I listen to about a dozen podcasts of various topics (new favorite: 99% Invisible by Roman Mars). On three separate podcasts there were similar issues about expensive tools and gear. On Wood Talk #168 Mark, Matt, and Shannon did a single topic show on expensive tools. On the Knife Journal Ep.27 Podcast Kyle Ver Steeg had an eloquent and hilarious rant about Mora knives. And then on the Pen Addict #94 Brad had a little commentary on the sad state of mainstream pens. All of these sentiments pointed to one thing--a general preference for nicer stuff. All of this got the wheels whirring and here is my take.
In gear, Nutnfancy is THE big voice. His opinion shifts markets and alters product designs. But he focuses very heavily on the low to mid end of the market. Few non-gun items he reviews are more than $100. A vanishingly small number cost more than $400. That means that the universe of items is under $400. But those of us that have been interested in gear for a while know that there is virtually no limit to what you can spend. Jim Skelton and his YouTube channel are populated by multi-kilobuck knives.
It’s at this point in the discussion most people say: to each his own. And I agree with that to a certain extent, but I want to push back a little. That idea, if taken literally, is kinda dumb. There are certain purchasing decisions that are just irrational, and "to each his own" is the mantra of the mindless.
Let's start with a simple example. You go to Store A and they have the Cold Steel Mini AK47 for sale for $99.99.
You go to Store B and they have the knife on sale for $59.99. Clearly, to each his own doesn't work here. Buying from Store A, all other things being equal, is just stupid. We all see that. But really there is a lot of this going on.
I started this site so there was a systematic scored evaluation of the gear I like. I find it helpful. Just like I found it helpful reading reviews written by Robert Parker, of Wine Advocate fame, critical product evaluations are, in essence, about distinguishing good stuff from bad. Why bother reading any of this if "to each his own" is all that matters?
Let's take another example, perhaps a bit more challenging one. Let's compare the G10 Drifter to the SS Drifter. These two knives, when critically evaluated, are similar, but the G10 model is better. Yes, I wrote it. The G10 model is just better. Why? The differences are simple: the G10 is lighter and grippier; the SS has a satin blade and a framelock. In real EDC use the difference between a liner lock and a frame lock on the Drifter is meaningless. If there is additional strength found in the framelock, it’s never going to matter in real world use. Second, the satin blade is nicer, as coated blades look crappy over time, but in a $20 knife, WHO CARES? What does matter are things like weight and grip. On a daily basis, these things are places where the G10 model bests the SS model and on a daily basis these things matter.
But if "to each his own" is the mantra, we can throw reason out the door in favor of baseless preferences. And if we are willing to do that, why stop there? Why not do everything based solely on preference? Why look at specs at all? Why look at prices at all?
Let's look at something else, something that is not a comparison between two objects but a "favored" design element in knives--finger scallops like those found on the Benchmade 300SN.
These are not just ugly, they are empirically poor designs. First, because of the shape of the grip that uses finger scallops you are forced to hold the knife in a specific way--the product dictates how you use it, a major no-no in the world of design (aside from the design of safety equipment). Finger scallops have ZERO affordance. But this is not just a snooty design complaint. If you listen to Episode 29 of the Knife Journal Podcast, you'll hear Kyle, a HAND SURGEON, talk about how the muscles of the hand work. Basically as you make a fist, your hand muscles pull your fingers together--the stronger the fist, the tighter your fingers. This means that the idea of finger scallop grips actually counteracts how your hand works when you are really trying to hold on. It’s like a pair of opaque glasses--a self-defeating design. Finger scallops are lazy design. They make something "feel" and "look" ergonomic. But they are neither actually ergonomic nor are they good design. They suck. But people like them because they look cool. Finger scallops on knife handles are the knife world equivalent of the CAPS LOCK button--completely useless, but still around because of tradition. I don't care if Randalls have finger scallops--they DO NOT WORK. Get rid of them.
Oh but we can't have logic or reason invade the world of preference because "to each his own."
And then there are the people that complain about my take on the Cryo. They point out how well it sells, how it’s a great value for what you get, and how it’s pretty darn cheap. Compared to knives of yesteryear it is a huge value, they say. And it is true. But this is Brad's point about the G2. The G2 is a very good pen historically speaking. But compared to what's out there now, it’s nothing special. The G2, compared to the current best in class, is merely adequate. The Cyro is similarly adequate (though the G10 version has me excited again). It’s not bad. No way. Compared to the knives 50 years ago it is a stunning achievement. But compared to what's out there now, it’s just not that big a deal. Why buy adequate when you can buy great (the Zing SS)? Why buy adequate when you can buy great for LESS (the G10 Drifter)? You know the comparison between the Cryo and the Zing SS--same materials, same price, better blade:handle and better blade:weight. The numbers show it--the Zing is just better. But it is not a Hinderer design and that's the difference. It is a difference based on preference not fact. In the end, the Cryo is beloved because a group of people that like the Hinderer look and style can get a bit of the magic for $39.95. It’s a good knife, historically speaking. It is a great seller. But in the modern marketplace it is no where near great.
But if "to each his own" is our motto, the Cryo is GREAT (because everything is GREAT) and the state of the art is never advanced. The Case Copperlock begot the Spyderco Worker which begot the Benchmade Mini Grip which begot the Kershaw Skyline...and so on.
If we don't demand the best, we won't get the best. Today’s adequate is yesterday's state of the art, but if we settle for adequate we'll never get tomorrow's state of the art.
Any enthusiast really likes something because they are drawn to what makes that particular thing interesting, great, or unique. And the minute we throw out quality because of preference, we have no business really evaluating anything at all. If it is all preference, then who cares if you spend $40 more for the same thing, or buy an inherently inferior knife, or a design feature that actually does the opposite of what its designed to do? Critical analysis serves all of us. It makes us focus on stuff that matters and it pushes the state of the art forward. Settling for a Mora instead of a Bark River is something you are free to do, but don't pretend like it is a purely rational choice. If you can afford good stuff then always, always buy it. If you can't, save up. Don't buy something lesser and pretend it’s not or worse yet heap scorn on those that do buy better stuff and do so for good and rational reasons.
"To each his own" is a cop out. It is a form of self-delusion and anti-rational thinking. There are pieces of gear that are just better than others. At the top there is a great deal of preference, but comparing the top to the bottom is pretty easy to do. Good tools are worth buying, if you can afford them. Even if that means saving instead of indulging your impulse buy something new every paycheck. I waited a year to buy my XM-18 and I am glad I did. It was worth it to me (if for no other reason than the ability to use and review it for the site), even if its not a price-justified expense compared to say, the Sebenza. But there is a small amount of irrationality there. I have not thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The difference between it and a Sebenza is small, but the difference between it and the Cryo isn't.
Good tools are great fun. Bashing people for spending a lot of money is great fun. But at some point rationality has to play a role--a Mora is not as good as a Bark River. No amount of "to each his own" can make up the difference, unless all rationality is thrown out. And that point, who cares what you buy or why? In fact, who cares if you spend twice as much for the same thing? Its a slippery slope and one that ends in silliness.