You can wade into the waters of an EDC knife for as little as a dollar. There is a three inch knife with "steel" blade and "plastic" handle at Wal-Mart somewhere in the hunting section for $1. It is a lockback and looks vaguely like a Spyderco Delica with a black plastic thumb stud in place of a thumb hole. It has no brand name that I can find and is in a clam shell pack with a yellow and black (or red and black) cardboard backer that says simply: "Knife". I have seen it called "Folding Knife" or even "Hunting Knife", but none of those really describe what it is, though I don't think it would sell as well if they labeled it "Junk."
The low end of knives is a really murky place to be. Sure there are good values here and there, but if you are in the Bee/Elan/San Ren Mu territory you have to be very careful. Some of that stuff is excellent, some of it is terrible. Some of it is outright theft of intellectual property. Even the better models still have spotty fit and finish. Finally, while the sale price of these items is usually temptingly low, the shipping can be as much or more. You CAN find good deals in these murky waters, but it is almost a game of luck.
I have preferred instead to focus on brands I know and trust, not because I am slave to brands, but because I can get in touch with someone if something goes wrong. I guess there is one other aspect to branding that I ignored--accountability. With that in mind, I set out on a quest to find the best knife for less than $20. That is a pretty difficult price point to hit. The Skyline is more than that, even when on sale. The Tenacious is more than that, as are all of its siblings. Finding a good knife at this price is a daunting challenge.
It is, however, very much worth the effort. A knife less than $20 makes an excellent toolbox knife. It is a good blade to stash in a car glovebox. It is a good knife to have on you when doing messy yard work. It is also an excellent placeholder, in the event that you are saving up for a truly high end knife but don't want to go without during the interminable knife wait list purgatory. If I were doing this over again, starting from zero, my plan, knowing what I know now would be to hop on a wait list for an awesome custom, save for the 6-9 months on on the list and, in the meantime, carry around a sub-$20 blade.
Which sub-$20 blade? Well, after a lot of experience and testing, I would probably opt for the CRKT Drifter. There is a sub-$20 shootout pending, so I'll have to wait until then to make sure, but let me tell you--this thing is in the running. It is a great blade, and not just for the money. It is simply a very, very good knife. Note that while CRKT is the owner and designer of the knife and they sell it, the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) is in fact one of the better bargain Chinese brands San Ren Mu. Before you condemn the knife for that reason alone, read a little more. I promise you it is worth it.
Here is the CRKT Drifter product page. Here is a written review of the Drifter. Here is a video review of the Drifter. There are two models each with straight and partial serrated versions, a G10 handled version and a Stainless Steel version. CRKT sent me both models, so this will be a review of both (the blades performed pretty much the same, but there are a few differences that are noted in the review). Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the CRKT Drifter, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:
Here is the Stainless Steel Frame Lock version:
Here is the G10 version:
Design: SS model: 1; G10 model: 2
There is something very Goldilocks about the size of the Drifter, hitting my idea size for an EDC knife, between 2.5 and 3 inches. The handles are nicely shaped and everything is purposeful--the lanyard hole works (hey, Strider can't seem to get its lanyard holes to work on their $400 SnGs), the thumb studs are very good for what they are, and a lot of small touches add up. For example, I really hate rear tangs that show in the closed position. It is a debris catcher and a sign that the handle was not properly designed. The jimping is among the best I have seen regardless of price. It is grippy but not skin shredding. Even the tiny swedge at the top helps to save weight.
The numbers are where the SS and the G10 model differentiate themselves. They are the same in blade:handle, obviously, at a very decent .79, better, for example than the SOG Flash I. It ranks as one of the three or four best blade:handle of the knives I have reviewed. The weight is where the difference is. The SS model is chubby with a blade:weight of .90 (2.875/3.44) while the G10 version has a blade:weight of 1.17 (2.875/2.18), a good number. Its not that 3.44 ounces is a fat or heavy knife. Its not. But you get nothing extra for it, aside from a frame lock. More on that below. In my opinion that extra weight isn't worth the money or the additional effort, making the SS version a 1 in design, while the G10 is a 2.
Here is a picture of the SS version next to my Zippo (and no I did not clean either of them off):
Fit and Finish: Both knives: 2
One of the things you don't expect at this price point is that. A dead centered blade on a frame lock. That was something my Bradley Alias II, a knife that cost ten times as much struggled with mightily. But the fit and finish on both the SS and the G10 version was the same and it was excellent. There is a small scratch in the coating on the G10 blade, but it is so small I can lose where it is sometimes.
The G10 version has a nice little bonus. The metal liners are nested. That is, the G10 has a cutout inside that allows the liners to fall into the G10 handle scales instead of riding above them. The result is a very easy edge to handle, a thinner profile, and cleaner look. This is definitely not something you see on an $18 knife. The PM2 had nested liners, but none of the Tenacious family did, nor did the Skyline. This is a real treat and a fit and finish touch usually reserved for much more expensive blades.
This is the thing that shocked me the most about this blade. I have had a bunch of knives as you can see from the review page and a lot of them were great but fell down somewhere in terms of fit and finish. These knives are really amazing. Comparing the grind of the Drifter to that of the PM2 (just the cutting bevel) is revealing. One is a US made, mid to high end folder made by one of the premiere cutlery companies in the world. The other has an OEM in China that makes knives by the score. Yet it is the cheap, Chinese made knife that has the clean cutting bevel.
Like I said, shocking.
Grip: Both knives: 2
The lines of most folders are vaguely organic, rounded over jelly beanish shapes with curves and cuts for the hand. The Drifters are no different. But the jimping on the spine and the overall size of the blade handle in the hand make it very, very grippy. Even the finish on the SS is ever so slightly a matte finish giving it some grip. Companies trying to figure out how to do jimping, should really study this knife. It is very large, very coarsely cut, but doesn't snag. It is hard to put into words, but it is cut in a way or buffed after it is cut that makes it smoothish when you run your fingers over it lightly, but very grippy if you push on it. Excellent.
Carry: Both knives: 2
As I said in the design section, even the fatter knife, the SS version, is still pretty light so carry weight isn't an issue. The blade is thin and slides in and out of the pocket easily. Finally, as mentioned before, the handle covers the rear tang when closed limiting the entry of debris in the pivot. Very, very good.
Steel: Both knives: 1
This is 8CR14MoV, not the go to "made in China" cheap steel 8CR13MoV, but the difference escapes me in terms of real practical use. It is probably exactly par for the steels presently available on the market. On the steel trait "triangle" of hardness, toughness, and corrosion resistance it does very well on the toughness, but that is about it. It is a little softer than I like and a little more rust prone than I like. It seems to me that if you want to go the cheap steel route, do what Buck does with its 420HC or Victorinox does with its steel--max out the toughness AND corrosion resistance. In those cases the lack of hardness actually works in the knives favor making sharpening a dream (having just given my Cadet a spa and done real sharpening I can say that with confidence).
Blade Shape: Both knives: 1
This is a close call because there is a very, very slight recurve to blade. See here:
I really, really detest recurves. They make the knife hard to sharpen and add very little to the cutting performance. A recurve would be a 1 to start with, but here the recurve is SO slight. In fact, it could be that the slight recurve is cancelled out by the softer 8CR14MoV steel. That said, there is no reason for the recurve, esepecially here, where it is too shallow to really hook into the material. This is an unnecessary curve that could cause problems. Avoid the problems and go with a simpler blade shape. It was a close call between a 1 and a 2. I just don't know how it will affect the knife long term, but why invite problems? I can see this being either a 1 or a 2, but in the end my hatred of recurves wins out.
Grind: Both knives: Both knives: 2
The grind is either a VERY slight hollow grind or a flat grind. Either way it makes about 2/3rds of the way up the blade before it meets a nice flat that is used for labeling and helpful for those with an Edge Pro or Wicked Edge sharpener. The grinds are crisp and even and the cutting bevel, as mentioned above, is especially clean on these knives. This is surprising because grinds, especially the cutting bevel grind, is usually the first thing to suffer on a cheap knife. Again, the Drifter defies its price point.
Deployment Method: Both knives: 2
The deployment method is a simple terraced thumb stud. Thumb studs aren't my favorite, but these are very nice, in combination with the silky pivot found on the Drifter. The terraces are well cut but not obnoxious and they offer just the right amount of grip. I like them quite a bit for what they are.
The interesting thing with the Drifter's deployment is the smoothness of the pivot. The washers used in this knife result in a very smooth open, so much so, that you can easily flick the knife open with your thumb using basically the same motion you would use to flip a coin. This makes for exceptionally fast deployment once you get the motion down. To do the coin flip open method, you do need to loosen the pivot screw a bit which introduces the tiniest fraction of side to side blade play, but it is worth it if you need a quick opening knife. Overall, I am again impressed at how much you get for the money with the Drifter.
Retention Method: Both knives: 2
I could complain about the lack of placement options, but I am a righty and the clip's placement just works for me. It is not too wild in design, has good tension, and keeps the knife in place.
Where it excels is in the part that shows when pocketed. Sometimes knives have these protruding clips that snag on everything as you walk around, but here, the clips are nice and tucked in, for lack of a better phrase. Again it is a bit of forethought that you rarely see in cheap knives. Often the clips are just mass produced for a bunch of knives and are used regardless of how well they work or match up with the knife. Here you get a very good clip for the money.
Lock: Both knives: 2
Okay, if you think frame locks are superior, fine, discount the G10 version, but in the role of an EDC knife I think a liner lock is more than strong enough. Both locks engage early around 30% to 40% and both are easy to disengage. I'd opt for the liner lock as it is lighter, but CRKT gives you options and that is a good thing.
Overall Score: SS model: 17 out of 20; G10 model: 18 out of 20
Both knives, as I said before, are good knives, and not just good knives for the money. They are just flat out good, if not great, knives. The fit and finish really makes competitors look bad, as these knives blow away the Spyderco Tenacious and its siblings as well as the Kershaw Cryo. They are very staid in their overall design, but they function well. The steel is probably the weakest link, but even it is at par. For the price, I have not seen anything that comes close. But, a shootout is coming, so watch here for my final judgment.