Monday, January 20, 2014

2013 Gear of the Year Awards

I had planned on something more complicated for this year, but alas, as is want to happen at the end of the year, I got very busy. Oh well. I didn't want it to creep into February without getting these out.  There is only two rules--the product must have been sold for the first time in 2013 and a product can only win once.   I was fortunate to review a lot of these products, but not all of them.  When possible, the links go to my review.  Otherwise, they go to the product page (or the closest thing I can find to a product page).   

Overall Product of the Year
 
Nominees:

TuffKnives Tuff Tanic
Chaves Knives Redencion 
Curtiss Knives F4 Series
MBI HF-R Ti 
Muyshondt Aeon Mk. II 
Prometheus Alpha Pen 
Spyderco Domino

Winner: TuffTanic


This was a close call between the Alpha Pen and the Tanic. Ultimately I went with the Tanic. Few things have captured the EDC community's collective mindshare like the Tanic did. But the Alpha Pen is a close second. See below for more on why.

The Tuff Tanic is a great knife, but it was the marketing that sent this thing into the stratosphere, allowing BladeHQ to sell out their allotment of 8-10 knives is about 10 minutes (excluding the lefty), even though they were priced at $1,200 a piece. Geoff's story is hard to ignore. He rose out of YouTube to mod knives, then make fixed blades, then friction folders and finally a locking folder. His path has been followed by a notable cadre of people in 2013 and 2014 including the modding wunderkid Alexander Dietz. Its fun to watch all of this happen as it is shaking the custom knife world to its core. Instead of riding the show circuit and trying to sell knives that way in the hopes that a major maker picks you up, the Internet again changed how things are done and the Tuff Tanic is the best example of that. If it were just a good story, that would be one thing, but the knife itself is amazing. Sources I consulted with in the custom world were astounded at the fit and finish and even remotely we can marvel at the unique aesthetic. Those whales are finnicky people and to please them is a remarkable feat, especially with your rookie locking folder offering.

In the end there are a ton of great products released this year, but none had the market impact, industry impact, and level of execution that the TuffTanic did. It is an easy and worthy winner.

Overall Company of the Year

Nominees:

CRKT
MBI 
Prometheus 
AG Russell 
Surefire

Winner: CRKT

There is a lot of competition out there right now and the stakes are huge as the gear market grows. Of all of the companies out there, it came down to two for me--CRKT and Prometheus. Prometheus, on a per employee basis, killed it, as they had two massively successful Kickstarter releases--the Alpha Pen and the Beta QR light. That said, CRKT had a bigger impact. They were able to get their products on a lot of major retailer's shelves, I saw them on Lowes shelves for the first time, and still deliver a lot of interesting and innovative products. As the knife market grows, the designs seem to be increasingly bifurcated with lots of cheap knives and lots of expensive knives with very little in the middle. CRKT bucked the trend and released a slew of good to great blades in the $40-$100 price range. Among those that received good feedback from critics and markets alike were the new Ripples, the Swindle, the Moxie, and the Carajas. Each had something unique and interesting and each was relatively inexpensive. Last year they released a bunch of blades, but many were too big for real EDC carry (like the Mah Eraser). This year, they downsized to a much more EDC friendly size and we all benefited.

Best Value

Nominees:

CRKT Swindle
ESEE Zancudo 
Spyderco Domino
Kershaw Injection

Winner: CRKT Swindle

IMG_0025

Gorgeous, right?  Ken Onion is one of the biggest names in knives. When he puts out a blade everyone takes notice. So when he jumped ship from designing new knives for KAI to designing new knives for CRKT it was a big deal. The first two years of the collaboration produced a lot of knives that LOOK like Ken Onion knives--curvy, organic with unusual blade shapes. But the Swindle proved that Ken Onion was more than a one note designer (and let's face it, after a decade of KAI/Onion knives that are stultifying similar, EVERYONE thought he was a one note knife designer). The Swindle is a modern framelock/flipper version of the old swayback pattern and it is a marvel. Even the base model is an elegant, attractive, unique and useful blade. The action on the flipper is superb, thanks to IKBS bearings, and the pocket clip is a really cool idea. The street price of around $36 really fools you. If someone had never seen the knife before (and the steel was better) they'd think it was a $200 high end production blade.

Community Leader

Nominees:

Geoff Blauvelt
Chris and JR from Knife Thursday 
Triple Aught Design

Winner: Knife Thursday

While I think TAD survived Patrick Ma's departure quite well and Geoff's year can only be described as meteoric, it was the guys from Knife Thursday that galvanized the entire knife community. The mindshare they have, the percentage of new knife knuts introduced to the community through them, and the number of blades they have sold is pretty staggering. They have the best giveaways on the internet (I tried to keep up, but mine come from site revenue, while theirs come from makers). They have a podcast. They have an amazing website. Their Friday Night Instagram trade post is pretty fun to watch. Now that they have a huge audience it will be fun to see what they do with it.

Production Light

Nominees:

Prometheus Beta-QR 
Steve Ku Quantum D2 
Surefire EB1

Winner: Beta-QR

P1000667

The D2 is a great light, but really an update of an older (and still great) model, as is the EB1. The Beta-QR is totally new and totally amazing. If the light didn't have the great QR attachment point, it would still be an awesome release--elegant form, amazing emitter, perfect size--but the QR sends this thing over the top. And the Beta-QR represents the first of what I think will be a trend--high quality crowdsourced EDC gear. I have talked to quite a few makers in preparing for both an article and a podcast on the topic and it is clear to me that many of the more technically proficient custom gear makers out there see the potential Kickstarter holds. Now if we could just get Kickstarter to amend its policy on no knives. I'd love to see a Begg kickstarter project.

Custom Light

Nominees:

MBI HF-R Ti
Muyshondt Aeon Mk. II
Cool Fall Tri-V, Mk. II

Winner: MBI HF-R Ti

IMG_0047

Its hard to not vote for a light made for me, but putting on an objective hat I can see why people would prefer the screaming MBI HF-R. It has a higher high and a more innovative (though I am not sure if it is better) UI. I like long runtimes, as most flashaholics do once they stop participating in the lumens arms race, but the HF-R still has you covered with a super low low that lasts forever. Plus the HF-Rs are more widely available. These are absolute gems at this price.  I'd love to try the Tri-V, but I don't have a spare $3000 lying around. Still it is, as always with Dave's releases, a high water mark in flashlights.

Production Knife

Nominees:

AG Russell Acies2
Spyderco Domino
CRKT Swindle

Winner: Spyderco Domino

Don't let the "Manix with a flipper" talk scare you away--this is one of the best knives available on the production market. It has the amazing Spyderco ergonomics with the silkiest flipper I have ever seen--rivaling some customs I have handled. The handle scales are ugly, yes, but this thing is crammed with innovation--the lockbar stop and the replaceable lockbar face are the same piece and they are on the inside of the knife. The steel is one of my new favorites--CTS-XHP. And this is a Taichung, Taiwan Spyderco. Its clear by now they make the best Spydercos available, if not the best production knives available.

Custom Knife

Nominees:

Gavko EDC
Ramon Chavez Redencion
Stan Wilson's Flipperless Flipper



Winner: Stan Wilson's Flipperless Flipper

This market is so overheated right now that there probably more new models released in 2013 than in any other year. A lot of the knives are awesome, no doubt, but the prices are crazy. I would have still picked the Tuff Tanic, but the only-win-once rule precludes me from doing so. If you are looking for a new high end knife my advice is to either wait or find an up and coming maker. There are no values in this market right now.  None.

But sometimes its not about value, and the custom knife market is one of those times (though at some point we have to call the rate of appreication crazy).  To that end, among the myriad of custom options released in 2013,  I'd take Stan Wilson's Flipperless Flipper. Watch the video and you will see why.  This portends for new designs. Mr. Wilson, please call your patent attorney now. That said, an order now for the Flipperless Flipper would result in a knife being delivered sometime in 2015. 

Multitool

Nominee and Winner: Nite Ize DoohicKey

It was a quiet year for Multitools. I had originally thought about the Leatherman OHT, but that was introduced in 2012. So it is basically a bunch of OPMTs from Leatherman, all of limited utility, and this tiny, cheap gem. It is so pared down, so impressively focused, and so cheap its hard to ignore. There is virtually no one that wouldn't benefit from a DoohicKey, all the way the hardest of hardcore gear geeks to your grandma. The carabiner attachment point is a good idea, even if it messes with your keys' ability to lay flat. Plus the DoohicKey is even cheaper than the Gerber Shard, coming in at $5.95 around me. Pick one up. Its better than that hideous rubber turtle bottle opener you are currently using (okay, so its your significant other's keychain, so what, swap this out for that gouache piece of garbage).

Pack

Nominees:

Topo Designs/Doane Mountain Briefcase
Hazard 4 Patrol Pack
Go Ruck Bullett
Cocoon/Grid It Slim Backpack
Tom Bihn Synapse 25

Winner: Bihn Synapse 25

IMG_3816
This was probably the closest category this year.  There were two outstanding options.

There are some great packs out there and the Hazard 4 Patrol Pack is unquestionably one of them. LoadedPocketz did a great job reviewing the pack and I have come to trust his instincts when it comes to packs. The big deal is that this pack gives people an option between the Mystery Ranch/Kifaru/TAD/GoRuck price bracket and the Maxped/5.11 price bracket. It was a weird empty space in the market, kind of like an obvious lexical gap (there is no word for adult children, that is how do your parents refer to you when you grow up?), and Hazard hit is just right. The pack has a ton of features and seems to be able to go toe to toe with the more boutique brands, yet its not a stretch for Maxped fans. More than anything else, this is about hitting an untapped market.

But the Hazard 4 Patrol Pack is very, well, tactical looking and for most folks, including me, that is not a plus factor.  I appreciate the utility of MOLLE, but its not a look I like.  The Synapse 25, on the other hand, is just as useful and twice a beautiful.  Simply put this is best all around pack I have ever used, miles ahead of my current pack the Maxped PFII.  The Synapse 19 was too small, but the 25 is perfect.  I loved this pack.  

Pen

Nominees:

Prometheus Alpha Pen
Tuff Writer Ultimate Clicky Ti
Cult Pens Mini Fountain Pen (by Kaweco)

Winner: Prometheus Alpha Pen

P1010320

The Alpha is my go to writing tool. Dowdy introduced me to fountain pens as the end of 2012 and I have reviewed three of them including the superb and perfect Vanishing Point, but in a job that requires me to lend out my pen fountain pens aren't a good choice. There are just too many people that don't know how to use them and watching someone crush a nib because ink is not coming out is no fun. I still prefer fountain pens for notetaking. For example live notetaking of a trial, where sketchnotes can't work and I need verbatim quotes is a grueling tasks. About hour three my hand is killing me with a normal pen. A fountain pen pushes that time limit back to about hour 5 or 6, a huge upgrade. But again, they make terrible loaners.

That is where the Alpha comes in. If you haven't tried the MontBlanc Fineliner refill you owe it to yourself to do so. It is about 80% as nice as a fountain pen (great, bold lines, easy flow, and nice page feel) with none of loaner-related drawbacks. Everyone knows how to use it. It is a huge upgrade from the go to refill for hard use pens--the Fisher refill. The Fisher writes forever but is no where near as good a writer. In fact, it is a pretty awful writer. It feels slick and oily with ZERO page feel or feedback. The Fineliner on the other hand is a dream.

But the Alpha is awesome for other reasons. First, its cheaper than any MB pen, yet you still get to use the MB refills. Second, it looks gorgeous. Since I have been using the Alpha, everyone from a young kid all the way up to an attentive judge has noticed and commented. Its even better when I tell them how relatively inexpensive it is. Third, it is durable enough to withstand daily use. I am writing a lot. I am running around a lot. I go to dirty, rough places a lot. Retro 51 pens lasted me about a month before something broke. Even my modded Zebra F-701 didn't last all that long. But the Alpha is as tough as it is beautiful. Its 80% of a TuffWriter.

So we get the perfect balance for me and for EDC use--80% of a fountain pen's good traits and 80% of a TuffWriter's good traits. This one is easily worth tracking down. Its GREAT.

Accessory

Nominees:

Gear Pull
TT PockeTTools Dangler
Nock Co. Brasstown Pen Cases

Winner: Nock Co. Brasstown Pen Cases

There were a lot of really great accessories released this year, from big companies like CRKT, and little upstarts like those listed above. The Gear Pull is probably not my thing, but oh it is gorgeous. There is very little out there that is cooler looking, but again, its not my thing. The TT PockeTTools Dangler is very nice, but again more than I would carry.

In the end, the accessory I want the most that came out in 2013 was a Nock Co. Pen Case. So many pen cases don't speak to me, looking very stuffy, but the Nock Co. cases, particularly the Brasstown, seems just the right thing. I don't like sheathes, but here I can see some real value in having a separate case for my pens. Fountain pens don't do well out in the car in the freezing New England cold, so grabbing a small case to take into the house without lugging my whole bag in would be great.
The other thing with the cases is that don't have to worry about fit and finish or design. If anyone on Planet Earth knows pens, it is Brad Dowdy. He has gone out of his way to do everything right with the launch of Nock Co. on Kickstarter, detailing, for example, why they need a bar tacker (for those extra tough square corner seams).

New Website

Nominees:

Real World EDC
Pocket Philosophies
The New Artemis

Winner: The New Artemis

No question here--The New Artemis is the best new site in the community. It is not only one of the most beautiful sites in the entire EDC community, Ashley, the editor, brings an entirely new voice to a subculture crowded with men. Its not just that she is a woman, but she has a broader definition of EDC, focusing on electronics, apps, and smartphones, things much more commonly used on a daily basis than all of the guns, fixed blades, and pepper sprays out there. Between all of the infographics, the beautiful typeface, and the very nice, budget friendly gear recommendations, you find articles written by folks on the edge of civilization, such as this piece.

YouTube Reviewer

Nominee and Winner: Jim Skelton

There are so many new YouTube reviewers out there it is hard to keep track of them. That said, Jim is truly a great talker. He may not have all of the details of knife design down pat, but he brings an enthusiasm and a genuineness that easily makes up for it. You can learn details, but you can't learn enthusiasm or his ability to revel in details.

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