Wednesday, October 31, 2012

More from Prometheus

Jason, aka Dark Sucks, over at Prometheus Lights, sent me a, no scratch that, HIS flashlight to review a while ago and the MC-18b was glorious light, scoring a very impressive 19/20.  It was a package that rivals any custom maker out there and comes in significantly less expensive than most.  His lights are truly dark-obliterating works of art.  If you are in the market for an 18560 light and have a few bucks to spend, you will not be disappointed.  There is nothing better out there in the 18650 form factor at any price.

But Jason doesn't rest on his laurels.  He is always thinking about new ways to make cool stuff and he recently sent me a bundle of things--zip pull/lanyard beads, an aftermarket clip for the G2XPro, and a Ti fob for keys.  Each is worth a peek, so I am going to go through them one at a time.

Ti Clip

One thing that I think would take most people by surprise is just how hard it is to design a pocket clip for a light or a blade.  Proof of this is the sheer variety of designs.  If there was one clearly surprior design, it would have become standard by now.  There are a few I really like and they are generally simpler designs, but there is no clearly superior approach.  Flashlights are especially hard to design clips for as many lights, especially two cell lights or bigger, are just not practical when paired with a clip.

Jason, apparently, hasn't received this memo yet.  Thank god for that.  His clip design, which is a washer style (meaning it is a ring that is sandwiched between two screw together components on a light) clip.  This means that installation is completely tool free.  Masterstroke #1.  He includes o-rings which locks the clip in place when all of the parts are screwed together.  Masterstroke #2.  Finally, this clip fits a ton of different lights (Masterstroke #3), including these:

Surefire 
6P
6PX Pro
G2 Nitrolon
G2X Pro
G2X Tactical
Fury

Solarforce 
L2
L2T

Elzetta
All 2 & 3 cell lights

Jetbeam
TCR3
III Ti
BC25

Malkoff 
Hound Dog
Wildcat

Here is the clip he sent me to test out, installed on a Surefire G2XPro:

IMG_0028
  
I have had the clip installed for about a month.  The hurricane sweeping through gave me a chance carry it in a real life emergency and it worked perfectly.  The G2XPro is actually quite small for a two cell light so the lack of a clip is a big deal.  It is perhaps the best flashlight clip I have ever used.  It is, when installed, equal to the vaunted McGizmo clip, but it has the advantage of attaching and detaching without tools.

There are three variations: 1) the plain Ti clip I received for testing; 2) the beautiful flame colored clip that Jason included on my review sample of the MC-18B; and 3) a splash anodized version.  The plain version costs $25 and the splash anodized version clocks in around $35.  All are excellent.

Lanyard Beads/Zipper Pulls

Also included in the package was a group of three zipper pulls.  Here is the ordering page.  And here is a shot of the zipper pull with the blue and glow o-rings:

IMG_0040

At first I was not exactly sure what to do with them, so I used them as lanyard beads for my smaller knives, the DFII ZDP-189 and the Mini Grip.  In that role they worked quite well, well enough, in fact, to show me the utility of having a lanyard and bead set up.  Especially with the Mini Grip, having the bead to tug on really popped the knife out of my pocket.  Overall, in that role they not only work well, but look less silly than some of the fantastically expensive and weird lanyard beads out there.

I also dropped them on to my L.L. Bean Pathfinder Softshell Hoodie, a jacket that I truly love and a nice budget alternative to a TAD jacket (it is a bargain at $99).  Normally they have these rubberized and oddly furry zipper pulls.  They really, really work, but they are just kind of weird.  I swapped one out for Jason's zipper pull, as configured above, with three alternating o-rings for grip.  Then I went on a trip.  I flew to Ohio and back, all with a 2 1/2 year old in tow.  It took its toll on the zipper pull, slowly, but steadily shedding all of its o-rings.  In the end, I ended up with this: 
 
IMG_0037

I actually prefer the naked version.  The grooves designed for the o-rings, as it turns out, are really finely cut giving you lots of grip but not being finger shredders.  I also like the sterile appearance.

The zipper pulls come in packs of three with the o-rings for $25.  They are definitely luxuries, but ones that you will use.  If I were a lanyard guy, these would be my preferred beads.  Also, as a final touch on say, a new TAD Gear Stealth Hoodie LT, they would be perfect.  Careful though, as zipper pulls, they are oddly addictive and a full set for your Stealth Hoodie would be $50, bringing the total package to a mind boggling price of $525.  Of TAD and Ti pimpiness...please take my wallet now.    

Ti Key Fob

The final thing Jason sent me as a Ti Key Fob.  I am not a fan of key fobs at all, even Ti ones.  Jason's is very clever in that it is also his logo.  It also happens to fit directly on top of a G2XPro, which I discovered when playing with my son.  The pattern it produced was pretty cool.  That said, it is a key fob.  They are $15 right now.

Conclusion 

All of these items are superbly crafted, the result of a great designer and great machinists.  The clip and the zipper pulls are reasonably priced.  The key fob is a key fob.  I like the pulls.  They serve a purpose and look very nice doing so.  But the Ti clip is a revelation.  This is a stop-the-presses piece, an accessory that greatly improves the original item.  If I were Surefire, I would simply contact Jason and buy the design and all his clips outright.  It is better than any Surefire clip I have seen or used to date and it is simpler in design (which means it is probably cheaper to make).  If you have any of the lights listed above and they don't have a clip or, hell, even if they do, this clip is so much better that it is worth hunting down and scrapping your old clip.  Nothing I have seen on a flashlight is better--even McGizmo's clip.  I loved the clip on the MC-18b, but for some reason on my G2XPro it seems even nicer (perhaps because the G2XPro didn't have a clip to start out with and I really missed it).  For $25 you can't beat it.   

Monday, October 29, 2012

Two-Cell Shoot Out

The EDC market, single-cell lights, offer quite a bit of performance and versatility these days, but there are still times when it makes sense to purchase a two-cell light.  Sometimes you want a TON of light.  Sometimes you want a TON of throw.  Sometimes you want a TON of run time.  For me, these lights are the perfect house light--something to stow in handy place and go with you when you explore the things that go bump in the night.  They are also great pack lights and emergency lights for power outages.  They can do those 10% of tasks that your single-cell light can't.

The market is very crowded with these lights and equally crowded with insane specs.  I had no real scientific way of deciding which lights to include so I chose lights from good reputable brands and tried to choose three lights that are as different as possible from each other.  I think you'll agree that I succeeded on that ground.  The three lights in this shoot out represent three vastly different approaches to the two-cell market, in fact, they are so different that one is actually a single-cell light (albeit a 18650 light).  The 47s Maelstrom MMX (also known in its old designation as the MMX7) is the tactical light of the bunch.  The LED Lenser M7R is the Swiss Army Knife light of the bunch.  The Surefire G2X Pro is a great entry level Surefire and a basic two-cell torch (which, according to the Surefire site, is due to receive an upgraded emitter soon).   If your in the market for a two-cell light, at least one of these has to be on your research list.

Here they are all together for size comparison purposes with a MiniMag AA thrown in for scale:

IMG_0005

The lights look pretty cool next to each other, especially in the real sun light used to take this picture.  Here are the relevant individual reviews:

Surefire G2X Pro
LED Lenser M7R
47s Maelstrom MMX7

The flashlight review scoring system can be found here.

Methodology

My shootouts have two parts.  In the first part I use the scoring system to discuss and compare various attributes.  I then rank the products in those attributes with a weighted rank.  In a three product shootout, like this one, the best product will get 5 points, the second best 3 points, and the worst will get 1 point.  This prevents mere inclusion from being worth too much.  Once the points are tallied I then do a little calculation to determine value.  The calculation is simple total points divided by price with the least dollars per point being the winner.  And there will be a winner, no matter what.  In the past I have allowed products to tie in a given attribute.  I have decided against that as it can lead to ties.   

Scoring

Design

The comprehensive nature of the LED Lenser design and package puts it well ahead of both the MMX7 and the G2XPro.  The light can be throw or flood and/or high or low output.  It can be varied for regulated current or not.  It can basically be whatever you want and need.  The fact that the batteries are included and the charging device is well-designed and easy to use makes this light significantly better, design-wise, than its competition. The MMX7 have no where near the accessories that they M7R does, but the light has a lot of great features itself.  The G2XPro is just a bare bones light, removing all of the bells and whistles to make it under the $100 price point.  

M7R: 5
MMX7:3
G2XPro: 1

Fit and Finish

What the G2XPro lacks in design it makes up for in fit and finish.  There is a reason why Surefire lights last forever and are beloved by flashaholics around the world.  The G2XPro lasts forever and shows no wear.  The materials are excellent and the reflector is very good and the emitter is centered.  The M7R's optics are works of art, but the anodizing does not feel as substantial.  Finishing last is the MMX7.  There were no problems, but the body flex and rattle was a concern for me and could be an indicator of a problem going forward.

G2XPro: 5
M7R: 3
MMX7: 1

Grip

There is really no competition here.  There is one simple reason why:

IMG_0018

The grip ring is a great feature and makes the MMX7 one of the best two cell throwers I have ever handled.  The M7R is much thicker than the other two lights as you can see and it is much slicker than the G2XPro.  

MMX7: 5
G2XPro: 3
M7R: 1

Carry

Both the MMX7 and the M7R are significantly bigger lights than the G2XPro, making the Surefire the hands down winner in terms of carry.  I love this light and a good pocket clip (its coming) would make in a winner.  As is it bests the clipless M7R and the MMX7.  They are both just a bit too big for realistic pocket carry.  That said, the M7R's size and lack of any clip (it has a belt attachment) means I am not going to carry it at all, short of a pack of some sort.  

G2XPro: 5
MMX7: 3
M7R: 1

Output

Here is a photo of side by side beam shots on all three lights with a Maglight thrown in for comparison and embarrassment purposes (going across it is the Mag, G2XPro, MMX7, and M7R):

IMG_0011


The MMX7 wins this competition hands down.  It is both the brightest and the least bright at the same time, hitting 480 lumens on high and less than 1 lumen in moonlight mode.  The M7R's flood throw flexibility is very nice making it punch above its weight lumens-wise (it hits 220 lumens).  Meanwhile the narrow tight Surefire beam pattern also allows the G2XPRo to seem brighter than it is (200 lumens) but it's lack of variability in terms of flood and throw puts it in the rear of the pack.  Note how sad and awful the Mag beam is.

MMX7: 5
M7R: 3
G2XPro: 1

Runtime

Again, with a huge advantage of having a moonlight mode, the MMX7 gives you nearly a week's worth of useful light.  None of the other lights even come close.  The deciding factor between the M7R and the G2XPro is the runtime on high.  Here, the high on the M7R is 220 lumens for 2.5 hours.  The G2XPro I have is a 200 lumen model and the high was only 2 hours.  More brightness for longer is a no brainer.  The new G2XPro has been updated and now hits 320 lumens, so it would have an edge.     

MMX7: 5
M7R: 3
G2XPro: 1

Beam Type

There is no question which light wins as only one light can go from flood to throw and back again on a whim.  The MMX7 is a good thrower thanks to the bulky head, better than the G2XPro, but both offer nothing like what the M7R can do.  This is one reason that this light, more than the other two, warrants special consideration. 

M7R: 5
MMX7: 3
G2XPro: 1

Beam Quality

Like the refrain in a Catholic Mass, the M7R and the MMX7 are a bit holey.  It is really surprising when you get to the $100 price point that you'd have these imperfections, but they are the result of a smooth, throw focused reflector.   The Surefire, on the other hand, has a light orange peel reflector and it is perfectly focused giving you an absolutely smooth beam profile.  None of the lights have especially offensive tints, so they are all equal in that respect. 

G2XPro: 5
M7R: 3
MMX7: 1

UI

Well, the MMX7's UI was so close to perfect that even if the other two were good, it would not be a close contest.  As it is, the MMX7 is much better than the G2XPro, but the M7R's baffling, complex, and difficult to implement UI is really a stumbling block.  It gives an unprecedented amount of control, but that comes at the cost of simplicity, and when we are dealing with emergency lighting needs, simplicity is best. 

MMX7: 5
G2XPro: 3
M7R: 1
 
Hands Free

None of these lights can tailstand and I don't know why.  Want to see how to make a good tactical light with a very accessible tail button?

IMG_0015

The TorchLAB Moddoolar Triad tailcap is the best tailcap design on the market (the Moddoolar is probably one of the finest lights on the market as well).  None of these lights come close to this perfection in terms of tailcap, but the MMX7's grip ring also is a great anti-roll device.  The G2XPro has facets on the head to keep it from rolling, while the M7R has nothing at all to stop it from rolling.

MMX7: 5
G2XPro: 3
M7R: 1

Total Points:

G2XPro: 28 points
M7R: 26 points
MMX7: 36 points

Value Calculation

As of right now, the prices are as follows:

M7R: $95
MMX7: $94
G2XPro: $70 (for the 200 lumen model; the 320 lumen model is delayed for a month and price will be around $100)

M7R dollar per point: $3.65
MMX7 dollar per point: $2.61
G2XPro dollar per point: $2.50

Conclusion

The MMX7 is clearly the best of these lights.  the value calculation did not work at all here, in part because the G2XPro was so much cheaper and in part because it could not value just how unique and well-equipped the M7R is. The MMX7, while not quite the tight drum that the Surefire is, it is a great thrower and if you are looking at these lights, that is probably why.  The G2XPro's updated emitter is a sign that Surefire is taking the competition seriously, but as the entry level light it is hard to make the G2XPro competitive with the MMX7.  You want more, you pay more.  The M7R is a totally different approach, as I mentioned in its review.  It is a light system.  I liked it and a washer style clip would be awesome.

In the end, I think this is a closer fight than the value calculations indicate.  I also think that they do not express the rank correctly.  Here is what I would suggest: if you have a light and need a thrower, go with the MMX7.  If you don't have any lights, try both the MMX7 and the M7R.  The system included with the M7R is a difference maker and it can quite easily serve as your only light.  If you are a law enforcement officer and don't need to mount your light on a weapon the versatility and rechargeable battery included in the M7R makes it an extraordinary value.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

My Grail EDC

A thread popped up on EDCF about what is your grail knife and it got me thinking: if money was no object what would I carry?  I have selected a watch, a knife, a pen, and a light.  They may not be the most expensive in the world, but they are all uniformly more expensive than average, rare, and hard to find.  I would have included a phone in this post, but really I can't want anything more from my phone than an iPhone 5 (I have an iPhone 4, but when you are on the road as much as I am, Siri would be nice for hands free Google searches).  I also probably could find a nicer wallet than my Big Skinny, but I am not sure if it would work as well.  I don't know enough about pens, but I still really like my modded Zebra F-701.  A Tuff Writer clicky looks good too, but is...um...10 times the price. 

One limitation I am going to place on this is I am not going to imagine entirely built from scratch just for me items.  These are things that have been made already. 

Watch

There is something classic about a Rolex, but just cannot get into that aesthetic.  I appreciate it, but all of the gilding and dials is just too much for me.  I'd take one if I was given it, but probably only to sell it.  I know they are nice and keep great time, but they are not for me.  This disdain for ornamentation also rules out a vast swath of multi-kilo buck watches made by others.

The other issue is I am not a huge watch person.  I like watches, but I can survive without one.  Even with an unlimited budget I have no interest in dropping a bank vault full of money on a watch.  My iPhone often serves as my watch and I know that watch people cringe at that (as much as I cringe at people using it as their flashlight), but the reality is the current trends in watches have turned me off to a lot of the nicer stuff.    

Instead I have very simple and plain tastes.  If cost was no object I would probably get this watch:


This is a Sinn 556 with metal bracelet.  It is not outrageously expensive--around $700 (probably $800 with the inclusion of the metal bracelet).  It also happens to eschew the sun dial/dinner plate look of so many watches these days.  I am not sure when it became vogue to have this wall clock sized watches, but they are inconvenient to wear and, to my eyes, look fantastically ugly.

The Sinn 556, on the other hand, is a testament to restraint in design.  The face is highly legible and strictly conventional (which is exactly what you want in a watch face, in my opinion).  I also like the option of a metal bracelet.  With a name like "Sculimbrene" two things are almost a guarantee--lots of arm hair and even more sweat.  A traditional leather band or even a NATO strap stands no chance against my Italian heritage.  Both would look like they came from a hobo's watch in less than a year.  The metal bracelet on my Citizen, however, has withstood a decade of sweaty and hard use.

More info:  Sinn 556 thread at Watchuseek 
Other choices: Luminox Alcatra Field Watch, Model A.1921 $650
The Luminox Field watch is also pretty plain and simple, but it is slightly larger making it less than ideal for me. 

Knife

There are a lot of choices out there and unlike the watch this is something I really do care about.  With money as no object, its hard to avoid the allure of a Ron Lake folder.  His stuff is widely regarded as the finest work in the world and one glance shows you why:





This is from Great Lakes Custom Knives.  Actual Lake folders, with the interframe piece (the inlay) and the tail lock go for around $4,000-$6,000.  Ones with engraving are usually double depending on the material and the image.  Rare models, ones that are unusually large or use especially exotic materials are even more.  A very rare Lake is up for sale on KnifeLegends for a cool $26,500.  That is a load of dough.  It is a gorgeous knife, as all Lakes are, but I am not sure if I'd go for a Lake.

If I were in a more avant garde mood I'd definitely opt for a Gustavo Cecchini knife.  Here is probably my favorite knife Gus has ever made:




This knife recently sold on Arizona Custom Knives for around $2,200.  It is a beautiful example of a truly minimalist, almost Bauhaus flipper.  Had Johannes Itten designed knives, this is what they would look like.

But as glorious as Gus's work is, it is a little big for my tastes.  My true grail knife, cost no object, is a smaller blade, a flipper as well.  A compact Phil Boguszewski Dauntless V2, is probably my grail knife.   They sold originally for around $1050.  I would imagine they run three times as much on the secondary market, if you could find someone willing to sell one at all.  I love the knife's size, the clip, the flipper design, the choil, and, of course, the brilliant Dauntless form.  I'd post a pic, but they are all copyrighted and such.

More Information: Dauntless Archive
Other Choices (production only):  William Henry B09 Scout Kestral ($375)



A very small knife, the Kestrel displays an amount of restraint in design and decoration that is, apparently, as scarce in William Henry Studio as the superconductor handle material they use.  Still, a ZDP-189 blade and a great pocket clip beckon. 


Light

Bill James had this theory that there were three good arguments about who was the best pitcher of all time.  You could go for the best high quantity guy and that would be Walter Johnson, you could make an easy argument for simply the quantity guy, and that would be Cy Young, or you could make a quality argument and get a few different names--Tom Seaver, Roger Clemans, Pedro Martinez (the last name is my addition).  The point was there were so many different approaches to best pitcher that you really have to pick your approach first to answer the question correctly.  With lights it is the same way, for me.  There is the ultra-lux approach, the ultra-lux EDC approach, and the pure EDC approach. 

There can be little question which light I refer to when I say "ultra-lux".  There is nothing more ultra-lux in the world of lights than the Cool Fall Tri-V EDC


This light literally does everything.  There are three lights here--a flood light, a throw light, and an incan light for good color rendering.  All of this versatility comes at a steep, Bugatti Veyron like price of around $3000.  That said, I am not sure I would feel comfortable carrying around such a delicate tool, especially for mere EDC purposes.

The next light is the best blend of ultra-lux and EDC.  It also happens to be Don's magnum opus thus far, the Lunasol 20.  Here is a great shot of the light I found over at CPF:


The beauty here is that the light has both throw and flood capacity thanks to an ingenious emitter array.  Subsequent third party mods have introduced a three level output feature.  In this configuration, the Lunasol 20 is probably among the best three or four lights of all time. These ring up around $700 for an unmodded one and around $1,000 for a modded one.

Finally, there is this light.  You know, by now, how much I love the Aeon design and having it with an improved emitter (in terms of color temperature and tint), in a titanium body, and with a low low mode, I can't imagine a better light.  This is a true EDC light.  It will be so small and so versatile with such great runtime times that it easily hangs in there with the two kilobuck lights above. 

More Information:  CPF thread on the Aeon Mark II
Other Choices (production only): Steve Ku Quantum DD, $59

So there you have it, my Grail EDC:

A Zebra F-701
An iPhone 5
A Big Skinny Wallet
A Sinn 556
A Boguszewski Dauntless Compact V2
A Muyshondt Aeon Mark II

What's your Grail EDC?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

TuffThumbz Buck Advantage Review

The Buck Vantage Small was one of those pieces of gear.  Every time I held it or carried it or used it I thought that it could be GREAT, truly great, if only a few things were different.  The bones of a great piece of gear were all there.  In its effort to put out a new blade, one that would serve as the template for dozens of variations, Buck created a knife with outstanding fundamentals.  But as they pushed the budget down on the blade the fit and finish went awry.  My Buck Vantage Small Select had atrocious fit and finish.  Reports from all over the knife world were the same--the fit and finish on the Vantage series was terrible.  Nonetheless, the design always beckoned me to do something about the Vantage's problems.

Around a year ago I started watching Geoff Blauvelt's YouTube feed.  We all know him as TuffThumbz (check out his NEW website, it is pretty swanky).  Over that year or so I marveled, like most of us do, over his tweaks to production knives, tweaks that brought custom like features to affordable blades.  After two or three weeks of watching his videos I decided that I would sell off some gear and save some money and have him pimp out a Buck Vantage Small.  The idea was that I would have him fix the fit and finish and then add some new features and put his trademark TuffThumbz touches on the blade.  I contacted Geoff and we worked out a deal.  I would send him a Buck Vantage Small Pro, with its Paul Bos-treated S30V straight from an internet knife store, and then I would deposit $120 in his PayPal account for the following modifications and upgrades:

1.  Stonewash the blade and clip
2.  Round over the spine of the knife
3.  Add jimping to the spine
4.  Replace the standard G10 scales with carbon fiber scales
5.  Tweak the centering and overall fit and finish on the blade

Geoff decided to also bronze the standoffs and the pivot screw.

The knife that I got back had so much added to it that I thought it would be clever to call it the Buck Advantage--all of the nice features of the Vantage with some new stuff added.

There is only one of these out there (and it is in my pocket as I write this), so the normal "here" paragraph is going to be abbreviated.  Here is the standard Vantage Small product site.  The Pro upgrades the handle scales to G10 and the blade steel to the deliciously awesome Bos-treated S30V.  Buck had discontinued all of the Vantage small models, but they are still readily available from places like:
  
Blade HQ

Here is the video from TuffThumbz showing off the Advantage for the first time (video around 6:58). 

Finally, here is Advantage is all of its glory:

IMG_0031

Custom Maker Feedback

First, a little variation on the normal form.  From now on when I review custom or modified stuff, I am going to put in a little bit of feedback on the buying experience itself.  Custom gear is more expensive and unless you know the maker or meet them at a show, it generally involves contacts made over the internet.  Sending people you don't know a lot of money for something you can't touch or see in person is a daunting experience.  To make it more transparent and accessible I am going to review my buying experience.  It doesn't necessarily mean this will be what happens to you, but it is a data point you can use in generating your opinion about whether or not you should buy something from a given custom maker.

Generally there are five things to be concerned about when buying custom gear: 1) quality of work; 2) speed; 3) price; 4) uniqueness; and 5) communication.  All of these things are highly variable.  For example, speed is all relative.  You may be willing to tolerate the necessary five year wait for a Randall configured as you want it.  For other people that would drive them nuts.  As such all of these things are context dependent.     

One of the main reasons to buy custom gear is because it is of a higher quality than the mass produced stuff.  In this regard Geoff's mods do not disappoint.  The finish on the CF scales is smooth and convex.  The jimping is probably my favorite jimping I have ever used and the acid wash is simple a marvel.  In terms of quality of work, the TuffTumbz experience is first rate.

Speed, well, speed is where Geoff's real life interfered with the process.  Geoff was moving from one shop to another and really upgrading his entire operation when I sent in my Vantage.  As a result it took from March until September to get the knife back.  I think this is an aberration.  Others have received their stuff back in very short order, so I will chalk the pokey pace of processing my order up to these other things.  Slow, but for good reason.

Goeff's prices are highly competitive.  The entire mod cost me $120 and is easily worth it in my opinion.  Not only is the CF he used hard to find and difficult to cut (safely), everything was done in a way that exceeded my expectations.  Its not just what he did, but how he did it that makes this mod a bargain, in my opinion.

This also goes to the uniqueness of what he did.  There is nothing out there that looks remotely like my Vantage.  It is pure ThuffThumbz style--the Fallout treatment--and the result is an awesome looking blade that no one else has but me.  That is the very definition of uniqueness and it is borne out of Geoff's remarkable design aesthetic and his quality work.

All of this is great, but communication is the key when buying custom stuff.  If the maker is slow and doesn't communicate you get antsy with a lot of money riding on the line.  In this regard, no one I have dealt with was as responsive and as quick to communicate as Geoff.  Finally, following Geoff's videos while I waited for my knife to makes it debut on camera was really exciting.  When it finally slid out from the right side of the screen in Geoff's trademark reveal shot I was super pumped. 

Overall this is an excellent experience and I would recommend it to anyone.  The slow pace of my mod is both unusual for Geoff and understandable under the circumstances.  He was excellent in all five categories. 

Knife Score

Because this is a modded knife, the score is going to be a reflection of the underlying knife itself, as well as any mods done to it.  Here is a review of the Buck Vantage Small Select.  This knife, when stock, has upgraded blade steel and handle scales.  Everything else is the same.  I didn't choose this knife in a vacuum.  There are things about the stock knife that I really, really like.  The fit and finish and lack of jimping were the two major complaints.  With so few flaws and some really great bones, I thought this would be a perfect knife to mod.

Design: 2

The stock version of this knife is a great design.  It goldilocks itself right into the perfect size for me--slightly larger than the DF II and yet not as big as the more full sized knives like the Small Sebenza and the Benchmade Mini Grip.  The blade shape is a superb interpretation of the drop point, probably the best I have seen in a folding knife (as an almost exactly copy of the Sebenza's blade shape, I'd say, officially, it is a tie).  The clip is a design masterstroke.  The overall size and shape of the knife is quite pleasing in the hand and the pocket.  Stock this is a 2 point design.

But there were some things missing.  The knife's relatively flat spine over both the blade and the handle meant that sliding forward was something that could happen in serious cuts.  And while jimping is not normally a requirement on knives this size, here it would be nice.  I also liked the pleasant to the touch rounded spine on the Sebenza. 

Tuffthumbz delivered all of this and more.  The jimping is incredibly effective, locking the hand in place, but that's not all.  It looks AMAZING:

IMG_0036


At first I was worried it would be a pocket chewer but nothing could be further from the truth.  This knife simply slides in and out (more on that later).  The rounded spine is equally nice, cutting weight on the knife AND making it easier to extract.  

Size-wise this knife does okay overall.  The stock's ratios were:

Blade:handle: .71
Blade:weight: 1.41

The Advantage changes only one ratio, the blade:weight coming in at

Blade:weight: 1.03

The change comes about because of the much beefier handle scales:

IMG_0004

At first I wasn't sure if the added thickness was a good thing, but when I compared the weight difference (.2 ounces) I realized it was worth it.  More on why below.

Obviously, if this was a 2 before, its still a 2 now.  A great knife made better.  

Fit and Finish: 2

The fit and finish on the unmodded Select I have is horrible.  The blade actually rubs against the liner.  There is a blade play.  The finish on the blade is crude and ugly, as if they skipped the last two grit levels on the grinding belt to save time.  Lock up is SUPER late on the stock model and the blade is pushed off center by the out of line lock bar (you can see it in the picture above). 

On the TuffThumbz Advantage all but one of the problems has been corrected.  The blade alignment, while not perfect, is much, much better.  Even when I loosen the pivot all of the way, the blade still stays about 85%-90% centered.  The finish on the blade is an amazing TuffThumbz special, part of the Fallout package.  He calls it a dark acid wash.  Whatever it is, it is absolutely gorgeous:

IMG_0033

Moreover, it smooths out the rough grind lines on the blade and gives the blade a surface virtually impervious to wear.  I really wrenched on this baby in making a fire recently, cutting huge chucks out of 2x material and even making divots in 1/2 inch baltic birch (a material known for its dimensionally stability and toughness; it is used in die and jig making and is called "pressboard").   This is after cutting up some kindling and slicing, with great ease, through a series of cardboard boxes.  The finish looks IDENTICAL.  Even the extra wear on the main grind bevel is awesome.  The lock up is still a problem, but more on that below.  The bronzed backspacer and pivot screw complete the look--a well worn, battle scarred knife that just happens to be new and better than before.   

Grip: 2

This is a chunky handle now, about as thick as a Benchmade Mini Grip.  With that extra thickness, comes a better grip (insert inappropriate joke here).  The handle scales create an excellent surface for your thumb to rest against the spine of the knife, creating a ton of leverage that was impossible before.  Additionally, Geoff must have curved these scales more than the stock version as they just appeal to my hands more.  And then there is the jimping, oh, the jimping.  Geoff hit an absolute home run with this configuration.  Their wider, gear like appearance is both sweet and functional.  I am stunned at the stuff I can do with this knife now.  The extra curve and spine allow you to bring an enormous amount of force to bear, something I didn't feel comfortable doing before. 

Carry: 2

The satin finished, wood scale carbon fiber handles coupled with the perfect pocket clip makes this a knife that glides into the pocket like a ballerina crossing the stage.  It is graceful, effortless, and convenient.  Plus, the size is, as I said above, perfect--not too big and not too small.  The extra girth on the handle (again, insert inappropriate joke) is not that big an issue, making the knife feel like a Mini Grip when pocketed.  But the clip's tension, thanks to a small tweak to the angle by Geoff, is still plenty firm.  It doesn't fall out of my suit slacks, let alone jeans.  Amazing job. 

Steel: 2

We have come to the place of magic.  Paul Bos does Buck's heat treating and through careful management of the steel's settling phase (I am sure there is a more technical term, but this gets the point across) he coaxes every last drop of performance out of a steel.  Here he does it with a steel that is already pretty high performance.  The result is a blade that rivals if not surpasses ZDP-189.  On top of that there is the friction reducing smooth acid wash finish that Geoff does.  Together this is a symphony of slicing abilities. 

Blade Shape: 2

Geoff did nothing to alter this.  There was no reason to do so.  The drop point here reminds of two staples of the knife world--one old and one new.  The long flat cutting edge rising up to a generous belly echoes the lines of a Case Sodbuster, one of the all time classic utility blade shapes.  The subtle and elegant drop point is reminiscent of a Sebenza, another all time utility classic.   

Grind: 2

The high hollow grind of the original goes untouched, except for a little smoothing out of the grind lines.  Really, there is no reason to alter the grind here.  The Bos-treated S30V steel is so tough that the risks associated with a thin grind are gone.  This is a slicer of the first order and Geoff only improved that by reducing the friction from the crude grind.  

Deployment Method: 2

The stock phosphor bronze washers give the knife a smooth and quick deployment.  Geoff retained this and I can flick the knife open with both the flipper (which I actually like, those long flippers cause extraction problems or carry problems in my experience) and the thumb oval.  Note that this is a smooth knife, but not necessarily the fastest in the world.  I don't consider this a problem given the size of the blade.  In a tactical knife I can see the concern.  In a blade this small that's not a problem. 

Retention Method: 2

But the clip's tension, thanks to a small tweak to the angle by Geoff, is still plenty firm.  It doesn't fall out of my suit slacks, let alone jeans.  Amazing job, see here:

IMG_0034

He also stone washed it making it more impervious to wear.  He made a great pocket clip even better.  The result is a knife that stays in place, but is extracted with ease and grace. 

Lock: 1

All of Geoff's magic, however, could not fix the late lock up, and when I say late, I mean, REALLY late:

IMG_0007
  

If I flick open the knife I get better lock up than that.  If I slow open it with the thumb hole, it goes all the way over.  The weird thing is, no matter where it is--late or all the way over--there is no blade play whatsoever.  This flaw is probably beyond Geoff or anyone's ability to fix.  Buck uses no better than 420J in its liners, a super soft steel, and the blade itself is made of Bos-treated S30V, a very hard surface.  Perhaps carbidizing the end would add some life on to the lock, but since it has ZERO impact on performance, I am not going to worry about it.  Eventually, when I have, again lost my sanity (spending $120 on a $50 makes little sense, yes I know this was crazy), I might have someone make this baby a frame lock with a Ti lock side (completing the transformation of this knife from production, to mod, to custom).  Given all that, this gets a 1.  If problems occur, I will update the review, but I have had and used this thing for about two months and I have seen nothing of the sort. 

Finally, here is a picture with the Advantage's Ligh&Saber buddy, a very fine AA light from EagleTac the D25A in Ti, with a neutral tint XML emitter.

IMG_2680

A great light for a great knife.  Now I just need to figure out how to acid wash the D25A.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

Its hard to complain here.  The knife's basics were so good to start out with and then Geoff changed and improved it exactly how I wanted it done.  But that's not the reason I really like this knife and Geoff's work in general.  Here is the real reason--Geoff has an aesthetic and design sensibility that puts him in the same league as many of the finest knife designers in the industry.  His eye and skill are what makes this knife awesome.  The jimping is a perfect example.  He could have done the jimping in a bunch of different ways, but he did it using the geared look.  He got the feel just right and he got the appearance just right and the two play well with each other.  This is why this knife rocks.

Mark my words.  I said it here first.  There will be a day when we look back on Geoff's work the way we look back on early customs from some of the finest makers that were eventually signed to big deals with major knife makers, guys like Ken Onion.  To describe Geoff and his work as merely modding a knife is not fair.  He transforms these blades.  And if this presages is own, unique work--be prepared.  If he keeps it up, this knife will be on the Antiques Roadshow in 100 years as an "early example of Blauvelt's work".  If I were a knife company, say Kershaw looking to inject some distinct styles into my incredibly bland product line up, I'd have called Geoff a long time ago.  Blade HQ was smart when they bought some Toads off of him.  Someone is going to scoop him up sooner or later and for good reason.

I am thrilled with the knife and especially Geoff's work.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Trolling for Hate: Sheeple

After the Victorinox Cadet review, I decided I wanted to address something that seems best brought up in the context of a SAK review--the Sheeple Factor.  On knife and gear forums across the Internet, people disparage non-knife people or people that are noticeably disturbed by knives.  The logic goes that knives are tools and that these "sheeple" (the pormanteau being too obvious and demeaning to spell out) are simply a bunch of babies, part of a wussified culture that has come to demonize guns and treat every sharp edge as a weapon.

I think this argument is fundamentally flawed.  Its premise is appealing, as are the premises of many bad but tempting arguments, that our culture vilifies inanimate objects.  This is assuredly true.  Next time you are in a store, read or at least look at the warning labels on a step ladder.  Based on labels alone, the step ladder is one of the most dangerous devices created by man.  But the conclusion--that all people afraid of knives are coddled babies--does not necessarily follow from a premise that our culture vilifies objects. 

As I see it there are four kinds of people: 1) people that are coddled babies and afraid of knives for no reason (sheeple); 2) people that are afraid of knives for good reasons; 3) people that don't care one way or another but are put off by some knife owner's behavior; and 4) people who don't notice anything.  On a percentage basis, the largest category is the people that don't notice.  I am constantly blown away by how unobservant people are.  The next largest is probably the people that are put off.  Then the sheeple are the next largest category, followed by people with good reason to fear knives.   

There are some people are afraid of knives for a good reason, like being the victim of a crime.  These folks are admittedly rare, but their existence seems to fly in face of the logic used by many as a justification for carrying a knife.  I cannot fathom how people that carry a knife for protection and have a CCW license because of the rampant crime (which is not all that rampant given statistics showing a decline in violent crimes and non-violent crimes) also laugh at the idea of people being afraid of a knife because they are mindless sheeple.  Instead, perhaps, these people were the victim of a crime or had a similarly bad experience.  If I cut my finger off in my table saw I'd probably be a little wary of going back.  A good band saw would seem like a nice investment.  So for a small but important part of the population, being afraid of a knife is not silly it is an unfortunately part of their reality.

But this group, as interesting a point they make in an argument about sheeple, do not represent the significant portion of the population.  I believe that a lot of people express dismay when knife users use their knifes in public because of how the knife user behaviors.  In essence, they are rude.  Before I spell this out, a little anecdote, actually two.

Anecdote 1

A friend of mine and I went to a local knife store to buy another friend a knife to use while in Iraq.  I had organized his going away pack carefully and everything was paid for by the generous folks I work with, except for a knife.  We had to rectify that problem, so we journey to the local knife store (the only one BTW and they don't stock a lot of the nicer brands).  There we meet the clerk, aka Mall Ninja One (if you have not read this link, please do so, it is a gut buster).  We talk for a while, he shows us a couple of weird looking knives, telling us that Cold Steel is the best brand you can buy, that AUS-8 is the pinnacle of metallurgy, and that the Ti-Lite was exactly the knife we needed for utility tasks.  I am not the most knowledgeable person in the world, but I knew this was wrong.  My friend, who makes his own Bali-Songs, also saw the errors in the clerk's logic.  Still, when you have exactly one knife store within a 100 miles of where you live, sometimes you have to suffer fools.  No sooner had the pitch ended when a pair of loyal customers walked in, Mall Ninja 2 and 3, and both waved massive Ti-Lites out of their pockets and repeated the knife sales person's pitch.  Annoyed, we both left and found our friend a knife elsewhere.

Anecdote 2

Every year my whole family goes for a vacation in Maine near Bar Harbor.  There is a very well stocked, but overpriced knife store in Bar Harbor called Jekyll and Hyde.  I like to go in and see what they have and this year was no different.  When I arrived the place was bustling, knives, it seems are doing well.  Inside were a pair of men, probably around 25.  One was showing the other how to wave a knife out of his pocket.  In doing so he propelled the knife out of his pocket and proceeded to almost stab someone, by accident.

Both anecdotes seem to emphasize a few things: 1) wave features require a bit of discretion and intelligence to use correctly; 2) wave features, in addition to being actually useful, tend to attract Mall Ninja types (it was designed by Ernie Emerson for a team of special forces types, that design heritage alone attracts Mall Ninja types); and 3) some people are also deeply unaware of their surroundings.

For the majority of the public, this is what they think about when they think of people owning knives nowadays, if they think about it at all.  They remember the past fondly, when gramps would whittle a whistle out of a piece of wood with an old Case.  Then they look at Mall Ninjas wielding waveable foot long knives and just shake their heads.  Its not so much that these folks are scared of knife owners or knives.  It is that knife owners, especially a certain kind of knife owner, tends to be pretty reckless when they carry and use a knife.  Few people remember the guy that uses a SAK Rambler to quietly and discretely cut off an errant thread off his tie in the church parking lot.  Lots of people remember almost getting stabbed by accident in a crowded store.

In addition the recklessness of the Mall Ninja types, there is a certain off-putting mentality, the "I have a knife, deal with it you pussy" mentality.  I am all for people carrying pocket knives.  They are great, useful tools.  But I am distinctly and steadfastly opposed to this attitude.  People have the right to be annoyed when knife users behave this way.  People SHOULD be annoyed when knife users behave this way.  This "deal with it" mentality displays a lack of civility and consideration that shouldn't be tolerated in society.  This part of why the political debate in this country is frisbee-shallow.  This is part of the reason why dealing with people in crowds, like in the city or on a subway is an unpleasant experience.  Civility and concern for others is a lost virtue.
 
But there is another reason why this attitude is silly.  Sometimes these Mall Ninja types are whipping out these huge and ridiculous blades in a way that seems to provocative.  For example, they bust out their Benchmade Adamas to cut their Sbarros calzone in the food court.  Its like they are channeling their inner teenager, but instead of wearing a tacky t-shirt from Hot Topic or white face paint, they are wielding ridiculous blades in the name of utility.  You could light your cigarette with a blow torch, but that is equally silly.

I have long been in the smaller-knives-are-better camp, especially for EDC purposes.  This is in part because I like light and easy to use items, but it is also part of my desire not to freak people out and annoy people.  You do your thing and I'll do mine.  The next time you think of using the word Sheeple, think about this--are you using your knife in public because it is useful or to draw a reaction?  If it is the second thing, there is an equally powerful lemming though process going on.  Which would you rather be: a responsible knife owner or a Mall Ninja?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Benchmade Emissary Review

I really like watching movies; films, if your snotty.  I try to be pretty open minded.  I'll watch just about anything.  I also try to be pretty objective--I can admit that someone is a good actor or turns in a good performance even if I don't necessarily like the actor or the role.  I know, on a rational level, that Amadeus is a pretty darn good movie.  F. Murray Abraham was very good.  The story was intriguing.  The directing was good.  It is, objectively, a very good to great film.  But, no matter how many times I see it, try to appreciate its good traits, I just can't.  I hate the movie.  It is intolerably boring, even when compared to another really good movie that I DO like such as Lawrence of Arabia, which is also pretty boring (okay the train scene is amazing, but there are like 3 minutes of action in a 4 hour movie).

The Benchmade Emissary is like Amadeus.  Your going to see that there are a few knocks against the knife, but in reality this is a good blade.  I just don't like it.  I can see why people would like it, I really can.  Objectively it stacks up quite nicely, but I wouldn't buy this knife at the current price.  You might like it though and really, this is all completely subjective stuff.  It is a good blade.

Here is the product page.  Here is a good video review from Nutnfancy.  Here is my preview.  There are no real written reviews out there even though the knife has been out for a good long while. Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Emissary, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Finally, here is the review sample of the Benchmade Emissary I received from Blade HQ:

IMG_0004

Design: 1

Have you ever thought to yourself, "Boy, I wish there was a higher end version of the SOG Flash I made by Benchmade"?  If so, do I have a knife for you.  This knife, in so many ways, is a slightly larger, better made SOG Flash I with better materials--right down to the awkwardly shaped handle scales and the entirely superfluous blade deployment lock.  It has an assisted opening device, a flat ground blade, an over the top deep carry pocket clip, and a distinctly tapered silhouette.  This is the Benchmade SOG Flash I.  But that knife, like this knife, has some design issues.

First, there is a surplus of buttons, screws, and sliders on the handle, especially around the pivot, so much so that the knife looks like it has an acne problem:

IMG_0013

Why does this knife need a lock?  Never once did it accidentally go off in my pocket.  Not once.  And why does the lock need to be mounted there?  Also, why does there need to be a pivot screw, a lock, the Axis bar, and a structural screw all within a square inch of each other.  This is just laziness, kind of like the crooked pocket clip on the Leafstorm was indicative of design laziness.  The pivot area is just fugly.

But that is not the extent of the problem, design-wise.  This is a knife with a lot of extra points.  There is a point on the spine of the blade, right before the spine starts is slow descent towards the tip.  That point serves no purpose except to cause discomfort during use.  There are all of these waves on the handle scales, as if the aluminum was molten and being tossed around by a strong ocean wind, then frozen in mid-wave:

IMG_0014

All of these curves, cuts, and points make me wonder if someone didn't say "oh, that looks really ergonomic" but no one actually said: "oh that FEELS really ergonomic."  For a knife of this pedigree and price, you should expect more design-wise, both in terms of look and feel.

The ratios are okay here--nothing remarkable, but nothing bad.  First, here is a size comparison with a Zippo lighter:

IMG_0015

The blade:handle is .77, while the blade:weight is 1.36.  Both are slightly better than average, but not insane (remember the Al Mar Hawk Ultralight scored a .84 and a 2.81 respectively and has the best ratio of each of all of the knives I have reviewed). 
   
Fit and Finish: 1

Okay, I have said this before--certain production companies do certain things consistently better than others.  Spyderco's designs are typically a head above the rest.  Cold Steel's durability is above par.  SOG's grinds are the gold standard.  Kershaw's blades are always a good value.  And Benchmade, well Benchmade is known for their fit and finish.  Even on their cheap knives (which is something of an oxymoron for Benchmade, cheap knives are those below $100 apparently) they routinely put out knives with fit and finish match by few other companies that produce knives on this scale.  In fact only Victorinox comes close in terms of repeated superior fit and finish.  It is their calling card and a great one to have.

But the Emissary, sadly, is lacking.  The blade if finished nicely.  The handles are scalloped and chamfered.  The Axis lock bar is well cut and grippy.  The thumb studs work superbly.  The blade finish is perfectly matte--not too much not too little.  I like the geared look to the Axis lock bar. But...and I sort of hang my head when writing this...there is blade play.  I have fiddled with the pivot and that corrected most of the side to side blade play, as it usually does, but there is up and down blade play that I cannot get rid of, again as is usually the case.

I would not normally dock a blade a whole point for blade play--it is usually a very minor thing.  But this is not a minor thing here.  Blade play comes in three varieties or severities.  The least concerning is tactile blade play.  You can feel the blade move just a little bit, but there is no sound associated with the movement and you can't see the movement.  Then there is the tactile AND audible movement.  Here you can both feel a little wiggle and hear a little click.  This is something concerning because it is a sign that the parts are wearing against each other in a way that is not intended.  It is possible that this audible blade play could worsen--the distance necessary to make the click between the parts could also be used to transmit stress or shock into the knife in a way unintended by all of the safety mechanisms.  This is where I draw the line, fit and finish-wise.  If there is both up and down and side to side play AND one kind of these two causes both tactile and audible results, you lose a point.  Now it is not to the point of being visual as well.  I can't see the gaps, but still I am concerned.

It might be that the blade play is caused by the assist mechanism or the tolerances necessary for the assist mechanism to work correctly, as it is in a switchblade (which ALWAYS has a bit of blade play, but that is taken into consideration during the design of nicer full autos).  This is a double shame because not only is the assist unnecessary, but its inclusion might have caused another, more serious problem.

Grip: 2

All of those funky curves and cuts feel funny on the fingers and aren't exactly where I'd want them.  They feel like they were designed for a smaller hand and I don't have giant mitts.  That said, the knife was very secure in the hand, in part because of the expertly finished matte aluminum.  It was grippy but not gritty.  I'd like a little jimping on the blade, but it is not entirely necessary here.  

Carry: 2

This is a knife that simply disappears in the pocket.  The clip is great, more on that below, but the overall profile and the thickness of the knife are marvelous for effortless pocket carry.  Here is the Emissary with an equally nice to carry item, perhaps you have heard me mention it before--the Muyshondt Aeon:

IMG_2759

This is the point, where if I were a 50s house wife I would mention my embarassment over the dust on my desk in this shot, but I am not, so...This is one way in which this knife really does compare favorably to a Sebenza.  It, like my Small Sebenza, just melted away in the pocket.  GREAT TO CARRY KNIFE.

Steel: 2

S30V is still a very good steel.  Excellent.  Move on. 

Blade Shape: 2

Okay, this is a subtle point but the blade shape, how the knife looks in profile, is really quite nice.  Again, I don't like the hump/point on the top of the spine, but everything else is very good.  Here it is:

IMG_0008

I like the amount of drop in the point.  I like the belly.  The ricasso is nice and clean (it is surprising how often that is not the case).  Good job, but...

Grind: 1

When it comes to grinds, simplest is best.  If you want to introduce a swedge, a facet, or some other strangeness you'd better have a damn good reason to do so because all of these elements adversely impact the single reason you have a knife--to cut stuff.  This blade's low "midpoint" is the problem.  The flat grind is so short that it actually causes cutting issues.  The knife did bunch in cardboard, the very same cardboard that my DFII in ZDP-189, another perhaps unfamiliar piece of gear, cut through with ease.  Grinds matter.  All of these fancy, decorative facets matter.  You can put them on your blade, but you better have a reason.  There was no reason here, so bye bye one whole point.  

Deployment Method: 2

Okay the assist is completely unnecessary and it might have screwed up the blade lock up, but since I don't know for sure, I don't feel comfortable docking the knife another point here.  It is a very fast and sure deployment.  I never missed firing the knife once.  Good thumbstuds help here.  

Retention Method: 2

And now we get to the good stuff.

IMG_0011

This pocket clip is one of the five best I have ever seen (they are, in order: 1. BushidoMosquito clip on my custom Rambler; 2. Sebenza clip; 3. Buck Vantage clip; 4. this clip; 5. Strider/ZT clip).  This is a great, great clip and I loved the way it carried.  The tip is a little, just a hair, too pointy, but it never snagged or scratched up anything.  I really, really liked it.  

Lock/Blade Safety: 1

Okay, nothing wrong at all with the Axis lock.  I still love it.  No fear of collapse.  But the spring on the assist is WAY TOO strong.  It is virtually impossible, without some serious finger yoga, to close this thing one handed, which essentially scraps one of the best features of the Axis lock (closing a blade without fingers crossing the blade path).  I have tried to learn how to do it, but I am never comfortable closing this knife one handed.  It is just too stiff a spring and that makes what should be a very safe knife into one that is not so safe when being closed.    

Overall Score: 16 out of 20

There are no fatal flaws here, as you can see.  There are a few medium sized issues, but again, the overall knife is quite nice.  The steel is good, the profile and size are good, the carry is sublime, but I just don't like the knife.  Gimme a Mini Grip 555hg and I am much, much happier.  It is cheaper and better designed.  For the same price I'd much rather have a Sage 2.  The problem with this knife, like I pointed out in the preview (which are now organized under the Special Series page) is that for the money there are WAY BETTER options.  In a vacuum this is a nice blade.  On the open market it is merely okay.  It is funny how much this knife parrots the SOG Flash I.  There are so many similarities that it is hard to dismiss them as mere coincidence.  Additionally, this knife falls into the Sequel category--not fancy enough for a gentleman's folder (it also happens to be a bit big), but not utilitarian enough to be an EDC knife (that flat spot behind the point or hump on the spine just begs for jimping). 

Its not bad, its just not for me. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Do Reviews Matter?

Here is a very interesting thread over at EDCF regarding the relative merits of the Kershaw Cryo.  Some know-it-all chimes in with his big mouthed opinion (that was me, of course) and things kinda went south from there.  Kripto's point on page three with regard to my last substantive comment was well-placed (and well-deserved) and it got me thinking--do reviews matter?

The answer is no, not in the long run. But then again, depending on how you define "the long run" lots of things cease to matter.  Even in the short term, I think reviews don't really matter all that much.  Doctor saves a kid's life in the ER--that matters.  Innocent man exonerated by DNA--that matters.  Compared to those things, reviews don't matter.

But, if you are in the market to buy something, then knowledgeable and systematic assessments of things can help you out.  In that sense, reviews do matter.  If you are the kind of person that wants to make every penny go as far as it can in terms of getting you more of what you want, then why not spend a few minutes, read a review, and get another perspective?

Reviews and Objectivity

Daniel Patrick Moynihan (a Democrat that worked for two Democratic, JFK and LBJ, and two Republican Presidents, Nixon and Ford, and crossed party lines when voting) famously said: "people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts." The problem is, in today's age of perpetual cable news, there are no facts of agreement anymore.  Every fact is surrounded by and contextualized by a nebula of quasi-facts and depending on where you get your facts from the cloud surrounding it takes on a different partisan feel.  If you are a liberal you get your facts from MSNBC.  If you are a conservative you get your facts from Fox News.  If you are hipster that only wants to know enough about the news to make snarky, funny comments at a party you get your facts from Jon Stewart.  This proliferation of "facts" makes it hard to determine what the heck is going on.

The Internet and forums boards have the same effect.  Everyone has an equal voice and those willing to type the most seem to be the loudest.  But the truth is, in this morass of opinion, there are still undeniable facts.  These facts should form the basis of any review and I do my very best to tailor what I write to represent those facts.

Reviews cannot be objective.  If they were, they would read like spec sheets.  "Light A produces 300 lumens on high, 100 on medium and 1 on low." Reviews, at their heart, require analysis and analysis requires both facts and opinion.  Ours is an age of relativity, in part because of the lack of facts of agreement, but also because anyone can get access to a soap box.  I did.  I paid $10 got a domain name and started this blog.  I have no expertise.  I have no engineering background.  I do try to write clearly, have an honest review process, and ground my opinions in fact, but other than that there is no secret.  I don't have special knowledge and I have very limited special access (it is true that companies send me products to review and BladeHQ is kind enough to do the same), but my opinion is no better than anyone else's opinion.

What I hope to do is to set my opinion apart by writing well, being transparent, and being systematic.   I hope that by hewing as close to the relevant facts as possible, you can understand my opinion, and hopefully agree with it.  All reviews are a form of persuasive writing and in writing as in film, it is always better to show and not tell.  I could tell you something is a piece of crap, or I could show you all of the things that led me to that conclusion and you yourself could form that opinion on your own.  I hope I do the latter, because, after all, it is vastly more persuasive to lay things out and have you put them together in the same way.  It is like a mini science experiment.  Repeatability demonstrates reliability.      

This, of course, begs another question--whose reviews matters?  For me, there is a sensible answer.  Three things count for me when I am trying to figure out whose opinion to listen to:

1.  Does the person have a lot of relevant experience?
2.  Does the person have tastes and objectives similar to mine?
3.  Does the person arrive at their opinions in a fair, systematic, and transparent way?

The closer the person is to matching all three of those things the more likely I am to value their opinion.  NOTE: all of the reviewers in this article can be found on the links page of this site. 

Experience

If you could, wouldn't you want to test out every single product in the class of products your looking at and decide based on that which one you want to buy?  Unfortunately, none of us can test every knife or light out there for a month, decide, based on that, and buy what we want.  There is not enough time nor do most of us have enough cash.  Instead, reviews and reviewers allow us to short circuit the product deluge and present us with Cliff's Notes versions of those month-long trial periods.
Better reviewers have a wide range of experiences with products.  The more experience the better.  A guy like Selfbuilt is a perfect example of this.  Selfbuilt's reputation among the flashaholics around the world is second to none.  Companies send him review copies of virtually every light being produced and the end result is a MASSIVE library of reviews.  If there is a production light released, chances are Selfbuilt will get his hands on it.

Over time that experience creates a certain basis of knowledge.  You learn what works and what doesn't, what's important and what's just marketing hype.  While I have no where near the library of reviews Selfbuilt does, I do see this refinement-of-knowledge process happening in my own reviews.  After 30 folding knife reviews, I have a pretty good sense of how steels perform.  Now sometimes performance varies, like I have seen with 154CM, and that is something that is challenging for reviews.  But if you are consumer and you don't have access to lots and lots of review samples, that challenge can be virtually insurmountable.  When I bought and used by Sequel, with its lemon batch of 154 CM, I had such a negative experience that it turned me off to the steel and Benchmade for more than two years.  Having used more knives with this steel (the blade on the Skeletool CX and the Mini Grip) has shown me that the experience was just an aberration, but without more data points, one random bad experience taints a person's assessment of things.

The more experience the better because with that experience comes a certain kind of knowledge, maybe not expertise exactly, but something like more representative knowledge.  This more representative knowledge is based on an increased sample size and with a larger sample size the knowledge one has becomes more accurate and less likely to be polluted by random good or bad.

Roger Ebert has watched probably something like 20,000 movies.  Does that, alone, make him a good reviewer?  Nope.  But 20,000 movies can't make him worse.  In a reviewer, the more experience the better.   

Similar Tastes

Nutnfancy is probably the most important single reviewer of gear and EDC stuff.  He has a massive audience, great access to stuff, a systematic approach, and a pretty transparent set of tests and standards.  My big issue with him is that I don't think he places enough emphasis on quality.  For him there seems to be a threshold and once met, nothing else, performance or quality-wise matters.  I understand that approach.  It is very helpful.  I still religiously watch his reviews.  But for me, he has less sway because his tastes and objectives diverge pretty significantly from my own.

Compare Nutnfancy then to a reviewer like Oromoto.  Oromoto's channel is populated with exotic and flashy custom blades.  Its rare for a knife to be in front of his camera with a price tag less than a kilobuck.  I can appreciate his tastes.  He certainly places an emphasis on quality and uniqueness, but again, I find something lacking.  Sometimes the best knife is the one that has been constantly and thorough vetted for 20 or so years, regardless of whether it has super conductor bolsters.  It may not cause heart palpitations in bling fans, but remember, knives are, at root designed to cut stuff.

Both Nutnfancy and Oromoto are excellent reviewers but their tastes vary a bit from mine.  My tastes synch up more with a reviewer like Spydercollector.  Its not just his love of Spyderco knives that does it but is appreciation of small, well built knives and knives that are strictly designed for utility tasks.  He also a clean aesthetic sensibility in his photography, presentation, and preferences.       

Fair, Systematic, and Transparent

This is perhaps the most difficult thing to figure out about a reviewer.  What do they do to test their review samples?  How do they get them?  What do they do with them afterwards?  How do they assess them prior to the review.

I can't speak to others, but with me it is pretty simple.  Most of my review samples either come from the company that made them, BladeHQ, or I purchased them or got them in trade.  I always note in the review where they come from so that you know.  I also have a strict policy of not benefiting in any way from the site, let alone from the reviews.  I give away every single item that I have been allowed to keep and that tradition will continue.  Furthermore, I don't benefit from the AdSense money or the BladeHQ commissions.  Those funds all go towards other giveaways.  Right now I have given away about $600 worth of gear and I hope to keep adding to that number.  In terms of tests, I always discuss what I did in a given review, what I cut, how I carried and used the item, how it performed in various tasks.  I do not write reviews without having experience with the product, usually about two weeks of exclusive carry.  In terms of assessment, I created the scoring system so that the method used in a review is clear.  You want to figure out what I liked and didn't like, you can read the review itself or just check the scores in each category.

My hope is that the reviewing system I use is as clear, fair, systematic and transparent as possible.  I hope that you never have a suspicion that something got an unfairly high score because of its source or its brand.

Conclusion

All of this is a long winded way of saying that reviews matter, to the extent that you care about how you spend your money.  They also matter to the extent that they are done correctly, match your tastes, and are based on relevant experience.

The Cryo thread is a perfect case in point about how to process reviews.  Lots of people aren't as finnicky as I am about fit and finish.  I get that.  A lot of people aren't willing to pay $300 for a knife no matter how good it is.  I also get that.  I understand, as well, that a lot of this is preference.  Some folks like heavy knives, some don't.

But in this morass of opinions, there are facts.  The fact is that the Cryo is very heavy for its size.  I also believe that few people want a heavy knife.  I think, in fact, they want a sturdy knife and that usually requires a good deal of bulk, so for these folks heavy isn't an issue, its a side effect of sturdy.  But if you went to these folks and said you can have a sturdy knife that weighs 3.0 ounces or one that weighs 4.5 ounces, all other things being equal, no one would choose the heavy knife.  The facts are also unavoidable when it comes to the awful thumb studs.  They do not work as blade stops, so that is not a reason to have them.  They snag on the pocket because of their size, making them less than optimal.  Finally, they are just inferior as a deployment method on the knife when compared to the flipper.  The thumb studs stink.  That last part is an opinion, but all of the supporting elements for that conclusion are facts.

Disagreeing over the quality of gear is part of the appeal of tools and finding what works for you.  But objective assessment also has a part.  This is not all opinion.  Realizing that can help you save money and get more of what you want.  I don't think people are dumb because they like the Cryo.  I think Kershaw could have done better.  That's it.  No personal judgments or slights.

In the end reviews help.  It is always nice to get some insights from people with experience and knowledge, whether it about buying a car or purchasing a flashlight.     

Monday, October 15, 2012

Victorinox Alox Cadet Review

Jacques Derrida, (in)famous French thinker (who I met in person a long time ago), once said that the mark of great texts was their "returnability."  He meant that over time you keep coming back to them and discovering new and insightful things.  This sentiment seems to hold true over a wide range of human experiences--studying religion, woodworking, even life itself (through the experience of having kids).  Things in life that are worthwhile work on a number of different levels.  Your appreciation for these things cycles as well.  When you are child or just starting out, there is a simplicity to the endeavor.  As you grow up or increase your focus, things seem to branch out in myriad levels of complexity.  Then as you pass into greater understanding the complexity falls away and simplicity remains--beautiful, elegant simplicity. 

So it is with my trip through owning knives.  I have arrived at the beginning again.  When I was ten I had a Tinker and a Mag Solitaire as my EDC, well before I knew what that term meant.  Now 24 years later after many tool and gear purchases, I decided to drop a few bucks (and I mean a few, like $23) on a Victorinox Alox Cadet, realizing that I have come full circle--through the layers of Spyderco knives and Leatherman tools, past the custom blades and Sebenzas, back around to the beginning--the Swiss Army Knife (SAK).  This time I can appreciate the SAK in a way that I couldn't before.  These knives have been around forever because they are truly great tools.  The Alox Cadet is among the best of the best, one of the most well-designed and executed pieces of gear you will ever have the chance to purchase or own.  There is no reason whatsoever NOT to own one.  They are incredibly cheap, incredibly durable and well-designed, and they work and work and work.

Here is the product page.  There was a previous model that had a saw instead of a file.  Here is the SAKWiki page on the Cadet.  There are also many different color variations.  See (picture by NutSAK on EDCF):

 
Here is an excellent video review by Nutnfancy.  Here is a very good forum review.   It seems as though Victorinox is not producing this knife anymore, so think of this as an "In Case You Missed It" and a review at the same time.  Below is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Victorinox Alox Cadet, and proceeds from sales through this link benefit the site's giveaways:

Blade HQ

Finally, here is my Alox Cadet:

IMG_0016

Design: 2

The SAK model of making a multitool around a knife has some inherent benefits--you know how everything works, nothing blocks anything else from being deployed, and the form factor can be smaller--but there are also drawbacks.  Personally, I like the Leatherman pliers-based multitool better.  Pliers and a blade are two of the most useful tools, but it is much easier to incorporate a knife into a pliers-based multitool than it is to incorporate pliers into a knife-based multitool.  For this reason I have been wary of SAKs for a while.  The Alox Cadet changed my mind.  It gives you so much utility in a gracefully slim package.   

How slim?  This slim:

IMG_0021

That is a Zippo lighter for size comparison.  Its thinner than a friggin' Zippo.  Crammed into that frame are a ton of tools.  This is not just slim and light.  This is slim and light and feature packed.

The Alox handles themselves have a minimalist appeal.  They look nice, but they feel GREAT in the hand and they are as durable as tank armor.  A week of carry in my pocket with keys and change did nothing to the Alox handles.  The silver is quite the classic choice for a pocket knife.  Overall the design is simply elegant.  No one will leap back when you pull out the Alox Cadet to do some work.  More likely, instead, they'll ask you where you got that fancy Swiss Army Knife.  Then you can tell them that actually it is not even $30.

The ratios are strong with this one.  If it were JUST a knife, the blade:handle would be a very competitive .79 (2.5265/3.25), bested only by the Al Mar Hawk.  The blade:weight would be an even more impressive 3.67 (2.5625/.7), besting even the Hawk (which was a 2.69).  As a knife this thing is a delight.  But it is not just a knife.  It is a knife-based multitool that kills the multitool ratios.  There are eight total tools on four implements (1. a large blade, 2. a large flathead driver, 3. a small flathead driver, 4. a bottle opener, 5. a cap lifter, 6. a wirestripper, 7. a file, and 8. a Phillips driver).  The tool:weight is again staggering at 11.43.  The Charge TTi, by way of comparison, has a tool:weight of 2.32.  It will be a while before any of these ratios are touched by another tool.

Fit and Finish: 2

All of the implements are high polished, both for looks and stain resistance.  They are carefully packed into that incredibly thin handle, weaving together in a watch mechanism-like fashion.  It goes without saying why (okay, maybe not--this baby is SWISS MADE).  You get so used to the Victorinox perfection, even at basement prices, that it seems like a given, but next time you have chance sit down and closely examine a SAK and, say, a Benchmade.  There is really not that much that separates the two and if there is, it goes in the SAK's favor, given its increased complexity.  The handles are equally nicely finished and the grinds on the implements are perfect, even on the thin cutting bevel.  It also helps to note that the blade has a great belly and a nice full flat grind--this thing is slicer city.
 
IMG_0022
Theme: 2

If anything really captures your imagination about the Alox Cadet it is this--there is no better, got most of your bases covered, minimalist multitool anywhere in the world.  Everything about this tool is minimal, from its size, to its simple aesthetic and in the process of honing that approach Victorinox crushed one out of the ballpark.  If you want a full-sized blade in a stealth mutlitool, this is it. 

Grip: 2

No funky experimental ergos here.  This is a time tested shape and the checkering on the Alox handles gives you plenty of traction when using each and everyone of the tools.  Nothing whatsoever to change or complain about. 

Carry: 2

Slip into the pocket, coin or otherwise, and this thing is gone.  You might even have it go through the wash forgetting that it is in there, but no biggie, this steel seems to be impervious to rust.  More on that in a minute.  I would imagine that the lanyard ring would work well too, but why bother?  This thing can soak up damage and still disappear in the pocket.   

Materials: 2

I am a fan of uber hard steels.  They let you get a much more acute angle on the cutting bevel which improves slicing performance and they retain an edge much longer.  But there are times, such as in a big chopping knife, that you want to ease of the hardness a bit.  The SAK steel, rumored to be 1.4116 steel, is very soft, hardened to around 54-56 HRc.  But the trade off is a blade that can be sharpened on just about anything, even the bottom of a ceramic coffee mug, and laughs at rust.  No really, these things just about never rust.  Some folks even wash them in their dishwasher. Victorinox doesn't recommend that, but I have a feeling if you really needed to you could send your Cadet through a cycle or two.  The soft steel works well on the other tools, too.  The Alox handles are, frankly, superb.  They show very little wear, they are thin, sturdy and still grippy.  I'd like to see better blade steel, but overall the materials are great.  I'm giving this thing a 2.  It seems unwise to disagree with a design that has been around this long. 

Deployment/Accessibility: 1

What's the drawback to all of this tight fitting, slim tooling?  Well, it is the fact that you need two hands to get to all of the tools.  They open only by nail knicks.  You can see them all clustered up at the top of the blade in this size comparison shot with a Zippo lighter:

IMG_0017

I am not going to beat around the bush here--they aren't great.  The problem is I can't think of another way to make something this size and still have all those tools on it without using a nail knick opening.  It is a trade off.

I debated this score for a long time.  I really like the knife and I was on the fence.  Is this one of those times when you concede that a design compromise is worth it?  I think it is, but the nail knick design is so bad and so unhandy, I am going to ding the knife a point.  You know going in that opening this thing quickly is not possible and I am almost certain there is no way to do this better, but still.

Retention Method: 1

BushidoMosquito proved on my custom SAK Rambler you can do a pocket clip on a SAK and still keep its slim profile.  A clip on the Cadet would make this thing perfect.  Alas there is no clip, only a lanyard ring and it is a good one.  I tried carrying this on my keychain for a while and I liked it quite a bit.  Still I dream for this:

IMG_0050

Tool Selection: 1

I like everything you get.  For a knife-based multitool this pretty awesome.  Still, if I could I would like a pair of scissors.  Here's how I'd do it and keep the thickness down.  First I would, of course, get rid of the can opener (you probably already know by burning hatred for can openers, even one this good).  Then I would make the file smaller so that it could share a layer with the bottle opener and use the freed up room for some tiny scissors.  The large blade and the flathead/bottle opener would remain the same.  

Tool Performance: 2

I am really impressed with how each of these tools work.  The blade is perfect.  The drivers, even the Phillips driver, seen here:

IMG_0027

works very well.  I tested it out driving a few screws into some tough 2x4s in my shop and it worked fine, as did all of the other drivers.  Even the nail file works well, smoothing out rough plastic and metal edges to my son's toys.

The hack use of the large flathead driver is my favorite though. Here is the driver:

IMG_0025

It works quite well as an Atwood-style pry tool.  I have really wrenched on it and nothing happened.  It pops staples out of paper with surprising ease.  I really, really like this tool.

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

This is not a perfect tool.  It is, however, one of my favorite.  There is probably nothing better in terms of size to utility.  It looks very nice, shockingly nice, for the sub-$30 price point.  Knife-based multitools are really limited--they have a hard time breaking from the mode of being a "knife plus other stuff."  They also have a hard time incorporating tools like pliers.  At some point they just become a clunky mess--thick, heavy, and awkward.  But the Alox Cadet avoids all of the pitfalls of a knife-based multitool and instead really succeeds at being a knife plus more.  There is no reason whatsoever not to own one, though as referenced before, I am not sure about the tool's future availability as a lot of places around the web are out of stock.  Go buy one.  You won't be sorry.