Monday, February 23, 2015

Trolling for Hate: The End of Fatties

Over the past 18 months or so, largely because of listening to Jim and Kyle on the Knife Journal Podcast, I have become more comfortable with fixed blade knives.  During that say time I have become increasingly skeptical of the utility of large and ultra large folders.  It seems to me that if you can carry one of these knives, you should probably just carry a fixed blade.

Browsing the fora I saw a thread on BladeForum about preferences for large fixed blades.  The choice was between the ZT0200 and the Benchmade 810 Contego.  Both are massive folders with blades at or near 4 inches.  The ZT0200 (which is discontinued) is also a true boat anchor tipping the scales at almost 8 ounces.  I have handled the ZT0200. In fact, I bought one, carried it around the knife show, and then returned it for a ZT0350 when I realized that the ZT0200 was trying, hard as it could, to pants me in public.  To say the ZT0200 was big is like saying Robert Wadlow was tall.  The knife was positively massive. It was just too big to warrant carrying or buying.  

The problem with these big folders is simple--there is no time when I could carry them comfortably and not carry a fixed blade.  Additionally, there are no tasks I could where these big blades work better than a smaller and more convenient folder or better than a beefy fixed blade.  These folders, it seems to me, have taken the advantages of a folder--size and portability--and thrown them out the window.  They have also, it seems, avoided the advantages of a fixed blade--durability and uncompromised handle shapes.  

For me, personally, I can't imagine using or carrying a folder with a blade longer than 3.5 inches.  I know that there are guys out there that are much bigger than I am and for those folks, a 4 inch blade seems reasonable.  But these massive and overbuilt knives like the ZT0200 or, in the custom world, the Direware, I just don't see why someone would want one.  This leaves aside the Fox Meskawaki and Cold Steel Espada XL sized blades which, frankly, are in the same class of products as the United Cutlery Sauron glove Andrew pined over.  The Spyderco Military and the Benchmade 710 are all good designs with long blades but these aren't the knives I am referencing. Its not a prejudice against long blades, it is a prejudice against stupidly overbuilt blades.

This leads me to another point about the folding pry bar class of knives.  There doesn't seem to be much of an emphasis on blade geometry resulting in poorer than necessary cutting performance. Its a matter of basic physics--thicker objects cut worse than thinner ones, all other things being equal.   A reader recently emailed me and asked about my opinion on Striders.  I pointed him to my Strider PT review and then we emailed back and forth.

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He was surprised to learn that while I thought (and think) that the Strider was a good knife, it was no longer a knife I loved.  The reality is that tastes and preferences change, but here it is not just that my tastes changed, its that I realized that those sorts of knives don't work for me.  

Last summer I decided I wanted to learn how to start a fire with no matches.  Very low bar, I know, but I have always been a Zippo fire starter.  Then my son and I read My Side of the Mountain and he asked what a flint was.  Sam, the book's main character, carried one and started fires all of the time with it, so I ordered one off Amazon and started working with it.  I also started making kindling.  Not only was it fun, it was also a great test for a knife.  Breaking up small branches, making feather sticks, and the like is a super simple test for a knife--the lock, the handle, and the edge/steel are all given a good workout.  Eventually we nailed the fire thing, even capable of starting fires in semi-damp conditions.  Over time, I also noticed that the Strider PT was just terrible at these tasks.  Its edge was just too thick.  It could pry decently well, but it had ZERO game when it came to pulling down big curls of wood for feather sticks.  It lacked an ability to slice.  I stropped and sharpened, but I came to realize that the blade just behind the cutting bezel was too thick.  Short of a full reprofilining, the PT was never going to cut and slice well.  My Indian River Jack, on the other hand, was a slicing demon, passing the feather stick test and others with aplomb.  

And its not just the thick blade stock that was a problem--the Techno (damn is that a great little folder) passed the test with flying colors too.  Spyderco shrank that thick stock quickly and the thickness just before the cutting bevel is still pretty darn thin.

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The problem with the Strider PT was the grind (update now reflects that).  I found the Hinderer 3" slicer grind better, but still not as good.  These overbuilt beasts seem to forget that their first task is cutting.  

This isn't to say that these knives are a bad design.  They aren't.  Both are superior tools.  They are just tools I have little use for in my suburban life.  For hard use, metal piercing, door prying individuals the bulky cutting geometry of the Strider and the Hinderer is quite useful.  For me, where I place an emphasis on cutting and slicing in my normal use, I just can't except the tradeoff.  And really, I have found that the Paramilitary 2 has been plenty tough for the worst tasks I could give a folder including chopping up old linoleum, complete with hardened glue on the back. And the PM2 is still plenty slicey.  

Michael's email prompted me to write down what I had already known--in an EDC knife I want something that cuts.  These folding pry bars that are all over the place just aren't for me.  And really, if we exclude Instagram as a "use" I am not sure just how many of us really NEED a knife like that for our daily tasks.  Maybe my tastes will change back, but where I am right now, I just don't see the value in these massively overbuilt knives.  I am not saying they are poor designs or bad blades, they just aren't for me.  They might be for you, but looking at the tasks I do, even when I am outdoors, I am better suited by either a fixed blade or a folder that can slice.  These overbuilt blades are neither and thus I am just not interested. 

13 comments:

  1. makes sense. If you're going to baton through wood, you want a fixed blade. Or better yet an axe! Thin blades (preferably full flat ground) for daily carry use.

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    1. I actually like hollow grinds better than FFG. The concern with bunching material is out the window with typical EDC tasks.

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  2. It's why I favor the Centofante over the Delica and sometimes even of the Dragonfly. I love the ergos of my DF but sometimes I think even that cutting bevel is too thick. Do you still think your DF is slicy?

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  3. This starts off blending two topics that I think are worth separating: (1) "big" folders and (2) "overbuilt" folders. For me anything up to 4" blade is EDCable territory, and a well made folder like a Military (4.2 oz) or Large Voyager (4.7 oz) is practical to use. Social norms sometimes deter me from carrying those knives, but not function or comfort.

    And what a 4" folder does that a 4" fixed blade won't is conceal nicely in a typical men's front pants pocket.

    (There are ways to conceal largish fixed blades comfortably, but they require a lot of gear and planning, things like IWB belt sheaths and cover garments...).

    On the second heading, the trend of "overbuilt" design tics on high-end knives, I totally agree that it is not practical for most of us -- it's actually anti-practical. Even if you need some prying ability, a mainstream hollow grind like the Recon 1 leaves you with shoulders thick enough to get work done.

    When the "overbuilt" vogue finally subsides, I predict a lot of these knives are going to look incredibly dated very fast. The unduly fat blade stocks and grinds will be as conspicuous as '80s big hair.

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  4. Tony, where do you think work by Steve Karroll would fall into this continuum? I know you had great things to say about the EDMW and I think the SES. I have been considering the non fatty versions he makes. but I have been reticent for the reasons you have highlighted. I am an urban carrier and find I prefer a nice slicer.

    Thanks

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    1. Steve's knives have a lot of design heritage from Slysz and so, unsurprisingly, they perform a lot like the Techno. They too have fat blades, but Steve grinds them super keen. Its not just a matter of blade stock, but the grind. My Strider's grind was meh. My SES's grind is super slicey.

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  5. Carrying a large folder is, for me, largely a decision based on ergonomics. Yes, in a perfect world I would much rather carry a fixed blade, but given legal issues, social mores and work restrictions it's simply not possible, so a large folder becomes the compromise.

    I wear XXL gloves and ergonomics are probably the most important aspect of knife use for me. I like something like the Dragonfly 2, but it simply isn't large enough to fill my hand. That's fine for office tasks, but any kind of extended cutting and I rapidly find myself expending as much effort holding the knife as I do actually cutting. That leads to rapid hand fatigue.

    Larger folders are the solution to both problems. I dislike thicker blade geometry, as geometry is the single most important aspect of cutting performance, but I absolutely want a thick, broad, long handle on the knife in question. That allows vastly more leverage in my cuts, as well as letting me use the knife for much longer without discomfort.

    I can thin the geometry or even regrind the blade on something like an Adamas to improve its performance in making feather sticks, but I can't make the handle of the Indian River Jack any bigger. That means, for me, despite the inferior blade geometry, I'll pick my Adamas for that task.

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  6. I dont get the obsession with size and weight. I regularly carry everything in my collection from the smallest (small Sebenza) to the biggest (RJ Martin devilstator and now the LV knives Lancer. Both 4.25in blades).

    I have never felt like a knife was going to pants me. The only thing I care about is whether or not I can get other things out of my pocket. I find the height of the knife to be the measurement that impacts this the most, not the length.

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    1. I have owned and carried big knives and I never found them useful. More specifically I never found them useful enough to justify the extra weight. Now that I am more comfortable with fixed blades, I just can't see a use for them. If you are a big guy, physically, that's one thing, but aside from those folks, I just don't see the need. For me, they are like large print books--exact same content in a bigger form.

      I am not someone that cares all that much about statement pieces and I am not committed to a maker or a brand, so all of the reasons for carrying a big knife just don't apply to me. That's not to say they don't for others, just not for me.

      Give my a Dragonfly or an IRJ and I am happy. I don't need a kilobuck custom or a 4 inch blade to open packages and cut up food.

      I 100% agree about the height. That's the major reason why I like the 940-1 over the Manix 2 LW. Its a very overlooked aspect of a knife.

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    2. Overlooked in more ways than one. The height of a blade also helps determine the height of the grind, something that people often seem to ignore. That dimension plays into cutting geometry as much as spine thickness, but people concentrate on spine thickness much more than grind height.

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  7. Fixed blades aren't as fun to fiddle with, but they let you have more fun when you're actually using them. Sure, they have low fidget factor, but to be honest, the incessant opening, closing, flicking, and fiddling with our knives is really a bad habit, with greater social repercussions than picking your nose or scratching your bits in public. The same can be said for multitools and slipjoints, honestly.

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  8. Tony, we share similar views on this particular subject. Many of these overbuilt beauties have a very high coolness factor and I like a lot of them. I've never actually needed one in real life use, though. I'm also mindful of what is more or less socially acceptable in my little part of the world and would prefer to have what I happen to be carrying go unnoticed by others. I don't judge what others choose to carry, but I rarely buy into the belief people "need" to carry these types of folders because their jobs/lifestyle depends on them.

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  9. Excellent point and I totally agree, that's why I carry a SAK. I also don't feel the need to carry 8 ounces of knife in my pocket, when most of the times I use the blade to open boxes and slice.

    Of course I understand why someone would want a ZT or a Emerson, but for urban EDC where I spend most of my time sitting at a desk or commuting, a small folder is perfect.

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