Friday, March 27, 2015

Smock Knives Mini Southard Review

The well-worn path from modder to custom maker is one that we have all become familiar with, and for good reason.  Quite a few of the best new custom makers out there started as well-known modders.  I have had a chance to handle the work of a few of those folks and I can say without hesitation that Kevin Smock (formerly Bower Bladeworks and now Smock Knives) is unsurpassed in quality and innovation he brings to the modding game.  I have had long term, hands on experience with two of his mods and they are as good as any modded knife I have ever seen or handled.  His Mini Southard is, frankly, one of the most comfortable, refined, and graceful knives I have had the chance to handle--custom, production, or otherwise.  If this was how the knife came from Spyderco it would have probably been product of the year in 2013.  Simply put Kevin's work made a good knife one of the best EDC blades out there.  If you can snag a Mini Southard, do so.  

The Mini Southard is really in a category different from the stonewashing and hand scale swap mods of the world.  While my Buck Advantage was awesome, it was still a Buck Vantage, even if superficially different.  The Mini Southard belongs to a more sophisticated world of mods, of things like the Dietz modded Boker Kwaiken (I have a review of that in the works as well, and Smock did that mod for me, as Alexander Dietz is not taking orders anymore).  These heavy mod knives take the basic platform of a production knife and alter things a great deal.  It is not simply an aesthetic tune up, it is a complete overhaul, like the the conversion from the Enterprise of TOS to the Enterprise of the first ponderously slow and boring movie.  The bones may be there, but everything else is redone.  And these heavy mod knives can range from the clever, like the Dietz modded Kwaikens, to like Johnson Knives chopped Sebenza (done for legal reasons, though the B:H looks so weird), to the sublime like the Mini Southard.  In many ways, some of these heavy mods greatly exceed their source material.  The Dietz flipper Kwaiken is one and this knife is another.   

There is no product page.  This review sample was on loan from a reader and begrudgingly returned to the reader.  Here is my review of the original, unmodded Spyderco Southard.  Here is my review sample of the Mini Southard:


Here is my video overview of the Mini Southard:

Twitter Review Summary:  The Pinnacle of heavy mod knives

Design: 2

I was never a huge fan of the original Spyderco Southard.  It came and went through my hands with a collective meh.  The only thing positive I remember about the knife was the CTS-204P steel, which is Carpenter's M390 competitor.  I also remember that it got me looking more closely at Brad's customs, most especially the Downing.  The size and shape of the Spyderco Southard were not my cups of tea.  And more troubling was the fact that it was so close to being awesome.  There were just a few things, a few glaring mistakes that were utterly un-Spyderco-like, that held the knife back from greatness.

Well, those things are fixed.  First, and most insignificantly was the weird blade shape and spine.  It was as if the knife's spine was designed to accommodate grinds that Spyderco forgot to include.  But Kevin's mod chops off a part of the blade and eliminates the unsightly hump.  What's left is a very simple, very excellent blade shape.  More on that below.

Kevin then contoured the handle, which is now smaller thanks to the chopped down blade.  The overall in hand feel is superb.  He also fixed the weird lock bar area that was surprisingly pointy and he cured both the indexing notch and the pocket clip of similar pokey parts.   


As a true custom job, the B:H and B:W ratios aren't useful.  One changes with the amount of blade chopped off and the other is altered, sometimes significantly by the handle material used and whether or not there was a liner delete (there was not on the review sample).  That said, here is a shot next to the Zippo to get a sense of scale. 


Fit and Finish: 1 (fault of the original knife, not Kevin)

The work Kevin did to the knife is, frankly, 100% flawless.  There was not a line or a polished edge that was mismatched or out of synch.  If you didn't know it, you'd think this was a production knife or a custom knife.  Kevin's work is absolutely flawless.  Look at the fit on the lockbar overtravel insert:


Now take a look at the work on the scales, which is especially impressive for three reasons:


First, the scales are contoured, which is always more of a challenge than a slab handled scale.  Second, they are perfectly matched to the remainder of the liner.  And third, and most notably, these scales are lightning strike carbon fiber, known to be very hard to work with.  Generally, the wire inserts are very pokey around the edges or on the slopes of contours, but here Kevin did a 100% flawless job.  There were zero snag points here.

The one fit and finish issue that I had with this particular review sample was the pivot screw.  It worked itself loose a few times and if I had been the owner, I would have Loctited that thing (here is an overview of my favorite maintenance tools for EDC gear).  Alas, I wasn't, but the issue was noticeable, so I am mentioning it. I can't see how this is a flaw attributable to Kevin's work, so I am blaming Spyderco for the slippery pivot screw.

Grip: 2

One of the most surprising things about the original Southard was how uncomfortable it was in your hand.  This is a knife from Spyderco--THE knife brand for ergonomics and yet the original Southard was just slightly less comfortable in the hand than a pine cone.  Here, with a sigh of relief, Kevin fixed each and every problem.  The uncomfortable chamfered edge is gone, replaced by a smooth contour.


The obnoxiously grippy G10 has been swapped out for a mellow, curving slab of polished lightning strike carbon fiber.  The pocket clip, which was a barbed-wire-level hot spot, is appropriately subdued.  And the lockbar cut outs, which were mere stepping-on-Lego-in-the-middle-of-the-night hotspots, are also tamed down.  Overall, the refinements are noticeable in seconds and a huge upgrade.  Again, I can't help but think--this is how the knife SHOULD have been.

Carry: 2 

The old knife didn't carry poorly and this was is even better, so there is not much to say except--darn good job Kevin.

Steel: 2

The highlight of the original Southard, along with the wonderful flipper, was the Carpenter CTS-204P steel.  Very chemically similar to M390, 204P really does do it all--its hard, its tough, and it is corrosion resistant.  I loved it on the original and I love it here.  These M390-type steels, M390, CTS-204P, and 20CV, are all just dreams to use, sharpen, and carry.  Enjoy the bounty for this is what the Golden Age of Gear has brought us, metallurgically speaking.

Blade Shape: 2

AH...It may be my favorite blade shape, a modified sheepsfoot, not unlike the blade shape of the Benchmade Mini Griptillian.  The original blade shape was a neither here nor there kind of deal, but this blade shape is something that is very useful, sturdy, and more visually pleasing.  


Kevin should get credit finding a truly useful set of curves inside the stock blade.  In particular, I like the belly on this blade and the negative angle of the blade near the pivot.  Also note that Kevin put a true ricasso on this blade, something missing from the original.  Overall, a much improved part of the knife. 

Grind: 2 

The original grind was good, but Kevin's reshaping of the blade makes it even better,  The extra length on the original was, well, awkward.  It was quite slicey, but it was also kinda clumsy.  But shortening up the blade Kevin to a great grind hidden to a minor degree by a bad blade shape and made it awesome.

Deployment Method: 2

As I mentioned above, the star of the original was the steel and the deployment method.  The deployment method remains solid.  Even with less steel and mass to fling around the pivot, the Mini Southard opens with authority AND without wrist action.  The flipper tab, unchanged from the original, is the best on the market.  This is damn good.

Retention Method: 2

Pokey the Porcupine, the name of the original clip, is no longer appropriate and with that change, Kevin made the Mini Southard clearly superior to the original yet again.  Look:


The difference in appearance isn't huge, but the effect is.  This, among all of the small flaws on the original, seemed to be the most glaring and easiest to fix.  Kevin proved that my intuition in that regard was true and did a few alterations that made the clip much, much better.

Lock: 2 

With the lockbar relief cuts rounded off, the knife is just a better knife.  Fortunately doing so didn't screw with the dialed in lock up.  Was great.  Still is great.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

This is a glorious knife, one worthy of a production run all on its own.  Spyderco or Southard himself should just bite the bullet and make a version of Kevin's knife, which, in a perfectly postmodern turn, is a version of their knife, which is, to Jean Baudrillard's delight, a simulacrum of Brad's custom.  Frankly, doing so makes good business sense.  Folks are willing, in fact lining up, to have Kevin alter their $250 production knife, often times spending quite a bit on the changes.  I would not be surprised if the knife didn't come in at around $400 when all is said and done.  That's a pretty penny, but these are extraordinary knives.  

The Mini Southard is, in my mind, the high water mark of modded knives, and the finest of the heavy mods I know of.  It is also a testament to Kevin's skill and a delightful preview of his custom that is in the works.  If you have the means, you should pick up a Mini Southard. 


  1. Kevin is certainly one to pay attention to in the custom knife world this year. If his Mini Southard is a taste of what is to come I think we're going to see some cool innovation coming out of Smock Knives. I have a Mini Southard and it is everything you state in this review and more. It's easily the most comfortable in hand knife I've ever handled.

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  3. *Says he will be on and off for the next couple months*
    *Pumps out a buttload of content on Alloutdoor and Everyday Commentary*

    Keep up the good work Tony. I've always been reluctant with these modded knives because they are in a gray area. What if you need to have warranty work done? Let's say for whatever reason you get lock rock, and it's not from ridiculous abuse. Spyderco won't accept it. Can Kevin, or any other modder for that matter, fix lock play (or again, any other issue that might rise) on a knife where the "bones" are not his?

  4. I'm so excited to have gotten on his books for a Southard miniaturization job. Also, I managed to get the Southard I'm gonna send him for just $170 on Amazon (they sold a small batch at a low price for some reason).

  5. This seems like a quantum improvement over the stock Southard, well worth paying for.

    Re: Gareth Bull Shamwari. I was surprised to see you latching on to that maker's work, and a bit gobsmacked that your video didn't say a word about the extensive backstory. For one thing, less than two years ago Bull was apparently unanimously expelled from the Knifemakers Guild of South Africa for repeated failures to timely fulfill customers' orders (at least some of which were fully or partially paid) and to communicate normally with customers. There is some indication that he has improved recently; still, don't you think this is extremely relevant?

    Links: (KGSA expulsion letter apparently reproduced)

    Especially given the pro-consumer scrutiny you have rightly applied (on a variety of grounds) to concerns as diverse as Optics Planet, Bushidomosquito, and Lummi.

    1. Technical correction: it's the Knifemakers' Guild of South_ern_ Africa. Bull is not listed as a current member.

    2. Thanks for the info. I missed that stuff in my background search. I'll ask him about it.

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