Sunday, March 31, 2013

Spyderco Native 5 Review

When you review gear, you worry about covering all different kinds of stuff. You want to get a good, representative sample of a company's product line. So a product's placement within a product line is important. You never want to cover too much of the same or similar thing.  With that goal in mind Spyderco's non-sprint, non-rotating product line is just baffling. Why do we need, for example, both the Cat and the Ambitious? Do we really NEED two budget friendly, G10 handled, flat ground knives with 2.5 inch (or thereabout) blades?  Do we really need the Superleaf, the Manix 2, and the Paramilitary?  Why the Gayle Bradely Air and the Centofante Memory or the Air and the Chapparal?  There seems to be so much overlap.  But Spyderco certainly knows better than I do when it comes to what the market can bear.  Its just that sometimes I am at a loss as to what to cover.

This point, however, misses the fact that for most people, product lines don't mean much. They just want a good knife. It is just hard for me to focus on that. When I got and reviewed the Paramilitary 2 I was so taken with the knife that I didn't feel the need to review other hard use folders from Spyderco like the Manix, Superleaf, and Military. Likewise when I reviewed the Caly3 CF I didn't feel the need to review other higher end 3 inch knives like the Sage and the Native 5. But that is a dumb reason. You might want the Native 5, so I decided to stop worrying about product lines and dumb stuff like that and just try the Native 5 out.

Here is the Native 5's product page.  The Native 4 is still being made, oddly enough, and there is a special edition of the Native 5 with Moonglow scales for EDCF.  Here is the Spyder Source page on the Native 5. Sal Glesser designed the Native 5. Here is an excellent Nemo Knives written review of the Native 5. Here is a video overview of the Native 5. The Native 5 is, right now, available only in the S35VN version. There will be a sprint run later this year with CF scales and an S110V blade. Additionally, the Native 5's lines are significantly different from those of the Native 4, but are virtually identical to those of the sprint run Native 4 with CF scales. Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Native 5, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Finally, here is the review sample of the Native 5.

IMG_0019

Design: 2

The specs and the scale I used show this is a 3.75 ounce knife, but it feels much heavier thanks to the stainless steel liners, the closed construction spine, and the lockback. This is a brick, but thankfully the liners are drilled out providing substantial weight savings. The humpless design an amazing variant on the classic Spyderco shape. The cut outs in the handle not only afford good (though not great) access to the thumb hole, but also work well as choils for your finger. The thing that I kept thinking using this knife was: boy this looks and feels a lot like a Strider. The spear point, the flat ground blade, the pronounced finger choil, it all seems similar. Then you realize that it is not the same thanks the clunky lockback. It is a very good design, but probably not the best or most clever.

Here is a shot of the Native 5 compared with the Zippo.

IMG_0020

The blade:weight is .80. The blade:handle is exactly .75. The blade:handle is in the middle range of the knives I have reviewed. The .80 is also in the middle range.

Fit and Finish: 2

Once you get beyond the entry level and mid level knives (like the Tenacious and Delica respectively) Spydercos actually have very, very high end fit and finish. The Native 5 was no exception. This is a very polished and refined blade. The rear spine with its sandwich of G10, steel, and G10 is very, very smooth, so smooth in fact it is difficult to tell where the liner ends and the spine for the lockback begins.

IMG_0017

The G10 is radiused to provide a good feel in the hand and the thumb hole is perfectly sized and cut. The front lock pivot is positively massive, providing a good deal of shock resistance, something like the stop pin in a Tri-Ad Lock. All of the screws are perfectly flushed to the body and the blade is remarkably well-centered. This is a remarkably finished knife for the price, especially when compared to the PM2, a similarly priced knife but with a more rugged design.

Grip: 2

The jimping is very good. The G10 is moderate coarse. These make for a good knife in the hand, but nothing makes this blade sing like the curves and cuts and choils for your fingers. This is one hell of a knife in hand and it is because of the amazing profile.

IMG_0014

Sal really hit a home run with this one.

Carry: 1

Its not so much that the blade is heavy, but it is very dense. It does feel like a brick and drops to the bottom of a pocket like a sack of rocks. There is some banging around, in part because of the dispersion of the weight but also because the clip is nothing special.

Steel: 2

I mentioned this in the EDMW review, but I'll say it again here--S35VN is quite an impressive technical feat, despite the moaning on the internet. Read about the steel, do some research, but really make up your mind only after using this blade. As the fourth knife with S35VN that I have reviewed I can say this with confidence--this is a top tier, all-round amazing steel.

Blade Shape: 2

You never need a complex shape to make a knife a good cutter. It is, in my opinion, universally true that simpler is better. The Native 5 is an example of this. The choil is good and the ricasso, a usual problem for Spyderco knives, is decent here.

Grind: 2

Whoa baby. This knife's thin full flat grind makes the blade one of the best production knife slicers I have ever used and the stock is not exactly thin. I ran it through a battery of cutting chores, paper, cardboard, paper again, and arm hair, and it did very well. In the group I was testing the Native 5 hung in there with a custom blade (an excellent one at that) and though it didn't surpass the custom edge, it didn't embarrass itself at all. The cutting bevel is good as well, wide but not so wide as to promote rolling or chipping.

Deployment Method: 1

The pivot is smooth but slow, as most nice higher end lockbacks are. You can't really flip it open, but it does roll out pretty darn well. The thumbhole is great, but the humpless design means that it is partially blocked when the knife is closed.

IMG_0012

It is not a major issue, but it is not exactly user friendly for knife newbies. Not one of my favorite Spyderco thumb holes

Retention Method: 2

The Spyderco spoon-style clip is a good design. It is not an absolute top tier design, but it really does work well. Sometimes its probably best to just leave well enough alone and go with what works. That is the story of the spoon-style clip.

Lock: 2

As far as lockbacks go this is a exceptionally smooth one. The front pivot for the lockbar is huge, helping disperse shock throughout the lock. I really don't like the weight the lockback adds here, but in the grand scheme of things it is not all that significant. The knife still weighs less than 4 ounces. The lock itself is superbly crafted and introduces no blade play in any direction, a rarity for lockback designs which can have significant issues with this kind of problem.

Overall Score: 18 out 20

Don't worry that the PM2 is more rugged or the Caly 3 is more refined, the Native 5 is an amazing knife. It is a thunk in the pocket, but not as heavy as it seems. It is amazing the hand and slices exceptionally well. I don't love the partially occluded thumb hole, but it still works. The lockback is smooth and upgraded over a standard version. The steel is great. This is a very good, but not great knife, but if the Caly 3 is too snooty and the PM2 too rough, it is the Goldilocks choice for Spyderco fans.

CORRECTION: Okay, this gets confusing, but here goes. I got the nomenclature on the Native line wrong. The Native 3 is the knife still being produced along side the Native 5. It has S30V steel and FRN handles. The Native 4 was a sprint run and came in CF scales only. I had mistakenly thought that it was a variant on the Native 3, something like the FFG version of the Delica 4 (which could have been called the Delica 5, but isn't). The Native 4 is not being produced anymore. If you want to buy a Native, you can get the cheaper Native 3 or the Native 5, the knife reviewed here. The Native 4 with CF handles has the look and shape of the 5 without the G10 handles and the S35VN steel. The Native 3 has a different, and worse, grind on the blade and the front choil is not as refined as it is on the Native 4 and 5.

Thanks to Reed for bringing this issue to my attention.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Steve Karroll EDMW Review

Custom knives are difficult to review because it is hard to get a review sample, but they are also hard to review because of biases we develop when making decisions and spending money.   I have written about this before, but it is worth repeating, especially when evaluating customs knives: we as human beings have a STRONG attachment to our decisions, right or wrong.  It is one of the things that gives rise to the fanboy phenomenon and it is so widespread that there is a psychology term for it--Post Purchase Rationalization or the sexier name, Buyer's Stockholm Syndrome.  In the invocation of the name "Stockholm Syndrome" can be appropriate.  People, having laid out a huge sum of money, identify not with their captors, but with their purchase.  Otherwise how can you explain the fact that there are fans of Saabs?

Getting my EDMW has undoubtedly blinded me a little.  I am telling you this up front because it is important for you to know going in to this review.  I have wanted this little folder for ages.  About 18 months ago I attended a knife show, the Northeast Cutlery Collectors Association Show.  At the show I met Steve Karroll.  He had a few fixed blades on the table and in front of him, in the very center, two small folders.  They were titanium framelocks.  Both were around 3 1/2 inches closed and both were beefy.  One was still a work in progress as the lock bar was VERY tight.  He let me flick one open and play around with it.  I was really surprised by just how unique it was.  The grinds were immaculate, the blade shape was unusual, and the over all feel in hand was surprising, given its size.  I contacted Steve later and was in the process of ordering one when finances got a little tight and told him to hold off.  Fast forward a year of saving pennies and I placed an order.  Less than three weeks later I had this in my hand:

IMG_0034

Steve has a Facebook page, found here.  There is no written review out there, but there is a video review found here.  Because there is no product page, and because this is a custom with significant variation between versions, here are the specs of my knife:

Weight: 3.56 ounces
Closed Length/Handle: 3 15/32"
Blade Length: 2 9/16"
Blade Thickness: 3/16"
Handle Scale Thickness: Just under 1/8"
Total Thickness (including pocket clip): Just over 3/8"

This is a titanium framelock.  The blade steel on my EMDW is S35VN.  I paid $360 for mine, included in that price was $10 for shipping.  Here is another shot of my EDMW:

IMG_0035

Yes, I know I could clean it up a little.  I was in the process of lubing it up and cutting stuff for testing when I took these shots.  Right now there is only one source for these knives, Steve himself.  He can be found at soulpatch at cox dot net (in the usual format).

Design: 2

This is a knife that has similar shapes and sizes to a good but flawed knife the Spyderco Leafstorm.  The blade shape is similar to the Leafstorm--a pronounced drop point or a modified wharncliffe.  Both are frame locks.  Both have thick blade steel.  But this knife fixes a lot of the problems the Leafstorm had--clip is straight, there is no stupid beard to the blade, and the handle is very comfortable in the hand.  It really does melt into the hand, even the pinky is not out there on its own as it works nicely behind the rear of the knife, clearly a design feature Steve had in mind when making the EDMW.

A great deal of thought went into the rear tang of the knife too.  It is hidden nicely the handle and does not collect lint or debris at all.  Furthermore, Steve crams the pivot as far to the edge as possible without any weird stuff.  Finally, the design makes for a nice lock engagement.  The thick steel and Steve's taut lockbar mean there is plenty of space for break in over the years.  All of this works with a positively massive stop pin.  The overall design is a superbly thought out framelock design.  

It stunned me when I pulled this guy out of his bubble mailer and felt the thunk.  It is a huge, thick piece of steel.  The blade, glorious S35VN, is truly massive in width, very close to 3/16 inches thick, but the length, in my mind is perfect for EDC use.  This is borne out by the ratios.  The blade:handle is .74 and the blade:weight is .72.  The blade:handle is actually quite good, closer to the SOG Flash I's very nice .78 (close to the record held by the Hawk at .84) than the Delica's .68.  The blade:weight is about par, nothing close to the Hawk's insane 2.81, but close to the Cold Steel Mini Recon I (which was .83).  Steve manages the first by tucking in the blade neatly to a unique handle shape and the second by saving weight on the pocket clip and the handle scales, both are made of titanium.   

IMG_0041

Fit and Finish: 2

One thing that concerned me a little when I first got the knife was some up and down blade play.  It was very slight, very slight indeed, but still there.  This is my first locking custom knife and I thought that it might be because of the really sticky lock, which barely engaged.  But after incessant (like wife-telling-me-to-stop-it incessant) opening and closing the knife, a miraculous transformation took place.  First, the lock bar got less sticky.  Second, the lock face engaged more of the blade tang.  Third, the blade play vanished.  With more of the lock pushing on the steel and an angle involved in their interaction, the blade was pushed forward by a thousandth of an inch or so and suddenly this thing felt as solid as any locking knife I have ever owned.  After perusing the web I found that this does occasionally happen.  Custom knives do need a bit of a breaking in period.  Now this thing is like a bank vault door--solid.

Other touches evince the work of a true craftsman.  The edges are nicely finished and the grinds are spectacular, of course.  The thumb studs, which are a new design just for my knife (how cool is that to write?), have a bit of texture to them, allowing for easy "coin flip" opening.  The pivot is gliding smooth and this, coupled with the textured thumb studs, makes for one hand, no wrist action opening.  Still more touches betray a fastidious maker--the ridge between the two cut outs on the lockbar has been smoothed out; the jimping is grippy but rounded over making for an inviting feel, and finally, the back spacer is perfectly flush with the handle scales.  Superb.

Grip: 2

This knife is a three finger grip that handles like a four fingered one.  Steve's handle shape gives you the ability to lock in your ring finger and the curve on the rear of the blade creates a nice refuge for your pinky.  I would imagine it would be even better with a lanyard, which comes standard (I hate lanyards so I declined, but I just might make one myself).

The jimping is outstanding, without question the best I have ever had the fortune to use.  Here it is:

IMG_0038

The rounding provides a smooth in pocket feel, but when oriented properly in the other direction they simply do not let your fingers move forward.  This is perfect jimping. 

Carry: 2

I bought this knife because I wanted something smaller than the small Sebenza.  Mission accomplished.  It simply hides in the pocket.  It fits in a coin pocket in even the skinniest of my jeans, which, admittedly are not too skinny (I am a Dad after all and we all know what Dad Jeans look like).  The knife is a bit heavy for its size, but nothing noticeable at all, especially because the clip is amazing.  More on that below.

Steel: 2

Don't buy the hype or the hate, S35VN is a great steel.  This is the third knife I have had with it and it always performs very well.  It doesn't chip or roll, and it is not a monster to sharpen.  It is as rust prone as plastic.  A great deal of the anti-S35VN backlash is very similar to what happened when CRK switched from BG-42 to S30V.  This is a natural by product of the dethroning of a king.  Sure S35VN is different, but it is not worse.  It is, in my experience, equal to or better than S30V, which was pretty darn good as a starting place.   

Blade Shape: 2

The modified wharncliffe is a perfect work blade shape.  Enough belly to do roll cuts and a good strong tip for piercing and starting cuts in the middle of material.  The swedge is effective and does shave off a few tenths of an ounce.  It also happens to be pretty aesthetically pleasing.  Here is the blade in profile:

IMG_0036

Grind: 2

This is thick hunk of steel.  That means you need a pronounced hollow grind to get a fine cutting edge.  That's exactly what Steve did.  The result is a stout blade that can still slice.  How good a slicer is it?  Well, in an effort to standardize my cutting tests I have started doing batch cutting tests.  The first thing I cut is some paper--10 cuts from an edge.  Then I cut some cardboard (I saved some scraps from the Christmas box overload)--10 cuts again.  Then I do some arm shaving and back to the paper.  I do this with three or four knives at a time.

In this batch I had the EDMW, the Native 5, and the Kershaw Chill.  The EDMW, despite the thickest blade and steepest hollow grind cut the paper most easily.  The Native 5 and the EDMW were virtually indistinguishable on the cardboard.  The shaving part was easy as well.  The final paper pushing was, again, better with the EDMW.  The Chill, unfortunately, finished in last place on everything.  More on that in the Chill review.

All this tells me one thing--Steve's grinds are masterfully done.  They made this thick steel cut like a flat ground thinner stock which is really amazing.  They look great, sure, and the cutting bevel is a nice size, but they actually work very, very well.  The Native 5 is a good test because it is the same steel in a thinner stock with a flat grind.  It should, in theory, cut the cardboard better, but it is hard, if not impossible, to match the quality of the grind on a custom, hand ground blade.  Its something that no matter how good the production quality is, you simply can't match in a mass produced good.  This is one truly large difference between a custom blade and a production blade--the grinds are sweeter than honey.  The EDMW proves this in spades.  You get the beefy stock with superior cutting performance.

From Steve, I have never had a knife this sharp and the grind coupled with the steel has kept it that way for about two months of very frequent use.  I'd give it a 3 if I could.

Deployment Method: 2

Thumb studs, it seems, aren't bad per se, I have just never had a good set.  I have changed my tune on battery choice over the years and the EDMW shows me why I was wrong about thumb studs.  The studs here, which are textured or roughed at the end on purpose, offer superior traction and allow for the knife to be flicked open one handed with absolutely no wrist action at all.  Using the coin flip method (placing your thumb finger nail under the stud, between the stud and the handle slab, and then flicking up like you were flipping a coin), you can pop this knife open as fast as any flipper or assisted opener.  The detent is excellent, helping quite a bit in this process.  Overall, I am extremely pleased with how well this knife deploys and I think it might be time to reverse course on the thumb stud hate.  Good thumb studs, it appears, are actually more than merely acceptable. 

Retention Method: 2

There are pocket clips that stink, pocket clips that are non-entities, and then there are truly great clips. 
IMG_0032

This is the latter.  It is wide and flat with no weird angles or abruptly up turned lip.  Instead it is incredibly tight to the handle of the knife and excellent during use.  It grabs on tight but still allows for quick retrieval in part because the clip itself is positioned on the knife perfectly, unlike, say the crooked clip on the Leafstorm.  I like it a lot.

Lock: 2

This is post-break in lock up:

IMG_0040

That is a lot of room left for wear in and a good sign of how durable this knife will be over time.  The stickiness scared me at first but after a few days and some feverish internet research (and asking Aaron) I found out this was normal and that it would go away in a few days.  After it did the lock up is perfect--solid, no lockbar wiggle, and still easy to disengage.  Excellent.

Overall Score: 20 out of 20

If you want a great small custom blade you don't have a lot of choices.  JB Blout makes a few nice ones, as does the much more established Chuck Gedratis.  After that, the list is thin.  But this knife's size is on the start of the treats.  The fit and finish is amazing, the grind is lightsaberish, and the handle design is brilliant.  The price is great and this is a perfect place to start your custom obsession.  Steve's production capacities are limited, his workshop is actually about a half hour away from were he lives, but if you can, hit him up.  The blades are sweet.  In the end, this is why you buy a custom knife.  You get the size you want, coupled with innovation and immaculate fit and finish.  This is a tool that I will cherish and one that I will use for years to come.

One last note though.  I think Steve stole this design from someone and I wanted you to be aware of that.

Compare this, the Tyrant's Tooth:


and the actual Tyrant's Tooth:

Steve might need to pay some royalties to a certain giant theropod. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Curtiss Nano Review

EDITOR'S NOTE:  This week will feature two reviews, this one and the review of the Steve Karroll Everyday Modified Wharncliffe, both of which are custom knives.  This is a happy coincidence, but really both are nice entries into the world of custom blades.  If you have listened to the podcast, you know that Aaron and I both have a thing for custom blades and once you are bitten by the bug, it is hard to not be at least interested in the hand made side of things.  You can get a custom blade for less than you think and doing so supports small craftsmen, people that often drive the tastes and innovation of the entire market.  Things you see in the custom world have their way of finding a home in production knives sooner or later.  With that said, enjoy Custom Knife Week.  I'll try to do the same thing for flashlights down the line.  Also, if you are a custom maker looking for some additional exposure, contact me at anthony sculimbrene at comcast dot net (in the normal format), and we can arrange something. 

Custom knives seem to come in two varieties--big and ginormous. The celebrity knife makers, for reasons unknown, make products as if no one will touch a knife under 2.5 inches. I guess it is an issue with scale--it is harder to charge $500 for a 2.5 inch knife, but honestly you rarely, if ever, need more than that. So when the Curtiss Nano was released I thought it looked exceptionally interesting, neat because of what it wasn't--silly stupid big.

It is very hard to review custom gear. There is never any extra stock, as most makers are small time producers and anything made must be sold. So when a reader of the blog offered to send me a Curtiss Nano for review in exchange for touch ups and sharpening, I leapt at the chance. A few emails later and the Nano was on its way. It was the reader's wife's knife, stowed away in a purse for a while. The clip was loose as the screw was removed and the scales were loose as well, again due to a missing screw. Finally the blade and pivot were coated in some surface rust. The reader told me all of this and also told me it needed to be sharpened. All of this was a small price to pay for a chance to review such a nice knife.

Here is the product page. Here is a video review of a special edition Nano. Here is a written review of a Nano. The review sample I received was a gen 1 Nano, missing Curtiss's SPOTs pivot (the pivot acts as an over travel stop for the lock bar, similar to Warren Thomas's pivot over travel). As a custom knife it is available from Mr. Curtiss directly or from one of his resellers.Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the custom Curtiss Nano, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ.

Here is my review sample (thanks Seth):

IMG_0026

Design: 1

After about an hour in my workshop I got the knife into very good shape, razor sharp and tight as a drum. There is no word that better describes this knife than solid. It is a small, curvy folder that locks in your hand resting between your ring and middle finger on one side and your thumb on the other. The frame lock thunks into place with car door like authority.

There are a bevy of nice touches. The lock bar has a raised and jimping spot for your thumb to disengage the lock bar. The clip is a bit of whizz bang water jet cutting. The G10 has an Anso pattern that really locks in the hand. But the nice touches give way to a fundamentally solid and tiny design. The Curtiss Nano Custom is, perhaps, the finest backup blade of all time, perfect for handling utility tasks while not scaring anyone. The gentle S-shape to the entire blade is simply perfect. Here is a good shot of the knife closed:

The ratios are hard to overlook, they reason this knife gets a 1.  They clearly demonstrate the big boned nature of this little blade.  Here is a size comparison to the Zippo:

IMG_0023

The blade is 1.75 inches and the knife closed is 3.00 inches for a blade:handle of .58, the worst of any knife reviewed so far. The blade:weight is equally bad, as this knife tips the scale at a bulky 2.8 ounces, giving it a blade:weight of .63.  Hardly the Al Mar Ultralight. But you know this going in.  You know this is a chunky hunk of metal.  Still, if one or the other were better ratios I wouldn't be so critical, but both being bad is tough.  Certainly not a deal breaker, but just a little lighter would have been nice. 

Fit and Finish: 2

It is one thing to feel solid right from the factory. It is another thing entirely to still feel solid after being rebuilt from a state of relative dissasembly. Once I put in all of the screws, torx BTW, and tightened them down the Nano was a brick, a tiny hunk of tight, taut steel. Everything is precisely cut, a given in light of Curtiss's waterjet business, and the blade was finished nicely. I really liked the vaguely Anso pattern cut into the G10 scale.

Grip: 2

The knife is small. You know that. The name tells you that, but what you might not know is that this thing locks into your hands like it was glued there. Sure you only have a two finger grip, but the curve of the handle coupled with the sizable and effective jimping and the G10 pattern means that this little blade ain't goin' no where.

IMG_0029

But in case you thought that was it, there is more. The pronounced indentation on the spine of the blade is a perfect rest for your thumb in real power cuts (which are easy, given the knife's heft) or your pointer finger in precision slicing.

Excellent and versatile grip all on such a tiny knife. Quite the achievement.

Carry: 2

The knife is short but wide and it weighs a lot for its size. You know that going in. This isn't a Hawk Ultralight. But it can handle tasks you'd never conscript your Hawk into doing. It slides into a coin pocket on jeans with NO complaints.  It's clip puts it snug against your leg.  This is a beefy knife, a hard use folder that happens to be less than two inches long. That is a positive most of the time, but when you are on a hike and this thing is banging into your leg, the almost 3 ounces will feel excessive.  Very good, but not the best ever.

Steel: 2

This is my first experience with CPM 154, the powder metal version of 154CM. The experience has been an overwhelmingly positive one. The knife came to me with some rust and after some cleaning and buffing I got all of the rust out but the blade was marked. I don't know the conditions it was in when it acquired the rust, but it cleaned up well and held an excellent edge. Furthermore the rust didn't spread and new rust didn't show up during my review period.

Blade Shape: 2

There is no other knife that looks or cuts like the Nano.

IMG_0028

It is a testament to Dave's design chops that this little blade can do so many different things. I cut paper, cardboard, twine, plastic, and lots of tape (wife's bday was March 3). It handled everything with simple grace. There is plenty of tip and plenty of belly. None of it goes to waste. The shape and size are amazingly efficient in every task I put before the Nano.

Grind: 2

This is a simple grind on a unique blade shape. It works well and it is a flat grind. Additionally the swedge does save weight as this is a thick blade. Finally, the swedge makes stabbing a bit easier. I also like the wide, pronounced cutting bevel, which allows for easy sharpening.

Deployment Method: 1

The thumb oval works, but it is neither fast nor comfortable. In part the deployment might be slow because of how tight the knife was after I touched it up. In reality thought the thumb oval was merely okay. It was too narrow, it caught a good portion of the thumb pad, then bunched it up. A thumb disk or a thumb notch (like on the Mnandi) would work better. The disk would have the added benefit of giving a wider spot for you thumb to rest on in high pressure cuts.

Retention Method: 2

Curtiss's pocket clip is something a polarizing thing. Some people thing it is gauche and over done, more complicated than needed. Others love the machining talent that the clip evinces. I don't think I need to resolve this split to tell you that the clip works very well--great tension, smooth going in and coming out, and not a snag magnet.

Lock: 2

Oh I love the Curtiss version of the frame lock. I especially love this:

IMG_0030

Lock disengagement is wonderful, actually. Easy and fluid. Engagement is about 25%. This is an excellent rendition of a beloved lock.

Score: 18 out of 20

This is a stout blade, but in the end you can overlook the weight because this knife can do virtually anything short of batonning wood. I am so grateful for the opportunity to review this knife. It is a excellent knife, absolutely worth the money. Dave Curtiss also has an amazing reputation.  Among knife knuts few makers are seen as being as accessible and prompt with custom blades.  His waterjet abilities give him the capacity to make a TON of stuff in batches virtually eliminating the wait associated with other custom knives, making his stuff the PERFECT first custom blade.  The broad utility and clever shape of the Nano make this a great place to start among Curtiss's wide array of great knives.  Version 2, with the SPOTs looks like it makes a good knife better.

The Boker version, a production blade, has cheaper steel (440C) and certainly lacks the level of refinement you'll find in a custom. The Boker, however, keeps the overall shape and that is the thing that makes this knife a winner. I haven't reviewed the Boker version, but it seems like only the fit and finish could derail it from being at least a decent knife.

If you are looking to get into a custom knife or want an excellent backup blade, this is it.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Prometheus Alpha Pen Review

Reviewing gear is really fun.  I don't have to tell you that, as I am sure if you read this site you'd agree with that statement.  But sometimes it is more fun than others.  Reviewing the Alpha Pen was perhaps the most fun I have had with any review.  Let's face it--the majority of the world is just not excited by the technical marvels of a XML emitter or the engineering genius of a Compression lock.  People, generally speaking, don't care or notice these details, but it is impossible NOT to notice the Alpha.  This is as bold a statement pen as I can imagine and still be practical.

I used this pen exclusively for a week, enough to kill a Montblanc Fineliner refill (more on that below), and in that week, in and out of court, around the office and around town everyone--every single person--that saw the pen commented on the pen.  Jason's aesthetic is cohesive, clean, and when electroplated, as gleaming an example of the new craftsman gear movement as I can imagine.  You want people to ask about your gear?  You want to introduce people to stuff made by talented, small batch craftsmen?  Carry the Alpha.  It is all you'll talk about.  And when they ask to borrow it so they can write with it, which they will do about 90% of the time, they will then ask you if the pen was expensive.  And in comparison with other pens of this level of refinement the answer is a solid and convincing "no."  Even people who find our multi-hundred dollar flashlights extravagant are pleasantly surprised at just how affordable the Alpha really is.  This, folks, is a conversation starter of the first order.

The Prometheus Alpha Pen is a project from Jason Hui, aka DarkSucks on CPF.  Jason is a truly great guy, nice, down to earth, and incredibly responsive.  He also happens to be one of the people that really does push the envelope in terms of design, performance, and fit and finish.  Jason gave me my first review sample product, the Alpha (formerly known as the MC-18), an 18650 light that was cutting edge a year or so ago when I reviewed it and still compares favorably to the market today.  He also made an aftermarket clip for the Surefire 6P that happens to fit the G2X Pro and a bevy of other lights as well.  Finally, he made the aftermarket clip for the Eiger, a clip I truly love.  The 6P clip was my Accessory of the Year for 2012.  After those ventures Jason started a crowd sourced venture capital project for a Preon clip and recently he started a Kickstarter for the Alpha, found here.  There is only one source for the Alpha and, aside from this, no other reviews.  Jason OVERNIGHTED two pens to me, the prototype aluminum pen and the prototype titanium (pure, CP2 grade Ti, not the 6Al4V ti-aluminum blend customary in knife handles) pen.  Here are the twin jewels:

IMG_0033

I am going to do a joint review, like I did with the CRKT Drifters.  

Design: Ti: 2; Al: 2

The Alpha pen is very similar in appearance to the Alpha light.  Here are the pens with the caps posted:

IMG_0035
 
The large scalloped section in the center ends in the writing tip on one side and the posting section on the other.  There are threads on both ends of the barrel and they are fine threads.  The pocket clip is standard Prometheus--simple elegant perfection.  It is capped off with a beautiful brass bolt providing a nice color contrast to either the titanium (which is tumble/satin finished) or the electroplated aluminum (which is as high polish as you can get before it becomes a mirror).  The grip section is covered in hatching and the rear portion of the pen terminates in a makers mark--the only form of branding on the pen.

Nothing is excessive here, nothing is superfluous.  All of the lines and shapes serve to make the pen nicer in the hand and/or nicer in the pocket.  This is a tool that your hands crave to touch (insert dirty joke here). 

Fit and Finish:  Ti: 2; Al: 2

Jason's fit and finish on every single thing he does is incredible.  Here the threads are beautifully cut:

IMG_0044

In a week of screwing and unscrewing the cap they never once cross-threaded.  The edges of the pen cap are clean and the pocket clip is smooth to the touch.  Everything is as clean and as rounded as it looks.  This is a statement in machining skill.

This pen takes only two refills, more on that below, but the result is a pen that is super tight and dead simple--no spacers or springs.  Closing the pen with the refill in provides a bit of physical feedback, but once the grip is threaded to the body tube the pen seals up like a submarine hatch.  It is amazing demonstration of just how fine the tolerances are on this pen.  I am fairly certain there is no practical import to that demonstration, but it is pretty impressive nonetheless.  And didn't Mercedes make a series of commercials about how awesome their car doors are?  Some people are impressed with stuff like this and I am one of them.  
 
Carry: Ti: 2; Al: 2

Some nice pens are heavy.  The TuffWriter Ultimate Clicky (which is made of aluminum), is, for example, a beefy 1.70 ounces, while the Ti version of the Alpha is 1.76 ounces and the Al version is 1.20 ounces.  The lack of a clicky mechanism certain saves all that weight (especially when you compare like materials).  But neither Alpha is so heavy as to be difficult to carry.  Add to that a superb clip, truly superb, and you have a pen that is an excellent pocket companion.  Here is the clip:

IMG_0043

I might be a little wary of the finish on the Al version, but you have a breast pocket for reason, right?

Appearance: Ti: 2; Al: 2

These are two totally different pens in terms of appearance.  The overall look has enough personality and flair to distinguish itself from, say, the Fisher Space Pen or the Zebra F-701, but it is not so ostentatious as to look like a mere desk pen.  This pen looks like it does work (because it does), especially the Ti version.  The Ti pen as the burnished smooth feel of a piece of worn metal, something that has been buffed by years of carry and use.  It makes an excellent EDC pen and you have little to worry about even with the most rowdy pocket companions, such as keys.  The Al pen, on the other hand, looks like it belongs in a glass case next to a Meisterstuck.  It is that nice.  But after you use one or the other you'll realize--either version does work and lots of it.

Durability:  Ti: 2; Al: 2

Beating up the Al version, with its lustrous finish, is very hard to do on purpose.  The Ti version looks like it can soak up damage.  Holding one of these pens in your hand tells you that both can take a beating.  I am always worried about flair out on the ends of caps for metal pens, but in a week of use I have seen none.  The clip is worthy of special mention--this thing is a beast.  It is unlikely to be damaged under any normal circumstances and it is brilliantly simply. 

Writing Performance/Refill: Ti: 2; Al: 2

The Alpha only takes Montblanc refills.  That's kind of like saying you can pick any car you want so long as it is a Ferrari, but still.  Here is a writing sample of the Fineliner.  The top paragraph is written with one running out of ink and the other with a new refill:

IMG_0053

The Fineliner is a very distinctive refill.  It is a felt tipped refill with incredible bold lines.  This is not, in the end, all that fine.  It comes is blue and black and produces some really stunning lines.  The problem is that the Fineliner allows for very little variability in the line, with almost no possibility of shading.  Additionally when you are taking detailed notes, making drawings, or doing sketchnoting, all of which requires a fine line to cram everything in, the Fineliner fails.  I am no fan of needle-like tips, rarely dipping below a 0.5mm, but this is simply too thick.  For regular old notetaking the Fineliner is superb--fast drying and vivid.  It is also excellent for signatures.  For anything requiring a finer touch, it probably won't work well.

The roller ball refill should also work here and should fix a lot of these problems.   I haven't used one, so I reached out to someone that knows more about pens than me (and probably most other people)--Brad Dowdy.  He told me there is no finer version of the Fineliner, but assured me that the roller ball refill from MB was quite good.  With this information, I can't do anything but give the pen a 2.  Your limited in your choices, but your choices are all good.  If you like the feel of the Fineliner, you'll love this pen.  If you haven't tried it, give it a shot.  It is definitely interesting.  If you don't you can fall back on an excellent roller ball. 

If you are committing to a single refill format I am not sure there is a better choice than the Parker format in terms of versatility.  But in terms of quality alone, Montblanc is hard to beat.  This is a Montblanc only pen.  People that would buy it probably already like MB refills.  If you aren't already an MB fan, make sure you aware of this before you buy the pen.  If you are, or have an open mind, you won't be disappointed. 

Balance/In Hand Feel: Ti: 1; Al: 2

This is the only place where the scores depart for the two Alphas.  Both are balanced to the back end, probably around 3/5ths of the way up the body towards the posted cap, but not obnoxiously so.  They don't give you that "crane boom" effect that a lot of too heavy pens do, like many of the Montblanc's I have handled.  You know exactly what I mean.  They have that feeling of being just out of your control, a bit wobbly, and a bit off.

The Ti is just a tad heavier, as you can see above, and while the balance is still perfect, it is probably too heavy for me.  The Al version, however, sings in the hand.  I have used a lot of pens over the years and none have felt as good in the hand as this one.  The Ultimate Clicky is a beefy pen and going from that to the Al version is like taking the donut off a bat.  I feel like I can write forever.  I did a 5 hour hearing with the Al version and took over 20 pages of notes, all handwritten, and I did not crap up once.  

Grip:  Ti: 2; Al: 2

Whether it is the tumbled Ti or the polished Al, the grip is outstanding.  Horizontal ribbing runs up the pen and provides ample grip without being obnoxious.  Here is a good look:

IMG_0046

There is also threading towards the very end of the grip and I was worried it would chaff in the hand, but it was perfectly fine.  After the threading (which is for the cap), there is a raised portion for the main body tube, and again I thought it would be a problem, but wasn't.  Even with the incredibly polish of the Al version, there was no slipping at all.  Furthermore, the pen and the grip are not so fat that they feel like a caveman club or a plump cigar, but they are also not spindly in the least.  Excellent size, shape, and traction. 

Barrel:  Ti: 2; Al: 2

Let's be honest, barrels don't do much.  They should be like baseball managers and interfere as little as possible.  At most, they should look good and not screw with you when your writing.  The Alpha's barrel, with that visual reference that harkens back to "an elegant weapon for a more civilized age", is gorgeous.

IMG_0050

It is not so jarring as to be outright "tactical" but it also doesn't just sit there either.  It is part of Jason's aesthetic and I very much like the way his lights look, so it should come as no surprise that I like the barrel here.

Deployment Method/Cap: Ti: 2; Al: 2

Caps drive me crazy and I was worried that this pen, with its cap, would push me over the edge.  But then something happened--I feel in love with the ritual of unscrewing the cap and screw it on to post it.  It added an air of ceremony to the act of writing.  In reality it is not that inconvenient to unscrew the cap and it adds a great deal of stability to the posted pen.  I'd prefer no cap, but here, in this pen it works.  I am glad it is threaded.  Before this review I hated capped pens--more stuff to lose, less stability in the hand--but now I realize it was not the cap itself, but the designs was I was using.  The threads fix many of my concerns. 

Score: Ti: 19 out of 20; Al: 20 out of 20

Design is about choices and here Jason's choice to use Montblanc refills is an important one.  If you know that going in and like the refills, then get ready because this is an amazing pen.  I was worried about the lack of a clicky, but having the pen be well balanced and just the right size when the cap is posted covered over those fears.  This is a sweet pen and a testament to Jason's skill and craftsmanship. If you are already a backer of the Kickstarter project, the wait will be too long as this is something you will enjoy using and owning.  If your not, it is definitely worth the dough.  Even if you don't like the Fineliner refill, the roller ball should be fine and the overall appearance of the pen is amazing.  If you are the jobsite type, the tumbled Ti should be your weapon of choice.  If you are the suit type, trust me on this one, the electroplated Al will be a showstopper.  Truly an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.  

I work on the final score a lot in a review and in this one I really focused on the last point.  Awarding something a 20 out of 20 is an event.  I don't want to do it.  But sometimes the products demand it.  I was using this pen on the last day of the review period when a judge and another lawyer both asked me about it.  I gave it to the judge who seemed surprised at how nice it was.  The other lawyer used it as well and was blown away.  He is not a gear guy, but he instantly loved it.  This thing is a showstopper, both in terms of appearance and performance.  Some might not like the limited refill options, but both choices have their pluses.  Others might not like the cap and prefer a clicky, but this is a very well designed and implemented cap.  In short, this is a GREAT pen.  Backers on Kickstarter this is a Tale of Two Cities: the best of times (when you get the pen) and the worst of times (the time spent waiting for it).  In the end though, you will be pleased--this pen is truly wonderful to look at, use, and carry.  Its a good thing too, as you will probably have this thing for the next 20 years.

Jason any interesting in making knives?  

Monday, March 18, 2013

Pen Scoring System

I have played around with this for a while and I think I have it down pat.  You should note that I am not reviewing pens as a person on Fountain Pen Network would.  I am not concerned, per se, with "exotic" resin barrels or rhodium nibs.  As with all my reviews I am looking at pens with an eye towards practicality and use.  I use my $500 flashlight and my $400 custom knife.  I am going to use any pen I buy.  I find collector's items to be a waste, especially if you are collecting something that is supposed to be used, like a pen or knife.  Art is one thing, tools are something else.

Pens are significantly different than the other kinds of gear I have reviewed here.  This is why it is has taken me so long to figure this out.  Two big differences come to mind immediately: durability and appearance.  Talking about durability on a modern flashlight or knife is really quite silly; they are essentially bombproof (comparatively speaking).  Additionally, while looks are important for knives and flashlights, often times you will buy a pen SOLELY for looks, knowing that you can swap out a refill you like into a barrel that looks better.  I would never specifically address looks in any other kind of product review, but with a pen, because it is quite often a statement maker, looks are critically important.  Obviously looks are purpose dependent, as I wouldn't want an everyday user to look like a Montblanc Meisterstuck and I wouldn't want my high end, impress-people-pen to look utilitarian.  There are some other differences between the scoring systems so I'll lay them out below.

Here we go:

As is the case with all of my reviewing systems, an item is scored 0 to 20.  There are ten criteria or categories examined in each system, with a possible score of 0, 1, or 2 in each category.  If a product does not perform in a specific category, it gets a score of 0.  If it does okay, about par with the rest of the products in its category, it gets a 1.  If it does exceptionally well, it gets a 2.  A score of 20 out of 20 is a very good score, but it may not make something perfect.  In order for a product to be perfect and get the EDC seal:



It has to both get a score of 20 out of 20 AND be something I would really care and use.  For example, the TAD Gear Dauntless is probably the best or one of the best production knives I have ever handled, but it is simply too big for my tastes.  Reviews are, in the end, always biased and subjective, and so, to get that perfect score seal, the product needs to both flawless AND match my tastes.  In a rare instance, a product will be a total fail and still get a respectable score.  In those cases I will note that in the review.  This has happened only once, the Lighthound AA light, which did a lot of things right but had a completely busted UI, so much so that no matter the score, it was something I could not recommend. Finally, if you look at the review database, found here, you'll notice a very large number of products with scores above 10 (which should be the average, given the range of the scale), but since I am picking products that I am at least mildly interested in, you will see very few truly awful scores, like single digits.  I am not bothering to review those things.  On occasion something will look interesting and turn out to be TERRIBLE, but that is pretty rare (see Gerber Artifact).  I do a good deal of research before I buy something for review, so most of the garbage is filtered out before I get a review sample. 

The first three criteria are the same as on a knife or a flashlight and so I am not going to into detail on how I will approach these aspects of a pen.  Here are the three common criteria.  For definitions, see the flashlight scoring system here and the knife scoring system here.

Design
Fit and Finish
Carry

The next seven criteria ARE different and so I am going to break them down a little bit more and talk about them individually, and if possible, provide real world examples.

Appearance

Let's face it, a pen, in this day and age, is often used as much as a statement piece as it is as a tool.  When you go to your doctor's office and he busts out a Montblanc, you take notice, especially if it is a Starwalker (image from Montblanc).

 
If you went to a financial advisory and they had only BICs you'd think twice.  Maybe this person is thrifty because they are a financial advisor or maybe they are just broke.  Either way a pen's appearance is important because pens are, like watches, often a statement.  A barebones, get stuff done pen shouldn't be overly shiny and bejeweled, but a "deal signing" pen for a Fortune 500 CEO should probably be a little fancier.  Use, as always, will determine what kind of appearance is appropriate.  Ideally, you can find a pen that looks great in any setting.

This doesn't necessarily correlate with price, as this is a very good looking pen that sells for less than $30 (image from JetPens):


That is a gorgeous, simple black resin Retro 51.  As pretty and as refined as this pen is and as nice as it writes it fails in another way.  See the next category.

Durability

With flashlights and knives, the materials used are generally so tough that there is no real point in discussing durability.  In 50 million years from now, when we are dinosaurs, our lights, or their body tubes will still be around.  Not so, however with pens.  These are precision instruments and the cost of that precision is durability.  There are quite a few places to check--the knock (or clicky), the internal springs, the nib, and the pocket clip.  The Retro 51 I had failed at the pocket clip, then the twisty failed as well.  What do you expect for a $25 pen where all of the resources were spent on looks and sourcing a great refill?
                    
Writing Performance/Refill Compatibility

There are four major types of pens: ball points, roller balls, gels, and fountain pens. There are, of course, other types of pens, but these are the major groups. Fountain pens, for all of their old school feel and design, are still the cutting edge in terms of writing performance. Ball points, roller balls, and gels merely improve the convenience and the performance of the ink, but in terms of actual writing, the Old Lady is still the premiere tool (image from penfountain.org):


The fountain pen can do it all, writing wise.  It can vary line thickness with ease, it can provide significant shading (the difference between the writing at its darkest versus its lightest), and it provides unrivaled physical feedback.  The down side is that fountain pens tend to be more messy, more fragile, and more expensive.  But if writing experience alone is your top criteria, there is nothing better.

Ball points (and roller balls) disperse ink via a small ball at the type of a long cylinder filled with ink. The inks in ball points are usually oil based, allowing them to dry faster than other inks, and to go on more surfaces more easily. The problem from the perspective of pen addicts, is the feel and look of ball point ink. They tend to be much more muted than the inks found in fountain pens or gel pens. Additionally the high viscosity oil-based inks tend to dampen feedback, making it virtually impossible to have the same feel for the paper that you get with other pens. Roller balls are essentially ball points that use gel ink and gel pens are the traditional "needle tip" pens. These two pen formats have bold colors and better "page feel" than ball points, mimicking in some ways the best features of a fountain pen with less maintenance and care.

A good writing experience, regardless of pen type, focuses on a few things--a lack of skipping, good "page feel" without scratchiness, and the ability to vary line thickness and allow for shading. A fountain pen typically does all of this well, and good fountain pens are untouchable in terms of these traits, but good roller balls and gels can get close. Other formats, like felt tips (such as the Sharpie pen or the Mont Blanc Fineliner) also do well. Ball points, however, fall behind all other formats in terms of skipping, page feel, and variability of line.

That is writing performance.

But in some pens, you can swap refills making writing performance not dependent on the pen but the refill. In pens that have swappable refills, the brand or type of refill is important. The Fisher refill, one widely preferred in the gear community, is a ball point refill in the Parker format. Cross has a different and incompatible refill. Mont Blanc has its own refills as well. The most widely used refill format is the Parker format. You can find a huge variety of ball points and roller balls that work in pens that accept Parker refills. The Pilot Hi Tech C, a Pen Addict favorite, is a new, up and coming refill format, probably the favorite gel refill on the planet.

A good refill then is one that is flexible, one that has a lot of options or one that does something really well. A Parker-style refill is probably the most versatile, while the Pilot Hi Tech C is probably the best performing. A warning though, some refills aren't really compatible with anything other than their original pen, such as the Zebra F-701 refill. In order to make that pen compatible with Parker-style refills you have to mod the interior of the pen itself. Its worth it, but something you should be aware of going into the purchase.

Balance/In Hand Feel

The pen as a unit has a certain balance and feel. When writing a lot, you quickly learn that certain pens, while nice looking and great for the occasional signature, just aren't acceptable for long term writing. Its not just about being light or heavy, in fact, some of the most well-regarded pens are heavy, it is about how that weight is distributed. Thus, a well-balanced pen can write for hours without producing more than normal hand fatigue. As a trial lawyer that takes lots and lots of notes every day, I have quickly found the pens that do well and do poorly in this respect.

Grip

The first part of the pen body that is important is the grip, the area where your hand holds the pen. Some grips are covered in gushy rubber, others are nothing more than knurling cut into a pen's metal body. Here is one of my favorite grips, found on the TuffWriter Ultimate Clicky:

IMG_0033

Neither rubber grips, specially shaped grips, nor knurling is inherently inferior. It is more about implementation than design. Ideally the grip will allow for a variety of hand positions and not cause any hot spots. Its also good if the pen isn't overly slippery.

Barrel

The barrel of the pen is the part between the grip and the tail (or knock on clicky pens). This part of the pen is usually just for aesthetics, having very little impact on the performance of the pen. A bad barrel can impact how the pen feels in the hand and screw up the weight. I can also impact how well the pen carries negatively interacting with the pen's clip, if there is one.

Deployment/Cap

This criteria looks at how well the actual writing piece comes out of the pen. I prefer capless designs, but I can see why some folks don't. Caps are another part that can be lost or break. A good cap should post (mount on the non-writing end of the pen) securely and click into place to protect the writing end. A good twisty should be smooth and require only a few twists. A good clicky should provide tactile feedback and work each time, every time.

I hope these categories or criteria make sense. I will be applying them for the first time in the Prometheus Alpha Pen review, coming on Friday.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Beware the Ides...

It is time to get down to brass tacks and give away some free EDC gear.

Ka-Bar Mini Dozier: David Kraus
CRKT Drifter G10: Greg Price
CRKT Drifter SS: Sharp
Lighthound 1xAAA light: Cheryl
Lighthound 1xAA light: Adrian Rye

and now for the big prizes.

The winner of the Haiku submitted a review that was well photographed, well written and had an excellent choice of gear.  The product was something a little off the beaten path, but still eminently useful.  The product was a custom, but is now available as a production tool from Boker.  The big difference from the other reviews, as all of the ones published were many of the things listed above, is that this one took no formatting.  Lots of folks submitted reviews and the ones not listed either were missing some crucial part of the review or were so difficult to reformat that I had to abandon the effort or rewrite the whole thing.  One even caused the site to crash (though I got it back up and running).  The winner of the McGizmo Haiku is Tom.  His guest review can be found here.  He reviewed the JRP Toucan.  This is a great little tool and his set up is dead simple.  Great all around review, Tom.  

TAD was super awesome to let me keep the Dauntless and I didn't want to squander that generosity (nor did I want to keep the knife, though let me tell you it was SUPER tempting...alas my reputation is worth even more than an unbelieveably awesome blade).  So I decided to do a raffle benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps returning vets.  We did this before as a site and raised about $125.  But this time you guys and gals utterly killed it.  We raised...drum roll please...$518.85.  The winner, chosen at random, was Garret O'Donoghue. 

Everyone that is a winner email me your address.  Send the email to anthonysculimbrene AT comcast dot net (in the normal format). 

For those of you that submitted reviews (even if they were not published), hang in there.  I am going to do a second giveaway (once the treasure chest is restocked) and only those that submitted reviews will be eligible (though Tom, you aren't).  Additionally, if you gave $20 or more to the WWP giveaway and didn't win, you too will be eligible for a second giveaway. 

Thanks for two years of reading.  Thanks for donating to the WWP.  And good luck.  More reviews are coming which means more giveaways are coming. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

BladeKey Review

If you care about the stuff you use everyday or if your the kind of person that is always looking for ways to do things faster, better, and more efficiently or if your the kind of person that likes to be prepared, your probably like a lot of other people that read this site.  Those are all good reason to care about gear and good useful design.  We strive to have better tools because we understand those tools make life a little easier and...hell...who doesn't like tools?

We search for a better light, a better watch, a better flashlight, a better pen, a better wallet, a better smartphone, a better water bottle, a better bag.  We are constantly looking for these things, but in the collection of stuff, stuff that modern life requires or at least strongly suggests we use, there is one item that we all hate but none (or an exceedingly few) can do away with--the keychain.  Even in my preferred set up, with a coated aircraft cable, the keychain is a wad of pokey, heavy, metal that sits in your pocket ready to abuse anything you stuff next to it.  You can't really do anything about it.  You have to have keys of some sort.

For a long time the approach was to minimize the keys and maybe throw a few tools on there, tacking on a bit of handiness to what is otherwise something you use for ten seconds a day and was inconvenient the rest of the time. 

A few enterprising folks modded a small multitool and made this:



That is Bernard's Micra Keychain Mod.  There are a dozen or so variations, but they all involve a substantial about of work.  You have to take the Micra or other multitool apart, you have to grind the keys down, you have to fuss with the pivot, and then you have to put all of the pieces back together.  You end up with a great looking, minimalist keychain, but the work necessary to get there is pretty complex, especially if you lack a grinder or a belt sander.  I'd happily do all of that though to rid my pocket of the dreaded key wad if it weren't for one small (or not so small flaw): changing keys.  All of us, at some time or other, need to add or take away key.  We might need to give one to someone to work on our car or get into our house.  And with this mod that is all but impossible unless you have a bunch of tools handy.  If you are in a situation where none of that will ever happen, and I doubt many people are, then this is clearly the way to go.  For the rest of us, this is a neat DIY project, but not all that handy, even if it does solve the key wad problem.

Then there is the Richy Rich solution, the Keyport.  This is a small box that holds keys that slide forward for us.  Imagine a deck of cards in their box sliding out the top, but instead of cards there are keys.  Here is a picture:




Keyport also offers a series of accessories that can fit into key slots--memory cards and bottle openers.  It certainly looks nice, but this whole product is very expensive.  You have to send your keys away or go to one a handful of authorized dealers to get them modified to fit the device.  And then there is the clearance issue.  What happens if you do all of this and spend all of this money and the box prevents you from inserting a key into a lock or rotating the key once it is there?  Eek.  That would be awful.  Then there are the problems I mentioned with the Micra Mod.  In my mind this is an even worse solution than the Micra Mod because it has the same drawbacks and two additional potential problems.  It looks cool, no doubt, but if you can't start your car because the Keyport is too big, cool looks won't be all that great.

So with all of this, I have, despite a constant search for alternatives, stuck with the coated mechanics cable keychain set up.

Then two weeks ago I was browsing around the Internet when I stumbled on this (my Google search was something like "coolest 3D printer products;" I am, like I am sure most of you are, fascinated by 3D printers and yearn for the day when I can print my own one piece multitools): BladeKey.  I then searched around and found the Shapeways page (Shapeways is a "3D Printer Marketplace," think Etsy for 3D Printers).  Finally, I found the Kickstarter page.  I was instantly intrigued, but suspicious that it looks cool on the Internet and is a stinker in real life. In an effort to figure out if that was true, I contacted the designer James Busch and he sent me three review samples.

I could end here with this: The BladeKey is what we have been waiting for--a simple, elegant, lightweight solution to carrying a pocket full of keys.  That would be boring though and frankly too short to give proper credit to a great design.  I have carried the three key bolt version for more than a week now and it is great.  So great, I totally ditched the keychain tools.  If my carry is going to be this simple, light, and compact, I am not going to bother trying to improve what was a necessary evil by adding a few gadgets.  The BladeKey converted my key wad into a quiet, discrete, handy keychain.

The BladeKey has two different designs each in multiple sizes.  You can get a BladeKey Bolt or BladeKey Zip.  The Bolt is based around a chicago screw, which is sold separately and available at any hardware store (you can even get ones with a slotted head wide enough to accept a US dime, allowing disassembly anywhere).  Here is a random chicago screw image taken from Google:

The Bolt uses the chicago screw as both a pivot and a locking device.  By fitting into the open end of the u-shaped BladeKey the chicago screw keeps the keys aligned and allows them to swing out for use.  The Zip uses a zip tie to do the same thing and one side of the BladeKey has a special mortised square to accept the head of the zip tie.  This mortised square also allows the zip tie to be threaded and locked in place.  Both designs come in three key, six key, and nine key configurations.  James has produced them using raw or anondized aluminum, but my review sample is a prototype made on a 3D printer using a resin or plastic material.  Even that version has been pretty durable.  The Kickstarter page offers a special gold anodized aluminum version for the $60 backers.

After a week of use, I am sold.  The design is incredibly simple.  It is one of those forehead slapping, why-didn't-I-think-of-that products.  That's no slight.  Those are the very best products and the very best designs.  It takes a truly brilliant design to solve a common, long-lasting problem in a simple and elegant way.  The pivot action is quite nice and the BladeKey body actually gives you a little something extra to hold on to (insert dirty joke here).  The slot in the bottom allows you to push up smaller keys and the loop on the top makes it easy to attach to other things.  The design is too small to use with large automotive keys, especially those that have remote operation features, but it can take all of those tiny brass keys and gather them into one compact and quiet space.  I use mine with a Nite Ize size 0 S-Biner, seen here:

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Together they make a nice, small and silent keychain.  All closed up it is even more impressively slim:
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It does take some getting used to.  The old "coat feel up" that you inevitably do when you misplace your keys won't work anymore, they are too compact and tucked away for that.  And the relate "coat frisk" is likewise stymied by your now silent keys, but not being able to do these two things isn't really a drawback because they are merely side effects of problems that we have used to our benefit.

In the end I think the Bolt is the way to go as you can swap keys at will with a simple penny or dime.  If you have no real need to do that the Zip is an excellent option to as you can, if necessary, cut the tie and replace it later.  The BladeKey has all of the advantages of the Micra mod, even the slim good looks, with none of the drawbacks.  And it is CHEAP.  The package deals on Kickstarter are the best buy, but even in ones and twos, they start at $12.99 for either model on the Shapeways page.  It might sound like a lot for a keychain, but if your still in the split ring camp I can't really help you.  No I take that back, I can.  Go buy this.  Try it.  I guarantee you will like it better.  Your pocket, your EDC gear, and maybe even your man- (or woman-) parts will thank you.   

Its not often that I review something this innovative and different.  This isn't a new version of a pre-existing product, but an entirely new thing. James even secured a patent for it. Its a great idea and great product.  Even the u-shackle sold on hardware websites like Berkeley Point is nothing close to this elegant.  This might be the EDC gadget that puts a smile on your face the most.  It will also be the one you get the most questions about.  Even non-gadget people will marvel.  "Oooo, that is a good idea," they'll tell you.

Finally and perhaps the coolest of all, James has opened up the design to allow other 3D Printer folks to make tools for the BladeKey.  All of the specs are readily available, so if you have a 3D Printer and want to, say, make a one piece multitool (ahem...anyone...ahem), it is totally possible and easy to do.  I, for one, would love to see a OPMT made specifically for the BladeKey, something with narrower than normal dimensions and the thickness of two standard brass keys. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Trolling for Hate: Hinderers and the Secondary Market

Thus far the opinion pieces I have written have been well received, but not controversial.  Well, time to change that.  I have my NOMEX suit on.

First, take a peek at this video from SoloKnifeReviews:



I think that the market for Hinderer knives is completely out of whack.  Supply is artificially limited in a way that harms the people Hinderer tries to benefit.  You see, Hinderer knives are available directly from Hinderer only to military, law enforcement, and EMT folks.  A few occasionally leak out on to the market when Hinderer sells directly to a dealer and a few more leak out via B/S/T boards on forums and at knife shows, but the primary source is the stream of knives originally sold directly to service folks.

Hinderer's knives are amazing.  Having handled, though never owned, a few, each is a real gem, both in terms of design and fit and finish.  I am also deeply grateful to Hinderer for giving special preference to service folks.  They are both the people that need and use the knife as well as people whose pay is most radically incommensurate with the value and service they provide.  It is a very nice way to say thank you and give these folks some preferential treatment.

But like all things economic, the law of unintended consequences has powerful and sometimes exploitative consequences.  From childhood, American kids learn about supply and demand.  It is part of our cultural heritage and it is a good lesson to learn.  The demand for Hinderer knives readily outstrips demand.  They are, after all, among the finest hard use work folders ever made.  But the prices are so high that they regularly sell on the open market for three or four times their suggested retail price.  The only place I have seen them sold for MSRP is J.S. Burly's (which happens to be the store for EDCF).  Hinderer gave Jon a few XM-18s and Jon, being the paragon of honesty, sold them for MSRP--around $387.  Look on other sites and XM-18s rarely sell for anything less than $800, with $1000 being around the average.   

But Jon is a rare individual.  No other dealer, to my knowledge, has sold their direct-from-Hinderer knives at MSRP.  Check other places and you see all of the Hinderers, regardless of source selling for four figures.  This isn't a crime.  This is how the market works.  Low supply, high demand = high retail prices.  My issue is that many of these dealers, because of the high prices Hinderers command, take advantage of the some folks Hinderer's policy seeks to benefit. 

Suppose I am a police officer--I am not, but just suppose.  Suppose I am not into knives, but I ask a buddy who is.  He tells me that I should get a Hinderer.  I see the price and I balk.  Then he points to the Sig Sauer on my hip and tells me that you get what you pay for.  Seeing the wisdom in that and trusting my buddy I decide I want a nice beefy folder and I sign up for and buy a Hinderer directly from the man himself.  I pay around $387 and he ships me my XM-18. 

All is well so far, Hinderer's policy is working. 

Now suppose, for whatever reason, I want to sell my XM-18 (yes, I know heresy, but some people don't care quite as much about their knives as we do).  Again, I am not a gear geek or a knife guy, so I figure, here today gone tomorrow.  I decide to sell it to a dealer as they can give me cash the quickest (absent a forum exchange, but again this is not someone as obsessed with knives as we are).  The dealer, being a dealer, wants to make a profit so they offer the law enforcement guy $600.  More than what he paid, almost double in fact, but about half of what they will sell it for.  You see the problem, right?

Admittedly the guy that will lay out even $387 for a Hinderer or the guy that knows about Hinderers is unlikely to be completely disinterested in knives, but I imagine that there are quite a few service folks that match up with my hypothetical person.  It is hard to imagine, but not everyone is as obsessed with knives and gear as we are, even folks that have a better excuse to own them than those of us that dwell in the office and cut open packages most of the time.  

The secondary market's insane prices are not being passed on to the people Hinderer's policies are designed to support.  It is not the case that a person that paid $387 for a knife that will now sell for $1200 is getting proportionally more.  The increasing prices on Hinderers, by in large, are simply more profit for the dealer.  There are, of course, dealers selling to dealers, and in these cases, who cares.  But for the folks that Hinderer wants to help, they will likely see very little increase in the price a dealer pays for their knife.  And why would the market ever have that happen?  If the unsuspecting LEO/Military/EMT is getting twice what they paid for the knife, will they be aware that the dealer is getting even more profit?  Probably not.

The person that is being taken advantage of, the guy or gal that can get a Hinderer but doesn't really care all that much about knives, is not the kind of person that will seek out the highest bidder on ebay.  At MSRP, the Hinderer looks like a Strider or a CRK to these folks, at least price-wise.  And so if they get a surprise bump when they go to sell the knife, they are probably all the happier for it.   

Absent those knives sold directly by Hinderer to honest dealers like Jon, or those that leak out from knife shows, all of the XM-18s and XM-24s on the market got there because of dealers lowballing folks that serve and happen to need a little extra cash OR by getting them from Hinderer and jacking up the prices.  The dealers aren't doing anything immoral.  It is just the way the system works--they need to turn a profit.  But Hinderer's limitations on who he sells to, as many things in economics are want to do, creates an unintended consequence that HARMS the exact people he is trying to give (deservedly) special access to.

As a side note I can say that having dealt with BladeHQ's custom guys, that the Hinderer price gouging doesn't happen there.  If you see one on their site for a load of money, they probably paid a slightly smaller load of money for it.  My personal experience tells they operate on smaller margins than most dealers.  I am not saying this because they are a sponsor, but because it is true.  Other dealers might do the same, I just don't have personal experience with them.  

If I knew I was buying a knife from a law enforcement person, a military person or an EMT person I would have no problem whatsoever paying the going market price of $1000 for them.  None whatsoever.  I think of it like a small thank you for people that do not get thanks enough for what they do and the sacrifices they and their families make.  I refuse, however, to pay market rate for these knives from an untrusted dealer.  If the dealer is selling them like Jon did, again no problem, but those folks out there that are asking for $1200 for an XM-18 they bought off a guy returning from Iraq looking for money for a wedding ring make me ill.

Then there are the dealers that get the knives from Hinderer himself and STILL mark it up.  Those folks are robber barons too, but somehow they are just price gougers and not people taking advantage of others.  I have less hostility towards them, but I am still not giving them a dime of my money because it only perpetuates the cycle of taking advantage of those that serve.

This is pretty basic economics and logic here.  Supply and demand.  Mr. Hinderer has indicated that he is trying to ramp up production, so I would imagine that a lot of this will fix itself.  SoloKnifeReview's comments about the "bottom falling out of the market" seem prescient.  Hinderers are great knives, but, as SoloKnifeReview points out, they aren't especially rare.  If you go to an even smallish knife show you'll likely see a few. 

Additionally, the economic pressures to change the policy are HUGE.  Rick Hinderer himself is leaving a lot of money on the table and the policy that was designed to benefit service folks is probably, in many cases, leaving them in the same position they were in before prices spiked, while dealers reap the reward of the insane secondary market.  Why not ramp up production, sell the blades to service folks for $387 and directly to everyone else for $500 and roll in the cash?  This seems like an upgrade over the current system where unscrupulous dealers treat service folks like strip mines. 

For now though, be wary of the $1000 XM-18.  It might have come from someone that served this country, that was in a bit of a jam, and had to sell low and fast to a knife dealer.  If it is Jon or Blade HQ or someone you trust to pay a fair value for the blade, that's one thing.  If it is some price gouger out there, taking advantage of Rick's service only policy, then beware.