Friday, May 10, 2013

Men of a Certain Age

No, I am not talking about the wretched cable TV show (hell, I don't even have cable TV) where Scott Bakula proves yet again he can play only one kind of role, making him the Michael Douglas or Kevin Costner of TV.  Instead I am talking about a phenomenon where you slowly realize that things your Dad or Grandpa (not, I am told on Twitter your "GF" which stands for "girlfriend") liked aren't stupid, boring, or old, but, in fact, rich with history.  Its the same age you start saying to yourself: "boy, isn't that Harley much nicer looking than that Hayabusa."  It might be the time when you go back to your parents house and rummage through a musty smelling desk looking for a Parker 51, only to be disappointed when you find dried out rubber bands and a 17 cent stamp.  That time has come for me.  I am man of a certain age and that age is 35.  I am now capable and willing to appreciate the quality and beauty of a finely crafted traditional folding knife.

Bit by a Bug

There were three things that started me down this path.  The first was, of course, my grandfather.  His father's Queen Cutlery Congress is well over 80 years old and it is, as of last October, gloriously sharp.  It has the patina of age and the swirl marks of a thousand or so sharpenings, but the brass bolsters look good as do the white handle scales.  Second, after doing research for the Swindle review, I was taken in by the sway back design.  One thing led to another and then bam I find myself on AG Russell's site ordering a Queen Cutlery knife. did that happen?  Third, and most importantly, have been internet stalking Tony Bose

If you have no idea who he is, let me put it this way: imagine that Picasso was still alive and painting, but had the reputation he does today--that is Tony Bose in the knife world.  In so many endeavors--art, craftsmanship, sports--we do not understand the legacy of truly great people until they stop doing what they do.  Part of that is that the mark of true greatness is that one's place in history is unsure because the great person has literally rewritten history.  The other part is that even when we know someone is truly, historically great we are reticient to say a much because, well, maybe we are caught up in a fad.  But Tony Bose's work is no fad.  It is the anti-fad.  He has made cool something that is perhaps one of the two or three most iconic symbols of "old fashioned."  His work focuses on remaking knife patterns that have fallen out of use and that is even amongst those that still use and appreciate traditional knives.  He is remaking stuff that is a niche even among a niche.  Given those limitations greatness is perhaps the only way he could be world renowned.

Image courtesy of  Look at that spine, it looks like a fixed blade!

He long stopped taking orders on his customs.  His knives sell in half a heart beat on custom sites for well over $2,000.  His production collaborations with Case are almost as sought after.  These runs, which are both large (relatively speaking) and expensive are generally sold out in a few months after release.  Even these production blades appreciate in value, especially the more popular patterns.  Bose is reaching the upper limits of the knife world, up there with guys like Ron Lake.  Only Loveless and a few others remain.  I have this feeling that he will start getting recognition outside the knife world very soon, graduating to that "national craftsman" position that the late, great Sam Maloof (of the awesome rocking chair fame) had before he passed away.  Make no mistake Tony Bose's blades are among the best in the world.  After reading about them and seeing one in person I couldn't help but catch a traditional knife virus.   

That Stag Handle is SO Cool

For me, it is becoming entranced by traditional knives.  I have made fun of them again and again and again on this website.  They have been the butt of many jokes.  But, as Mark Twain said, "The older I get the smarter my parents become."  At my ripe old age of 35 I have started to appreciate the beauty of a jigged bone handle and brass bolsters. I have spent hours browsing the wonderful and informative site for Great Eastern Cutlery, marveling at their nostalgic ad posters and studying their vocabulary page.

When modern knives came into being, a whole section of the business started to fade away.  There are only a handful of traditional knife companies left, the most famous of which is Case.  But there are a few die hard companies like Queen, Great Eastern Cutlery, Buck and AG Russell that still design and make traditional patterns.  Then there are the horde of resurrected brands, names that were sold to overseas companies, famous long dead brands like Hen and Rooster and Schrade that are cheap pale imitations of their former glory (you can still get "real" Hen and Rooster knives through AG Russell in incredibly small quantities and staggeringly high prices). You can also find some traditional blade designs among the modern knives of more more familar companies. CRKT has a few traditional patterns. Benchmade's purchase of Lone Wolf has injected some traditional knife feel into a very modern knife company. Even Spyderco threw some stag handle scales on to their Kiwi slip joint.

Pros and Cons

Part of this is just an appreciation for tradition, but part of it is a fascination with knives themselves.  There are design decisions in making traditional knives that are just as innovative and just as interesting as there are in modern knives--you just have to know what to look for.  In large the difference can be summarized by time v. tech.  I talked about this before, found here, but the divide between traditional knives and modern knives puts this issue into stark relief.

For example, high polish blades, generally, are more rust resistant that low polish blades, especially bead blasted blades.  The reason is simple.  A high polish "closes" the grain of the steel making harder for rust to get in, while bead blasting does the exact opposite.  For the most part modern knives overcome problems with a steel's rust resistance by just getting a more high tech, corrosion resistant steel.  For traditional knife makers, the solution is more elbow grease.  You can get a very good rust resistant finish on 440C, D2, and 1095.  Only one of those is truly a stainless steel, but the best production makers in the traditional knife space, folks like GEC, get great performance out of these "lesser" steels through a more labor and skill intensive finishing process.  There are other places where the traditional knife makes up for a materials deficiency through superior processing.  Polished interiors keep the guts of traditional knives free of rust and small pins and bolsters help finish the knife and protect the more fragile handle materials from damage.

But this is not just a story of overcoming drawbacks.  Traditional knives outpace modern designs in quite a few ways.  First, there is the overall size and shape.  Traditional knives are just slimmer.  Without the need for one handed opening, these knives cut out all of the extra width, doing away with the hump for a thumb hole or a thumb stud, or the protruding metal of a flipper.  A nail nick or a French nick may stink for speedy deployment, but they sure do make a knife nicer in the pocket.  Additionally, the traditional knife designs are usually more buffed and polished with fewer harsh edges and lines.  Handle scales are finished with wood or bone or plastic simulating bone and these feel much nicer in the hand than rough G-10 and offer only slightly less grip.  They also make the knife a nicer pocket companion.  Bolsters add class and, in many cases, they hide the exposed tang when the knife is in the closed position.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these knives are clearly in the tool camp as opposed to the weapon camp.  No traditional knife inspires the sort of shocked and scared looks that a ZT350 does, for example.  Opening a traditional knife in the parking lot of a big box store is never threatening.  Popping a ZT350 almost always is.

Then there is the final and most important reason traditional knives deserve a second look--they are working tools almost exclusively of American origin.  Aside from brands that were bought sent overseas for production, most of the high end traditional knife companies still make, design, and build knives in the US, many in the same factories they have always used.  Case is still headquartered in Pennsylvania, as is Queen.  GEC is in the same town as Queen, Titusville, PA.  Queen has machines still working that were part of the company when it was founded in 1922.  Those machines, like these knives, wouldn't still be used if they didn't work well.  And that is the thing, many of these traditional knife patterns, ones like the Barlow or the Toothpick, just work amazingly well.   They look nice to boot.

There are some drawbacks, though.  These knives weigh a lot.  Bolsters and stag and polished liners add up.  For their size these knives are very heavy.  Second, a lot of them don't have locks.  They are slip joints with stiff springs, but still.  Third, a lot of them have multiple blades and not the kind I like.  Gimme a SAK or a Spyderco Dyad where each blade does something radically different over the Congress knife with a main blade, a pen blade, and a sheepsfoot blade, all of which are basically the same thing.  Or better yet, give me one well designed blade (like the aforementioned Barlow pattern).  These knives rarely have pocket clips or lanyard holes, so they are strictly pocket knives only.  Finally there is the nail nick.  I am not going to pretend to like it.  I think it stinks, but its not the end of the world.  When using a knife speed is very rarely important, especially when you are using it as a tool and not a people poker.


You can find information about these knives on BladeForums and KnifeForum.  But they have their own, parallel universe of sites and YouTube reviewers.  Here are some of the better resources.

Collector Knife Forum:  because a lot of folks into traditional knives are in it for the collection, you can find good discussion and info here.  There are some modern knives thrown in too.

All About Pocket Knives: a larger, more populated forum with lots of info.  An excellent discussion about Case knives. 

GEC Forum:  This is a brand specific forum for Great Eastern Cutlery but it is chocked full of good info and given GEC's tendencies to go back to historical brands and knife patterns there is a lot of universal information about old and out of production knives.

Prometheus19799791: He kinda rambles.  He says funny, silly things like "boy has this knife got a lot of meat on it still."  He is not reviewing stuff so much as showing you stuff and talking about a random semi-related topic.  But he has a lot of knives and lot of knowledge and a comforting tone in videos.  Imagine if your grandpa started a YouTube channel about knives and was much younger. 

Stefan Schmalhaus: He has a bunch of different channels including one dedicated to various nationality's specific knife styles including American knives.  The production values are through the roof and the information incredibly well researched.  Basically the exact opposite of Prometheus, but both are excellent. 

Case College: this includes lots of info about knife patterns and how traditional knives are made.  An excellent and well organized resource.  

GEC's Knife Terminology Page: an excellent and well-researched, almost scholarly glossary and explanation of traditional knife terms.  Super helpful for understanding what's going on in the high end conversations in forums.  


The bottom line is simple: I am going to start covering these knives.  I am not going to make the switch entirely.  They will be scattered in with other stuff here and there.  The first up is a Queen Cutlery Mini Hunter.  Here is a sneak peek at this little beauty (it has a great "walk and talk" for all of you traditional knife fans):

If this is boring, then I will drop it.  If its not, then down the rabbit hole.  A lot of the appeal of these knives is their collector value.  I am not a collector of anything, so that will be lost on me, but I think I can tell a good knife from a bad one (though some disagree, go read the comments to the Cryo review).  Part of this is about a challenge to myself.  I can pick up a modern knife and tell right away whether I will like it or not.  I might not be able to predict its exact score, but I can get within 3 or 4 points.  I know and understand what I like about modern knives.  With traditional ones, I am starting at square one.  This should be interesting.


  1. Please do look at these knives. There was something about the Tony Bose knife you posted a few days ago that stuck with me too. When I saved up to go buy a Sebenza, I ended up pulling the trigger on a Mnandi instead. Of course, I just turned 35 a few weeks ago, so maybe we should go eat dinner at 4pm, watch Matlock, and demand our senior citizen's discount.

  2. You should check out canal street cutlery. It was founded by workers from shrade after that company went to china. Northwoods knives also makes some beauties.

  3. Hi Tony. This is my first comment but I've been lurking a while. I picked up a DF2 and an OD-2 on your recommendation and am very happy with both. This is very interesting. I was recently sharpening the knife my grandpa willed me (made in 1969) and decided to check on-line. It is still being made:

    Camillus Western Granpa TI 3-Blade Large Stag Folding Pocket Knife

    I'd love you to review the current model if you get the chance.


  4. Love Schmalhaus's videos. They are German in the best possible sense.

    I think this will be a fun direction.

  5. One thing a lot of "modern" knife guys balk at with traditional folders is the steel content/quality.

    If I'm going to drop substantial coin on a nail nick, nonlocking blade I want to be able to do EDC tasks with it, so I feel like I should be able to get a steel as good as VG-10 or Buck 420HC.

    Since you're a steel junkie with modern blades that'll add interest to these reviews.

    1. If you look at most of the higher end companies doing traditional folders, they use 1095 or D2 or ats-34 or 14-4crmo. Most all of them use high quality steel.

    2. Great! D2 and ATS-34 in particular. I'm more familiar with, like, Case and things are a little dicier with them steelwise.

  6. I love traditional knives. They're so much more beautiful to me, and for my EDC, more practical too. Glad you'll be reviewing some :D

    I used to look for locking inives only but I saw that much of the trad market was then closed off to me and so I asked myself "Why do I need a lock" and came up with "because it feels safer". That was a good enough answer for a while, but eventually I decided I didn't ever want to rely on a lock, because doing so could turn out catastrophic.
    Pros: More knives, no lock means lighter weight, easier to close
    Cons: Slipjoints arn't as quite as safe- there is the chance your blade will change direction rapidly (blade slips off/through surface) and close on you. Locks irritate me a little now that I see them as redundant.

    Slipjoint vs locking: definitely a personal preference, but I came down on the slipjoint side. I feel quite secure and at-home cutting with a slipjoint now.

  7. At last! great to see it, not least because in the UK slipjoints with blade under 3 inches are what the law allows. However, from personal experience and forum discussions, while Queen make good knives, they put a safety edge on, that cannot cut without some serious sharpening (have a look with a loupe before you start). Once you sharpen, then it is all good.

  8. There was so much to like about the TV show Men of a Certain Age. You could have more easily made a positive connection to the show Men of a Certain Age and linked it to your article, why you chose not to, is up to you to decide.

  9. Part of the challenge will be deciding how much to contextualize the categories of the 20-pt knife scale. To what extent should traditional knives get their own scale? Should they be scored head to head against modern knives on some categories? etc.

  10. Fantastic!

    I love traditionals. In a large part because of the more natural aesthetic, as opposed to the synthetic "Navy Seal" type of vibe you get from most modern knives.

    As far as EDC goes, a traditional is more than sufficient for the vast majority of people who EDC. I mostly use my knife for cutting open packages and I'd imagine it's the same story for most other people. For my uses, a locking high tech steel blade is totally unnecessary, as is a quick open function. Need proof? Let me introduce you to millions of fathers & grandfathers.

    I will agree with you however on the unnecessary redundant blades though. This is where I feel traditionals are too tied to tradition. They would often rather keep rehashing established but antiquated patterns than create useful new patterns. I don't need a blade designed to trim a horses hoof. Give me 2 basic blades at most. One for food tasks and one that I can get tape glue & grease all over. There are lots of nice traditional patterns with 1 or 2 blades, but there are others that don't really make sense in modern times.

  11. I want you to thank for your time of this wonderful read!

  12. What is a french nick? I tried looking online but I couldn't find an example anywhere.


    1. A French Cut or French Knick is also called long cut or long pull. It can be seen in knives like the AG Russell Medium Barlow.

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