Saturday, April 30, 2011

Among the Coolest ever...

I normally try to post more substantial stuff than "go to this site", but this is a good reason to make an exception. Keychain Pockets does some great reviews and the photography is top notch. Here is a post on one of the most beautiful lights I have ever seen:

Post

And keep an eye on Steve Ku and Veleno Designs. First he did a run of Ti Nitecores that are still in high demand. Then he did a few Liteflux Ti lights and again they were in high demand. He did a light of his own, the awesome Volere AA. Then he released the porn star light 38DD light (that is a horrible joke, sorry). And now the above special edition of the 38DD.

Is Steve Ku the next custom maker about to hit it big? I think so.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A Favorite Companion--A Hiking Stick--And How to Make One

When I was younger I lived near a State Forest, and for a kid, there is probably nothing better. It gave me an appreciation of nature, a bit of independence, and tons of things to explore. Part of the forest was a fish hatchery for the state of Ohio and the other part was just forest. It was not a tourist place, so there were very few managed trails (none in fact) so me and my childhood friends did a lot of the trail making. During those days, weeks, months, and years exploring I always had a hiking stick of some sort. Usually it was a straight piece of maple with the bark still on, but I never when into the woods without one. It helped me leap across streams and get balance on a log that had fallen over a ravine. It helped me keep pace while walking. It helped me cut down spider webs that traversed the paths we were making. It also helped me keep my balance while wading in the stream for crawdads.

As an adult, moving away and going to college and then law school and now into my own home, those hiking sticks are long gone. But with a new little boy, my wife and I have started walking and hiking again. So I went out into the woods near my current house (no where near as impressive as the sweep of emerald green that surrounded my neighborhood when I was a kid) and found a stand of young maple. They were part of a deforesting effort to get a passenger rail system into my current town, so the stand is full of thin, straight maple. There are too many to have all of them survive and even now, some of the smaller ones are dying out. They are sugar maple and they grow in nice, straight stands. They also make excellent hiking sticks.

Here is my current stick:

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and a close up of the "handle":

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The hiking stick has probably about 600 miles on it right now and it has held up well. It is something I carry every night when we go for a walk or any time I am hiking. In addition to their wilderness utility, they also make great defensive items, if need be, something short of a knife or a gun and much more innocuous looking. They beat the tar out of the aluminum ones in terms of style. Below is a tutorial on how to make your own.

Supplies You'll Need

You'll need:

1. A saw (a bow saw or a garden saw are perfect)
2. A length of PVC tubing with two end caps
3. Foam brushes
4. A putty knife or scraper
5. Different grit sand paper, I like 60, 120, 320 and 600, with a fine grit that can be used to wet sand (it will say "Dry/Wet" on it)
6. A length of cord (I used paracord)

it is nice to have:

1. A palm sander (Random Orbital type)
2. A belt sander
3. A Dremel rotary tool with rasp and sanding attachments

Selecting the Wood

Ideally you will use a hard, straight grained, wood. Closed grain woods (like maple) are superior for finishing compared to open grained woods (like oak and ash). Traditionally, hiking sticks were made out of hickory, willow, ash, or maple. Irish sticks were also made of blackthorn (which, technically, is a shrub and not a tree). Willow is a good choice if you want a "bark on" look. Hickory is especially tough and strong, which is good in the sense that it will take some abuse, but bad in the sense that it is very hard to work with. I would skip pine, though pine can be tempting because it is straight, light, and abundant. It is just not strong enough for this application. Also, if you can find a root that is straight, roots are denser wood than trunk wood, so they are more durable. Be careful though, because cutting up a root could kill the tree. If the tree is already dying, go for it, but otherwise cut off a branch or go after a small sapling. Maple is my preference. It is a nice combination of hard yet workable, straight, and closed grained. I also like the creamy heart wood's coloration and pattern. Sometimes you get lucky and find some crazy pattern or spalting.

Choosing a sapling is pretty easy. I like to have natural handles, so I always look for a crotch or branch in the tree. I also like them to be no bigger around than my index finger and thumb when making the "OK" sign. I then go down from there about 6 feet. You will cut off a bit of the end, so select more than you need. You can always make it shorter, but the reverse is not true. Finally, sight up the side of the sapling to make sure it is straight. It doesn't need to be poll cue straight, but the straighter the better. Then start cutting.

The stick should be one of two sizes: shoulder height for a staff and elbow height for a walking stick. I prefer the elbow height sticks. They pace your walking well and are easier to store and carry.

Making the Stick

I have a Fiskars Slide Out Camping Saw that I use to cut down the sapling. As always, be careful, even saplings can be large and unwieldy. I have been stabbed by a few falling saplings because they are EXTREMELY top heavy. If you have not cut down a tree before, here is a good how to: wikihow to fell a tree. The important part is using the wedge cut to direct the fall AWAY from you. If you need a big saw, the sapling is too big.

Once I have the sapling (I usually get about three or four) I take them back to my workshop and start peeling the bark. The bark helps seal moisture in and moisture, as you will see in a minute, is your enemy. Releasing the moisture by stripping the bark has another benefit--the wood underneath is both smooth and beautiful. Bark can add texture and you CAN leave it on, I just don't see why. The drier it is, the easier it is to peel the bark. I use a putty knife sharpen on a file. If it is really dry, the bark will come off in big banana peels. If not it will nick off. If the bark is really on the stick, sometimes I just let it dry and then sand it off.

After I have peeled the stick, I place them in long, straight PVC tubes. Any plumbing or home store will have them. I have two tubes and I can dry three sticks at once. Take a piece of masking tape and date the tube. If you let them linger too long without taking them out, they will get rotten and moldy as the moisture has no place to go. About once every two weeks, uncap the tube take the stick out, clean it off, and then take a wad of paper towels, stuff it in the tube, and use the stick to push it all the way through. If the tube is REALLY messy, seal up one end, drop some bleach in there, shake it around, and then pour it out. The big thing is you have to make sure the drying tube is dry itself, as the wood has a TON of moisture inside. After about 3-6 months, depending on the ambient humidity, the sticks should be dry enough to sand.

One thing you have to be worried about is checking. If the sticks dry too fast, like if they are simply exposed to the surrounding air after being debarked, they will develop large, structurally weakening cracks. The drying tubes allow you to crudely control humidity and this prevents checking. There will be SOME checking no matter what, but if you do it right, in the drying tube, it will only be at the ends (or end, if you used a crotch or branch to make a handle, the wood is denser here). You can also seal the ends of the sticks to prevent cracking by making a parafin cap from an old candle. I have never bothered because the drying tubes work so well, but some people swear by them.

Once the sticks are dry I sand them using an Random Orbital Sander. The sanding is very messy, but the goal is to cut through the brown-orange skin and get to the bone white wood. Sometimes you find surprises, like my stick has some heavy spalting. I go from 60 to 120 to 320 to 600 grit. I also use a rasp attachment for my Dremel to work out any sharp knots and to accentuate the natural shape of the handle. If there is not a natural handle I like to round off the end to make a nice knob. I use a belt sander to do this, shaping the stick by bringing the stick to the sander. The other way around is a bit too awkward for nice and consistent results.

After the sanding I use a tack cloth or wet paper towel to clean the wood. I then let it sit for a day and finally I apply the varnish. You can stain the stick beforehand, but they tend to be splotchy, so I don't recommend it (I stained a stick once and it looks okay, but not great). The varnish I use is a spar varnish, in particular Minwax's Helmsman Spar Varnish. Spar Varnish is designed for marine applications and it is very thick. It is very durable and water resistant, making it an excellent finish for a hiking stick that will be scrapped and banged against rocks and trees all its life. I suggest cutting it 1:1 (one unit varnish to one unit thinner) with paint thinner before applying it. This will allow you to build up coats but not cause lumping or bubbling. I usually do about 5-10 coats. Spar varnish is not as glossy as other varnishes, so getting the wood to shine takes a lot of coats (thinner coats work best) and effort. I usually use a 320 and 600 grit sheet of sand paper to hand sand the finish between coats. Once the coat is on I let it dry for a day and then repeat the process.

For the final coat I like to wet sand the entire surface and then apply the varnish. Once the final coat is on I wet sand it again and then apply paste wax. Once the wax has set (it will be tacky to the touch) I buff it out to give the wood a gleaming, super strong finish. I usually attach a lanyard somewhere (through a knot if possible, it looks cool) and the get a rubber ferrule and attach it to the bottom. I like contact cement, but sometimes it is unnecessary. Buy a few, as they do wear out. I have tried a fancy brass ferrule and they don't work all that well, adding weight and not much else.

Other than the time for the drying process and the peeling, it will take about an hour a day for about five days (depending on the number of coats). All told I probably spend around 10-15 hours on each stick from the time I cut it down until I give it to someone to use, excluding, of course the months of drying.

After about a year you may have to refinish the stick. Just reapply the last two coats of varnish after you rough up the finish a bit. You may also have to replace the ferrule, actually you DEFINITELY will have to replace the ferrule. Just pop it off or cut it off (the bottom will be worn away so it will be like a collar around the bottom of the stick) and apply another one. If you do these two things and don't fight sword wielding maniacs, your stick will last indefinitely. I have one that is five years old and it looks and feels brand new.

If you are far from trees or short on tools and/or time, you could just go get a broom handle or a wheelbarrow handle and finish it to save time, but that is a little too boring if you can cut down your own tree.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wallets

Big Skinny Wallets are on sale, many for 50% off.

I know very little about the wallets out there right now, in large part because I found Big Skinny wallets, bought one, and never thought about them again. It is a GREAT way to carry your stuff. I ordered one about three years ago and though it is not a pretty as it used to be, it is still a super design. Here is my little review of the wallet from EDCF (I wrote this quite a while ago, but most of it is still true):

Introduction

It seems that there is a real debate within the EDC community about what exactly it means to be EDC. There is a large contingent, perhaps the majority of people that stress the “carry” side of the equation. For these people something that is EDC earns that distinction because its “overengineered.” The greater the heft, the more durable the materials, the more it seems to be appropriately labeled “EDC.” Then there is a much smaller contingent that seem to favor design over heft. These are the “everyday” fans. These people concede that something is more likely to get carried everyday the better designed it is. This is somewhat a false dichotomy because everyone that knows what “EDC” stands for likes and, in fact, seeks out durable things. Additionally there are some items, such as Peter Atwood’s keychain tools (a breathtaking masterpiece of design) that are both. Either way, the distinction is useful—there are the heavy duty EDCers and the minimalist EDCers. I am in the minimalist camp.

One place where this distinction is seen in the highest contrast is in the area of wallets. Wallets, even for those that do not know what “everyday carry” means, are truly essential, on-the-person items for almost everyone. T.H.E. Wallet (and its Jr. spinoff from Spec-Ops) and all of the Maxpedition designs are certainly top shelf when it comes to durability, but they are massive. I recently ordered the Spartan from Maxpedition. It had a number of pockets and great features but it was huge. It was so big that would not fit in my work pants back pocket, and that was before it was filled with contents. Spec Ops design (T.H.E. Wallet) has the same problem. It is just too big.

So I began researching slim wallets. There is, unbeknownst to me, an arms race among a few companies for the title of “World’s Thinnest Wallet.” Among the competitors are two, both virtually identical in idea (superthin), but significantly different in design. One wallet was from Big Skinny. It is a traditional design with ultrathin materials and stitching. The other was from All Ett. It also uses thin material but instead of stacking cards one on top of each other, it achieves thinness by putting card pockets in on top of each other (think of a deck of cards versus plates on a dinner table). For reasons explained below I chose the Big Skinny wallet over the All-Ett. As such, this is a review of the Big Skinny.

Requirements

For me there were a few function requirements for my new wallet. First, it had to be waterproof (hence the need for a new wallet). Second, it had to be durable. Third, after the Maxpedition wallet, it had to be small. Fourth, I detest trifold designs, so it had to be a bifold wallet. Fifth, I wanted an ID window (so I wouldn’t have to remove my license for ID checks when using credit cards).

A nonessential element was a more “mature” look. My wife derided the Maxpedition, calling it my “Spiderman” wallet. No matter what I said about its durability and design—she was right (I am saying that here knowing there is virtually no chance she will see this). It did have a “youthful” appearance, to put it best. Another non-essential element was price. I would spend a good deal for a wallet, especially if it did all of those things, but there is a limit (I am a firm believer in the “10%/100% rule”). Tumi has a number of great designs, but like all things Tumi, they are incredibly expensive. I have no doubt of their quality (I have a Tumi briefcase for work and it is simply amazing the beating that thing can take and still look amazing), but their price is so much greater than other wallets that I decided to see if I could find something else for less than a Benjamin.

I ordered the wallet, a Big Skinny Multi-Pocket for $23.95 (plus S&H) off the web and it arrived in two days. I live in the same state that the wallet is made, so it was not as if the Flash had delivered my purchase.

Product Design and Function


The model I ordered is not their “thinnest” wallet. I ordered instead the Multi Pocket (which was a comparably lardy 1/8” while the “Super Skinny” was listed as less than that). The difference between the Big Skinny Multi Pocket and a conventional wallet in terms of size is absolutely staggering. I compared my fully loaded (6 credit card sized cards, some money, and my ID) with an empty “regular” wallet and the Big Skinny was less than half its size.

But thinness was not all the Big Skinny offered. According to their site the bill pocket is lined with a non-slip coating. My inspection of the wallet proved that to be absolutely true. Bills will not fall out due to gravity and they are more secure than in a lined leather wallet, but they are not as secure as they would be in a fasten or Velcro wallet.

The Big Skinny hit all of my function requirements dead on. It was made of some sort of nylon-type fabric (though their site did not specify exactly what it was). Thus far it has been quite durable and seems built for the long haul. It was smaller than the Maxpedition (or any other wallet I have ever seen) by leaps and bounds. You can get a Big Skinny as a trifold, but mine was not. Finally all of Big Skinnies have ID windows. The look of the Big Skinny was more mature than the Maxpedition, and it looks a lot like a standard leather wallet, but it fell short of the elegance and rugged beauty of a Tumi design. The only drawback was a Big Skinny logo on left inside of the wallet. The price is roughly the same as the Spec Ops, Maxpedition, All-Ett, and normal department store wallets. It was about a quarter to a fifth the cost of Tumi’s cheapest wallet, and falls within the 10 and 10 rule in terms of Tumi and other ultra luxury brand’s top of the line wallets. There are of course, even more expensive items, but I don’t think any EDCer is considering a Louis Vitton or Hermes design.

There were three bonuses to the wallet, things I didn’t expect but now enjoy. First, the wallet as a “secure” pocket for all kinds of things (including, as their website references, condoms). This pocket is zippered and even the zipper is durable but slim. Finally there was a plastic flap in the bill pocket. This flap could be used to segregate items in the bill pocket (checks to cash versus dollars) or it could be used to hold an emergency key (as there is a slot in the plastic flap). I tried the key, but it added extra weight and thickness to the wallet, so now it is a divider. Finally, the Big Skinny, even fully loaded is easily front shirt “pocketable.” That makes it very easy to get to and does not do the spinal damage that a back pocket would.

The All-Ett was also something I considered but it achieved its thinness by spreading out credit cards. Instead of stacking them in one pocket, it divided them up in the four pockets, making the wallet thinner (by a hair), but much taller (looking more like a book). If that is not an issue for you then consider the All-Ett. Additionally, I got rid of a bunch of thickness by consolidating my “club cards” at www.justoneclubcard.com.

Conclusions

Overall, I really like the wallet. I say that with no real “purchase loyalty”; I kept the Big Skinny because I liked it, not the other way around. I sent back one wallet and I was more than prepared to send this one back if it didn’t work out. If you are looking for a no-holds barred, could be eaten by a lion and still be held together wallet, then a Maxpedition or Spec Ops is probably a better idea. But if you need something more functional and less heavy duty, seriously consider either a Big Skinny or the All-Ett. I have been very happy with the purchase and carry with me everyday. The only thing close to a drawback is the funny smell that emanates from the wallet for the first couple of days, but that fades quickly and you are left with a great, purpose-built item that will easily travel with you for years. It is not as cool looking as a Tumi, but it is 1/5 the price.

Highly Recommended: Exceeding every expectation, worth every penny.


Two years later, this is all still true. And they are on sale.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Switching Gear(s)

I have written a lot about flashlights and folding knives, primarily because they are really cool, but, "satisfied" with what I have in both lights and folding knives, I have recently I have started hunting down other things. I am a lawyer and I travel from court to court everyday. I do a lot of note taking and a lot of hearings. As a result my things need to be really sturdy. Typical ballpoint pens either run out or are destroyed in about a week. My law books and client files (as well as brutal New England winters) put a lot of strain on my bag and so it needs to be tough.

Here is my typical "office" EDC:

IMG_0011

In addition to this stuff I have a Tumi Alpha T-Pass briefcase for holding client folders and papers/pens. The last thing I carry is an insulated Kleen Kanteen from LL Bean (it is out of production now, replaced with a crappy LL Bean in-house design that stinks; if you find one of the KK versions, BUY IT, it is awesome) with the plastic shell (to prevent dings) and a Human Gear CapCap.

The Tumi Bag is great, indestructible in most places and replacement parts for everything else (I have gone through three straps, made of seat beat material no less, in seven years). I wish it were a bit smaller as I no longer need a laptop compartment (and really, with smartphones and tablets, who does?). The bottle, I think, is the best of each component available. I love the iPhone 3GS, and the Incipio Feather iPhone case I have works perfectly. Of course, nothing bests the Aeon, in my opinion. The Dragonfly has gotten better, but that is something I am planning on upgrading soon.

This leaves the pen and the notebook. My notebook is actually a paper calendar, a softcover Moleskine 18 month calendar. The pen seen in the picture is a Retro 51 Tornado (I am not linking to it because it is a piece of shit, two broke within a period of about four months). The Moleskine is OK--it works, but it is not sufficiently durable to withstand the daily grind my stuff suffers through. I can't go hardcover, because it is just not pocket friendly, so I am looking for a slightly sturdier notebook. It might seem odd that I have a paper calendar with an iPhone 3GS and it is wonderfully easy calendaring, but the reality is that my schedule is the single most important thing in my daily work. Being late, even a few minutes, can have a huge impact on my clients and my career, so a back up, in the form of a paper calendar, is required. It also helps judges when they say "break our your calendars." Some look at the iPhone as if it were a Gameboy (or a 3DS), so a classically shaped calendar puts them at ease.

I have been looking for something sturdier and I found this AWESOME blog. Like the little notebooks they review, Black Cover is a simple, well-designed, and well-thought out blog reviewing and discussing all things Little Black Book. Their favorite, the Stifflexible, is something of an internet Yeti. It is supposedly available online at the famous (and my favorite law school haunt, it was right around the corner) Bromfield Pen Shop and the Italian producer. It is hard to figure out if they have a calendar version of the Stifflexible. There are other choices out there, the Rhodia Webnotebook and the Eco Systems Notebook. I really like the eco systems--MADE IN THE USA and 100% recycled. I haven't had a chance to check out the back pocket (which I use for business cards, a case summary list, and a motor vehicle fine schedule) on either so the search continues. Oh and in case you are CRAZY, here is the Spy 007 of notebooks: Smythson Note Book. At 150 pounds or $248.64 (as of April 27, 2011) it is RIDICULOUSLY expensive for something that is a one use item. NO DOODLING. Search continues.

Then there is the pen problem. Here is an incomplete list of pens I have used over the past two years: Retro 51 Tornado (x2), Zebra F-401, Zebra F-701, Parker Urban Twist XL, and the classic Parker Jotter. There is no doubts about refill--Fisher refills are simply unquestionably superior to everything else out there. They may not have that gel liquidity or the grace of a fountain pen, but they work on everything and for what seems like an eternity. As such, all of the above have used Parker compatible Fisher Pen inserts.

ASIDE

Blue ink. Always use blue ink. In my job, the Court MUST receive the originals of a pleading and signing in blue ink makes distinguishing between copies and originals very easy. Given that blue ink is just as accepted as blank ink and has this anti-copying quality, I cannot understand why anyone would use any other color ink besides blue (absent special applications where different colored ink is required).

END ASIDE

The problem with all of these pens is one of two things: either they are flimsy and the clips break (Retro 51, Urban XL Twist) or they feel like your writing with a toothpick (Parker Jotter), which cramps the hands after a while. Right now I am using the Zebra F-701 with the Parker insert mod (seen here). I used my drill press to thin out the plastic tip guide instead of a SAK awl, but the idea and results were the same.

I really don't like pens with caps as it is yet another thing to lose (I have the same rule for USB drives). I also don't like the new trend in tactical pens. First, they are ridiculously large. Second, they are really uncomfortable in the pocket. And finally, I am not sure I'd be allow to bring them into a secure facility like a jail or prison. Plus, they look STUPID. Worf may I borrow your Klingon pen? Ugh. Enough with the tactical stuff for non-tactical folks. The new Surefire clicky looks really nice:



The problem is that it costs $139. I lose my pens probably once a year or so, which is why all of the above listed pens are under $20. It is just a fact of life--my constant travels make it impossible to keep a pen for a long time, so I am wary of dropping big bucks. One "tactical pen" that is interesting is the production version of the Tom Anderson Twister. Still, it looks a little too tactical for me. But at $12.99 at the FABULOUS JS Burly's (run by the proprietor of EDCF and used to support the forum), it is worth a flier. And of course it works with a Fisher refill. But, as with the notebook the search goes on.

Any suggestions on either front would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Best Flashlight for the Non-Flashaholic

My parents live in the Midwest, part of Tornado Alley, and they receive frequent, massive windstorms. The worst tornado outbreak in history hit my hometown to devastating effect in 1974. And as spring approaches, my mom, at home one night by herself heard the wail of the tornado sirens and ran downstairs to grab a flashlight only to find an ancient 2-D cell incan in the closet--out of juice and even with new batteries dim as a dying firefly. She recently complained that she needed a new light and this got me thinking--What is the best light for non-flashaholics? Is there really nothing better out there than the standard Mag Light? Is there anything out there as good or better for the same money as the Mag Light?

Here is the real problem, the new LED Mag Light is actually not that bad. Sure it is a double cell light without any real carry method, but it is now multi-mode (100% power, 25% power, SOS and Beacon). Its high is a decent (stretching the definition of the word "decent") 69 lumens. Here is a fair street price. Plus there are a TON of aftermarket products and upgrades, like this clicky tailswitch (though this particular one does not work with the Mag Light LED).

So let's make a list of criteria for the non-flashaholic flashlights.

1. AA or AAA batteries. No weirdo batteries and as much as we flashaholics think that CR123a are mainstream, they aren't. If the average joe can't buy them at a gas station, they aren't good enough for non-flashaholics.

2. VERY simple UI. No click, press, hold bullshit only super simple UIs. I prefer only one motion, repeated if necessary, so even the click and twist of the Fenix lights is more than I think a non-flashaholic will bother with.

3. Tailstanding if possible. Tailstanding is really useful, especially in situations when non-flashlight folks will be using a flashlight. As such, I'd make this a requirement.

I don't think multiple modes are necessarily a requirement, but I can imagine even non-flashlight people would like two different runtimes. I also don't think a pocket clip is required. I think they are great on lights, but I can imagine that some people make think they make them look a little bit too much like Batman. Finally, I can't imagine a non-flashlight person spending more than $50. So that is the upper limit.

If the Aeon ran on AA or AAA batteries I would TOTALLY recommend it, but alas it uses even WEIRDER batteries than C123a AND it is $125. So here are some choices:

1. Nitecore EZ AA: It uses a two-stage twisty switch like the Aeon. It looks like the Aeon. It has a brass heat sink like the Aeon. It is the Aeon with AA batteries. It can tailstand like a champ. Here is a review from CPF. Here is the street price. Downside? It is TWICE the price of the all-too-familiar Mag Light AA LED. See also the Fenix LD15, which is pretty much the exact same light.

2. LRI Proton Pro: This is a flashlight that looks and works like non-flashlight people think flashlights should work. Its UI is more complex than the twist of the EZ AA, but it is still pretty simple. I worry that a non-flashlight person might get stuck in one of the modes though. Here is a video demo:



It has a TON of features, a nice pocket clip, is plenty bright (115 lumens) and has a nice night vision saving red LED. It does not tailstand though, so that is a strike. It's street price is much lower than the price from LRI. Here is a good price from BatteryJunction.com. At $37.95 it totally works for me, but for a non-flashlight person, the UI could be daunting...

3. 4Sevens Preon: Here is my review of this outstanding light. It can tailstand in twisty mode, uses "common" batteries, and has a simpler UI than the Proton Pro (but not as simple as the EZ AA). There are ton of 4sevens models that would work here--the Preon Revo (which I chose not to focus on because it is more money), the MiNi AA, and the MiNi 2AA. The Preon, as the simplest and cheapest of these seems like the best option for the non-flashlight person.

4. Fenix LD03: A brand new light from Fenix, and it is beautiful. It is designed to have a little bit larger form factor than most single cell AAA lights, appearing to be an elegant, small pen. There are three output modes and the high is 71 lumens (not to far away from the Mag Light LED 2xAA). Here is a good street price. It is a rear clicky. It cannot tailstand. Still for $37.95 it is a great looking light at a good price.

5. Maratac AA: Here is a video for the light:



Same UI, basically, as the Preon. It can tailstand easily. And it has plenty of output for its size. Finally, and here is the thing that put it over the top in my book--the price. At $26.95 it is basically the same price as the Mag Light but has a bunch of advantages (with the exact same UI). First, it is single cell. Second, it is brighter and has better run times. Third, it has a pocket clip. Fourth, it can tailstand better. There is also a AAA version (which is more money) and a badge swap for the AAA version from ITP called the EOS3.

If I had to choose, I'd probably go with the Maratac AA. It looks nice, its easy to use, and it is plenty cheap. As a side note, this little experiment was a good way to look at the low end of the flashlight market. For a long time, people thought all there was out there was Mag. Now there are tons of lights, but most are expensive. With these lights you can see, it is pretty easy now to get a good, if not great light for under $40. Its not going to be a McGizmo, but it will slay the old standard bearer--the Mag 2xAA--every time.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Surefire G2X Pro Review

Here is a picture of my Surefire G2X Pro and its light&saber buddy, a Zero Tolerance ZT350:



Surefire has been, perhaps, the premiere name in production flashlights for more than a decade now. They have consistently produced lights that rival customs in terms of fit and finish and innovation. However, with the advent of cheaper Chinese-based products, such as the Fenix brand lights, Surefire, as of about five years ago, looked like it was about to fall behind the technology curve permanently. While the Chinese makers powered through the first and second generation of LEDs (which were underpowered, expensive, and had a terrible tint), Surefire stuck to its guns and produced one incandescent light after another. Then, the LED technology finally hit its stride and Surefire lights looked like well-built, dim dinosaurs.

But Surefire didn't collapse. Instead it looks like they redoubled their efforts and started melding their superior builds with the more promising, newer generation of LEDs. First came the L4 Lumamax--Surefire's first mainstream LED light. Check out this review of this groundbreaking light from the old FlashlightReviews.com. Note the almost giddy tone of the review, a flashaholic rooting for the old established brand to teach the young whippersnappers a thing or two. And then from there, the flood of amazing lights began: the still unique among production lights A2 Aviator LED, the amazingly small and innovative Titan T1 (now T1A), and the much beloved, elegantly simple single cell E1B Backup. These were not the weaksauce LEDs that were first used by the Chinese brands. They were high output, high performance, photon cannons, mated, for the first time, with the superlative Surefire design and body.

The only problem was cost. Surefire lights ain't cheap, but these lights were virtually custom lights in terms of quality, features, AND price. The E1B still sells for more than $125. So while Surefire had matched the performance of the Chinese brands, they were still losing on the cost front and their market share dwindled (actually, it probably stayed the same, but the overall market got larger as cheaper and better lights came out, making the effect the same as a shrinking market presence).

Surefire again redoubled their efforts and brought both their quality and the high tech LEDs to a budget line and the results have been GREAT. Two new LED, multi-mode lights came out last year at prices that match or best the Chinese brands: the 6PX series and the G2X series.

Here is the G2X Pro's product page. Here is a street price for the light (Note: usually Surefire's pricing policies require virtually uniforming pricing, so there is little difference across the board, though some places will throw in free shipping and batteries; however in this case there are HUGE differences, some places have the light for $95 and others $65. I got mine for $65 at REI, but the price is $30 more now). Here is a review of the G2X Pro from Survival Forum and Gear Reviews (the only real review I could find).

I opted for the Pro model because it offered two outputs. I opted for the G2 version with its polymer body because it was lighter and offered virtually the same strength without fear of scratching like the aluminum version of the 6PX model. The G2X line is an upgraded version of the old G2 line, which is a polymer bodied version of the most famous high end light of all time: the 6P. I bought this light to use on nighttime walks. I needed to have long throw to scan the large football field we walk in, to avoid skunks mostly, but also teenage miscreants as well. It represented the perfect balance between output and throw and size for my use.

There has been a rash of reports like this one indicating that the tailcaps in G2X Pro lights were defective. The problem is that tapping the light will change modes and sometimes the clicking on the clicky switch won't. I had that problem with my first G2X Pro. Surefire sent me a replacement tailcap and that didn't work. They then sent me an entirely new light and that did fix the problem. Here is a DIY fix. I cannot confirm this, but the price difference seems to be indicative of an upgrade or change in design to eliminate this problem. I say that with no evidence whatsoever, but the follow four pieces of information (as well as deductions from them): 1) there were defective lights out there; 2) the $65 versions are on older pages; 3) Surefire's uniform pricing policy means it is HIGHLY unlikely that some folks can get away with selling the same lights $30 cheaper; and 4) a decrease in the number of complaints about the problem across the forums.

As always with Surefires, they are not designed to work with rechargeable batteries.

Design: 2

The G2X Pro is a beautiful looking light. It is lightweight, impact resistant (having dropped mine DOZENS of times while walking and holding a squirming infant), and easy to use. I strongly prefer single cell lights, but this is a pretty compact dual cell light. I also like the dimpled as opposed to scalloped bezel--less sharp edges. Odd side bonus, the polymer is easier on the teeth when using the light in your mouth for hands free operation.

Fit and Finish: 2

Unlike the Arc 6, I think the G2X Pro problems were an aberration. I have owned 4 Surefire models and none were a problem in the least. This is the first time I have had any problems whatsoever from a Surefire so I will give them the benefit of the doubt.

The head is well made and mates well, even with different material (the head is aluminum and identical to that of the 6PX, though neither are removable, eliminating one past time for Surefire fans--lego lights :(). The clicky is tough and responsive. There is no battery noise and the body tube is well made. The reflector is deep and perfectly textured and as always the LED is perfectly centered.

Grip: 2

The polymer material is cool in heat and warm in the cold, like G10 and is textured enough to allow a good grip. I like choking up on the light and holding it right behind the head, too. Excellent all around grip.

Carry: 0

It is a dual cell light and thus carries worse than a single cell light, but even in its own class it lacks a pocket clip, lanyard (or even a lanyard hole) or any other method of attachment. Its deep reflector head makes the light bulky and not the same diameter all the way down the light. When you make high end lights for cheap, I guess this is where you skimp. Still, the super cool two way clip on the newer, high end Surefires, seen here on the LX2 Lumamax, is really awesome and would have made this light a superstar.

Output: 2

Amazingly good output in two modes with little to no tint. As always with Surefire lights, it does its one task (illuminating objects) VERY, VERY well. 200 lumen high and 15 lumen low are very nice settings and probably what I would choose in a dual output light (if the ceiling was 200).

Runtime: 2

2 hours of 200 lumens and 45 (!) hours of 15 lumens is exceedingly good, especially when the beam is this nice. Home run.

Beam Type: 2

A throwy beam that works well in flood situations due to the very bright uniform spill. This is the second nicest beam type I have seen, after, of course, the Haiku's flood/throw perfection. Excellent, with a enough punch to hit stuff a long way away.

Beam Quality: 2

Again, Surefire's quality literally shines through. No artifacts, rings, or weird uneven output.

UI: 2

Simple, simple, simple. Click once: on at low, click again quickly: on at high. There is no mode memory so you will always start on low (which seems very sensible to be, I hate accidentally losing my night vision as I stumble to the bathroom).

Hands Free: 1

The light can't tailstand, which I think is a shame, but it has an anti-roll design and because of the polymer body is nicer on the dental work than other lights.

Total Score: 17 out of 20

If this light could tailstand and came in a single cell design, it would be practically perfect. Also, really how much can the pocket clip cost? Still, in order to bring the Surefire quality to lower priced lights, some compromises needed to be made and they were made in all the right places. The beautiful, powerful Surefire beam remains intact.

Surefire's resurgence is a great story in this age of exports. It shows how an American company that has the tech and quality advantage can match and even beat the Chinese lights at their own game. I am not myopically pro-American (I own quite a few non-American made lights), but this is story I can get behind. Plus, like all true flashaholics, I am something of a Surefire fanboy. Seeing them go toe to toe at the bottom of the market while still innovating at the other end is awesome.

UPDATE: I had another problem with the G2X Pro, but Surefire took care of me.  See here for more details.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Arc 6 Review

Well, its time to go to the graveyard and take a peek at a light I no longer own. That statement alone tells you a lot, but in this case, I think it is worth exploring why this particular light failed in more detail. It is a great cautionary example of how things can go drastically wrong in the world of high end flashlights. Here is a picture of my Arc 6:



The Arc 6 is a semi-production version of the McGizmo McLux III PD (see here for a SWEET line up of the McLeish originals). The original McLux III PD used a piston drive actuator instead of the normal twisty or clicky systems. Here is a quote from carrot's Guide to High End Flashlights on how the PD system works:

Piston Drive

The piston drive is an ingenious switching mechanism designed by Don McLeish, also known as McGizmo. The design is great because it puts all the electrical "action" at the head, making the design less complicated and more reliable while retaining the highly-prized dual output and momentary feature of the two-stage twisty. In the words of the maker (I apologize in advance for including all this tech-talk):

The piston is an electrically conductive sleeve that houses the battery riding on a contact spring. The environmental seal is achieved by an o-ring riding at the lower part of the piston making contact with the inner wall of the body. The piston is exposed at the rear end of the light (see pic above) and serves as momentary switch. The cool thing about this very complicated and innovative switching method is that it allows for a fully regulated 2-stage switching at the driver board location with the perfect electrical path (see diagram) in a completely anodised light body for maximum protection from harm while retaining the perfect seal from the environment. There is no electrical path through either the body or the head and both are completely anodized with no breaks in the plating.

It used to be that the only way to get a piston drive light was to order an expensive, custom light from the maker himself when he had a new "wave" of lights in stock, but happily as of mid-2008 he has granted permission to several makers to bring the wonderful design to the masses. The piston drive design has been licensed and adopted by Arc Flashlights LLC for the Arc6 and by NiteCore & 4Sevens for the Smart PD* series of lights. I consider the PD switching system to be the best design for flashlights both in ease of use and reliability, followed closely by the two-stage twisty.

*By UI design and interface operation it could be argued the Smart PD is a sort of clicky and will be discussed again later in a section below.


Arc lights were cutting edge designs ten years ago. They were the first LED lights. The Arc 4 is a design many people still like today. It served as the chassis for both the HDS Ra (Twisty and Clicky) and the Novatac series. The Arc 6 was (supposed to be) the next step in this beloved line of flashlights. When I first started reading about flashlights there was nothing better than the Arc.

The Arc 6 was supposed to be a cheaper alternative to the McLux III PD, which came in a premium material (titanium) at a premium price. Here is the Arc 6 product page. The original price of the light was $300. Around two years ago, it dropped to $200. There were no other retailers so there is no street price. Here is a link to a CPF Arc 6 sale thread. Here is a link to carrot's review. Here is another review from Light-Reviews.com. Here is the CPF review.

Why would I bother to review a) an older light; and b) a light that has been reviewed so many times already? First, I think this is a light that because of its design and price, might send some folks out hunting for it. Its promise is tantalizing--a McLux III PD at half the cost. So even though it appears to be out of production (they have been sold out for about 6 months now), some might think that it is worth the time to track it down (here is an out of production light worth tracking down). Also, even though there are three reviews out there, I feel like I have a unique perspective. First, this review was after about six months of use. Second, for reasons explained below, I owned TWO Arc 6's whereas I assume that the other reviewers only had one.

Design: 1

The original McLux III PD is a great little light and Peter Gransee, the owner of Arc, collaborated with Don McLeish to make the Arc 6. There is one major difference--Peter redesigned the head of the light to make it smaller. Now there are very few instances when smaller is not better in an EDC light, but unfortunately this is one of them. Instead of making the light the right size in a hammer grip, this light is just too small given the diameter of the body tube. It is amazing that the ONE new thing in this light does not work. If the Arc 6 were a novel, that would be foreshadowing.

Fit and Finish: 0

Okay, so the first Arc 6 went back because it would NOT stay on high. After about 30 seconds it drop down from the afterburner mode to the normal high. That didn't bother me, but the next drop did. It went from there to Level 6, then 5, and then 4 in about 3 minutes. So there is a problem. I sent the light back. It took an extraordinarily long time for Arc to get around to replacing the light. Here is my jeer in the feedback forum on EDCF recounting the entire epic process. Every manufacturer can make one bad unit, so I sent it back. I got my new one and when I opened it up to put a battery in the bottom of the head just fell off. There was no solder holding the little CPU in place. And that was two.

Even the light that worked was still not great. The scalloped bezel was sharp enough to cut paper, and while that is good if that is the intention of the designer, that is clearly not the case here. The clip was mounted poorly and this caused the light to wobble when tailstanding. The HA III coating was splochier than a teenager's skin. The coloration did not match between the head and the body tube (see the next picture below). It was terrible. And finally there were pronounced swirls and machine marks in all parts of both lights.

If this were a DX special, I would expect all of this, but from a $300 light with the heritage that Arc lights have, this is COMPLETELY unacceptable.

Grip: 0



As was mentioned above, there is just something wrong ergonomically speaking. I can't put my finger on it. It is like hearing an unusual sound in your car--you might not know exactly what noise it is, but you know there is just something out of whack. The body tube is too fat and too short to get a good grip on. A change in either dimension would make a world of difference.

Carry: 1

It uses the McGizmo clip so it can't be terrible. Unfortunately, the dimensions again, just seem off. Furthermore, this particular version of the McGizmo clip was REALLY tight. The two lights killed the pockets of two different pairs of jeans.

Output: 2

In the afterburner mode (the mode above high) it produced something more than 200 lumens, probably around 250 lumens. At the time that was very good. Now it is bested by the Lumapower Incendio or a dozen other lights. It was also very neutral in tint. Overall, very good. Rechargeables boosted the output as well.

Runtime: 0

Read the other reviews. Check the runtime charts. And then look at the manual. You aren't getting a lot of runtime on high (30 minutes at very best, and really only 30 seconds on the true high) or low (maybe two or three hours), compared to even the most middling production light out there, even at the time the Arc 6 was released. Runtime is a bit better on rechargeables, but not enough to make it respectable.

Beam Type: 1

A very undistinguished flood. Nothing special at all. Even a little throw would have been nice, but again you can't expect much with such a small (i.e. shallow) head and reflector.

Beam Quality: 1

The beam was very nice and clean with few artifacts. It was as good as the nicest production light in this respect.

UI: 0



I recognize that there are people out there that light the PD UI. I do like the PD UI used on the Nitecore lights, where it functioned more as a clicky. Here it just worked to activate the light momentarily. The only way to really turn on the light was to use it as a twisty and twist the head. Even as a momentary on, the PD was imprecise and lacked the feedback that a clicky has (especially the perfect McGizmo clicky). It was also hard to use and set output levels.

Hands Free: 0

The light won't roll because of the clip, but it also could not stand still while tailstanding because of the misaligned clip. The clip actually protruded about a 1/8 of an inch from the bottom of the light. On some surfaces it was not a big deal. On others, narrow, very flat surfaces like a window ledge, it didn't work.

Total Score: 6 out of 20

The Arc 6 is a failure of a design. Even for the time it was exceedingly expensive and a poor performer. It had a limited runtime even when it operated ideally, and in my experience of two different lights that was never. I have seen modded version that make excellent lights, upgraded the electronics and LED (thus boosting the runtime and output). The body tube is really hardy too, making it durable. As a host, it is not that bad, but as a light, unmodded, this is a failure.

The lack of support and any real updates from Arc bodes poorly. After the company was sold it seems as though Peter lost all control of quality and design. Now that it is part of some larger corporation that spirit and ingenuity that won over and arguably created flashaholics a decade or so ago is gone. This product is a piece of junk.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Custom Flamethrowers

If the TK35 and S12, from Fenix and 4sevens respectively, represent a new standard for small-ish production lights, as I discussed here, then the Mac Custom's Tri-EDC and the Oveready Moddoolar Pocket represent a new standard of performance for EDC sized lights.

The two lights seem like brothers from another mother--both are truly pocketable, unlike the TK35 and S12, both use three-emitter arrays to produce some truly spectacular lumens counts (around 700-800 lumens on high for the Tri-EDC and 1100 for the Moddoolar Pocket), both require special high power density rechargeables for peak performance, and both are available for relatively little dough, given their custom heritage.

Mac Custom's Tri-EDC

I really like the look of the Tri EDC--it is the successor to Mac's previous EDC light, the SST-50 EDC. Here is a review of the SST-50 EDC. Mac's reputation was built on MEGA photon cannons, but the SST-50 EDC represented an excursion into smaller lights. The Tri-EDC is the next step in that evolution. Here is a colorful shot from the sales thread:



It has a smooth body tube with a few rings for grip, a built in, custom clip, and a wider head. The Tri-EDC is a bit shorter than the SST-50 EDC and the SST-50 is about the same size as the venerable HDS Ra Clicky. Staring down the barrel of the flamethrower shows you some pretty amazing engineering. The Tri-EDC gets its name and incredible performance from not one, not two, but three XPG emitters. Mac has used this cluster emitter approach in other, bigger lights, but this is the first time he has put it to use in a smaller EDC light. The results are literally stunning--700 lumens. Mac warns against using it for a long time, but still in a pocket friendly design, 700 lumens is impressive. There are lower output modes and they can be set at ordering time. The standard setting has an output of 2%/20%/100% or 14 lumens/140 lumens/700 lumens. Looks very good to me.

Mac's stuff has such a good reputation and at $199 (for the Al model) the Tri EDC represents a very, very good value. The only issue is availability. Mac has a small custom shop (as someone that puts a lot of thought and ideas into his workshop, I love looking at other people's set up) and does a run ever so often, but they are small and fill up quickly. Still, peruse the Mac Custom section of CPF and maybe you'll get lucky.

Moddoolar Pocket

The Moddoolar Pocket in an EDC light produced by TorchLAB available through Oveready.com (a veritable showroom of awesome modded and custom lights). Oveready started as a place to get good Surefire upgrades and mods. They custom bored Surefire body tubes to create hosts for high volume, high density rechargeables.

But the Moddoolar Pocket is their first, from the ground up, light and WHOA is it a home run. It uses the Surefire compatible, custom tail cap, the Triad. The Triad itself is a bit of an engineering wonder, compatible with Surefire Z41 tailcaps, tritium inserts, and containing a really nice McGizmo clicky. The deep, rounded scallops are supposed to allow for easy access while still making a superior base for tailstanding. I haven't tried it out, but it looks very nice. The Moddoolar lives up to its name allowing for multiple body tubes, heads, tailcaps. It has a built-in clip (long and short) and a nice bezel (that too is modular, with both a smooth and scalloped bezel).

And then there is the output. With the maximum battery capacity, the light can punch out 1100 eye searing, skin tanning, cloud illuminating lumens. It is not a long time, with the 18350 it is 18 minutes and with the 18500 it is 27 minutes, but still it is 1100 lumens in a truly pocketable light. Its medium has better runtimes (and is the equivalent of high in other lights) and its low is insane (2 or 3 days, depending on the battery). The only issue I can see is that it comes on on high and that could lead to some awkward moments or actual problems (kiss your night vision LONG gone). The light is $330 and even then the flashaholics out there have snapped them and all of their constituent parts up. Everything is sold out.

Both of these lights are incredible. I'd take either one in a heart beat. The Tri-EDC though is a bit cheaper and absolutely gorgeous. Mac has a great reputation and it looks a little more my speed (more tool, less tactical). Still this is DEFINITELY the flashlight equivalent of choosing between a Ferrari or a Lamborghini.

Muyshondt Aeon Review

Which light do you carry the most? Aside from keychain lights, which are always on you, which light is it? I am pretty fortunate to have quite a few nice lights in my collection--Surefires, a McGizmo Haiku, some nice 4sevens lights, but the light that is on my person most often is a tiny speck of a light--the Muyshondt Aeon. The Aeon is a custom/semi-custom light that was based on an exceedingly small run (6 or 7 lights) pure custom called the Larry Light, something of a T206 Honus Wagner of flashlights. Here is the Aeon in a size comparison (Aeon, AA, and CR2):



Here is the Muyshondt Aeon's product page. Here is my fawning EDCF review. Here is a CPF review. Here is a good street price (actually, they are the same price everywhere). I own the Aluminum version, but there is also a Ti version available for about three times the price. Muyshondt has also added to the line up by including WARM LEDs. So you have four choices: Al or Ti in Regular or Warm.

There is nothing about this light, even three years later, that is done better elsewhere. In the EDCF review, I did a comparison between the Aeon and other CR2 lights (which I have decided on including in this review, see below), but even now, a year after that review and three years after the Aeon was released, it is still an amazing light.

Design: 2

Like a well designed house or piece of furniture, the Aeon is a model of restrained perfection. There is nothing extra, nothing superfluous, and nothing that doesn't just WORK. And as a tool, something that always works to perfection is exactly what you want. The UI is a twisty, with a...twist. Instead of the usual single activation twisty, this light has a two-stage twisty. Twist a little, it goes to low. Twist a little more, it goes to high. The tailcap is also a great design. The massive brass heat sink does a good job of lending the light just enough heft and dissipating heat well.

Fit and Finish: 2

Every material and component uses the highest grade material. The interior has that golden hue we all like to see (Chemkote), the lens is a sapphire lens, and the HAIII coating makes the light practically a key bully (see here). The head sinks into the threads on the body tube with almost magnetized ease. I have had to clean the threads and contact with contact cleaner (DeOxit Red, see here). But I use the light so often that I don't think this is a drawback, just something you have to do to good tools.

Grip: 2

This is a very tiny light, but a few careful grips allow for tons of dexterity and utility. The knurling is grippy but not overly aggressive. Here is my favorite grip ("The Green Lantern"):



Carry: 2

This light's size makes a pocket clip impractical. There is a great little brass lanyard for keychain use, but my favorite carry is to slip the light into a dress shirt top pocket or a jeans coin pocket. Its size makes it perfect to drop in just about any piece of clothing, even in a suit pocket. And again, the brass head heft makes it noticeable in your pocket without being intrusive. Here it is with what I call my "office EDC":



Output: 2

A very good low and a stunning high, given the light's size and power source. The low is very useful and the high is plenty bright for most EDC tasks.

Runtime: 2

The runtime on low is simply amazing. I have used three batteries in this light for the entire time I have owned it (since August of 2010). There is nothing I can say other than this--no life has better runtimes than this light. It comes very close to destroying the original FlashlightReviews axiom ("Runtime, output, small size: choose two.").

Beam Type: 2

This is an almost pure flood beam, but it does OKAY on throw. As a flood light, it works wonderfully, but here is the cool thing--even as a throw light it does okay. For the size and application I certainly can't complain about anything. On a football field I can hit stuff at the other end on a clear dark night.

Beam Quality: 2

The output is a bit green, but that is okay. The hotspot to spill transition is nice and silky smooth (not Haiku smooth, but nothing is...).

UI: 2

Well, this is perfect. I can hand the light to a non-flashlight person and explain how it works in one sentence ("Twist a little to turn on, more to get brighter..."). Can't get better than that.

Hands Free: 2

With a great little tailcap and a sunken lanyard, this baby tailstands perfectly. It does roll, but it is really too small to use on its side.

Total Score: 20/20



There is no light I carry more than this. It is a great little all around light. It is great in the workshop--lighting up tight spaces in casework with ease. It carries nicely in a suit pocket, a dress shirt pocket, and in jeans. It works sublimely well, runs forever, and is plenty bright. The second perfect light.

EDIT: One thing I forgot, there is simply no better customer service anywhere than Enrique and his people at Muyshondt. I have emailed them a couple of times with questions and a reply never takes more than a day or two and it is always helpful. A few others places and folks are just as good, but really no one is better. Hard to rate that, but it is worth mentioning.

BONUS: Battle Royale with other CR2 lights (taken from my EDCF review):

"...When doing research into this light there were a few competitors that I considered purchasing. I started the search after seeing this great comparison review of microlights found here. Some of the lights in the comparison didn't really suit my needs (not enough output) and some were out of production. The list below represents the lights I considered prior to purchase, though, of course, it is not an exhaustive list of lights that fit the criteria above (super small, regulated, multi-mode output). I will go through each of them one at a time, with the specs following my comments.

Lummi RAW: This was actually my first choice. It was a close call between the Aeon and the RAW, but the higher lumen count and the possibility of tritium inserts swayed me in this direction. Unfortunately, Lummi seems to be more in the website full of great pictures/vaporware business than the flashlight business. See my Jeer here. After thinking about the light I think my decision to purchase it was a mistake. I was lured in my the idea of preinstalled Tritium inserts, ignoring everything else that was a problem about the light. The lack of a hard coat and the need for a very specialized rechargeable only battery meant that the light would be very cool but not very practical. As such, the combination of an impossible to purchase (or more accurate: deliver) light and the less than practical designs choices make me glad this light never came. This light comes in four materials (cheapest to most expensive): Nickel Silver, Aluminum, Stainless Steel, and Titanium. The Titanium model is about twice the price and all prices vary because of the exchange rate between dollars and British pounds. The lights are also not "ready to ship" and some, such as the Aluminum model, as of 9/26/10 aren't even in production.

Size: 1.77 inches long, .7 inches in diameter
Weight: 1.41 ounces or 40 grams (with cell)
Output/Runtime: Low: 20 lumens for 10 hours/High: 200 lumens for 25 minutes
Cost: $125 for RAW NS with Tritium inserts

Surefire Titan T1: This is the light that got me thinking about a CR2 light. There is a newer model, the T1A, that uses a CR123A battery, but I wanted something even smaller. Word to the wise, though, this light is out of production, costs at least $500 (when you can find them), and can’t tailstand (though there is a custom tailcap being made by CPF people, I have no idea if it will fit both this and the T1A). Still, the infinite variable brightness combined with the as good as custom Surefire design and execution made me think long and hard about tracking one down. The fact that the Muyshondt is just as durable and one-fifth the price and is much smaller (see below) pushed me away from this rare Surefire. Still, it is a sweet little light.

Size: 3.15 inches long
Weight: 1.9 ounces or 54 grams
Output/Runtime: variable output from 1 lumen to 65 lumens (2 hours on high)
Cost: $500 and out of production

4Sevens Mini Quark CR2: This is a really nice light, especially for the price. I have used one and own a Preon, which has an identical UI. The UI, however, is not the easiest to use, especially when compared to the dead simple operation of the Aeon. For the price though, $37 (with eco friendly packaging) for the Aluminum version, this is a great substitute if you can’t swallow the Aeon’s $125 price tag. Also, the High is brighter than the Aeon and there is a third mode, a moonlight mode. All of this comes at the cost of run time. The High on the Aeon is 114 lumens for 90 minutes. The High on the Quark CR2 is 180 lumens for 40 minutes. And the low, well, there is no comparison. The low on the Aeon is 10 lumens for 40 hours. The low on the Quark is 3 lumens for 29 hours. More than three times the lumens for almost double the run time. It is here where the Aeon’s superior design is best displayed. That said, it is a close call between the Mini Quark CR2 and the Aeon solely because of the price difference. It depends on what you are looking for—the Aeon has undoubtedly superior materials and production design. See In Use below for more on that. Also there is a Titanium version of this light available for $99. That is a bargain for a Titanium light.

Size: Just under 2 inches long, .75 inches in diameter
Weight: .6 ounces or 17 grams (without cell)
Output/Runtime: see above
Cost: $37 for Aluminum version with eco packaging

Nitecore CR2 EZ: This is a straight up copy of the Aeon. I will be honest and tell you that the shameless pillaging of the Aeon's design leaves a very bad taste in my mouth and that, aside from any performance issue, is the reason I avoided this light. Why buy a copy when you can buy the original? Also, it is hard to say how nice the light is. It has received good reviews. But the design is a knock off of the Aeon right down to the distinctive brass heat sink being exposed under the head. I like Nitecore products, but this one has very few full specs on line, which is not a good sign. The interface is the same as the Aeon, a two-stage twisty, and the output is allegedly higher (130 lumens), but again a lack of details has me very concerned. Are the lumens out the front or at the emitter? The EZ does not use the same high grade materials as the Aeon and I am sure, based on prior experiences, that the fit and finish aren’t as nice. That said, it is a good facsimile of the Aeon at a third the price. If the lumens ratings are at the emitter, then the light is about the same brightness as the Aeon with significantly worse run times.

Size: 2.4 inches long, .63 inches in diameter
Weight: .70 ounces, 20 grams (without cell)
Output/Runtime: Low: 10 lumens for 15 hours; 145 lumens for 50 minutes
Cost: $40-50

JIL Light J2: There is no doubt that this the choice for the fashion conscious (not me, I haven’t combed my hair in more than a year, I just cut it short). It has some beautiful extras: a leather pouch and a spy capsule for your keychain that holds a battery rattle free. The design looks like a prop from the Firefly movie Serenity. It is a beautiful light in either finish. But there are two problems: 1) it is hard to track down; and 2) it is not regulated. The lack of regulation killed the light for me. But I can definitely see its appeal. It also uses top shelf materials, like the Aeon (sapphire window, high grade metals…). There are two variations on this light: the regular Titanium version and a heat treated version for about $200. Both, of course, look awesome, but the heat treated version looks like no other light I have ever seen. High marks for style, but again, style is not that important to me.

Size: 2.12 inches long, .77 inches diameter
Weight: 1.19 ounces or 43 grams (without cell)
Output/Runtime: 80-90 lumens for 15 hours (but output is unregulated, so no idea about runtime on max)
Cost: $125 for Ti version

Modomag’s Draco/Drake: These are a pair of full custom lights from a CPF member. I have no experience with them, but they seem to be TOO small for me. Also, the lack of a regular and easily replaceable batter scared me away. They have a great reputation though. Search Modomag Draco or Modomag Drake for specs..."

If I had to rank them it would be as follows:

1. Aeon
2. 4Sevens MiNi CR2
3. Surefire T1 (not T1A) Titan (VERY hard to find)(tie)
3. Nitecore EZ CR2 (tie)
4. Draco/Drake (if you can find one, good luck!)
5. 4Sevens MiNi CR Ti
6. Jil Light J2 Reg Ti
7. Jil Light J2 HT Ti

Based on my troubles and others, I would not buy a Lummi light, unless I could get it second hand.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

How much is too much?

A recent thread, found here, over at EDCF got me thinking about just how much is too much to spend on a given item. For me there are two rules that I consult when making a decision about purchasing just about anything--a TV, a new router (because you can never have too many routers), or a new folding knife. One comes from the head engineer and designer from NAD, a higher-end electronics company. The other comes from one my favorite internet celebrities--Mark Spagnuolo, aka the Wood Whisperer.

The 10%/100% Rule

According to the first rule, you have the reached the rational limits of spending, when a 10% increase in performance costs 100% more. To state it another way, you have reached the rational limit when a little bit better costs twice as much. This rule, it seems to me, sets the upper limit. There are plenty of times when the "rational spending limit" occurs well before the 10%/100% rule kicks in. I think, however, that it is safe to say that there are NO rational expenditures BEYOND the 10%/100% rule.

One comparison we could look at would be the infamous San Re Mu to Sebenza comparison. Here is a thread on that. The SRM 710 is a direct rip off of the Sebenza, and while it has its fans, it just doesn't seem like something I could rely on. There is virtually no manufacturer information on the knife. Its parts and materials are somewhat mysterious. So for me, it is not even on the list of comparables. Instead, let's compare the Sage II, the Small Sebenza 21, and the Scott Cook Lochsa.

None are bargain knives, like the SRM710, but all of them are something I could easily see someone carrying as their primary EDC. They have similar materials and designs: S30V or S35VN steel, titanium handles, and a frame lock. The Spyderco has all of the Spyderco trademark design touches--the finger choil, the leaf shaped blade, the thumb hole, and a wire clip. The Sebenza, well, I covered that here. The Lochsa, while subject to very limited availability, has a Sebenza-like look to it (it should, Scott Cook is a former CRK employee). The handle has more curves in it and the entire thing is chamfered around the edges. Finally, in an amazing display of craftsmanship, the Lochsa handle is carved from a single billet of titanium--there is no backspacer, or pillar construction. And now for the prices:

Sage II: $149
Sebenza: $330
Lochsa: $675 (S90V steel)

For me, the 10%/100% rule puts the limit of rationality on the Sebenza level. Here is why: the Sage II is a great knife, nice materials and design, but it is WIDE in the pocket. All Spydercos are, by their very nature. The thumb hole makes them fatso pocket friends. The Sebenza, on the other hand just disappears. It carries like a vastly smaller knife, and this is one of the reasons I think it is just about perfect. And this is certainly a 10% increase in performance. Thus, at this level, we meet the 10%/100%. The knife is a bit more than twice the cost, but it does perform 10% better in my opinion. So for me, it is a rational purchase.

But then we compare the Sebenza to the Lochsa. Suppose you could just buy one off the shelf, the Lochsa is about twice as much. And now with the upgraded CRK steel (S35VN), there is not as much of a difference in performance. It comes down to the single piece handle design. While I definitely think that is an amazing feat, I am not sure it makes the knife all that much of a better cutting instrument. It does not increase the performance 10% over the Sebenza. As such, the 10%/100% rule says that is an irrational upgrade.

Three quick points about the 10%/100% rule. First, the 10% increase in performance is based on your own personal assessment of performance. If pocket carry means nothing to you then the rule may draw the line of rational purchasing at the Sage II. Second, the rule was designed in the high end audiophile industry and thus is HEAVILY favored towards spending more. It should not be used as a lower limit, but instead the very upper limit of what is reasonable to spend. Third, the rule cannot be used when collectibility is a concern. A 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle does not PERFORM better than a 1983 Topps Willie Hernandez, but one is VASTLY more collectible and hence more expensive than the other.

Pushing the Limits Rule

If you are a woodworker and have not checked out the Wood Whisperer's site, you are missing most of the newer innovations in the hobby. Marc hosts a podcast and a lot of the podcast deals with tools and woodworking challenges. They take questions from people and one of them had to do with when should one upgrade from "box store" block planes to high end block planes. Even without knowledge of what a block plane is, Marc provided a very good rule of thumb as to when one should upgrade. Essentially he said that tools should be upgraded when, during your regular use, you reach the limit of the given tool AND you know enough about what the limiting factor is that you can meaningfully purchase an upgrade.

The rule has two parts:

1) you've reached the limit of your current gear; and
2) you know why you have reached that limit, enough to know what you should look for in your upgrade.

Maybe it is the lawyer in me, looking for tests, but this one seems to work well when determining when it is time to start the upgrade hunt. It is, in a sense, the opposite of the 10%/100% rule. It is the lower threshold principle. Flashlights make a great example.

Every night we try to go for a walk with my infant son. We go for a stroll down to a local high school football field. During the summer all sorts of people use the field, some of them somewhat unsavory (or potentially unsavory) and so I like to be able to see them coming a ways away and avoid them. My Muyshondt Aeon, great as it is, can't light up things across a football field. But my Surefire G2X Pro certainly can. And so my regular use both showed me the limits of my current tool and what I needed in an upgrade.

I think these two rules work very well together and help you from going CRAZY doing research and spending money. Sometimes it is inevitable. Sometimes you just WANT that new light. But following these rules can help you avoid purchasing mistakes. One last thing, buy EXACTLY what you want. Buying a close approximation of what you want, will only leave you wanting. Save up, and get EXACTLY what you want. There is a premium in getting the "perfect for you" item.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

In case you missed it--Leatherman Serac S3

I hope to make this a semi-regular commentary, a look back at stuff that just fell out of production and was overlooked by EDC fans during its production. Sometimes there are really cool gadgets that we just miss, for one reason or another, and only after they are out of production and long sold out do we realize just how good they were. The hope is you can find them before they hit eBay at ridiculous prices.

To a certain extent, the Buck/Strider knives represent the best of these unheralded pieces of gear. The knives, which share the lines of the vastly more expensive Strider SNG series, use cheaper materials and a few design compromises (like liner locks instead of frame locks) to get really well designed folders into people's hands at a much cheaper price. Here is a really good comparison review (from JohnWanyeColt45) of the Buck Strider and a real Strider:



Today I am looking at the Leatherman Serac S3.

Here is a picture of the light:



I have never owned a Serac S3, but I am always on the look out for one. Here is its product page. Here is a good street price, as of April 2011. And here is carrot's review of the Serac series. Here is a video review of the Serac S3:



The Serac series was made by Fenix for Leatherman. It was Leatherman's attempt to get into the higher-end flashlight market. For whatever reason, it seems like it did not work. The Serac lights were not updated and instead Leatherman switched the following year to the Monarch series. The Monarch series has a number of failings when compared to the Serac. They do not use CR123a cells, they have lower outputs, and none of the larger lights are single cell or have pocket clips. There is no question that the Monarch line represents a retreat from higher performance lights after the Serac line. The two smaller lights are ho hum entries into their respective cell sizes, but it is the S3 that I think is truly a remarkable light, one worth tracking down.

The big points on the S3 are the UI, the output, the clip, and its aesthetics. The UI and the output are interrelated and both are masterfully designed. The lumens settings are as follows: 6, 47, 110. They are accessed via clicks. One click goes to the low, then another quick click to the medium and so on. You can also use a half press to switch the light to a high output without turning off the light. This simple, three-stage output accessed via one handed, easy to remember button activation is very similar to that of the McGizmo Haiku and it is a great interface. To find such well designed UI and output on a cheap light, well that is amazing (and the reason I am writing about it).

The clip is, as far as I know, a completely unique design. First it is a wire clip, which I prefer to the spoon style clips. This allows for a more discrete carry and is generally smoother on the pocket and in accidental bumps with other objects. It has a ring that goes around the body of the light and fits into two different indentations in the body tube. The first indentation moving down the body tube from the head allows you to use the light with the clip bezel up. The second allows you to use the light with the clip bezel down. The bezel up position on the clip works well for an impromptu hands free light by clipping on to the bill of a baseball cap. The other orientation is the preferred method of pocket carry, generally speaking. The other cool feature of the clip is the metal "pinch" for lack of better term. Right where the clip changes to a ring shape, there is a small collar that, when pushed into place, forces the ring portion of the clip to grip the body tube tighter. This design allows for easy detachment and repositioning.

Finally, there are the light's looks. Unlike many of the Klingon-ized "tactical" lights out there, this light has a subtle two-toned color scheme and looks more like a "tool" than a weapon. I wish it had a scalloped (smoothly scalloped) bezel, but that is not a deal breaker. The plain tail cap allows for tailstanding.

In case you missed it, the Leatherman Serac S3 is a great little EDC light. Get one if you can find it. Or what a year and pay $100 for one on eBay.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bitz Pocket Titanium Review

The Bitz and Ti Bitz are two of the most underrated, unsung custom lights made in the past five years. Everyone has stared at their computer screen in blank-faced, drooling envy at the beauty and innovation that is the Spy 007. We have all collectively held our breath as the newest McGizmo thread loads on our screen revealing in stunning tropical photography, the newest shiny titanium bauble produced by the master flashlight craftsman Don McLeish. But Yoo Heui-Gyun's masterpieces get little if any attention.

Here is the closest thing out there to a product page (as this little was sold in tiny quantities through Lighthound and BugoutGear, but mostly through this CPF thread). Here is my review of the light (before the scoring system) from EDCF.

The Bitz was an all aluminum light that came out prior to the Ti version. Here is a review for the Aluminum version. Its size and performance were roughly the same, but its body tube was different. Unlike the Ti Bitz, the Aluminum Bitz was the same diameter all the way down the entire light. It was also covered in knurling, unlike its ringed brother the Ti Bitz. Finally it had a HAIII coating that is Ti brother lacks.

The Ti Bitz came in two versions--a polished Ti version and a matte natural Ti version. I have the matte finish version. I have owned this light for about a year and half now, picking it up as a replacement for not one, but two broken Arc 6's. I got the last one Lighthound had in their inventory and it was on sale for $100. I was able to pick up a Nano Charger and two RCR123A batteries for the light all for about half what the Arc 6 cost me. Here is my Ti Bitz with its light&saber partner, the equally useful and quirky Spyderco Leafstorm:

IMG_0030

Design: 2

The light itself is a twisty and it is TINY. Here is a size comparison shot:



That is a AA battery, the 4sevens Preon I, the Ti Bitz, and the venerable Surefire 6P Incan. The light is as big around as a nickel. This makes it substantially smaller than most of the single cell 123A lights out there--tinier than the Novatac 120 series, smaller by a wide margin than the HDS RA, and smaller than my McGizmo.

Its diminutive size makes it a great light to carry around. It has a scalloped bezel to prevent accidental discharge. It also had a pre-attached pocket clip that is both sturdy and simple in design. The body tube is plenty grippy. Finally, unlike many lights out there, this light is designed to have its LED module replaced. I have not done this yet, but it looks easy enough to do. There is also a tritium slot cut in the tail for after purchase installs of tritium locators.

Fit and Finish: 2

My Ti Bitz had well cut threads, no cosmetic errors, and a very nice selection of materials. The lens is sapphire, the body is Titanium (making the light a featherweight in addition to being tiny). While not as perfect in its execution as the McGizmo Haiku, that comparison is not a fair one--its like making Willie Mays the standard for baseball Hall of Famers. If that was the case there would be a Hall of Fame of one or two people. The execution was definitely better than that of "regular" production lights, besting my Fenix, my 4sevens lights, and my Liteflux light by a wide margin.

Grip: 2

The light's tiny size can be a bit of a challenge for folks with beefy paws, but it works well in my medium sized hands. I have also managed to activate the twisty and hold the light with the same hand. The body tube's rings are set in the opposite direction as the head's lines, making the light grippy enough.

Carry: 2

The light's size and weight make this a pocket phantom. It just disappears. The clip is well made and well designed, but the light is small enough to fit comfortably into a jeans coin pocket, my preferred method of carry. The laynard hole makes the edge of the light a bit pointy, but that is about it.

Output: 2

The light is plenty bright enough for EDC use, hitting 100 lumens on CR123a's and 130 lumens on RCR123a's. My comparisons have proven this to be true. The output is a little on the cool side, making the beam appear kind of purple. Not quite as bad as my Preon, but still a noticeable tint. It does not impact utility, so it is just a note.

Runtime: 2

The claims in the thread about runtime seem accurate. All of the outputs are useful, but the extra low setting can make this little light a marathon runner. An hour on high and 45 hours on extra low with primary cells is quite impressive, even three years after the light was released. The only light I can think of with as or more impressive run times is the Muyshondt Aeon on low (40 hours).

Beam Type: 1

A very floody beam. This is perhaps the light's only real drawback--it has like zero throw. The beam loses it coherence at about 40 feet. After handling the G2X Pro and the Haiku, this seems quite wanting.

Beam Quality: 2

Again, it is below the Haiku, but still quite nice. I would compare it to a Surefire light's beam quality. The hotspot and spill are both useful, but it lacks the gossamer smooth transition from one to the other that the Haiku has.

UI: 2

Here is where the light was ahead of its time. The UI works much like that of the 4sevens Preon and Minis. It has three primary modes and then hidden modes accessed by two quick passes through the primary modes. The hidden modes are also like the 4sevens hidden modes, with one VERY USEFUL addition--a moonlight mode of around 1 lumen. This fourth mode gives this light a crazy long runtime, as discussed above. I would note, however, that the Ti Bitz's UI predated the 4sevens UI. Originality counts for something.

Hands Free: 2

With a clip as an anti-roll device and a very flat tail (thanks to no clicky), this light can work well all by itself. It is very good in ceiling bounces.

Total Score: 19 out of 20

I have never handled the regular Bitz, but I would imagine, looking at this light and comparing specs, that it would score high as well. This is a great light and I certainly wouldn't sell mine for what I paid for it. In fact, I am not sure if I would sell it for what it originally sold for. The finish has held up well and I am still looking for a tritium insert for the tail. Great light and one not many people know about.

1YL: 18 out of 20

Times are a changin' and so are emitters.  The high on this is no longer acceptable.  100 lumens is about par now, so this thing loses a point in output, going from a 2 to 1.  You can get a two mode cheapy at Wal-Mart that bests this thing on high and still has a nice low.  That is a sign that this light is becoming obsolete.  That said, it is a great form factor so an emitter upgrade would make this an outstanding light again.