Thursday, October 24, 2013

Spyderco Air Review

What would happen if you took the shape and weight of the Al Mar Ultralight and the cutting performance and opening hole of the Dragonfly and combined them in a single knife?  You'd get the Spyderco Air.

I am not going to waste time here--this is a superior knife.  This could very easily be your only EDC knife and you'd be perfectly happy.  This could very easily be your EDC knife in a collection that contains many $1,000+ customs and you'd be perfectly happy.  This could very easily be your EDC knife even if you don't care about knives and you'd be perfectly happy.  Frankly in two and half years I have found nothing that works better in an EDC role than the Spyderco Air (though the DFII is its equal).  Gayle Bradley, the designer, and Spyderco slayed it.  This is an excellent design.

It is so good very few other knives even come close.  In fact, to find its peer performance-wise, you have to float into other products.  It reminds me very much of the Pilot Vanishing Point.  That pen was so singularly focused on an immaculate and flawless writing experience that everything else, even the placement and shape of the pen clip, bowed to that lofty goal.  Here everything bows to one thing--unparalleled cutting performance.  The clip could screw up the ergos, so why bother?  This focus renders a knife so deviously genius in its design that it appears perhaps a bit too simple, a bit too undercooked.  Don't be fooled.  This is the apotheosis of the EDC knife.

Here is the product page. The Air costs $156. Here is an excellent written review from the Spyderco Forum.  Here is a video review.  Here is an interview with Gayle Bradley about the Air.  Its not great, but that is all there is. Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Air, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my review sample:

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Oh yeah, it photographs like Scarlett Johansson, looking good no matter the angle.

Twitter Review Summary: Sublime cutting in an amazing EDC knife.

Design: 2

It may not seem like it, looking at the knife, but there is an impressive amount of design that went into this blade.  Every single facet of this knife is focused on promoting a superior cutting performance.  The handle is perfectly sized, matching the length of both the Al Mar Hawk Ultralight and the Dragonfly II.  The letterboxing provides the handle a semi rounded shape.  The silver twill, which looks nice, is actually grippy.  Even the thumb hole hump is placed perfectly.

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I can get four fingers on the handle without cramming and I just love the smooth opening.  The Air, thanks to its dimensions, is my favorite knife of this size.  Unlike the cramped feel of the Ultralight or the wide stance of the DFII, you get smooth open and a slender package.  Mr. Bradley, you did an excellent job here.

I shot this while outside so the Zippo wasn't with me.  I figured a dollar is another good size reference as everyone has a dollar. 

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The ratios are a mixed bag.  The blade:handle is .74, which good, but not as good as I thought it would be.  It is worse, for example, than the blade:handle on the SOG Flash I, which is .78.  It is no where near the awesomeness that is the Al Mar Hawk Ultralight, which clocks in at .84.  The blade:weight is much, much better, almost hitting the 2:1 line at 1.96 (the Hawk was 2.81).  This is the second best number I have seen, ahead of the Chill, but behind the Hawk.    

Fit and Finish: 2

Jeez Lousie.  At some point we have to tip our hats and just say that Taichung Taiwan made knives aren't just the best Spydercos, they are perhaps the best production knives made.  Sure Chris Reeves are their equals and he has been doing it longer, but I think the pivot here and on my Zulu are better than the pivot on the Sebenza.  This is an immaculate and detailed fit and finish down the cut outs in the titanium liners.

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All of this is in service to a supremely flawless cutting experience.  Really, truly a marvel of manufacturing. 

Grip: 2

Here is the Air in a full four finger grip:

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I was surprised at just how much grip you get with this blade.  The letterboxed onlay makes the handles feel rounded and the twill provides more than enough texture.  I really like this knife in the hand.  Note that again jimping is unnecessary.  You won't be chopping here and stabbing is unlikely so why bother with jimping?  Don't need, don't want it. 

Carry: 2

As a true pocket knife, the Air is simply splendid in the pocket.  The silver twill is tough enough to hide dings and scratches and the entire knife is very thin.  The dimensions are virtually identical to that of the Al Mar Hawk, something I can't imagine was a pure accident.  This is the Spyderco version of that knife, complete with the steel junkie steel and opening hole.  

Steel: 2

M4 is amazing.  We know that because in a slow process of convergent evolution all of the BladeSport competitors now use M4 (with horse mat handles).  We also know that because M4 has received rave reviews on the Internet.  But this was my first time with M4 and I wanted to make sure that it was not just the new "flavor of the month" steel.  After two weeks of use, trust me--this ain't no flavor of the week.  M4 rivals ZDP-189 as my overall favorite EDC blade steel.  When a steel is called a super steel, it really means it is new (or new to the cultery world).  Rarely is the steel that much better.  But M4 earns its name.

I did a lot of fire prep and whittling with the Air and the ultra thin ground M4 took off big slivers of poplar from my fuzz stick.  Then it shaved my arm hair like a razor.  We got in three large packages this week and I broke down all of the boxes.  The Air passed through the massively thick cardboard so easily and quickly that it felt more like a zipper than a knife.  After this it still popped hairs off my arm.  I then did some food prep (after cleaning off the glue, Goo Gone is great in that role), slicing apples and peeling off shavings of potato skin and carrots almost transparently thin.  I then cut a bunch more cardboard and took shavings off some bocote leftovers from a handle mod I did.  Even in this tough oily wood, the M4 still took off even, thin chunks.  

I punished the edge on the Air and it did not relent.  I would imagine that Cliff Stamp's Gavko mod, where he thinned out the edge of the already thin M4 would make it a better slicer than the stock blade, but I have to tell you, I can't imagine that.  After all of the cutting, the edge still slices paper.  I am not exactly sure what I can do to kill the edge, other than straight up abusing the knife (which I am not going to do).  

Some slight coloration started to appear, but I was able to take it off pretty easily.  In that one regard I think ZDP-189 is better, but in terms of toughness M4 has an edge.  Both are pretty darn hard.  Again, steel is always a trade off between those three attributes and here M4 does something different than ZDP-189, but certainly not worse.  There is a reason all of BladeSport uses M4.  It is incredible.  

Blade Shape: 2

Wharncliffe blade shapes are excellent for utility tasks and the Air's is quite good, exhibiting the smallest amount of belly.  It makes slicing very easy and piercing simple.  This is not a blade shape for chopping, but with a knife this size chopping isn't practical. 



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Note also the true choil here, a rarity among Spydercos and one of my few complaints about the brand as a whole. 

Grind: 2

I can't imagine it, but Cliff Stamp's Air is even thinner ground than stock.  This is an impossibly thin ground knife to begin with and that, coupled with the super steel, make this knife the best slicer I have ever seen.  Its a full flat grind and in a nice aesthetic touch, the grind lines are both prominent and at an angle.  Sweet.

Deployment Method: 2

If I have one criticism of the Hawk it is that it is hard to deploy.  Even with nice thumbstuds the whole blade feels really, really cramped.  Here thanks to the magic 1.1 inch distances from the pivot to the thumb hole the Air opens easily.  Additionally, the extra smooth pivot makes the knife feel extremely high end when deployed, similar to the sure and gliding open of a custom liner lock.  Enough cannot be said about how good the Taichung, Taiwan plant is at making knives.  

Retention Method: 0

This is the first and perhaps only knife I have ever considered given a 2 for retention method, despite the lack of one.  Hear me out.  Which kind of clip is a choice related to retention method, but having a retention method at all is also a choice and in some circumstances I can see where choosing no retention device is the right call.  In a Texas Toothpick or other traditional patterns a clip can't work without destroying the grip of the knife and so eschewing one in that situation would be a good idea.  Here though I can't rule out the possibility of a very good wire clip or perhaps a spine riding clip.  Either way, I think it is possible for a clipless knife to score a 2, but this isn't that knife.  

Lock: 2

Liner locks are so underrated.  They are virtually indistinguishable from framelocks 99% of the time and they still allow you to have a nice looking knife on both sides.  Here the lock is a little crunching making a squeak when disengaged, but that noise went away as the Ti broke in.  When I finished testing the Air, it was smooth. 

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I do not like the extra divot in the handle for lock access.  The thumb hole cut out works fine.  But since it had no impact on performance and only a minimal one on aesthetics, I am not going to dock the knife a point.  Still in a future run of the Air (and their will be, this is a classic design) I'd like to see no second divot. 

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

I love the Air.  It is a thin, small, slender knife.  It is the knife I have been looking for a long time (the Hawk, the OD-2, the Aphid, etc...).  It has the ease of opening that comes from the Spyderhole, but little of the width the hole usually requires.  Even non-knife knuts will appreciate the Air.  Every single person that has held the knife commented on just how light it is.  It is a feather of a blade, a feather that is a razor as well.  I am still on the fence about whether or not the knife needs a clip.  This is a wonderfully sized blade and a clip might screw up that wondrous, focused design.  You cannot go wrong buying a Spyderco Air.  The $156 price tag is really nothing for what you are getting--a knife that performs as well as any I have used, custom or otherwise; a knife that is as light as you can expect; a knife that looks gorgeous as well.  This is the state of the art for production knives in 2013. 

Two peas in a pod:

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With this knife and a few others recently I have tried to step up my photography, let me know how I am doing in the comments.   Also, if you have any photography book recommendations, let me know that too. 

23 comments:

  1. I really like the looks of this knife, but $156 is too expensive. Yeah, I know you get what you pay for, but you can get a VG-10 DF2 for less than a 3rd of that and a ZDP-189 DF2 for less than half.

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  2. Thanks for the review! Well written, and to the point, as always. I've been looking for a small, clipless folder to replace my aging Gentleman's Sog for a long time now, and this might be it.
    The photos look good, maybe you should try some kind of external light source and illuminate the subject, in order to make it stand out from the background?
    Check out Bruce Barnbaum's "The Art of Photography".

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  3. Very attractive photos. A little more direct light on the product would be good.

    Excellent review. This is an exciting blade, one I will almost certainly buy. I think your 18/20 was fair. A slim, 2-way positionable tip up clip would complete the knife. Imagine something slim and inobtrusive like the OD-2's clip, in either polished or stonewashed stainless (can't decide) with really good finish. That would work and not screw up the beautiful lines.

    I am pleased to see there are three screws on the Air's handles. The Chaparral (also a Taichung Spydie) uses only two screws, and while that looks elegant in photos, on my Chap they didn't adequately secure the carbon fiber scales against the knife frame. You could feel the scales lift off the knife a bit under your palm in use.

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  4. Yes, lighting bad. Not pleasing to eyes. Stressful and uncomfortable, although sharp and in focus.

    Is this knife good enough to dethrone Dragonfly II ? ...especially considering price difference and resulting value?

    And now for something completely different. The Krave brand beef jerky you recommended was so moist the texture and even the taste somewhat resembled red licorice. Tried the teriyaki version. Really caught off guard that you liked something so highly that I thought was uneatable.

    Realize taste is subjective, but this stuff was awful. First time I have differed significantly from your usually great reviews/recommendations.

    Still a big fan though!

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  5. The Krave pork teriyaki jerky you tried is their worst variety. I agree, too sweet and insipid soft texture.

    I really only like the beef jerkies, but they are excellent. Stick to the spicier ones. Try Garlic Chili Pepper and -- my favorite -- Chili Lime. They are the real deal.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you Anon R.D. for the reply about the jerky. Otherwise I would have written Krave off. Will try the Chili lime. Agree completely with your assessment of the teriyaki. Thanks for the help.

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    2. The basil citrus turkey jerky isn't bad at all.

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  6. http://www.everydaycommentary.com/

    Nice review. I am onsidering buying this object now.....

    Regarding photography.
    Look at those sites that show how to do "product photography"
    Don't be afraid to get really close. Invest in a telephoto macro lens if possible. If not go telephoto to get close.

    It's all about the lighting:
    If outside dot take pictures in the middle of day. Early morning and late afternoon light is best.
    Set the colour temperature of your camera to the light source. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT.
    Use a wide open aperture, the most you can get to achieve bokeh
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bokeh
    This means bright light. You need better indoor lighting so invest in correct colour temperature bright bulbs and lamps. They don't need to be pro. Mine are from IKEA.
    Use a tripod. This lets you take long exposures so light doesn't need to be as intense. You can even "paint" the light on with a flashlight.
    If using a tripod get a remote trigger for camera so theres no shake.
    Take angle shots and shots from perspectives other than POV.
    This amateur EDC photographer takes fantastic images: lighting perfect, focus perfect, camera setup perfect, composition perfect, product styling perfect.
    http://edcforums.com/threads/misterss-edc.98941/page-138

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  7. Hi Tony,

    Nice review. I managed to get my hands on one of these at a knife show, and I quickly dismissed it. Maybe that was a mistake. I will say that I ended up selling my Gayle Bradley in M4 because the steel was difficult to keep free of oxidation and that kind of bothered me, although the performance was extremely impressive. Not sure I am ready for another M4 blade unless it's coated (or perhaps clearcoated like Benchmade apparently did with their Contego).

    I also have to say that I would have a hard time kicking my Alox Cadet out of my pocket in favor of the Air. While it isn't as cool as the Air you really can't beat how durable and care free the cadet is - I throw it in my pocket with a flashlight and keys without hesitation. I'd have a hard time doing that with any other knife over $20 honestly. At any rate - not complaining, just thinking out loud. Nice review as always and I like the outdoor photography.

    Dan

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  8. While I think most of your points stand, the choice of M4 as a steel is pretty confusing. In a knife of this size, why prioritize toughness over corrosion resistance? Surely a different steel would be better for this role - it's not like you'll be batonning with this.

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  9. Its the high hardness that makes M4 a good choice. It hits 62-64 HRc and a TCC of 900 at 61 HRc. That level of hardness allows it to be ground to a very fine edge, as it is here. The toughness prevents it from chipping out when it is so ground, unlike, say, S30V. Its lack of corrosion resistance wasn't an issue that came up in the testing period and I did cut food, like apples with it, without being meticulous about cleaning it. I really liked the steel.

    As for the jerky, see also Divine Bovine. Its good but soft too.

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  10. It looks beautiful. I've lusted after this model for a long time. But without a clip I know it won't be carried. For this style the Chaparral Carbon Fiber is a winner for me.

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  11. Out of curiosity, was this a review sample or a personal purchase?

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    Replies
    1. Review sample from Blade HQ.

      After this comment I am going to make clear in the review if it was a review sample, a review sample from a sponsor, a product purchased with site money for giveaway, or a personal purchase/gift.

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  12. Love this knife. Going to purchase one today.

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  13. This knife is a superb EDC blade.

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