Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Time v. Tech

The Al Mar Hawk Ultralight was an eye opener for me.  It proved to me that there is another way to achieve high end performance.  Instead of traveling the path well-forged and going for simply the newest and the latest materials, the Hawk was built on finely tuning time tested materials.  The result is a knife that is incredibly light, incredibly thin, and yet cuts like a razor.  It is simple and elegant and it works very, very well.


In particular I thought that the AUS-8 blade did an amazing job of cutting, resisting rust, and holding an edge.  I gave it a 2, meaning that its performance was excellent.  It was odd because I had tested other knives with AUS-8 steel and saw nothing like the cutting ability the Hawk had.  I tested two SOG blades (SOG Flash I and the Twitch II) and a Cold Steel (Mini Tuff Lite) blade most recently with AUS-8 steel and I was...um...whelmed.  Nothing great but nothing bad either, the blade steel was just meh.  But the Hawk's steel, which has the same chemistry, was just better.  It was neatly and meticulously ground to a perfect full flat grind.  The cutting bevel was even and precise.  And it must have heat treated more carefully because it just cuts and cuts and cuts. 

I know it is not magic.  I know Al Mar Knives do not transform a mediocre steel into a high tech, gee whiz steel.  But they do take a mediocre steel and get every last drop of performance out it.  They finish it perfectly.  They grind it perfectly.  And they use it in just the right role.  In the end the AUS-8 steel in the Hawk works so well because Al Mar Knives uses all of their skill and craftsmanship to make a mediocre steel perform well above its chemistry. 

The Hawk is not a cheap knife though.  It is not produced in the staggering numbers that most production knives are.  It is a $100 knife with $30 steel.  The handles are micarta, a nice material for sure, but not as expensive as Desert Ironwood for example.  The price point is so high precisely because of all of the time and craftsmanship that went into making the knife.  The knife makers in Seki City are amazing bladesmithes.  Paying them is not cheap.  Sure they could farm it out to less skilled (or less well-paid) workers elsewhere.  Ka-Bar does amazing job squeezing AUS-8 steel into its $15 Mini Dozier.  But that thing is no where near the knife the Hawk Ultralight is.  Craftsmanship can produce a superior product but it takes time and time is often money.


Instead, many knife companies don't fret so much over fit and finish and just get better performance by engaging in a technology arms race over steel.  First it was BG42, then ATS34, then 154CM, then S30V, then ZDP-189, then S35VN, then M4...and so on.  The performance increase was based solely on a technology increase.  All of the sweat and fastidiousness that makes the Hawk an amazing cutter is gone and in its place are super pure carbides and powder metallurgy. 

Don't get me wrong, I am a huge fan of new steel.  I am an avowed and ardent steel snob.  But being a steel snob without an eye to performance is crazy.  If the sloppy grind lines on a ZDP-189 blade make it a poor cutter, it seems like a double waste--bad performance because of bad finishing DESPITE the amazing steel.  Spyderco's fit and finish is fine. It is actually quite good, somewhere behind Benchmade's but in front of Cold Steel and SOG.  It is nothing to complain about and on some sprint runs it is substantially better. 

But for many knives, like the Paramilitary 2 I reviewed, there is sloppiness everywhere--an uneven cutting bevel, a bit of tarnish or coloration on the blade, and some less than crisp edges. 

Again, nothing bad, just less refined.  All of those flaws though are covered up by the amazing properties of the high tech steel the PM2 uses--S30V.  It is getting a bit old, but S30V still is quite nice.  My suped up Buck Vantage is running Bos-treated S30V steel.  I'll let you know when I have to sharpen it for the first time.  Like sometime next year.

Time v. Tech elsewhere

The time v. tech difference plays out in other places as well. 

Look at high end sports cars.  The debate is a little different, but the fundamentals are the same.  Some companies decide to make cars as light as possible, tuning and tweaking every last unnecessary ounce out of their vehicle.   This is why a Lotus Exige or a Shelby Cobra can hang with cars that have twice or three times the horse power.  Then there are the tech cars--the Corvette ZR1 for example, with its massive 500 plus horsepower engine and equally bulky curb weight.

In woodworking, my other hobby, there is a direct parallel--hand tools v. power tools (literally time v. tech).  Hand tool guys rave about how easy and safe their stuff is.  They love the get back to the wood feel of their decidedly 18th century methods.  They still employ good design, a Bad Axe saw can run you $250 with all of the tweaks and updates that come with it, but the focus is on craftsmanship.  Power tool guys can get the same high quality results with amazing pieces of tech like a Laguna Band Saw or a Festool Domino joiner, but they eschew the hours of handplaning for the shrill rip sound of a powered saw.  It is a choice not in outcome--both methods in the right hands can produce beautiful results--but in process.

This dichotomy can be found many places.  It has to do with people's way of thinking.  Some people are results-oriented.  They care only about the final product.  They want high performance as quickly and easily as possible.  Then there are folks that are process-oriented.  The results are important too, but they are the result of the right process. 


I am not saying one is better than the other, but in knives the two methods seem mutually exclusive.  I understand that it does not make financial sense to produce knives on a very large scale, like the scale Spyderco does, using the Al Mar craftsman method.  I get that. But why can't we get both though on the other side?  Why can't we get an Al Mar knife with ZDP-189 steel?  Too expensive?  It can't be more than my Sebenza and even if it was, I'd save up. 

One place where you find the meddling of the two is in custom knives.  Yuna's custom blades, for example, meld ZDP-189 steel with handcrafted beauty. 

Depending on how things go over the next few months, I might put in an order with Yuna.  Many of Chris Reeves' knives strike me as a balance of the two, but so many of his "cheap" options are pretty clearly the product of great machining.  No one there is hand buffing the blades.  I'd also like to try out a William Henry knife as they seem like a company trying to do both, but so many of their offerings are so gaudy that even if they were free I wouldn't take one.  I am looking at a WH Kestrel Scout, so that might be a good way to find out if they have truly meld the two.    


  1. Great post. Totally agree with the craftsmanship argument: I prefer the time-tested designs, too, but wish some of them had some of the modern materials, too. Well, I think Al Mar must've been listening: they posted their 2013 Catalog on their Facebook page (facebook.com/almarknives) and it has an Eagle HD with ZDP-189 right in the middle! Can't wait to see it next week!

  2. William Henry Kestrel Scout and B12 Atlas make a wonderful pair of high end EDCs!