Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Custom Knives, Part 3: Heading in the Right Direction

So far it may seem like I am pooping on custom knives entirely, but that is not my intent. Instead I want to show what I think are deficiencies in the form and then turn towards a more positive take on stuff that is out there. This is the start of that positive turn.

Any discussion of high end knives, custom or otherwise, has to start with Chris Reeve's Sebenza.  It is, for reasons I laid out in the Gear Recommendation Series, the starting point and ending point for many people.  It has a robust feel, fit and finish that are unrivaled, and a price, given what you get, that is pretty darn reasonable.  But it is more than just practicalities that make the Sebenza important.  The design of the Sebenza, especially the basic model, is so superb and refined that it embarasses many of the busier, less focused knife designs out there.  One of the axioms of good design (and life) is from Albert Einstein who was referencing multiple theories of reality: "Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler."  In the Sebenza we see that simplicity.  Its famous lock is a great example. One part, the handle slab, serves two purposes: lock and handle.  There is so little adornment on the knife that the blue anondized parts seem to gleam like little stars against the gray, matte finished titanium.  And then there is the blade itself--thick without being bulky, a classic clip point.  In the end, the Sebenza is a challenge and a dare--make it more simply I dare you.  To date, no one has out-Sebenzaed the Sebenza despite people trying for 20 years.  The Sebenza is to high end knives what the iPod is to music players--simple, accessible, and brilliant in its design.

But the Sebenza's simple beauty has created a problem for many knife buyers and makers.  As a maker, in order to justify a higher price you have to offer something significantly better and in all honesty that is pretty difficult.  Improving the fit and finish, while possible, is a proposition in diminishing returns.  There is only so much you can do to tighten tolerances and still have the higher level of performance be noticeable by a buyer.  So instead of trying to make something simpler or more elegant designers, even Chris Reeve himself, have gone in the other direction larding on layer after layer of unnecessary embellishment and calling that a good design.

But not all is lost.  There are a few areas where the Sebenza is lacking and creative and smart custom knife makers have gone all out in trying to make a better mouse trap.  One area I think we all can agree is lacking is the opening method.  A thumb stud is a cheap, clunky way to open a knife.  I prefer a thumb hole, but I also see a flipper being very nice.  Think of it this way--with both a thumb hole and flipper, both have additional benefits.  A thumb hole lightens the knife AND gives you a good thumb ramp for cutting.  A flipper gives you a bit of a guard for high pressure cuts.  Neither method adds parts, less parts means less can go wrong.  Finally, both the hole and especially the flipper do little to mar the graceful, smooth appearance of the blade itself, unlike a thumb stud which is like a pimple on the steel, whether it is jeweled or not.   Another area where the Sebenza could be upgraded is in the pivot.  The ball bearing based pivots are both smoother and sturdier.  

For the money, I think that Gerry McGinnis makes some of the nicest flippers around--simple, elegant designs.  One of my favorites is the Prawn.  Here is a picture:

It is a bit bigger than the Shrimp (both Terry's version and CRKT's version).  The overall size of the blade is perfect for EDC, hitting the sweet spot that the Dragonfly II occupies.  It is simple, laid out well, and has a nice useful blade shape.  The flipper, as is usually the case, does double duty--opener and hilt.  Gerry makes a ton of different flippers, some of which veer close to the Klingon territory, but most are quite elegant designs.

Another custom maker that hits the right spot is Dustin Turpin.  The Turpin Logic is what I would make if I had the ability.  It is a super simple flipper with a Ti handle and IKBS in the pivot.  The result is a buttery smooth knife that is quiet and unassuming, but a freaking cutting machine.  The Logic pushes the size limits I like on an EDC knife--clocking in at around 3.25 inches, but it is one gorgeous knife:

You all know of my fondness for the Dauntless designs from this post a few weeks ago.  They are more complex and more detailed than either the Prawn or the Logic, but they still have a bit of restraint, only straying into the messy area of design in some of the more extreme versions.  In particular, the JW Smith Dauntless is a nice looking, more detailed blade:

It is not that the blade must be plain or simple, but that the adornments should be in service to an overall aesthetic vision and they are in the case of the Dauntless. 

Another custom maker that I really like, design wise, that has a bit more flair is Neil Blackwood.  Blackwood's collaborations with Benchmade (the Rukus, Mini Rukus, Skirmish and Mini Skirmish) and Boker (the Pipsqueak) have all been well received by knife fans, but it is his custom knives that are truly spectacular.  Here is a very nice looking Henchman:

The knife looks like it could be from the 18th Century or from the 22nd Century and that ambiguity means that it is approaching a timeless design.  The yellowed Micarta, uninterrupted by mosaic pins or other unnecessaries, gives the knife a gorgeous sepia luster.  The simple, straightforward blade shape, made all the more elegant by a flipper, is just perfect for the knife.  Now if we could only persuade Neil to drop his silly pocket clip designs.  They are just too cutesy for blades that cost around a grand.  I know, I know, its clever that they are reliefs of the knives themselves, but that is something more appropriate for a gimmicky OEM Chinese made knife that sells at a flea market than one of the finest custom made knives available. 

There is a ton of talent out there.  A lot of it is going in a distinctly wrong direction, but some folks out there are really doing amazing work.  Flippers, it seems, are where the custom world is heading.  I don't think this is a bad thing.  I'd really like to see a Dauntless that is JUST a flipper, but that might violate the "Dauntless rules."  With all the praise I have heaped on these knives and their designers, they are still not exactly what I would consider inspired design.  They aren't the Eames chair.  They aren't in the same league as Thomas Moser's Continuous Arm chair I highlighted in the first article.  The next post in this series will talk about that knife--my Filip de Coene Hybrid Slipjoint.  Born from a lightning strike of inspiration on a truly clean design slate, the Hybrid is what I have been looking for for years. 


  1. I agreed on your points up to the flipper. Snapping a knife out simply isn't something I want to do and it does wear parts out at a quicker rate than needed. I also find they take away from the "flow" of a knife, in my opinion.I dislike flippers so much that I've grinded them off on knives that came with them. Check out Burger Knives and the EXK-1 for a very simple one-hand opening feature if you really want to see simplicity at its best. Love your blog, by the way!

  2. Tony, your said "... The ball bearing based pivots are both smoother and sturdier ...". A roller or ball bearing pivot system may have lower friction than Phosphor Bronze washers with a pivot bush (eg Sebenza) but at the velocities they rotate it is unlikely they are studier. The pivot ball or roller bearings mostly don't have especially hardened precision races either. That means if push comes to shove with heavy abusive loading my money would be on the larger contact area PB washers and bush. Have a good look at the pivots in a wheel loader tractor's boom assembly or the like. They are mostly low speed bush designs. Enough already. Thx for all the other info and opinion.

  3. For a flipper, I like the idea of a bearing system. I hate assisted knives because the force when they snap open is loud and somewhat jarring. I've never handled a knife with IKBS, but I imagine that it allows a flipper to open smoothly and quickly without slamming open. And Tony, you might check out Southard Knives. He licenses the Spyder Hole and puts it on flippers with IKBS. There is hopefully supposed to be a collaboration between him and Spyderco that I am very excited for, but it's yet to be seen whether it will actually release.

  4. If Gustave Stickley and William Morris made a knife it would follow the Sebenza form.