Thursday, February 19, 2015

Arno Bernard Bush Baby Caper Review

South African knives are a world unto themselves.  This is the place of the front flipper, made famous when Boker made a production version of the Burger EXK-1 (I reviewed the Boker version here).  Gareth Bull's super slim and clean Shamwari is like nothing else.  And in this world there is Arno Bernard.  Bernard and his sons made some of the finest semi-custom (yes, I used that term, its vagueness is fitting as it is hard to put these knives in a category) in the world.  Arno Bernard is to the South African knife community what Mike Stewart is to the US knife community--the minds behind the production of some of the finest fixed blades available.  His fixed blades are stunning tools with refinements, materials, and fit and finish found nowhere else.  For the money, the materials are really insane.  And, oh by the way, the knives are pretty damn good cutters too.  After some months with the Bush Baby Caper I can tell you that while there are somethings that I don't love, the knife, as a whole, is quite impressive.  Its performance and materials rival knives twice or three times as much.

Here is the product page. The Bush Baby Caper costs $160.  There are no written or video reviews. Here is a link to KnivesShipFree, where you can find the Bush Baby Caper, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

KnivesShipFree

Here is my review sample (provided by Knives Ship Free to be given away):

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Twitter Review Summary: High style, high performance, great materials.

Design: 2

The Caper is a slender knife and the tapered tang, my first, along with the overall shape makes it feel like a scalpel in the hand and in use.   The blade is so fine it gives you the sense that, like a legendary blade from Tolkien's work, it needs a name more than product descriptor.  The blade is quite slender and everything about the Caper is fine tuned from the sheath to the pins holding the warthog ivory handle scales in place.  

A word on those before I get too deep into the review.  These are my first ivory scales and I can say without much hesitation that they are a superior handle material.  They are warm to the touch and as ivory aficionados know, they absorb a bit of your hand's natural moisture.  They are also resplendently beautiful.  Nothing else is quite like ivory--even the fake stuff, like Tagua Nuts, falls short.  In many ways ivory is to the knife making what true mahogany is to woodworking--an endangered product with legendary attributes.  Ivory is not just "pretty".  Its not just "jewelry".  There are real and tangible benefits.  This ivory comes from warthog tusks and thus is not covered by the government's recent ban on elephant ivory.  In fact, warthogs fall into the "Least Concerned" category in IUCN rankings (the ranking for a species level of endangered-ness).  They are the only creatures that produce ivory that have that ranking (sperm whales are data deficient).  Still, an animal died to make this handle, maybe not specifically for the production of this handle, but these scales came from a dead animal.  I am not so concerned about animals dying for my benefit--I eat meat and have leather products--but I want to mention it, in case your not.  I would also note that ivory from a smarter or more endangered animal, like an elephant or a sperm whale, would be significantly less desireable to me, enough so that I wouldn't want the product.  But here with an animal that is seen in many places as a pest, well, the scales are balanced so that I am not TOO bothered.  Bothered enough to mention it, but not so bother as to not buy or review the knife.  In short, performance/looks outweighs guilt when it comes to warthog ivory.  You might disagree and that's fine.  I'd love to hear it in the comments, but that's my position.  I am working on something on this topic that is a little more detailed, but that's the summary for now.

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Fit and Finish: 2

Let me get one thing out of the way--the handle scales aren't perfectly flush with the tang of the blade.  At first I was a little bummed by this.  Bernard's fit and finish is something of legend and to see something so basic messed up even a little bit, as it was on my review sample, was disheartening. But then I did a little more research--ivory, like wood and unlike G10--swells and contracts.  It is a natural material and the elements can make it over around, even if we are talking about 1/1000th of an inch or so.  Given Bernard's reputation, what I know about ivory, and the rest of the knife, I will assume that this unevenness, however slight it is, is inherent in the material and not worthy of deducting a point.

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The rest of the knife is immaculate.  The tang has been strongly tapered, altering the balance of an already gymnast-like blade, giving you something so quick and so responsive in the hand that it has to be used to be fully understood.  The pins are flush and the finish on the blade, a nice satin, is glorious.  With the ivory cavaet in place, this is clearly among the nicer finished knives I have handled.

Handle Design: 2

Simply put, no other knife I have reviewed feels as good in the hand and in use as the Bush Baby Caper.  It is a study in handle design and though it is controversial to say this the benefits of ivory as a handle scale.  Here is a close up of the coloring and streaks:

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and here is the knife in hand.
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During the testing period I used this knife as an EDC fixed blade and not as a caper (a knife designed for skinning the hand and face of an animal--it needs to be small, sharp and exceedingly precise).  In  that role I could see why it was such an exceptional tool for its intended purpose.  The knife moved and sliced as if it had a mind of its own, or more precisely, as if your mind controlled it directly without the clumsiness of hands and fingers to get in the way.  The Bush Baby Caper is just an extraordinary tool in the hand.

Steel: 2 

N690, a European steel, is a favorite of South African designers--the Burger knives run N690 as their entry steel before you step up to Damascus.  In my experience, three or four blades over the years, it has performed well and this knife is no exception. Its edge retention is good, just below the pinnacle tier of steels (ZDP-189, M390, M4...).  Its better than VG-10, but it has all of the other good qualities of VG-10--corrosion resistance and toughness, its just a bit better at keeping a hair popping edge.  The steel is probably something like a 1.5, but the scale is not that sensitive.  Bernard's finish on the steel is excellent, the edge came insanely sharp, so I am okay with saying that this is a good steel pushed beyond average by chemistry and finishing.  Simpler still--VG-10 but better. 

Blade Shape: 2 

A glorious, simple, and slight drop point.  It is hard to remember why we have all these funky blade shapes when you use a knife like this or the Fallkniven F1z--simple works so well for so many tasks.  

Grind: 2 

Remember before the Chopper Revolution when fixed blades had thin, slicing grinds?  Remember before the Chopper Revolution when you could do things like detail work (in my case, prepping nuts for holiday cooking and depitting cherries en masse)?  Remember before the Chopper Revolution when your fixed blade felt more like a scalpel and less like a pry bar?  Well, if you don't remember, pick up a Bush Baby Caper and you will.  And you will also come to know why fixed blades can and should be thinly ground in the right application.  This is just a master class in grind--here the handle shape, the tapering, and the grind work together to make something insanely great at slicing and detail work (hence the intended use as a caper).  

Sheath Carry: 1

The sheath, made from Cape Buffalo (also IUCN least concerned status) leather, is beautiful and unique.  It gives the knife a sort of out of time, legendary feel.  Its well made and sturdy.  
 
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But, it is not super easy to carry.  Its too bulky for what it is, and while it is okay strapped on a belt, I'd prefer something other than what we have here.  As a collector's piece (this is a 20th Anniversary Edition) its marvelous.  As tool, its merely average.  

Sheath Accessibility: 1 

Given the knife's size and shape, this sheath, which is essentially a tube, ain't great.  One handed extraction, the goal all sheath designs should strive for, is very difficult to nigh impossible.  Again, the sheath is gorgeous, just not all that useful.  

Useability: 2 

As an EDC fixed blade, the Bush Baby Caper is exceedingly well designed.  This is a knife that won't let you down and can power through a lot of stuff, despite its elven size and feel.  It broke down boxes with ease and switched to depitting cherries with equal aplomb.  

Durability: 2 

Chopper, this ain't, but if you can have a fixed blade and not baton with it, you'll be fine.  There is nothing here, in an EDC role, that gives cause for concern.  More concerning is the current trend towards silly, overbuilt designs.  If your expectations are baton and slice through a soup can, look elsewhere.  If they are purpose appropriate, the Bush Baby Caper will last forever.  

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

When Derrick sent this to me for review I was a bit hesitant.  It was way out of my wheelhouse.  But once I started using it I realized just how much it WAS something I would like.  Bernard's reputation, built over years of working on knives in a small family business, is superb and the Bush Baby Caper is well in line with that reputation. Its materials are top shelf, well above par for the price.  Ivory, for all its controversy, is quite good as a handle material.  The sheath, beautiful and sturdy as it is, is the weak link here. I am not sure how I would fix it.  A kydex sheath on a knife this refined is like a Formula 1 car with wheels from my backyard wheel barrow.  The knife's in hand feel is superb and as an actual cutting tool you'll be hard pressed to find better.  With a smaller sheath it would make an excellent fixed blade EDC.  As it is, this is a piece with materials and refinement that remind me of a sword from Lord of the Rings, a legendary blade with suitably exotic materials.  For a collector, this is probably catnip. For me, a Luddite user, its still great, but not perfect.  

9 comments:

  1. Arno Bernards stuff is indeed very nice. I picked up one of his "Meerkat" blades with mammoth molar handles last year, and is a fantastically beautiful piece.

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  2. Thanks for the attention to the ivory aspect. I wouldn't be comfortable with ivory from anything but a hog as well - too rife with ethical issues.

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