Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Spyderco Native 5 and the Element of Mystery

Awhile ago I had gone through the Spyderco catalog and said that the Native 5 was one of the knives I was most looking forward to getting to see in person. Well, I did some research and found out that the Native 5 is coming towards the end of summer and that none other than Sal Glesser was carrying the manufacturing prototype around in his pocket.

It is easy to see why this knife is in the pocket of the man who could, if he wanted to, carry just about any folding knife in the world. The Native 5 is modeled after the Native 4 CF, with a full flat ground blade, a reworked finger choil, and a slightly modified handle slab profile.

Here is the Native 4 CF:



Here is the Native 5:



The Native has a history of being a super buy, originally designed as a Spyderco knife just for Wal-Mart. It was to be made entirely in the US (hence the Native name), with classic Spyderco ergonomics, refined to a more traditional appearance (humpless with a more "normal" blade shape). Plus it was designed to use cutting edge steel at a bargain price. The Native 4 used CPM S30V, a great steel. The Native 5 uses the next generation Crucible steel--S35VN.

Looking at the "steel recipe" for S35VN is very similar to S30V, but it includes one element that no other steel on the market (other than the VERY RARE S110V) does--niobium. Here is the recipe for S35V from the Crucible datasheet:

Carbon 1.40%
Chromium 14.00%
Vanadium 3.00%
Molybdenum 2.00%
Niobium 0.50%

Its the niobium that is really interesting. The metal is 41 on the Periodic Table. Here is the wikipedia entry on niobium. Niobium is regularly used in rocket boosters to make them tougher. It allows the steel to be hardened to a greater extent and it makes it more malleable and formable in the forging process. It is also hypoallergenic, like titanium, and like other non-ferrous metals (titanium and aluminum) it can be anodized. It is also helpful in small quantities, making it one way of making a high strength, low alloy steel (a specially processed steel where the expensive elements are used in smaller but more strategic amounts, allowing for a cheaper but stronger steel).

S35VN is showing up everywhere, as one of the three steel choices for an XM-18 and THE steel for the new Sebenzas. The Native 5, if it is in the same price range as the old Natives, around $100, will be the cheapest knife on the market with this new, niobium-based, super steel. Plus it has the super sweet Spyderco ergos. No wonder Sal is carrying around a Native 5. Let's hope "late summer" is like August.

Monday, June 27, 2011

2011 $50 Max Recommendations

Here are the basic rules and assumptions for this series of commentaries. Here is the previous entry, the $25 and under Recommendations.

At the $50 max level you are still dealing with gear that I would consider compromised in some way. Usually you get many, if not all, of the features for more expensive stuff, but the tool is suffering from a lack of fit and finish and/or suboptimal materials. That said, this is a vastly more competitive market niche than it was five or even ten years ago. The advent of Chinese manufacturing has allowed American firms to make things more cheaply overseas. It has also forced American firms to be more price conscious with products made here. Buck Knives, for example, has done an excellent job of returning manufacturing to America while keeping prices competitive with their Chinese competition. If you don't want to join 'em, beat 'em, I suppose. Given these two trends, the $50 max recommendations are much more robust than those in the meager $25 and under category.

Tool

Any mention of a budget knife in this price range without referencing the Spyderco value line, which began with the Spyderco Tenacious, would be woefully lacking. That said, I am not the biggest fan of the Tenacious. The Tenacious is a bland, but very functional knife. What it lacks in performance it makes up for in its price. You could certainly do far worse than the Tenacious, though, for me, the Persistence hits just the right size. The Persistence can be had for about $27. At 2 3/4 inches it is just about right for an EDC blade.

For all the lack of design chops displayed by the Spyderco value line, the Buck Vantage has them in spades. This is, quite simply, one of the best designed knives I have seen in a long time. Here is my review of the Vantage. The Vantage, in both iterations, is a cheap, well designed, classically shaped EDC blade. The problem is that the fit and finish on the knife are notoriously poor. Maybe things have gotten better over the year or two they have been in production things have gotten better. If they have, then this is a good to decent blade. It would still held back by the 420 HC steel which is, slightly sturdier than a butter knife's edge. But it either size is a good cheap knife choice.

Kershaw has a ton of choices for around $25. They have a dozen or so nondescript nail nick open knives with crappy steel and multiple handle colors. They also have a fancy looking gentleman's folder, the Crown II, with, holy shit, micarta handle scales. That seems like a very nice touch on such a cheap knife. The OD-2, which I reviewed here and liked, is also available for under $20. The Chill, which is a bit bigger than the other knives mentioned here is also well under $25. It has a lot of nice features: a superbly clean design, G10 handles, a flipper opening, and a classic blade shape. RJ Martin hit a triple with the Chill, missing on all but the steel, because like most Kershaw knives under $30, it has crappy steel. The Volt II is also available for around this price and is a big blade. It is nowhere near as cool as the Volt I, but that knife cost more than $200. Still, a beefy blade at this price is interesting.

Many of the knives in the Byrd line fall into the same category as the Kershaw knives in this price range--bland with crappy steel. I like them better than the Kershaw knives, but if I am going to go with a Spyderco knife, I'd prefer the original hole rather than the comet opener. And they are all the same price, so why not go with the Tenacious/value line?

Nothing in Benchmade's normal line comes close to the $25 range, the Mini Griptilian is being sold online for around $80 (why on earth this is an $80 knife when the Delica and the Skyline are available for under $50 I have no idea). The HK line has a few knives approaching the $25 price range. One of interest is the Mini Pika, a Delica rip off if I have ever seen one, but a decent blade for the price. It uses slightly upgraded steel, a Chinese steel, 9CR13CoMoV, which looks to have more Chromium in it, make the knife more stain resistant and more Carbon in it to make it a bit harder. Not a bad little knife for $25. It gives you a four way clip, a hole opener (shamelessly pillaged from Spyderco's intellectual property), a lock back, and a very decent blade shape, with both a good amount of belly and tip reinforcement. This is a blade that is definitely in the running, because at this price point you cannot get many of the features this knife has and it has better steel than the Spyderco value line.

Boker makes so many knives there is no way to survey them all. They make a knife that looks like a hand grenade, in case your a moron, and want to carry both an ugly and a functionless pocket knife. They also make a few really well regarded knives, most of which were designed by Chad Los Banos. The Subcom, or Biscuit (its nickname because of the shape), is tremendously popular, even giving rise to high end mods, like this gorgeous example. There are bunch of variants and they all retail for around $25-$30. The Hyper, a slightly bigger knife, is a bit more, but also a nice looking blade.

Then there is the Ka Bar Dozier and Mini Dozier that I mentioned in the previous recommendation commentary. There are three primary designs, the traditional 3 inch model, the 3 inch thumb hole model, and the Mini Dozier. They all can be had for less than MSRP, the Mini available for as low as $15, and they all have sterling reputations. Most importantly they all have a good, as opposed to below average, steel--AUS8 A. Not bad for a knife under $20.

Cold Steel recently released the Mini Tuff Lite, but it has just gone on sale, so there is little feedback on the blade. Still it looks good on paper.

At this price range we now get Swiss Army Knives and multitools. I will admit right off the bat that I am a multitool snob and do not have any interest whatsoever at non-Leatherman multitools. Leatherman is the company that invented the category. They are the ones that innovate in it. And well Gerber stuff is junk.

In particular, the Swiss Army Knife offers an amazing amount of utility for the price. The quality, fit and finish, and features are hard to beat. I especially like the models with the alox handle scales. They offer a minimalist appearance, high durability, thinness, and color. None stand out to me, but I can see the appeal. Instead, the traditionally scaled Rambler has a nice size and combination of tools for the right price.

In terms of multitools, the Leatherman PS4 seems to be close to the perfect package. The combination of a good, tiny knife blade, a pair of precise pliers, and scissors makes it a great tool. The Leatherman Style seems nice, but it lacks the pliers the PS4 has.



Recommendation: Leatherman PS4
Average Street Price: $22.50 (Amazon)

Light

The choices of lights are much less complex. There are really only few additionally lights over those covered in the $25 recommendation. Sometimes the Quark MiNi goes on sale and combined with the CPF8 code you can get them for around $28, but that is cheating. Really it is two different ITP lights, the AAA and the CR123a. I don't like their reputation or, more importantly, the inability to tailstand, so I'll skip them. The real competition is between the Fenix E01 from the last recommendation and the Maratac AAA. I know that the Maratac is a badge swap of the ITP, but here the swap makes a difference because the Maratac can tailstand. I like the AA version better and it too is on sale regularly, but that violates the rules again. Still, a three mode twisty with good high and runtime with tailstand and clip is hard to beat. There are tons of variants, including a copper version, but they are more.



Recommendation: County Comm Maratac AAA
Average Street Price: $23.95 (County Comm)

Honorable Mention: I know that the rules say I wanted to have the two tools of roughly equal price, but the Ka Bar Mini Dozier is a great value for $15. If you do that you have the ability to get a 4sevens Mini Quark CR123a. It is $4 over the price limit but squeaks in with the CPF8 code.

There are some really surprising buys and having done this survey I have learned that while there are compromises required by the price range, but not as many as I would have suspected before I sat down and laid everything out. I really like the Maratac, enough to buy it for my Mom for Mother's Day and she liked. I own the PS4 and it is just an amazing tool. When I work out how to do a review in accordance with the 20 point scale, I'll post it, but multitools are devilishly hard to categorize as a group because they are so different from each other.

NOTE: Benchmade, in their line up shuffle/price jacking has changed the Mini Pika from a small, cheap, offshore knife to an small, EXPENSIVE, offshore knife. They added stupid stuff like a completely unnecessary titanium backspacer and G10 on the handles (which is nice but unnecessary). It is also $60 more than the previous Red Class version, which was the one mentioned above for $25. You can still find them out there, but BE CAREFUL.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Leatherman Serac S3 Review

I have always been curious about the Leatherman Serac S3. It seemed like a simple, yet robust design with a lot of features that I really like in a flashlight. After I did a commentary about the light, found here, I came into a bit of unexpected cash, and bought one. Here it is on my slate slab background (which makes for easier and interesting macro shots):

IMG_0018

I have been carrying it now for a while, and used it exclusively on a recent trip out of state. I have also let my infant son play with it and he beat it to smithereens. He would put it in his mouth, he would drag it along pavement, he would use it to tap baby-Morse code on heating elements in the airport, he used it to play a game of dropsy that lasted about an hour. In other words he did to this light what I would never do on purpose. The light wasn't expensive and I really bought it to test, so I wasn't overly concerned. Surprisingly, given this torture test, it held up very well.

Check the original article, linked above, for the product page, street price, and reviews. Amazon reviews are good. It has an average of 4.84 stars, with 45 reviews, 40 of which are 5 star reviews.

Design: 2

The Serac comes from a tool company. It looks more like a tool than a piece of tactical gear. It has a two-toned appearance with a stainless steel bezel and a HAIII aluminum body. It has a clever pocket clip that can be removed without tools (tool-less changes have become ALL the rage in power tools; Jacobs chucks are so passe). It has a responsive clicky. It is small without being fiddly. The design is simple and effective. No bullshit.

Fit and Finish: 2

Surprisingly from a badge swap light made for a multitool company, this little sucker is nice. The threads slide well, the bulb is nicely centered. Everything is well made and the materials are quite nice.

Grip: 2

The light is just the right size. Again, there is some magic ratio of length to diameter in EDC lights and this one hits it dead on. There is no knurling, but the hex body tube and the clip give you plenty of grip, even in the rain, which this light went through on my recent trip (had to go the hospital in the middle of the night during a rainstorm and it worked very well; see flashlights ARE useful).

Carry: 0

Okay, so here is the thing--the beautiful, elegant, well-designed clip has failed three times. Once it failed when I had the light in my jeans and twisted the clip on accident. The light did not come out of my pocket, but the wire clip got dislodged from its channel at the end of the light. It did go back into place easy enough. One accident, okay, everything can fail once under weird conditions. But then after the game of dropsy with my son the clip came out again, this time marking up the end of the light a bit. See the scratches to the right of the wire clip in this picture:

IMG_0023

The marks to the left were dust and fine debirs from the slate piece. So how you rate the clip? It works, it is inconspicuous, it can be changed to multiple directions, and it can do this or be removed entirely without tools. But in extreme situations it can and has come apart. In the end, for all its cool factor and potential, the clip fails.

Output: 2

The light is a bit old coming out about two years ago and being discontinued a year later. The output, thus, isn't up to snuff with the newest and greatest bleeding edge emitters, but it is still plenty bright with a good low, medium, and high, even if the high doesn't burn paper.

Runtime: 2

Again, the light's age is a limitation, but the runtimes are plenty good, especially on low. They aren't Muyshondt Aeon great, but then again nothing is.

Beam Type: 2

This is a nice balance between throw and flood, a perfect compromise for a EDC light. It has more throw than a keychain light, but not as much as a dedicated thrower. Good job with the head and the reflector.

Beam Quality: 2

The beam quality is excellent with no artifacts and very little shape distortion, as the beam is nice and round. The hotspot is big enough and the spill is usefully bright.

UI: 2

And here it is--a model UI for all flashlights other than the Haiku. As I recounted here, the UI is just about perfect. The three settings are nicely chosen and easily accessible without the need to pass through useless strobe and beacon modes. Plus you can half press to jump up in brightness without the light ever going out. Great UI.

Hands Free: 1

So the tailcap doesn't lay completely, perfectly flat. See here:

IMG_0024

That makes the light wobble ever so slightly when tailstanding. It still can do it, it just seems a little intoxicated. The clip does a very good job as an anti-roll device.

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

When you look at all of the lights out there with weird and crazy UIs, all the lights with ridiculously complex body tubes, and all the lights with goofy clips and lanyards you wonder, after using this little gem, how things got so unnecessarily complicated. The UI is simple enough. The light is bright and runs long enough. Why make things more complicated than they need to be? So you can incorporate "new" "features" as part of a scheme of planned obsolescence, probably. The clip can be something of a bust when you really push it, but other than that, this is a great little single cell EDC light.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

2011 $25 and Under Recommendations

My hope is that this will serve as jumping off point for people doing research on gear. I am trying to survey of all of the tools and lights available in 2011 that can paired together and purchased for $25 or less. The goals and "rules" for this series of commentaries can be found here. At $25 total for a flashlight and a tool you are making serious compromises. You will not get good materials. You will not get a lot of features. You will not get many of the things that people that like tools and gear care about. But I think it is still possible to pick up a light and tool around $12 a piece that are worth owning and carrying. I'd never rely on these things in crucial situations, but for everyday convenience, they will work. This is perfect for a back up, like in your car.

The Tool

You can get a myriad of knives for about $12 a piece. San Ren Mu makes quite a few knives and some people like them a great deal. Many, if not all of them are under $40, and a good number are under $12, including the infamous Sebenza counterfeit. Keychain Pockets had a good review of two small and cheap SRM keychain knives, found here. They have even started using better steel, a Sandvik steel. The issue with SRM knives is that I just don't trust them. I don't trust the locks, the warranty (if there is one), and the design (most of which are stolen from other designers and companies). For a long time the logic behind purchasing an SRM knife was that there were no good cheap knives and none of the companies with a decent reputation offered anything in the SRM price range.

That has changed. Kershaw has a few good offerings, the Chill, the OD-2, and others. Boker has the Keycom and the Subcom, as well as the Trance, all of which are sub-$30. And Buck has one of my favorite cheap knives--the Vantage. But even these are more than our price range will allow. The Chill, as the cheapest of the real knives from a real company, is $16, squeezing out only $9 for the light. The Ka Bar Mini Dozier is a great little knife, around $15 (or a buck cheaper if you can tolerate a pink one). It has a clip. It also has BY FAR the nicest steel of the bunch, running AUS 8A in this current version.

But if you are willing to tolerate the loss of a lock, Spyderco offers an excellent blade for $13. The Grasshopper, the largest of the Bug line of blades, is a very nice and pocketable size, it has the Spyderhole, one handed opening. And it has a decent blade shape. The steel stinks. There is no clip. And, or course, there is no lock, but at this price your not going to get everything you want. Still, a blade this size and shape, from a legitimate company, and with the fabulous Spyderhole is too nice to pass up.

If you are a traditionalist or if you live in the high desert, Opinel offers quite a few knives at decent prices and, unlike all of the other tiny splinterpickers in this rundown, in a larger size. They have locks, too (the unique collar lock). They are not one handed opening knives, but they sport an amazing blade shape. There are two drawbacks, though, to these traditional blades: 1) no stainless steel; and 2) completely wood handles. Now on an axe or a shovel, a wood handle is fine, swelling due to moisture in the environment is natural, and it actually helps the tool function better, locking in the steel head. But in a knife, the wood handle can swell making it very difficult to open and close the knife. I have an Opinel as a camp cooking knife and it is great, but if you leave it out over night, even the dew will make the handle very hard to use. This also, obviously, impacts the steel but if you can deal with the moisture related issues the Opinel is a good choice--unique, traditional, and a time tested design.

As good as the Grasshopper is, though, it is not able to compete with surprisingly full featured knives from Spyderco's budget line, Byrd Knives. The keychain knife in the Byrd line up, the Finch is pretty outstanding. First, it comes with a lock, which very few decent knives have in this price range. It also has a finger choil, a la the Dragonfly or the Caly3. Finally, it is capable of one handed opening. All this for $13. The steel is not the greatest, 8CR13MOV, but it will do most of the time.



Recommendation: Byrd Finch
Average Street Price: $13.95 (Knifecenter)

NB: If I were truly in the market for a knife in this price range, I'd probably just go with the Ka Bar Mini Dozier. Even though it breaks the price barrier here, it is just a better knife, at least on paper, than the Finch. It has a clip, a time-tested shape, and a better steel.

The Light

In the tool category there were a lot of good competitors, but in the light category there are very few good options. Lights from DealExtreme represent the same level of quality as the SRM knives. I am sure there are a few good designs among the horde of aluminum tubes on various Chinese-based deal websites, but quality is always an issue. And why go to the bargain basement when you can get a few really good lights from more reputable brands? Unlike an SRM knife, I have owned a few DX lights and they have been, uniformly, junk. This goes for "Black Friday Lights," those flashlights on sale at Home Depot and Lowes near the cash register on Black Friday. Some places, like Ace, carry them all year round and they are terrible. Usually they are more useful as a battery holder than a light.

There are a few really good choices. Your not going to get 500 lumen screamers for $12.50 or less, but you can find usefully bright lights. I really like the original keychain light, the LRI Photon. I really like the Photon Micro-Light II. It hits around 12 lumens and runs for a decent length of time. I have found that the difference between the real Photon and the generic Fauxton comes in terms of peak output. The real Photon, especially my Micro II doesn't seem to dim as fast as the generic ones.

Other micro lights also hit the $12.50 or under price point. Both the Pico Light and the Nanostream from eGear and Streamlight, respectively, come in under the magic price point. Here is an excellent comparison of the two. I have owned the Nanostream and while it was both light and bright, it was an enormous pain in the ass to restock with batteries. First, it is uses four cells. If I hate multiple cells in my main EDC light, I am definitely not going to like them in a smaller light were the batteries are exceedingly difficult to manipulate. Second, it is difficult to install the cells. The eGear light gets around this with a battery cage, but again, its still fidgeting with a lot of small parts. The batteries are also difficult to find. You can order them online, but they are so small that they require a bulk order to justify the shipping, which means you might end up with 50 or a 100 of these little cells. And here is the last drawback to these lights, even with cheap finds, the batteries are more than the light. I found a set of button cells at Harbor Freight that contained the right kind of cells and even then it was more expensive than the light.

If you don't want a button cell light, then there are very few options from established companies. ITP, which is a budget line of Olight flashlights, has one $20 option, the A3 EOS, but none that hit the magic, sub $12.50 limit. The Fenix E01, a Fenix version of the venerable Arc AAA, does hit the magic number. At exactly $12.50 it is perfect for this little experiment. It has also received quite a few good reviews. It has an average of 4.5 stars on Amazon with a very large number of reviews, 108. Here is a light-reviews.com review. The light even has some modest current regulation allowing for relatively stable output for the first 11 hours. It is, roughly, the same brightness as the LRI Photon, but uses a common cell and has a bit more runtime, thanks to the regulation. There isn't really a lot out there that can compete with the E01 in terms of features. It has really HAIII anodizing. It has the aforementioned regulation. And it works on the keychain quite well.

Streamlight offers some cheap AAA pen lights, but they are more than the $12.50 price limit. They also use two AAA cells instead of one. And finally they have much shorter runtimes and only modestly increased output (20 lumens for 1.5 hours v. 12 lumens for 10 hours). In the end, these lights are just not good enough.



Recommendation: Fenix E01
Average Street Price: $12.50 (Lighthound)

Honorable Mention #1: I really like the LRI Photon in combination with the Gerber Shard. I suppose you could swap out the Shard for a Gerber Artifact, but I find that the Artifact is a bit clunky. Like most things Gerber, anytime you add a pivot or moving parts, the tool just gets junky.

Honorable Mention #2: Almost as if they were anticipating the $25 challenge, LRI paired their Micro II with a Leatherman Style for a whole lot of function for $26.95. I would say this is it, but I really like both the real and actual blade on the Finch and the common cell light the E01 represents.

There are a lot of cheap options out there and I don't mean to dismiss them all. It is just too hard to find the good ones by wasting a ton of money on the bad ones, especially when there are a lot of good cheap options from good companies. If you have any suggestions from the realms of SRM/DX, let me know. Simply by pure luck, like the monkey typing Shakespeare, maybe one of the crappy brands has struck gold with a particular design. That said, I think the Finch/E01 combo will serve you well if you have only a few bucks to spend. Also, the Spyderco website lists the FRN version of the Finch as discontinued but it is available literally everywhere. Without the FRN version, I'd go with the G-10 version which is only a few bucks more or probably more closely tied to the price limit--a Spyderco Grasshopper.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Light&Saber Recommendations Series

Having done this for a while now, like three or four months, I have decided to distill some of what I have learned into a series of commentaries on recommended gear. The idea is taken from the "Recommended Systems" archives from one of my favorite A/V sites, Audioholics. Here is their system recommendations page. One of the most frequently asked questions on all gear forums is usually some formulation of the following: I am in the market for X; I have Y to spend, what should I get?

With that basic premise as my guide I plan on looking at gear in a bunch of price ranges. I am not, however, going to give recommendations for an entire EDC set up. I thought about it, but then I realized I couldn't do it. First, beyond a few essentials, which I will get to in a moment, what people carry everyday is highly task specific, so detailing an entire set up, purely in theory, is not terribly useful. Second, I don't know enough about bags, handguns, watches or writing instruments to provide useful guidance regarding these items.

For me, the core of my set up are two things: a tool and a flashlight. This is what, in my mind, sets apart EDC stuff from merely things you have in your pocket. People that carry a pocket knife and a flashlight very rarely do so inadvertently, whereas a pen or wallet can sneak into just about any pair of pants. So what I intend to do is go through various price ranges and name what I think are the best values for a flashlight and a tool in that price range. Here are the price ranges:

$25 and under
$50 max
$100 max
$200 max
$500 max
$1000 max
Over $1000

The rules I am going to use are pretty straightforward. First, I am only going to look at NEW stuff. The price and availability of used stuff fluctuates too much to allow for useful recommendations. Second, I am going to assume a balance between the tool and the light in terms of price and priority. For example, no Sebenza/Nanostream pairings. I do this because: 1) I think both are equally important; and 2) I think that if you are bothering to read this blog you probably care about the quality of your gear so it seems unlikely that you'd be interested in a nice knife but crappy light, or vice versa. Third, the price ranges are guides, but I will accept a variance of 5-7% in terms of price given that prices on the web can fluctuate. Finally, I am only going to look at things that a readily available. I am not, for instance, going to examine or consider full custom, "one of" knives or flashlights (like this glittering gem from PhotonFanatic). The reason I am putting this limitation on the analysis is because, again, the recommendations are only useful to the extent that you can do something with them, and if I recommend something that you can't get...well...what's the point?

Additionally, when I am considering the gear, I am going to look at it from a general utility perspective. So while I really, really like the ZT350, I am probably not going to recommend it because it is designed for a specific application and that application makes it less than ideal (read: too heavy) for general use.

I am not going to consider the reputation of the maker unless it bears on value or availability. For example, I am disturbed by the allegations against Mick Strider, but it would not dissuade me from buying his stuff. The issues with Rob Cheetham and Lummi, on the other hand, impact availability and thus, I will consider those. Benchmade's business practices and Mag Light's uber aggressive litigation are issues for some, but not enough to prevent me from looking at what they have to offer. These things don't impact their product's performance.


Why "tool" instead of "knife"? Well, honestly a lot of the time it will be a knife. Most of the time you are going to use the tool as a knife and there are very few times in which a multitool will have a better blade than a knife. There are a few times when I can see carrying a multitool over a knife--doing a home improvement project for example--but most of the time when you carry a tool it will be used as a knife about 80-90% of the time. Not all the time though, which is why I am looking at tools not just knives.

Finally a word about value. My gear reviews do not consider value. They consider strictly performance. I did this because value is even MORE subject than performance. Most people agree that the Sebenza is a great performing knife, but at $330 for the smallest base model, I am not sure how many people think of it as a good value. There is something to say about the very peak of performance. For some, that peak performance is the only thing they will buy and so the Sebenza, which offers that performance, is a good value. If you are looking for X and only X, then whatever has that attribute, regardless of cost is a good value for you because that is the only criteria that counts. Value, in other words, is just too subjective for me to discuss at length when reviewing a product's performance.

In this series though I am going to actually make recommendations, not just say how good or bad something is. There are things that I would recommend that did not get great review scores, like the Leafstorm. It is a quirky, unique knife and I think it works very well and I have a sense that it will be one of those "chase" knives once it goes out of production. So I would recommend it, despite its drawbacks. It has a good deal of value, even at the price (compare it to other Ti framelocks with S30V blade steel, its about half the price....).

So what is value? For me, value is performance compared to price. The more performance for the dollar, the better. So that is the criteria I will use for the commentaries.

First up, the dauntingly difficult $25 and under price range.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A perfect flashlight UI

Only ten years ago, it would have seemed silly to talk about a flashlight having a user interface. Press button=on, press again=off. That was the extent of it. Most lights had one mode and one thing to do with the switch, toggle between on and off. But newer lights have more modes and features. Some, like the Klarus XT10, have two switches, one for on and off and the other to change modes. It is not a bad solution, but it is not ideal either. So then, what is the perfect flashlight UI?

IMG_0015

Yep, another picture of my two favorite pocket companions and my old iPhone 3GS (I have since involuntarily upgraded to the 4G after my wife's was stolen...what a fiasco). The Haiku has a pretty outstanding UI. I have struggled for while to think of anything I like better. I like the two stage twisty of the Muyshondt Aeon too, but in the end I think the McGizmo gets it right. So why is it so good? Simplicity, responsiveness, and customizability are the three best reasons.

First lets look at other UIs. Fenix has a UI that many other makers use. In most Fenix lights (the TK35 being the exception because it has a Klarus-type dual button set up), the tail switch activates the light AND changes the output mode, but in order to get certain other output modes, such as a super bright high, you have to twist the head. It is neither just button presses or twisting to get you where you want to be. The problem with this set up, in my experience, is threefold. First, it requires a lot of inputs to get to a specific mode and more inputs means more potential for error. Second, it requires two totally different forms of input and this means that you have to have two hands free and it prevents quick and easy cycling. Third, because it requires two hands or at least one hand doing two different things there is a possibility that in emergency situations some of the modes would be inaccessible.

Then there is the Piston Drive system. For more on that, check on the Arc6 review. There are two kinds of PD systems, one is a momentary on and twisty. This is the system used on all of the McGizmo PD lights and the Arc6. The Nitecore Smart PD essentially functions like a clicky. Problem here is a little more subtle. Again in the momentary on configuration, the light requires two different movements to access everything. I like the momentary on, but it is, in everyday use, not that helpful. The second problem is a bit more of a nagging concern instead of an outright failure. The PD offers very little in the way of feedback. A good clicky has both a sound and feel that goes together to tell you exactly when you have activated the light. The PD instead has a metal cylinder being depressed and that is it. Not a big deal, but if I had my choice, I'd go with a clicky every time.

Then there are the click, double click, and press and hold UIs used on the Novatac and HDS lights. They are, again, good because they are clickies, but they are WAY too complicated. What is the difference between a click and a press? How long do you have to hold for a hold to count? How fast is too fast for a click to count in the double click sequence? Some of these lights even have triple click activations which is sort of ridiculous. They are just too complicated for use in emergencies or by non-flashlight people. I am sure that long time users have all the subtle presses down pat, but I would like to use my flashlight not have to memorize how it works. the Liteflux with its clicky and two different UIs is the worst offender in this group. It can, if mishandled, result in NO output.

Then there are the twisty lights. Generally speaking I like twisty lights. They are a bit harder to use one handed, which is why I prefer a clicky, but they are so close that a well done twisty is better than a mediocre clicky. I really like the two stage twisty on the Aeon as it is minimizes actions required to access modes. The twisty on 4sevens MiNi series is a lot of movement to get to high or a TON of movements to get to a hidden mode. I like the low-med-high set up of the MiNis and I like the hidden mode better than the dual UI, hidden programming mode on the Liteflux, but it is still a lot of twisting and moving. I like the Preon version of this UI, with a clicky. It does very well and would fall into the next category.

Then there is the Surefire two stage and Serac S3 three stage clicky. These are getting very, very close to the mark. In these UIs you simply press the clicky to turn on, usually in low, and press again to turn off. If you press again quickly you will get the next level until by doing this you cycle back down to low. These are simple UIs that you can use easily and other, non-flashlight folks can use as well. They are almost right. The only problem is that if you don't like the output sequence your stuck. If you want your light to come on on high, there is nothing you can do but cycle through until you get to high. The lack of a mode memory means that you will always start out at the factory preset and if you don't like that, well tough luck. Still, for EDC use where the output sequence is not so important, this is a great choice. The Serac S3 is especially nice because of the good output levels and the ability to bump up from one level to the next without having to do a full on/off cycle.

Then we get to the Haiku's UI. It is, in my opinion, perfect. It is simple, responsive, and customizable. First here is how it works. Click once on the amazing McGizmo clicky (which are so good they are sold as aftermarket upgrades for other lights) to turn on in low, then again to turn off, quickly after that once more to get medium, and again to get high. It is very similar to the Serac S3 UI. But here is the difference that makes it better. It has mode memory. If you turn the light on and then off and it is in low, the next activation, even if it is a year later, will be in medium. This allows you to "set" the output sequence. If you want your light to come on in high you can simply cycle through before turning it off so that the next activation is on high. If you want it to come on in low, you can do the same thing. You can change the order of the sequence but you can change where in the sequence you are when the light starts up, giving you a bit of customization. All of this is done through a single well-design button.

Compared to everything else, the Haiku is just too perfect to ignore. It is easy enough to hand to a non-flashlight person and have them use the light. There is no fear of accidentally dropping into a programming mode like with the LiteFlux. It is also responsive. The clicky kickback and sound are unmistakable. Not loud, just consistently there. And finally, with the simple mode memory, you can change the light to come on in at any level you want.

Two caveats. First, if the outputs themselves are not well chosen, the UI doesn't really matter that much. You want well spaced outputs with a very low low and a high high. I like a 5%-30%-100% setting for the outputs so long as the high is above 120 lumens, otherwise the two lower modes are different enough to be useful. If the light hits more than 500 lumens, then I would like to see at least four output modes: low low (sometimes called moonlight mode), a medium low, a high of about 100-150 lumens, and then screaming high of 100%. Second, I have not had a chance to use the Spy UI which is a knob on the front of the light that both turns on the light and selects output. Similarly I have not tried the Rotary HDS light's UI or those of other rotary style lights. I think they are nice and intuitive, but again, I thing twisting is a bit worse than clicking because it usually requires two hands or some serious finger yoga. The Surefire Titan T1 and T1A seem to be the best of the bunch as they are just twist lights--twist for on, twist more for brighter. No button and twist.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A New Light Company and a Frenemy Departs

A coming and a going in the flashlight world.

Darksucks from CPF has recently launched his own line of custom made aluminum lights. Here is the website. The light certainly looks beautiful: an aluminum body with a high polish plate finish. It uses a very high capacity rechargeable: the 18650. It also has a washer style pocket clip.

Interestingly, the light tops out at 500 lumens, which is well less than the portable star that is the Moddoolar Pocket (which can hit 1100 lumens), but this light is about $100 less and at least twice as nice looking. It is another entry into the getting crowded 500 lumens or more custom flashlight market.

There are some things that prevent this from being just another entry. First, it is the first light from this maker. The design is entirely his own and it is very nice looking. Second, I can't say enough good things about the washer-style clip. It is nice and secure but can also be removed without tools. But the best feature of the light, based solely on what his site says, is the beam shot. Here is the comparison beam shots. Now I know it is easy to fake beam shots, but this is a pretty good display here. Nothing crazy, no walls, a real life outdoor shot. The Darksucks light gives you a wall of useful light.

As I have acquired more high end lights I have come to realize that it is the beam type and beam quality that separates great lights from good lights. Those lights that can produce smooth, consistent beams with a bright hotspot transitioning smoothly into a nice flood are both hard to find and worth their usually hefty price tag.

This series of lights looks to have the beam down and the price, $200, isn't outrageous, especially when you look at what your getting and compare it to other custom lights.

In other flashlight news, the Arc6 is officially being discontinued, according to the Arc website. This is not much of a surprise as the lights were not up to snuff, even if they didn't fall apart like mine did. Hopefully Peter will find a new place to do business and release a new generation of kick ass lights or maybe someone will take over the Arc6 production and get them back to the level of quality of their predecessors.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Kershaw Scallion Review

After my Delica disappeared into the bowels of the Postal Service, I waited a long time before getting another knife to carry. Around 2005, about three years later, I purchased a Kershaw Scallion to live in my pocket and do urban living kind of tasks--opening packages, gutting clamshells, cutting paper and twine, nothing too heavy use. I had never heard of Kershaw at the time, but the Scallion was the right size and the right price. Plus I had seen a demo of the assisted opening device during a trip to a knife store in the Providence Place Mall.

The demo was at a store called On the Edge Cutlery and it was the only place to see knives in person. Unfortunately, the place was staffed by genuine assholes. I don't use that word lightly, this being the first time in my months writing this blog, but it fits. The woman that worked behind the counter treated me and my questions with a mix of superiority and disdain, a combination that would suit someone when addressing a developmentally delayed Nazi (though that is probably a bit of unnecessary redundancy). The man that worked there had an appearance typical of a person that was 14 years old and a fan of the terrible heavy metal bands like Slipknot: black concert t-shirt, black army boots, black cut off shorts made from cargo pants, a shaved head and a long pubic hair beard. He was, unfortunately, in his late 30s, early 40s. If I asked to see anything, after they yelled at me for a few minutes ("You bleed, you buy. Got it?") he would give me a humph if I asked to see anything other than a Sebenza or a Strider. When I asked to see the Scallion he plopped the knife on the counter and turned his back on me, rearranging a display shelf behind him. In addition to their stellar attitudes, their prices were insane. ABOVE MSRP. Seriously, check out their site, everything is at or ABOVE MSRP. Comparison shopping is just stunning to them, apparently. But when your options are this place or nothing....

They went out of business, so apparently lots of people had the same experience I did and voted "nothing".

The Kershaw Scallion is part of the Ken Onion designed line of knives for KAI USA. There are are four sized knives all with a name derived from members of the genus Allum: the tiny Chive, the just right size for EDC Scallion, the slender and beautiful Leek, and the beefy Shallot. I expect another knife with a MASSIVE blade and repugnant and offensive design named the Ramp (imagine a REALLY stinky onion with a barely tolerable taste).

Here is my Scallion, an all black version with a combo edge, aluminum handles and a liner lock:

IMG_0322

Here is the product page. Here is a good street price on the Scallion. I am purposely not linking to the Nutnfancy review. He went off on an inappropriate and unnecessary tangent twice. It is an informative review, other than those two tangents, but a link is like an endorsement and I don't want to endorse his tangents in this video. Here is the Amazon reviews page, its has a score of 4.67 stars (with only three reviews though). There are tons of variation. First you can get the blade plain edge or combo edge (no fully serrated version). You can get the blade in a satin finish, a high polish finish, or blackened. You can pick between three handle styles--a plastic (FRN) handle, an aluminum liner lock, or an aluminum frame lock. Then you can pick just about any color there is, including a rainbow finish or a high polish black or aluminum. I think there were some limited runs using Damascus steel and S30V steel, but most come with 420HC steel. All are American made.

Design: 1

The size is just about right. The flipper does great double duty. The smooth handles look nice, and are light, given the materials. The assisted opener worked well and I had my Scallion for a long time. It did lose some of its kick over time, but nothing too bad. I think as an unassisted opener it would still work. The blade:handle ratio is a paltry .69, though, and I am not sure why. The handle did not seem overly large, so I don't get where the extra real estate is going.

Fit and Finish: 1

The finish on both the handle and the blade wore off and showed signs of wear almost instantly. Here is what I mean:

IMG_0326

I really hate the blackened blade, especially after this experience, and I avoid it, if possible, on knives now. The liner lock was thin and didn't seem to cross all the way over as well. Finally the stupid little safety was a piece of cheap plastic. The blade itself was fine and the handles were scalloped, but for the price you'd expect something a little better.

Grip: 1

There is jimping, but the handle is so slick because of the aluminum scales that there is really no grip in high pressure situations. I once used the knife to cut cardboard boxes from a move and over time there were hotspots and when my hands got sweat the knife got slippy. Not too bad and never in the wrong direction (slipping forward), but enough to be annoying.

Carry: 0

The pocket clip is too big, see below, and the flipper was too large and the jimping too rough. The end result was that about half the time when you went to retrieve the knife it would poke you. Also the clip being so large meant that I banged into stuff more than I'd like to. It is surprising that in a knife this small the carry would be so poor.

Steel: 0

See the Buck Vantage review for more on the lack of quality in 420 HC steel. It seems odd that for about the same money you can get a similarly sized knife also made in America with great steel--the Buck Vantage Small Pro is around $49.95. The knife needed very regular sharpening, so much so that, as you can see, it wore away the scalloped serrations a bit (see photo above). It is also surprising that for such a soft steel it would chip as much as it did. See:

IMG_0323

Blade Shape: 1

The recurve is entirely aesthetic and it didn't really help much at all for cutting. The blade had a good deal of belly, but nothing exceptional. The tip was also very thin. The thin structure and chippy steel resulted in a less than ideal tip:

IMG_0325

It is surprising that the tip was so weak, especially considering that the Dragonfly's tip is similar and still intact, even on my older DF I.

Grind: 2

The grind is nice. Everything is even and well done. The blade is a bit thick, but the high grind makes for a good slicer.

Deployment Method: 1

Okay, I don't like assisted opening knives. They just aren't necessary if the knife is designed correctly. This is an okay assisted opener, but I don't know why it is necessary, other than people seem to buy them quicker.

Retention Method: 0

This is my least favorite clip design ever. It is just WAY TOO BIG for the knife. It is almost exactly the same size as the handle scale itself. The clip does retain the knife well, but when it is in your pocket it bangs into EVERYTHING. It also gets hung up on things too. It is not four way positionable.

Lock: 1

Having a knife for a long, long time as your exclusive EDC blade will reveal all sorts of weaknesses that you won't find any other way. Over time the liner lock did weaken and didn't engage as solidly. There is a frame lock version out there, but I have not used it. I would imagine it would work well, but I am not sure how it will hold up.

Overall Score: 8 out of 20

This is the lowest knife score I have given and thinking back on it, it deserved it. For the price you are getting very little other than the cool assisted opening, which, for some reason, has transfixed knife makers and knife buyers (thank you for NOT making them Spyderco). Buy a Buck Vantage Pro Small. It is better in every way and has far superior materials (G10 and S30V). The clip is horrid. I just can't think of anything I liked about the knife. The Leek on the other hand, seems like a much better design. I think, in part, the failure of the Scallion comes from the fact that it was just a scaled down version of the Leek and to save money Kershaw batched out a bunch of parts for the entire line, like the clip. The end result is a knife with crappy steel, a terrible clip, and an unnecessary spring in its step.

Kershaw makes great products, they really do. The OD-2 is a great knife. I love my ZT350. This just isn't one of them. Your paying for an assisted open and a name and that is about it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Spyderco Delica 4 Review

I owned a SAK Super Tinker when I was younger. It was the first knife I was given and I loved it. Then, senior year in high school, 1995 for me, my Dad went to Boston for a business trip and visited Stoddards in downtown Boston. When he was there he bought me a Spyderco Delica on the recommendation of the person behind the counter. It had a molded plastic clip, but other than that, it was pretty much the same knife we have today. That knife was my EDC from 1995 until 2003 when I mailed it to myself at a post office near a courthouse (I learned that lesson). The package arrived, obviously opened, and my Delica was gone. About six years later I purchased a Delica 4 at the Kittery Trading Post. Both were the combo edge version.

The Delica and Endura lines are among two of the oldest product lines in the Spyderco line up, first appearing in 1990. Here is an amazing history of the Delica knife. Few products today, especially in the folding knife market, have been around as long as the Delica and Endura. This long lifespan and Spyderco's constant quality improvement mantra means that the Delicas and Enduras of today are superior as a result of evolutionary improvements. Here is my Delica 4 with its light&saber buddy an a Fenix LD10 (review coming shortly):

IMG_0055

Here is the Delica product page. Here is a good street price on the Delica. Here is Nutnfancy's review. Here is his review of the full flat grind version. Here is Here is the Amazon reviews page, with an average score of 4.9 stars. Here is a decent written review. There are literally dozens of variations, from stainless steel handles to ZDP-189 steel to a high end anniversary edition in blue and orange. They are all listed in the history link quoted above.

Design: 2

Let's acknowledge it now--Sal Glesser is a master of design. Not just of folding knives, but I honestly think of design in general. If you could, for a second, pluck the snooty art student out of a class where they design something like this (can you think of a better way to spend a cool grand? Um...yes, don't even bother to answer that), and have him or her seriously consider all of the innovation that Sal brought to folding knives, I think they'd concede that the man is a master.

The Delica is proof of why. The thumb and finger seem to rest in the exact right place as if drawn there by magic or gravity. The choil works well and the handle seems to fit right into the palm of your hand. The handle is longer than the blade by a good bit with a blade:handle of .68. This is not a great number at all, the lowest of the knives I have review thus far, but it is, in part, why the handle feels so good in the hand. It does, however, make the knife feel like a much bigger blade than it is. For example, Native has a 3 1/8" blade, but a slightly smaller handle. I am not saying this is a good or a bad thing, but something to note.

Fit and Finish: 2

There is widespread criticism that Spyderco's lock backs generate some up and down blade play when in the locked position. I have never found this to be the case. Furthermore, the blade was meticulously finished (more on that below) and centered very well. See:

IMG_0052

Grip: 2

Maybe this is the secret of the Delica, the thing that makes this knife better than it seems like it should be. It is really grippy in the hand in multiple grips. The extra handle length is put to good use and though it is a large handle, its narrowing behind the choil makes it still feel responsive in the hand.

Carry: 2

Because the knife is thinner than a pack of cards, it just disappears in the pocket even though it is quite long. Carrying this knife you expect that all knives with blades almost 3 inches long would carry this well. Very few do, hence one of the many reasons this is an exceptional blade.

Steel: 1

VG-10 is a fine steel. It is very rust resistant and it sharpens very easily. It is not, however, the best at holding an edge, hence the 1. A ZDP-189 Delica, which is available, would be an outstanding EDC choice (even the regular models are outstanding choices).

Blade Shape: 2

The Spyder hole and the pronounced hump that it causes give the Delica a blade shape that is very unique. Only 20 or so years of seeing and using the blade shape has led people to not give it a second thought. I can only imagine the howls of protest from traditional knife enthusiasts when it was released, but like much of the innovation Spyderco brought to folding knives the blade shape just works. The 4th iteration of the knife rounded off the tip, eliminating a needle point and bulking up the end to prevent chipping. It still does a very good job penetrating material, even with the thicker tip.

Grind: 2

Spyderco usually does a good but not great job with the grinds on their knives. If you look closely you can see that the cutting edge, the second bevel on the knife, is usually a little uneven. Sometimes there are thickness variations. But there is nothing like that with the Delica 4. As their flagship design, the design that they promote as representative of all of Spyderco, the grinds are immaculate. They are not just even, but they are actually gleaming and polished. See here, noting especially the grind in the serrations:

IMG_0048

Normally I don't like serrated blades, especially combo edges, but my original Delica was a combo edge, so I figured I'd go with tradition to see just how much the knife had improved, allowing me to compare apples to apples. Also, I like the thick, sturdy serrations Spyderco uses, probably second only to Kershaw's easy scallops. Though I know that plain edge knives are better as they are easier to sharpen, these serrations work well for me, perhaps because they were on the knife I first used when carrying a pocket knife.

Deployment Method: 2

Again, as the emblematic blade for the company the thumb hole is perfectly sized and positioned for effortless one-handed opening.

Retention Method: 2

The traditional Spyderco spoon-style clip, four way positionable. It works very, very well.

IMG_0044

Lock: 2

The Spyderco lock back is a stiff one, it prevents the knife from exploding out of the handle and gives you a lot of feedback the entire way through the opening process. I have never found, in any model I own, the up and down blade play that so many mention. The lock up is solid.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

If someone asked me for a suggestion for a good all around knife, a knife to buy and use, a knife that is not part of a collection, but a tool, this is it. This is a great knife for knife knuts and everyday folks alike. It is the perfect size for non-knife people, who think that small knives, like the Dragonfly, are too small to be useful. The Delica, in my mind, should be the first knife you own if you are serious about carrying a folding knife for any reason. So much for so little money. And now, I hope I have made my case for why THIS blade and not the Tenacious is truly the best value.

As a side note, comparing the Delica 4 to my original Delica 1, I can say that all of the improvements, the resculpting of the handle, the Boye detent on the lock, the clip, and the new tip profile make a great knife even better. 20 years from now I can't even imagine how sweet of a blade this will be.

Eventually I would like to do a comparison between the Delica, the Mini Grip, and either the Leek or the Skyline. Look for that in the future--a mid-sized EDC shoot out. Funds present a problem, but I will track them down eventually.

1YL: 18 out of 20

Plain and simple, this design is outdated.  I would drop the score from a 2 to a 1 in design.  Sal is still the master, but this is no longer his magnum opus.  There are many Spyderco knives are a superior in design, even in the same blade size as the Delica.  The Caly Jr. for example, is light years better.  The Caly 3 is better.  The Native 5 is better.  All of those knives are Sal designs and all are better.  This is just an outdated design.  The big issue is that the knife is SO LONG in the hand and the pocket for so little blade.  This is a perfect example of why ratios matter.  

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The "problem" with ZDP-189 and a short comparison to other steels

All of the reviews I had done thus far are from items that I own or have owned. Generally speaking I don't review a knife until it needs a sharpening. When I get them I usually run them through some cutting tests, like paper and shaving, but I also give them a quick swipe on the Sharpmaker. Then I let them live in my pocket for a few months doing normal EDC tasks with them. Finally, once they have lost their edge, I sit down with the Sharpmaker and bring them back. No second sharpening, no review.

IMG_0003

Well, ZDP-189 is presenting me with some problems. I have had my DF2 for a month now and I have used it almost exclusively and yet I can't tell any difference whatsoever in terms of is keen edge. I also didn't need to sharpen it when it came out of the box. So, I guess I will just have to wait. And wait. And wait. At this pace, the newest super steel will be released before my ZDP-189 blade dulls.

I can also report that it does excellent, even with its extremely high carbon content, with rust. It has been a damp couple of months here in New England and I can't find a speck of rust on the blade. It also is quite stain and tarnish resistant. I cut through an old pizza box and then didn't have a chance to wipe down the blade and the next day the grime came right off. Cardboard AND grease.

An early check on the steel tells me that it outpaces S30V by a noticeable amount in terms of edge holding. It is, thus far, just as stain resistant. I can't really find anything to complain about with the steel. It seems obvious to me, at least, that this is the new top of the heap. But you probably already knew that.

If I had to put them into tiers based on my three point scoring system (0=doesn't work; 1=works; 2=works well) with an eye towards edge holding, rust resistance, and durability (hardness v. toughness) it would be something like this (order in the tier from best to worst):

Top Tier (Score of 2)

ZDP-189
S30V

Middle Tier (Score of 1)

N690
VG-10
AUS8
154CM
440C
Kershaw's 8Cr13MoV

Bottom Tier (Score of 0)

Buck Heat Treated 420HC
Spyderco's 8Cr13MoV
Benchmade's 154CM

This is, of course, just my opinion, based on my own experience, but it seems pretty accurate with other people's experiences. For more on steels, see the link to Joe T's guide to the right.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Kershaw OD-2 Review

What's the least amount of money you have paid for a knife? I am not talking about novelty commemorative knives from the Smokey Mountains or throw away, look-how-cheap-this-is purchases from Harbor Freight or Deal Exchange. What is the cheapest "real" knife you have ever bought?

For me, it is $15. I was at a knife show, mesmerized by the ZT350 and drooling over a Sebenza, but lacking funds for either, when I saw the Kershaw OD-2. It was a close out. The box had been opened and the knife was a display, but everything was in working order and the edge was quite keen. The show was ending in about an hour and I asked the guy for the price. He gave me a price that was silly. I told him, I'd give him $15 flat. He said no. I walked away and did another loop around the show. On the way passed his table he snagged me and asked if it was cash. I said yes, and he said deal. I had no real use for the knife, having just purchased the SOG Flash I, but the cam opening device was interesting. Eventually, the OD-2 booted the Flash I out of my carry rotation permanently.

The cam opening, and the entire knife in fact, was designed by J.L. "Lee" Williams, who, surprisingly, does not have a website. His designs are very highly prized by collectors, especially the Williams Rhino. All of his knives are rare items, with very few on the market, and those that do come up sell for four figures. Many of them use this cam opening system and I have to say, having used it now for a while, it is quite ingenious.

Here is more information about cams. They are on all sorts of devices, especially tools, because they allow you to hand tighten things quickly, securely, and easily (this like table saw fences for example).

Here the cam opening system works. The knife blade itself is attached to a small plate on one side. The plate is attached to a cam and at one end of the cam assembly there is a flipper, like on other flipper knives. When you press on the flipper you get a bit of tension as the plate and blade ride along the longest path around the cam and then finally it rolls over the long end of the cam and swings the blade into the locked position. It feels like an assisted opener, except if you stop applying pressure at any point, the blade will cease to move. There is no point along the opening arc the blade travels in where, absent a lot of initial pressure, where the blade will open on its own. Additionally, unlike a flipper, when the cam is fully depressed and the blade is in the lock position, the flipper attached to the cam disappears into the handle. This gives the knife a very sleek look when opened. I bother to explain this because: a) it is unique so far as I know among production knives to the OD series; b) it is really nice; c) is not a spring or torsion bar design at all so it should avoid the legislative furor over those designs (though this is not legal advice regarding those issues; local laws vary and it is your responsibility to know them); and d) this design impacts the rest of the knife.

The OD-2 is part of the OD series, which like many Kershaw offerings is a small and large version of essentially the same knife. Here is the product page for the OD-2. Here is the product page for the OD-1. They are essentially the same knife except for three differences: size (OD-1 is larger); 2) steel (OD-1 has a Sandvik steel); and 3) lock (OD-1 has a frame lock instead of a liner lock). Here is a good street price. Here is a good Youtube video from Nutnfancy on the OP series. Here are the Amazon reviews, which are actually quite good. It has a 4 1/2 star aggregate score on Amazon, which is a good indication of how good the knife is as a small EDC blade.

Here is my OD-2:

IMG_0017

Design: 2

The cam opening is really sweet. It fires fast and looks nice. There is a good sized handle, give the overall size of the knife. The blade is very slim and small, tucking into your pack or clothing just about anywhere without notice. The handle is a bit wider than other small utility EDC knives, necessary to accommodate the cam opening. There is a bit of rattle when the knife is closed, nothing bad, about equal to that on the SOG Flash I. The blade:handle is .73, not too bad.

Fit and Finish: 2

Surprisingly on a blade this cheap, everything is centered well, lock up is decent, the handle scales are rounded over and the lock bar engages well. A testament to the Kershaw line's overall quality. The Buck Vantage could learn a thing or two about quality control in a small blade.

Grip: 0

The knife is small to begin with, but there is no functional jimping whatsoever and the flipper retracting into the handle, while cool, eliminates another potential method of hanging on to the blade. The handle scales are even a bit slick.

Carry: 2

A blade this small with a straightforward pocket clip is great. It just disappears in your pocket. Wonderful carry.

Steel: 1

8CR13MoV is a cheap steel. It can be sharpened to a nice edge, but the edge doesn't last long. For whatever reason, Kershaw's version of the steel on my OD-2 has much better rust resistance than the same steel on my Tenacious. I have no idea why, especially because the OD-2 blade is bead blasted which should make rusting easier.

Blade Shape: 2

Here is a shot of the blade:

IMG_0019

Nothing crazy, just a straightforward drop point blade. Good belly for a knife this narrow and slim. It works well in the kind of cutting tasks your likely to use it for, things like cutting packages open, cutting paper, or slicing string or twine. It has a very sharp and precise tip, which is nice in that it allows for fine detail work, but it is easily dinged. The blade shape is a joy to sharpen as well, but take care not to run the tip over and put a burr on it.

Grind: 2

Again, I am surprised that the grind is this nice on a super cheap knife. It is very even, a 3/4 flat grind with a nice wide, easy to sharpen secondary grind. Even the secondary grind is even and well done.

Deployment Method: 2

This is the whole gimmick this is blade and I love it. It flicks out with both tactile and audible feedback. I love how fast it comes out as well. It is everything you need and want, just short of an automatic or an assisted opener. It is also no where near as fiddly as the SOG Flash I's thumb stud.

IMG_0021

Retention Method: 2

The pocket clip on the OD-2 is just about perfect for a blade this size. It is small, discrete (though a blackened or dark gray finish would be even nicer), and well designed. It holds tight without being a pocket shredder. Knife makers take note: this is how you do a pocket clip on a tiny knife.

Lock: 2

A nice liner lock with lock up about halfway through the tang of the blade. See:

IMG_0020

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

This is the knife everyone THINKS the SOG Flash I is: small, fast, well-made, and convenient. It also happens to be about 1/2 to 1/3 the price of the SOG Flash I. For a tiny, discrete carry utility blade it is hard to do better than this. I like the Dragonfly 2 design better, but it is substantially more money and not quite as slim of a carry knife. I challenge you to find a better knife for $15.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Arc AAA-P Review

It is entirely unnecessary to both read and actually write this review; fun but unnecessary. If you know enough about lights to read reviews of them on the Internet, then you already know: this is an all time great flashlight. If there were a flashlight Hall of Fame (populated by Surefire, HDS, McGizmo, and Arc for sure), this would be an inner circle Hall of Famer. This is a light made by one of the greatest production flashlight companies of all time, at their absolute peak of output and design prowess. The Arc AAA and the AAA-P stand as a testament to just how good Arc was and how, in light of the disastrous Arc 6, far they have fallen.

Here is the product page for the Arc AAA-P. Here is one of Doug's old, classic reviews from the original flashlightreviews.com (how cool it is to link to his site, it was what started me down this road). The product page is the only retailer I could find, so the street price and MSRP are the same, a bargain $39.95

Here is my Arc AAA-P on its keychain (which has changed a great deal since then):

DSCF1946

Design: 2

In World War II Willys and Ford Motor Company made the classic Army Jeep. It was a grayish green, build to be absolutely failsafe and easy to repair, and designed to be easy to run. All three of those things apply the Arc AAA-P. Sapphire lens? Pffft, who needs one? On/off switch? For wussies. This is about light and nothing else. The materials are nice, but it is there simplicity that, like the Jeep, makes this a classic. The light is just the right size for keychain use and just the right size for pocket use, if you choose to put it in that role. So perfect is the size and design, that the Arc AAA is regularly modded to incorporate higher powered LEDs. One such mod, the Miller Mod, cranks out 130 lumens. Here is a two-stage Miller Mod head for the Arc AAA.

Fit and Finish: 2

When compared to the Arc6, the Arc AAA-P blows it out the water in terms of fit and finish. The gray-green HAIII is incredibly nice--even coloration and tough as nails. The head was well made and mated nicely with the body tube. The foam pad, which functions as a spring (and does so well) is also nicely installed. Over time, like years and years, the keychain attachment wears down and sometimes actually breaks, but at that point you have gotten probably close to a decade of use out of the light. It is a known issue, but so unlikely that I am not going to dock the light for it. In a way it is a complement--few aluminum lights last or are used for this long, so while it would happen to them as well, we'll never see it because people pitch those lights long before they let go of their Arc AAA-P.

Grip: 2

There is some ratio of length to diameter that I can't pin down that makes certain lights great in the hand, but whatever it is, the Arc AAA-p hit it dead on. This makes it a great light to use, both on and off the keychain. Additionally the knurling, which has the peaks shaved off of it, and the HAIII coating give you plenty of grip.

Carry: 2

See above: works well on and off the keychain. Pitch the stupid pocket clip though. It is junk.

Output: 1

Okay, here is where, finally, after a decade or so, the Arc AAA-P shows it age. Output is limited to 12 or 15 lumens, without modding. It is plenty of light to do most quick tasks, taking the garbage out or looking for a dropped item in a dark restaurant, but it is not enough to go for a walk or check around the house for critters and the like. A lot of single cell AAA light smoke the Arc AAA-P in this regard, like the previously reviewed Preon.

Runtime: 1

Runtime is good, like 5 hours, but no longer competitive with better lights. For example, my beloved Muyshondt Aeon pumps out about the same lumens for 40 hours AND offers you a high of 115 lumens. Again, as a keychain light, that 5 hours will last a long time, making this a perfectly workable light, but there are so many options out there that are better in this regard.

Beam Type: 2

For a light without a reflector, really, or a lens of any sort, this produced a nice diffuse beam, great for close up work. It has almost no throw whatsoever, but that is not the purpose of this light (again, though, a comparison to the Aeon makes the Arc AAA-P look bad).

Beam Quality: 2

Oooo! Very nice. Not a ring or artifact anywhere, just pure light. It is a little blue, but that is fine, nothing too distracting.

UI: 2

How do you rate the UI in a light that has only one mode? Um, it works very, very well, I can say that. Twist on, twist off and it never stuttered, flickered, or failed. Great activation. No modes, but sometimes simplest is best.

Hands Free: 0

The light can't tailstand and has no anti-roll. It is useful in between the teeth, but the HAIII is really hard.

Overall Score: 16 out of 20

A classic light that even today, with much more powerful and sophisticated options out there, still does very well. It can take YEARS of abuse and work without fail. And like those WWII Jeeps, many are still around today. That tells you something. In this hare-paced world of technology upgrades, maybe the tortoise-like Arc AAA-P is on to something: work well for a long time and you will never be obsolete.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Zero Tolerance ZT350 Review

In the late 90s, early 00s a few of the foreign car makers produced massive quantities of well made, utilitarian, and cheap cars. Toyota had the Camry and the Corolla, Subaru had the Outback, Mitsubishi had um...some car with a name that is a synonym of brave, fast, or strong, and Mazda was pumping out the 323, 626 series. But hidden in and amongst these econo cars were roaring, thunderous beasts. Toyota had the MR2, Subaru the WRX, Mitsubishi the Lancer EVO, and Mazda the rotary engine RX-7. Each of these cars were amazing performance machines made by companies that seemed to stamp out decent products by the thousands. These cars sliced profit margins in to itty bitty shreds in the name of gut churning, tire melting performance.

For me, Zero Tolerance knives are the WRX, EVO of the Kershaw line. Kershaw makes great knives, cheap, well made, and utilitarian in design. A few will catch your eye, but by in large they are small, medium, and large versions of the same knife over and over again. I love Kershaw, but their knives are a bit...tame (there are exceptions, I know, but as a general rule). Zero Tolerance is a subsidiary of KAI USA, the parent company of Kershaw and Shun (the kitchen knife line of cutlery). They have joined forced with some of the better designers out there to really amp up their designs. Ken Onion, Mick Strider, Rick Hinderer, and others have all contributed to make a series of knives that quite frankly push the very limits of production knives. They have the well built features of Cold Steel, the design of the masters mentioned above, and the materials of high end production knives.

The ZT350 is something of a runt in the Zero Tolerance line, which says a lot. With a blade length of exactly 3.25 inches it is dwarfed by the massive 4 inch and 3.75 inch blades elsewhere in their line up. Here is the ZT350 product page. There are three versions: a blackened plain edge, blackened serrated edge, and a limited edition plain edge unblackened version. Here is a good street price for the ZT350. Here is a review of the ZT350 from one of the YouTube masters, nycdave212 (see sidebar for his channel). Dave's collection is staggering and this is one of his low, low end knives, but he does a fantastic job in this review. Here is a good lively discussion debating the merits of the ZT350 compared to the Spyderco Military. Here is my ZT350 (waiting by the window, hoping to be taken outside and USED), first closed:

IMG_0002

and then open:

IMG_0005

And now a disclaimer: this is a tactical knife and I know nothing about tactical knives. I have carried the knife for about a year and I like using it. It is very well built, but if your looking for information on how to grip it properly in combat, this is not the right review for that.

Design: 2

The two designers of the ZT350 were Ken Onion and Mick Strider (yowza! Mick has some bad press when you google his name; I knew about it, but they have really worked to get the bad stuff to the top of the search results). They worked on a few of the early ZT models. The ZT350 represents a perfect mix of its design parents. It has the sinuous, organic shapes and assisted flipper opening of a Ken Onion design and the aggressive tactical feel of a Strider blade. But it is more than a bullet point on the ZT350's product page. This collaboration produced a friggin' awesome blade.

The knife came about as knife knuts peppered ZT with requests for a smaller knife than the behemoths they are known for. This knife is a mini version of the ZT300 absent one big feature--the frame lock. I like frame locks. I do. I think they are a bit OVER hyped though. This is a liner lock and the liner is massively thick. It works very, very well. If you prefer a frame lock think of it is as a frame lock with a G10 lock bar stop. Maybe that will make it more palatable to those out there that hate the liner lock for some reason. I also love the curved handle. I actually picked up the ZT 350 at a knife show last August and I have never been so grabbed by a blade as this one. It just sung as it sat in my hand. I knew I had to buy it. I had seen them on the Internet and in stores, but it wasn't until it was in my hand that I knew why I had to buy it. No knife I own has feel so good in my hand as this one. It just locks in. Its handle, shape, and balance immediately appealed to me even though I typically disdain large blades. All of the jimping is purposeful, the recurve works well (though it does make sharpening a bit more difficult), and the flipper is perfect. It works exceedingly well as both an actuator for the blade and as a guard when the blade is out. The blade:handle is .70. This is primarily because the handle has a little "tail" at the end for added grip, a smaller version of the tail on the Spyderco Scorpius. One more thing--this is a heavy knife. When you take something and overbuild everything you end up with a lot of bulk. This is a bulky blade. But it was meant to be. In the role of hard use knife or tactical knife you have to give up something and it is usually weight.

Fit and Finish: 2

Everything is snug, tight, and in place. The blade centering even on a blade this big and bulky, is great. The flipper is perfectly executed as is the jimping, which is UBER aggressive. If the stop pin in the handle is supposed to be a thumb stud then there is a problem with clearance from the handle slabs, but it is not actually a thumb stud (see: all Strider knives). Additionally, unlike on some of the Strider's out there, there is no "floating" stop pin issue, see:

IMG_0014

Grip: 2

This knife absolutely refuses the let go of your hand. I did some pretty serious cutting with it (small gauge wire, drywall, and PEX, and no I don't baby my knives, PEX is a REAL BITCH to cut) and I never lost grip. There is no better knife I have ever handled in terms of grip than this knife. The G10, the jimping, and the flipper/blade guard work well. The spine of the blade even has a finger groove for detailed work. I know of no better knife than this for grip.

Carry: 1

The blade is wide, making the knife wide. It is heavy. Not like pocket boat anchor heavy (see: Cold Steel Espada), but is is a beefy pocket knife. Also the flipper and the jimping can sometimes make retrieving the knife a bit of a challenge.

Steel: 2

S30V. It is the standard bearer of high end steels. No longer the tippy top steel, but still a very, very good choice.

Blade Shape: 2

It is an unconventional design, but there is plenty of belly, a strong tip, and a nice feel in the hand. Here is a close up:

IMG_0012

Excellent blade shape. The recurve scared me a bit, but after a sharpening session with the Sharpmaker, I am okay with it. It does improve cutting performance, allowing me to really wrench on the PEX tubing I was cutting. The spine, as was mentioned before, has a nice finger groove for detail work.

Grind: 2

This is a close call between a 1 and a 2. I could not disagree if you gave the grind poor marks for its unnecessary complexity, but at the same time SO MUCH of the thickness of the blade is delivered to the tip. The knife is very, very thick and the grind doesn't do anything to hide that, but again, this is a hard use knife, so really you can't dock it for that.

Deployment Method: 2

BANG! The blade on this knife comes out like a starter's gun. Normally I don't like assisted openers, but in this application tactical or heavy use knife, I think they serve a good purpose. You want your blade and you want it without fail and immediately. And that is exactly what this flipper assisted open knife gives you. The flipper is the perfect size: not too big and not too small (like the flipper on the Buck Vantage). Here is a good shot of it:

IMG_0010

An excellent execution of a flipper. The thumb studs, as mentioned above, aren't actually thumb studs but stop pins. I guess you could use them as thumb studs, but with such a well made flipper, why bother?

Retention Method: 2

In the long history of pocket clips there are a myriad of designs, some TOTALLY bizarre and others completely ineffective. So the question is, why, with a basic clip like this, taken from Strider's line of knives, can't companies just get it right by going simple? It works, works well, and completely avoids messing with your grip.

Lock: 2

The liner lock bar is so massive, so overbuilt that it dwarfs the lock bar on both my Sebenza and my Leafstorm. Complaints about liner locks are really just complains about CRAPPY liner locks and any lock can stink if it is poorly executed. Great lock.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

If you are looking for a super durable EDC blade and don't mind the weight this is a good choice. If you want a great heavy duty knife this is a great choice. This is a great all around knife and while it is overbuilt, it is not so large as to be difficult to carry. Home Run by ZT.

1YL: 18 out of 20

This is a case of improved technology.  The Paramilitary 2 is simply a superior design.  It is probably 99.9% as rugged with less than half the weight.  That is one issue.  The other is the grind.  Trying to resharpen this steep a recurve in S30V was a wretched chore.  There is no reason for recurves on blades like this other than looks and a few very limited uses.  This knife loses one point in Blade Shape, going from a 2 to 1.