Saturday, August 22, 2015

Gerber 39 Micarta Review

I think you know by now that Gerber has been on a downhill trajectory for a long, long time.  In the 80s they were the best knife company out there, or at least one of the best.  They were the first to use ATS-34 steel.  They brought the Axial Lock to market--twice.  They were the go to tools for US military contracts (and still are to a certain degree).  In short, Gerber earned its moniker, "Legendary Gear", in the 1980s.  After the purchase by Fiskars they went downhill.  In recent years they have dominated two places--Big Box and the government's product safety recall list.  Gerber, since about 2000, has been synonymous with another g word--garbage.

In 2014 they released a knife that did the rounds at Shill Sites, called the Gerber 39.  It was a half-baked piece of trash, 420HC steel, ZINC handles and a price tag near $100.  Only hipsters were interested.  For the rest of us, it was something to avoid.  I had, at the time, dismissed it as yet another attempt by Gerber to take our money out of our pockets and replace it with dog shit knives.  But I was wrong.  The 39 was the first in a series, a herald of something better.  That better thing is this knife, the Gerber 39 Micarta, which is really just a description of the design and not a name.

When I saw the specs and the materials I was interested and so I reached out to Blade HQ and they sent me a review sample.  Then I had what I have now started calling in my head a "Gerber Moment".  I slid the knife out of the box and saw that it was beat up, dinged and scraped.  I opened and it was a little gritty.  Then I tried to close it and I couldn't.  The blade was so off centered that it would not close, absent some truly uncomfortable exertions of force.  That's the Gerber Moment--its playing roulette with a product's fit and finish.  You can score big--like my Dime; or you can strike out--like with the first 39 Micarta.  I contacted Blade HQ and they said I could just keep the knife and do what I want with it, so I decided to make a warranty claim.  

Here is the product page. The Gerber 39 Micarta costs $109.95, though MSRP is an insane $170. There are no written or video reviews.  This is the first.  Here is Gerber's stupid product video where the "model" points out all kinds of things that are just patently obvious (go hire Andrew, please, Gerber).  Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Gerber 39 Micarta, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Here is my review sample:

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Twitter: Find a good retailer with a good return policy and give it a try. 

Warrranty Experience:

The initial review sample that came from Blade HQ, as you can see in this video, was fundamentally broken.  The blade was so off centered that it wouldn't close.  There were also dings, knicks, and scratches to the entire knife out of box.  If it had been centered I would have kept the knife, but as it was, the knife was unuseable.  Gerber's warranty claim process is simple enough, go to the site and fill out a form (it is as if they have done this many, many times before...).  I packaged the knife and sent it in.  Within two weeks I had an entirely new knife, one without major flaws.  

Overall the process was good.  It was not like a custom maker, which I am fine with, but it was also well below what Benchmade does, with their dual, receipt and shipped, emails.  With an infrastructure as large as Gerber has you'd think they'd at least do something like that with automated messages (Benchmade's are sent by real people).  Oh well. Good but not great.

Design: 2

There is no denying it, this is a very good looking knife.  Yes, I know the "high density polymer" bolsters are just plastic bolsters, but the combination of the bolster, the contoured, rough micarta and the bead blasted hardware is just impossible to ignore.  After a metric ton of ugly tripe, Gerber has hit the nail on the head with this one.  Some folks on Instagram complained that it looked like the Emerson Mini A-100 and they are right, but that is not a bad thing.

But its not just a pretty knife, this is a knife with some real design chops.  First, the pocket clip/lanyard attachment is the unique and highly functional.  Second, I like the choice of thumb disk, as it reduces the width of the knife, keeping it slim for high pocketability.  Finally, I like the placement of the very nice Gerber logo on the pivot screw.  Its stylish and yet they had the foresight to make the other side a conventional torx bit fastener.  

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The performance ratios are decent, neither smoking good or dreadful.  Here is the 39 on top of the badge of hipster, the Field Notes notebook:

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The performance ratios are quite good, definitely a step up from the previous 39 series knife which weighed 4.1 ounces because of the zinc handles.  The blade:handle is very good at .77.  The blade:weight is .86.  The blade:handle is the same or better than the SOG Flash 1.  The blade:weight is similar to the Cold Steel Mini Recon 1

Fit and Finish: 0

So the initial review sample was so poorly made that it was not just a bad knife, it was dangerous to use--the blade just refused to go back into the handle.  The knife was also covered in dings and scratches as if it had been in a rock tumbler for a few days.  There were dings on the "polymer" bolster and chips on the spine of the blade.  The micarta was beat up.  In short, it was the worst finished product I have ever reviewed, except perhaps for the Gerber 600 multitool, which will forever hold that title.  

The new knife was great.  Here is the only flaw:

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The blade is a smidge off centered, nothing bad, but enough to notice and comment on. I would probably have given the knife a 2 in this category had the second knife been the one that slid out of the initial box.

Grip: 2

Well, the rough cut, contoured micarta works amazingly well in the hand.  The result is a knife that is surprisingly grippy even in moist environments, such as at the top of a mountain shrouded in fog.  I took the knife with me on a hiking vacation in Maine and one particular hike was like climbing on stage at a rock concert--fog everywhere.  The lunch at the top of the peak was delicious (as they always are) and the cutting duties were performed by the Gerber 39 Micarta.  It did fabulous.

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Over the years I have really come to love micarta.  I loved it, all slick and polished up, on the Al Mar Ultralight Hawk, but I also like it here with its extra gritty feel that is grippy but not shreddy.  There is a reason micarta is a knife handle material classic.

Carry: 2 

Thanks to a slim silhouette and an excellent placement of the pocket clip, the 39 Micarta rides well in the pocket.  It is not much of a bully either as the "polymer" (and yes, I am going to use quotes every time I make reference to them) bolsters are much more polite to fellow pocket dwellers than real metal bolsters would be.  Overall, for a knife with a blade over 3 inches, this is an excellent carry.

Steel: 2 

S30V is still a good steel.  Its no longer great.  Its not near the top of the scale.  Its not even the best among the steels I give a score of 2 to, but it is still a very good and definitely above average steel.  Here, I feel as though Gerber has benefited from years of others perfecting the processing and treating of S30V because I had none of the chipping issues I have encountered in the past.  Even in dirty tasks like whittling sand-filled driftwood (we are reading Harry Potter with my oldest son and he wanted fifty million wands).  I wouldn't pay a premium for S30V, not when something like the Native 5 in FRN runs S35VN for under $100, but as a steel, in a price vacuum, its definitely good enough for most users, including me.

Blade Shape: 2

A classic, drop point with a front swedge.  No BS, no recurve (its just a poor grind).  The blade shape is just right.  I was worried from pictures that Gerber was tempted to go all funky and drop a recurve on this thing (oh, like its not possible they'd do something that stupid), but they didn't.  Good choice Gerber.

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Grind: 2

The main grind is fine.  Even, smooth, with symmetrical plunge lines.  But the cutting bevel is something done by an inexperienced and/or drunken blade grinder.  It does not go all the way to the ricasso, leaving about 1/8 of an inch totally unsharpened.  I suppose I could have it reprofiled to take advantage of the whole length of the blade.  Its not just that it is unfinished either, its also a bit wobbly as you can see in the picture above.  Its as if they didn't know how and when to terminate the cutting bevel.  All of this points to a need for increased finishing steps.  If Gerber is going to sell this blade at around $100, they need to get things like this 100% or people, like me, are going to bitch.  But for all of the silliness here, the grind mistakes don't impact performance.  The knife passed the Apple Test with ease, producing nice, clean slices.  Sure, I'd like more cutting edge if I can get it, but what is there does work.  

Deployment Method: 2 

In many ways thumb disks are, by straight comparison, superior to thumb studs.  Not only do they allow for a lower profile knife, they also give your thumb a place to rest in pressing cuts.  Here, the octagonal thumb disk is very good-easy to hit on purpose, hard to snag by accident.  I actually like more than the Emerson thumb disk or the Cold Steel thumb plate.  The shape not only gives it a different look, it prevents rotation, something that happens on thumb disks as the screw that holds in place loosens.  Good job Gerber.
 
Retention Method: 2 

For all their flaws, big companies can do some things consistently well.  In this case the pocket clip is just excellent.  It is also a very unique design.  And that is the advantage of being huge.  You can hire someone to do JUST design work and another person to do JUST blade grinds, so on and so forth.  Not only is the pocket clip surprisingly subtle given some of Gerber's previous choices, the lanyard loop is the best design I have ever seen.  Threading paracord through is a cinch.  And best of all, the clip is pretty darn simple.  No curly "q's" or weird protrusions.
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Lock: 1

Alas, Gerber's chintzy knife heritage of the past decade or so rears its head somewhere and here it is the lock.  Let me get this out of the way first--the lock works, there is no blade play, and it does not touch the other liner.  What I am about to complain about is merely the impression the lock gives you as a user.

First, it seems especially thin, give the nice, full dimensions of the rest of the knife. Second, like many cheap liner locks, it pushes the blade off center.  If I wedge something into the handle to keep the blade and liner lock from touching and hold the liner lock back, the blade falls dead center.  On nicer locks, the liner does not do this. Third, the lock passes very far over on the rear tang of the knife.  Here is a shot:

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I am also less than thrilled with the lock's accessibility.  This is simply not enough room:

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But again, all of these things have little to no impact on performance.  Some are just feel issues and others presage future potential problems.  But in all of the important ways the lock works--its stable, easy to engage, and easy to disengage (but for the accessibility thing).  

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

This is a very good folder, even in this market stuffed to the gills with great pieces.  It is unique looking in its price range (it clearly echoes the look of a custom Emerson). It works well. And it has some very unique features.  Even the problems--the lock and the grind--are very minor points.  The bigger issue is the gamble you play with the fit and finish on Gerber products.  It is a roll of the dice.  You can get a very good rendition of the original design or a warped and broken object.  So, if you have an interest in this knife find a good retailer that will let you return things, and try it out.  It is definitely worth a look.

Gerber has the ability to do amazing stuff and the 39 Micarta is proof of that.  This is not just a good knife, it is a very good knife.  I am not sure if this is a good thing though because they continue to put out boat loads of garbage.  What's worse: a company that makes crappy stuff or a company that can make awesome stuff, but chooses to make crap?

Regardless of the business implications, this is a knife I feel good recommending to folks.  It is different and very nicely designed.  The blade is not just serviceable, but very good.  I am still worried about the fit and finish across the product line, but if you get a good one, you'll be happy.  And given my very public dislike of Gerber you know it has to be good for me to give it a good score.

The Competition

Boy there is a lot of stuff in the $100 price range.  I'd always, always, always take the Native 5 in FRN over this knife--its lighter, better designed, and has a strictly superior steel.  But if you are considering the 39 Micarta it is because you want something that looks different and in that regard the Native 5 fails.  I am also worried that there is no reason to but this knife over the Benchmade Mini Grip, but here the steel difference is probably enough to say that its close.  I like the Mini Grip better, but its not a landslide, and that is really a complement for the 39 Micarta.  I also think the Kizer 3404 is a very competitive choice, but again it is a different style of knife.   The bigger take away is this--Gerber is finally making a knife that can hang with the big boys, even if it is not the clear best in class.

7 comments:

  1. Dang, 17/20 is WAY better than I was expecting for this knife having read and seen what you'd said about it on Instagram. I'm always surprised when Gerber does anything right any more, but I suppose even a broken clock is right twice a day. This design and details don't speak to me at all. The unfinished sloppy blade grind shouts "gas station knife." The fit and finish issues would've had me asking for a refund, not a replacement. The labels on the blade and pivot are tacky. You're literally drowning in choice around $100. This thing is WAY too close to the price tag of a Paramilitary2, an S110V Manix2 Lightweight, the Native5 Lightweight, and so many other great choices. I admire them reaching higher, but if they're going to build a $100 ($170 MSRP) knife they need to give design and F&F more than lip service. I admire you for giving them the time to do a review, LOL. Great read Tony.

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  2. Dang, 17/20 is WAY better than I was expecting for this knife having read and seen what you'd said about it on Instagram. I'm always surprised when Gerber does anything right any more, but I suppose even a broken clock is right twice a day. This design and details don't speak to me at all. The unfinished sloppy blade grind shouts "gas station knife." The fit and finish issues would've had me asking for a refund, not a replacement. The labels on the blade and pivot are tacky. You're literally drowning in choice around $100. This thing is WAY too close to the price tag of a Paramilitary2, an S110V Manix2 Lightweight, the Native5 Lightweight, and so many other great choices. I admire them reaching higher, but if they're going to build a $100 ($170 MSRP) knife they need to give design and F&F more than lip service. I admire you for giving them the time to do a review, LOL. Great read Tony.

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  3. Why they have chosen to not properly name this knife... just bewildering. Especially when the other 39 series shares nothing in common with it, and sucks. I still like Gerber, but I think they need to do a very important little shift to get some esteem back: Have the brand 'Gerber' make all their great US products (The EZ Out S30V, Strongarm, LMF2, even the MP1 multitool are brilliant products I have all owned and used extensively) and then gave a separate brand to peddle their cheap chinese and Bear Grylls stuff. Like Byrd or Boker Plus. That way we'll have a premium brand we can root for and a cheap brand that might pleasantly suprise us from time to time for the big box stores and people who don't care.

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  4. This has to be the most positive knife review ever to include the phrases "dog shit knives" and "a metric ton of ugly tripe." :) Fun read, with twists and turns in the plot.

    We did not miss the nuance that the first knife was so appalling that the F&F score still rounds down to 0 even though the second knife was mostly good. Seems right.

    I agree that micarta is great. As a plastic laminate layered with paper or cotton, it literally straddles the line between synthetic and traditional materials. Micarta has most of the advantages you expect from a modern synthetic yet it reads as old school and classy, uniquely among synthetics (I mean, unless you assume a VERY knowing, fashionista audience and count vintage Bakelite).

    It strikes me as underused. GEC's micarta handled traditionals are outstanding and sell out fast. Case used to use micarta; they need to get back on the bandwagon. Way more appropriate than the G10 or carbon fiber they play with today. I want a blue micarta Sodbuster.

    AG Russell has his proprietary blend "Rucarta," which is quite pleasant, even on his Chinese knives, and comes in fun colors.

    CRKT used micarta on the McGinnis knives.

    As you noted, Al Mar's iconic "bird" line mostly feature posh black micarta scales. Nothing else suits those knives so well.

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  5. Know how I know this score is way too high? It sticks out like a sore thumb among all the other knives reviewed that got 17s.

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  6. Had it lost a point for design (it's ugly and looks like meyerco tried to copy an emerson) and for the grind, 15 would be a more realistic number.

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