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:


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:


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.


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.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Trolling for Hate: The Deluge of Bland

Kershaw make some of my favorite knives, especially inexpensive ones.  I really like the Skyline--it was an amazingly light and capable blade.  The diminutive OD-2 is probably one of the most underrated knives out there for EDC use, especially for the price.  But recently a glance at their offerings shows a positively massive line up of incredibly similar knives.  It also shows that they have some substantial holes in their line up.

Design by Numbers

To prove my first point take a look at this blade (I have changed the name to see if you can figure out what it is):

Name: Kershaw Impact
Blade Length: 3 1/4 inches
Handle Material: Black Resin-base Material
Lock: Liner
Blade Steel: 14c28n
Price: $30-$40
Weight: 3.5 ounces

This knife features a speedsafe assist opening and a contoured handle to "really lock in your hand."  It is sold through normal Internet sites and traditional brick and mortar retailers.  This knife is really called...nothing.  I made it up.  There is no knife EXACTLY like this one, but there are many that are almost the same.  By leaving out the blade shape, handle material, and blade finish in the stats, the Impact could be:

Random Task II

If we drop the steel type and allow for 8Cr13MoV, it could be one of about a dozen knives.  If we expand the criteria to include blades that are 3 inches to 3.5 inches we get virtually all of the SpeedSafe line up.

I know that you could do this with other makers as well, but with Kershaw, especially right now, it is so easy to do.  The point is that Kershaw's low and mid range lines are clogged full of knives that are virtually identical to each other, in name, appearance, and material.  Worse yet, this seems like a corporate initiative to do design by numbers as opposed to anything design or customer driver.  This design by numbers is so clear that I think there is a basic recipe almost all of their new knives follow. 

Here it is:

1. Choosing a Name:

Unless it is a Ken Onion design (in which case you must choose from one of the many species of the genus Allium) you take a word that is a one, two or maybe three syllable synonym for "tough" (One Ton, Junkyard Dog), "fast" (Blur, Zing, Burst, Speedform), "conflict" (Clash, Brawler, Knockout), or "cool"  (Cryo, Chill) and make that the new knife's name.

2. Choosing Blade Material:

This is a bit more complex, but the formula is quite easy.  If the knife is made in the US and sells for $50 or less, it is usually their putrid version of 420HC (the Skyline being the exception).  If the knife is made in China and sells for $40 or less, it is always 8Cr13MoV.  If the knife is between $30-$60 you get 14c28n (which I do really like).  But in the rare case when the knife is more than $60 you can actually get some pretty nice steel--like a composite blade or sometimes Elmax.

3. Choosing Handle Material:

Unless it is a Ken Onion design, all handles must be black.  Cheap knives get black FRN.  More expensive knives get black G10. 

4. Choosing Blade Finish:

Again, other than Ken Onion knives, all blades are finished in one of two ways, with an alternate coating finish--cheap blades get bead blasted.  More expensive blades get stone wash.

The recipe really works.  About 90% of Kershaw's folders, other than Onion designs, are built in a way that matches this recipe.  The Skyline's steel is different than the recipe would dictate, but that is about it (and one of the reasons why it is such a good value).  The Ken Onion knives, which are Kershaw's bread and butter sales-wise, get lots of different things but I have found that a lot of those designs are played out.  And then there is the interesting and highly un-Kershaw like Echelon.  Other than those three exceptions, Kershaw's recent designs seem to all fit into this very predictable pattern.

Holes in the Line Up

They also have a problem with their mid-range of blades.  They have lots of cheap knives, lots of slightly more expensive knives, and then they have high end stuff like the Speedform and the Tilt.  There is nothing in the middle.  Nothing to compete with, say, the Benchmade Sequel or the Spyderco Caly 3.  There is a lot of room in their line up for these knives.  I personally would like to see the BladeForum Skyline Special Edition released to the public (with its S30V steel and special colored handle scales).  I would also like to see a high end version of the Zing, with nicer steel.  I have mentioned before a desire to see a high end, integral Leek.  Right now it is essentially the Echelon and that's it.

Finally, Kershaw has very few folders that are in the 2.5 inch range.  The Scallion is an especially awful design and I assume the Chive is much the same.  The Cryo is absolute disaster.  But if you take out those knives the sub-3 inch blade part of the Kershaw's line up is devoid of anything that even has a sniff of interesting about it.  Spyderco has proven that you can make great knives this size.  They have also proven that you can sell them like hotcakes, even at premium prices with premium materials (like the Techno).    

The competition for Kershaw is different than it was ten or fifteen years ago.  During that time they were not at the top of the knife industry.  But now, after great sales for their knives, the SpeedSafe mechanism, which essentially put them on the map, and some major dominance at Blade Show's awards, Kershaw is now among the three best knife companies in the world.  Their competition is now Benchmade and Spyderco--a different set of players than the Cold Steel's (and Cold Steel is really stepping it up, too) and Gerber's (not so much as shown here and here; sad that two of their marketing campaigns are based on these knives--Gerber is just awful) of the world.  They got to this position by being innovative, but now we are getting a flood of the same or similar knife designs, over and over and over again.

Kershaw, don't fall into a rut.  You make great stuff.  Cut back the size of your line up--you don't need 15 different models that are slight variations of each other.  Focus on a broader range of prices and blade sizes.  And promote Tommy Lucas to the head of design (he brought us the Skyline, BTW).  Finally, and this is just a pet peeve of mine--drop the thumb studs on flipper blades--they are ugly and less effective.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Buck/TuffThumbz Advantage

Six months ago I decided to fix a problem.  I really liked the size and shape of the Buck Vantage Small.  I loved the pocket clip.  But there were some glaring omissions.  There was no jimping anywhere.  The spine was completely untouched from when it was cut from the steel slab.  Most importantly, the fit and finish was atrocious.

So I put together what I thought would be the ultimate mid-size EDC package--the Buck Vantage Small with some tweaks.  I contacted Geoff "TuffThumbz" Blauvelt and asked him if he could help.  He said yes, so I sold some stuff and bought a new Buck Vantage Small Pro (Paul Bos treated S30V is something of a miracle) and had it shipped directly to him.  After some waiting, here is the result:


The carbon fiber Geoff used was a special piece he had sent to him from a composites company and it was uni-directional in the center and then traditional twill weave on the outside, sort of like a sandwich of different kinds of carbon fiber.  The end result is a really sweet effect.  The convex handle scales create an almost wood grain like pattern that, when in the right light, shifts and shines like very fine kauri (a very rare type of wood; click the link for a picture of what I mean).

The carbon fiber scales were pretty cool, but the blade itself is a marvel--the darkest, most Boba Fett like stonewashing you can imagine.  Here is a marco:


It looks like it is TiNi coated, but it isn't.  It is just a bit lighter than that and again in the light, it really does move like a nice stonewashed finish should.  It just happens to be the same color as fog at midnight.  Really awesome.  Hit the clip too:


The clip on the original Vantage is my favorite clip of all time, besting even the wire clip of Sypderco and the double dip Sebenza clip.  It is the perfect balance between retention and discretion.  Here it's matte finish blends even better.

Geoff continued around to the spine of the knife and made two substantial improvements.  First he added meaningful jimping:


It is almost identical to the Leafstorm's jimping in terms of shape and grip. I like it quite a bit.  Finally, he really put on a final touch of refinement by rounding over the spine.  I really like this feature on the Sebenza and I don't understand why more makers don't do it.  It saves weight and makes the knife easier to carry in the pocket.  Here is a peek:


The overall fit and finish were dramatically improved as well.  The knife is just about centered and lock up is better.  Geoff also bronzed the backspacer and the screws, given the knife a very nice appearance.

I'll have a full review of the knife in a while, I just though you might like this little spread of pictures.  It was not insanely expensive to pimp out this knife and for the price I have a very nice EDC knife.  You might think of this as pimping out a Civic, but I really, really liked the bones of the Vantage and I had some spare gear to move, so I thought it would be an interesting experience.  Hope you like it.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Leatherman e33L Review by Matt

Editor's Note: The Haiku Contest is still going and I am receiving user submitted reviews once in a while.  I lost a huge chunk when I had to reset my email, but I found this one and thought it would be interesting because it is both well-written (and formatted!) and because it is of a product I have not considered buying.  If you want to be considered, send in a review.  Here are the rules.   

I'd say it is a safe bet that readers of this blog are familiar with Leatherman multi-tools, but some may not be aware that the company also tried their collective hand at knife making for a few years. The first Leatherman knives became available in 2005, and their hunting knives in 2007. In 2008, they revamped the original knives and released the Crater and Expanse series. Almost all of these knives were recently retired, but the Expanse and Crater series are still readily available. Some of the models include screwdrivers or bit drivers, but I chose to review the Expanse e33L for the sake of simplicity, and also because it's my favorite of the Leatherman knives. (Each knife model is also available with a half serrated blade, but I believe that's been covered already.) I have owned this knife for a little over two years, using it mainly while camping or hiking. For the purpose of writing this review, I carried my e33L as my EDC knife for a month. This was a major change for me, as I had been carrying my Skeletool CX every day for nearly 5 years. And in the interest of full disclosure, I did carry a Squirt PS4 with me to supplement the knife (I felt naked without pliers), but for all knife-related tasks, I relied on the e33L.

Here is a picture of my e33L, complete with a little Fett Effect:

2012-05-23 13.17.17

Here is the product page (with specs). Here is the Amazon page for the knife, although it appears that the knife is no longer available directly from Amazon. It received 4.4 stars out of 5, with 19 reviews. Here is a video review of the knife. Here is a good forum review.

Design: 1

For a 2.6" blade, this knife is a little on the heavy side at 3.0 ounces. A good chunk of this weight comes from the stainless steel cladding (scales) on the handle, which I find completely unnecessary. Itís an especially interesting design decision when you consider that the Crater series version of this knife (the c33L) weighs in at a significantly lower 2.36 ounces. I don't know if there is any weight difference between the 154CM and 420HC blade steels, but it's a safe bet that most of the weight difference comes from the stainless steel portion of the e33L handle. The blade:handle ratio is an unimpressive 0.66. However, I do like the incorporation of the carabiner/bottle opener into the design, as seen here:


I mainly use the bottle opening feature of this device, which it does very well. It's not as sturdy as the carabiner/bottle opener on the Skeletool CX, but that's due to the folding nature of this one -- it disappears into the handle of the knife when not in use. I used the carabiner clip to carry the knife only once. It seemed to work well enough, but itís an odd way to carry a knife when you have a perfectly good pocket clip.

 Fit and Finish: 1

Given the precision engineering that is evident in every Leatherman multi-tool that I own, I was somewhat disappointed in this category. I have found that the only way to get the blade centered is to tighten the pivot screw, but doing so impedes the functionality of the Blade Launcher opening mechanism. (The Blade Launcher still technically works, but the blade only opens partially instead of snapping into the open/locked position.) To address this issue, the designer(s) included a small nub (presumably made of the same glass-filled nylon as the handle) that can be seen here:


I realize that there is a tradeoff here between ease of opening and blade centering, but I think a company with Leathermanís reputation for high quality should have been able to do a little better here. Other than that, the pieces come together nicely for a smooth finish, but the blade centering nub prevents the knife from receiving a 2 in this category.

Grip: 1

Once again, the stainless steel cladding on the handle hurts the knifeís score. The knife feels a bit rough around the edges, and the stainless steel hampers the grip. I do like the shape of the handle, and the jimping helps out in this category.

Carry: 2

Compared to the clips on their original knives, Leatherman greatly improved the design of the pocket clip for the Crater/Expanse series. The knife rides low in the pocket without completely disappearing, so itís easy to grab when you need it. (I dislike some of the true ìdeep carryî clips because sometimes the knife can be difficult to get out of your pocket.) While the handle is thicker than some EDC knives, it honestly doesnít feel bulky in the pocket.


Steel: 2

Leatherman uses Crucible's 154CM for the blades in their high-end multi-tools (such as the Skeletool CX and some of the Charge models), as well as many of their knives, including all of the Expanse series models. I have used, maintained, and sharpened several different blades made of this steel for years, and I honestly have nothing bad to say about it.

Blade Shape: 2

The drop point blade shape on this knife provides plenty of belly and cutting edge, and the narrow tip is especially useful for detail cutting. Here's a detail picture of the blade:


Grind: 1

The grind is a nice high flat grind. It's slightly more complex than necessary, and the secondary bevel is slightly asymmetrical. However, these are both minor complaints, and neither affect the cutting performance of the blade.

Deployment Method: 2

My favorite feature of the knife is Leatherman's Blade Launcher deployment system. The Blade Launcher is not an assisted opening mechanism, and itís not a true flipper. Itís a rotating disc at the pivot with a small tab that protrudes from the back of the knife. Pull back on the tab with your index finger, and the blade snaps open while the tab disappears. It takes a couple tries to get used to, but itís a really cool and innovative, yet simple, opening system. The knife also has a serviceable thumb stud, but the Blade Launcher is what "launches" this score up to a 2. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

Retention Method: 1

The pocket clip has excellent tension -- you donít have to worry about it falling out, but itís not going to snag your pants and/or rip your pocket either. The clip may be a little wide at the top for some peopleís taste, but the fact that it is not reversible is why it gets a 1 and not a 2 from me. The carabiner also provides another carry option if you so choose.

Blade Safety: 2

The liner lock is sturdy and provides a solid lockup with no blade play when the blade is opened, and it has not weakened at all over the 2+ years I have had this knife.

Overall: 15 out of 20

As I previously mentioned, I have had this knife for a little over 2 years and have really enjoyed using it. I fully admit to being a Leatherman fanatic, but I tried to be objective with this review. I really wanted this knife to score higher, but given that it has a few minor issues, I think 15 is about right. The e33L is still a solid EDC knife, especially when you consider the price point. (I purchased mine for about $35 USD.) For a knife in the $35-45 range, you get a high quality 154CM steel blade that is made in the USA and backed by a reputable company. Add in the some of the extra features like the Blade Launcher and the carabiner/bottle opener, and you've got a pretty sweet EDC knife that is relatively inexpensive.

Editor's Note:  I have still not figured out how I would categorize these kinds of tools, that is, whether I would count them as multitools or knives for purposes of the 20 point scale, but Matt did a great job with the knife scale here.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why Ratios Matter

At least one good thing came out the Cryo review.  I mentioned in the review that it caused me to rethink how I review stuff.  This post explains that rethinking and adds some more data points to my reviews.  

For a while now I have been using and reviewing folding knives.  There are all sorts of things that I look at, but one of the most important things, one of the things that is almost always present on a good knife and absent on a bad knife is a high blade to handle ratio.  For a while I just listed it because, of course, free blade length is great.  I want a blade that is as small as possible to carry, but as large as possible during use.

To that end, I had originally thought that blade:handle was a good way to measure, objectively, that sentiment.  But over time I have come to realize something.  High blade:handle is not just correlated with a high score, I think it may be the CAUSE OF a high score.  In other words, if you could only know one thing about the design of a knife, I think choosing blade:handle would tell you more about whether it is a good knife than any other feature of design.  Of course you want to know more, but if you had only one thing to look at, I'd say take a peek at the blade:handle.  

Now, I think there is another objective measurement that is valuable to know: blade:weight.  Both ratios are measurements of a knife comparing, essentially how it works when open versus how it carries when closed.  But carrying and reviewing the Cryo and then, with some clear review whipsawing going on, switching to the Al Mar Knives Hawk, I have realized that blade:weight is just as important as blade:handle.

Steel Turd:
 or, Featherweight:

From now on you will see two different ratios: blade:handle and blade:weight in every design section of a folding knife review.  They are objective.  They are clear and easy to understand.  And they are quick and dirty shorthand for a knife that can do a lot of different things but still carry easily.  In the end that is why I carry a folding knife--lots of utility in a convenient package. 

I am also going try this approach in other reviews.  With multitools I am going to highlight the to tools:weight.  Lots of tools for minimal weight is a great thing and a sign of good, conscientious design.  Finally, after carrying the Aeon around for four days and falling in love with it all over again, I think I will add a pair of ratios to the light reviews, one of lumens:weight (with battery) and one of lumens:runtime (max on both). For the curious the lumens:weight on the Aeon is .85 (114 lumens divided by 1.34 ounces) and the lumens:runtime is 1.26 (114 lumens divided by 90 minutes).   

Generally the better knives score around a .70 on blade:handle.   The Sebenza scores a very nice .74.  The Mini Grip does a bit better at .75.  The SOG Flash I scores of the best of any knife I have reviewed, hitting a .78. On blade:weight, I'd like to see a score of 1.  The DF2 ZDP-189 smashes it with a score of 1.875.  The Al Mar Hawk gets a super score of 2.81 (2.75 inches divided by .98 ounces).  Comparatively speaking, the Steel Turd a.k.a. the Cryo gets a score of .65.  Ugh.  That is a lot of weight for nothing.  Multitools are a bit different.  You want a ratio better than 1.  The Skeletool CX has a tool:weight ratio of 1.4 (7 tools divided by 5 ounces).  The Charge TTi hits a really nice 2.32 (19 tools divided by 8.2 ounces).

One other side benefit of the ratios (aside from their shorthand function and objectivity) is that they are unitless measurements meaning they stay the same regardless of whether you are using standard or metric.  Hopefully this will help out non-US readers.

So look for the following in upcoming reviews:


blade:handle (inches:inches)
blade:weight (inches:ounces)


tools:weight (in ounces)


lumens:weight (in ounces; with battery)
lumens:runtime (in minutes)    

Sunday, August 19, 2012

JetBeam RRT-01 Review

On paper the RRT-01 looks like a beast, a takes-all-challengers supreme EDC flashlight.  500 lumen output, elegant and simple control ring UI, great pocket clip, and rugged good looks all in a compact package and for about $100.  But there are quirks, weird design choices, and build compromises that lead me to question JetBeam's thought process.  Make no mistake--this is an AWESOME EDC flashlight, probably my current favorite in the all important 1xCR123a category, but it could have been an all-time classic with just a few tweaks.  Its the difference between good Foo Fighters song and a good Nirvana song--one you can hum after hearing it, the other you can hum ten years after hearing it.

Here is the product page.  There is (or was) a very limited edition Titanium version called the TCR-1.  There are no good substantive written reviews yet, as this light is pretty new.  Here is a pictorial review (worth the click, I promise).  Here is a good audio review (oh yeah, mixin' it up).  There is limited stock of RRT-01s right now and they are current not in stock at Blade HQ (a plug for real time, i.e. honest, inventory).   Here is my RRT-01 (which I bought for my own collection, it was not a review sample, more on that in another post):


Design: 2

The light is compact.  It has that perfect length to diameter ratio.  It has nice knurling.  I like the pocket clip design, however unoriginal it is, and I like the stainless steel bezel ring (a nice touch that prevents dings from drops that are more prone to happen when the bezel is aluminum).  I like the positioning of the control ring.  I like the feel of the ring's movement and its nice detent in the on position.  The minimum output is nice as is the maximum output.

There are two drawbacks, both design related.  First, the lanyard attachment is very cumbersome and makes tail standing somewhat challenging.  Second, the reflector is a smooth, as opposed to orange peel, style reflector making the output ringier than one expects in a light of this caliber and price.  They are drawbacks, but I have chosen to deduct the points in the relevant categories.  They are not crippling drawbacks and overall this is a very nice light, one I could see being modded in the future to keep pace with technology, the body and design are so good.  

Fit and Finish: 2

The threads are smooth, the pocket clip pre-attached and straight, and the LED is perfectly centered.  The finish has been quite durable and I love the stainless steel bezel.  It makes a huge difference.  I have a large collection of lights (shocking, yes, I know) and many have two or three years of use on the them.  Those that do invariably pick up dings and scratches.  The area that is ALWAYS the most damaged is the bezel.  If you drop the light or jam in unforgivingly into a pocket the bezel takes the hits.  Those pretty massive steel rings on HDS lights aren't just for looks (or ridiculous mall ninjas).  They do, in fact, make a difference in daily carry and I, for one, am thrilled to see more makers using them.    

Grip: 2

All of the little rings and different diameters and great knurling make this a light that sticks in your hand.  Here is light up close:


I really like the way it feels in your hand, even when wet or cold, the light just likes being held.  It was especially nice on trips in the moonlight when I was on vacation.  Maine can get pretty cold at night, especially on the coast, even in summer.  Fog would scarf the crowds of tall pines and when the sun went down it would get downright creepy dark, but the RRT-01 was an excellent companion and not once did I feel like I was going to drop it.  

Carry: 2

I love this pocket clip.  I loved it when Don McLeish designed it for his McClicky body.  It worked well then and it works well here.  It is a bit flimsy though, by comparsion, but nothing actually all that bad. It also is not pokey or bulky in the pocket.  It just hangs in there, nice and quite, until you need it.

Output: 2

Okay, here we go--there is no light on the market, custom or otherwise, that surpasses the utility of the RRT-01's output--nothing.  It is not the brightest light, but is certainly the brightest (or tied for the brightest) in the single cell CR123a class of lights (it uses an IMR rechargeable to hit that 500 lumen high).  It also has the lowest low of any light I have ever seen at .005 lumens.  Around a half lumen is the minimum useful light, and for crawling to the john without waking up the wife, nothing is better.  The ability to blind the sun and still stealthily glance at a map or crawl to the bathroom make this light incredibly useful.  This is how you do infinite variable brightness.  

Runtime: 2

With the infinite variable brightness runtime is really hard to calculate.  It lasts FOR EV AR at .005 lumens, like 100 hours.  Curious, though how the Aeon can easily go for 40 hours at 30 lumens...something about that light is just incredible.  On high, the 500 lumen high, the runtime is pretty decent at 20 minutes, though I think that that point it would be more of a literal torch than a flashlight.  At 220 lumens, a respectable high for many lights, the runtime is 90 minutes.  Excellent all around, especially if the Aeon wasn't out there to act as the benchmark.     

Beam Type: 2

The traditional flood EDC beam, nothing unusual here.  It works quite well and even has a bit of throw in it, more so than you would expect for a light this size.  

Beam Quality: 1

We have become so spoiled.  Only a few years ago, this sort of output would have been the among the best available.  But time marches on and technology moves with it.  The reflector's shape is fine, but the lack of orange peel texturing leads to a very ringy output.  It is not as bad as a Mag light, for example, but it is pretty bad for a $100.  Rings don't bother me so long as they are not atrocious, sort of like knife centering, but if they do bother you, skip this light until the orange peel version arrives (JetBeam has a way of switching reflectors in the middle of production, so just wait and one without rings will probably appear).    

UI: 2

I am still not sure which version of the control ring I like better--this one or the one on the Sunwayman M11R Mr. Elfin.  Both are excellent and light years ahead of all but the best clickies.  It seems clear to me that this is the way the industry is going.  

Hands Free: 1

Here is the villain of this piece:

It looks like a little activation button, but it is actually a lug for you to hang a lanyard around.  I dislike lanyards in general, but an unobtrusive lanyard hole doesn't bother anyone, but in this case, it makes tailstanding...well...suspenseful.  It can do it, but with all of the precariousness of an amateur tight rope walker.  A few millimeters shorter and the light would be rock solid because beneath the lug is a perfectly flat ring that would support the light quite well. The pocket clip is anti-roll device so it does well on that account, but it is so close to being perfect it is painful.  I am more than half-tempted to go to a machine shop and have them chop that thing down a bit. 

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

The RRT-01 is a very good flashlight.  It is easily among the best production lights out there.  The competition is still pretty clear--the Mr. Elfin is obvious, but the tried and true Incendio still plugs along, albeit with an inferior UI.  To find a truly superior light you are going to have to drop a lot more dough.  This is probably the nicest light you could reasonably justify, unless you live on a yacht.  The problem is, it is just slightly not perfect and for reasons that are really kind of inexplicable.  Why go with the smooth reflector?  Why have a protruding lanyard lug?  Dumb mistakes on the part of JetBeam cannot, however, hold this light back.  It is really, really great.  

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Aeon Order Info

Ordering info:


Price for deposit: $180; total: $420 conus; reminder due on delivery in end of November.

See the CPF post for more details when CPF is working.

Information regarding JetBeam

In doing some background research for the JetBeam RRT-01 review, I tracked down some leads and made an interesting discovery.  I don't want to include it in the review because I have a policy of evaluating products as products and not really worrying about the company or the people behind the product.  I would make an exception if the company was, for example, a wholly owned subsidiary of a company owned by a drug cartel or something equally bad, but by in large I try to leave the controversies out of my review process.  Some people dislike Mick Strider.  I could care less so long as he makes a good product.

With that said, this information is important enough for me to bring to people's attention, but not so bad that I would not consider reviewing or purchasing a JetBeam product.  You should know about it, but I want to keep the review free of any information relating to things other than the product itself.


JetBeam and Nitecore are brands owned by a parent company called Sysmax Industries.  They are based in Guangdong, China.  They sell flashlights, flashlight accessories, batteries, and battery chargers through many of the normal American retail outlets.  They also made a one time deal with Don McLeish, aka McGizmo.

Don McLeish, as many of you know, is a custom flashlight designer, in my opinion, the best in the world.  He regularly produces high end custom lights that sell for $500 a piece and routinely appreciate in value.  I own one of these lights, a McGizmo Haiku, and it is quite frankly perfect.  Don is very good at what he does, in part because of his innovative features.  In particular, he has a knack for developing actuation mechanisms.  One such mechanism is called the Piston Drive system.  It uses a metal sleeve around the battery to conduct power to the head and emitter.  Normally that power is channeled through the body of the light itself.  By isolating that circuit in the sleeve, the Piston Drive system improves energy delivery and makes activation more reliable.  It is, by all accounts (and in my experience, I have had two PD lights), a very unique and very good idea.

Soon after the Piston Drive system was developed and implemented in custom lights it appeared on a series of lights from Sysmax brand Nitecore.  Sysmax gave Don a one-time payment for permission to use his Piston Drive actuation mechanism.  After that they used it in their EX and D series lights, as they do to this day.  They modified the PD system, making work more like a clicky than a momentary on device that the original PD lights had.  They called this modified PD actuation method the Smart PD.  I liked both versions of the PD system, but I probably liked the original version better than the Smart PD.  Either way, they were almost functionally identical, so picking a winner is not important.

After borrowing the PD system, Sysmax appropriated two other McGizmo features or designs--first they use a pocket clip that is virtually identical to the McGizmo clip (at least in terms of material and appearance--both are made of Ti, but the Sysmax clip is much flimsier).  Here is a side by side comparison between the McGizmo clip and the Sysmax clip:


More on this later.

Intellectual Property Law Primer

Intellectual property is a hot topic in the law.  It is one of the places where litigation results in damage awards in the billions, which is, perhaps, why it is a hot topic in the law.  It can sound complicated and be complicated, but the basic principles are pretty simple (lawyers have a knack for making things more complicated than it really is, it is a form of job security).  Like physical property, your car or your house, you have rights to your ideas.  These rights, if properly exercised, protect your ideas and the creations that stem from those ideas.  There are four primary methods of protecting ideas, ranging from very formal to very informal.  They are as follows:

1.  A Patent (most formal)
2.  A Copyright
3.  A Trademark
4.  A Trade Secret (least formal)

Copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets aren't relevant to this discussion, so I will skip them, but patents are, so here is a little more information.

A patent is a form of idea protection that is based on registration of ideas and their explanations with the US Government's Patent Office.  The idea of a patent was referenced in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8(8)), so it has long and powerful roots in the US.  How the patent works though has changed over time, as has how long its protections stay in place.  A person is awarded a patent for an idea if they can meet the following four-part test:

1. The idea must be patentable (Isiah Berlin couldn't, for example, patent his idea of negative liberty)
2. The idea must be novel (that is new, again, because lawyer's can't just say "new")
3. The idea must be non-obvious (more on this below)
4. The idea must result in processes or devices that are useful (a Rube Goldberg Mouse Trap isn't useful and thus can't be patented)

Non-obviousness is the big issue in most patents.  Something can't just be new, like the 2012 version of the Toyota Camry, it has be new in a way that is significantly different from what has come before it. 

In the case of the Piston Drive system, knowing what I know about flashlights (which, on the technical side, is not that much), I would say it is truly non-obvious.  While it is a method of completing a circuit for current, like any flashlight switch, the way it does it is completely different from what came before.  The Smart PD system is really not much different from the normal PD system.  In fact, the differences come not in how the circuit is made (which is what makes the PD system so interesting and unique), but in how the emitter interprets the completion of that circuit.  In a PD light the emitter gets the current and turns on.  In a Smart PD light the emitter gets the current (or more accurately a computer chip gets the current) and it does a number of different things with that current depending on how long the input lasts, among other things.  Really the difference is in the head of the light, not its method of delivering power.  The PD and the Smart PD deliver power, i.e. complete the circuit, in exactly the same way.   

The "Borrowed" Ideas

Prior to doing the RRT-01 review I sent an email to McGizmo and asked him about two elements of the light that are similar to his designs.  First, was the clip, as seen above.  Second, was the scalloped head.  Look at the head of the RRT-01.  Now look at the head of the of the Ti PD-S:

They are a bit longer on the McGizmo light, but they are configured and shaped the exact same.  Then there is the PD system, which Sysmax uses on its Nitecore lights, not on the RRT-01.  So that is three ideas all from McGizmo.  My concern was that these three ideas were simply stolen.  They weren't, well at least one of them wasn't.

Don informed me that he has no patents on any of his ideas.  He really didn't care, and after all living in Hawaii, tinkering around with sweet lights and scuba diving all day, who can blame him, right?  So a while ago Sysmax (with help from 47s David Chow, who eventually ended his affiliation with Sysmax and started his own brand) approached him about the PD design, gave him some money as a licensing fee.  Boy, that is pretty darn nice.  Technically they didn't have to do that because there was no patent protection on the PD design.  But then they did something I think is a little more than underhanded.  THEY PATENTED THE SMART PD SYSTEM.  Huh?  Where is the non-obviousness?  The guy at the patent office was asleep at the switch, literally in this case, because the Smart PD is less different from the PD system than the 2012 Camry is from the 2011 model.  Sysmax's move here, I think, is really total horseshit.

But then it got worse.  They simply stole the pocket clip design.  Again, no patent protection, but this time no licensing fees or even credit given to Don.  Just a total rip off.  And having seen them both in person, I can tell you they are identical in size and appearance, with the Sysmax clip just being flimsier.  And then there are the scallops/heat sinks.  Again, a blatant rip off.

What you Need to Know

Here is what you need to know and you can figure out how much it influences your purchasing decisions.  Nothing Sysmax did, so far as I can tell, is illegal.  There are no patent infringements going on.  It is clear, to me at least, that the Smart PD patent was granted by the US Patent Office, assuming that it was a US patent (which they almost always are even for inventions made outside the US because US markets are more lucrative and the patent protection more stringent) in clear error.  It is not nonobvious.  But that has nothing to do with Don and is more a commentary on the broken US Patent system, which is crying out for reform.

But Sysmax did steal someone's ideas.  They did take advantage of a situation.  And they did ripped off more than one idea.  They took three.  Finally, even though they gave Don money, which is honorable, they then turned around and patented something they did not make entirely on their own.  That leaves a poor taste in my mouth.  You figure out how much it bothers you.

Rumor has it they have also "borrowed" some tech from CoolFall, but that has not been confirmed nor has the relevant light been released, so far as I know.

Finally, in a completely unrelated piece of information, JetBeam has refused to even return my emails when I request a review sample.  I am not so arrogant as to think I deserve a review sample, but at least a kind "not now" email would be nice.  Spyderco sent me one when I asked for a review sample a year ago and they are probably bugged by people looking for review samples more than JetBeam is. 

RRT-01 review on the way.  Just thought you should know.  

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Kershaw Cryo Review

People always tell me that they learn more from reviews of bad products than reviews of good products. prepared to learn a lot.  The Kershaw Cryo is an unmitigated failure, one of the worst products I have ever reviewed.  This wouldn't be such a big deal if I, like the rest of the knife world, hadn't had such high expectations.  In the end the first cheap Hinderer-designed knife is more cheap than Hinderer-designed. In doing so it fails in almost every way.  I don't say this because I am Kershaw hater.  In fact I love many Kershaw designs--the Skyline and the OD-2 being two of my favorite blades.  I also don't say this because I hate cheap stuff--I have given good reviews to lots of stuff under $30.  I say this because it is true--the Kershaw Cryo is a complete and utter bust.

Here is the product page.  There are no written reviews as this is really new blade.  Here is a video review from Blade HQ.  Here is a link to purchase the knife through, though I would recommend you buy something else, like a Skyline, if you don't already have one or if you want a knife this size that can really perform well, why not opt for a Spyderco Techno? (remember, purchases help the Haiku giveaway):

Blade HQ

Blade HQ contacted me as soon as they got one in and sent it out to me for review.  I have had it for about three weeks including one week of hiking and general outdoors use in Acadia National Park (which is just an awesome place to hike, ride bikes, and kayak).  Here is the review sample:


Design: 0

This is a blade that illustrates a point and one that made me rethink my review system.  It is a 2.75 inch blade that weighs 5 ounces for a blade to weight ratio of .55.  Nothing I have reviewed is even close to that mark, nothing.  This is a fat knife.  And it didn't need to be.  I know titanium is probably out of the question, given the budget of the knife, but aluminum certainly isn't that would brought down the weight considerably.  There is absolutely no reason why a knife this size has to weigh that much.  It is just TOO heavy.

But the design flaws don't end there.  The knife is wide in the pocket, which is not a killer problem, but the addition of a flipper to a massively wide knife (given its blade length) and there is a mounting set of concerns.  The flipper has some serious snag potential.  But things don't end there.  The thumb studs, which are truly useless, vestigial remains of a different deployment method, snag quite a bit in the pocket.  I know they are used as stops for the blade, but why include them at all, especially if they are going to be little pocket grappling hooks?  Either make them less likely to snag or mount a stop pin on the interior of the blade and get rid of them entirely.  I'd prefer the internal stop pin, as it makes the knife cleaner looking and less likely to attract gunk (as thumb studs are want to do).

Still though, that is not enough to get a zero.  I reserve a zero, especially in the all important design category for real stinkers, and this is a real stinker.  The thing that pushes this knife down to the bottom of the barrel are the handle scales themselves.  They are super, super slick.  I like the jimping, but the handle scales themselves are just too slippery for any serious use.

Here is an example: I am, as you can probably tell by my last name, a sweaty Italian.  I sweat thinking about hot weather.  So when I was hiking in Acadia, I was sweating like a whore in church.  I also had my two year old son in a backpack kid carrier.  It was lot of extra weight and it kind of threw me off (I do use a hiking stick I made so it wasn't too bad).  I brushed past a bush of thorns and they got caught, pretty viciously, on my clothing.  Now I was on the edge of a 690 foot cliff so pulling and jerking around was not an option.  I took out the Cryo, cut the small limb of thorns, and made it to a flatter place and removed them.  This was not as easy as it sounds.  First, I snagged the knife on my pocket pulling out.  Then, when I was reaching around to make the cut I lost my grip.  I didn't drop the knife, but I had to steady myself and regrip the blade.  It has virtually no traction because of the slick steel handle slabs (which also add a good bit of weight).  

The design of this knife is fundamentally flawed.  It is heavy, snag prone, and slick.  That is a zero.

Fit and Finish: 0

Walk away from this knife right now.  The blade centering is atrocious, so bad in fact that opening and closing the knife sounds like you are opening and closing a pair of scissors.  I can tolerate a bit off center.  This is more than that:


The rest of the knife was fine, but a folding knife that damages the blade because of off centering is a fatal flaw.  It is kind of like a car that has a nice interior but the engine doesn't work.  It is hard to tell if this a problem with the whole line, because there are so few data points right now as the knife is still new, but it is not a problem you can fix at home.  I repositioned the pivot twice and within a day of exceedingly mild use, the blade was smacking into the side. 

Grip: 1

The jimping is actually nice jimping, not so fine as to shred your fingertips, but hard cut enough to grab them.  It is the handle scales that are the problem.  They are super, super slick, especially when wet.


There is nothing in the way of traction on the non-lock side and only the pocket clip on the lock side.

Carry: 0

The Paramilitary 2 has a blade that is 3/4 of an inch longer and a handle that is built for the gloved hand.  It is a big and beefy knife.  It weighs 3.75 ounces.  The Cryo weighs 5 ounces.  There is no reason whatsoever for that.  This knife is a steel turd in the pocket and I personally would prefer not carrying turds of any kind.  

Steel: 1

Kershaw's 8Cr13MoV is an adequate steel, nothing good or bad.  I found it to be razor sharp out of the box and very easy to sharpen (or strop, as I did not sharpen it on the Sharpmaker).  I am not sure why this knife has 8Cr when the similarly priced Skyline has the vastly superior 14c28n steel, other than the fact that this knife is built in China and shipping European steel across the globe would add a lot to this knife's price tag.  

Blade Shape: 2

Okay, finally, something from the Hinderer lineage that makes it into the blade.  The blade shape is superb.  In particular the tip strength is very, very good.  There is plenty of belly as well. 


Grind: 2

 The multi-faceted grinds, for the first time in my experience, do make this knife better.  They deliver so much of the steel's thickness right to the tip.  I also like the wider than average cutting edge grind (secondary bevel).    

Deployment Method: 1

I like the Speedsafe assist, but I am not sure why they need the thumbstuds.  Using an internal stop pin would make the knife cleaner and easier to retrieve.  The big issue I have though is the sinking feeling that the Speedsafe assist is actually completely unnecessary.  None of Hinderer's customs have it and they are bigger knives.  A good flipper, a nice pivot, and a hefty detent can make flippers without assists as fast as flippers with them.  I think the real reason for a flipper here is to cover up the inferior pivot, one of the places they can skimp to make the knife cheaper.  All of the things necessary to make a flipper work without an assist require time and labor.  A spring doesn't.  If the blade was so big the spring was necessary, that is one thing, but in a knife this small I think it is a way to get around a cheap pivot and not actually a feature.  

Retention Method: 1

Oh how tempting.  The pocket clip is great looking, but in practice it is a little too tight and small for such a wide knife.  I would have preferred the ZT/Strider wide flat clip here, but this is okay.  Not my favorite but not terrible either.


A clip this thin on a knife this fat can allow the knife to roll in the pocket a little which makes the knife harder to retrieve.  Add this to the already substantial obstacles to retrieval caused by the silly thumbstuds, wide body, and flipper and this knife is very hard to get out of your pocket.

Lock/Blade Safety: 1

Oh, but it has a framelock with a Hinderer stop.  Yes it does.  And the lock produces no blade play and locks up early.  So what's the problem?  This:


The real estate on the frame lock designed to catch your thumb is vanishingly small.  Disengaging the frame lock is actually quite a challenge and with the slick handle scales it is harder still.  This is a big problem and had me debating a 0 score here instead of a 1, but in the end the wiggle free frame lock is worth something.  

Overall Score: 9 out of 20

What a punch in the nuts this knife was.  I am so disappointed.  I wanted this knife to be awesome and it just sucked.  As I wrote on the Twitter feed: the Cryo makes me cryo.  This knife had so much promise and it failed to deliver on almost every level.

But we are not without hope.  The bones of a great knife are here.  Kershaw, here is how you fix it:

1.  Bring production to the US

This allows for better steel, like the 14c28n on the Skyline, or even better S30V.  It also allows for an upgrade in the fit and finish, which will get rid of the centering issues.

2.  Make the frame lock easier to disengage

3.  Get rid of or slim down the thumbstuds

4.  Use titanium or Ti/G10 on the handle scales with matte finish on the Ti.

This is will make the knife lighter and grippier.

This new blade would be much more expensive, probably around $100, but it would be a great knife and fill a hole in the Kershaw line up.  They have very few mid priced knives, going from the $30 blade to the $300 Tilt with little in between.  

UPDATE: The thumb studs, of course, are not stops.  They are, in fact, completely useless.  Additionally, the knife is not 5.0 ounces, but 4.2 ounces.  Still too heavy.  Neither of these oversights on my part changes the score.  If anything, the weight thing is balanced out but the purely vestigial thumb studs.  This knife still stinks, a lot, even with Nutnfancy's review.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Aeon Update

We are on.  Here is the info:

We are ready to go!

New UPDATED thread:

Why Nutnfancy is (slightly) Wrong About the Sebenza

By now, you have watched or at least watched some of the epic Sebenza 21 review by Nutnfancy.  If you haven't, here it is (be prepared, the entire thing is over 49 minutes long).  In his typical entertaining and meandering style Nutnfancy debunks a lot of myths about the Sebenza, claiming that the knife is much more expensive than it deserves to be.  Many of the things he said were 100% right.  I again don't like the homophobic language, but his other points were spot on.  In the end I think he did a very good job reviewing a knife that is incredibly hard to review because of all of the preconceptions about it.  There were three points he got wrong, though, I am going to address them because I think it is important to know what your getting when you spend $300+ for a knife.

The Carpet Layer Argument

The basic premise of one of the major arguments about why the Sebenza was too expensive has to do with how a person that uses their knife for work would not appreciate all of the things that make the Sebenza so expensive.  Basically Nutnfancy said that if the Sebenza was given to a carpet layer, someone who does lots and lots of cutting for a living, but that person didn't know it was so expensive, they would probably not be all that impressed by the Sebenza compared to, say, a $30 Kershaw.

The carpet layer example is a bad one because carpet layers have a special knife to do their difficult cutting tasks and ANY knife we carry for EDC would not work.  Here is the carpet layer's tool:

Its bent handle and specialized cutting edge make it a poor comparison to the Sebenza, but that is a minor detail that cuts against the analogy, but not the argument itself.  Suppose the argument was this: a person that uses a general utility knife for a living would not notice the difference between the Sebenza and the $30 Kershaw.  Is that true?

I would say probably not.  While it make a take a while for the person to appreciate the differences I think, over time, it would happen.  It might not (read: probably not) lead to the person to be willing to pay the extra expense Sebenza ownership requires, but in a price blind comparison I think the person would pick the Sebenza every time, if they were given a year to use each.

Here is why.  The Sebenza is, after all, just a knife.  It cuts stuff.  That is all it does.  But there are so many little things that make the Sebenza very good at that one job and those little things are missing in lesser knives.  For example, the double dip pocket clip is really quite nice.  The knife is secure to the pocket and unlikely to be lost.  It is also capable of latching on to bulky material.  Finally, it gives you tactile feedback (pushing past the first hump) letting you know when the knife is secure.  This is just one example.  There is the fact that all of the bolts holding the knife together are identical.  The simple function of the framelock, or the picture perfect blade shape.  All of these small details make it a better knife, and over the long run, the tradesperson in the example would just like it better.

I had an experience similar to this.  Four summers ago my Dad and I rebuilt a room in my house.  We converted it from this:

to this:

Aside from a few improvements (like a new chair and wireless mouse, keyboard, and printer), this is the room I write the blog in and do all of my work at home.  It has a raised ceiling and a ceiling fan and the other room had a crummy drop ceiling.  Big improvement.  Prior to the job I did some research and I bought what was at the time, the state of the art, light drill/driver, the Bosch PS20.  It was more expensive than my entire combo kit, but I knew we'd be hanging drywall like mad men, so I bit the bullet and did it.  I took off a week from work and we did nothing but cut and hang drywall, spackle, paint, and prime.  In the end, the office came out great and the PS20 became my favorite tool.  Even now when it is no longer state of the art (that would be the Festool CSX, which I am also lucky enough to have), I still use it.  It is powerful, small, and simple.  It works and works and works.  Over time and lots of use I have come to appreciate all of the things that made it more expensive than its cheaper brethren.

I think the Sebenza would be like that.  Even in my EDC use I appreciate those little touches a lot.  If I used it every day for work (which I would) I think I'd appreciate them more.  The question remains unanswered as to whether I would appreciate it to a degree that justifies its increased price, but in a price blind test, I have no doubt that the carpet layer would take the Sebenza pretty much every time over the $30 knife, if he had a while to use both.  

1st Kind of Cool Argument

Another argument that Nutnfancy made, which is a variant of the carpet layer argument, is that it is just a knife and that no knife is really "worth" the Sebenza's $410 price tag.  That price tag, according to Nutnfancy, is really a product of marketing and US manufacturing, not the inherent quality of the knife itself.

Some of this is based opinion, but some is based on fact.  I would counter his opinion with my own.  I WILL pay a premium for US made stuff.  I like Surefire stuff over Fenix largely for that reason.  It means something to me and I am willing to put my money where my mouth is.  US stuff is worth more to me, period.  That is, of course, a preference and not a fact, so I will not stake my refutation of his arguments on this point alone.

Instead look at it like this: the Sebenza and production knives in its price range (like the Microtech knives) do something that less expensive knives don't.  They marry three highly desired qualities in one product.  The Sebenza has renowned fit and finish, state of the art materials, and a time tested design.  Lots of knives have one or two of these qualities.  A vanishingly small number have all three.  Spydercos knives are blessed with state of the art materials and time tested designs, but the fit and finish is not in the Sebenza ball park.  Conversely, the Al Mar Ultralight series has both equal fit and finish and a time tested design, but lacks the state of the art materials.  Getting all three of these things in one knife is VERY rare and thus worth a premium.

Here is another example of this issue.  How many players in baseball hit 30 home runs in 2011?  How many players hit above .300?  How many had more than 30 stolen bases?  Answers:

30 HR: 21 players
.300 BA: 25 players
30 SB: 18 players

How many did all three?

Three (Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, and Jacoby Ellsbury).

Putting together highly sought after attributes generates an ever-shrinking list of things.  The more attributes you add, the smaller the list, until you get to only a handful of things.  It happens in all over the place in life--baseball, cars, and knives.  The items that end up in that small final circle are truly rare indeed and thus, by simple economic principles, worth more.

Other knives may cut stuff, but few do it with the level of fit and finish, state of the art materials, and time tested design that a Sebenza does.  Those that do have a price similar to a Sebenza.  It may be partly marketing, but marketing alone would not be enough (otherwise Gerber could charge $300 for its knives, their marketing budget is HUGE).  In the end scarcity of equals makes the Sebenza expensive, at least as much as marketing does. 

Competitive Options

Some of these I feel were tongue and cheek, designed to provoke the wrath of Sebenza fanboys.  But others were not.  The Cryo is not in the same league. Its not even close to the same even kind of knife.  That was fanboy bait.  But the Alias was not.  It is a legit competitor, but having owned both the Sebenza is a better knife.  It is a better knife and it is what all Alias owners really want.  Again, in a price blind comparison, very, very few people would choose the Alias over the Sebenza.  The Sebenza is why the Alias exists.  Buying the Sebenza gives you EXACTLY what you want and that has value in and of itself. 

And this leads to another point: the Sebenza killers.  When an item develops a market of competitors designs solely to beat it at is own game ("iPhone killers; iPod killers; and WRX killers etc...") that item is a benchmark for the market.  It is great, otherwise companies would spend time and money trying to beat it at its own game.  23 years of competition have proven one thing--there is no Sebenza killer.  It is the standard by which other knives are judged and for good reason.  It is a superb tool.  There are competitors, but nothing is out right superior, until you get into full custom knives.  And again, that has value.


The Sebenza is too expensive, Nutnfancy got that right.  But there is nothing out there better for less.  So in that regard it is priced just right.  Some of it is marketing hype and he is again right on that point.  But there are real differences that I believe he gave short shrift to for reasons I am not sure I understand.  I guess he wants to be iconoclastic and that is great.  Opinions are important to have and express.  Here, though, I think he got a little carried away.  This knife has been around for a very long time in an essentially unchanged form (yes I know, modest tweaks).  There is a reason for that--it is truly great.

Nothing wrong with saying that, even if the knife is $400.  A Corvette is nice.  A Ferrari is nicer.  That is just the way it is.  Money does matter.  More money buys nicer stuff.  It happens in cars, houses, and knives.  You can find good values, and that is important, but sometimes it is just cheaper to buy the nice thing once than spend more on many "good value" things.  If we were talking $100,000 car v. $400,000 car I would be reticent to recommend the more expensive thing, but the difference in terms of what it can buy, between a $400 knife and $50 knife isn't huge.  Save up.  Be smart.  And buy the Sebenza.  If you don't like it you can always sell it because, Nutnfancy's right, it is a commodity knife which is yet another testament to its superiority.    

Monday, August 13, 2012

LED Lenser M7R Review

In isolation, things of all sorts develop in very unusual ways. For example, left to their own devices for millions of years, lice on the bottom of the sea become ENORMOUS.  Similarly, the komodo dragon, living on an isolated island in the Pacific Ocean, became a true beast.   Without reference to external pressures, development can go off on a tangent--strange in some cases, large or small in others.  In the flashlight world, LED Lenser developed its lights in relative isolation.  The result is a truly unique tool.

LED Lenser is a a German company that developed a truly useful focusing feature for flashlights.  Note that I called it "truly useful" because while Mag Lights can focus, it is really just choosing between two crappy beam profiles.  With the aid of an actual optical lens AND a reflector, the LED Lenser trademark feature is something worthwhile.  But for a long time that one good quirk could not outweigh the two bad ones: 1) LED Lensers were not readily available, even on the Internet; and 2) they did not have output regulation.  Output regulation, for those unfamiliar with it (though I doubt those people read this site) is a feature that allows a light to "hold" near its max output by regulating energy from the battery into the LED.  Without output regulation, a light is bright for a while and then slowly and surely dimmer.  This happens with regulated lights, but the diminishing amount is much, much less.  In theory, a non-regulated light is brighter in the beginning and it does have more time of useful light (useful being defined as "visible" I guess).  For the vast, vast majority of people though, output regulation is one of the foundations of a modern flashlight.  It is one of the principle differences between the light you get at Target and a light worth carrying.  And until very recently, LED Lenser lights, despite all their high tech focusing, didn't have output regulation.  That all changed when Leatherman bought LED Lenser two or so years ago.  That change also fixed the other problem with LED Lenser lights--they are now more readily available.  With those two changes I thought it was time a take a peek at this rarely mentioned light company.

I contacted Juli at Leatherman, who kindly sent me the review copy of the Sidekick I reviewed a while back, and she sent me the M7R, one of the most feature-rich lights LED Lenser makes.  The kit came in an AWESOME carry case.  I don't normally mention packing, but this packing is just amazing.  It included the blow molded carry case, the charger, the magnetic charge connector, the delrin wall mount, a baffling instruction manual, a lanyard, and a few o-rings.  Overall, it makes an impressive first impression especially when compared to the matte cardboard and plastic throw away box you get with a Surefire.

Here is the product page.  Here is an excellent written forum review.  The M7R is available from Blade HQ for $119.95, clicking below and buying the M7R will help towards the purchase of the Haiku:

Blade HQ

Here is a picture of my M7R:


NOTE:  This is, without question, the most difficult product review I have ever done.  I have used the light for over a month and I rewrote this review twice.  I changed the score at least twice, for reasons I will go into below.  I am confident, with this version, that I got it right (or as right as I can).  Sorry for the delay.  

Design: 2

The M7R is a rechargeable version of, predictably enough, the M7.  Instead of running 2x CR123a batteries it runs a proprietary 18650.  Normally, I'd dock the light for a decision as silly as using proprietary batteries, but here, it is part of a larger flashlight system and the system is worthwhile.  They still could have used a standard 18650, but given the choice between that and the recharging system the M7R comes with, I'd choose the recharging system.  The recharging system is the heart of the light--it uses a wall charger (with swappable plugs for different countries), a magnetic charge connector, and a wall mount (which can also lay flat making it an excellent holder as well).  The light connects to the charge connector via the activation button in a very firm way--no chance of a failed charging connection.  Charging was fast and rarely needed--an ideal combination in a rechargeable light.


Then there was the focusing head.  It always strikes me as something of a gimmick.  Why bother with a focusing head when a well made pre-focused light can do everything you need?  I soon learned that the problem with focusing heads was that no light I have used had a GOOD one.  The focusing head on the M7R is intuitive, powerful, and well-designed.  It works very well.

The light is a little bigger than most 2xCR123a lights (see the forthcoming Shootout between this, the X7 from 47s and the Surefire G2X Pro for more comparisons).  It is both longer and a bit fatter, but nothing crazy.  The surface is covered in SQUARE knurling, not a big deal but yet another sign that this light was developed someplace outside the mainstream of flashlights (that being US and Chinese made lights).  You can insert your own in good taste joke here about square and German.

Overall a very complete and well thought out package and a good design. 

Fit and Finish: 2

The thunk of a Mercedes Benz door tells you a lot about German craftsmanship.  The heft and feel of the M7R does the same.  This is a complex and intricate tool that is masterfully finished.  The optics are better finished than any light I have ever seen, custom or otherwise.  Everything is centered and clean.  The lines are smooth and straight, the threads perfectly cut.  There is nothing whatsoever to complain about in terms of build quality.  Excellent.  

Grip: 2

The light is a bit beefier than most lights in its class, but nothing that makes using it difficult (here is a comparison of body widths between the M7R and the 47s Maelstrom X7):


The big thing that this light does is put your hand in a place that can control everything one handed.  Normally this is not a big deal as all you have to worry about is a button on the tailcap, but here, with the focusing head on one end and the power button on the other, it is quite an accomplishment.  The fact that everything can be done one handed and done with ease is a testament to the German craftsmanship and attention to detail.  

Carry: 1 (score of 2 if you would use the belt clip)

The light comes with a delrin belt clip.

It is not a clip in the traditional sense, but it is not really a holster either.  I found it clunky and awkward to use.  However, if you are one of those people that uses their light a lot, like, say, a law enforcement officer at light, the clip could be very, very useful as it keeps the light near you and allows the light to be detached quickly.  For a normal Joe like me though, its just a bit weird.  

Output: 2

200 lumens is a bit below par for a light with this kind of battery.  After all, the custom DarkSuck's Prometheus light is about the same size and also uses a rechargeable battery but easily hits 500 lumens.  That comparison is a bit unfair as the Prometheus is a full custom light, but still it is apt as many production lights hit 500 lumens in this product class.  Nonetheless, what it lacks in punch it makes up for in focus.

Lumens are an imperfect measurement of brightness.  There are all sorts of tricks makers can use to make their lights seem brighter than their lumens count.  Surefire has known this for ages and uses very tightly focused beams to make their emitters seem brighter.  LED Lenser did the same thing with the M7R.  When it is at its most focused the light seems far brighter than its relatively weak sauce lumens rating.  With that caveat in mind, the output is quite impressive.  

Runtime: 2

The proprietary 18650 gave me no trouble whatsoever, holding a charge in real world use for more than a month.  Continuous runtimes are really meaningless, except for comparison purposes, but as an around the house and outdoor light, the M7R was wonderful.  Also note that the rechargeable battery will save you quite a bit of dough over time--something that would make a difference if you used the light more intensively, such as when you used it as a duty light.  

Beam Type: 2

And here is where I have been spending most of my time on this review.  How do you rate the beam type on a light that actually focuses and changes its beam type?  The Mag Lights of the world really don't do all that much with their beams.  They just shift the holes and rings around.  The light's profile doesn't fundamentally change.  It does here.  The floody beam is quite dispersed, the floodiest beam of any light I have used, with a massive hotspot.  The throwy beam is incredibly precise, almost pinpoint in nature, allowing you to easily hit things 300 feet away (thanks to a local football field, I can say this with great confidence, knowing the measurement is correct).  I think the flood is nice, but the throw profile is truly excellent, compensating for a lower lumen count quite readily.

So how do you score the beam type when you have two different ones that differ in quality?  Here is how I thought about it.  Simply the ability to change the beam profile is useful in and of itself, regardless of the quality of the separate modes (provided, of course, that both modes are at least passable, unlike on the Mag Light lights).  That had to be worth something.  But then the throw beam was so nice.  On a non-focusing light, I would have given it a two, but this is a light that can do more than that.  In the end, I figured a two was the right number, though I had contemplated breaking the scoring system and giving it a three for both the quality of the throw beam and the fact that you can switch between two quality beams.  I wouldn't argue with someone if they gave this light more credit here, but I am not going to.  

Beam Quality: 2

Again, problems.  The floody beam is decent, a little too dispersed for me, but the throw beam is excellent.  Setting the head about 1/3 of the way towards throw gives you a more conventional beam profile and in that position the quality of the beam is quite nice, probably around a high 1 or a low 2.  In the throw mode, again, we have an excellent, excellent beam, something like a solid 2.  Thinking about this for a long time I realized that the solution to the score was simple: in the mode I was most likely to use what was the beam quality like?  It was excellent in the "conventional" setting about 1/3 of the way towards throw and it was very, very good in the full on throw mode, both being about equally likely to get used in regular daily use.  It gets a 2 here as well.  

UI: 1 (score of 2 if you appreciate micro-controlling your UI)

Here is a list of the things you can control on the M7R:

Beam profile
Output regulation
Sequence of Output
Availability of Strobe

You do all of these things, except for beam profile control, through a single button.  The M7R has multiple outputs and multiple modes.  The normal mode is a high-->low-->strobe setting.  I switched it from that to a straight high-->low mode.  But there are others.  You can, if you want, drop the output regulation and have an unregulated light as well.  I did not do this because, quite frankly, unregulated lights are pretty useless to me.  I never need to the high punch or the drawn out runtime.  But if you do the M7R can accommodate you.  The problem is that all of this variability is done through a confusing set of taps on a single button.  It is not quite as bad as the insanely complex UI of the LiteFlux (remember that madness-inducing chart?), but it is pretty close.  Once in the simple mode, I liked the light a lot, but I am always worried about dropping into another mode by accident.  If you like all of this control, then, again, give it one point higher.  I don't so I am not going to do that.   

Hands Free: 0

Can't tailstand and rolls like a wheel.  A mounted pocket clip would cure three problems with this light, but again, developed in relative isolation, the Germans at LED  Lenser didn't feel the need for such an addition. 

Overall Score: 16 out of 20 (though I couldn't dispute a score of 17 or 18 out of 20)

This much variability leads to a score with variability.  If you like lots and lots of control, regardless of complexity, this is a much better light than the score of 16 would indicate.  If you don't, then the score of 16 is just about right.  You get a lot of product for your money here.  This is a great system and perfect for an on duty law enforcement officer as it will probably pay for itself in terms of battery savings.  I don't like the proprietary battery or the lack of a built-in pocket clip, but overall this is a very good and unusual light.

It will be part of the 2x CR123a shoot out, along with the Surefire G2X Pro and the 47s Maelstrom X7.