Friday, April 3, 2015

SAK Modder Custom Pioneer Review

If you are a bit like me, your favorite page on a custom knifemaker's site is, invariably, the one labeled "Shop Tour."  I am a person that loves being in his shop and so when I look at other shops I always pick up a tip or two.  One really cool experience is going to the someone else's shop in person.  You can learn a lot, not just about their work, but HOW they work from their shop.  One fun experience I had when I went to a furniture restorer's shop is just walking in and standing there, trying to figure out why everything was where it was.  It made no sense to me, I just couldn't figure out what he was doing.  Then I stepped out of the way, he got saddled up to the bench and suddenly everything became clear.  What I saw as a hindrance (a rack in the middle of the bench) became a huge boon--as soon as he was done with a rag it would go there either for another pass with the same finish or to dry out and not explode.  And it was like this again and again--as I saw the man work, a man who had restored furniture for more than twenty and maybe even thirty years, it was apparent that everything was done with a purpose.   

So too with a Swiss Army Knife.  From the perspective of the modern knife, it appears to be woefully antiquated--beleaguered by old designs and outdated materials.  But, like all things rounded into shape by the currents of time and experience, nothing is accidental.  The steel is soft, like butter knife soft, but its like that because the steel is cheap, highly corrosion resistant, and easy as pie to sharpen.  The soft steel, in the hands of someone with even a modicum of sharpening skill (such as myself) can remain razor like for a very long time.  Its not maintenance-free, but my SAKs are as sharp as any knife I own for the very reason that they are easy to sharpen.  Then there is the nail knick opener.  Its not fidget friendly like a flipper or elegant like a Spyderco Hole.  But it works to open the knife and it makes the knife much more people friendly and more broadly legal.  Victorinox, which now owns both Victorinox and Wenger, doesn't have to make different knives for different jurisdictions.  One knife does it all.  And then there is the lack of a pocket clip.  I will confess, this is the omission that bothers me the most, but with two great handle materials--Cellidor and Alox--Victorinox can get away no clip.

But for all there utility and time-tested greatness, there was no knife that matched my ideal set up and so I turned to the booming and robust custom SAK market once again (here is the review of my custom Rambler, a jewel I still own and delight in).  There are quite a few folks that do custom work, Swiss Bianco and SAK Modder being the two most notable.  One of my internet friends, Mario from the now defunct sticktodrum YouTube channel, recommended SAK Modder.  I contacted him, Robert Lessard is his real name, and away I went.  I wanted an Alox-handled knife with scissors and a clip added.  Not too complicated.  I have no idea why Victorinox doesn't offer a knife in this configuration, but they don't.  After some back and forth I had my order straight--a Pioneer, with custom blue anodizing, an over the top clip, and scissors.  This was in addition to the normal SAK Modder upgrades--screwed (instead of pinned) handles and new heavier duty backsprings.

Here is the stock Pioneer's product page.  As seen here, the mod cost exactly $200--about 40% was the Pioneer and the "donor" knife.  The other portion was parts and labor.  That is about five times the cost of a stock Pioneer, but a bargain compared to other heavy mod items I have purchased.  As this is a custom order there is no product page or reviews.  Here is my custom Pioneer (purchased with my own money and bound to remain in my collection until the end of time):


Twitter Review Summary: So good it made me want to sell the rest of my EDC gear...

Custom Maker Feedback:

As I have done in the past, I want to give you some feedback on the purchasing experience. SAK Modder was, in a word, perfect.  He was fast, clear, and shipped on deadline.  He is, in my experience, in that upper echelon of custom goods providers that, until now, had only one person in it--Don McLeish aka McGizmo.  If you want a McGizmo light, contact Don, send the money, and the light is one its way.  I ordered the giveaway Haiku, all those years ago, and it arrived two days after the PayPal was sent.  And it was coming from Hawaii. 

My other experiences have been good, but not like that.  Tuff Thumbz took a very long time, but was communicative and responsive.  Smock also took a long time, but again, was communicative and responsive.  Then there are the other custom makers I have orders with--they have me on a list and my name might come up in a year or two or whenever they get around to making knives.  It is part of the process, tied to the fact that they are essentially craftsmen and not business people.  It doesn't bother me, but it seems less than ideal.

SAK Modder was another experience entirely.  I contacted him at the beginning of November and I had the tool by mid to late November.  He emailed me, gave me prices, made the knife, and then sent me a PayPal invoice and picture.  It was that simple.  Three weeks from start to finish.  SO DAMN AWESOME!  Now I will confess--modding a SAK is not as hard as making a knife from scratch, but the increased wait time is not commensurate with the difficulty increase.  SAK Modder just has his stuff lined up, he knows the process, and he communicates well.  

I could not have asked for a better experience. 

Design: 2

Like a lot of what is good about this tool, it starts with the fundamentally solid production model.  The Pioneer, a tool slightly bigger than the Cadet, is a damn fine knife-based multitool.  The slim Alox handles and the just right collection of tools makes it very good.  The blade is a good size as well.  But...well...I can't get around the fact that I want scissors on a knife-based multitool.  You have to have scissors.  And, since this is a genie-granting-me-wishes scenario, I also want a pocket clip.  Then bang, I have both.  SAK Modder's improvements are both important and well done.  The production model would be a 2, so this one is clearly a 2. 

The tool:weight is good at 2.47 (8 tools:3.24 ounces).   This is always a bit dishonest with SAKs because you have to count that silly notch that, in theory, is a wire stripper.  Nonetheless, this is a compact took capable to doing a lot of work and the tool:weight is representative of the overall feel. 

Fit and Finish: 2

Victorinox has superior fit and fit to begin with, but with SAK Modder's diligent improvements, the tool is taken to another level.  First there is the deep blue anodizing, unlike anything you can find from the factory, both in terms of color and in terms of durability.  This is a deep sapphire blue that seems to be as tough as tank paint.

But the touches go beyond surface treatments.  Instead of pinned construction, like from the factory, the SAK Modder Pioneer comes with screw construction, allowing you to take the knife apart if needed.  Here are the torx head screws:


Then there are the new backsprings.  The scissors snap in and out of place with the walk and talk of a fine traditional knife.  I am simply blown away.  

Theme: 2

The Pioneer, in stock form, is a slightly larger Cadet with awl--clearly designed as a compact, knife-based EDC multitool.  But the omission of scissors is baffling.  With them in place, and the addition of a pocket clip, you'd be hard pressed to find a more compact EDC multitool with as full functioning of a blade as the Pioneer has.  Its simply an alox and steel sandwich of awesome:


Grip: 2 

The Alox texture and the overall form factor of the Pioneer is wonderful.  The size and shape of the new, slightly thicker knife is probably about as nice as you can get in a SAK--not too thin and not too thick--just right.  I wouldn't baton with the Pioneer, but in role, as a SAK, its great. 

Carry: 2

SAKs always carry well, but never rest at the top of the food chain for me, because absent the money clip model, none have a pocket clip.  Though I like the scissors a great deal, for me the clip is the addition that made the customizing cost worth the money.  When you add the clip to the slender cigar shape you have EDC heaven.


Finding a better carrying SAK will be very hard to to--tough, damaging hiding scales, great size and shape, and an awesome over the top pocket clip. 

Materials: 2

I love Alox.  I love the new Type III HA.  Owning and carrying this thing extensively since November and here is the only noticeable ding in the anodizing.


See it?  It is at the very end of the second row of squares from the bottom all the way over to the right.  See it?  Oh, okay, never mind.  GREAT job here.

I also, in role, like the 1.4116 steel.  As I referenced above, its soft.  Really soft.  But it is so easy to sharpen...well, let's just say I know I can get it as sharp as I need for any task, despite my rudimentary sharpening skills.

Deployment/Accessibility: 2

When you customize a SAK you are tinkering with a very refined design.  The addition of a tool could throw the whole balance off and result in a tool wad that has pokey stuff in the wrong place and is impossible open up.  SAK Modder knew exactly how to add the scissors and the overall result is a still wonderfully accessible multitool.  

Retention Method: 2

Simple.  Over the top and deep carry.  Its perfect for a SAK.  Keep moving...


Tool Selection: 2

I have said this before, like in the PS4 review, but you just can't get around it--multitools of any kind NEED scissors.  The Cadet was so good, so darn near perfect that I still recommend it more than any other piece of kit, but with scissors this custom SAK moves in to hallowed territory occupied by some of my favorite gear--the Dragonfly 2, the Aeon, the HDS Rotary, and the 940-1--this is thing is awesome.  


One thing I am not certain of is the awl.  It is a good awl and I have used as a clam shell cutter quite often, but I am still not 100% it is necessary.  If you can fit it in without losing anything else, like SAK Modder did (he actually left it in place), why not?  But it still has limited utility for me.  

Tool Performance: 2

With SAK Modder's custom backspring, the entire unit is completely factory perfect and on a SAK that means something.  This is a very solid knife, a very solid pair of scissors, and a very solid everything else.  Even as a Phillips driver, it is pretty good, though not as good as a dedicated Phillips driver. 


Everything is very good and all together this is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

Overall Score: 20 out of 20

I am not sure why it doesn't score a perfect.  It might.  I might come back to this review and update it.  As of now, its just freaking amazing, which should be enough to make it in to your pocket.  The more often I carry this the more I am aware of the fact that I don't technically need a whole lot more than this tool to get me by.  I don't REALLY need some giant flipper, though they are fun.  I don't really need a massive Charge TTi, though I feel better knowing I have one.  And in a way the SAK Modder Pioneer proves the truth of an idea I have had in my head for a while--the test of how great a piece of kit is is how much it makes you want to sell the rest of the stuff you have.  In the end, if I ever leave the gear world or fate hits me with a financial sucker punch, this is probably the last thing that will go.  Its so useful, so people friendly, and so darn well made it just might be the best multitool around. 


  1. This thing can have better fit and finish than a Sebenza, but it still isn't the best multitool around. The Charge TTI you mentioned has 19 tools (including the all-essential PLIERS) to this thing's 8 (including the notch 'wire stripper'). And it costs less. And it has better materials. And you can get a pocket clip without having to go custom. Yes, it's heavier and less sheeple-friendly (I apologize for using this specific term, but you know what I mean). But it is simply a more useful tool. Don't get me wrong, I can see what you're trying to say (Hell, I'd have one myself if I had a spare $200). But be careful how you use the word 'best'. It can have far-reaching implications.

    1. This tool is so much easier to carry on you than the comparatively massive Charge TTi. I have both and this gets carried much more often. More tools doesn't equal better.

    2. Very true. But allow me to ask you, would you rather have something that's light, or something that can do all the jobs you need it to do? I get that the weight of the Charge is an issue (in this sense, there's an argument to be made for the beloved Skeletool), but in a multitool utility should be the primary concern. Weight, though important, is secondary.

    3. Very true, that's why I EDC my 30 lb. toolbox. Better to be able to every job than quibble about weight.

  2. Nice review! I had SAK Modder make me a pioneer with just the main blade, awl, and scissors. Perfectly slim, with my top three SAK tools. I don't have much use for a bottle or can opener and personally I find uses for the awl all the time - it saves the tip of my knife from poking, scraping, prying up staples, etc.

  3. I have both a Cadet and Pioneer based on reviews and referrals from this site. They are both fine tools just the way they are. What I am suprised by is that SAK did not tap the modder or tinkerer market. It would certainly increase their popularity with the EDC fan base. I imagine there are liability issues with doing that.

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  5. Really cool tool and writeup. I actually get this one. I can see why you'd drop two bills to get the SAK experience Exactly Right.

    One additional reason the soft SAK knife steel isn't a problem is they grind those things well. My alox SAKs have all had clean, surprisingly acute main blade grinds, and the geometry really helps the soft steel go the extra mile.

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  7. I was lucky enough to find a perfect regular SAK for me, the Wenger EvoGrip 18. I would never go for a custom SAK, since I can't afford one and stay happy with myself. I would always look at it and think I had spend such an amount of money for it. Don't get me wrong, I love custom knives and I have one which was a gift and consider priceless. But for a SAK I've been using daily for several years, I wouldn't be able to live relaxed if it was that special.

    I actually think you should have selected the Wenger scissors, as they are far superior. Other than that, a great article as always. Keep up the good work.

  8. My comment got eaten up by the internet twice!

    I requested a mod from Robert (Syph on EDCF) just over a year ago, and I basically yelped when I saw your setup. I asked for a Pioneer base, blue alox scales, a pocket clip and scissors. The only difference is that I have the file and Philips from the Cadet instead of the awl.

    It is now the only knife I actually EDC. Perfect toolset, compact and carries like a dream, looks classy, and it's non-threatening because everybody knows what a SAK is. If I'm at home, sure, I'll pick up the Spyderco that's lying on my desk and save two seconds, but otherwise? This thing is all I need.

  9. What a great knife. Some sort of Swiss Army knife has been in my pocket since I was in High School, and they're the most useful bit of kit you can own. I think spending good money on a "perfect" model is well worth it for how often you'll use it.

    I carry an Alox Bantam. It's the same size as the cadet, but only has a knife, and a combo bottle/can opener. It's super slim and light so you can carry it no matter what you wear (great since I wear a suit 5 days a week). Still I do really miss scissors...

  10. "We shall not cease from exploration, and in the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

    T.S. Eliot

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  13. I think the "awl" is one of the most useful tools. It is actually a reamer. It does an awesome job of making round holes. Very useful if you need to use zip ties to make a repair or fasten something.

    Jam and twist and it will actually ream a pretty nice hole in plastic, wood or light guage metals.

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  22. Note that SAK now has the Pioneer X that comes with the scissors. Perhaps they read this blog too!