Monday, September 30, 2013

The Square Review

As the first water bottle review, it is fitting that I chose something different, something that stands out from the horde of stainless steel or aluminum jugs that dot the shelves of virtually every store you go to--from the grocery store to a gas station.  Water bottles are everywhere.  Virtually all of them are garbage.  Given the similarity in design and lack of quality, change, almost regardless of what it is, is a good thing.  The Square is definitely a change.  It is definitely different.  And it is definitely better.

Here is the product page.  The bottle comes in an array of colors (only the top, bottom, and logo are different colors, the stainless steel body remains as is).  Here is a written review from the Gadgeteer.  Here is a video overview, as there aren't too many water bottle video reviews out there.  You can buy the Square on Amazon:



Finally, here is the review sample provided by Clean Bottle:

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Here is a recap of the water bottle scoring system.  

Twitter Review Summary: Good looking and well designed, the Square is among the best non-insulated bottles available.

Design: 2

I originally thought the Square was nothing more than a gimmicky, a way for the bottle to stand out in a crowd of cylinders, but four weeks of carry has proven me wrong.  There are real advantages to the square shape.  First, it is somewhat more dent resistant than the normal water bottle.  Second it is easier to pack, riding well in my Bihn Cadet briefcase at the end of the day.  Third, it provides a bit more grip and doesn't roll away when knocked over.  One thing I didn't count on was the ability to use the square shape to lock the bottle in place in a cup holder and then twist off the lid with the same hand.  It sounds complicated, but once I got the move down I could open the bottle with ease with one hand and no looking (eyes on the road, right?).

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But the square shape is only one of four major design highlights of the Square bottle.

First, the mouth of the bottle is truly superior, surpassing even my beloved Human Gear CapCap.  Nothing I have used is quite as nice. 

Then, there is the simple yet useful cap loop.  It straps on to my lunch bag and my briefcase with ease, in the event the briefcase is too packed to carry something else.  Third there is the pass through cleaning.

There are myriad of benefits to the bottom cap.  First, it absorbs impacts to a degree that a metal bottom won't.  Second, it alllows you to fill the bottle with ice too large for the mouth.  Third, it allows for effortless and thorough cleaning.  This will be the cleanest, best smelling, best tasting water bottle you own, provided, of course you aren't so lazy as to not clean it. 

Finally, the cap is a minimal twist design, coming off with a short quarter turn.  This is invaluable when driving.  Instead of twisting and twisting and eventually taking your eyes off the road to figure out what the F is going on, you just yank once and the cap is off. 

Fit and Finish: 2

The fit and finish is excellent, as it has to be to pull off the bottm cap trick.  Without a snug fit and expertly crafted rubber seals this thing would leak like a screen.  But everything is wateright and secure.  You can tip the bottle upside down for days without a concern.  The seal that seals the bottom is mimicked on the top making this thing as sound as a submarine.  The stainless exterior is well made and without a seam and the plastic mouth is free of seams or sharp edges.  This thing is miles away from the drippy, slippy, and whale spouty Camelbak that both my son and I had.  Open that thing it there was liquid going everywhere, as if the bottle had somehow carbinated the contents. It is also significantly more water tight than Nalgenes or Kleen Kanteens.  Both are also a little leaky, not as bad as the Camelbaks, but pretty unacceptable.  Gaskets make all the difference.  They are a pricey addition to a water bottle but they are the difference between a wet shirt (or briefcase or car) and a dry one.  They are, undoubtedly, worth the upgrade.    

Carry: 2

As mentioned before both the cap loop and the shape of the bottle make this an excellent carry bottle.  The seals also make it pack well as you can cram it in something, turn it upside down, and not even worry about it leaking, something that you can't do with the Nalgene/Camelbak/Kleen Kanteen/Hydroflask/Sigg bottles of the world.  

Grip: 2

The cap loop not only makes a great lash point, it also allows you to grab the bottle easily and pop it open.


The squareness is actually not bad at all in terms of grip.  The stainless is slick and is more slick when the bottle sweats (which all non-insulated bottles will do time to time).  The square shape does give your hand something to register against when opening the bottle, another benefit of the different shape.

Drink Quality/Accessibility: 2

Ahhh...here is a great mouth:

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It seems so simple, but judging by the number of companies that fail at this most crucial part of a bottle, it is not.  The approach to the actual opening is smooth, there are no seams or rough edges, and the opening is just wide enough.  The water flows out easily and there is little splashing.  Additionally, it is easily wide enough to fill the bottle from a tap, water fountain, or a stand alone water cooler.  The opening is not so wide that your nose gets crammed into the bottle.  It is not wide enough to drop many kinds of ice cubes through, but you can take off the bottom to do that.  In short, this is the best mouth in terms of drink quality I have ever used.  It is at least the equal to the CapCap, if not a bit better.

Materials: 2

The stainless steel is fine, the plastic is smooth and durable, but the seals are where the Square distinguishes itself from the rest of the bottles out there.  They are literally what makes this bottle possible, both the short travel twist mechanism and the removeable bottom.  I would note that the stainless steel here is very smooth to the touch, with a light texturing and it is extensively machined (see images under "Leak Proof"), especially on the bottom of the bottle.  The fact that there are no machine marks or burrs is a testament to how nice this bottle really is.  

Insulation: 0

Ah the one thing the Square can't deliver.  This is an noninsulated bottle and there is really no insulation properties at all here.  If there were, well, we might be looking at the iPhone of Water Bottles.  Alas, there is still room for the Square to improve.  Clean Bottle, please consider creating an insulated version of the Square...

Durability: 2

In a month the Square accumulated no real wear marks at all.  It sat in a cup holder (which it does quite nicely).  It traveled in my briefcase.  It got hooked on to bags.  It went on hikes and rode in Maxpedition Pygmy Falcon II.  The stainless steel seems to be of a thicker gauge than the normal steel used in bottles by the mainstream companies, but really I think it had to do with the shape of the bottle.

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As mentioned above the plastic was durable and resisted dings and scrapes quite a bit.  The seals seemed to work just as well at the beginning as they did at the end of the review period, but really a month is too short a time to judge their durability.

Leak Proof: 2

Even with a gaping hole at the bottom of the bottle:

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The Square never leaked, even a drop.  I jostled it and moved it around and nothing happened.  You might think that the short travel screw top would be a problem but there is a seal at the top as well, locking the contents in.  This is the most leak proof bottle I have ever used and I have used more than a dozen different designs.  

Ease of Cleaning: 2

Nothing on the market is easier to clean.  Aside from the square shape, this is the second most obvious benefit over the competition.

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Down the center of the bottle you can see that cleaning is simple--run a soapy cloth through the bottle, rinse and your done.  I wouldn't drop this in the dishwasher as I am sure the seals would be adversely effected by the heat, but when cleaning is this simple who cares? 

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

The Square is a bottle that is different and the differences are harnessed by the design to give it superior functioning.  An insulated version would be in the running for the yet to be made "iPhone of Water Bottles", but even uninsulated this is a very good bottle.  The pass through design is great and works flawlessly, both in terms of ease of cleaning and the ability to load water and ice.  The rubber seals are really nice and did not exhibit any wear during the month long testing period.  If you don't care about insulation, given the Square a look.  It is expensive, running about $15-20 more than the average Kleen Kanteen, but the fit and finish, materials, and clever design make this a substantially better bottle than the horde of cylinders that are out there right now.    

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Prometheus Beta-QR Review

At some point we have to acknowledge that the tacticool look has run its course.  There are a small group of people, mainly us, that appreciate function over form and can tolerate the technical look of gear.  We appreciate things like matte surface coatings and pocket clips.  But we are a small part of the market.  For a product to truly break out, it needs to appeal to folks besides us.  Look at the Mag Solitaire, perhaps the most ubiquitous keychain light in the world.  It is a terrible light, really, with a miserable run time and output, even with the new LED update, but it looks like something familiar, like a pen or a tube of lipstick.  Its appearance appeals to a broad audience, even if its performance is matchstick bad. 

The Prometheus Beta-QR just might be the light to cross over into the mainstream.  It has the looks and the performance to appeal to the masses and to us.  And it has an ingenious feature, the quick release tail, that makes is very useful and very different from the vast majority of lights out there.  Additionally, Prometheus a.k.a. Jason Hui has focused on features that make a difference in real life.  He has delivered a light that is unlike the horde of feature laden, tacticool stuff.  The Prometheus Beta-QR is neither feature laden nor ugly.  This is a light designed by focusing on use, as opposed to a bullet list of features.  It is also an undulating piece of metal sculpture.

By now you are probably used to reading about great lights here and wondering about how you could get one before you scroll around on the internet and find out they are three figure gems, quite a bit for a flashlight.  The Beta-QR is a light that can be had for much less than $100.  This is an inexpensive light, especially for the performance.  There is a catch though (everything has a catch, TINSTAAFL)--this isn't a custom light like we are used to from Jason Hui.  This is a production light designed and spec'ed by Hui and produced in China.  If the prototype that I had for review is any indication, the quality is superb.  If China's a deal breaker for you, well, your missing out.  This is one hell of a cool light. 

Here is the product page (some of the specs have changed, see the KS page for final specs and features). The Beta-QR costs between $35 and $60 on Kickstarter and the production version will run about $60.  There are four models: the electroplated version, the black Hard Anodized version (HA III), the limited edition Green Anodized version (HA II and serialized 1-100), and a three mode copper version.  The green version is sold out.  The early bird for $35 is also sold out.  Right now you can get one for $45 (choosing between a HAIII version or an electroplated version) or the copper three speed for $65.  You can also get both the black and electroplated models for $80 or all three (electroplated, black, and copper) for $145.  Though I am sure the black hard anodized is nice and will hold up best to keychain use, it is virtually criminal to ignore the Jason's electroplated goodness.  This is the first and to my knowledge only review of the Prometheus Beta-QR.  Here is my review sample:

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Twitter Review Summary: The Beta-QR brings high performance and great convenience to the masses in the best keychain light available.

Design: 2

This is a light that looks at home among the iPhones and high tech key fobs of the world.  It looks classy and feels solid.  All but the black version eschew the tactical look in favor of something that your more likely to see in a MoMA catalog than an Army Navy surplus store.  But this design is more than a pretty shell.  It really, really works.  Jason picked the best stuff.  He focused on the light quality which so many people ignore, especially in the 1xAAA format.  Instead of falling in line with the lumens arms race he gives us wonderful Hi CRI output.  But that is not all, Jason solved one of the biggest design problems in small flashlights--how to attach it to your keychain without screwing up other parts of the light.  The QR is really great.  The light tailstands like a champ and quickly and easily detaches from your keys unlike all of the split ring lights out there.  These features and the appearance give the Beta-QR mainstream appeal that most of our gear lacks and the price is not too crazy either.  Lots of folks will probably still balk at the $50-$60 price point, but in a world of $5 coffees (20 times more than a cup o joe when the Solitaire was released) the price is commensurate with the looks and performance.

This is a small light, as all 1xAAA lights are, but it is not super tiny.  Here it is in my hand:

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and here it is next to the equally lustrous Zippo:

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and here it is with the QR:

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The performance numbers aren't too bad.  With batteries it weighs in at 1.2 ounces, making the lumens:weight on the highest output mode (found on the Copper Three Speed) a very decent 70.83.  The total lumens output is 4500 (found on the Two Speed high of 60 lumens for 75 minutes).  For comparison's sake the MBI HF-R is 3600 and the Surefire EB1 is 260.   

Fit and Finish: 2

Worry if you want about the country of origin, but I can assure you it is a waste.  This is a great light.  It has much thicker walls than you'd think it would given its size and most other Chinese made lights.  It is also expertly cut, as the threads synch together nicely.  The QR is a little wobbly, but that is the nature of the beast; it is nothing irksome and it is plenty strong.  The emitter was nicely centered and the electroplating is sumptuous.  I loved it.  My one concern, and one I couldn't assess during a review period, is the electroplating's ability to withstand the rough and tumble world of the keychain.  Few things can administer abuse like a keychain, but in the testing period it did fine riding on my keychain, getting cozy with my pocket knife, and riding shotgun with a few metal barreled pens.      

Grip: 2

The undulating waves of gleaming metal aren't just pretty, they are actually quite grippy.  I don't mean that they will work with thick tactical or work gloves, but in normal EDC use they are more than enough.  

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As you can see from the shadows in the picture above the grooves are actually quite deep.  This not only makes the barrel thicker, it also helps the pads of your fingers lock into place. 

Carry: 2

All 1xAAA carry very well and the Beta-QR is no different.  This is the reason why the format has taken off in the past 12-18 months.  Here is a piece I did on AllOutdoor regarding this trend.  The real trick with the Beta-QR comes here.  The QR retention method is revolutionary in the flashlight world.  Looking back at my lights over time you can see all of the contorted designs that all tried to do the same thing--allow the light to both tailstand AND attach to a split ring for easy carry.  None work as well as the QR and it is not even close.  I'd give the light a 3 if I could here.   

Output: 2

If you limit yourself to alkaline and NiMH only the most you can realistically get out of the current generation of emitters is about 85 lumens.  And to get that output here PLUS have a 92 CRI, well I am not sure how it gets better in this format with those batteries.

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The Peak Eiger can kill this light with a Li-Ion rechargeable, but it is no one's idea of a mainstream friendly light, both because of the finnicky QTC and the danger of lithium rechargeables.  Given the format and the batteries is light represents the state of the art.

Runtime: 2

99% of the time you need something like 30-40 lumens.  Getting twice that for 75 minutes, as you can see from the total lumens output numbers, is quick good for a light this size.  Again, there are uber expensive lights, like my beloved Aeon Mk. II, that do much better, but that light is almost 10 times the price of this one.  Similarly priced lights or other lights in the format are little worse than the Beta-QR.  

Beam Type: 2

I have a prototype and Jason was playing around with outputs on this light, so it would be misleading for me to do beam shots.  None of the lights for sale will have the output or mode configuration the review sample does, but the reflector is set and it is quite impressive.  There is a surprising amount of throw here.  Nothing crazy, nothing spill killing like the Surefire lights, but I imagine it would let you hit a car ten spots over in a dark parking lot with ease.  I am impressed by the balance between the spill and hot spot here, especially given the light's size.

Beam Quality: 2

I am a Tint Snob.  You know that.  The funny thing is, EVERYONE is a tint snob, even if they don't know it.  Its why there is Hi CRI lighting in changing rooms, art galleries, and in jewelry cases.  Our eyes thrive on light that emulates sun light and the Nichia 219 emitter is the best emitter available in this regard.  There are, of course, no artifacts, rings or spots.  This is a clean beam of almost sun like quality.   

UI: 1

Here is the only place where the Beta-QR is not quite cutting edge.  The twist, twist again UI is not my favorite.  It is definitely workable, as the hundreds of thousands of Mini 47s lights can attest to, but it is not the best.  I like the QTC UI, the selector ring UI, the staged twisty, and the MBI "clock face" UI better.  There are limits to what you can do on a light that sells for $60 or less and this seems to be the place where the price impacts the light.  Faced with the dilemmas of production, I'd probably have made the same choice Jason did.

Hands Free: 2

Tailstanding is superb and the QR prevents the light from rolling away.  It is also a slender enough light to hold between your teeth or lips in a pinch.  Again the genius of the QR really makes this light. 

Overall Score:  19 out of 20.

The Mag Solitaire works so well because it looks familiar and is always close at hand.  But its performance is dreadful.  Here we have a light that will also be close at hand and look nothing like a tacticool light, but really kills it on the performance front.  If you haven't backed the Beta-QR already, you should.  Jason accomplished his goal.  This is the best keychain light available.  Forced to choose between this, the MBI, and the Eiger, I'd starve like Buridan's Ass.  The MBI is probably better, but it is twice as much.  Prometheus does it again, and this time he is bringing fire to the masses. 

Here's the Beta-QR with my Gedraitis Pathfinder...what a beautiful pair.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Jens Anso's Response to the Spyderco Zulu Review

After we went off the design deep end in Episode 16 of GGL, I decided to email Jens Anso, the designer of the Spyderco Zulu.

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I forwarded him a link to my review of the Zulu and a few questions that came up.  After some listener suggestions, I asked him if I could publish what he wrote and he agreed.  Here are my questions and Mr. Anso's answers:

Hey Anthony

Great review with a lot of interesting point...really in-depth for sure....

1.  Do you do most of your design work conceptually (sketching out designs on paper or on a computer) or through trial and error?

Everything starts out on paper but always end up in solid form at some point. I have, however, so many years of experience with designing that even a design only on paper is, to me, not considered conceptual...

2.  Was the Zulu designed over a period of time with lots of iterations or did it come to you basically fully formed?

Usually when I make a design, it evolves through several sketches, but then gets fully designed in one sitting ont he computer.


[Editor's Note: This confirmed what I said on the podcast; at some point the truly spectacular creative minds work in a way, that to others, appears to be magic.]

3.  Was the Persian influence a conscious or subconscious thing?

I never aim for a certain influence but AM influenced by everything from Japanese carpentry to architecture.  I try to find inspiration outside the knifeworld which makes it much eayser to stay orignal.

4.  Did you intend for the dip in the blade spine to be a place for the user's thumb to go in push cuts or was it for something else or was it for looks alone?

Ya that is one of my intentions of the shape of the blade but also to give the negative blade angle that I feel is very utilitarian (also as you comment in using the knife against a cutting board
5.  The blade shape works and sharpens a lot like a tanto.  Was that intentional?

No but I see the similarity...I always thought the tanto shape was silly except on...a tanto (japanese side arm where it makes alot of sence)

6.  I don't think the knife needs jimping, but would you add it in if you were doing the design over?

If by jimping you mean thumb grooves on the spine, no, I never really liked that on my knives...feel that while it gives a positive grip it also gives a potential sore spot in extended use.

 

[Editor's Note: This was Andrew's point exactly.]

7.  What changed specifically between the custom and the production version?

Mainly the Opening hole position...i generally design with less distance to the pivot where Spyderco usually goes for 27mm center to center.

8.  Were you happy with how the production version turned out fit and finish wise?

The Spyderco Zulu is among the top 2 of any knife design I have in production in regards to fit and finish. Also they really captured the design really well.

9.  Why no Anso asymmetrical grind?

I do not think they belong on a factory knife. Mainly because it overcomplicates the grinding process...

There you have it, answers from the man himself.  Jens Anso has been nothing but gracious in the dealings I have had with him.  His generosity with his time and the thoughtfulness of his answers match his skill at designing knives.  If the Museum of Modern Art asked for a representative of cutting edge knife design, I'd recommend an Anso (probably the Zulu or maybe the Pingo).  If Popular Mechanics called and asked for a great, kick ass knife, same thing.  And when I am not testing stuff for review (and sometimes even when I am), I'll happily reach for my Zulu.  This is such an interesting object and a great blade.  

Thanks Jens.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

DPx HEST/F 2.0 BladeHQ Edition Review

Robert Young Pelton is a wild man.  He is a reporter in the same sense that Sebastian Junger and Hunter S. Thompson are reporters.  They are really thrill seekers that write to pay for their adventures.  I knew a guy in graduate school that did something a lot like that for a living, working as a mountain guide to pay for his climbing.  He didn't design a knife, but RYP did.  The HEST started out as a fixed blade but morphed into a folder, the HEST/F, after a while.  It is a polarizing design from a polarizing brand that is the brain child of a polarizing person.  There is not much room for a middling opinion.

Had this been a review of the HEST/F 1, it would have scored okay, but like the Lighthound Light, it had a fatal flaw--the knife blade did not fully rest in the handle.  The point did not go into the handle all the way.  That is a major fail.  The HEST/F 2 has its detractors, see the Nutnfancy review, but no one seems to condemn it outright.  I like the knife, but I don't love it.

Here is the product page. There are a wide variety of models, the review sample is the BladeHQ edition with red G10 handle scales.  They are definitely a striking color.  The DPx HEST/F 2.0 costs $200. Here is a written review. Here is a video review from Nutnfancy (yikes, he is not happy). Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the HEST/F 2.0, 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: Good blade shape, great wave opening, sticky lock and high price.

Design: 2

The overall design of the knife is quite appealing.  It is technical looking and loaded with features.  The jimping is supposed to double as a series of different sized wire strippers, you know for all of those emerency eletrical jobs you are going to do in the jungle with RYP.  There is a bottle opener on the HEST/F but it is as much a bottle opener as Kate Upton is fat (yes, there are women that think Kate Upton is fat...).  It is a wave device, but more on that below.  Overall, a very good outline here.

Here is a shot of the HEST next to the zippo:

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Here it is in my hand:

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This is a heavy knife with a short blade for the handle size (which is okay thing for a hard use knife).  The blade:weight is .64.  The blade:handle is .72.  Both are distinctly less than average, but you know going into this knife that it is a beastly thing. 

The one thing I found pointless was the glass breaker.  For every time you need to break glass in an emergency it will jab you in the hand as you reach for the knife 1000 times.  I took it off after one day of use and I was glad I did.

Fit and Finish: 2 

Andrew is much more familiar with LionSteel stuff and he assured me the fit and finish would be great.  He was right.  This is an immaculate piece, with curves and cuts in all the right places.  The lock is well made, an improvement over the HEST/F 1, and the blade coating is actually quite good, better than any other coating I have seen or used.  Other than the lock issue, below, there is nothing to complain about.  Since I am deducting points for that below, I didn't think it was fair to double dip on the penalty.

Grip: 2 

This is a well above average knife in terms of grip.  I liked it quite a bit, in part because the simple handle shape affords quite a few grips, none of which are bad.  The shape is wonderful.


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This is one of the few folding knives I have used with a parrot beak handle and I like that as well.  

Carry: 2 

The knife is heavy, as you can see above, but it is not a pocket anchor.  The clip is positioned well and the overall size of the knife is not too bad.  It is a little thick, in large part because of the blade stock, but nothing unmanageable for a knife of this type.  It is no fatter than a Cold Steel Mini Recon 1, though it is noticeably heavier.  

Steel: 2

Andrew and I debated the merits of D2 on Episode 16 of GGL (listen here), and after some extensive cutting, I agree with him--D2 rocks.  Normal EDC tasks are not really a challenge, so I decided to do major fire prep--shaving wood for fire starters, batonning (yes, I am that a-hole batonning in his backyard; I do it for you guys...), and whittling.  I cut a lot of shavings.  A lot.  Way, way more than needed.  I also cut them out of pine (blah), poplar (decent), and maple (yowza).  Even pulling on the rock maple was nothing.  I could cut all day.  It wasn't fine shavings (see below) but I got a lot of them.  Here is the shavings pile about 1/4 the way through:



Then I decided to split some wood, Nutnfancy style.  Here are the results:
 
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Thanks to the new camera and good lighting you can see the details.  There is some micro chipping along the edge, but nothing that some sharpening won't fix.  D2 is monstrously tough and a very good choice for a hard use knife like the HEST/F 2.  I'd love to see the blade in CTS-XHP, but that is just being picky.  D2 is more than fine.  

Blade Shape: 2 

A simple, perfect drop point blade shape.  That ALWAYS works.  Why screw around with weird angles and grinds and recurves when this works so friggin' well?  

Grind: 1

Whoa baby, this is a thick blade.  Even my RD-7 has a thinner blade.  Okay, so that might be an exaggeration, but its close to being true.  This is a massive slab of D2.  The durability is outstanding, but given the knife's size, that much blade stock makes for a poor slicer.  This is not a paper slicing knife, so limited slicing ability is not a killer, but still there can be some compromise.  The PM2, a clear competitor to this knife, had thinner blade stock and it never caused a problem.  All design is a compromise, and I get that, but this is too thick a blade.  

Deployment Method: 2

In my mind, this is the difference maker on this knife, the thing that makes it stand out.  It is a "thumb stud" knife only if you think that the "bottle opener" is just for opening brews.  In reality is a virtually perfectly designed wave opening device, better than the Emersons I have handled (a CQC 8 and Roadhouse). Heresay I know, but it is damn good.

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I never failed to open the knife using it and I never accidentally opening the knife when I didn't intend for it to be used.  

Retention Method: 1

This is a well positioned, deep carry clip, but it is very big.  This is a car door scratcher if I have ever seen one.  As a clip it works well.  As a possession you carry with you everyday, it will definitely take a chip out of something.  I don't think it needs to be this big, either.

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Lock: 0

Sticky lock.  REALLY sticky lock.  Even after three or so weeks of use.  Some deployments would snap the blade in place and it would take a pry from my Gerber Shard to get this thing open again.  It was a lot of effort more times than not.

Here is the big problem:

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I wonder if in fixing the HEST/F 1's problems they didn't cause another.  I don't know but it seems possible.  I did not have the lock develop blade play like Nutnfancy did and I too did batonning (at least I am not the guy batonning in his backyard with high work gloves on...that is a whole other level of dorkiness...not really, but let me pretend).  I even tried the graphite trick on the lock to no avail. 

Here is the lock side with the RotoBlock:

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And speaking of the RotoBlock, I guess it works.  The knife didn't have problems without it being engaged, so I have no way of knowing if engaging it helped.  It made me FEEL better and less worried so I guess that is helpful, but it is not something I see becoming a requirement on knives like this.  I did like it as an overtravel stop.  

Overall Score: 16 out of 20

I like the HEST/F 2.0 quite a bit.  It is a rugged knife with a great blade shape and an excellent, fast deployment method.  In isolation it is quite good, except for the sticky lock problem, but when viewed in light of its competitors, it is hard to pull the trigger on the HEST/F 2.0.  It is significantly more money than the Spyderco Paramilitary 2 and probably three or four times the street price of a Cold Steel Mini Recon 1.  Its not worse than those knives, but it is not clearly better either, especially in terms of value.  I also think that the SR1 and SR1a, stable mates of the HEST/F 2.0 give it a run for its money.  This is a big blade, a slab of steel that is plenty rugged for most tasks, but the titanium lock adds a premium price and some serious stickiness.  This is a good knife, no question, but in the Golden Age of Gear good isn't what it used to be... 

Friday, September 20, 2013

AG Russell Small Skorpion Review

There are very few people that can operate at the top of their game over a span of 50 years.  Nolan Ryan, perhaps the most durable pitcher of the last 100 years, was effective into his mid-40s, but he started pitching in his twenties.  He lasted 26 years.  Sir Neville Marriner, one of the finest conductors of the 20th and 21st century was a premiere force in the classical music world from roughly 1969 until 1992, but he toured until the early 2000s (I saw him with my wife at Tanglewood in 2005 and it was amazing).  Those two legends didn't quite make the 50 year mark.  In the knife world, we are lucky enough to have someone that has.

AG Russell started selling knives and knife accessories (such as sharpening stones) in 1964.  In 2013 he released the Skorpion, an innovative and very trendy knife.  That span of time is truly remarkable and a sign of greatness.  More remarkable is that in those 50 years he has embraced new technology and used it effectively almost right away.  You'd think that has he enters his ninth decade that Russell would have a set style and format for his knives.  You'd think he'd be in the cruise control period of his life or maybe just hitting rinse and repeat.  But he's not.  He's making good stuff that's both new and different.  He'll pump out an incredible budget knife like the AG Russell Barlow, a pattern that first came on the scene in England in the 1600's and then he drops the Skorpion with its framelock flipper and ultralight and ultrathin handle scales.  This is a new knife that competes quite well in a very crowded market--the mid price, mid sized EDC market.  The Delica, Mini Aegis, Mini Griptillian, and the Leek have competition.   

Here is the product page. The AG Russell Small Skorpion costs $65. Here is a written overview. There are no video reviews.  The knife is available only through AG's site.   Here is my review sample:

IMG_0034

 Here is a video showing the size of the knife and how it opens:



Twitter Review Summary: Very competitive new design from AG Russell, proving that he's still one of best knife makers in the world.

Design: 2

The Small Skorpion drops into the knife market segment equivalent of downtown Tokyo.  The mid-sized, mid-priced niche is as densely populated with competitors as any part of the gear market.  You have an embarassment of choices.  And the best knives in this market segment are unquestionably the best values in the gear world.  On a dollar for dollar basis it is pretty hard to beat the Delica and the Mini Grip.  But the Skorpion manages to stand out even in this cast of thousands thanks to a simple and effective design and a size and weight that make other knives very jealous.  The handle is a classic AG Russell form, a nice finger groove followed bby a gentle curve up to the end of the blade.  It is found a quite a few of Russell's modern folders and the reason it simple--its very effective.  The overall shape of the Skorpion fits the hand and the pocket well and it promotes good utility cutting.  Its design is very good, but the real impact of this knife can be found in the performance numbers.

IMG_0036

Here is the Small Skorpion next to the Zippo:

IMG_0033

As I mentioned in my preview article, the ratios are awesome.   The blade:handle is .80, third only to the Al Mar Ultralight Hawk (.82) and the Kershaw Chill (.81).  The blade:weight is very good 1.67, second only to the Hawk and better than the Chill.  Very few knives in this market segment can match those numbers.  Only the much thicker SOG Mini Aegis can match the weight.  This is a good useful knife that reached the top of the mid-price mid-size market thanks to a focus on blade length and weight.

Fit and Finish: 1 

There are lots of nice little touches to this knife, things that make it worth more than its $65 price tag.  But there are also a few things that make me wonder about the production.  First, the good.  The handles are billed as "Featherlite" steel.  We talked about them a lot on episode 16 of GGL (found here).  Basically it is 420 steel, which is more than adequate as a handle scale, that has been milled out significantly.  There is no  special formulation to the steel, having confirmed this with AG Russell prior to the podcast.  The idea is that you can get titantium-like weight from steel which is both cheaper and stronger than titanium (on a volume basis).  While both Andrew and Aaron thought this was a bit of marketing speak, and I agree that it is being  oversold, it is important to note what this gives you in terms of the knife in your pocket.  You get a framelock that is both strong and light but not terribly expensive.  Titanium is a notorious material to work with, causing sparks and chewing up tools.  Its not terribly expensive as a material, but it is labor instensive and expensive to work with, raising the cost of production.  To my knowledge, no one has tried exactly what was done here--lots of folks mill stuff out, but doing it to steel to approximate the weight of titanium is new.  It is yet another sign that AG Russell is one of the finest knife designers working today and a touch I appreciate.  He predicted it would be copied and I have no doubt it will.  

But for all of the gee whiz technology, there little things that bothered me.  First the blade was significantly off centered.  It didn't touch but it was noticeable.  Additionally a few readers reported to me they had the same problem.  Additionally the pivot, when I first got the knife, was a real grinder.  Flipping was possible but noisy and slow.  This was also confirmed by another reader.  A few drops of Nano-Oil and the knife popped open swiftly and silently.  Third, the matte finish on the handle scales was a scratch magnet.  

None of these were fatal flaws by any means and I'd probably still give something a 2 if it had one of them, but taken together and confirmed by other sources, I have to dock the knife a point.  It still worked and worked well, but the presentation was mildly lacking.  

Grip: 2

The Al Mar Hawk is a great knife and THE benchmark for light carry knives, but one reason it doesn't just permanently reside in my pocket is because it can, in certain instances, feel TOO small.  I was worried about that when I pulled the Skorpion out of its box.  This is a very thin and very light knife.  But the shape of the knife, a classic AG Russell profile, plus the matte finish on the handle and run of jimping on the bottom do good work at locking your hand on the blade.  Furthermore, the pocket clip, as it does in a lot of brilliant designs, really helps with grip.  

Carry: 2

Something this thin is always a great carrying knife.  How thin is the Small Skorpion?  This thin:

IMG_0038

That's the Zippo laid on its side.  Both pocket clips are positioned well and the knife's thin small profile just disappears in clothing.  I carried this knife exclusively for 10 days on vacation and it proved to be a very nice companion, never obtrusive even in shorts. 

Steel: 1

Andrew and I talked about this on GGL 16 (found here, check out the new site), but the reality is that in the right application and with the correct blade finish (i.e. not bead blasted) 8Cr13MoV is definitely acceptable.  I will admit it.  I was wrong about this steel on the Tenacious (score correction complete).  I did all sorts of things over that 10 day period--fire prep, hiking in the woods, cutting apples, cutting paper, cutting packages and cardboard--pretty much all of the EDC tasks and the 8Cr held up fine.  It also took a good edge when I got back home.    

Blade Shape: 2

The blade shape is very similar to that found on the Mini Grip 555hg, a knife I really like, and like there the utility/sheepsfoot blade does very well.  It is an all around exceptional blade shape, doing everything well and nothing poorly.  It is easy to sharpen, it has just enough belly and it still allows for good piercing cuts to start cutting into packages like clam shells.   I really, really like this blade shape and I am glad AG chose it for the knife. 

Grind: 2

The primary grind is a good hollow grind, which I prefer, and the cutting bevel is wide without being overly sloppy.  I like both bevels and I am impressed that they were able to get such good grinds on such an inexpensive knife.  My AG Russell Barlow proves that they can do this repeatedly as its grinds were just as good if not better and it is a cheaper knife.  This is a skill and not some lucky strike lotto winner in the production run.  

Deployment Method: 2

The flipper works very well, especially after a dab of Nano Oil (which is miracle fluid as far as I am concerned).  It pops open with authority, as you can see above, and it is almost foolproof in operation.  You have to actively try to get a misfire and that is a very good thing.  This flipper is proof that an assist is totally 100% unnecessary.  

IMG_0041

As you can see from above, it does have jimping on it, which I would prefer it not have, but it is not as abrasive as that found on the other ultralight smooth flipper in this size category--the CRKT Ripple 2. 

Retention Method: 1

Here's the thing, there are two pocket clips include and both had issues.  Their positioning on the knife in any of the four mounts is good, but one is too low profile to easily jam on to the edge of your pocket, even in thin material and the other is too high profile, sticking out way too much.  

Lock: 2

This is a very snug and tight framelock.  It has very little stick at all, one benefit of using steel over titanium.  It also has an overtravel stop, something that again seems odd for a cheaper knife (though the Cryo has one too, so I am not sure if it is still fair to think of this as a high end touch).  There is also a subtle yet effective run of jimping:

IMG_0040

This allows the knife to be disengaged with ease. 

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

There is no question in my mind that AG Russell is one of best knife designers in the business today.  I am equally certain that he is among the most underrated.  I think a lot of people hear or read "AG Russell" and think of their grandpa's knife.  Its true that he still makes traditional folders (and very good ones, a review of his Barlow is in the works), but he has made quite a few very good modern folders as well.  The Small Skorpion is one of those modern folders and it has as many new and modern features as you can find on a knife.  The steel handle is excellent, giving the knife the weight of titanium with none of the drawbacks (high costs, sticky lockbars, etc.).  Whether the steel is worth a new name, Featherlite, is debatable.  It seems like a bit of marketing speak, but lingo aside, it is a very good idea.  And the handle is at the heart of what makes this knife a very competitive offering in the most crowded knife market segment.  This is a slim, thin blade with an excellet design and good flipper opening.  The blade shape is utilitarian and easy to sharpen.  The steel is merely average, especially for the $65 price point, but this rendition of 8Cr13MoV is not as bad as I had initially thought.  There are some minor fit and finish issues, but it is possible the I (and some readers) got lemons or quality is being evened out as the production of the knife continues.  There are no fatal flaws or even big issues with the Small Skorpion and you get a ton of blade for the size.  This is a knife you should absolutely consider when looking for a new vlade for your daily carry and if you are new to knives, you'll be happy if this is your first EDC.  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

EDC's Public Enemy #1

You might think that it would be an unscrupulous gear maker or some crazy law banning anything other than a toothpick, but, in my mind EDC's public enemy #1 is leaps and bounds worse than those two culprits. EDC's #1 enemy is...

Gym shorts.

They are already incredibly unflattering, making the most disgusting part of the male anatomy even worse, like a change purse tied around your waste. They are dumpy looking too. Nothing brings you closer to that bum-at-grocery-store look than a pair of gym shorts. I love that they are silky and light, and they do actually work in the gym (though they collect odors like Aaron collects framelock flippers), but beyond that they are useless.

First, most have no pockets at all.  This is a cardinal sin.  Listen, a-hole that designed gym shorts, if I wanted to walk around with no pockets, I'd go naked.  If I have pants or shorts of any kind on, I want them to have some freakin' pockets.  Seriously, the more pockets the better.  My TAD shorts have about a dozen pockets (meaning the shorts cost roughly $10 per pocket).  Even worse, those gym shorts that do come with a pocket, have a pocket is usually so tiny that it can only hold change.  Great, now I have TWO things hanging from my body that look like change purses.  You can't put a knife in there or a flashlight, let alone both.

Then there is the material itself.  Its great for gettin' sweaty in a gym that smells like BO from the 70s, and they are passable as jammies in the summer time (thanks to their aforementioned silkiness), but that material is awful for EDC purposes. It is too thin to clip anything to.  I can't even consider clipping my smallest knife, a Fox Cutlery Spyfox, on to my shorts.  Sad, it is a beautiful piece (new camera with insane details alert):

P1000023

Imagine if I were one of those folks that insisted that a Darrel Ralph Mad Maxx was an EDC blade?  Change purse and a pitched tent, awesome.

Finally, there is the hair scrunchy waist band.  What the hell is up with that?  Nothing clips on to that.  Nothing.  Gym shorts are worse than no pockets.  They are no pockets AND no waist band. Gym shorts are basically Anti-EDC, in the same way that Osama Bin Laden was Anti-American.  And I can't stand either of them.

Gym shorts are basically what I would wear if I were to become EDC Amish and wanted forego all of the convenience and man-toy fixation of our shared passion.  And seeing as I have probably written half a million words on the subject in two and half years, its unlikely that I will go EDC Amish.  Finally, I am probably like a lot of you--I want to exercise OUTSIDE.  I want to be "gettin' physical" on the side of a mountain with a great view, not rubbin' elbows and get pit hair in my face playing in a winter basketball league where everyone has those cyborg knee braces because they are all forty-two year olds playing basketball with the grace and athleticism of elephant seals.

Or maybe I am crazy and I shouldn't have written this hopefully funny, obviously jokey post.  

But for real, I hate gym shorts.  

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Spyderco Zulu Review

Martin Heidegger, a complex and notorious philosopher from the early 20th century, had this idea that our approach to objects was characterized by two fundamentally different states of mind.  The first state of mind he called present-at-hand.  By that he meant that things were approached as if they were there solely for examination.  A chemist, for example, looks at a molecules and how those molecules interact.  For the chemist the molecules are present-at-hand, an object to conceptualize and study.  Compare this to one's approach to objects that are ready-to-hand: a hammer is not generally something studied, but something that a person picks up and uses.  It is a tool and we think about it only to the extent necessary to use it, especially if it is a well designed and well made hammer, one that works exactly as intended.  For person using the hammer, the hammer is completely untheoretical.  There is nothing contemplative to the person's approach to a hammer, they simply use it.  

Imagine now that you were to redesign a knife (whew...you made it through that intro...thanks for hanging in there).  Not just redesign A knife, but redesign KNIFE, the essential, ideal knife.  What would it look like?  Would it end up being similar to what we have?  Would it be more like the crude stone tools of eons past (which look a lot like an ulu, if you are wondering)?  What would that redesigned knife look like if it were designed entirely from as used perspective?  What if the knife were not designed theoretically, with a concern for pivots and production costs, but instead designed experientially?  What if you designed a folding knife entirely from the ready-to-hand perspective (noting, of course, the clash of designing and thinking about something conceptually and as it is used)?

That thought experiment is really interesting.  One answer, I think, would be that you'd come up with something like the Spyderco Zulu.  It is a strange, almost alien looking knife.  It is wide and fat in places knives are usually skinny, and almost spindly in places where most knives are broad.  The handles are finished in an unconventional way.  The blade shape is bizarre.  It looks a little like one of Darwin's finches--evolved and warped over time by use.  But the genius of the Zulu is that it was not evolved over millions of years, but in the mind of Jens Anso (pronounced "Yens An SUE"), probably one of the ten most original knife makers in the world (I'd put him higher, but that is another fight for another day).  

Something this different is very hard to evaluate.  Playing with it and handling it helps.  Opening it, carrying it, cleaning it and performing maintenance makes me more familiar with it, but this is not an object that can be understood purely theoretically.  To get the Zulu, to truly understand it, you must use it and use it and use it.  This is the ready-to-hand knife.  And pulling apart that use-first design in a conceptual way like a review is very challenging.  Describing what makes the knife a compelling design is much more difficult than using it and finding out that it is a compelling design.  

Here is the product page.  Here is a piece I wrote about it going out of production (though the knife is still widely available).  It sells for about $100 street.  Here is a written and video review by Andrew over at Edge Observer.  Here is a video review by Cutlery Lover, who didn't love the Zulu. You can purchase the Zulu from Blade HQ and proceeds benefit the site and giveaways:

Blade HQ

Here is my video overview:



Finally, here is my review sample:

P1000269

Twitter Review Summary:  Listen to your hands, they'll tell you this is great.  Ignore your eyes and brain, they'll be skeptical.

Design: 2

Evaluating something so different is a very slow and difficult process.  Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was not well-received when it debuted.  Now we recognize it to be a masterpiece.  Similarly the Zulu is so different and so advanced, I fear that many just couldn't get over the fact that this little blade didn't look or feel like anything they had come to expect an knife to feel like.  But weeks of intensive and almost exclusive carry convinced me that this is one hell of a design, perhaps the most refined knife design I have ever had the pleasure of using.  This is advanced.  There is no other way to say it. It makes other designs look downright Stone Age primitive.  I'd give this knife's design a 4 if I could.

The ratios are weird because, well, the knife is weird.  Here is the knife up against the good ole Zippo:

IMG_0036

The blade:handle is .76, which is good, but does not fully capture the blade length given the curvy blade.  The blade length measures 3.031 and the cutting edge measures 2.875 inches, but even that seems to miss the beauty of this blade.  The blade:weight is .89, which is, again quite good.  The knife just FEELS bigger than these two ratios would indicate, perhaps because of its unconventional shape and the places where it is bigger than other knives.  

One more thing.  Some folks are concerned that this is the thick knife.  Here it is stacked up against on of the slimmest and trimmest blades out there, a Strider PT CC:

IMG_0033

It is thicker than the PT CC but nothing outrageous and certainly not as thick as a Zulu custom.  

Fit and Finish: 2

Taichung Taiwan makes the finest Spydercos.  They are better than those made in Seki City, better than those made in China, and, well, as sad as it is to say it, better than those made in Golden Colorado for the most part.  The Manix2 LW is a very well made knife, but I was stunned at how beautifully finished the Zulu was.  The liner lock itself was a marvel, snicking into place with a quiet, subtle, unrocking strength.  The Anso pattern was equally well attended to, with smooth corrugations that lock in the hand.  And the jimping, oh wait, the knife's design makes jimping unnecessary.  Another sign of the Zulu (and Anso's) brilliance.

Grip: 2 

I alluded to this before, but, this is a knife that locks in to the hand.  Here is a shot of me holding it:

IMG_0041

Even the super grippy ZT350, the previous record holder for most grippy knife, pales in comparison.  It comes down to the Zulu and the Brous Blade Silent Solider Flipper in terms of best grip in a production blade.  The pistol grip is part of it, but the Anso pattern IS all it is cracked up to be.  Even in wet conditions the Zulu never slipped out of my hand.  The Zulu has persuaded me that jimping is a design crutch, an artificial way to improve the grip of knife when the design itself didn't take grip into account enough.  Really go out and use the Zulu and you will see what I mean.  A run of jimping, especially on the thumb ramp, would be easy enough to do, but on this knife it is entirely unnecessary.    

Carry: 1

As I described it on GGL 16, the Zulu's handle, with its pistol grip, is a bit wide--it has some junk in the trunk.  This is what I was referencing above when I wrote that the knife feels bigger than it measures.   It can clog the opening of a pocket just a bit, not bad but worse than other knives. 

Steel: 2

Both Spyderco and Chris Reeve leave their S30V softer than it could be, setting at around 58-60 HRc and the result is a knife that is much less chippy than one would think it would be knowing only the steel used.  The S30V here is very good, holding an edge well, being durable in tougher and rougher cuts, and staying rust and color free through a series of messy cuts.  

Testing the steel I ran through my expanded battery of test.  I used it for EDC chores, such as opening package and cutting strings and the like, but I also did extensive food prep with this knife, cutting chicken, fruits, and veggies.  My wife always rolls her eyes when I bust out a folding knife in the kitchen, but it is an excellent test of how the knife cuts and how corrosion resistant the steel is.  Here the S30V killed it, resisting stains much better than the 8Cr13MoV from the Kershaw Injection 3.0.  I also did some fire prep with the knife and it held up to the more demanding push cuts and whittling.  

S30V may be more common nowadays but it is still a very good steel, especially when it is left a bit soft to compensate for its tendency to chip.  

Blade Shape: 2

Not sure if you noticed this, but the Zulu has a pretty unconventional blade shape.  Take a look:

IMG_0031

There is a lot of belly, a ton really.  But it is how all of this works together that is amazing.  The front sharpened edge is excellent for kitchen cutting tasks.  The Zulu sliced grapes and pepperoni better than any knife I have ever used, kitchen knife or otherwise.  It just puts your hand and arm in such a natural place that cutting becomes effortless.  This is the ready-to-hand aspect of the design.  It works so well you don't even think about it.

But it does other things well too.  With a lot of belly you can get good roll cuts and with a bit of a recurve and the spine shaped as it is you can choke up like crazy.  There is virtually no EDC task that the Zulu didn't do incredibly well.  This thing, because of the blade shape, cuts better than any knife I have used in normal use (as opposed to hard use) cutting tasks.  This might be the zenith of cutting performance in EDC tasks.  

Grind: 2

It is probably not feasible to replicate Anso's asymmetric grind in a production knife, but Taichung Taiwan did a great job of capturing all of the other complex lines from the Zulu custom.  This fastidiousness results in amazing blade.  The main grind is a high and very hollow grind making the Zulu an insane slicer.  I am willing to concede that the unusual visuals on the grind might throw you off, but just try the Zulu.  You'll like it.  Also, it looks like a severe recurve, but in practice it is not.  Here is a shot that shows you just how straight the knife really is:

IMG_0039

Additionally, while the Zulu is probably all but impossible to sharpen on stones, if you have a rod sharpener like the Sharpmaker, it is not that bad.  It is certainly a bit more complicated to sharpen than, say, my Dragonfly II, but it is not impossible.  Thinking of it like a modified tanto and you'll do fine with any rod sharpener.   

Deployment Method: 2

After two and half years it is odd that my first "real" Spyderco liner lock is the Zulu, but man is this a smooth knife.  You can easily deploy it using the thumb hole without any wrist flick.  The pivot is a good phosphor bronze number and the thumb hole is put in the exact right place.   I really love the feel of flicking this knife open.  Very high fidget factor.

Retention Method: 2

Spyderco's spoon clip is really underrated.  It is very versatile, working on many different designs and here it works well.  I especially like the subtle look of the black chromed finish.  It both hides the knife and remains oddly scratch free for a good deal of time.  

Lock: 2

The liner lock is not just smooth, it is rock solid.  There is no play in any direction and the knife is easy to open and close.  I think that the liner lock is wildly underrated and this knife shows why.  

Overall Score: 19 of 20

The Zulu is not for everyone.  There are mental hurdles to liking and appreciating this knife.  But if you can put those aside for a month or so and use the Zulu you will love it.  It does not look like a knife should look on a conceptual level, but in terms of use I have found nothing that is as pleasurable to use.  Nothing.  There are more aesthetically pleasing knives, lighter knives, and better finished knives (though not MUCH better finished knives), but no knife is better in use.  This is a knife that is ready-to-hand.  You do not think about the knife, you think about cutting.  The knife becomes transparent and you simply cut as you think you should be able to without care or concern for the tool.  It does not force you to work in a certain way, it simply meets your hand where your brain thinks your hand should be when you go about the task of separating one thing from another.  

This is the rare and perhaps singular Spyderco where the parts and design features that are the essence of the Spyderco brand are not the most innovative part of the blade.  Anso crushed it with the Zulu.  It is a knife design that operates on a whole different level.  To truly appreciate its genius you have to take an almost philosophical approach to the tool and its purpose.  Hence the Heidegger.  And sorry about that. 

The Zulu is one hell of a blade and worth every penny.
P1000210

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Gear Podcast Awesomeness Contest

The new Gear Geeks Live site is up and running.  For the debut of the new site, we are running a pair of contests.  Here are the details.

Okay, so a few months ago I was thinking that I could entice folks into making intro music.  I have received exactly ZERO submissions (Andrew wrote the current intro music).  SO…let’s change things up a little bit.

Contest #1: Topic Suggestion

This is simple.  Send in a topic suggestion (here is the Contact page, you can send it to me and I’ll send it to Andrew and Aaron).  We will pick a winner and that will be the topic for Episode 20.  Don’t submit anything we have already covered.  The winner will receive the MBI HF-R that was to be the giveaway for the intro music contest.  We’ll probably get around to other submissions, but Episode 20 will be the contest winner.

Contest #2: Rate and Review

On Episode 16, I’ll choose a winner for the best review comment on iTunes (here is our page).  The winner for Episode 16 will receive a CRKT Enticer.  iTunes user Spamrok2, contact me with an address and I will send it out to you.  On Episode 18, I will choose a new comment (one written after episode 16) and that person will win a Kershaw Cryo.  Yeah, yeah, I know.  I don’t like it.  Maybe you will.

We have a lot planned, including some cool guests, so stay tuned.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Watch Primer

Introduction

A time piece is a very common component to a regular EDC. Unfortunately, the selection of a watch can be a mind boggling process for some. My name is John and I am a watch enthusiast. I focus on Japanese branded watches (Seiko, Citizen, Casio and Orient) and collect my musings over at Jikan Watch Blog. I am also a regular reader of Every Day Commentary and Tony asked me to write a watch primer for his readers. This post was prepared for the individual wanting to enter the watch arena, but doesn’t know where to start. While preparing this article, I quickly realized that at a high level, the “watch experience” is very similar to that of other gear, so I’ve tried to take advantage of the similarities in order to help explain the differences. Just like selecting gear, there are subtleties in the selection of a watch and I hope that at the end of this article, these will be made more clear to you and you will be able to select a watch in confidence.

The Fashion Watch Trap

Buying a watch can be intimidating. The volume, design and prices can be staggering. Where does one start? One common misconception about watches is that they are all the same. Of course, they all tell the time, but from an aesthetic perspective, some examples can have more significance than others. When selecting a watch, try to buy a brand that is an actual watch manufacturer. These are companies with a history of watchmaking. They have research and development. The watch product is an investment of their business, not a vehicle to promote the brand name. Gucci does not make watches. Burberry does not make watches. Neither does Michael Kors. There are many many more examples. There is a huge industry in Asia built around custom manufacture of watches using catalog part selections. We call these fashion watches. On the ladder of perceptions, these are the lowest. The challenge with the fashion watches is that they deal in volume. There are so many of them, we are surrounded. It is impossible to go into any store and not see a fashion watch. They often hit on the latest styles and colors and are often far overpriced for the product that is delivered. If you happen to own a fashion watch, don’t be bummed. I don’t want to be critical. I’m sure your watch works perfectly fine and looks great. But for those individuals looking for a little something special in their watch selection, buy from a company that actually makes the watches.

In the last few years an industry of selling watches on the television has exploded. Brand names such as Invicta, Renato and others were made famous on the shopNBC channel. They are promoted by salesmen who consider themselves enthusiasts and even lead online brand forums for a more social watch experience. In the watch food chain, these TV brands are slightly better than the fashion store watches. They are often designed to a higher standard than one would expect from a fashion store watch and there are some good examples of high quality pieces. Manufacture is still contracted and there are lots of examples of poor quality control and poor customer service. While the watches themselves may be pretty good, the deeply discounted MSRP and purchase payment plans can give a bit of cheezy feel to the overall experience.

Coincident with the popularity of TV watch brands, there’s also been the emergence of something called Micro or Boutique brands. These brands are similar to custom knife or flashlight manufacturers in the EDC world. The watches are usually custom designs and are manufactured in small volumes. The watch movement is usually sourced externally as it is not feasible for a small organization to make their own movements as well. Some micro brands will allow for buyer customization for example the selection of crown, dial, or hands from a menu of options allow. Some of the benefits in going with a micro brand is that you will usually get better components, build, finishing and specifications as you are dealing with small volumes. Most times the customer service is impeccable. One down fall is the longevity of these brands is an unknown so part availability and repair in the future can be an issue. In response to this, many micros actually include spare parts with the original purchase. Additionally not all micro brands custom design cases and it is quite common to have the case selected from a menu of off the shelf offerings from the case manufacturer. This may not be an issue with some customers, but it is known to happen. Some examples of micro brands are MKII, Halios, Stowa, Benarus, Prometheus, Bernhardt, Doxa, Precista and many others.

Lastly, there are the big dogs of the industry. The companies and brands with a legacy and history of watchmaking, sometimes exceeding a century. They have instant recognition of making watches. These are your Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer, Hamilton, Seiko, Citizen, IWC, Panerai, and many many more. These are the companies that drive the market with continued research and development and innovative design. They often are a complete vertically integrated organization with all parts manufactured in house, or at least horizontally organized with movements supplied by sister companies. Some, like Rolex are stand alone while many of the Swiss brands are organized under umbrella groups such as Swatch, Richemont or LVMH groups. Others like Seiko and Citizen function as a single brand name with multiple sub-brands and collections underneath. These companies offer manufacturer support and service, but as with many instances, there is additional costs associated with intangibles like advertizing and network distribution which can add to the cost of the product.

Quartz vs. Mechanical

Spend any time in an online watch forum and you will eventually stumble into one of the great internet debates of preferred watch movement. While I personally think the argument is greatly over-exaggerated in significance, it is an important decision to make, especially for the new watch buyer and I’ll try to hit the highlights.

 An ornate mechanical watch movement

Mechanical watches are very simply timepieces with all mechanical parts. Power is stored in the tension of a flat wound spring. Time is kept by the harmonic oscillation of a balance wheel which functions like a pendulum in an upright clock. Mechanical gears connect the timekeeping to the power source and then to the movement of the hands to display the time. Mechanical watches can be wound by rotating the crown (hand winders) or through the use of a weighted rotor inside the watch which winds while your hand moves around through your daily movements (automatic). Although their presence on today’s market seems like something new, this is hardly new technology and dates back to the Victorian era. Although the selection of mechanical movements today can be staggering, they are all basically derivatives of the Swiss lever escapement. The manufacture of mechanical watch movements has benefited greatly from modern manufacturing practices where part construction and component assembly can be automated with high levels of quality and as a result economic prices.


 A high end quartz movement

The quartz movement is not all that different from the mechanical one, at least when the fundamentals of timekeeping are concerned. The harmonic reference of the balance wheel is replaced with the vibration of a quartz crystal. While the typical frequency of the balance wheel is 6 to 8 beats per second (3-4 Hz), the quartz crystal vibrates at approximately 32 KHz or higher. The effect of this is to increase accuracy from seconds per day as measured with mechanical watches to seconds per month or better. The power source in the quartz movement consists of a battery cell and motor and the application of steady and consistent power over the course of the day as opposed to that of the unwinding mainspring also dramatically improves accuracy.

Seiko commercialized the quartz wristwatch movement in December of 1969. The impact of the quartz watch on the industry was epic, such that it is referred to as the Quartz Crisis (or the Quartz Revolution depending on your perspective). The continued reliance on mechanical watches in the time of the extreme popularity and economically favorable quartz watch led to the near collapse of the Swiss watch industry. After a generation of quartz watches, there has been a small resurgence in interest in mechanical watches. This is in part due to the Swiss watch industry consolidating the surviving brands and decades of marketing linking mechanical watch movements with perceptions of luxury timepieces.

So which type makes the most sense for a prospective watch buyer? While quartz movements have the perceptions of being common and uninspiring, their benefits are undeniable with accuracy, robustness to shock and abuse and years to decades of maintenance free service. On the other hand, while mechanical watches have accuracy ratings to seconds per day, are susceptible to damage from abuse and are expected to be professionally serviced every few years, they do evoke a nostalgia for times past when machines ruled the day before the gadgets arrived. Do keep in mind that a buyer has to climb very high up the luxury ladder to actually achieve an example of a movement that demonstrates all the craftsmanship that equates to one’s expectations. Simply put, most of the mechanical movements on the market today are just as mass produced and economized as their quartz counterparts. In my mind, there isn’t much difference between a disposable mechanical movement and a disposable quartz movement.

Location of Manufacture

Similar to gear, the location of manufacture of a watch can be a contentious issue. As introducers of the quartz movement and the subsequent near-collapse of the Swiss watch industry, there is an unhealthy amount of anti-Japanese bias in the industry at the expense of the pro-Swiss factions. This is unfortunate because Japan’s contributions to the history of time keeping and watch making is undeniable and the competition between the two only benefited the ultimate consumers. The marking of “Swiss Made” on the dial is an absolute for some buyers, but beware that Swiss Made does not necessarily mean the entire watch is manufactured in Switzerland. In fact, it only requires a majority of the value to be manufactured in Switzerland along with the transformative phases of assembly. The source location of everything else is usually clouded in mystery.

Types of Watches

The seemingly endless variety of watch styles can cause confusion to a new buyer. I’ll try to present the most popular styles and the reasons one would be interested in each.

Diver

Rolex Submariner. An iconic dive watch.

The diver style is certainly one of today’s most popular watch styles. They typically feature relatively plain case shapes and finishing along with simple and highly legible hands and dials which glow in the dark. The most important feature of the diver is the movable timing bezel which can be adjusted to be set against the minute hand to measure elapsed time. While this feature is intended to be used to time decompression stops during diving, the more common use for it includes timing the pizza pickup and parking meters. Regardless of use, the timing bezel always looks great. The popularity of the diver style is likely due to its overbuilt construction with thick, heavy cases and bracelets designed to withstand the extreme pressures of underwater use. Perhaps it is their utilitarian design, but divers are unique in their broad suitabilty for most dress attire....from beach to boardroom.

It does need to be recognized that not all diver style watches are the same. Many are designed for Professional Dive use and are usually noted with the words, “Diver’s” or “Scuba”, or “Air Diver’s” on the dial or case. These professional dive models must meet the requirements specified in ISO 6245. ISO 6245 basically sets forth requirements for both design and testing of every watch which must be met for use as a diving instrument. Aside from the obvious water resistance design and testing, professional divers must also meet requirements for temperature and shock resistance. All these additional requirements are for the purpose of dive safety while being used. What is ironic is that today’s diver will primarily use a dive computer with the traditional analog dive watch as a back up at best while the vast majority of professional dive watches never see anything deeper than a swimming pool.

Chronograph

Omega Speedmaster Professional. An iconic chronograph 

Where the diver style is the Jeep of watches, the chronograph is the sports car. The chronograph features a stopwatch function which is measured in resolutions of ⅕ to 1/1000 of a second. The pushers on the side of the case used for starting and stopping the stopwatch function provide a styling feature and the additional hands and their movement across the dial add visual interest. It is the chronograph where the mechanical really shines with a higher level of complexity and design. Unfortunately in today’s market, mechanical chronographs are significantly more expensive than their basic mechanical counterparts.

Aviator/Military


Stowa Flieger

Aviator and military styled watches are throw backs to the watches made popular by use in the world wars of the 20th century. They are characterized as having high contrast dials (typically black dial with white lettering) fully numbered and large hands which are highly legible. While most military watches are fairly small, aviator styled watches are fairly large with large easily manipulated crowns to aid in their intended use inside an airplane cockpit. These watches typically have very basic case finishing and are presented on leather or nylon straps.

Multifunction Quartz

Casio Protrek

With the inclusion of integrated circuitry in a quartz watch enabled the watch to do so much more than simply tell the time and date. Multifunction quartz watches are capable of monitoring all kinds of data including temperature, air pressure, altitude, water depth, compass direction, water tides, moon phase, GPS satellite positioning, radio controlled receipt of atomic signals, and much more popularized by brands such as Casio, Suunto, Citizen, Seiko and Tissot. The use of solid state LCD digital displays with no internal moving parts resulted in exceptional shock resistance and the fusion of fashion and durability in what is today’s G-Shock.

Vintage Collectibility

 Seiko 6309

Anything with a long history of use will likely be a candidate for collectibility and watches are no exception. There is a very active and thriving society of individuals who collect models and brands of watches long out of production. Collecting vintage watches not only involves sourcing the difficult to find watches and parts, but also repair and restoration. An unusual thing about vintage watches is that the prices are completely set by the market demand for a particular model in the stated condition and has absolutely no relationship to the cost and value of modern day watches. This may be obvious to those who collect and restore vintage time pieces, but it is still something that I have difficulty wrapping my head around.

What makes a watch so expensive?

There’s lots of factors which contribute to the cost of a watch. Design, materials and construction and origin of manufacture are obvious. Manual assembly and finishing will also contribute. Then there’s the business side of things which probably contribute the most. Brand recognition and market positioning for sure. Inefficiencies in network sales and distribution will add to sticker price as well. It goes without saying however, that relative to other examples of gear, watches represent poor value. Where $300 basically gets you an entry level watch of basic proportions, that same money can go a lot farther with just about any other example of gear. Its up to every buyer to decide where to best spend their hard earned money.

Conclusions

Entry into the watch world can be confusing. Hopefully this tutorial answered more questions than it raised. If I had to sum up my experiences with a one sentence, it would be to just jump in and start somewhere. Like everything else you have to build a reference of what you like and what you don’t like. What things cost. How things wear. Buy the best of what you can afford. Take care of your stuff as you’re likely to flip it. Early on it is highly advised to buy second hand. New watches greatly depreciate in value and if you are in the experimentation phase of collecting, then its best to let someone else take the hit. There is a very active online sales environment for watches and forum crawlers like watchrecon.com can be very channenging to the integrity of your wallet. If you want to buy new, search out for deals on the gray market. These sellers offer perfectly fine watches, but usually a store warranty in lieu of a manufacturers warranty. Lastly, if you are most comfortable with a genuine manufacturer’s warranty, then make friends with your local authorized dealer. Sure you will be paying top dollar, but the face to face relationship can yield lots of other benefits such as early notice on new models and of course handling the merchandise prior to purchase. But in the end, get involved and most importantly, have fun.

All images acquired through Google Image search or watch manufacturer websites.