Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cold Steel Mini Tuff Lite Review

Cold Steel is a company is known for really extreme cutlery.  What other major knife company (or any company for that matter) makes FORTY SIX different fully sharpened and functional swords?  Really, how many Civil War reenactors are their out there?  Enough, I guess, to support a website and company that still sells the disgusting food called hardtack.  Still, subtle designs have not been Cold Steel's forte.  Instead, they were known for their high value blades, ambiguously named and formulated steels (Carbon V, anyone?), ridiculous torture test videos and their president, Lynn Thompson, fighting off hordes of blue jeans stuffed with slabs of meat.  They did pioneer the tanto blade shape in America, hailing its virtues as a stabbing tool.  They also make one of the finest production bowie knives in the world.  All of this underscores the fact that they just didn't know how or want to make smaller, more utility style blades.

About three years ago Cold Steel added to its stable of designs.  It brought out products like the American Lawman and Mini Lawman which are surprisingly tame for a company that makes a half dozen folders with blades 5 inches or longer.  Then, they created a really strong and well-designed lock, the Tri-Ad lock (more can be found here, a recent write up of mine ranking the lock types).  The Tri-Ad's beauty is that it works like something you already know and like, the lockback, but has two added benefits--much better strength and superior lock up.  Andrew Demko, one their designers, is credited with the Tri-Ad lock, and it is really a symbol of the new Cold Steel: an impeccable combination of design brains and engineering brawn.  And then they released the Mini Tuff Lite.  Clearly, this is not your father's (or your Mall Ninja's) Cold Steel.

I did a little write up on this knife what seems like ages ago.  It can be found here.   Here is the product page.  Here is a good street price.  Here is a video review.  Here is a written review.  Here are the Amazon reviews.  It received 4.5 stars out of 5, with 4 reviews.  Here is my Mini Tuff Lite:


Design: 2

Again, enough cannot be said about Cold Steel's new design chops.  They went from the bastion of the Mall Ninja to a really good aesthetic language in a matter of a few years, one that embraces their heritage of sturdy tools and at the same time looks towards a future more Spyderco and less Klingon.  The Mini Tuff Lite is a perfect example of that.  The knife is very small in the pocket, even with its unusually thick handle.  It is also quite a nice looking design, with curves and cuts in all the right places.  Even the lanyard hole is well thought out.  And then there is the Tri-Ad lock.  Only one small knock--that little lip on the bottom of the knife in the picture below serves no real purpose and makes the blade kind of uncomfortable to carry.  It is nothing big at all, just unnecessary, something they can get rid of or modify (I think it might be necessary to cover up the engagement points betweent the blade and the stop pin) in the second version of the knife.  The blade:handle is .66, but that is unrepresentative as the choil takes up a lot of the blade's length. 

Fit and Finish: 2

I would normally say something like "...for a $20 dollar knife..." but the fit and finish is so nice there is no caveat necessary.  The Grivory handle is all one piece adding to the rigidity and strength of the knife.  Honestly, Buck could learn a thing or two about how to tighten up tolerances from Cold Steel's Taiwanese makers (yes, this little gem is made in Taiwan).  The edges are nicely cut and the Grivory handle sits well in the hand, especially with the little divot in the middle.  The clip is also well made and actually helps with grip.

Grip: 2

Speaking of grip, this knife is great in use.  The Grivory handle is well textured.  The divot in the middle is nice.  The jimping is effective and well positioned.  The choils are great.  The clip is positioned correctly and works to help keep a hold on the knife.

Even closed, the knife is nicely grippy.  Using this knife and feeling it practically melt into your hand is a sign of how much Cold Steel has evolved.

Carry: 2

The knife is a bit fat.  Here is a comparison between the thickness of the Mini Tuff Lite (on left) and my iPhone 4 (in an Incipio Featherlight Case) (on right).


The Dragonfly II, by comparison, is much thinner.  That said, the handle is very contoured and rounded off.  There are no protrusions, other than the piece of the handle mentioned above, and none of the blade edges are pokey or sharp (other than the one that is supposed be pokey and sharp).  The length of the closed knife is also very compatible with carrying in the jeans pocket.  Overall, an excellent, easy carry knife.  The clip is mounted very high too making it easy to bury in your pocket.  

Steel: 1

Okay, how does this work?  The AUS 8 blade is significantly better at holding an edge than the AUS 8 blade from SOG.  Maybe it is the heat treat or something.  Either way, this guy's AUS 8 has held up significantly better than any other AUS 8 I have used.  It is, finally, in the acceptable range of steels.  Obviously I'd like better steel, but for a $20 this level of performance is quite good.

Blade Shape: 1

I am not a huge fan of Wharncliffe style blades and though Cold Steel calls this an "angle" blade, it is really just a Wharncliffe blade.  The problem with Wharncliffe blades is that they wear unevenly with a ton of use happening at the tip and nothing at all along the vast majority of the cutting edge.  In an EDC blade which can get used EVERYDAY, that sort of uneven distribution of wear can add up.  So far this has not been a problem.  The tip is really aggressive and grabs everything it touches.  The cutting edge is also very aggressive.  But a simple drop point would have been preferred.  This blade shape works, it is just not ideal for EDC use. 

Grind: 2

The grind was really immaculate.  I am shocked, given the price point, how nice this turned out.  Cold Steel's edges are always sharp from the box, but this was sharp, clean, and even.  Excellent job. 

Deployment Method: 1

Really the thumb oval is okay, it just doesn't work as well as a thumb hole or a well designed flipper.  I like it but it can bunch up your thumb pad as you rotate the blade to the open position.  Good but not great.  That said, given the size of the knife, I wouldn't change a thing.  Adding a hole would make the knife much wider and the oval still works better than the average thumbstud. 

Retention Method: 2

A GREAT clip.


This clip is just the right size for a tiny knife and the dip helps with gripping the knife in the open position.  It was not too tight and not too loose.  It doesn't tend to snag and it is deep enough that it is not problem but not so deep as to get lost in your pocket. GREAT.
Lock: 2

The Tri-Ad lock is so robust, so unnecessarily strong that if it added any weight to the knife I would knock it a point, but it doesn't.  One of my favorite designs out there right now.  Go check out the abuse video from Cold Steel (linked in the lock article referenced above).  This thing held 205 pounds of static weight without collapsing or losing its ability to function.  Awesome.

Overall Score:  17 out of 20

Cold Steel's new direction, starting about three years ago, away from the Mall Ninja and towards more serious tools has paid off in spades.  This is a great knife, regardless of price.  The fact that it sells for less than $20 is staggering.  If you are looking for a nice small EDC knife you can do much worse than this blade.  I really, really liked mine.  It even gave my beloved DF II ZDP-189 a run for its money.  I can't say enough good stuff about this knife.  


  1. Amen brother! I didn't expect to see many Cold Steel reviews on here but I too have dipped into their latest offerings so I see exactly where you are coming from. The stuff they are coming out with is extremely competitive and the Mini Tuff lite looks especially interesting.

  2. I agree, Cold Steel is making some better design choices these days. I've had my eye on this knife and may just pick it up.

    Now all they have to do is loose the teflon coatings. It's the only thing keeping me away from knives like the American Lawman and Recon 1. Stone wash would be way better and is also fairly inexpensive as a finish... DIY project maybe?

    1. They are easy to strip and have nice stonewashing under the finish... ;)

  3. In comparison to my beloved DF Ii ZDP, i'd have to say the Cold Steel Tuff Lite series are better WORK knives, and the Spydie is a nicer EDC. (Here again, ratios can't tell the whole story, as the handle is vital to ergonomics, for ex. a scalpel.)

    The Tuff Lites, Mini & Regular (my pick,) are far more comfortable in hand for long periods of time. They also are significantly stronger, for cutting thick cardboard, etc. plus, the design is very civillian friendly, looking just like a nice boxcutter. I've bought seversl as gifts and everybody loves them.

    2 side notes: with the Wharncliffe blade and comfy handle, the Tuff Lite is an excellent wood carving knife. And for maximum edge retention on AUS-8, you really need to polish the edge. For most users, a little stropping with green compound after your finest stone will do the trick. The polished edge won't have carbides getting torn out in tough media cutting, and so stays sharp significantly longer. At the worksite, a CERAMIC V-notch sharpener is also a good tool. The Sharp n' Easy is cheap, works great and lasts a long time.

  4. I like the MTL a lot despite being occasionally nagged by the ricasso. CS sells them now in funky colors like neon green and pink. Non knife folks not only are not freaked out by them, they find them cute.

    My MTL came sharp as hell out of the box. I have noticed this on some other wharnies. I think the dead simple, straight grind of the wharncliffe helps makers do a good job with the edge.

    The design's strengths make me really want to try the full sized Tuff Lite. It seems like the blade shape and grip orientation -- you are locked in right on top of that edge and point -- would make it a ferocious utility cutter.

    There's a memorable Youtube review of the Tuff Lite by JMCE3 where he calls it a "Clydesdale," a "work bulldozer" and a "young Mike Tyson," and speculates that the knife could bring world peace.