade HQ

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

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


Image courtesy of FortHenryCustomKnives.com

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 8, 2014

Freedom Bottle Review

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

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

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

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

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

The design of the Freedom Bottle is clever, but it takes some getting used to.  If you think of this bottle as a replacement for your bladder system or your stainless steel water bottle, you missed the point.  This is not what the Freedom Bottle best use is. Instead this is a perfect bottle to be used in conjunction with other, large insulated water carriers, so as to take advantage of his packable nature:
 
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This summer when me, my wife, and my four year old son went hiking, we'd take some large insulated bottles of water with us and drop the Freedom Bottle in the backpack.  It was easy to carry and when we took a break for lunch, we could unfold (unfurl?) it and drop some ice cold water in it for our son.  I would imagine that a collection of Freedom Bottles would do well with an even larger insulated water carrier and it would save on space and weight too.  Instead of having one heavy bottle or bladder per person you could have one big insulated container and a bunch of Freedom Bottles.

Here are two size comparison:

Collapsed:

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

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

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

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


Friday, September 5, 2014

Obtainium Wallet Review

"Its great if..."

That could be the name of this wallet.  This is clearly a product borne out of superior design and great machining capabilities, but it has a list of caveats.  If you can get around these things then the Obtainium is probably the best wallet in the world for you, but a few of them might knock the Obtainium out of contention.

Here is the product page.  There a few different colors.  I got two review samples, one in black, and the other in the blue seen below which can only be described as a true royal blue.  The wallets all run around $200.  Here is a written review.  Here is a video review.  Here is the review sample:

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Twitter Review Summary:  Amazing if you can deal with its limitations.  

Design: 2

Until now hard side aluminum wallets were the exclusive territory of As Seen on TV and Wal-Mart junk.  They were thin, the interior pockets were plastic accordion-style sleeves, and the entire set up felt cheap and flimsy.  Nothing about the Obtainium feels (or is) cheap.  The hinge is made of a metal pin.  The body is two pieces of carved aluminum.  This is entirely different from the hardside aluminum wallets you are used to.

But there are some compromises.  First, as one of my product tester put it: "This ain't the wallet you use if you are high rollin'."  While the wallet can hold cash, it does so only to a certain extent and then it becomes unsightly.  It doesn't fold flat or close.  Second, because of the RFID blocking design, if you use a badge or a card to access areas, this wallet can be a frustration.  I need to tap a card every day to get into court, and so the Obtainium's security feature became an annoyance.  Finally, if you can't tolerate front pocket carry, this thing will give you a totally sore ass and crooked spine sitting in your back pocket.  Its too thick and hard to sit on comfortably.  I guess you could solve two of the three problems above by getting two Obtainiums, one for each butt cheek and one for cash and the other for cards, but that seems like a bit of overkill (that was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek).

For its intended use--as a front pocket wallet for mainly card carrying folks, the Obtainium is superb.  For other folks, the design is too clunky.  But design is all about making choices.  If you want to have a wallet that is perfect for cards, it will be less so, almost by definition, for cash.  Given Obtainium's explicit claim that this is primarily a card wallet, I am not docking it points for being less than awesome outside its intended use. 

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Fit and Finish: 2

Every single edge is chamfered not only making the wallet comfortable, but also easy to slide stuff in and out of.  The cash bridges (the plastic straps held in place with rubber o-rings) are nicely made and have been updated since the first generation.  They are now less brittle.  Everything is nice, but one thing was especially glorious--the hard anodizing on the aluminum.  I am not sure if you have taken a look at the review list in a while.  Its pretty long.  I have had my share of experiences with anodized aluminum.  This is the best I have ever seen. It is insanely tough, but more than that is so pleasing to the touch that during the review period I'd occasionally find myself mindlessly running my fingers across the embossed and anodized logo.  Its so luxurious.  It really is a step up from everything else I have seen. 

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Materials: 2

With the new plastic in the cash bridge the suite of materials used on the Obtainium is now completely top shelf.  There is nothing that is cheap or chintzy here.  

Carry: 1

Even as a front pocket wallet this thing is something of a beast.  Compared to a leather number or a money clip, the Obtainium is a pocket brick, akin to carrying around two smartphones at once.  All of that durability and RFID blocking comes from somewhere and a hefty weight of 3.0 ounces unloaded is the result.  In the breast pocket of a suit the weight is totally fine, but you might mistake the Obtainium for your iPhone. 

Accessibility: 2

In a stroke of true inspiration, the folks at Obtainium cut two v-notches in the shell of the wallet, making it possible to access cards while the wallet is closed.  Thanks to the good design on the cash bridge straps, you can even slip cards back in without opening the wallet.  All this means that the Obtainium takes accessibility to another level.

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I found that if you REALLY stuffed the wallet it might be hard to get cards out of the middle of a stack without pushing them all around.  Cards in the middle of a stack also require you to open the wallet too, but some careful planning can allow you to put the most frequently pulled cards on the outside and this can be a boon when using the Obtainium.  I'd give it a three if it didn't break the newly minted scale.

Appearance: 2

I have this theory bouncing around in my head that there are certain sized objects that we find naturally appealing, like a Zippo or a deck of playing cards.  I have had this theory in a nascent form since I became obsessed with consumer electronics (i.e. when I first saw and held a Sony D-35 Discman at a Service Merchandise, remember those?).  Its hard to pin this idea down, but it does play into how we relate to things in a "I know it when I see it" kind of way.  Here the Obtainium has that "just right" size. Couple that with the brilliant blue anodizing and the please angled shape and you have a winner.  Unconventional wallets tend to look more "unconventional" than "wallet" and while folks might not guess right away what the Obtainium is, it doesn't look childish or silly.  It looks like many of the gadgets we are so used to seeing on people these days, so it definitely doesn't look out of place.  I found that when people realized it was a wallet they were really taken by how it looks. "Oh, that's really nice looking" was a refrain I heard more than once while using the wallet.  I agree.  It is unconventional, but in a good way and in a way that doesn't look out of place.  

Durability: 1

It is probably just a fluke, but I need to be honest--one of the o-rings that holds the cash bridge in place broke during transit.  I had a pack full of extras and you could probably just go to a local hardware store and find a dozen for .79 but that was not an auspicious beginning.  Fortunately, things did not go down hill from there.  The replacement o-ring is still tight and secure. 

The rest of the wallet is simply rock solid.  The hinge never got gunky or stiff.  The wallet itself is milled from som substantial aluminum.  And the anodizing was practically bulletproof.  I did notice some minor flaking around the top lip of the two card "channels" but nothing worth getting stressed about.  I imagine, over time, more anodzing will flake off, but that is the nature of the material.  And if your wallet looked brand new all of the time, that would be a bit weird.  If any everyday carry item should have a bit of the Fett Effect imposed on it, its your wallet.

Retention: 2

Though the o-ring snapped right away, once replaced, the card bridges did their job well.  You can take the wallet, flip it upside down and shake it, and the cards won't fall out.  If you do the same thing, but smack the wallet at the hinge you can get them loose, but short of that, the cash bridges keep everything put.  A single card in ecah channel will stick (though not as well) and a bunch will hardly budge but there is a tension in this design between retention and accessibility and I think the Obtainium folks hit it just right.

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I'd put the ideal configuration at 3 or 4 cards per side with no more than 4 to 6 brand new bills as well. That can give you a good deal of capacity, both physically and financially, but if you are set up to go to a low rent strip club or jjust partial to 1s and 5s you'll find the cash bridges are really tight.  

One note that is important and perhaps explains a bit of the retention set up--this wallet is made in Australia and they have polymer, not paper bills.  According to my source (Andrew), these bills fold differently and wear differently than the US's paper money.  That might play into how Obtainium balanced out the retention vs. the accessibility of contents in the wallet.

Organization: 2

You don't have an ID window and there are only two slots for cards and cash, so you need to be thoughtful in how you pack the Obtainium, but if you are the wallet can be great.  First, in the state I live, we are required to show our IDs with many purchases, so I usually put the ID on the front of one of the card stacks.  Then I put my most frequently used credit cards on the bottom of the stacks so they can be removed without opening the wallet.  I have a pass card that lets me in to various places and the Obtainium blocked it (as it is supposed to) so I put that on the top of the stack opposite my idea, allowing me to open the wallet, tap the card, and go.  Finally I tucked in one or two $20s for my cash carry.

The design of the wallet requires you to rethink how you organize the wallet, but if you do that you are rewarded with an elegant and very functional set up.  It took me a while to see this, but that was because I was stuck in the "six pocket" mindset of traditional wallets.  Leave that behind and you'll be rewarded.

Efficiency: 1

Given its size and weight the Obtainium doesn't hold a lot of stuff, but that is a problem inherent in all hardside wallets. Its a tradeoff but simply being a hardside wallet doesn't mean they will always score low here.  The problem wit the Obtainium is that the wallet itself is made of very thick, perhaps too thick, slabs of aluminum.  A smaller overall form factor with more substantial milling could have resulted in a slimmer, lighter wallet that carries the exact same amount of stuff.

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Score: 17 out of 20

This is not your wallet if: 1) you want to carry a lot of cash; 2) you need to tap cards for access to places (fetching the wallet and opening it up is annoying compared to just tapping your wallet); or 3) you want to back pocket carry a wallet.

If you are still in contention, then the Obtainium is a must consider.  Its pricey, sure, but not so pricey as to be insane. Most good leather wallets cost around $100 and the Obtainium is just twice that price.  And for what you get--a well designed, virtually indestructible piece, the additionally money can be justified.  I loved the look and feel of the Obtainium quite a bit and many of the limitations inherent in the design didn't bother me (I am not a cash carrier; what do muggers do now with the decline in cash carry?).  This isn't MY wallet because of the RFID blocking but for most people I can imagine this is a feature instead of a problem.  Overall, the Obtainium is a well-realized design and a gorgeous object.  It is also a damn good wallet.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Wallet Scoring System

I have had more a few scoring systems in the works since the beginning of the site and over time, some have been scrapped and others have been tweaked.  The scoring system for wallets has been tweaked a few times and yet I never put it out because I was always afraid that I was coming too close to reviewing something related to fashion.  I know nothing about fashion.  I can't even match clothes (this is the one way in which being required to wear a suit is a good thing--I don't have to worry if my pants and jacket go together).  So I was hesitant.  No wallet scoring system.  But over time reviews of wallets have been among the most viewed articles on the site and folks have requested more of them and scores for them.  With that in mind, I am finally ready to unveil the scoring system for wallets. But remember, this is not a fashion review, but a review of how they work. 

As with all of the scoring systems on the site it is provisional, and subject to change.  It is also evaluating something from my perspective only.  There are many finely made wallets that I do not like and thus they would receive a poor score.  I do not know or care about the fashion statements wallets make.  I want it to work well.  As with almost every item I carry I want something as small and light as possible so long as it still works.  I am merciless on my wallet and it returns the favor, so I want it to be as tiny as I can get it.  The giant purse wallets that women sometimes carry baffle me.  Hamburger wallets aren't my favorite--their stacks of cards are annoying and can cause pain. But at the same time, I want something more than a rubber band and a paper clip (which is what a lot of the Kickstarter wallets seem to be made of these days).   With that said, here's the scoring system, again out of 20.

All of the scoring systems can be found under the Reviews tab above.

Imports from other scoring systems:

Design: how something would appear in blueprints or in CAD.

Fit and Finish: how something is made, the ability to translate the design into a real object with as few errors as possible.

Materials (from the bag and pack scoring system): the quality of the fabrics/leathers/zippers etc.

Carry: how the wallet rides in the pocket.

Accessibility (from the bag and pack scoring system): how easy it is to get things out of the wallet.

Unique or altered for wallets:

Appearance: 

Generally wallets come in a few flavors--there are what I (or more accurately my wife) calls the Spiderman wallets, then there are the classic bi or trifolds, then there are the hardside wallets, and last there are what can only be described as the inventor wallets--the contraptions from Kickstarter.  Only a few of these are categorical failures in my opinion.

The Spiderman wallet, a fabric wallet with a velcro or snap enclosure is just not a good design.  Here is a classic example of what I mean by "Spiderman wallet".  I am sure they are functional and they hold a lot of stuff, but that's the only thing a wallet needs to do.  It also has to look a certain way.  I hate to write that, but it is true.  These fabric wallets look childish, wear poorly (they last forever, but look like a shirt on the highway after about 10 minutes), are conspicuous to open and close, and just don't fit as part of things an adult carries.  Additionally, I'd probably prefer the super hero themes to the dull parade of black, brown, gray, camo, desert camo and green (and why exactly do I want a wallet that is hard to find and blends in if I drop it in the grass?) we are treated to with these wallets.  At least the super hero themes are interesting.

Classic wallets are fine, like this Bellroy bifold, the Note Sleeve:

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Whether made of leather or other materials (like high tech sail fabric) these designs seem to work, though I can't see a reason to carry a trifold.  The design necessarily makes the wallet thick and bulky.  It basically tells folks where your wallet is and if that doesn't happen it can make you sit lopsided.  I am sure there are good trifolds out there.  I just haven't seen one.  

Hardside wallets are something I have always been conflicted about.  Clearly they can't be back pocket wallets (most wallets should be back pocket wallets), but for folks that need a lot of durability, they may be the only way to go.  Personally, I am not thrilled with the idea of a hard side wallet, but unlike the trifold or the Spiderman wallet, I can see how they can be useful.

The "wallets" that I have no real experience with are the card-and-band wallets from Kickstarter.  They come in all sorts of configurations and they all seem focused on the design limbo game of how low can they go with materials and still call it a wallet.  I am not sure if I could pull one of these off, but they don't seem per se bad.  They all, almost uniformly, tend to be expensive for what your getting.  After all many seem like nothing more than a credit card with a woman's scrunchy. 

Durability:

One of the problems with a wallet is that you have to use it, carry it, sweat on it (oh wait, that's just me, the sweaty Italian), and manipulate it every single day, multiple times a day.  Its not like your knife or your flashlight, which absent some gadget fidgeting, you might not handle on a daily basis.  Other than my phone, nothing I carry gets handled as much as my wallet.  And so a wallet needs to be durable.  Leather is a great choice as it wear well--typically looking better as it gets older (until a point).  The sail fabric wallets also wear well, though not as nicely as the leather versions.  The Spiderman wallets have a hard time though.  They will last forever, but they will look okay for about ten minutes.  Then they look like something you pulled out of a lake while fishing.  So by "durability" I mean both the ability to last and the ability to look nice over time.  Its a difficult feat, but lots of folks have figured this out.  

Retention:

This category is looking at how well the wallet retains its contents, not how well a wallet sticks in your pocket.  That's covered by Carry.  Some wallets, like the Big Skinny, do this very well thanks to special material in the pockets and sleeves.  Other wallets, leather wallets, have the unfinished reverse side of leather to hold stuff in place and that works well.  The issue arises we we get to more high tech wallets, like the hardside, Spiderman, and card-and-band wallets.  They need some pretty clever engineering to keep stuff in place. 

Organization:

This category is looking at a wallet's pockets and how well they are laid out.  Some wallets, like the Bellroy Note Sleeve:

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do great things with just a few pockets.  Note how the diagonal cut on the front pocket allows you to show your ID without having to remove it.  That's genius.  Other wallets just load up on pockets without consideration for how they will be used and this, it seems to me, is a sign of poor organization.   

Efficiency:

So I decided that in order to best explain how a good wallet works, I needed a concept that captured what we all want in a wallet--the Mary Poppins bag:



We want a wallet that is small and easy to carry, but capable of holding a ton of stuff.  So this category will look at the size of the wallet compared to the amount of stuff it can hold.  Obviously hardside wallets will do comparatively worse here, but even with a hardside wallet good design can lead to an efficient wallet.

Hopefully this will work out well.  I like wallets and I am particularly fond of my Bellroy Note Sleeve.  I have a few wallet reviews in the pipeline and they will get the scored treatment from now on.  Up first--the Obtanium Wallet.   


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Evaluating Quality Control

I received an email recently that asked me how I evaluate quality control.   This is a very, very hard thing to do, but when it is possible I will let you know.

First, everything produced by man, whether it is something as complex as a state of the art luxury car or as simple as brown paper bag from the grocery store, is subject to manufacturing errors.  A single lemon does not equal bad quality control.  People on forums seem to disagree with this sometimes, using a difficult-to-refute performative proof logic--if I got a defect, they must not have good QC.  But the truth of the matter is that no matter the skill or the scale of the producer, errors will occur and a single error or a few errors (depending on the scale of production) do not indicate poor quality control.  In industrial production, Lego is often cited in books on management and business as having the best QC around.  They produce literally billions of small items, all of which must be precisely made in order to work, and many of which have to be bundled together is specific ways to make the final product.  They have to do this quickly and efficiently to make sure they can turn a profit margin selling these tiny things (relatively) cheaply.  Despite this, the error rate coming out of Lego is regularly cited as 13 manufacturing errors per 1 million bricks made.  Think about that for a second.  13 out of 1,000,000.  That is below the error  accepted for convictions in criminal cases ("beyond a reasonable doubt" is often explained as 99% sure or 1 in a 100, Lego's error rate would be .0013 out of a 100, a much smaller rate of error).  An error rate of 0 is not possible when you have an endeavour performed by humans or machines made by humans, so the idea that one bad knife or light equals poor QC is absurd, despite the seeming power of the logic used.

So how do I evaluate QC problems or design flaws?  Its not easy, and I have to do it indirectly most of the time, but here is how I do it.

In some instances, its clear from the number of reported problems and the source of reported problems that there is a QC issue.  The most recent example I can think of is, the Elmax steel controversy.  Whatever you think about Cliff Stamp, it is pretty obvious that he is really methodical when it comes to his blades. The man keeps journals about sharpening angles for given knives.  He hunts down and consolidates CATRA numbers for steel.  He is a polarizing figure, but he is a good source of information.  He initially pointed out that ZT's heat treat on the first run of Elmax blades left they prone to rolling and dulling.  I noted this in my review of the ZT0560.  He put it out there and then not one or two people agreed (you can find agreement between one or two people on the internet regarding just about anything), but dozens of people agreed and showed pictures of problems.  This is the first form of QC evaluation--good and many sources complaining about a problem.

The second way I evaluate QC is by tracing design improvements and changes.  I noted in my review of the Strider PT CC that the lock face geometry changed and that the pivot design changed. Both of these things indicated a problem with previous designs.  This sort of iterative upgrading is common in the knife and light world.  When changes occur that aren't "materials upgrades" like better steel or a new emitter, it can (but not always) point to problems with the original production models.  Spyderco does this all of the time--the molded clip on the Delica, Endura, and Dragonfly, all gave way to steel clips in their iterative upgrade process.  They even have a name for it Constant Quality Improvement.  This behavior, displayed by both Strider and Spyderco, is a sign there were problems with the original, but it is also a sign of a superior maker. Everything could be made better and the fact that these two companies are always doing that tells you a good deal about why they are so well respected in the gear community (their knives, that is).  

The third way I evaluate QC is probably the easiest--recalls.  So few companies that make gear we are interested in have products subject to recall, but some do.  Gerber, for instance, has had many product recalls.  The Instant was recalled within a year of its very high profile launch because the button lock failed at inopportune times.  Their parang would break off.  And there are others.  The reality is that this many recalls spread out over many different designs indicates a problem with QC and given the scope, it indicates a company-wide problem with QC.  Fixed blades snapping in two is not like "my clip broke off" or "my frame lock has blade play".  This indicates a serious lapse in QC and is one of the reasons I don't really bother to review Gerber gear and regularly bash the company.  

Fourth, and rarest of all, is direct company input.  I have been fortunate enough to knows lots of folks that know way more than I do about gear production and every once in a while I will learn about problems with OEMs or other things of the sort.  It hasn't happened with a piece of gear I have reviewed, but if it does, you'll know.  

One flawed version of something is not a QC issue, but it might be indicative of one.  Its hard to evaluate, because of my distinct lack of sample size (usually only a single piece).  But in some instances when I have had multiple pieces (like I have for a review I am working on right now) I feel comfortable saying my experience is indicative of poor QC.  That is VERY rare.  Lemons occur everywhere, even in custom lights and knives, evaluating QC requires you to not focus on a single piece, but on the production run as a whole, and generally that's difficult.