Friday, February 6, 2015

The James Brand Chapter Knife Review

I really like the Chapter Knife.  Yes, it is a hipster knife.  So I'll come clean now--I like a hipster knife.

In many ways that is as much a betrayal to hardcore knife knuts as their teenage daughter departing on the back of a motorcycle driven by a 31 year old punk.  For guys that like only two kinds of handle materials--stag and torched stag--the Chapter Knife is anathema.  Its slick, overproduced look and high price tag just don't mesh with what knife knuts expect.  But this knife isn't made for us.  Its made for a guy that makes a decent wage and is looking for his first knife (you can feel free to swap in all of the female pronouns in that sentence). This is a person that has a design-first smartphone, clean Scandinavian furniture, and nicely tailored suits.  

But here is the truth--unlike some hipster gear--Topo Daypack I am looking squarely at your sorry ass--the Chapter Knife, for all its pretension and hefty price tag is a good knife. Its not perfect, but it is a pleasure use, hold and carry. It is, admit it, also pleasing to the eye. Hipster gear is something we should approach with caution, but we ignore it at our peril.    

Here is the product page (beware--the specs are incorrect, see more on that below).  While MSRP is $275, I bought the review sample through the podcast sponsor Huckberry for $239.95 shipped. Also, stock seems to be limited, as the knife is made in batches, but Huckberry has had them in stock for a while.  There are four variations--the uncoated one, the black coated handle with a stainless blade, the blackout version (everything coated), and this one, the so-called stormtrooper color scheme.  There was also a damascus bladed version, but that was a limited edition.  Here is a video review.  There are 1.6 billion shill site articles on this knife but this appears to be the first review.  Here is my review sample (bought with site money to be given away):

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Twitter Review Summary: Hipster?  Check.  Good?  Check, as well.

Here is my video overview:


Design: 2

Let's be clear--this is a design-centric knife.  It is incredibly clean, minimalist, but not stupidly so like the Topo Designs Daypack.  The spare looks serve a higher purpose--impeccable function.  The thumb stud works. The  blade is an excellent shape.  The handle lays flat and looks clean.  The lock is easy to engage and disengage.  The pocket clip is truly great.  Its looks are polarizing, as the Chapter Knife doesn't look like a knife (or at least it looks like a knife designed by Apple), but if you work through that reflex, you'll find a very nice knife on the other side.  And if that aesthetic doesn't bother you, don't worry this is not the knife equivalent of a Monet.  Even under close inspection, this knife is quite good.

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The performance ratios are little weird because, as you can see below, the blade is purposely shorter than the handle to accommodate the unusual tail stand off:

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This results in a pair of strange numbers.  James' specs are incomplete, the weight and closed length are missing and the blade length is incorrect.  On the site it is listed as 2.33 inches.  My measurement puts the blade at 2 9/16 inches. The difference is a big one and I am not sure why they would undersell the blade length.  With the stated dimensions, the knife has TERRIBLE ratios (b/h: .62; b/w: .85).  Actually they are a b/h of .68 (2.5625 inches/3.75 inches), which is the same as the Spyderco Delica, and a b/w of  a truly terrible number and the blade:weight is .94 (2.5625 inches/2.72 ounces).  Both numbers are okay, but Al Mar has a thing to teach the new whipper snapper.  Its shocking that James would make a mistake on their specs in a way that hurt them, but they also told me the knife ran S30V when I did my initial preview for AllOutdoor.  This sort of inattention to detail is bad, but it has no impact on the knife.

Fit and Finish: 2

There is a break in period. Make no mistake--the knife you receive and the knife you will have two weeks later are substantially different.  James Brand decided to coat everything on this version (both the blade and the handle) and so there is a distinct tightness in everything--the pivot, the lock, the detent.  But after parts wear in, the knife becomes flickably smooth and precise.  The tolerances are good and the final touches are nice...

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with one small exception--the coating on the clip is just a flake storm.  This picture was taken after less than three hours of use and really it was more "carry in pocket" than actual "use."  The coating elsewhere has been fine, but this is a bit of a grrr...Not worth a full point, but really, come on...three hours?

Grip: 0

There is no jimping. There is really no contour or cut for the hand.  The knife is a parallelogram with rounded corners.  It is not particularly good in hand.  Its not awful, but it is below average.

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The Sebenza can get away with looking plain because of its matte finish and jimping (and the fact that it has a subtle curvature to it that gives you a lot of grip).  Here the whole thing is a bit slippery.  The only saving graces are the size of the knife, the comfort of the rounded edges, and the angled cut for the thumb stud which indexes your finger.  Its not much, but it is something.  Deer skinner this ain't.

Carry: 2

Well, for all of the shortcomings in terms of grip, the Chapter Knife is a blessing to transport.  Here are the relevant shots (thanks for the idea Grayson):

In the pocket, from the user's point of view:

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In the pocket from the public's point of view:

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With the unconventional shape and clip, the knife, even with its bright white handle, definitely doesn't scream "knife."  It is also quite slim and the clip is excellent at keeping the knife in place.  I loved carrying the Chapter Knife.  

Steel: 2 

The idea of a nearly $300 knife running D2 is not appealing.  

The performance is beyond reproach.  At this point you probably need another primer on D2 as much as you need one on AUS 8.  Simply put, D2 is a great steel, its historically important, and a fantastic performer, but it is not expensive.  For the price, you can buy almost 2 of the upcoming Benchmade Valet, which runs a clearly superior M390 blade.  I don't mind D2, but I mind the cost savings not showing up in the price tag of the Chapter Knife.  

That said, there are knives that run D2 that cost this much or more.  Many of the original HEST/F knives ran D2 and were around $200. Similarly, early Lionsteel's run D2 and cost around the same.  Then there are the Medford knives, all which cost north of $600 and run D2.  And no, I don't consider them aren't customs, so don't bother posting that below.  Brous's Silent Soldier Flipper in all titanium is much more and runs D2.  

The bottom line is that D2 is a good performer, and while the cost savings the steel represents doesn't show in how much you will pay for the knife, there are more expensive knives out there with D2.  As a performer, apart from value, D2 is clearly a 2.  

Blade Shape: 2

The choice of a classic drop point is never a mistake:
 
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Here, the shape is wonderful and useful.  In addition to working well, the drop point also looks good--an essential feature of any part of the Chapter Knife.

Grind: 2 

Well, unlike a few things on the knife, the grind is conventional and wonderful.  A high hollow grind results in an insanely good cutting edge and my favorite grind for EDC purposes.  I did notice a little wobble in the cutting bevel, but nothing remarkable.  

Deployment Method: 2

In the first week of ownership, the thumb stud was nigh unworkable, but as the pivot and detent broke in, the knife became amazingly smooth.  In fact, the knife now flies open quick enough for a friend to ask if it was an auto.  I really have no complaints.  And yes, I like the green color. Its quite striking and well...the Usual Suspects like it, though I doubt this is their kind of knife.  Technically it is "moss green" but that is hard to distinguish from "toxic green".

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I'll note that the placement of the stud is close to the handle scale, a little too close, but it is easy to use once the pivot breaks in and you get used to it.  

Retention Method: 2 

The clip is unconventional, but awesome.  I thought it would be more of a paint scrapper than it is, but its not.  Its simple, non-threatening, as the whole knife is, and classy.  It is also distinctive.  Good job here, by James.  The logo is nice too.  Very few will recognize it as a knife clip, but in my mind, that is a good thing. Don't court trouble, and trouble will find you less often.

Lock: 1

Lock up originally was so tight and sticky I couldn't dislodge the lock bar without changing my grip.  Once the coating wore away, it became smooth, maybe too smooth.  There is no blade play or lockbar wiggle, but there is no resistance anymore at the lock interface.  I don't want sticky, but I do want a little tension to overcome.  My custom framelocks have that and the sensory input it gives me is nice.  Here there is none of that.

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Perhaps it is too much to expect from a production knife, but the reality is, I like it.  The lock bar itself hasn't moved over and the lock up above is representative of the knife post-break in (note the wear on the coating).  I don't know what to tell you though.  It was terrible, then got very good, and is now different.  Not bad different, but not my preference.  For that it gets a one.  I wonder what the lock up is like on the uncoated version.

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

The Chapter knife is not perfect.  It is a hipster knife.  But it is not bad either and it has a look and feel unlike anything else on the market.  There are some boneheaded noob mistakes like coating EVERYTHING and zero traction plan, but there are also thing done here that are both different and meritorious, like the clip and the look.  New blood in the knife game isn't a bad thing.  Though there were no hipsters back then, I am sure that the hue and cry let out by traditional knife folks upon seeing a Spyderco C01 Worker for the first time was equally riotous.  This behavior the knife community equivalent of the public's reaction to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The reality is, this isn't as groundbreaking as the Worker, but it is a very good knife.  

But move past that.  Its all BS anyway (everything new and different is met with resistance).  The knife is a good knife.  Its a damn good knife.  Its not a perfect knife, but few are.  We shouldn't be so skeptical of the knife, even if we can be skeptical of the ludicrous and silly branding (no more surfers in the woods...please...ever). 

One concern I had is that the difference between the knife pre- and post-break in was so pronounced that I am afraid the knife will wear poorly going forward, but I have had the knife for more than a month post-break in and it has stayed solid.  The uncoated verison might be better and really this is a theoretical concern more than anything else, but I want you to know about it.

And so, I think it is safe to say this knife won't disappoint you.  If you like the looks and can tolerate the price, go for it.  Its a very good and reliable piece of cutlery.  You'll be a hipster, but you know what?  Who cares?  Grow your wild man beard, get garish tattoos you'll be embarrassed of in ten years, and drink your craft beer that tastes like ball sweat.  This isn't Dora the Explorer bag stupid or painted axe handle stupid.   This knife isn't stupid at all.  Its a bit expensive for the materials, but not outrageously so (like a Medford that runs the exact same materials and costs $600).  If you like it, buy it.  The Chapter Knife is 100% legit.

Here you go...the perfect pairing in Hipster Heaven:


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And for some authenticity points, I will tell you I made the built in desk it is on, though if I were a hipster I would tell you I crafted it and used Ikea parts to make it.  But I am not, that's just some good old fashion A/A grade cherry ply.  Its pricey at $115 a sheet, but damn its nice.  Just like the Chapter Knife.

The Competition

Comparing the James knife to either the SOG Aegis or the Kershaw Zing G10 is hardly fair.  A more appropriate comparison, with a field of Sebenza alternatives (the Bradley Alias, the AG Russell Acies2, the Kizer Ki-3404), will happen soon.  

34 comments:

  1. We've all been waiting for this review. I've warmed up to the knife more now, but i still won't be spending that money for those materials - hipster or not

    Speaking of hipster, you know what a REAL hipster knife is?

    An Opinel!

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    1. And I liked Opinels before they were cool!

      /hipster

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  2. I don't hate it, but it is not for me, at least not until it goes for about $175. Better Ti framelock options out there. Speaking of that and the coming shootout, I don't suppose the Sage 2 or the Maxped Small Excelsa made the entry list? They are great options for their prices, right there with the Kizer in my opinion, unless you want a flipper.

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  3. I think this review was spot on. If the knife was a better value, I would jump on it - sadly, with ZT and Benchmade offering high value (high dollar to be sure) knives that are cheaper, I can't afford to splurge on a knife (mostly) for its aesthetics. If it cost $200 flat, I might do it.

    That said, there are a lot of places where aesthetics become a value proposition. I have a friend who has a CRKT Eraser and a CRKT Hi Jinx. While both are gorgeous, both are huge, and not very office friendly (though the Hi Jinx could pull it off). The Chapter could fly under the radar where other knives (even ones the same size) could not.

    I'll say this: I'd buy this before I bought a Brous Bionic 2.0, or any Brous for that matter. Nothing against Brous. I just feel that James Brand operates in that same wheelhouse.

    Thanks for the review, Tony. I hope they fix the mistakes (and clean up their advertising).

    -Grayson Parker

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  4. Thanks for the review Tony! I stumbled across this knife a few months ago, and there was precious little info out there. I was also put off by the price, but once you actually admit that it's a hipster knife, the price is actually very reasonable (think axes marked up to $300 because they have some paint on the handle).

    I was actually put off much more by the vague and misleading ad-copy (calling D2 a stainless steel and saying it doesn't rust), but I guess you have to accept that aspect of hipsteryness as well. They made a very marginal improvement to it since I contacted them in November (now it's semi-stainless), but it's still inaccurate and misleading to claim that D2 "doesn't rust". Why not just say that the blade coating will protect the blade from rust?

    Can you explain where you measured the blade length from? Since moving to Boston, I've been making an effort to carry under the 2.5" blade limit, and this knife was on my "maybe" list because of the 2.33" length. Is their 2.33 measurement just the cutting edge?

    Aside from the tip-down carry only, the design is very appealing to me. I'm a fan of simple, clean lines.

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  5. This is a well done and persuasive review. Thanks. I went in prejudiced against this knife and leave convinced that it's a decent product, maybe even good.

    Blade shape is gorgeous.

    I'm shocked to say, the crazy green thumb stud gels. I'd even say it "makes" the color scheme, like the Sebenza's blue thumbstud.

    Looking forward to the Sebenza Alternative Shootout. FWIW I have always had exactly the same reaction to the Acies2. With different thumbstuds (those things mess up every KAI knife that bears them) and a more tasteful pocket clip, that thing would be a match for the Sebenza -- indeed, I would probably pick it over the Seb, for the ZDP blade. I think Reeve's approach to blade steels is rather complacent.

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    1. Eh, I've owned the Acies 2 and it's no match for a Sebenza, not even a match for an Alias 2 (which I've also owned). It may have flashier steel, but it has poor lock-face geometry inducing lock-stick, it has a thin flexy lockbar (I could easily get the blade off the stop pin when the blade was locked open), and the detent was far too strong, making the thumbstud a useless meat grinder.

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    2. Thanks for the feedback. I have to admit lock issues like you describe would be disqualifying for a knife in this category. That's too bad.

      I note that it's widely speculated that KAI is the OEM for the Acies2 (from the Blur thumbstud & the fact it's a US-made knife with ZDP-189).

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  6. Good review as always. Except, I agree completely with James that Opinel is the real hipster knife. Or or any other kind of retro knife like a Barlow or laguiole. This is a yuppie knife, not a hipster knife. Hate to say it but TAD stuff is more hipster than this. If you have ever come back to SF, I'll take you to all the real hipster places. We'll definitely hit the original TAD location and my cousin's ice cream shop across the way. Welcome to stay with us if you do come by the way.

    Imo the blade shape - the only traditional part - is actually a disappointment here. It's too discordant with the handles. I'd rather have something little more futuristic, or even just a tanto.

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  7. New knife company, can't get their specs right, has somewhat misleading ad materials, doesn't have the knife knowledge to not coat the lock interface and yet it's still worth close to $300?

    This knife SCREAMS of an industrial designer and marketer who doen't give two shits about knives hooking up with a machine shop who also doesn't know much about knives so they can profit on the current trend of high end knives.

    Nothing about this company gives me any faith that they are actually knife people. Just some guys looking to cash in on a fad. Most people in this price category have EARNED their way into charging this price and are SERIOUS knife enthusiasts.

    That's what makes it a hipster knife. It's a non serious attempt at a knife in order to cash in.

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    1. Scurvy, two counter points. First, I hope it was clear that I tried to go out of my way to point out the fact that the knife isn't a good value. Second, while the MSRP is $275, the street price is $240, so saying it is "close to $300" isn't 100% accurate.

      Now some agreements. As for being knife people, times are a-changin'. Knife companies that make knives are a rarity, especially if you look at companies in terms of total production from OEMs. Benchmade still makes most of their knives as does Lionsteel, but even Spyderco and KAI make an ever shrinking percentage of their lines. Spyderco and KAI use OEMs on a larger percentage of their line every year and some of those knives, like the Taichung Taiwan Spydercos are among the best knives those companies make. CRKT, Cold Steel, and SOG make ZERO knives. They have designers generate specs and then have OEMs make them. DPx Gear does the same thing. That said, I think that non knife folks can make good knives. But your right in point out that this is a growing trend.

      I do think you are also right in pointing out that this is a cash in, but there are worse knives and worse values in the knife world than this. Its not great, but it is good.

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    2. Yes but the difference is all those companies are still run by people who have and still LOVE knives. Thomas, Sale, Eric, Gianni, RYP all love geeking out about knives. Even if some of them aren't making the knives, they are still enthusiasts.

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    3. I could care less if they "earned" their way in. They have a unique design which is great for office and university environments. Exclusivity stifles a market, especially one which desperately needs some new ideas.

      If they made it a flipper, then I would agree with you. Thankfully they didn't.

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    4. Unique design isn't an excuse for poor execution. Its justification like that that allowed Balzano get as far as he did. Form over function. As long as it looks cool/elegant/classy who cares that they don't know shit about making a knife.

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    5. That's not really fair, though. Someone that ripped off a bunch of people isn't equivalent to someone that made a design error which means there's a two week break in period.

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  8. It's... interesting, I'll give it that. And to be fair, that's actually fairly high praise, considering how many Ti framelocks there are floating around.

    That said, I'm pretty sure it gets blown out of the water in the SebenzAlternatives shootout. Ultimately, it reminds me of a Macbook - not just because of the obvious aesthetic influence, but because you can usually get something much cheaper and more practical with better stuff inside in exchange for the branding.

    As a side note, why no Sage2 for the SebenzAlternative shootout? It seems like it's closer to the Sebenza than the Kizer 3404A3.

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  9. Our host is dropping truth bombs on James Brand on Instagram re: their erroneous published blade length specs for this knife. See: instagram.com/p/yzsZpskLF_/

    Observe that, even if you accept the excuse the company gives (we thought you measured the sharpened edge, not the full length from handle to tip), their measurement was STILL way off. They need to fix this. It's the kind of issue that tends to play into the dismissive view of the company that Scurvy expressed.

    Whether or not a knife is below 2.5" blade length can be very important. That's the legal limit for many federal facilities. Likewise, some of the more repressive US municipalities, like Boston and Chicago (which contain many hipsters!) have 2.5" blade limits for the public carry of locking folders. The Chapter knife does not appear to comply with those laws, see Tony's Instagram post. Yet James's copy suggests it would. Someone who relies on the published specs could end up in a bad situation.

    PS: I think knife companies should always design knives to come in at least a mm or two below the next highest 0.5" increment of blade length. E.g. the Delica and Mini Grip have blades in the 2.9" range, so they are compliant in both "3 inches or under" jurisdictions as well as "under 3 inches" jurisdictions (see the difference?). And they remain compliant even if there is a minor process variation that makes your particular knife's blade a hair longer than the CAD program specifies. Similarly, Cold Steel's 4-inch folders always seem to come in a bit shy, like 3 15/16". This is very sensible practice -- especially when you make formidable looking knives that might tempt a hostile cop or DA to seek a way to harass a citizen who carries them.

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    1. You are right about this and we blew it on the spec length. It was a typo, but a serious one in fact. We designed the blade to be just under the 3" length as this is a restriction for many states. There are some states and some cities that have laws against carrying a knife with a blade length of larger than 2.5" as you mentioned, and hopefully our (my?) mistake on the specs doesn't cause problems for anybody there. It was our feeling that it's hard to design a functional knife with a blade length of less 2.5".

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  10. Thanks all for the very honest review. We hope to learn from all of this. Note that blade length and copy on the site have been updated since the review. I'm personally embarrassed about the blade length error. Nothing to say there but that we blew it. At least we're listening.

    Thanks Anthony and the knife community,

    Ryan, of the James brand

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    1. Excellent. Good on you guys for listening!

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    2. I am glad you took the review in the spirit it was offered--this is a good knife, an excellent first outing (though I know there were some small batch stuff before). With a few tweaks it could be amazing and as it is, it is quite good.

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  11. I'm having a hard time buying this "hipster knife" stuff. This isn't directed at you, Tony - but I see some comments here as well as some on other sites/forums that lead me to believe people are hating on this knife because the company and designer are knife "outsiders." Knife people need to get that out of their heads. Nothing but good can come from good designers from different disciplines trying their hands at knives. Seriously. That's how innovation happens.

    I will not buy this knife, largely because it is a "bad value," partly because I can't actually justify that price tag on any knife right now, and partly because no knife in this price range should score a "1" in grip. However, I think this design is interesting enough that I will pay close attention to the company's future releases. Maybe after a few iterations they will learn from their mistakes and we will get something truly interesting AND functional.

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    1. We are definitely here and listening. We are new to this for sure, and learning all the time. Serious reviews and commentary from the knife community will only make us better.

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    2. Ameer, I 100% agree. I don't care if someone has good or bad pedigree, if the product is good and here is there is enough good on the knife that it warrants consideration.

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  12. The knife isn't for me. I like the blade shape, but it appears too small relative to overall size of the knife and I'm not a fan of tip-down only clips. I'm not so sure about the colour either, as I like plain titanium. I would suggest the maker take a look at the humble Swiss Army Knife if he wants to see a well designed knife with a blade in around 2.5". Pedigree has to start somewhere, so I'll be interested in what else the maker comes out with.

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  13. I'll also add I do respect the company doesn't appear to be going down the faux military route.

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    1. YES. It must be so tempting for any knife company starting out to just go the "tactical" route.

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  16. Thanks for the review Tony. I've been watching for the knife's availability since you first posted this review. I bought one because I like the look, and that's it. At 52 years old and a knife guy since my dad gave me one at 10 years old I stray far from the Hipster mold.

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  17. Thanks for the review Tony. I've been watching for the knife's availability since you first posted this review. I bought one because I like the look, and that's it. At 52 years old and a knife guy since my dad gave me one at 10 years old I stray far from the Hipster mold.

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  18. Saw this knife on tge huckberry site. First glance I thought it would be a cheap knife. That boxy handle looks odd/ugly.

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