Is it fair to say our Golden Age of Gear has led to decline-of-Rome decadence? SHOT has come and gone, and IWA, and with most of the rest of the year in knives a known quantity, I find it hard to get excited about much. The meaningful profligacy of a few years ago is gone, replaced by a tiring fixation on framelocks, flippers, titanium, and Rick Hinderer. That is not to say that quality is not there, of course; just that I don’t find anything in designs like the ZT0392 or the Kershaw Shield comparable to the paradigm shifts that were the ZT0560 or the Skyline. We don’t want for quality, but I think we’re lacking in innovation.
Running parallel to this stagnancy is the resurgence of traditional knives. Steeped in history, fairly affordable, eminently collectable, and in terms of EDC utility not far removed from (and, in a lot of cases, better than) modern folders, traditionals have positively exploded in popularity in the last few years.
At the forefront of this resurgence is Great Eastern Cutlery. Founded in 2006, but with an industry lineage that goes back much farther than that, GEC has spent the last 9 years cementing its reputation as one of the very finest manufacturers of traditional knives. And among the many GEC models, few are as iconic and sought-after as the Tom’s Choice Barlow.
The TC Barlow comes from what is known as an SFO, or special factory order; essentially, a production commission from somebody to make a certain number of a certain knife to their specifications.
The TC Barlow is the brainchild of Charlie Campagna, and is a love letter to the Barlow knife (in fact, there is a literal love letter on the tube it comes packaged in); as such, it is the platonic ideal Barlow, an embodiment of all the qualities that make the pattern not only historically relevant, but useful to this day.
Here is the product page. The TC Barlow is not currently available anywhere except the secondary market; there, it will usually run you circa $150-200, depending on condition, cover materials, blade shape, etc.
Here is a link to Tony’s overview of the TC Barlow. And here is a link to Knives Ship Free, which, while it currently does not have the TC, has an amazing selection of GEC models, including the #15 Huckleberry Boy’s Knife, the pattern of which the TC is a variation. Here is the TC Barlow (originally Tony’s, now mine):
Twitter Review Summary: Lovely, functional, and unique, the TC Barlow is required reading for traditional knife users.
One of the oldest and most functional knife patterns in the world; what else is there to say?
I appreciate that this model has only one blade. Extra blades add unnecessary width and mess with the ergos of the knife. I can’t imagine any general EDC task that can’t be accomplished by a single, utilitarian blade, and I’m glad that this particular TC has just that.
Second, I really dig the long pull nail mark. Other iterations of the TC have the standard crescent nail mark, which is fine, but the long pull provides a lot more texture, and, along with the firm-but-not-tyrannical backspring and thicker than normal blade stock behind the swedge, facilitates a much easier opening than, say, my 2014 Indian River Jack.
Finally, the blade kick is pronounced enough to form a kind of forward finger choil, which helps with precision cuts and detail work.
Blade:handle is decent too, at .74.
All in all, the finest interpretation of the Barlow I’ve had the pleasure of using.
Fit and Finish: 2
This is a “warm” finish, as on the custom knives I’ve handled: everything is rounded over and smooth, and gives the impression of having been gone over by hand.
This quality actually contributes to the TC’s performance (which I’ll detail below), but suffice it to say for now it’s excellent. The red soup bone covers meet the end of the bolster perfectly, and the dye in the bone is even and rich. It’s hard to discern that the bolsters and liners are not a single piece of metal, they’re so tightly fitted together. This is the first GEC I’ve handled, but if this is any indication of their attention to detail, it’s easy to see why they have such an avid fan base.
The Barlow pattern has always had excellent ergos, and I like the TC Barlow’s in particular.
It is just large enough to accommodate four fingers without any awkwardness, and the smoothed-over finish really lends the handles some “phantom volume” in the hand; that is, without actually being a wide knife, it fills the hand nicely. The pseudo-choil (that sounds like the name of some Lovecraftian monstrosity), which I mentioned above, is also appreciated.
Like most traditional knives, the TC Barlow carries quite well. The worry-stone smoothness allows the TC Barlow to vanish at the bottom of your pocket.
Its smoothness also ensures that it won’t damage anything else you’re carrying around, either; a polite, genteel companion.
This was a tough one.
As you probably already know, most of the knives GEC puts out are made of 1095, a tried-and-true carbon steel. I’ll get this out of the way first: despite it being the de facto choice for traditional knives, using 1095 for a blade in 2015 is not just an interesting exercise in history; it is an adequate steel, with many admirable qualities. I’ve found that it’s fairly tough, and maintains a useable, though not razor sharp, edge for a long time; in addition, it responds very well to sharpening and stropping; much like the X90C steel on an Opinel, you can get the TC to a razor edge quickly and easily. The more I use knives, the less I care about edge retention and the more I care about sharpenability.
Nevertheless it gets a 1. Not being stainless is, quite simply, a major con. That isn’t to say that it is hard to maintain, but the fact that it requires a level of maintenance beyond that of your standard stainless steel is a bummer. I like being able to throw a knife in my pocket, use it all day, and put it away without worrying about it. I understand that even stainless steels will rust, but in my experience it is far less of a concern. In a fixed blade, where I’m using it for specific chores in a specific setting, it’s not a big deal, but this is my everyday carry, and I don’t like that every time I use my TC, I worry about leaving moisture on the blade or in the joint. Additionally, I don’t like the taste that carbon steel knives give to food when you use them to slice it up.
Like I said, this was a tough category to score. 1095 is a legitimate choice, but I don’t think it’s ideal. I would just love to see GEC make some knives with a modern steel; I know they use 440C in some knives, and as ambivalent as I am about that steel I would prefer it to 1095 in the TC.
Blade Shape: 2
An easy 2. GEC has a very distinctive, very seductive clip point design, and I love it. A great tip, the perfect amount of belly, and a nice straight portion behind that. Most excellent.
Clean and lovely. The TC actually has a fairly thick stock behind the swedge, but it thins down dramatically behind the edge. That edge bevel is very short, but quite even, all the way through the belly to the tip, which is impressive. The point where the swedge grind begins is, as Tony pointed out in his overview, a little sharp, but it doesn’t affect carry or use at all, so I’m fine with it.
Grading on the “Traditional Knife Curve,” the TC deploys excellently well. The thicker blade stock makes pinching easier, and the long pull is much easier to work with than the crescent nail mark you see on most traditional knives. GEC also had the foresight not to bury the mark too close to the handle, so plenty of real estate is exposed. Real good.
Retention Method: 2
Again, we’re using the “Traditional Knife Curve.” A clip would be ludicrous here. The fact that the TC has nothing to mess up its lines is one reason it carries so well. A slip case, à la the IRJ, would be welcome, and you could always supply your own, but it isn’t necessary.
Lock/Blade Safety: 2
I haven’t owned enough traditional knives to rate the pull of the TC. I can tell you that it is stiffer than that of my Case Peanut, but looser than that of my Indian River Jack.
For me, it is just right. It snaps closed, open, and into its half stop with distinct tactile and auditory feedback. Additionally, that faux choil allows you to chock up beneath the kick and preclude any sort of accidental closing while cutting—which to begin with was a distant concern.
Overall Score: 19 out of 20
The TC Barlow is a delight. It is a pleasure to look at, hold, and use. It is hard to find, yes, and expensive when you do find it, but despite that, and despite its reputation as a collector’s piece, it is an indisputably great tool.
Like the IRJ, like all GECs and other traditional knives coming to us in this traditional knife revival, it not only reminds us of the relevancy of traditional knife patterns and design philosophies, but makes them exciting again.
EDITOR'S TAKE: Ben hit the bull's eye on this one. The knife is incredible. I like other blade shapes better than the clip point, but man is this one well done. This is not just a high fidelity version to the historic ideal, its also a very competent knife. I too am less than thrilled with 1095 on a thinnish blade. My score would be identical to Ben's for largely the same reasons.