Monday, July 22, 2013

Spyderco Southard Review

One thing that I have had to really work on in doing reviews is correcting for and anticipating the hype. A product is previewed, tons and tons of folks love the way it looks, and the hype train pulls out of the station. By the time the product hits, the hype train is traveling at an unstoppable speed. The prerelease hype for the Cryo is one of the reasons why I was so taken aback by the knife. My fear that I negatively and unfairly reacted to that hype is one of the reasons I decided to do a re-review (the score changed only slightly).

I mention this because the hype for the Spyderco Southard was also insanely high. This hype train left the station the minute the video on the Southard was put up on Spydercollector's website. This knife has a lot of really great features, features that, until its release, were not found on any other Spyderco knife. The most important feature was the flipper, though the bearing pivot was a close second. Even now, the Southard stands alone in those two ways in the Spyderco line up. It also debuted a new Carpenter steel, one designed compete with B-U's Elmax, so clearly the showdown was on (there is, of course, a shootout coming between this knife, the Benchmade 300SN, and the ZT560). Spyderco made a bold statement with this knife. The question is whether the hype train got it right. 

Here is the product page for the Spyderco Southard. This is a pricey production knife coming in around $250.  Here is the Edge Observer video overview and here is the Edge Observer's written review. Here is Nutnfancy's video overview.   Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Spyderco Southard if not they are all sold out, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Finally, here is the Southard I received on loan from a generous reader:


Twitter Review Summary: This is a weird knife.  Not bad weird.  Just weird.

Design: 2 

This is a weird knife. There are all sorts of amazing features and displays of manufacturing skill right next to some truly boneheaded ergonomic gaffs. It is wildly popular as it has been sold out virtually everywhere for a while and sporadically on and off since its release, but that is to be expected--this is the first Spyderco entry into the Ti flipper framelock arms race.

On the one hand, the flipper is sumptuously designed and implemented. Its gentle shape and perfect size and positioning make this knife a joy to flip. You can flip the knife with no wrist action at all. Excellent. The Ti side of the handle is excellent as well--clean and rounded. But on the other hand there are a few weird things--the humpback whale blade shape is strange though effective, the routed edge on the handle scale allowing for access to the thumb hole (which doesn't work really) is very pokey, the cut outs to allow the lock bar to bend in are pokey, and the pocket clip is bad.  All of these issues are addressed by specific categories below, so I am not going to ding a point here.

The size of the knife is probably one of my favorite things--this is a thick knife but it is not so wide that it is a pain to carry.  The non-functional hole doesn't need much of a hump allowing the blade to really lay in the handle.  The ratios are decent.  The blade:handle is .77.  The blade:weight is .84.  Neither are records.  Both are around average.  Here is a size comparison with the Zippo:


Here is the knife in my hand (along with the Peak Eiger):


The funny thing is that if the Benchmade 300SN was so thick in the scales that it looked like a hamburger, I couldn't shake the impression that this knife looked and felt just like a hot dog, with the brown handle scale doing a good bun impression.  

Fit and Finish: 1

Here is something that is definitively un-Spyderco:


This is how I held the knife when I was flipping it (or one of the ways).  Note where my finger tips fall--right on the lock bar cut outs.  Usually this is no big deal as they are rounded over or on the inside, but here, they aren't they were actually a little sharp.  This is definitively un-Spyderco for two reasons.  First, putting your fingers right over the lock bar cut outs is a something of an ergonomic flaw.  Second, the crude finishing on those cut outs is even bigger flaw.  Both together is just downright shocking from Spyderco, especially on a $250 Spyderco.   The pocket clip is like this as well, but I will leave that for below.

Here is how a great custom maker does it:


The rounded off edge on the ridges in the lock bar cutout on the EDMW is a great touch and something that could have easily been done here. 

The weird thing is that the fit is superb, even if the finish is not.  Look at how perfectly the overtravel tab was machined into the handle:


Holy cow that is nice.  There are other touches like that.  Blade centering is insanely perfect.  The lock side is quite nice to the touch other than the cutouts.  And the flipper oh man that flipper.  It is literally the perfect size and shape for a flipper with an excellent polish to it.  It is not so polished as to be slick, but it is finished nicely.

A mixed bag here leads to a score of one.  The cutout problem and the pocket clip problem are just unacceptable from a company like Spyderco on a knife this expensive. 

Grip: 1

This is one category where I have debated between a score 1 and a score of 0.  The G10 is too grippy.  But it is not so bad as to sink the knife, not like the G10 on the Cold Steel Mini Recon.  Its too grippy, but not offensive.  But that is not the real problem.  This is:


That routed edge on the G10 around the thumb hole is really unpleasant when using the knife.  In a normal forward grip your index finger drapes over the beginning of the router cut on the left side of this picture.  Unfortunately that little router cut creates one hell of a hotspot even in mild "folding knife appropriate" uses.  Unlike the rough G10, that is actual problem.

Then there is this:


This is allegedly jimping, in the same way that Whitey Bulger is allegedly not guilty.  In both phrases "allegedly" means something like fictitious.  In fact, it actually tucks into the knife BELOW the handle scales, not that it would do much if it were above the handle scales.

These things together mean that the knife should get a zero--two pretty major flaws equal zero, but here is the strange thing: the curved shape of the handle really makes up for the flaws.  This is a knife that seems bent into a perfect ergonomic shape for your hand, another example of this knife getting the big stuff spot on and then missing with easy, small details.  Tough cuts induced no real slippage as the coarse G10 made up for the alleged jimping and the slight banana shape (both because of the thick scales and because of the curved handle) just worked.  That counts a minor redemption here, so the overall score is a 1.    

Carry: 2

The knife tucks into the handle so well that the overall profile, despite the hot dog bun handle slabs, is still quite slender, especially for what is essentially at 3.5 inch knife.  I was impressed at how the knife rode, even in shorts during hikes and running around chasing my little one.  The clip placement is better than that on the ZT 560 and the overall knife is just slimmer.  It carried very, very well for a knife of its size.  Not quite as well as the Manix2 LW, but there is a reason I gave that knife a perfect score. 

Steel: 2

I tried to get the TCC numbers on this steel, CTS 204P (here is the product page for the steel), but Carpenter didn't have them (they did give me the TCC numbers for CTS XHP and BD-1 which are 808 and 566 at ideal hardnesses; see the Manix2 LW review comments for more).  The Elmax comparison is apt, both in terms of its performance and it is recipe.  CTS 204P has 1.9% carbon, Elmax 1.8%.  CTS 204P has 20% Chromium, Elmax 18%.  Even the more esoteric elements are similarly proportioned: vanadium in CTS 204P is 4%, in Elmax it is 3%.  There are strong similarities with Duratech's 20CV and BU's M390 as well.

For all of the quirks and weird finishing touches, this steel is simply awesome.  Like the Elmax on the ZT560 it just cuts and cuts and cuts.  It runs forever without needing a sharpening.  I will be honest and say that I didn't beat on this knife because it was not a review sample or my own property, but in the test cuts I did, whittling, cardboard cutting (CURSE YOU small recycling bin!), and paper, it did exceptionally well.  It also exhibited zero corrosion, but that is not surprising for a steel this advanced.

Blade Shape: 2

Okay, this goes back to the Twitter Review Summary, the blade shape here is just WEIRD.  I am not sure what the small hump is for, and I don't like the look of a blade without a flat portion behind the belly on the cutting edge.  But here is the thing--for as weird as this looks, it cuts like crazy.  I love using this knife for all its quirks.  


It cuts very well, in part because of the blade shape and in part because of the negative blade angle which presents the cutting edge to the material in a very aggressive way.  I absolutely love the way the blade shape works.

Grind: 2

This is a hollow ground knife, an excellent one at that.  This too makes the knife a very good slicer.  I really like hollow ground blades, especially when they are done well on very hard steels as you can get a really, really thin cutting bevels.  The cutting bevel is nice and even and wide enough to register on sharpeners.  It is not super wide, but not too narrow.  

Deployment Method: 2

At the tail end of the testing period for the Southard I got in a full custom flipper from Charles Gedraitis.  With that in I was able to compare the flipping action on this knife to a knife that has more in common with a high end watch than a knife, at least in terms of its fit and finish.  With a ceiling like that, the differences between a production and custom flipper were clearer.  This does not flip as well as the Gedraitis.


That is not the whole story.  The truth is that I have reviewed quite a few production flippers and this is as good as the best of them.  I think the flipping action on the Southard is as good as the flipping action on the ZT 560.  It is better than the flipping action on almost every other knife (though, funny enough, the flipping action on the Kershaw Chill is incredible, its a Martin design, so really what do you expect?).  Having had a representative and large sample I can say with little reservation that no production knife flips better than the Southard.

Why?  Well first there is the size, shape, and finish of the flipper itself.  This is a pull flipper and it works very well.  The bearing pivot also helps.  This is a big blade and flipping requires a careful management of momentum, especially with a large knife.  Here, the bearing pivot makes that easy.  Next, there is the excellent, point perfect detent.  The detent is more than strong enough to keep the blade in the handle when it is shaken, but not so strong as to stop even the most lazy flip attempts.  All of this works together to make the Southard a gold medalist in flipping.

The difference between the custom flipper and this knife is not subtle though.  In production flippers there is this sense of wiggle.  You push on the flipper and the knife moves a little in the detent and then boom it explodes.  In my Gedraitis custom the flipping action is more of a zero-sum event--pressure on the flipper does nothing at all to the blade until the critical point and then it is an effortless, seemingly friction-free glide of movement.  That amount of tuning is something that is simply not feasible in a production knife and so, while the Southard is great, it is not in that stratospheric echelon of very good custom flippers.  The Gedraitis flips better than quite a few customs I have handled, so the comparison is not exactly fair but I think it is interesting and informative, so I included it in this review.  

Retention Method: 1

This clip is pokey to no end.  I am not the only person to mention this.  It also cannot be reversed or switched to the pivot end.  It creates hotspots in use as well.  Blah.


But it does do a good job of holding the knife in place, much better than the ZT 560's clip, for example.  I don't mind the lack of deep carry either, but the pokey point is again another small detail that doesn't match up with what Spyderco normally does. 

Lock: 2

Its a framelock.  Its a good framelock with a clever and well-made overtravel prevention device.  At this point framelocks are just passe.  The lock engages and disengages easily.  It is quite stable.  It is an excellent lock.    

Overall score: 17 out of 20

The devil might not be in the details, but the last three points of a perfect score certainly are.  This is a very, very good knife.  It is not a perfect knife though and the odd thing about it is the places where it falls down are not the places where Spyderco's usually fail.  Here the problems are small ergonomic details, something Spyderco is renowned for.  The mistakes here are frustrating because the knife overall is wonderful.  The steel rocks, the flipper is amazing, but the tiny errors are annoying.  Its like a fumble on the 1 yard line in a kickoff return.  In the end, the best I can say is that this is a weird knife.  Very good and inexplicably off at the same time.  There is a reason why this knife is one of the hottest mod platforms for custom knife pimpers right now--lots of good bones with little things that can be corrected.


High End Production Flipper Shootout Coming between this, the ZT560, and the 300SN.  Stay tuned.


  1. Do you really feel that the benchmade punches in the same weight class as the other two knives?

    1. Not really. The ZT and Spyderco are definitely in a higher tier in terms of fit and finish, but he BM 300SN is significantly cheaper. I don't score the shootouts beforehand, so I don't know, but I think the price difference will make it competitive.

      And hey, it does have the best pocket clip of all three knives.

    2. This is a weird knife. There are all sorts of amazing features and displays of manufacturing skill right next to some truly boneheaded ergonomic gaffs.
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  2. Very interesting review -- a good read with lots of food for thought.

    Maybe the various minor ergonomic & design missteps are a result of trying to translate Southard's signature into Spyderco's design universe, which turns to be based on different premises: overall look, thumb hole opener, our expectations from the decades of using the Glesser designs, etc.

  3. I might agree with Anon here. Although I didn't notice the ergonomic or finish issues you did with my knife (pocket clip excepted) it did have several quirks, for better or worse. Overall, the charm and "uniqueness" of the knife won major style points in my book along with the fact that it performed really well. Funny that I didn't feel that the knife carried particularly well. My guess is that you will probably like the Domino more - it is a much plainer knife and will probably give a much similar experience to the other Spydercos out there.

    I handled one at Blade and it was well made, satisfying, and I don't doubt it will be highly functional, but from a design perspective it is kind of boring in comparison to the Southard. Good review.

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  4. So what ever happened to the high end flipper review? I haven't seen one on here and if you haven't written it yet, you should get on top of that, as it seems like an important comparison to make! You should also throw in the ZT 0801 and maybe a Kizer to the fray and see how they perform!

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