Thursday, June 26, 2014

Northwoods Knives Indian River Jack Review

NOTE: I have decided that it is unnecessary to score traditional folders and modern folders separately.  From now on, they will both be scored using the knife scoring system.  

Tumbled by time, the smooth stones of the rocky beaches on Mount Desert Island are fascinating.  The granite crumbles under the pounding surf and eventually the jagged rocks become irregular shapes.  Decades and centuries later the tide pulling them out and pushing them in, tumbling them on each other has taken these shapes and smoothed them to almost perfectly round objects.

In many ways this is the perfect parallel to the process that was used to bring us the Indian River Jack, the flagship knife of the Northwood Knives brand.  It has been smoothed over time, drawing on a lineage more than ten decades old.  In many respects it is the most traditional of knives--the slipjoint jack knife.  But in other way, it is at the forefront of the knife world.  Its a fascinating story, a great knife, and, frankly, the best deal that I have seen in gear since I have started this site.  If you have a passing interest in traditional folders, don't wait--go buy the Indian River Jack.  I bought mine minutes after I found out they came back in stock, doing so over my phone in a parking lot, so as not to crash.

This is one of the few reviews that I can't even hide my bias.  I really, truly love this knife.  It sings.  It has soul.  It has a profound sense of purpose.  It has fit and finish that is easily on par with knives made by Chris Reeve.  It has cutting edge materials paired with covers that were in vogue a hundred years ago.  The Indian River Jack, in many ways, is the Dauntless of the traditional knife world.  It is a superlative design made possible by the internet's power to gather critical masses of people with niche interests.  This ain't a review.  Its a love letter.  

Here is the product page.  There have been four runs of the Indian River Jack (hereinafter, IRJ).  One had D2, one had 440C, one had ATS-34.  The current run uses CPM 154.  Each run had various cover materials.  The current run has four materials--smooth bone, jigged bone, mammoth ivory, and ebony wood.  I got a smooth bone model. It cost $129.  There are no video or written reviews of the IRJ.  Here is a thread about them over on BladeForum.  Here is Derrick Bohn's video from his YouTube channel.  Derrick is the man behind the IRJ.  He owns KnivesShipFree and Northwood Knives.  He designed the IRJ (and all of the other Northwoods Knives) using traditional knife patterns.   Here is a link to KnivesShipFree, where you can find the Indian River Jack, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:


benefits the site.  Here is my review sample (purchased with my own money, never to be sold, traded, or given away unless I bequeath to a relative):


Twitter Review Summary:  If any traditional knife has appealed to you before, go buy this knife immediately.

Design: 2

The blade size is just right at around 2.5 inches. The thickness and weight is just right (boy how much I would love to have a way to reliably measure a knive's volume).  Looking at just the measurements, the IRJ makes a good first impression.  But this is not a knife you buy for its dimensions.  The double bolsters are truly striking, and the arrowhead shield will undoubtedly appeal to folks that like traditional knives, young or old. The cover material (its not a scale; structurally, the scales on a traditional knife are beneath the covers, hence the name) is a bone material polished to a gleaming shine.  The knife will appeal to demanding EDC folks, fans of traditional knives, and really anyone that wants a knife that works but doesn't demand a pocket clip or a one handed opening knife.


The good performance ratios are heartening, as this is not just a beautiful blade.  The blade:weight is
1.13 (2.5 inch blade in a 2.2 ounce knife).  The blade:handle is .67 (2.5 inch blade in a 3.75 handle).  The blade:weight is especially nice, but the blade:handle is merely Delica good.  

Fit and Finish: 2

Knife fans are treated to a litany of praise for blades made by Chris Reeve, but in my experience there are other blades that are its equal.  Al Mar Knives are at least as nice.  The Taichung Spydercos are on par with the CRK stuff I have handled.  Lionsteel makes quite high quality knives.  My IRJ is at least equal in fit and finish to the CRK blades I have held.  Its as good as any production knife I have handled, plain and simple.  There are no rough seams, everything gleams with a high polish, and the entire knife looks lustrous without looking gilded. Its a very nice work knife or a very good working art knife.  

Grip: 2

In role, as an EDC cutter, the knife is fine.  The handle is just the right size and shape.  For peeling an apple, cutting a package, or trimming a thread, you don't need much more (and you certainly don't need jimping).


In tasks that require more force, it worked well too.  I did some whittling and fire prep with it (making feather sticks) and it was excellent.  I have to give props to Kyle Ver Steeg and Jim Nowka--they opened my eyes to the value of a rounded handle and the IRJ is just that.  Really, really good.  Oh, and just so you don't worry, its not so slick as to be slippery.

Carry: 2

I am willing to have an open mind.  I have long held the belief that folding knives don't need sheathes, but after a few weeks of carrying the IRJ in the slip case (see below) it came with, I can admit I was wrong.


Perhaps it was the experience I had with squred sheathes, the like one found on the Leatherman PST, or perhaps it was a bad encounter with some nylon and velcro monster.  Either way, those experiences don't prepare you for the quiet subtle carry of the IRJ in the KnivesShipFree slip case. Not only does it protect the knife, it disperses its bulk and weight nicely, and it protects the other stuff in your pocket.  Its very small and carries like wallet. Any bigger and there might be a problem, but as is, I am not just willing to use the sheath, I am pleased to do.

Steel: 2

The steel is CPM 154, which is different from 154CM. CPM 154 is the powder metal version of 154 CM.  Because it is a powder metal, the grain structure is more uniform.  This uniformity, along with 154CM's other all around good attributes, makes CPM 154 a very common choice for high end customs.  My Fellhoelter Custom Dauntless runs CPM 154, making this knife my second knife with this steel.

My testing including the normal run of EDC tasks--opening packages, peeling an apple or two, especially when on a hike, trimming material (which includings cutting tags off my son's clothing, he hates them for some reason), and breaking down boxes.  I also used the knife to whittle, make firestarters, and as a marking knife in my workshop.  

The steel is quite a performer--an all around all-star.  Its easier to sharpen than S30V (though in this case I merely had to strop it) and it held an edge wonderfully.  I also loved the look of the steel.  With a grinder satin finish, the CPM 154 gleamed.  Having it on two knives gives me a good feel for the steel and thus far on both blades I am very happy.  Though this has no impact on you and I, custom makers rave about the steel because it is easy to grind, has less occlusions or weak spots that can ruin a blade, and it takes a nice polish.  

Blade Shape: 2

The simple spear point blade shape did a mountain of work with ease.  Breaking down boxes is a regular occurence now that we have recycling and our bin is roughly the size of a coffee cup.  Add to that my son's recent birthday and I put this thing to good use.


I have said this before, but simple is always best when it comes to blade shape. You don't need much more than this to get work done.  

Grind: 2

This is a very shallow hollow grind, not a convex grind like I mentioned in my overview.  Previous iterations of the IRJ ran a convex grind,  but after interviewing Derrick from KnivesShipFree for episode 36 of the podcast, he confirmed that this run did not include that grind.  It seems previous runs may have been made by a knife company famous for convex grinds and with a change in maker, having them convex ground was not possible if they wanted to keep the price point the same.


I would have probably opted for the convex grind as I found the price very reasonable, but the shallow hollow grind works just fine.  I had no problem with the thin blade stock (as is the case on most traditional knives) as it makes this thing an amazing slicer.  One day, someone with more knowledge about knives than I have will explain to me how you can make a great cutting knife with blade stock thicker than a smartphone like on some of the ZT knives and on customs like those from Direware.  Until then, I much prefer the IRJ's thin hollow grind.

Deployment Method: 2

The nail knick isn't my favorite way to open a knife, but in a traditional folder that's pretty much your only choice. Here it works well for what it is.  The spring is a tight one but the knick gives you plenty of grip.


Another point--there is really no other opening method that would work and allow the knife to retain its wonderfully slim profile.  Its a trade off I am okay making in this role.  There is something disarming about opening a knife with a nail knick in public.  No one freaks out.  No one gives you that weird look.  And without that you are much more likely to carry and use your knife.  Try opening a yogurt tube at a kid's birthday with your ZT0350 assisted opening flipper.  Okay, don't.  You might be arrested.  I did that with the IRJ and the only comment I got was from a woman next to me who said that her Dad had a knife "just like that" when she was a kid.  I wanted to tell her that it almost certain didn't run CPM 154, but I was afraid she would think I was a super snob.  I am a super snob when it comes to knives (and many other things), but she didn't need to know that.

Retention Method:  2

As I mentioned in the review of the Falkniven U2 there are some knives that would be screwed up by the inclusion of a clip or a lanyard.  The IRJ is just such a knife.  Not only would it totally not work with the traditional folder look, it would screw up its svelte lines, and given the pocket slip, is totally unnecessary.  The decision to have no retention method on this knife is the right one given the design and overall package.  The leather of the slip case is sufficiently textured so that it does not slide around to much in the pocket, keeping the knife right where you want it and preserving the great look of this blade. No clip is the right choice here, especially with the slip case.

Lock/Blade Safety: 2

This is a slipjoint with a distinct half stop (as you can see below):


The back spring is VERY strong, much stronger than the one found on my AG Russell Barlow, and equal to the strength of my Queen Copperhead.  With non-idiotic use, there is no way this thing will close on your fingers.  The knife also has great walk and talk (the smoothness of the opening and the clack of the knife shutting), something that is important to traditional knife knuts.  It compares nicely to some of the custom slipjoints I have seen at shows.

Overall Score: 20 out of 20; PERFECT

Its been about a year since I gave out a perfect score, but the Indian River Jack earned it, with ease.  A perfect score is not simply getting a 20/20, it means there is nothing I would change.  And here, there is nothing I would change.  The knife is simply outstanding.  It is such a good buy I would have purchased it even if it were $200.  At double the price it would have taken me longer, but I still would have pulled the trigger eventually.  How many things can you say that about--that you'd buy them if they were twice the price?

In the long search for a great traditional folder the IRJ is it.  It has the steel and finish of a custom at the price of a Spyderco.  The slip case is brilliant.  Derrick did everything right with this knife and his attention to detail shows.  If you want to see what the very finest production traditional folder looks like, try the Indian River Jack.  They are going quickly, so you should try sooner rather than later.  During the time I was looking for one exactly ZERO came up for sale on any of the forums or eBay. Once purchased, they tend to stay owned.  And now I know why.



  1. The blade looks exactly like victorinox

  2. This looks like such a good knife. Living in the UK my EDC options are severely limited, and all the cool knives I see have locks.

    While I carry a no brand SAK with wooden covers that I've had for years I haven't been really attracted to traditional folders. I guess because being only 25 they strike me as the kind of knife all the old farmers around here carry, and I have a reputation to maintain :)

    Though the more I see of knives like the IRJ I think I'm coming around. There is a better selection of UK legal knives, and you make a good point about public friendliness since they're not as threatening as more modern folders.

    I just wish the shipping (and subsequent taxes) to the UK didn't push it out of my price range. I don't doubt that the knife is worth it at the around $200+ it'd cost me, but I just don't have that kind of cash to spend.

  3. Tony,

    Great review. I have an earlier, convex ATS-34 and ebony version. Great knife - big enough to do real work, small enough to carry super easily, elegant, and made of the very best materials. I completely agree, this is a "perfect" EDC traditional, winning as both a superb tool and a "pocket jewel" tool.

  4. Looks really nice, Tony. Very tempted to snag one given my penchant for small pocketable folders...

  5. I sure don't have the budget for anymore knife stuff this year, but I sure would like to try one of these guys out. May have to sell something else off...

  6. Dear Tony,

    Thanks for another great review on a great site.

    As to volume measurement:

    I imagine you may have thought about weighting the water that comes out of a full vessel into which you dunk the knife (1g of water is "equal" to 1 ml) - you can use a kitchen scale, accurate to a gram. if you do not like the idea of water entering pivots hairline cracks etc, you ca use mineral oil, but you will need a little bit of weighing and calculating.

    Bu you do not really want the volume of the knife; you want the volume of its convex hull (sorry for the math jargon, wikipedia has a good article), as you are not really interested in the empty space between the blade and the liner, for example, and you are interested in the space created by the hump on the blade. Construct it: use cling film to wrap it around. this Till be liquid-tight for small immersion times, and you will get some inaccuracies, but you will follow the convex hull beautifully. And you can then measure volume as above.

  7. I love the design of this knife and the pouch is really excellent, however my experience re. fit and finish is different from yours The fit between the bone scale and the bolster on one side creates a ridge that is quite noticeable and once noticed is hard to dismiss. I have not purchased any Sebenza's in some years but I believe that their quality control would have caught this. The same goes for my Bark River Knives.

    I am going to keep the knife because, as your review states, it is a beauty in most ways. I guess my expectations were raised too high by the review of the sample you received. In all respects but finish this knife is everything you said it was but quality control let it (& me) down.

    Jim K

    1. I was re-reading this review and saw this comment and I just wanted to point out that no amount of QC will control the expansion and contraction of natural materials attached to non-natural materials. I've heard Tony's recent podcasts and he mentioned that one of his traditionals, maybe this one, had a ridge like you describe that actually went away. Don't let a normal thing for these materials dissuade you from knives like this. 😀

  8. This thing looks sweet! I see why you are jazzed. I wish more of the really nice looking traditionals came with high-end stainless steels, so this is an exciting blade.

    I own a GEC (who I gather make the Northwoods knives for Derrick) and it is wonderfully fit & finished. However, the factory edge came both dull and obtuse, needing significant reprofiling. How is the edge bevel/grind on the Indian River Jack?

    BTW Derrick was a great podcast guest. He came off as an earnest and knowledgeable enthusiast rather than a huckster/marketer.

    (PS: Massively geeked for Cold Steel Recons in CTS-XHP. Like you said on the same podcast episode, that is a potential gamechanger. ZT should worry. Tri-Ad Lock + top steel...)

  9. Ebony wood comes in a number of flavors. Macassar Ebony, Black and White Ebony and Gabon Ebony are the most popular choices.

  10. Northwoods did an interesting variation for the 2015 IRJs -- they replaced the nail nick with a substantial, deeply indented French cut. While it's a cool idea (and opens great) the resulting blade grind is kinda wonky. They seemed to want to keep some of the same proportions as the thinner blade stock on the nail nick IRJs. Results in an ugly swedge with some awkward transitions. (The edge on my 2015 is nevertheless excellent and the CPM-154 steel remains wonderful to use.)

    I think the sweet spot aesthetically is exactly the type of IRJ Tony has: nail nick blade from 2014 & smooth bone handles. Beautiful grind, beautiful sides, feels good in hand. I would urge Derrick to give us lots of that pattern in '16 and beyond. :)