Saturday, February 4, 2012

Custom Knives, Part 1: Gilded and Hilted

This is a three part commentary on custom knives.  The fourth part will be a review of the Filip De Coene  Hybrid Slipjoint.

Someone once said that if you don't occassionally knock fence sitters off the fence, eventually everyone ends up there.  So I put this commentary forward with a warning: this is my opinion and my opinion alone.  I am well aware that many disagree with me, but I have thought about this for a long time and I am willing to back up what I am saying with arguments and examples.  I am putting my asbestos suit on.  I haven't worn it since my Tenacious review and it is getting musty. 

Before I went to law school I wandered around academia for a while, studying philosophy in graduate school.  Being a grad student in Boston is like being an elderly person in Florida--society revolves around you.  Going to world-class museums and meeting famous intellectuals was a regular occurrence.  In fact, I rode an elevator with Jacques Derrida once.  I was tasked with getting the famous French intellectual off the T and into an auditorium for a talk.  He was, well, all of the things that come to mind when I say "French Intellectual".  I saw John Rawls in person once about two months before he died.  I drove Tim Scanlon home after a long party.  I drove him home not because he was drunk, but because, as a quintessential Bostonian, he did not have a car; he lived within walking distance of his Harvard office.

In all of these random encounters and free time as a philosophy graduate student I often visited the Walter Gropius Center on Harvard's campus.  It was a place for graduate students to meet each other and when that became insufferable (which happened quickly) I would wander some more, ending up in an art museum or the peerless Harvard Film Archive.  Eventually I started reading everything I could about Walter Gropius

He was a really interesting guy and through researching him I found out a great deal about art, architecture, and design.  Gropius founded a school of art in Germany between the two world wars called Bauhaus School.  A few of the people that worked there had bizarre tastes and habits that again fit what the mind calls up when you hear the phrase "bohemian art-weirdo".  But others had a minimalist take on things.  They themselves were influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement in England who were in turn influenced by the Shakers in America.  A focus on how a thing is used and how to build things well and simply was essential to the predominent aesthetic that emerged out of the Bauhaus School.  It was this research that led me to an appreciation of good design.  I also had a friend at the time that was something of a renaissance man, a designer, sculptor, mechanic, philosopher bum.  We chatted a lot about silly stuff, but the thing that stuck with me was an appreciation for simplicity.  Even now when I am doing wood working I am always striving for an object as simple as possible in order to accomplish its intended purpose.

All of this is a long, roundabout way of saying that I like simple, design-first things.  A lot of what I like is encapsulated in Deiter Rams 10 Principles of Good Design.  I also really like the look, the evolution of Shaker, Bauhaus, and Japanese design seen in furniture by Thomas Moser.  Here is one of my favorite pieces of design ever, the Moser Continuous Arm Chair:

I would not sneeze at a Maloof Rocker either.  Both seem to speak to a design aesthetic that is unique, simple, and useful.

It is something that the custom knife world has, in many cases, completely forgotten.  As I see it, the vast majority of custom knives are nothing more than box cutters with rhinestones glued on them.  Sure the rhinestones might be Moku-Ti bolsters or mosaic pins, but the effect is the same--there is very little design and a whole lot of ornamentation.  This gaudy stylistic choice is something that I find entirely unappealing.  Furthermore it seems to be fallow earth to plow.  How much more ornamentation can one knife really take?  How many shiny baubles can be glued, pressed, riveted, and bolted to these things?  How many more swirly patterned steels and other metals are needed?

I appreciate all the work that goes into these knives, but in the end, they are still a boring tool with rhinestones.  They are the knife equivalent of Rococo interiors that were popular in 18th Century Europe:

These custom knives, crusted with oranmentation, and covered in swirly metal, are, like their Rococo counterparts--design vomit.  Take every shiny bit and bauble and CRAM it on a knife, charge $1000 for it, and call it a masterpiece.  Blah.  Give me something new, something simple and well made.  Give me a design first, decoration second custom.  Please, someone.  I'll buy it, and I think a lot of other people will too. 

The custom makers seem to be even a step behind some of the more innovative production companies.  I'd place the Spyderco Dialex Junior up against many custom knives in terms of design chops.

The Junior is a breath of fresh air in terms of design--it is useful and its form indicates function.  Looking at it tells you how to use it and what it does.  Spyderco has quite a few really innovative designs, many of which seem to outpace custom blades in terms of design chops by quite a large margin.  I understand that production companies are big business.  I understand they can absorb the losses caused by design failures more easily.  I also understand they can amortize the costs of new designs over hundreds if not thousands of blades.  All of these things mean that production companies can afford to take bigger risks than small custom makers.  But that said, for a custom maker, the costs of failure are high, but the potential rewards are equally large.    

Custom knives, in general, seem to break down into three aesthetic categories: 1) the Cow Boy; 2) the Klingon; and 3) the Pimp.  You can mix any of them--Cowboy/Pimp, Cowboy/Klingon, Pimp/Klingon and so on.  The problem with all of these designs is that they are not really all that innovative and instead more decoration than design.  I am not saying this to be offensive, but simply as a commentary (see blog title) on the state of custom knives in general.  There are exceptions of course, and I will get to those.  Next post I will go into detail about each type and why I think they indicate that custom knives, by in large, are a stagnant form.


  1. John Harrold ( 4, 2012 at 4:18 PM

    I read your blog, and I don't comment. I came across your blog when I began researching pocket knives, and it's been quite helpful.

    I eventually settled on a Sage 1 -- I was working in Andover at the time. Then I moved to Boston and 2.5" is the blade limit here. So I eventually got a leaf storm. I still prefer the Sage but the leaf storm is nice.

    My purchasing philosophy is buy once, even if it's a lot, and keep it for a long time. So I considered the custom knife route. I came to the same conclusion you listed above. I completely agree with you about the design aesthetic of Spyderco knives over what custom stuff is being produced.

    Here is my thoughts on why the look so horrible: People have to justify spending a large chunk of cash on a knife, and it's hard to justify spending it on something that looks "plain".

  2. Guys/Girls, wait for the Filip De Coene review. Filip is an awesome custom maker and a true gentleman (he will actually respond to your emails and will create a knife customized to you) vs. Suminagashi steel. His Hybrid Friction folder (S30V) is truly a work of art. As he states, 'Design based on simplicity, social friendly.' I am a a true outdoorsman and use my knives. This is one elegant knife that you can actually use and then stare at when you get home...I think that it kind of creeps my wife out... ;)

  3. Great intro to the series. This installment gave me the pleasure characteristic of good criticism: I nodded along as you crystallized thoughts that had crossed my mind before in an far less articulate way. I particularly like the Cowboy/Klingon/Pimp trichotomy. Avoiding those 3 pigeonholes is a first step toward being a real knife designer.

    (I also agree that Sal Glesser's design mastery quietly dominates 98% of these custom knife dudes with 5-year waiting lists.)

  4. Interesting approach Tony! I tend to agree, I think excess ornamentation produces collectibles more than tools. However some art knives are cool too - I guess it's all about perspective. Also I'm really lookin forward to the Filip De Coene review, his work has always impressed me.

  5. WOW, you met Jacques Derrida? As an English student who wrote extensively on Derrida, I am extremely jealous.

  6. Don't be. He was a jerk. We were in the elevator with another person and he started smoking. The woman pointed out the no smoking sign and he took a big puff of smoke and blew it into the air. Ugh. Scanlon and Rawls were, of course, perfectly humble and polite.

  7. Great Article!
    Thanks for share this.I usually use Custom Knives and hope that it would be more effective.