Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fallkniven U2 Review

So much of good product design is about restraint.  Compare this:





To this:



It pains me to show that comparison because around 8th grade I would have sold a kidney for the Sony D35 Discman...

Nonetheless the point is made--restraint in product design almost always leads to superior usefulness for the user.  All of the buttons and displays and useless features simply are meaningless.  The Design of Everyday Things brought this home to me--its called feature creep and it is more about marketing a product than making a good product.  Features sell.  Buttons and displays remind us of more features and as such more buttons means more features.  To be fair, even the iPhone can look pretty busy when the display is on:


DOET focused me on sparse design and in my mania to find the essence of a folding knife, the simplest folding knife possible, I found the Fallkniven U2.  I had known about the U2 for a while, but the nail knick had put me off.  A review of the good, but not great Queen Cutlery Copperhead changed my mind.

Think of this as product design limbo, how low can you go--features-wise--and still have a well-functioning knife? This review will answer that question as there is very little to the Fallkniven U2. 

Here is the product page. The Fallkniven U2 costs $83.95.   Here is a written review. Here is a video review (Stefan is going all out with a professional voice over in part of the video; also the Gemini is functionally identical, there is merely an etching of the constellation Gemini on the blade of the regular U2).  Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Fallkniven U2, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my review sample:

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Here is my video overview of this knife:



Twitter Review Summary: Think of it as a DFII in ZDP-189 with FRN scales, but with a nail knick.

Design: 2

The tang is exposed when closed.  That's it, the only real design drawback for the U2.  This is a simple and simply beautiful knife. Its classic styling might not be something everyone likes, but in terms of straight up cutting functionality the U2 is impeccable.  There is something to say for time-tested designs and the U2 is just that.  Everything about the design is simple--the pivot, the handle, the blade shape, the deployment method, everything, but it is pretty impressive.  Additionally, the overall size, shape and thickness are just right.

The ratios are good, as you can imagine with such a pared down design.  The blade:handle is .74, running around the middle of the pack.  The blade:weight is 1.68 which is VERY good, third only to the Al Mar Hawk Ultra Light which hits an unbelievable 2.81 and the Spyderco Air (1.96).  This crushes the fourth place knife the Chill (1.56).

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Fit and Finish: 2

One thing I was not expecting, given the price, was fit and finish this good.  The seam on the zytel handle, for instance, is virtually undetectable, either visually or with your finger tip.  The steel is such a high satin polish that it is almost mirror finished.  The pivot is smooth, though not quick.  Literally everything about the knife is just stunning.  As my first Fallkniven, I wasn't sure what to expect, but man is this great.  You can place Fallkniven in the tier of production knives occupied by Al Mar, the Taichung Taiwan Spydercos, and Chris Reeves stuff.  This knife was THAT good.  Note that it is among the cheapest of those blades.    

Grip: 2 

If you have a chance, it is definitely worth your while to go watch some knife videos from Average Iowa Guy, Kyle Ver Steeg.  Kyle is a survivalist and a hand surgeon, so he knows handles.  He was on the podcast and provided us with some real insight on what you need in a knife in survival situations.  He stressed that a comfortable handle is, perhaps, the most important thing.  And if you watch some of his forging and knife making videos you'll notice his handles are super simple.  The handle here is super simple and it works.  It is amazing in the hand.  Its simple shape affords a multitude of useful grips.  Its curves and cuts are all in the right place and the overall handle shape has gentle convex shape that just falls into your hand.  This just might be the best handle I have ever used on a folding knife.  The handle is so close to perfect I can't even imagine what they'd do to make it better.  Awesome.  

Carry: 2

A simple lanyard hole and a smooth-as-a-river rock shape makes the U2 a dream to carry.  The zytel handle absorbs dings with grace meaning that this clipless knife is comfortable in both a crowded and empty pocket.

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Steel: 2

The U2 isn't just a comfortable knife or a pretty, minimalist knife--it is an amazing performer.  I used this knife more than any other knife I have reviewed, save, perhaps, the ZT560 (which I used to make a dragon from cardboard for my son's 3rd birthday).  You see, when I was testing the knife, it was just before Christmas.  My wife was making a series of delicious cookies and one of them called for about a pound of hazelnuts.  Unfortunately we could only find shelled nuts and the recipe called for blanched ones.  After some attempts at blanching that failed, I decided to use the U2 as a paring knife and shave each of those tiny little fuckers.  It took about an hour and half, but in the end, she had her pound of hazelnuts.  The cookies were delicious enough to make the work worth it.  

In addition to that "test" I put the U2 through a variety of EDC tasks, other food prep, packages (lots and lots of packages given the time of year), and some other tasks.  Pretty much everything I put the U2 through it did not just well, but very well.

The secret is the blade itself.  In addition to an amazing grind and blade shape, see more below on those two points, the U2 is blessed with an exotic, rare, and amazing steel.  Its a laminated blade, with 420J stainless on the exterior and a core of SG-2 (what Fallkniven calls Super Gold Powder Steel or SGPS).  Here is the closest thing to a datasheet on SG-2.  The steel comes from Takefu, a company that also makes VG-10.  It has an HRc around 62-64.  In my testing the blade did not noticeably dull in anyway.  Normally AUS-8 is about done when I do my normal testing, as is VG-10.  154CM has something like utility edge but is still sharp.  Elmax, S30V, and S35VN are still pretty sharp but can't slice the hair off my arm with ease.  Only M4 and ZDP-189 have faired as well as the blade steel on the U2.  After lots and lots of cutting, from breaking down boxes for recycling, to the detail work mentioned above, the U2 gathered hair off my arm like a magnet attracts shavings--it was effortless.  I am not sure why SG-2 is not used more often, because it is an excellent steel.  I also noticed that it was much better than ZDP-189 at dealing with coloration.  Cutting up an orange or three and leaving the blade unattended would usually tint ZDP-189.  Not here.  Perhaps is not fair to compare given the laminated nature of the blade, but either way, the steel remained that bright high satin/low mirror finish.  I'd like to tell you about easy or hard it was to sharpen SG-2 but it never got close to anything like dull.  

Amazing steel and now I want more.  I know that SG-2 is often used in high kitchen knives, but to my knowledge no other production company uses it and only Philipe De Coene, who made my elegant Hybrid friction folder, uses it among custom makers.  
 
Blade Shape: 2

Occam's Razor of Gear applies here in spades--this is a blade shape, the drop point, that can handle just about any cutting task you throw at it.  Furthermore Fallkniven's drop point is especially nice:

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In addition to making the knife an amazing slicer, the drop point here, coupled with the unaggressive handle, makes this knife an excellent "around people" knife.  It cuts superbly well and is civilized enough to not frighten people.  Mantis knives this is not.

Grind: 2 

So in the world of production folders the debate is usually between some variant of a hollow grind versus some variant of a flat grind.  The option that is rarest, is a convex grind.  They are simply too difficult to do in large numbers.  Hordes of Bark River fans will sing the praises of a convex grind, and here, according to Blade HQ and other sources, the U2 has a mild convex grind.  It would make sense, as the edge here was phenomenally stable, never waivering or deflecting even a tiny bit, but to my crude hand I never felt the strong bowed out curve.  Either way, the grind was immaculate and the cutting bezel was quite wide allowing for very easy slicing.  I loved the grind here, wether it was convex or not.

Deployment Method: 1 

Okay, if you are fine with a nail knick, boost this knife up a point, but for me, for all its old timey appeal, I still want a one hand opening knife.  I know it would mess with the clean lines and the traditional feel of the knife, but no matter how minimally beautiful a knife is, it is still a tool and form must follow function.  Additionally, the claim that it would make this knife somehow less traditional is baffling to me--this thing has a zytel handle.  Few things are LESS traditional than that.  Its not even a particularly good nail knick, like the long French cut on the AG Russell Medium Barlow.  Its not awful.  Its not like the opener on the new Mnandi which basically doesn't work at all or a lazy flipper, its just not ideal and compared to so much else on this knife it sticks out like a sore thumb.  

Retention Method: 2 

I went back and forth on this issue a bunch.  I hate lanyards, generally.  And typically I really want a pocket clip.  But there are some designs where the right thing, the best thing for the knife, is to not include a clip.  This is that knife.  So in this context, and this context alone, thus far, a clip would have detracted from the overall knife.  

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Why here and not, say, the PT CC or the Al Mar Hawk or the Spyderco Air?  The PT CC is different from the other two, so I will explain it on its own.  The PT CC is a knife based on a design that has a pocket clip.  The handle is is shaped in a way to compensate for the drawbacks in terms of grip that a pocket clip can cause.  Here, the entire handle is basically perfect for a pocket knife.  There are ZERO hotspots.  Cramming a clip on there would ruin that perfect handle.  Compared to the Hawk and the Air, another issues arises.  Both the Hawk and the Air are so thin and small that there is a real estate issue.  I could have never comfortably sliced all of those hazelnuts with a knife as spindly as the Air or the Hawk.  Both are great cutters.  Both work well for the occassional slice.  Both are practically perfect for EDC tasks, but the U2 is good at that AND good at extended work.  A clip on either the Air or the Hawk would have given the hand more purchase, something that is not necessary here thanks, again, to the practically perfect handle.  

So, in light of a variety of concerns, I am more than pleased that Fallkniven did screw things up by adding a totally unnecessary pocket clip.  It would have done more harm than good, and it would have been an example of form NOT following function--a sin when it comes to a tool as impeccable as the U2.  

Lock: 2 

Fallknive chose among the simplest and most time tested locks--a lockback.  It works well with no blade play.  It was easy to disengage and engage.  It felt surprisingly secure given the plastic handles.  Excellent all around.  Oh, and if you need to adjust the pivot, you can.  Another small touch of greatness. 

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

By now I am sure you have picked up on the fact that this one of my favorite folders on the market.  It is elegant and minimal.  It has all of the good things of a traditional knife--a simple but useful blade shape and a time tested handle shape--with all of the positive things of a new knife like superb steel.  I wish the U2 had a thumb stud or an opening hole, but really the nail knick isn't THAT big a deal.  For all the good things you get, this is a pretty damn cheap knife.  This is basically equal to the DFII in ZDP-189 with FRN handles and it has the same price.  That combination of performance, price, and easy carry makes both knives EDC classics.  If you want one of the best EDC knives on the planet but want it to look a bit more traditional than a Spyderco, the U2 is it.  

The Competition

Compared to the benchmark, the SOG Mini Aegis, the U2 comes out ahead.  The fit and finish is in another league, as is the blade steel, the blade shape, the grind (yes, better than a SOG grind, amazing I know), and the handle shape.  Its only one point better on the scoring system, but that one point is a big deal.  The scale is supposed to be logrythmic in nature, not linear, which explains why the U2's 19 is much better than the Mini Aegis's 18.  Even from the perspective of value, the U2 is better.  Its more than twice the knife at less than twice the price.  The only thing that gives me pause, that might give you pause, is the slow, boring old nail knick.  In the end, though, its worth it.  This knife is simply great.  

14 comments:

  1. Good review. I discovered this knife a couple of years ago and saw a YouTube video describing it's excellent slicing ability. However, I have purchased four of them and two were slicers beyond belief and two were nearly as dull as butter knives. Beware of the quality control. Also, I modified one with skateboard tape and it has worked well with the modification. The challenge with this knife and others with quality control and customer service may be another category for you to consider in your category scale.

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    1. I try to incorporate quality control issues in the fit and finish section.

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  2. Great review, this is a knife that I have looked at for a long time but always seemed a bit more expensive than I'm willing to pay.
    Just because it does not have a noticeable means of one hand opening does not mean that it cannot be opened by one hand.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRYAsMXBeqI

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  3. I got one of these when they first came out. The blade was ground unevenly and the core steel exposed at the edge varied from side to side with a very obvious grind error near the tip. In addition, the edge of the blade hit the lock spring when it was closed. You could actually see a nick in the spring where the blade contacted it, and it was verified by slipping a thin strip of paper in the slot. Two other samples I examined at a shop had the same problem. Hopefully they have worked out the issues because I really like the basic design.

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    1. That seems rather strange. I did quite a bit of research on Fallkniven and they seem to have a very good reputation for fit and finish. They are production knives so I would imagine they vary like anyone else's production goods.

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  4. Wonder if You have any comments on BLUNTTRUTH4YOU youtube cutting test video ?

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  5. A little baking powder in the blanching water really helps slip those skins off. Also damn you for convincing me that I need this blade.

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    1. I passed the tip along to the Mrs. Enjoy the blade.

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  6. The one I had was pants!, when opened the lock bar sat 2mm high of the bade.
    Whoever ground it was drunk. The laminate doped short of the point by a cm.
    Faljniven 'get a grip on quality control'
    Very annoyed SAK better at a sixth of the cost!

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  7. Do you write for Gear Junkie now? http://gearjunkie.com/fallkniven-u2-knife

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  8. Ah, great!

    Any chance you could start photographing your items on top of or beside an item of very familiar size? Like on top of a dollar bill? Or a pen or something that is ubiquitous? (The zippo you use is good, for sure.)

    I had trouble visualizing the size of this knife! I like the looks of it for sure.

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    1. I do this in almost every review. Have the last three or four years. Deck of cards, zippo, or field notes

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  9. I've got to say, I have the same feelings about this little gem.
    And yes as anonymous mentioned, I have seen the BLUNTRUTH4U video .
    It doesn't change how I fee about this nice knife, and he still likes it as well.He did say that.
    It's very well made. Handsome, lightweight, super practical.
    I love it.
    And it is razor sharp.

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