Thursday, August 29, 2013

Kershaw Injection 3.0 Review

Todd Rexford's customs are among the finest modern knives in the world.  At the upper end, they start to merge with true art knives, given their fit, finish, materials and ornamentation.  The prices his knives achieve on the secondary market are breathtaking and his book is either closed or the wait is long.  So when KAI USA announced two Rexford collaborations this year at SHOT Show 2013, it was reason enough to get excited.  The first of those collaborations is the ZT 0801, another variation on the theme of bearing pivot Titanium Framelock Flippers.  It is a gorgeous knife and there is an even more limited edition version the ZT 0801 CF with the bronze anodized handle scales with carbon fiber inserts.  That is probably as close you will ever get to a Rexford custom without buying a Rexford custom.  But they also announced a budget Rexford, the Injection series.  As I wrote for a recent AllOutdoor.com piece, it is easy to make a cool $200 blade.  A cool $40 is much more difficult to pull off.

But credit to KAI USA and their Chinese OEM (this is a Chinese made knife), they did it.  They didn't just make a good knife, they made a good inexpensive knife, and one that carries over a few of the trademark Rexford touches, like the decorative pivot and the visually striking thumb stud.  This is a knife that warrants strong consideration in your next search for an EDC blade.  There is one drawback and it is an important one, but overall, this is a great $40 knife.    

Here is the product page. The Injection 3.0 costs around $35.  The larger Injection, the 3.5, runs about five bucks more.  Here is a written review. Here is a video overview by the Late Boy Scout. Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Injection, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my review sample:

IMG_0039

Here is a very short video showing me opening the review sample using the "coin flip" method (no wrist flick required):


Twitter Review Summary: Mid-priced EDC Greatness

Design: 2

It is simply amazing how many of the little Rexford touches made it through the grueling conversion from custom to production knife.  The Cryo is example of how that process can go astray.  But here KAI stuck close to the simple, elegant original and we are all better off for it.  The thumb stud is cool, the pivot is a tiny bit of bling, but the blade shape and the handle are straight Rexford no-nonsense beauties.  Why mess around with complex blade shapes when simple one's do so well?  Why drop in tons of things that LOOK ergonomic, but aren't.  The handle is simple enough to afford many different grips, the pivot is thankfully, really thankfully, unassisted, and the milling the G10 didn't get filled with pocket lint.  Overall, a straight up design home run--simple elegance.  

The ratios are nice.  This has the "Golden Ratio" of folding knives for a perfect .75 blade:handle ration (3:4:7, three inch blade:four inch handle:seven inches open).  The blade:weight is .91 (3:3.3). It seems heavier than that, but I checked two different sites and my own scale.  I guess that means it feels "solid" for whatever that vague description is worth.  Here is a shot next the Zippo for size comparison:

IMG_0036

Fit and Finish: 2

Let's be frank, at the $40 price point you are still looking at a pretty basic knife.  The Skyline is a great blade, one of my favorites, but it is no one's idea of a fancy knife.  There just isn't the budget to mind the details beyond those that are purely functional.  But the Injection proves that is wrong. Check out the "floating" backspacer:

IMG_0017

That is a touch more often seen on customs and while the effect is not as cool as when the backspacer is filed, it still something KAI didn't have to do.  The G10 was smooth and nicely finished.  The blade centering was perfect.  The  lock up was early (emphasis on "was," see below).  The thumb stud was sufficiently catchy.  Everything was finished very nicely here.  Certainly nicer than a $40 price tag would lead you to believe. 

Grip: 2 

After getting through about 1/3 of Donald Norman's Design of Everyday Things, which is great, I have a better way of thinking about things and one thing that has been borne out by the Injection's handle is that simple things allow the user to determine use, instead of the designer.  Here Rexford's simple, basic handle shape just falls on the fingers in about half dozen ways.  From cutting grapes (why do grapes need to be cut before going to daycare?  Are full grapes sinister but half grapes somehow beaten into submission?) to hacking limbs, the handles gave rise to few, if any hotspots, and I never lost traction.  I am coming to realize/believe that jimping is not necessary if the handle is properly designed.  Additionally the milled out grooves, while not aiding in traction, didn't collect all that much gunk.  Their visual flair is worth it, given it didn't detract from the handle's utility.

Carry: 2 

I am surprised by how little the knife weighs, as it is a solid thunk of metal and resin.  That is not to say that it carries poorly, but more to explain that this is not a completely cloaked pocket presence.  It does not sway or roll, but it is large enough and heavy enough to let you know it is there.  I like the nicely finished edges and the convex sculpted profile of the G10.

Steel: 1 

8Cr13MoV and it is less than stellar performance is the price we pay to get very well made Chinese knives on the cheap.  Corrosion resistance, especially with a bead blasted finished, is below par.  Testing the steel here was pretty instructive of 8Cr13MoV's weaknesses.  

IMG_0041

There were three major tasks, all of which posed different challenges to the 8Cr13MoV steel.  First, I did about two weeks of general utilty/EDC tasks--opening packages, whittling roasting sticks, cutting stray threads.  Of course it did fine here.  Then I decided to diversify my testing and did some food prep.  This included cutting green beans up from our CSA (which, by the way, I heartily recommend, yes I know blogger hipster...).  After that I did some slicing including sugary and acidic foods like grapes and tomatoes respectively.  Here the bead blasted steel picked up a consistent and distinct coloration.  I used various cleaners and lubricants to remove the staining but nothing worked.

After this I pressed the Injection into a hard use task, something I did not think it would survive.  In the middle of a 6 mile hike my three year old decided that he wanted a walking stick and so I made him one using only the Injection.  I hacked away at the fallen tree and removed a limb, then using counter angled chopping strokes I reduced the limb to size.  It was a long task and I basically used the Injection like a small hatchet, but it was fine in the role.  There was no chipping, as the steel is relatively soft, and  the edge while not GREAT is still a fairly useful utility edge.

Overall, this is probably the hardest I have used 8Cr13MoV and while the stain resistance is not good (and this is a known problem) I was pleasantly surprised at how well the edge held up during a beating and edge retention is probably more important, in the final analysis than corrosion resistance. After all, a sharp knife can look ugly and still cut.

Blade Shape: 2 

Unless you are true master, it is best to stick with simple blade shapes.  And if you are a true master, like Todd Rexford, sticking with simple blade shapes is not a bad idea either.  Here you get a classic drop point, fairly reminscent of a Strider drop point, and the shape does just about everything very well.  Overall, I liked it a lot. 

Grind: 2 

Lots and lots of people love full flat grinds and that is what you get here.  They are, generally speaking, easy to make than a hollow grind and there are some slicing benefits, but generally I don't think this choice matters as much as the quality of the grind.  Here you get a surprisingly well-ground blade.  The main grind is nice as is the cutting edge.  They are even and consistent throughout the blade.  They also performed well in slicing tasks. 

Deployment Method: 2 

This is a point of uncertainty.  The thumb stud, as you can see, is very aggressively profiled:

IMG_0012

This thing really grabs your thumb.  The pivot is also silky smooth so you can easily coin flip open this knife with no wrist flick.  I liked it a good deal.  But, because of the aggressiveness of the milling on the thumb stud, some might complain that it is too grippy.  I have no contest with those folks.  I prefer the coin flip method (where your fingernail is actually touching the thumb stud), but if you don't you might want to count this as a 1 instead of a 2.

Retention Method: 2

It is plain.  It not deep carry.  It is steel.  But it works.  The placement and most importantly, the shape:

IMG_0007

of the pocket clip keeps this knife tight against your pocket and in place, even on tough hikes on rough terrain.  It slides over the lip of your pocket with easy and pulls out with a swift, strong, but relatively easy tug. Please, production makers, keep these clips simple.  PLEASE.

Lock: 2 

Liner locks are wildly underrated.  This knife shows why.  After some serious hacking the only real change in the knife was that the liner moved to around the 40% mark on the blade tang, having started out around 25%.  It had no blade play when I got it or after I thumped on it.  The lock was easy to engaged and disengage.  There was no lock rock and you can access the locking liner easily. This is an excellent lock.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

The Injection 3.0 is an excellent mid-priced knife with a decent, but not great steel.  That is the price you pay for a knife this nice and this cheap.  Overall, I'd ranked up there with some of the best mid-priced EDC knifes--the Skyline, the Delica, the Mini Grip.  It might fall a smidge behind on the steel, but in every other regard is at least these knives' equal.  The simple, elegant, and subtle Rexford style is beautifully translated into a budget blade here.  The only drawback of the Injection is that it might have you eye the ZT 0801 even more or, God and wallet forbid, a true Rexford custom.  If this blade starts you down that path, you have the right to blame me when your wife spots a $2800 charge on your credit card to a one "T. Rexford."  Just don't let her use the knife to stab me. 

The WINNER of the HF is SHARP.  Sharp please contact me at everydaycommentary at gmail dot com (in the usual format) and I will send out the HF and Body Tube.  

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In Case You Missed It: Spyderco Zulu

When the discontinued list from Spyderco gets released each year it causes something of a stir among knife knuts.  It is like a starter's pistol going on in terms of collector and speculator interest.  Which of these knives, which of the two dozen or so blades, is going to vault into that rarified air occupied by things like the Caly Jr. in ZDP-189 or the Jess Horn ZDP-189 where they sell for more than MSRP?  Are any of these knives going to jump even higher on the list of collector's pieces and become peers of the Jess Horn or Klotzli Michael Walker (which sell for many times MSRP)?  Spydero fans are nothing if not loyal and the quality of manufacture, diversity of design, and high end materials make Spyderco's out of production knives among the best chase knives of the production world.

The 2013 Discontinued List, found here, has a few interesting candidates.  Is the Leafstorm a fad or a collectible?  Is the PPT really as good as folks think?  And what about the Zulu?  If I were laying odds, either the PPT or the Zulu would be the hottest collectible from the 2013 list.  But in terms of knives worth tracking down, I'd hunt for the Zulu well before the PPT.


Both are designs from well known custom makers (the Zulu is an Anso design and the PPT is a Fred Perrin design), but it appears that Anso has moved on to other production companies as collaborators, namely Boker and Fox.  While I like Fox knives quite a bit, the Anso designs they are making are very big.  Boker's stuff is well Boker quality and that means it is a non-starter for me.  In comparison Perrin seems to be comfortably within the Spyderco loop and more Perrin knives seem to be coming.  This means that the Zulu could be the only 3 inch blade from Anso that Spyderco makes.  That could make it the one for collectors to watch.

But I am not a collector.  My interest comes from its possible utility.  The Zulu has most of the Anso hallmarks in a small, well-made, Spyderco package.  You have the very unusual blade shape that lets you identify the knife as an Anso without looking for the maker's mark.  You have the roughly corrugated G10 that has become synonymous with Anso the world over (though YouTube is full of people calling it the "An SO" pattern; the name is actually pronounced An SUE).  Only his asymmetric grind is missing.

Aside from the interesting Anso touches, the blade itself is quite nice.  The size, just around 3 inches with a small handle is right in my knife design wheelhouse.  Then there is the Taichung, Taiwan manufacturer.  Time has shown that this Spydercco factory can produce very high quality, complex blades.  They were the folks that made the Southard, with all of its machining gee whiz, and they have produced the highly regarded Sage line of knives.  These are folks that just know how to make good Spyderco knives.   The Zulu doesn't appear to be any different.  The Anso pattern is expertly made, the blade seems well ground (though I need a model in hand to confirm that), they used S30V, and they even went to the trouble of milling out the liners are what is certainly a medium if not small EDC knife.  

You can still get the Zulu in quite a few places.  Obviously, I'd recommend Blade HQ, as sales benefit the site and its giveaways.  Additionally, as is always the case, you can get it at a discount right now. But if history holds here, that won't stay true for long.  Discontinued Spydercos usually have the same price, then a drop until first run stock is gone, and then a slow climb back to or past MSRP on the secondary market.  Given all of the unique and positive attributes that the Zulu has, I think it is likely that the knife will pass MRSP in the near future.  Get one now, in case you missed it earlier. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Water Bottle Scoring System

This was inevitable, as inevitable as gravity.  My obsession with gear and design coupled with a significant weight lose caused by reforming my diet and drinking more water led me to a fixation on water bottle design.  I started this site by writing about things I would be interested in reading, so I thought this would follow from that idea.  If it doesn't work, oh well.

Here is a bad picture of my Camelbak Insulated (or is it a warp core from Star Trek?  Nerd alert...)

IMG_2661

Another reason I decided to do this is because water bottles are starting to get very expensive, relatively speaking, and complex.  In researching a bottle I took on a long road trip (purchased: Thermos Nissan Backpack Bottle, my first review, coming up), I realized there was no serious effort at reviewing water bottles or discussing the benefits and drawbacks.  A few magazines or popular generalized websites did a shootout (here is one, and here is another), but there is no systematic effort to review water bottles.  There is, of course, the greatest thread in EDCF history, discussing water bottles, but again no ranking system.  Given the increased complexity and lack of real reviews, I thought this might be helpful.  

It might also cross over with a different group of folks and bring in more and different readers to the website.  That's not the reason I am doing this.  I am doing this because I wish someone had done it when I was looking for a water bottle and well, I carry my bottle everyday, so it is definitely EDC material.  In fact, I carry my water bottle more often than my watch.  It would be awesome if Yoga Mom came for the water bottle review and stayed for the SAK Alox Cadet review.  More readers with different points of view is always a good thing.  But it is not the goal.  The goal, as always, is to give you folks good, researched, and understandable information.  If this doesn't work, if you don't like it, it will go away.  I am well aware that this just might be jumping the shark.  Then again, it might not be.  Only time will tell. 

One more thing, unlike in other reviews, I will not be giving these away.  Water bottles aren't disposable, that is one of their advantages over the Dasani's of the world, but they are little too used to be transferred between non-related folks.  I am not sure what I will do with the samples, but just like you don't want a swimsuit someone returned to the store, you probably don't want my old water bottle.

There is, right now, no GREAT water bottle out there.  There are some good ones, but nothing truly outstanding, no 20 out of 20s.   Not even close.   Hopefully this scoring system will help sharpen the issue and maybe a designer or two will take notice and change things.  People think the Kleen Kanteen is the iPhone of water bottles, only because it is the least worst option.  The real iPhone of water bottles has yet to be made.   And when it is, someone will make a load of dough because the water bottle business is booming and these things are cheap to make.

The scoring system will work like any other scoring system I have, 20 points total in ten categories.  Within each category the scores range from 0-2.  0 indicates a failure in that category, a 1 indicates average performance, and a 2 indicates excellent, well above average performance.  A score of 20 out of 20 should be rare, but that alone does not indicate perfect.  A perfect score is reserved for a flawless product (20 out of 20) that has that something extra that makes it unrivaled.  I do not consider price directly in handing out scores, though a $300 item needs better fit and finish to get a 2 than a $30 item.

Here are the other scoring systems:

Folding Knives
Addendum to Folding Knife Scoring: "Blade Safety" Update
Flashlights
Packs and Bags
Multitools
Fixed Blade Knives
Pens

Generally, there are three or four shared categories and then product specific ones.  Here the carry overs are:

Design
Fit and finish
Carry
Grip

Design, again, is how that thing looks on paper.   Fit and finish is how the design is implemented in real life.  Carry is how easily the water bottle is carried around.  Grip is how easy the bottle is to hold.

Drink Quality

It seems pretty obvious to me, but for whatever reason this needs to be spelled out because so many bottles get this so freakin' wrong.  I do not want to drink water from the threaded portion of the bottle, which could cause spills.  I do not want to drink water from a metal rim, which could impart taste or be uncomfortably sharp.  I don't want something that chokes off the water flow, but I also don't want the "ice at the bottom of the cup" tidal wave.  The absolute perfect, and I mean perfect, drinking lid is the Human Gear CapCap, which is compatible with a large number of different bottles, from the Nalgenes to the Kleen Kanteens and many in between (ho, HO, a rhyme).  It is gently curved and without sharp edges.  It allows for a moderate amount of water flow and has ZERO flavor.  It is perfect.  So, so many are not.  The Camelbak bite piece and straw are great for bladders or folks that drink on bikes or others that need hands free drinking, but for those of us that don't it is a compromise not worth making.  It causes spills and imparts flavor.  The Kleen Kanteen Rotating Lid is okay but chokes off the water, especially when there is ice in the bottle.  It is not ideal either.  None of the bottles on the market that I have tried come close to the Human Gear CapCap.    

Materials

This is pretty interesting.  All three of the main materials have some drawbacks and some benefits.  Glass, of course, imparts no flavor and can be used for multiple liquids.  But it is heavy and can shatter.  Tritan imparts flavor and can't insulate well, but it is as durable as all get out, taking bumps with aplomb.  Stainless steel imparts a little bit of flavor and can be well insulated but gets dinged easily.  Some designs are better than the materials would lead you to believe so it is important to look at not just what is used (materials) but how it is used (design and durability).  Again there is nothing close to perfect on the market.  I'd like a bottle that is as insulated as stainless steel, as dent resistant as Tritan, and as taste-free as a glass.  Unfortunately, there is nothing out there like that.  Yet.

Insulation

It seems silly to me that there are bottles out there that are not insulated.  If you go through the effort of carrying a water bottle and filling it in the morning (or whenever you leave) you probably want the contents to remain as you had them through out the day.  Additionally, there are very few beverages that we like to drink at room temperature, alcohol like wine or vodka, and they have their own special containers called flasks.  As such a bottle should be insulated.

There a lots of different ways to insulate a bottle, but they all are aiming at the same thing--allowing the  liquid inside to maintain its original, intended temperature as long as possible.  Some come with a sleeve.  I have found those to be wanting.  Others are stainless steel.  These work very well, but for reasons mentioned above, there are drawbacks.  Once the steel's seal (say that three times fast) is broken through drops or dents, the insulating ability is also destroyed.  Finally, there are insulated Tritan bottles that I have tried, but these are really more "insulated" than insulated.  They are about 1/3 as effective as stainless.

Durability

This is perhaps the most difficult thing to do in a bottle.  Lots of designs have weak points.  Stainless steel bottles get dings almost instantly.  Glass bottles can shatter and suffer catastrophic damage.  Tritan is nigh indestructible, but virtually every bottle's cap is an Achilles heal.  Some have lids that seem to be attached with perforated paper.  Some seem to have disks or rotating pieces that are made to jam.  There are a host of problems with water bottles on the market today and durability is the number one issue, in my opinion.

Leakproof

Lots of bottles claim to be "leakproof".  Thus far, none I have tried have been.  But it is like Animal Farm, all bottles that claim to be leakproof are leakproof, but some are more so than others.  The ultimate test of a bottle being leakproof is whether or not it can be placed in a bag, jostled around and upside down, and still remain dry.  When I have a bottle that does this consistently, I'll let you know.  None have thus far, though the Thermos Nissan Backpack Bottle is pretty good. 

Ease of Cleaning

All of the high tech lids and materials are all for not if you can't get the damn thing clean.  Very few bottles do this well.  The Human Gear CapCap is again the model of perfection, but no standard lids even come close.  A wide open mouth helps, I'm looking at you Kleen Kanteen, but that is not all.  I'd like the whole bottle to be two parts--cap and bottle, not this mish mash of plastic, rubber, and Tritan like a Camelbak.

First review: Thermos Nissan Backpacker


Thursday, August 22, 2013

MBI HF Body and Zoom Head Review

Its not enough that the HF series of lights can stand toe to toe with the finest production or custom lights out there.  MBI pushes the envelop even further with two accessories that make this flashlight system among the finest in the world.  I talked about the flexibility of the Eiger in its review and how there are multiple options for heads and body tubes.  All of this accessorizing isn't for fashion points.  It is about giving the end user options.  And like the Eiger, the HF has a bevy of options.

Twitter Review Summary: More Flexibility than a Yoga Instructor

There are three things that help make the HF series so good.  First, all HF-R lights come with a body tube for the rechargeable cell it comes with AND a AAA sized cell.  This is standard.  This means that you can use your HF with lots of different batteries--the 10250 cell that comes with the HF-R or AAA rechargeables.  That right there is much more than the average flashlight maker gives you.  Can you see Surefire dropping a light with two body tubes, one for CR123a batteries and the other for AA?  Not likely, and certainly not for free.

ZoomHead

But that is not all.  For an additional cost you can purchase the ZoomHead.  Here is the product page.  There are multiple variations, all with different metals (Ti, Brass, and the review sample Aluminum). They range in price from $55 for the Ti version to $38 for the Al version. The ZoomHead swaps out with the standard HF and HF-R head and allows you to take a tiny floody light and turn it into a real thrower.  Here is the HF-R Keychain edition (HF-RK) with the ZoomHead attached:

IMG_0076

The ZoomHead allows the HF to focus and this, in turn, gives it substantially more throw.  All of those photons are gathered into an incredibly tight beam, seen here:

IMG_0015 

Unfocused the ZoomHead still gives you a bit throwy-er beam than normal.  Here is the ZoomHead not focused:

IMG_0014

Compared to the light with no ZoomHead attached (on high):

IMG_0013

The overall effect is quite impressive.  Lights this size always have floody beams, but thanks to the magic of convex optics, you get a light the size of a AA battery with actual throw.  Here is a size comparison with the standard Zippo:

IMG_0079

Still tiny, still bright, but now with more throw.

Overall I liked the ZoomHead a lot.  Because of the focusing mechanism it can be a challenge to install, but once you get the hang of it, its is quite easy to put on and take off.  The fit and finish is superb.  The lens is beautifully made without any imperfections or scratches.  I carried the HF-RK for about a week and I had the ZoomHead on most of the time and it was never a problem.  It did give me enough punch to light up tree tops in my yard or see out the second story window, something the light couldn't do before.  The ZoomHead, given the price, is a very reasonable purchase.  If you plan on using your light for walking the dog or the like, just consider that $38 part of the price and get it from the beginning.  It is a no-brainer for me (at night I am picking up kid toys in the backyard though, not walking the dog).

HF Body Tube

The HF light, as compared to the HF-RK and HF-RT (HF-R Titanium), does not come with an AAA body tube.  Instead it comes with a brilliantly designed body tube.  It basically takes the HF, a light the size of a AA battery, and makes it something as big and durable as an HDS light.  Here is the body tube:

IMG_0070

The body tube makes the tiny HF jewel light a hardy, indestructible beast.  The design of the body tube is actually quite ingenious.  You screw off the lens to reveal the milled out hollow portion:

IMG_0071

With the hollow portion revealed, you insert the HF careful to align the hex sides with the hex cut outs:

IMG_0072

It is a very snug fit to ensure that there is no rattling and you have to align the hex sides at the top and bottom of the light to make sure the HF fits inside. Once that is done you reinstall the lens:

IMG_0073

This takes a few minutes the first time, but once you have done it three or four times the whole thing is pretty quick.  Once its done the HF is not firmly and snugly tucked into a body tube that seems more like an artillery shell than a flashlight.  If you are thinking about the HF but are worried that the tiny size might make it hard to use or too dainty for your tasks, the body tube should change your mind.  This thing is a freaking tank once completely assembled.  That is a pretty impressive package--super convenient EDC light that transforms into tank like photon cannon.  Oh yeah, the UI is exactly the same.  Once the HF is in the body tube, because the hex sides are aligned, twisting the body tube twists the HF, so you don't have to learn a new UI.  Yet, another sign of design genius. 

But there is a hidden trick to the HF body tube.  It stores three of the rechargeable cells in a rotated base:

IMG_0074

The lid pivots out of the way and entire base rotates to one of three positions, each of which accepts a battery, giving you a total of four cells in the HF body tube configuration (three in the tube and one in the light).  That is a lot of extra runtime.

It is touches like this that make the MBI HF series something special.  Sure the body tube is probably the same size as a 2xCR123a light that would have a runtime equal to the four cells together, but you lose flexibility.  With a 2xCR123a you are stuck with a light that size.  With the HF and body tube you have a light that size, or one the size of a AA and the output to match, regardless of the configuration.  I have to admit that the rotating battery holder was a moment of pure design geek freak out when I discovered it.  It is such a cool thing, so well integrated into the body tube that the sheer novelty was impressive.

Conclusion

I'd probably opt for the Zoomhead from the beginning and hold off on the body tube, as I don't have a lot of high demand tasks, but if you need a duty light, then you could probably do the reverse.  In short these two accessories make the HF series a flashlight platform, one that can accomodate almost any user and compete with anything on the market today.  Taken as a whole, I am confident that there is no better option out there for someone looking to get into the high end flashlight world and these aren't even that expensive.  Like the Eiger, the HF series shows that the future is modularity.  And the future is now.  

And now for the giveaway.  MBI was kind enough to allow me to keep all of the review samples and since I don't keep anything I review I am giving away the HF and body tube.  To win simply become a follower of the blog and post in the comments below.  After a week I will choose a winner.  The HF-RK is part of a giveaway running right now on the podcast (tune in for more details) and the HF-RT will be given away in a future contest so stay tuned.

  CORRECTION:  the HF-R series will work with alkaline batteries.  I have corrected the text above.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

MBI HF Series Review

When MBI sent the HF series of lights to me for review, opening the package was like a flashoholic's Christmas, one amazing jewel of a light after another.  A few days later though I realized that this much tech and gear would require a monumental amount of work to thoroughly test and document the staggering array of things these flashlights can do.  A month and a week later I can tell you this is the most complex, thorough review I have ever done, so thorough in fact that I am breaking into two parts--the flashlights and the accessories.  First up, the HF, HF-R keychain, and HF-R Ultimate Tritium.  Then, on Friday, the HF body tube and the Zoom Head.     

All that work was worth it though because the MBI HF is part of the wave of next gen lights, like the Peak Eiger, that is redefining what we get in a flashlight.  In particular the UI on the HF flashlight series is like nothing else on the market.  Simply put, it is the best UI I have ever used, a game changer, and something that MBI should look to patent AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.  The batteries it uses are rechargeable only batteries, but a charger is readily available and the reward for weirdo batteries is a high that blows your retinas and everything in the product class away.  Like the Eiger, the HF is really a flashlight system, much more than a mere flashlight.  

This review was a ton of work, but it was worth it.  This is the future.  

Here is the product page.  The MBI HF costs $105 and comes in multiple metal options; the HF-R costs $88 in aluminum and $95 in stainless steel; and the HF-R Ti costs $128.  The base model HF comes with a large body tube that makes the light about the size of a big CR-123a light.  In the base are three back up batteries.  You simply unscrew the bezel, drop the HF into the body tube, and screw  the bezel back on.  Now you have a much more substantial, virtually indestructible light with lots and lots of spare batteries.  The HF has two outputs, a low and a high.  The HF-R has three outputs but is not compatible with the HF body tube.  The HF-R comes in two varieties, the keychain version, that ends in keychain lug, and the Ti Edition that can tailstand and has an amazing array of tritium inserts installed in the bottom of the light.  There are no video or written reviews.

Here is the HF review sample:

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Here is the HF-R Keychain Edition review sample:

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Here is the HF-R Ti Edition review sample:

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Twitter Review Summary: If you missed the Aeon Mk. II run, go buy one of these.  They are among the best EDC flashlights in the world today, regardless of price.

I am going to review the lights as follows:  I will give three scores, one for the HF, one for the HF-R Keychain Edition (hereinafter "HF-RK"), and one for the HF-R Ti Edition ("HF-RT"). 

Design: HF: 2; HF-RK: 2; and HF-RT: 2

The HF is actually my favorite form factor of the three, but all three are well above average in terms of design.  They are simple tubes with good places to grip for turning on the light.  The HF has a hex shaped head and tail preventing it from rolling, while the two HF-Rs are round with knurling.  All three lights have that just right ratio between the length and the diameter of the body tube.

The performance numbers here are mind blowing and a hint as to how revolutionary these lights really are.  The lumens:weight on the HF is 472, the lumens:weight on the HF-RK and T is 566.  The lumens:weight on the HF-R in aluminum is a staggering and record holding 1132 (the Al verison weighs 15 grams or .52 ounces WITH the battery).  The total lumens output for the HF is on medium at 3600, and it is also on medium for the HF-Rs is the exact same.

Here are some size comparisons (all three lights are roughly as tall as a AA battery, but slightly thicker around):

HF:

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HF-RK:

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HF-RT:

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HF-RT with AAA body tube:

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Fit and Finish:HF: 2; HF-RK: 2; and HF-RT: 2

After reviewing the CoreTi light from MBI I realized that this is a company that knows how to do fit and finish.  The HFs are all exemplars of polished perfection, literally in the case of the HF-RT.  The emitter is perfectly centered on all three, the lens are clean, clear, and scratch free.  The threads are smooth and well-cut.  All three are excellent.

The HF-RT is a step above the other two though.  This is a light that hangs with the best customs out there in terms of polish.  The way the HF logo is formed from tritium inserts is quite impressive.  Not only is it a good idea, it is brilliantly executed.  This is some damn fine machining.  
 
Grip:HF: 2; HF-RK: 2; and HF-RT: 2

All of these are tiny lights, but the dimensions aren't too bad.  They are relatively thin, but they have a enough length to give you something to hold on to.  They are thin, but not spindly.  They are small but not needles in a haystack.   The HF is a little better because the hex shaped ends make turning the light on a bit easier, but the knurling on the HF-Rs is not bad at all.  All three are excellent, with the HF being just a bit ahead. 

Carry:HF: 2; HF-RK: 2; and HF-RT: 2

Coin pocket, regular pocket, shirt pocket, bag, that little dish in front of your cup holders in your car, this light can be stowed anywhere and everywhere.  If it can hold a AA battery it can hold this light.  I love tiny lights and this the primary reason why.  

Output: HF: 1; HR-RK: 2; HF-RT: 2

Behold, I have captured lightning.  I have always wondered what would happen if I went back in time with a flashlight to like the Middle Ages.  I am fairly certain that if I had enough batteries to last, I would be the king of a small country.  The light, plus the fact that I alone would recognize the need to wash my hands, would make me a Superman.  Funny thing is, though, that this light is so small and so bright that it would have been inconceivable even five years ago among flashoholics.  As the performance numbers above indicate--this is something of a different magnitude.  600 lumens in a light the size of a AA battery is almost as impressive to the flashas a flashlight would be to the folks of King Arthur's England.  

Here are the test shots, noting that I got a two mode HF to test (40 lumen low, 500 lumen high).  The HF-R's run three modes (.5 lumens, 40 lumens, and 600 lumens).  

Wired Lights:

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Reference Shot (no light):

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HF, low:

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HF, high:

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HF-R, low:

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HF-R, medium:

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HF-R, high:

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As you can see, the 600 lumen high on the HF-R models is no joke a wall of light.  When you see how small these boogers are you will be floored.  This is next gen, ground breaking, bleeding edge performance folks.  This is as the very forefront of flashlight technology, no question.  The highs on the HF-R lights are spectacular.  The lows are very good too and the spread in the outputs is perfect.  The HF's output is more only a tad more modest.  But holy shit, 600 lumens is a feat of technology so advanced it borders on magic.  I found the lack of a true moonlight low a bit of an oversight on the two mode HF, so I docked it a point, but really there are ton of very good lights that don't have a moonlight low.  Still if you can afford these lights there is virtually no reason, thanks to the brilliant UI, not to opt for the three modes. 
  
Runtime: HF: 2; HF-RK: 2; HF-RT: 2

The laws of physics require a light this small to get VERY hot when it is outputting 600 lumens.  It also means you can't do that forever.  The 5 minutes limit is more of a theoretical thing as the tiny HF's heat up like they are in a furnace.  You can really burn yourself.  This is not like, "Oh be careful, we are writing an overly cautious warning label so some dumb ass doesn't sue us."  This is like really burn yourself.  The low runtime is very good, but not in the upper echelon occupied by the Aeon and Aeon Mk. II.  Here you get 8-10 hours on .5 lumens.  On the Aeons you get 40 hours on 30 lumens and even more on the moonlight low on the Mk. II.  Excellent, but not the best runtimes on low.  

Beam Type: HF: 2; HF-RK: 2; HF-RT: 2

Let's not even pretend.  This is all flood all of the time and in the EDC role there is nothing at all wrong with that.  The reflectors are shallower than a thimble (literally, yes I really mean literally):

IMG_0045

In lights this small all you can hope for is something that doesn't die after ten feet and thanks to the output all three lights can avoid that problem.  With the ZoomHead, these things can actually punch it down the road, more on that on Friday.  

Beam Quality: HF: 2; HF-RK: 2; HF-RT: 2

All three lights had excellent, clean, artifact free beams with a great tint.  The HF-RT has a Hi CRI emitter making it the best of the bunch but all are uniformly excellent.  

UI: HF: 2; HF-RK: 2; HF-RT: 2

The UI is really a stroke of true genius.  It blows everything, including the selector ring and the multi-stage twisties out of the water.  It is simple use, flexible, and incredibly powerful.  Here is how it works.  The tailcap portion of the light, this (shown on the HF-RT):

IMG_0050

rotates freely.  Think of the actual tail end of the light (the part that touches a surface when the light tailstands) as the face of a clock.  Assume that 12 o'clock is off, then rotating the light to 3 gives you low, and 9 gives you high.  On the HF this is all you have, high and low.  On the HF-Rs there is an additional output level at 6 o'clock that is medium.   That is it.  Simple.

But when you use the light and think about how this works you can see just how revolutionary this really is.  One of the big issues in multimode lights is how to negotiate through the various modes.  In a tactical light most people want high to be the first, in EDC lights you want the low first.  Every other UI requires you to either do some kind of Morse code, finger yoga or pass through other output modes to get to both low and high.  The HF's UI doesn't do that.  You want a tactical configuration with high first?  Turn to the left.  You want an EDC configuration with low first?  Turn to the right.  This is yet another example of how simple solutions are the best answer to complex problems. 

Its not just that the UI solves this basic configuration problem, its that the entire UI is incredibly easy to use.  During the testing period my parents were in town and while my Mom is not a technophobe by any means (she has a Pintrest page, an iPad, an iPhone, and shockingly a high end computerized toothbrush the Ultreo that she imported from Europe; we like $200 flashlights, she likes $200 toothbrushes) she's not a flashaholic.  But the MBI was on the kitchen table and she picked it up to take out the garbage and she instantly figured out how it works.  To borrow another HFE phrase, the UI is well mapped.  That is, we can instantly and visually understand how the light works, especially once you think of it in terms of the clock analogy.  But even if you don't have that, its simplicity is revelatory.

It has taken ten years of development for the light making world to stumble upon this brilliant solution and this UI makes the HF series of lights among the best in the world.  This UI is so good that I have gone back and forth about whether or not to award it a 3 and break the system.  Ultimately, I decided not to do that, but it is so much better than everything else out there that it was a tough call.  This is the reason to buy this light, though the insane output in a tiny package is pretty compelling too.  Long after this is no longer cutting edge light production, the UI will still be a superior one. 

Hands Free: HF: 2; HF-RK: 1; HF-RT: 2

Both the HF and the HF-RT can tailstand like champs.  None of the lights roll, especially the HF thanks to the hex head and tail.  But the HF-RK because of the keychain attachment point, seen here:

IMG_0044

can't tailstand so I am docking it a point.    

Overall Score: HF: 19 out of 20; HF-RK: 19 out of 20; HF-RT: 20 out of 20 PERFECT

These lights thanks to their output to size ratio and their insanely brilliant UI are among the best lights in the world for EDC purposes.  The HF-RT is the clear winner here and given its small (relatively speaking price) this is the new number 1 recommendation in my Top 5.  I prefer the Mk. II probably for sentimental reasons (though the runtimes ARE better), but it is really a toss up between those two lights in terms of the best money can buy.  And the HF-RT is one fifth the price.  If you missed the Mk. II run and are unphased by the need for rechargeable batteries, this the perfect EDC light in small versatile package.  The accessories, which will be written about in the next post, are great and make this a true turnkey illumination system.  There is a new top dog in town and it is the HF-RT.  It is...


Hell, even the packaging blows everything else out of the water.
IMG_0080

Want a free HF? Stay tune for Friday's accessories review for details on how to get the review sample. 
 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

EDC Overview Video

Here is a quick video overview of my EDC as of May 23, 2013 (I have changed the bottle and the knife since):


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Understanding Affordance

While on vacation I was reading my parent's Cook's Illustrated, which is one of my inspirations for writing reviews (along with EGM and Robert Parker). Their reviews are clear, concise, and grounded in facts. There is very little consideration given to brand or hype. One article, in particular, caught my eye. They were doing a chef knife comparison test. The article began by discussing how one certain knife had been the reigning champ of chef knives regardless of price for over 20 years. This knife had been stacked up against all sorts of competitors and each time, no matter how giant the hype or the price tag, this knife slayed them all. The knife is this knife:


One thing the article pointed out was how the simple handle was preferred by all of the testers. It seemed baffling that the simple curved shape trumped so-called ergonomic handles with fancy curves and cuts, divots for fingers, and special grippy rubber material. The reason why, according to the Cook's expert on ergonomics, was one idea: affordance.

Affordance is a term used by ergonomics folks, properly called human factors engineers, to describe how an object's design promotes its use. A door knob's design promotes twisting and pulling. Its shape and mechanisms afford these two different actions. Good, useful design affords more possible uses than bad design. Thus when considering what knife or light or piece of gear to buy it is crucial, if you want to maximize the utility of your gear, to understand affordance, even if you don't know what that word means (like I did up until about a week ago).

Finding out that there is a word and a line of thought devoted to this notion was tremendously surprising. I have had this idea in my head for a while and until I ran across this Cooks Illustrated article I didn't know there was a term for this.  Affordance was just an idea without form. Now, it is something I can better process and explain in reviews.

Here is an example of me talking about affordance without knowing the word. In the Benchmade 300SN article I wrote this about the handle design:

This knife has, as mentioned above, a series of finger grooves. They happen to work for my hands, but in other, different sized hands they can be a problem. My Dad recently came into town and I handed him the knife and he did not like the handle at all. The finger grooves are a cheap and easy way to make something FEEL or SEEM ergonomic when it really isn't. The G10 was good as was the jimping, but I just couldn't get over the fact that this knife tells you how it MUST be held, instead of suggesting a number of ways it COULD be held.

This is EXACTLY the concept of affordance, I just didn't know it because, at the time I didn't know the word. To a trained eye, to someone that studies HFE, the grooved handle of the 300SN is an affordance disaster.

IMG_0042

The product demands to be used in a certain way, instead of allowing multiple possible uses.

Now compare this to what I wrote about the CRKT Eraser:

No knife I have used as been as versatile in the hand as the Eraser. The forward grip is, of course, very nice with the flipper serving as an excellent hand guard. But it is the reverse grip (the ice pick grip) that is so extraordinary on the Eraser...Your finger lays in the groove easily and the ramp and jimping are perfectly placed. This knife's handle has made me re-examine other blades. Why is it that they can't match the Eraser in both grips? Why do we have to compromise when a solution like this is so elegant and useful? Best grip on any folder I have used thus far, despite my preference for small knives. This is truly a great design.

Here is the handle for the Eraser:

IMG_0023

Again, I am talking around the concept of affordance, understanding what it means, but not knowing the word.

Strider PT, one of my favorite knife handles and for a long time I couldn't figure out why. Now armed with the concept of affordance, I can process what truly makes that silhouette one of the greatest knife handles of all time.

IMG_0022

First, the two finger choils, one over the pivot and one behind it, allow for a choke up or choke down grip. The aggressive gearing (too big to be jimping) on the rear of the blade allows for a reverse grip with traction. Finally, the straight spine allows for precision grips with your pointer finger laid across the spin. In all, there are probably a half dozen ways to hold this smallish knife. The amazing design affords a bunch of different grips and uses.

The next time you pick up a light or a knife, think about affordance. Does this piece of gear demand a specific use or is open to how you need or want to use it? This is one thing that separates good design from great design--options and versatility. Affordance is one way to thing about options and versatility and it is a useful way to evaluate gear. Look for it in my future reviews. And look for it in your next gear purchase.

Monday, August 12, 2013

ESEE Zancudo Preview

ESEE makes very, very good fixed blade knives.  The Candiru is one of my all time favorite fixed blades.  But not everyone can carry a fixed blade.  That's why we have folders.  A few years ago there was a rumor that ESEE was going to produce a folder.  Shots were leaked, specs were guessed, and eventually the release date came and went with nothing.  That was about two years ago.  Fast forward to 2013.  The ESEE folder is a reality, albeit in a different form.

That original prototype seemed to be aimed squarely at the high end of the production folder market--a competitor with the DPx folder.  What we get in 2013 is not a high end folder, but something designed to compete with the low to mid price folders.  This is a crowded, crowded market segment, but there are a few things that let the ESEE folder, the Zancudo, stand out, on paper at least.

The steel is AUS-8, perhaps the very definition of average steel.  The knife itself has that "golden ratio" of folder specs 7, 4, and 3: 7 inches open, 4 closed, and 3 inches of blade length.  I have always liked that size of knife, whether it is on the Spyderco Caly 3 (which has very similar measurements and proportions) or on this new folder.  Not too big, not too small--just about right.  The lock is a steel framelock, something that has shown up more frequently on cheaper knives, but is still a good lock.  The handle shape seems nice and unlikely to cause problems.  But the thing that puts the Zancudo over the top, at least for me, is the blade shape.  

The ESEE fixed blade knives all have this simple, utilitarian drop point.  No crazy grinds, no exotic angles or recurves, just plain simple cutting shapes.  The Zancudo has the same shape.  It is almost a perfect classic, Loveless drop point where the tip of the knife is about 1/4 the way down on the width of the blade from the spine.  This results in an excellent belly and a very aesthetically pleasing blade shape.  


(Picture from jungletraining.com)

I hope to get one in for review, as this seems like a legit contender in the low to mid price EDC folder market, so I will reserve judgment until then, but based on specs and pictures, it looks like a no-nonsense contender.  As always, you can purchase this blade through Blade HQ and benefit the site:

Blade HQ

Friday, August 2, 2013

Trolling For Hate: Why The Knife Industry NEEDS to Make Stuff in China

Introduction: Set Sail 

I love the idea of a craftsman, like Steve Karroll, hand making my knife.  I like the idea that somewhere he is sitting at a grinding belt using his eyes and his hands to craft a razor edge on my EDMW.  It makes me feel connected to things I own and the people that make them.  I also like the idea that in Golden, Colorado there is a small team of dedicated craftsmen doing much the same.

The reality is, however, that in the modern globalized world this is simply not the most efficient way to run a business.  To survive in the modern world, even in the relatively niche world of high performance gear, you need to have a global perspective.  You need to make some things overseas and in the gear industry that means places like Taiwan and China.

I have to break the news to you: we are not the folks that keep gear companies afloat.  No matter how much we spend we aren't a large enough market to sustain a company any larger than say, Chris Reeve Knives.  If that is your game then great, but for the KAI USAs and the Spydercos of the world to survive they need to produce gear for a wide range of audiences.  Sure we all like the blank check, blue sky, cost no object production knife like the Jess Horn Spyderco or the Kershaw Tilt, but if we want these products to be made in the future, they have to be subsidized by the production and sale of the Tenacious and the Cryo respectively.  This is not a purely gear industry issue, either.  Studios wouldn't survive on Oscar movies alone, they need the big budget explosion fests that we are treated to this time of year to pay the bills and make those movies possible.

This is why we gear geeks need to have stuff made overseas.  Without it the knife industry would shrink and possibly die.  There isn't enough profit or capacity to make things purely in the US on a scale that would allow companies like KAI, Spyderco, and Benchmade survive.  The reasons are complex.  

Capacity and Competitive Advantage

China looms over the horizon, beyond the edge of the sea, a new rival for a new century.  But unlike the Soviet Union, China's rivalry is primarily economic.  Their massive factories, significantly lower labor standards, and virtually zero environmental regulations all give them some advantages over the US, but these are really just minor things, bullet points for political parties.  The real advantage is simpler, less sexy, but vastly more meaningful--capacity.  The billion or so people that live in China represent a huge labor force.  Additionally, because of years of insular economic policy, they are just now experiencing the boom in technology and manufacturing that the US experienced in the last fifty years.  In essence, the growth we have experienced in fifty years China is doing in 15.

But economists will tell you an important fact about this capacity.  While great, it is not as sophisticated as what we have or what the Japanese and Europeans have.  The US, Japan, and Europe make incredibly complex goods--cars, planes, ships, high end machines and medical equipment.  China's capacity is still not capable of doing these thing as well.  While China has more capacity, the US, Japan, and Europe have a competitive advantage over China.  Simply put--US, Japan, and Europe make medical imaging equipment and nuclear reactors for energy production while China makes, at is most sophisticated, iPads.  I love the iPad, don't get me wrong, but the principle of competitive advantage means that the economies should always strive to make as high end a good as possible.  The US COULD make iPads (and will again according to Apple), we have the ability, but doing so makes very little economic sense.  There is only a finite amount of manufacturing capacity in the US and you can use it to make iPads with their 300% margins and $400 price tags or an MRI machine with their 3000% margins and $100,000 price tags.  Same factory floor space, huge difference in profit.

As sophisticated as our gear is, it is not in the same league as a car or a plane or an MRI.  Thus, by simple economics, it makes more sense for some of our stuff to be made in China.  They can make and do a pretty good job.  Plus they have a huge amount of excess capacity.  All of our gear, based on simple economics, should be made in China.

But business is really never about simple economic principles.  We are proud people.  We are country of tinkerers and inventors.  It is in our political DNA.  The Constitution, as drafted by the Founding Fathers, had nothing about the right to bear arms or freedom of speech (those were amendments to the original document after all), but it did have a section on patents and inventions.  Inventors are as much a part of the American Spirit as the cowboy.  And so, despite the principles of economics, folks like Chris Reeve and Sal Glesser and Les De Asis still design, make, and assemble knives in the USA.  We like them for it.  We buy these knives, despite a higher price tag.  We seek them out because of their country of origin.

High Wire Act

The US based knife and gear business is one of very thin profit margins.  The pressure on factory floor space is huge--can you really go to a group of investors and tell them you are going to use this building to make $300 hand assembled titanium framelocks when you could just as easily build parts for the Boeing Dreamliner in the same space?  The factories that are dedicated to making knives in the US are either very small, like CRK, or they are maxed out in terms of capacity.  New factories, because of the pressures of competitive advantage, just aren't being built.  Finally, the factories that did come on line in the past 30 or so years, such as the one owned by United Cutlery, weren't successful and were ultimately sold for parts.

Thus there are a small number of modestly sized shops and a few large factories, all of which are essentially maxed out in terms of production capacity.  As a knife maker you can't build a new factory.  The economics of the situation won't let you.  You can try to squeeze out more capacity from your existing sources, the small shops and already existing factories, but that is a process of diminishing returns.  Or you could go overseas.

We have seen it happen time and again.  Company after company takes their stuff overseas to be made.  I realized the trend was irreversible when I saw that AG Russell, perhaps the quintessential American knife maker, was making new knives almost exclusively in China.  The economic realities are harsh in one sense--the space for new large scale knife making in the US is all but gone--but good in another sense--our country is still leading the world economy because we are making more high end stuff.

The issue is pretty simple: if you run a business making gear and you want to have any sort of volume at all you need to make stuff in China.  If you want to sell to Wal-Mart you have to make stuff in China.  If you want to sell in Home Depot or Lowes you have to make stuff in China.  If you want to have a large presence in a major retailer you simply have to make stuff in China.

Local Impact and Market Positioning

How many local knife shops are there around you?  More or less than there were twenty years ago?  I would be willing to bet no one answered MORE.  Gear is increasingly sold for the lowest dollar in the big box stores or to a niche audience (us) via the Internet.  It comes down to this--makers of gear have to decide what they want to do: try to make a ton of profit by competing in big box stores for shelf space or make some profit selling to us.  A few companies have made their choice clear.  You won't be seeing an Sebenzas on the shelf at Home Depot.  Gerber on the other hand seems to have voted in the entirely opposite direction.  They went all in on big box, mass market Chinese made stuff. But for other companies the decision is less obvious. 

If your SOG what do you do?  Spencer Frazier seems to have decided to bifurcate his line, selling Flash I and Aegis knives at Lowes and Amazon and then sell his Vulcans and Visionaries to us.  Benchmade and Spyderco seem to be doing the same thing--Benchmade's subsidiary brands, HK and Harley Davidson, are all or mostly made in China while Spyderco's Tenacious series and all of the Byrd knives are produced in the world's most populous country.   Kershaw, the maker of knives like the "blank check design" Tilt and the budget-friendly Crown, seems to be more explicit about this.  ZT seems like it will be their US made, high end, enthusiast line while the Kershaw main line will become more Chinese made.  There are a lot of exceptions to this rule like the aforementioned Tilt and the Onion knives as well as the Skyline, but increasingly Kershaw's stuff is being made overseas.

Is this is a per se bad thing?  After years of thinking about this the answer has to be no.  I'd buy an American made knife before I'd buy a Chinese knife.  I'd pay twice or three times as much for the privilege. But with American capacity maxed out or used to make other things, Chinese capacity is necessary.  Without it, the knife industry that we have delighted in over the past few years, would never exist.  Enthusiast products are funded by mass market Chinese made knives.  To get what we want, companies have to make stuff that sells in huge volumes.  

The gear business is a relatively small community of makers. Even the companies that drop things into big box stores, like Leatherman and SOG, are still tiny companies in terms of international businesses. Gerber is different as they are a subsidiary of Fiskars which is a multibillion dollar operation. For comparison sake, how about these numbers: KAI USA's revenue last year was $19 million dollars while Staples revenue was $27 billion dollars.  Then there are the prices of the products themselves--technology and internet sales have created a cut throat environment. It benefits us the consumers by giving us stuff like the near custom quality ZT 56x series for $260 and things like the $19 CRKT Drifter, both of which are great buys, even though they are $240 different in price.

Conclusion: Adjusting to the New Order

With market bifurcation, what is the gear geek to do?  First, rejoice that there are still very small makers here in the US.  CRK is one maker, but did you know that both Case and Queen, the last two major makers of traditional pocket knives, still make their stuff in the US (both in the Pennsylvania in fact)?  Second, celebrate the fact that big brands can and still do make blank check high end projects that serve the enthusiast market.  There are very few knives, custom or production, that have the materials and design flourishes of the Tilt or the ZT 0888.  The fact that these products are being produced is a hugely cool.  Third, gear geeks should do their best to sift through the overseas knives and find the best values.  They are out there, they really are.  If you don't believe me take a look at the Budget Blade Shootout or the recent CRKT Swindle review.  The Drifter alone is proof that not all of these overseas blades stink.

It comes down to this, for me: if gear companies make blades, bags, and lights overseas and sell in Big Box stores they will survive.  The guy that walks into Dicks and buys a Kershaw Cryo is subsidizing KAI USA's ability to make things like the Tilt.  Its good for him, its good for KAI, and it is good for us.  It is never a good thing when jobs go overseas, but part of the reason why this is happening in the gear world is because US manufacturing plants are humming, operating at near full capacity producing high tech stuff like Boeing Dreamliner parts and MRIs.  In a sense, it is a healthy thing.  Sure, there are very few manufacturing jobs left for less skilled workers, but the rising tide of high skill job requirements is a trend with much broader causes.  It would happen one way or another, even if most of our gear was still made in the US.  In fact Time recently published a piece on the thriving US manufacturing sector.       

There are some exceptions to this trend--Leatherman has done an amazing job keeping almost everything in the US and still selling to Big Box (one of a dozen reasons that Leatherman is beloved by both the Big Box patron and the enthusiasts alike).  Then there is the entirely custom made market.  Podcast cohost and custom knife connessieur Aaron will probably never buy another Chinese made knife.  But in large, we need to face facts--overseas made knives are a requirement of the modern market.  We can still get USA made stuff, but if we want knife companies to survive we need to realize they are business first.  As a business, they need to maximize profit and going overseas is the only way to do that right now.  Things will change in the future, they always do, but for now we have to accept and embrace cheap overseas blades.  They make the stuff we like and love possible.

I hope that one day all of the unused manufacturing space in places like Detroit will be recaptured by US industries, like knife making.  I'd love to see a "Motor City Tool Works" spring up and resurrect some lonesome factory and harness an untapped, skill group of under employed or unemployed labors.  Shinola is proving this is a profitable and effective strategy.  But until knife companies can do this, our blue sky knives are funded by those Chinese made blades.  And quite a few of them, like the AG Russell Skorpion or the CRKT Drifter, are really quite good.  

I want to thank a few contacts within in the industry for their willingness to chat and for their feedback on a draft of this piece.  Lots of different folks have given me input and the article is better for it.  I spend over three months writing and rewriting this piece to make sure it was both factual correct and a good statement of what I believe.  I hope no one was too offended

Spyderco Pingo Review

There are rare geniuses that are appreciated in their time.  Most, it seems, require the tidal forces of time to pass over their work before the collective can see the brilliance.  In the knife world, we are fortunate that the design talents of Jens Anso (pronounced Yens Ansoo, with the "Y" making the same sound as it does in the word "Yes") were almost immediately recognized.  The blade shapes, the grip pattern, and the asymmetrical grinds are all highlights of Anso's design talents.

A collaboration then between Anso and Spyderco, a company founded by a guy with some pretty impressive design chops himself, seemed like an almost inevitable thing.  First there was the Rock Lobster, then the Zulu and most recently the Pingo.  The Pingo is by far the easiest to carry of those knives, both in terms of its physical dimensions and also in terms of its legality.  This knife is a three way collaboration between Jens Anso, Jesper Voxnaes, and Spyderco.  It was designed to be legal in Denmark and thus it "requires" two hands to open and is a non-locking knife, more on this below.  The Pingo is distinct and different.  The question is whether that difference is good and whether it is good enough to overcome the lack of a lock and one hand deployment.  Put another way--in a country where you can carry locking knives that open with one hand, is the Pingo STILL good enough to carry?

The answer is an unqualified yes.  This is a superb knife.  

Here is the product page. The Pingo costs around $50. There are two variations--a black handled version and an orange handled version.  Here is a written review. Here is a video review. Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Pingo, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my review sample:

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Twitter Review Summary: Being lockless and two hands required can't sink the Pingo with its perfect size, weight, and unbeatable blade shape.

Design: 2

Anso's designs are truly, utterly ground breaking. So ground breaking, in fact, that yours truly missed them entirely.  I took one look and assumed that they were weird for the sake of weird, but the buzz around Anso just never died so I couldn't just ignore them.  The Rock Lobster was too big and all of the Boker stuff is...well...Boker stuff.  So when the Pingo dropped I knew I needed to grab one and...it was a complete and utter revelation.  Anso is AWESOME.  

This knife is such a nice, easy on the hand, easy on the pocket knife.  It cuts and cuts well.  It can handle jobs, thanks to the unusual blade shape, that most pointy knives can't or shouldn't.  The overall look and feel is polished and smooth, like a river rock in your hand.  Talking with Mr. Anso in preparing for this article, he indicated that the design was both his and Mr. Jesper Voxnaes in equal parts, but the blade shape seems very clearly to be an Anso pattern, especially when compared to the Rock Lobster.  

The Pingo is right around my favorite size for a pocket knife--between a 2.5 and 3 inch blade.  The lack of a lock is not that much a weight saver as the backspring is basically the same as you would find on a lockback knife.  With that said there are no liners so this is a feather of a blade.  It is also a very compact blade when folded up: 

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The ratios are at opposite ends of the spectrum.  The blade:handle is .68, which is quite bad.  Only the Delica and a few other designs had a blade/handle that far off.  One issue that makes me think this isn't a fatal flaw is the fact that in a knife this small, a comfortable handle has to be of a certain size even if the blade is tiny.  The blade:weight is 1.24, very good among the knives I have reviewed.  The bulk of the weight savings comes from the lack of liners, but there are other weight savings--FRN handles, a good wire clip, and a not-so-bulky blade stock. 

There are two design quirks you need to know going in--this is a knife made to comply with Danish knife laws which are some of the most restrictive in the world.  There is no lock, as I have already mentioned, and the knife cannot be opened with one hand absent some serious finger yoga.  This is a most extreme design, even for Spyderco, a company that has a truly global approach to knives with a plethora of Slip-It non locking designs.  This is, to my knowledge, the only two hand open, non-locking knife Spyderco has ever made.    

Fit and Finish: 2

There is a rounded edge to the mild checked handle that is largely responsible for the comfy, in-hand feel.  But the fit and finish here is top notch (this is a Magiano, Italy produced knife, so you know the quality will be there).  The grind is a dished out grind.  The jimping on the bottom of the blade is well cut.  The knife came centered.  The blade's satin finish was quite nice.  Everything, it seems, just works:

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As unusual as this knife is in terms of design, its fit and finish is highly conventional and utterly superb given the price.

Here is a warning for those of you that are coming to the Pingo from a traditional knife perspective--this is nothing like the slender, taut, fingers of steel and bone you are used to.  First, this knife feels light.  It is wider than you are used to and it has no nail nick at all.  Additionally because of the FRN handles, that distinctive click of the "talk" part of "walk and talk" just isn't that impressive.  The "walk" part is fine.  This is not a modernized traditional knife, it is something differently entirely.  

Grip: 2

Here is the knife in my medium sized hand:

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It is not a massive blade, by any means, but it is, nonetheless pretty darn good in the hand.  Thanks to the little hook at the end of the handle, my first two fingers fell into place with my third finger resting atop the raised portion of the handle just behind the hump.  This is an excellent grip for a three finger knife.  

Carry: 2 

This knife carries like a dream.  The combination of a deep carry, over the top wire clip (one of my favorite clips) and the rounded and polished edges make this a knife that an absolute dream in the pocket.  The front hump is not offensive in the least, and the overall weight doesn't make this a leg banger.   If you are going to make a knife without a lock that requires two hands to open you need to make up for it somewhere and this is where Vox and Anso did it.  

Steel: 2 

The N690 steel is actually quite good.  Similar too, but a step above VG-10, N690 is probably as nice a steel you can get without stepping up to powder metallurgy.  It is a European steel that has seen a much more prominent role in high end cutlery recently.  For example, Dave Curtiss's uber successful F3 series of knives, the so-called Hinderer killers--uses N690.  

This is one of those cases where the wisdom of crowds is actually correct.  In my two weeks with the Pingo the N690 steel maintained a razor edge.  It performed general EDC tasks and some harder tasks as well.  Two things in particular highlighted the steel's very good edge retention.  First, I made some kindling and roasting sticks with the Pingo and the N690 retained virtually all of its edge.  Second, I used the Pingo to modify bottle tops for my three year old son.  Most modern day bottles have tremendously thick plastic around the caps and the Pingo dug into that material with ease and again still maintained a very nice edge.  The Italian origins of this knife make the N690 steel readily available and that is a very good thing.

Blade Shape: 2

If I could I'd give the Pingo's blade shape a 3.  No other knife has been as all around useful, in terms of blade shape, as the Pingo.  It not only converted me into a huge Anso fanboy, it also persuaded me that there is really no pressing need for a sharp point on an EDC knife.

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It is something like a sheepsfoot blade, but it has a more pronounced drop to the tip, a bit more belly, and an excellent curve along the top that serves as a good cradle for your thumb in press cuts or thumb push cuts.  The Pingo will not stick into material when dropped, the point is too rounded over for that, but you can do some piercing if you really, really have to.  Bear that in mind, and you'll be delighted at all the things the Pingo can do.  

Grind: 2 

This is a very nicely ground knife.  I like the little dished out look and the cutting bevel is very even and nice, something that seems to challenge Spyderco, even on more expensive blades.  I would imagine that the grind here is deceptively difficult, as the extreme drop point would mess with the normal way knives are ground.  All this adds up to an excellent slicer.  It would have been nice to see Spyderco adopt Anso's trademark asymmetric grind, as it adds to the slicing abilities of a knife without really sacrificing much in terms of strength.  Alas that sort of touch is probably well outside this knive's price range.  

Deployment Method: 0

Okay, let's get this out of the way--two hand opening is not a quaint throwback or a reasonable compromise.  I am willing to sacrifice a lot of features that "tactical knives" in exchange for less weight or less of a fear factor, but one handed opening is not one of those things.  Furthermore, why couldn't Spyderco have dropped a small nail knick on this thing like the one on the Anso Haddock?  That would have met the two handed requirement and made the knife a bit more convenient.  It is possible to open this with one hand but it is so slow and difficult it is not really worth discussing.  I get that this is a requirement for a Danish knife, but it is not for a US knife and even with the Danish legal restraints a nail knick would have been a welcomed upgrade.  
 
Retention Method: 2 

There are few things as simple as the Spyderco wire clip.  This is the Dragonfly variety not the the wobbly Techno version.  I like it quite a bit and it works incredibly well.  Nothing at all to complain about.

Blade Safety: 1

Here is the bottom side of the Pingo.

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It looks okay, the jimping is actually quite nice, but there are two things that worry me.  First, the back spring is not the strongest I have felt, even compared to other Spyderco SlipIts.  Its is decent, about what you find on a SAK, but not uber strong.  Second there is no choil or other method used to prevent the knife from closing on your fingers.  Sometimes knives can do with the right handle geometry and other times, like on the UKPK, the finger choil serves that roll.  Here, we have nothing.  

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

If you are looking for a slightly different take on an EDC knife and you are willing to put up with the lack of a lock (not a huge deal) and one hand opening (bigger deal, but still not a deal breaker) the Pingo will please you.  It is about as unthreatening a knife as you can find, yet it works like Clydesdale taking on a wide range of cutting tasks, some that will surprise you given the size of the knife.  Spyderco's three collaborations with Anso have proven to be hot commodities and it speaks well of the design that even with the drawbacks Danish law places on knives, this is still a very capable and worthy EDC knife.  The recipe is simple: perfect size and weight, great blade shape, polished comfortable handle, excellent pocket clip, and very good steel all equal one hell of an EDC blade, even if it is a little off the beaten path.


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