Monday, December 30, 2013

Charles Gedratis Small Pathfinder Flipper

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I like to doodle.  Much to the chagrin of my coworkers I like to doodle pocket knives.  This doodle was done a legal pad over a year before I got the Small Pathfinder.  I had lost the pad in my office and when looking for the remote for my stereo at work I found it again.  That day I happened to be carrying my Pathfinder and I noticed the similarities.  Now mind you, I had no idea about the knife when the drawing was made.  None.  It was just a drawing of a knife that I'd like to own.  The fact that I now own that knife is really crazy.  Even crazier?  I did not design the Gedratis knife.  Charles did.  Notice all of the shared details--the bolster, the clip point blade, the jimping on the flipper--its all there.  What a crazy coincidence.

All of those similarities speak to just how much I like this knife.  Though this piece was not bespoke, it may as well have been.  This is a shameless love letter to the knife you see above, less objective than a normal review because, well, this is a knife I have wanted for a long time even if I didn't know it existed at the time.  Charles's (and yes grammar nerds, it is "Charles's", see here) work is simply superlative and the Small Pathfinder is an exemplar of his skill. 

As a custom knife there is no product page, but you can find Charles's work here.  This knife was originally designed for someone else and the deal fell through.  Charles offered it to me and allowed me to make some changes, like the handle scales and bolsters.  The entire knife cost $495, a reasonable sum for what I got.  There is a gallery of stuff here.  There are no reviews of this knife, as it is the only one, but here is a video overview I did a while back:



Finally, here is the knife in all its glory:

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Twitter Review Summary:   Refinement embodied.

The Process

Charles is very active both over email and in the shop.  He regularly sends out emails of newly finished knives for purchase, so if you want one and don't want to wait sign up for his emails and see what comes out.  Charles's work began mostly as art knives and his site shows off some of his most spectacular work, but recently he has started making simpler, more "tactical" designs.  I hate that word in part because it has almost zero meaning, but when contrasted with art knives I think its clear enough.  The benefit of going in that direction--from art knives to tactical knives--is obvious.  The level of skill required to make an art knife, of which I have zero interest, is much higher than that required to make a non-art knife.  The carving, the jewel settings, the scrimshandering (is that a word? Nope, its "making scrimshaw") all take skill that surpasses that necessary to cut out a lock bar from a slab of titanium.  If the person is making art knives correctly, as Charles is, they can easily "dial it down" and produce fantastic non-art knives.  Going the other direction is much harder.  

I mention this not only as a foundation for why the fit and finish on this knife is so high, but also as a way of finding value in a market increasing devoid of anything remotely approaching good buys.  Jim Skelton's recent video on the overeheated custom knife market make excellent points.  Guys that bought a 1x30 grinder two years ago are making, stop me if you have heard of these, titanium framelock flippers, by the dozens and selling them for four figures.  The secondary market prices are even worse.  In short, you really have to scour the web to find good values in custom knives.  

Charles's knives are such a value.  This is in part because he is less of a well-known name, but also because the fit and finish you get for the money is insane.  When a guy cranks out a gilded $8,000 dagger, he knows how to do the basics.  As such, for the money, your getting better fit and finish than you would elsewhere.  I know this is the case because I have handled quite a few customs and owned three and the Small Pathfinder is by far the best made and by far the best value.  This knife has the feel and finish of a high end watch, as opposed to the feel of a very well-made knife.  

I say this not slight anyone, but just to point out two things: 1) the market is going crazy; and 2) there are values out there if you can find them.  

Charles was very communicative during the process.  He responded to emails quickly and it was easy to set up a deal.  From start to receipt, the entire process took about a month.  This is probably not representative as the Small Pathfinder was already in the works when I contacted him, but Charles is fast, no doubt.  Charles also sent regular photo updates, which, if you are anything like me, is a huge plus.  Each email was a little present all on its own.  At the very end of the process when everything was done, he sent one final shot via email, with the knife completed to my specifications.  I opened up the email and it looks marvelous, but the bolster was originally not bronzed like the rest of the knife (my call).  I hemmed and hawed over this and then sent him an email back, asking for the bolster to be brozned as well. The knife was supposed to ship the next day and that seemed like a far fetched request, but when I woke up the next morning I had another email and photo.  The knife was done, bolster was bronzed, and it was in the mail on its way to me.  Amazing.  

Charles is fast, easy to find, great with emails (truly great), produces unique stuff, works well with his customers, and makes one hell of a knife.  The process was amazing, on par with the stellar service from McGizmo.  High praise indeed. 

The Knife

Design: 2

It is hard to be objective about a custom knife.  So much of the knife is stuff I chose, so it is hard NOT to like it.  This is part of the reason to get a custom knife.  The handle material--white linen micarta, is probably my overall favorite handle material.  It is a gorgeous cream color and it sets off the Damascus steel quite nicely.  The bolsters are titanium and are anodized bronze, another beautiful touch, one that again sets off the dark and swirling pattern in the Damascus.

Then there is the Damascus blade itself, patterned like smoke rising from the tip of a cigar.  I do not like Damascus, over and above other steels, but in the pattern welded variety (which is different than Wootz Damascus) it is okay.  When stainless as it is here, it is quite nice.  I'd love a Damascus blade made of Wootz Damascus, but really, at this point modern metallurgy has surpassed most of the performance benchmarks of the ancient, lost, and now-unmakable steel (wootz is no longer readily available).  Here is an excellent shot of the steel up close, with Charles' maker's mark:

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The knife's size is just perfect for me, again, something I specified from the beginning. Here it is next to the Zippo:

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The knife weighs 2.50 ounces on the dot.  The closed length is 3 1/2 inches, again, on the dot.  The blade length is just under 2 7/8 inches.  The blade:weight is 1.15, very good, fourth behind the Hawk, the Chill, and the CRKT Enticer.  The blade:handle is .82, second only the amazingly well proportioned Hawk.  This is a knife that CRAMS in the blade length as Charles pushes the pivot very far forward in the handle.

One fine touch, one that shows Charles's eye for detail is the carbon fiber backspacer that echoes the lines of the Damascus steel blade:

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This is a simple, small, gorgeous knife.  

Fit and Finish: 2

Among baseball fans there is a saying about the Hall of Fame--if Willie Mays is the standard there would be five guys in the Hall of Fame.  The same is true here about the level of fit and finish.  If this was what is required to get a 2 on the scale, there would be no other knives that scored a 2.  This knife has more in common, in terms of fit and finish, with a high end pen or a fine watch than it does with a knife.  Everything is snug, flush, and beautiful.  The blade centering is perfect.  There is no gap between the tang of the blade and the bolster when the knife is in the closed position, but just barely so, making the overall shape of the knife when closed quite pocketable.
 
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Every time I carry the knife, which is admittedly rare, I discover something else amazing about it's fit and finish.  It is like a good piece of music or a great book, there is always something new for the observant person. For example, as I was writing this review I noticed that all of the torx heads are oriented the same way.  It may be a coincidence, but it might not be.  Everything is superlative.  And this says nothing for the deployment of the knife.  More on that below.  

Grip: 2

There is a touch of jimping on the flipper and it is well cut, but not shreddy.  Beyond that, you have no real hint of "tactical" grip enhancing cheats.  This knife stays put because of an excellent overall shape, as the micarta and titanium bolsters are slick.  And really, in its intended role, as an EDC blade, the Small Pathfinder is plenty grippy.  

Carry: 2

The knife is compact, both in length and width.  It is also smooth and polished, allowing for effortless extraction and return to the pocket.  The clip is the right size and in the right place, giving you good placement in the pocket.  The weight is also just right at 2.5 ounces.  This is a superlative knife in the pocket as well.

Steel: 2

Okay, so we get to the steel.  I have long been a staunch detractor of Damascus steel.  The original Damascus was made with a material called wootz.  Wootz was a form of carbon and it is no longer available.  The steel made with wootz was very good, especially for the time.  In the Middle Ages, when steels dulled quickly, wootz Damascus held an edge forever and the edge was, comparatively speaking, a marvel.  The legend of Saladin's wootz steel sword was that it could cut free hanging silk.  That seems like a bit of hyperbole, but so would making a battery in ancient Babylon.  I am not willing to say its entirely impossible, but it is a sign of how well regarded Wootz Damascus is and was.  In 2006 material scientists discovered that Wootz Damascus contained carbon nanotubes, structures that lend material great strength and flexibility, hallmarks of the legendary steel.

I had, for a long time, looked at pattern welded Damascus as a bastardization of the original wootz steel.  Subsequent research showed me that the pattern welded variety was just as old.  It was really an entirely different material that happened to bear a passing similarity to the wootz Damascus.  The key with pattern welded Damascus, and the reason I am willing to buy a knife with such a steel, is that unlike some of the wootz variant, you can make pattern welded Damascus very corrosion resistant simply by using corrosion resistant steels in the recipe.  

Modern steels have surpassed the performance of the ancient Wootz Damascus, with scientists thinking that this occurred in the mid-20th century (a testament to just how high performing those medival steels really were).  Pattern welded Damascus, incorporating those steels, is also clearly a better material.  Its not as beautiful, in any pattern, as the wootz steel.  But it is very pleasing to the eye and, with stainless pattern welded Damascus, the traditional rusting issues that plauged the pattern welded steel, are lessened.

The steel performs very well in normal cutting tests.  I have not hammered on it as this is a pretty nice little blade, but I have used it more than its looking, price, and custom nature would lend you to think.  In short, this is no safe queen.  The edge is very toothy and aggressive, as is par for the course, with pattern welded steels.  I would imagine it is not terribly stable given that toothiness, but thus far is light but frequent use it has done fine.  Charles's edge is superb, as good as any I have seen.

Blade Shape: 2

This is a classic drop point and it works well.  There is a trick to the blade though, as you can see here:

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The blade has no recurve, but the angle of the blade's edge is such that you get the same effect thanks to the overall shape.  It is a little thing, but a very nice detail. 

Grind:  2

One thing that is hard to see in Damascus is the grind lines.  Here is no different.  The cutting bevel is well ground, wide enough for a good approach and even across the blade.  The main grind is a hollow grind, thankfully, and it appears even to the touch, as visual inspection is quite useless.  Overall I like it quite a bit, though I would appreciate a true choil for sharpening all the way to the edge.  It might be impractical on a blade this small and in a knife with such delicate use, so I am not willing to dock the grind a point.   

Deployment Method: 2

The action on this flipper is insane.  I have handled quite a few production flippers and a few customs and nothing, nothing flips like this knife.

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This is the thing, before anything else, that tells you this is a knife of refinement made by a master.  There is no movement whatsoever when the detent ball is in the detent.  Pressure builds and then the blade glides open and clicks into place.  Its not a loud thing, or a ping like you hear in so many other giant titanium framed flippers.  It is a reassuring but subtle sound.  This is not a bearing pivot either, all of the action is from a perfect detent tension and excellent bronze washers.  Overall, this thing flips like a dream, surpassing knives made by more famous folks and sold for a lot more money.  

Retention Method:  2

There are dozens of clip designs out there.  Many are terrible.  The best ones, by in large, are the simple ones.  Keep your paint scraping carved Ti clips and give me something more practical. I like this clip.  The tension is perfect, keeping the knife in place even with a smooth material underneath.  Don't screw around with clips, make them work, make them nice, and then leave them alone.

Lock:  2

Love the lock.  Easy to use, easy to disengage, no stick and perfect lock up:

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I could ask for nothing more.  This is another place, like the deployment where you can see and feel the custom quality.  Charles's work is outstanding and his locks are great.  

Overall Score: 20 out of 20

So much of this knife was made to order for me.  I can't reasonably complain about anything.  The fit and finish is so superb that it feels like a knife that should cost twice as much.  It is a vastly superior blade, in terms of look, quality and feel to the XM-18 and it is about $150 less in cost.  Charles's books are open.  He emails his list a knife a week or thereabouts for sale and a lot of them are beautiful and some of them are more straightfoward designs.  This is about as fancy I can go.  Any more and the thing ceases to be a tool and starts to be something else, something I don't want.  But this knife is something special, something beautiful, and something I am likely to keep permanently.

Why no perfect?  I don't know.  Partly I don't think I can be objective, which is why no custom I have owned has received that score.  I may come back to this after time.

For reasons that should be obvious I am not going to bother with a comparison to a benchmark.  This is a knife that was all but made to my exact specifications, so I obviously like it better.  This says nothing for the fit and finish and beautiful appearance.

19 comments:

  1. Really nice looking knife. Way out of my price range, but if I ever had the money, I'd go with something like that.

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  2. Since you raised the point about grammar...

    Charles's knives = correct
    Charles's fast, no doubt about it = correct only if you're refering to the fast that Charles took.

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    1. Actually, Tony is technically correct: you may use an apostrophe S as a contraction with "is" EVEN with a proper noun (and yes, even with a name ending in S). Although it can lead to a miscue, there's no rule against it.

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    2. Sorry Tony, I stand corrected - thanks Gus. Happy new year!

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  3. The doodle is really cool, and not exactly the same as the custom knife, but very close. I know you prefer folders, but That design you drew made me think of the Zero Tolerance 0160 fixed blade, which looks almost exactly the same but for the folding and a bump or two. Here's the page for it: http://zt.kaiusaltd.com/knives/knife/zt0160
    It's a small fixed blade you might like, about 5 inch blade, right in the middle of the 4-6 inch mark for fixed blades. I don't know, I just thought I'd mention it. Thanks for all the great reviews.

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  4. Very beautiful, and just utilitarian/plain enough to carry. Wonderful knife.

    That's one of the few Damascus blades I like. Perhaps because the "Damascusing" (speaking of verbal forms that don't exist) is subtle enough that it scans as a uniform texture, like stonewashing albeit much richer.

    What are the steels used in the Damascus recipe?

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  5. I just received my own Small Pathfinder Flipper from Chuck. It has mammoth bark handle scales, blued Ti bolsters and liners, and an S30V blade. It's truly an amazing design that blends both modern and traditional aspects into a cohesive piece. I'm looking forward to carrying and using the ish out of it.

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    1. Oh, and I forgot to say thank you for this review (and all the work you do for the gear world). I had been aware of Chuck's work for some time, but I had no idea that this model existed in his repertoire. Without having read your review, I would have glossed over his FS posting for this Pathfinder and never had the chance to own such an awesome knife.

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