Friday, August 31, 2012

Al Mar Knives Hawk Ultralight Review

The Al Mar Knives Hawk Ultralight, like all of the knives in the Ultralight series, is something of a work of art.  In more ways than one it reminds me of a Shaker Ladderback Chair.  They are spare, simple, and taut.  Like the chairs, the Ultralights use decent (though not cutting edge) materials, but are made in such a way as to bring out each material's best attributes.  The seats on traditional ladderback chairs are cane rush, a form of grass, dried and weaved together.  Individually they are almost like paper, but together they form a seat that is both incredibly strong and incredibly comfortable.  This is a lot like the linerless canvas Micarta handles on the Ultralights--perfect in this application: strong yet incredibly lightweight.  I also have a feeling that like Shaker Ladderback Chairs, Al Mar's Ultralights will be around for a long time with a group of fans and craftsmen doing their best to maintain these jewels.

Here is the product page.  Here is a good video review of the Hawk in comparison to other blades.  Here is a good written review.  You can, of course, get them through Blade HQ (which helps the site, specifically the giveaways):

Blade HQ

Finally, here is a picture of the little gem of a knife:

Design: 2

There are very few knives as rigorously and meticulously designed as the Ultralight.  Even many years after their initial design, nothing on the market offers so much blade in such a slim and light package.  The blade:handle is a STUNNING: .84 (smashing the old record, held by the SOG Flash I of .78).  The blade:weight is 2.81, by far the best I have ever seen.  In these two respects, nothing I have reviewed or even handle is in the same league as the Ultralight.  In part this is because the design really crams in everything.  The entire knife is under one ounce in weight, hitting the scales at .98 ounces according to my own scale.  I doubted the number and weighed it again the next day and got the same score.

But that is not the whole story, as ratios never are, even when they are this extraordinary.  This is a knife of exceptional refinement.  The pins and pivots are designed to be flush.  The lanyard hole is tucked in to the very, very edge of the handle, but still piped.  The lockback is very tight.  The thumbstuds are excellent, so good in fact, that I have started to rethink my hatred of them.  And the handle itself is a sculpted piece with enough of a guard that you don't need to worry about your fingers.

There is nothing excessive in appearance.  There is nothing extra in design.  This is as spare an EDC blade as you can find and it is all the better for it.  Ceaseless attention was paid to every aspect of this blade's layout and construction and the end result is a knife that has very few peers, if any.  When you factor it the modest (though not bargain basement price) you have a knife that ranks right up there with the Shaker Ladderback Chair in terms of all time great design.

One caveat about all of this spareness--there is no pocket clip.  This is a true pocket knife, so don't think you missed the clip--it ain't there.  If that kills the knife for you, which it did for me for all these years, then move on.  Note that this will impact the overall review score here.  Without a clip, it can't score a 20 as there is no retention method.  Nonetheless my bias against clipless knives has been washed away by this little jewel.  Also, I am trying to figure out how to make one for the knife, more on that in a future post, hopefully.        

Fit and Finish: 2

It is a close call between the fit and finish on this blade and the Sebenza.  In the end, I'd have to go with this blade.  Nothing I have seen or handle, either in the production world or the custom world comes close to this.  The trend towards bulky tactical blades has made the custom knife world less focused on fit and finish and I imagine if I had a chance to handle a real master's blade like a Ron Lake or a Tony Bose, I would find them to be this knife's superior (though honestly, I am not sure how, everything is so perfectly done here).

As with lights there are tailtell signs of great fit and finish.  I will give you a few examples here that work in evaluating all sorts of knives.  First, check out how the tang of the knife and the spine, if there is one, mate together when the knife is open.  Here is how well the Hawk's mates up:

IMG_0013

A well made knife will synch up almost perfectly.  Here, in this blade, the contact point is almost invisible to the naked eye.  The contact point is so well-cut and flush that it passes the fingernail test (that is, if you run your fingernail across the joint you can't feel where one piece ends and the other begins; I use this a lot in woodworking to make sure joints are tight and pieces are the same size).

That picture is helpful in two other ways as well.  Note how smooth the transition is from the beautifully finished micarta handle to the mirror polished pivot.  The pivot and all of the pins are flush mounted and they too pass the fingernail test.    Also note in the picture now well rounded the handle slabs are.  Here they are almost like melted butter--no sharp points anywhere.

There are other signs of superb craftsmanship--a tang that is almost completely hidden by the finger guard, a piped lanyard hole in a space that is just barely big enough to house it, and a lockback, yes a lockback, that produces no blade play at all.  None.

There are no liners, here, obviously, as a knife this small, thin, and light couldn't possibly have liners, but the entire design is so taut and well-made that the knife felts surprisingly solid for its size and weight.  I have used it for light to medium duty tasks--opening packages up to cutting cardboard boxes (a more frequent task now that we have a limited space for recycling).  I never felt the knife flex and I never felt less than confident in holding the blade.  I did not try to break it or push it to the limit, but I figure the normal use I subjected it to is more like how you'd use it. 

Grip: 2

There is no jimping.  None.  But this is a knife that is small and sculpted to fit the hand.  Like everything with this blade, the sculpting just works.  The micarta is smoothed to a polish but still retains a bit of texture present in the canvas or linen substrate.  Overall, in the intended role of EDC, there is little I would change about this knife's grip.  It is surprisingly excellent.

Carry: 2

What I can add that a look at the knife's size, weight, and shape can't tell you? This knife is truly invisible in the pocket.  So much so that I can tolerate the lack of a clip.  It is so light though you don't want to forget the knife is in your pocket and send it through the washing machine.  Really, it is that light.  Is that a drawback?  I don't think so, but be warned--this thing really does disappear in the pocket. 

Steel: 2

I agonized over this score because, well, AUS8 usually stinks.  It is the steel that I always think of as being on the wrong side of barely acceptable.  But here, in this perfectly ground and shaped blade, I have had no complaints whatsoever.  The steel is really holding an edge despite significant use.  I have cut boxes, whittled, and done basic EDC chores with it and to my continuous surprise it has done well.  I still have not passed it through the Sharpmaker, though I have stropped it a few times.  All in all, the steel has done better than I could have hoped and because I try to jealously stick to results and not expectations when determining scores, I am dropping a 2 here instead of a 1.  It is hard to explain, but I guess there is some magic in that old silk hat they found, except instead of a silk hat it is unsurpassed Japanese blade craftsmanship. 

Blade Shape: 2

A perfectly symmetrical spear point blade and an amazing one at that, this is a blade shape others envy:

IMG_0010

Even the ricasso (that part of the blade between the cutting edge and the handle) is well finished and never, ever snags on material.  For all of the beeps and borks of these tactical blades that look like they were designed by a Cubist painter, remember--simplest is best.  It stuns me that people think all of these different flats and facets actually DO something other than look cool and for me they don't even do that.  Gimme this shape--slim, a bit of belly, and that is it.

Grind: 2

Again, the craftsmanship of the Al Mar brand shines through.  No blade I have, even the custom knife or the Sebenza has a grind as clean and as even as this knife does.  It even has a pretty substantial cutting bevel.  As a full flat grind knife that is thin and has a steep, steep cutting bevel this thing cuts like a laser or a razor or another sharp thing that ends with -azor.  I am stunned.  For example, just for fun I was cutting some pepperoni with this (I love making pizza on the grill and I had forgetton my kitchen knife).  I could get the little disks so thin that you could see through them and I could do this over and over again.  Slices like nothing I have ever used.

Deployment Method: 2

I hate thumb studs.  They are ugly.  They collect gunk.  And they are not as easy to use.  I hate all of them.  Or so I thought.  In reality I hate bad ones and as it stands right now, the only ones I have liked are the ones on the Hawk Ultralight.

IMG_0016


All other thumb studs please just go away.  You stink by comparison.

Retention Method: 0

There is no retention method here.  There is a lanyard hole but I hate lanyards especially on a knife this small and thin.  There is no pocket clip either and the ones from the bigger Ultralight knives won't work because they are too long.  I think I am going to design one and then go to a knife pimper or machinist and get it made.  I love this knife, and it works well as a true pocket knife, but why not give us the option?

Lock/Blade Safety: 2

I like the lockback here.  It is tight and produces no blade play at all.  It is easy to disengage and the knife can be closed with one hand.  Nothing to complain about and plenty strong enough for the knife's intended purpose.  Note that the knife is distinctly not flickable because, in part, of the strong lockback.  If that is an issue for you, either decide that you can take off your Official Mall Ninja BAMF patch can carry the Hawk Ultralight or stick to your guns and see if you can get a spring loaded sheath for your tactical katana blade.

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

If you want an EDC knife that is different, that is well-built, and well-designed this is it.  Nothing gives you this much blade for so little size and weight.  For around $100, it is a bargain for what you get--essentially a custom knife of stupendous quality.  If you need a pocket clip though, keep looking (I'd recommend the Benchmade Aphid, almost as slim with a nice clip).  I got this as an anniversary present for being married for 13 years (I got married when I was 5 1/2).  It, like the other half of my marriage, is an absolute classic that I will keep by me for the rest of my life.  I love this little blade.

Any volunteers on making the clip?  I have a design all ready to go.  

8 comments:

  1. Weird. Absolutely disagree with you on the Steel score. I have an Al Mar Falcon Ultralight and the AUS-8 blade steel is the Achilles' heel of an otherwise wonderful little knife. It gets sharp, and the grind is exquisite, but edge retention has been terrible, sending me back to the Sharpmaker repeatedly.

    I would definitely give the steel a 0 out of 2 based on my experience, and thus would end up somewhere around a 16 out of 20 (I largely agree with everything else you say).

    IMO the Ultralights are great designs that cry out for a steel upgrade.

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  2. Aw, I wrote that comment once I got to the total score, and before I read your final paragraph.

    That is a very sweet gift, and I feel a bit of a heel for my griping (but hopefully it will be helpful to potential buyers).

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  3. I have always wanted one of these as the essential gentleman's folder. Now I want one even more!!! I think with something like S30V or 154CM and a clip, this would be the perfect lightweight knife. I know you love the DFII, but you can't deny that this has a look and style that blade doesn't. PLEASE POST PICS OF THE CLIP!!!!
    The Idaho Gunslinger

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    1. Once I get it built I will totally post pictures.

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  4. At one point I had an Al Mar Hawk Ultralight, but I found it was exceptionally difficult to open. It was stiff and painful to operate, nothing like some of the Spyderco lockbacks I had at the time that had an action like glass. Did you find this was the case with yours, and did it require a break-in period? Or perhaps mine was a fluke?

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  5. Excellent review as usual Tony. Like you said this is a timeless classic. A pocket clip would be interesting. I know STR on BladeForums makes custom TI clips so that might be a good option. He has a subforum on there as well as a website - http://strsbackyardknifeworks.blogspot.com/

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  6. Erik,

    A small drop of lube on the pivot mechanism (from the top of the knife, with the blade half-open) should cure that stiff opening. I had the same problem with my Falcon Ultralight and the lube was an immediate and lasting cure.

    Knife people tend to use Tuf-Glide for this purpose. I confess I just use Break Free CLP since I have it around for gun maintenance. (Keep it off the cutting edge.)

    The Ultralights are beautiful designs that only need better steel. BTW the factory clip on the Falcon and Eagle is first rate: gentle on pockets, good retention.

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  7. Tony,
    Great review. You do an excellent job reviewing knives and flashlights. Keep up the good work.
    A quick question...the cutleryshoppe has an exclusive Al Mar folder very similar to the Ultralight...as you probably know it has the laminated blade with ZDP-189.
    Would you recommend it over this one as a much better steel BUT still be a phenomenal slicer ? I love the "slicers" a lot. Before I spend any coin I will wait for your advice. Thanks!

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