Saturday, September 19, 2015

Brand Analysis: Benchmade

I thought it might be interesting if we take a look at each of the major knife brands (Benchmade, Buck, Boker, Cold Steel, CRKT, Gerber, KAI, Leatherman, SOG, Spyderco, and Victorinox) and see where they are, what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong, brand-wise.  I am a strongly brand agnostic person, avoiding cheerleading and outward signs of brand loyalty (no, I don't want a patch with my knife, just get me the knife please). This is a mix of fact and opinion.  The company history and the product line history are fact (or as close as I can get without financial data). The company's direction is opinion, as are which products are favorites.

Background

Benchmade is a relatively small company, still properly considered a specialty manufacturer in the knife industry.  It is probably one of the largest of the small companies, but it is not close to the size of KAI or Gerber (Fiskar).

Benchmade Knife Company, Inc. began life as Bali-Song, making balisongs in California in the late 1970s.  In the 1980s they changed their name to the Pacific Cutlery Company.  Eventually they moved to Oregon and became known as Benchmade Knife Company.  Benchmade is an entirely privately held company and thus there is no official documentation of their revenue or number of employees.  Most business investor evaluation sites have Benchmade's annual revenue pinned at between $20-$50 million a year and their staff as being something between 75-150 people.

Benchmade has been run since the beginning by Les De Asis and his wife Roberta.  Over time Les has been involved in the day to day operations of the company or had a person with business school training do the day to day stuff while he managed big picture things.  Currrently, Les is doing day to day work.  Inside the industry Les is known as a very affable person with a good knowledge of knives and someone that is particularly keen on learning more about business and management at the highest level.

Benchmade's US manufacturing is in Oregon.  In 2011 they expanded their production facility to 55,000 total square feet and the entire facility is LEED Gold Certified (LEED is an architectural environmental certification that stands for Leadership in Energy and Enivronmental Design; it is very prestigious and Gold, while below the pinnacle of Platinum certification, is an accomplishment).

Benchmade's Line Up

Benchmade makes folding knives, a few balisongs, a few autos, some fixed blades and one set of kitchen knives.  They sell pens as well.  These are of the tactical/Fisher refill variety.  They have a few safety cutters in their line up too.  Of course they sell a bunch of branded hats, t-shirts, and sweatshirts.

Benchmade makes or has made knives under a few different labels.  First, they have the main brand, Benchmade.  All of those knives (in their three product classes--Blue, Black, and Gold) are made in the US by Benchmade, not, to my knowledge, by an OEM.  They also produce H&K branded knives.  These knives are produced overseas by an OEM, and though it is not clear where, the steels used, 8CR, 9CR, and D2, indicate Chinese origins.  They used to have the Harley Davidson brand, but that license was not continued and now HD knives are produced by Case.

Benchmade's product line has been a jumbled mess for years now.  Entire lines are phased out, new "brands" invented, pushed, and then dropped.  And they have acquired brands only to kill them.  Following what is a Benchmade product and what is an OEM product sold by Benchmade has become VERY difficult.  

A few years ago the main line had four product cases--Red, Blue, Black, and Gold.  Red Class knives were overseas produced and were entry level knives.  Red line knives have been discontinued with a few models being integrated into the Blue line or the H&K line.  Blue Class knives were USA Made and were higher end, general use cutlery.  Black Class knives were also USA Made and were designed for "tactical" use.  Gold Class knives are highly embellished versions of other Benchmade knives, except for the kitchen knife set, which is exclusive to the Gold Class. 

In addition to the three classes and the licensed brand, in recent years Benchmade has launched not one but two hunting focused lines and it purchased an outdoor centered brand, Lone Wolf.  The initial hunting launch was a collaboration with the Bone Collector brand, which is better known for its hunting gear.  After a few years the collaboration ended.  The following year Benchmade launched its own sub-brand, Benchmade Hunt.  That brand has a selection of fixed blades and folders many with traditional looking materials (Dymondwood handles) and some nail knick openers.  

Benchmade has also had collaborations with other higher end product brands.  They produced a knife case with Gerstner (it was hideous--they decided to stain Gerstner's traditional honey oak a bright blue).  They are currently producing a co-branded version of the Valet with Shinola.  

Benchmade's main designers are in-house or at least brand exclusive folks like Warren Osborne and Joe Pardue.  Their external collaborations have been top notch.  They have knives designed by Shane Seibert, Allen Elishewitz, and Ken Stiegerwalt among others.   

Benchmade also offers a service that allows customers to choose a wide variety of parts and features on some of Benchmade's best selling knives such as either Griptillian or the Barrage.  In addition to choosing colors the customer can even choose the steel used.  The service, in my experience, was very good and only a small premium over a stock version of the knife.    

Best Designs

Benchmade's best seller is either of the two Griptillian designs, either the full sized Griptillian or the MiniGriptillian.

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We don't have sales data for any company so this is a guess.  Both are available in a wide variety of configurations.  These are very solid designs and among the best knives in their price range or for the size.  The only drawback, or at least the most common complaint, is that the handles feel plasticky or hollow.  I like both, but the Mini Grip is the sweet spot for me.  The Barrage and the Mini Barrage are also very good knives, though I prefer the thumb hole opener on the Mini Grip.  I like the Valet as well and it is probably the best EDC knife in the entire Benchmade line up.  Lots of folks that like bigger EDC knives rejoice for the 940 and my 940-1 is one of my all time favorite blades.

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The 940-1 might be the best Benchmade folder ever made.  

Folks have high praise for the Benchmade balisongs and some of the out of production versions go for massive premiums on the secondary market.  Similarly both Infidel models, their OTF switchblades, are well regarded.  Having handled some of the balisongs and both the regular and min Infidel I can say with confidence that their good reputations are well deserved.  

There are two out of production blades worth highlighting--the AFCK and the Aphid.  Both are truly awesome.  Some folks like the Blackwood collabs--the Ruckus and the Skirmish--but having handled both I can tell you both are underwhelming and not worth chasing down.  The AFCK on the other hand is worth chasing down, but collectors and users know how awesome it is and they rarely come up on the secondary market.

Brand Strengths

Benchmade's machining is some of the best in the business. They can do just about anything.  Their grinds are good, their handles are uniformly excellent.  They don't have the bleeding edge capacity of Lionsteel or the top flight fit and finish of Chris Reeve or Al Mar, but they can do just about anything with a CNC machine.

The Axis lock, a Benchmade exclusive (at least in theory, there are three or four variants that function identically and of course there are rip offs), is very good.  I don't think it is as strong as the Tri Ad lock, but it is plenty strong for anything you'd do with a folder.  

Benchmade, by in large, has a conservative approach to knife design, which is good when it comes to blade shapes.  All of their blade shapes are very solid, simple designs.  The worst you get is a silly swedge here or a missing ricasso there.  

Benchmade also does a very good job of choosing custom collaborators.  Their stuff with Shane Seibert, except for the Pocket Rocket, has been amazing.  Similarly their Elishewitz designs have been very good (love me the tan Ares) and the Steigerwalt stuff is just classic (the Torrent).  They need to reach out more often, but the people they pick are usually very talented.

Benchmade has a very strong brand, especially outside of the knife world.  For many folks, LEO/Mil/EMT types, Benchmade is synonmyous with "best knife".   The LEOs I have encountered at work all talk to me about Benchmades once my secret identity as the writer of this blog is revealed.  

Brand Weaknesses

Their conservative approach to knife design results is a huge number of knives that look and feel the same. Aside from some small variation in size or blade shape there are about twenty knives in the Benchmade line up that are essentially interchangeable.  The fanatic devotion to the Axis lock and the love of thumbstuds means there are just too many knives that are too similar.  The one flipper in the line up, the 300SN, is just awful.

The product line's shifting image is also a strong detriment to the overall brand.  The more brands Benchmade starts, stops, and buries, the harder it is for consumers to figure out what Benchmade itself stands for.  The use of OEMs and production of sub-brand knives, like H&K, has been handled very poorly and this confusion means that promises like "Made in the USA," which means a lot to some consumers, including me, are diluted.  This is the easiest problem for Benchmade to fix.  BE CLEAR.  BE CONSISTENT.  

Benchmade's prices, until the last year or so, have also been much higher than equivalent knives from other companies.  The so-called Benchmade Tax is real--there are more than a few knives that cost over $100 that run 154CM.  Three knives seem to be reversing that trend though, and let's hope it continues.  The Valet and the two 1095 choppers were both among the cheapest knives in their class, given the materials.  Neither were cheap, they were just very competitive.

Finally, Benchmade doesn't seem to follow trends or customer wants very well.  The lack of a framelock flipper is conspicuous when compared to KAI, Spyderco, or CRKT's offerings.  They are not really paying attention.  Their Axis lock variant excited no one and the choppers while good designs and priced well, are definitely me too products.  Benchmade needs to start paying attention to what people want.  

Trending: Mostly Down

Benchmade's Valet is one of my favorite new knives this year, but it has been a very long time since that has been true.  And the Valet is not exactly breaking new ground.  It is just a solid design.  Among knife enthusiasts, few if any knives in the Benchmade line up are exciting.  Many are very good, but none capture the communities attention the way some of the ZT offerings have in the last few years.  Their absence from the podium at Blade Show indicates that others in the industry feel the same way.  This is a good brand, with world class capacity, but no direction and little indication that they are paying attention to the market.  Only the Valet and the choppers give me hope that they are trying to be relevant.  They have been the clearest loser in the Golden Age of Gear arms race--as KAI, Spyderco, and CRKT took off, Benchmade is still plugging away with its 40 or so Axis knives that are all basically the same.  

18 comments:

  1. Nicely written and pretty comprehensive. While I appreciate you including the recent miss that was the 300SN, the 761 was an EVER BIGGER whiff.

    This was their first attempt at a ball bearing pivot knife and who knows what the hell happened. The knives have almost no detent and the clip is a one position milled clip and it's right hand tip down only.

    Why Benchmade continues to make their framelocks tip down only is a mystery. I guess it's because most of their current designers are old school.

    The Benchmade tax is also super real at $330+ for this piece that would cost under $300 from anyone else.

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  2. Very ambitious. These analyses are going to be fun to read.

    I have little to add to this one except a +1. The 940 series and to an extent the Mini Grip are the benchmark Benchmades.

    Have you ever tried any of their rare forays into Ti framelocks, such as the BM 761? What did you think of the execution?

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  3. Great review and I look forward to the series.

    Have to say though, that I like how BM doesn't make framelocks. Never understood why people like them. Imo, they're ugly.

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  4. Enjoy your reviews but we have vastly different opinions on Benchmade and their quality. As a retired LEO and long term trainer and purchase officer my experience and many of my LEO co workers and friends have been regularly disappointed with their quality control and dull/poor edge designs. It's not just isolated examples and over time we shifted to Spyderco and KAI with much better results. The entire situation was made worse by their over priced and strict price controls with dealers and with large purchases.
    I'll leave it at that as you sound like you have a bromance with Benchmade so I doubt you'll seriously consider my regular and consistent poor results with many of their knives. I strongly advise your readers to consider other American owned knife companies before Benchmade.
    I'll close on a high note and again thank you for your hard work and informative reviews. It's just most of your Benchmade reviews cause me to think we're living on different planets though:)
    And I am not some disgruntled ex employee of Benchmade or have some personal vendetta against them. I really wish my/our experiences with them would have been HALF as good as yours sounds like. Keep up the good work young man!

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    1. No bromance here. Check the review of the 940-1. I took them to task for poor fit and finish. I also mentioned it in my Valet review.

      In the past, they have always done a good job, but over the last three or four years, things have gotten worse and I agree with what you are saying.

      It might be fair to say that Benchmade CAN do amazing work, but doesn't always.

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  5. Benchmade is just an odd company at this point... My main issues are:

    1. They still have very frequent fit and finish issues, including sloppy grinds and poor centering. Try and find someone who has bought a 710 that hasn't had poor centering or sloppy grinds. Even their M390 variants for Knife Works suffer from the same issues.

    2. They are so heavily invested in the Axis Lock that it is stifling brand creativity - it's 2015, NO ONE is impressed by the Axis Lock anymore. It's a good design, yes, but the flaws in it have been identified and it's clear that it's not the end-all, be-all of knife locks. No one wants another Axis Lock shoehorned into a knife just because Benchmade feels they have to do it to maintain brand identity. Also, the fact that your $80 knife has the exact same action as your $200 knife doesn't help people entirely feel like they're upgrading (materials aside) when they pay that much more money. Another issue with the Axis Lock is the weak blade retention. I think the general response to Hinderer's "reasoning" (excuse) for weak blade retention indicates no one is sold on the idea of having weak retention in their knives.

    3. Their presence in the knife community is NON-EXISTENT: it's amazing that they haven't had their forum shut down on BladeForums because they do not have a moderator. Someone from BM got in touch with Spark, had the forum opened, and then promptly disappeared after that. I think this explains why they're so out of touch with the interests of the contemporary knife community. When people had genuine questions about the MAAP pricing enforcement, they only got crickets. When they asked about why BM continues to use hideous layered G10 that no one wants, still nothing. The uproar about the continued use of tip down on their framelocks didn't even get a peep, even after the 761 pretty much bombed.

    I stopped being interested in Benchmade after I bought the much heralded 806 AFCK in M390 off the secondary market last year. I think I paid $275 for it, and was massively unimpressed. The fit and finish on the liners was poor (they didn't meet the G10 handles perfectly), the blade was ground too thick for only being 0.125", and as usual the grind lines were poorly finished underneath the stonewash. Not to mention it felt no different from any cheaper Benchmade in operation.

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    1. That's a pretty good run-down....

      On #1, I don't have a problem with Benchmade focusing on the Axis lock - after all, that's really what differentiates them from everyone else. But it SEEMS to me that they need to get a fresh take on that lock. I would imagine there are some designers out there - Anso, or Southard, or Slysz, or Rexford, or someone else - who could design a knife with an axis lock that looks different from what everyone else has done. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like BM continues to rely on the same in-house designers and that's the reason the designs are boring at this point.

      As much as I could complain about Spyderco's current strategy, it does seem like they have a better read on the current state of the knife maket than benchmade. They picked what is probably the height of a peak in the market to let a bunch of knife makers throw a bunch of off-the-wall designs out there in 2015, high-prices-be-damned. I would love to see what benchmade could do with an approach like that.

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  6. Fantastic article. I'm anxious to see your reviews of KAI and Spyderco. I like Benchmade but you really nailed just about everything wrong with the company. I'd add that their QC has dropped in the last few years. They have some fantastic knives like the 940, grips, and triage that more people should own, but they're simply priced 30-40$ too high compared to competitors all things considered.

    Another huge problem with BM knives is weight. Many of their designs seem to offer no advantage for the extra ounces they contain compared to competitor's designs or even their own offerings. They have the same issue KAI/ZT has imo, where several of their designs are near perfect but are 1.5 or so ounces too heavy with 1 or 2 niggling issues that hold then back. The ZT0562 for example should have milled liners and no finger grooves. BM has a lot of knives that could use slight improvements that would make them perfect.

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  7. I would like to add, as far as strengths, you could add BM'S customer service. You can buy replacement blades for most of their knives for 35$. They'll send out replacement pocket clips for free and you can even have them send multiple different clip styles. The life sharp service is offered for 5$. I've heard of BM completely going over and servicing knives that people found without purchasing them for free. They'll replace entire knives if the fit and finish are unacceptable. I don't know of many other companies that sell replacement blades.

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  8. I had an aphid and I absolutely loved it. I talked to Benchmade about a warranty repair for it and ultimately sent it in for repair. They looked at it and said they couldn't fix it and that it wasn't safe for me to use. And that they'd be keeping it. :(

    And that is how I came to no longer have an Aphid. :(

    And why I carry a Spyderco.

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    1. Wait.... Did they not send you a replacement?

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    2. sorry I can't tell if this got posted the first time. Sorry if double post.

      They gave me a gift card toward their store.

      I was able to purchase a knife (I didn't want) at MSRP. I then resold it for street value, barely getting out of that transaction the cash I had to put in over their gift card.

      So it was a net double loss for me. They took my aphid, and they gave me a gift card worth a net zero value for me.

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  9. I really like where this is going. This is the kind of non-review content I come here for between the reviews. +1 on seeing the Spyderco and KAI analysis. Are you going to do a full analysis for KAI as a whole, or do separate analyses for Kershaw and ZT?

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  10. Great read. To your point of brand inconsistency, I just saw their redesigned site. Much better interface, but no mention of gold class. Thanks for the effort and work.

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  11. Great idea for discussion among your readers. I own two BMs: a Mini-grip HG and an Ultralight 530. I like them both but they don't really make me want another Benchmade, which is kinda the opposite effect getting a new Spyderco has on me. All in all it is an uninspiring brand,

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    1. That's exactly how I feel about Spyderco! Every time I get one I just want more of them because they are amazing.

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  12. Great article Tony!

    My two cents...
    I have two Benchmade knives. I love them. The 940-1 and the REI Special Edition Gryptilian. Both developed issues with their screws, the Gryptilian when I took it apart to clean it and the 940-1 when I swapped clips (i had emailed them and they sent me four clips for free, pretty cool). Aargh! Sent them both in and they were quickly returned with almost all new hardware (one even had new scales).

    So, frustrations with F&F but great satisfaction with customer service (I didn't pay for any repairs). Long story short, your article really does ring true (unfortunately). Can't forget to give their custome service major credit though, very nice folks.

    Hope they turn things around, give us some exciting new designs and improve their quality control. I want to want another Benchmade, I just need a little help...

    Thanks and keep up the good work,
    Sully (really need to make a profile...)

    p.s. Spyderco and ZT are killing it, no doubt.

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  13. I had a recent issue with Benchmade clip screws stripping heads. Would never have predicted that.

    Very low quality, reminded me of the clip hardware on my $15 Chinese-made Kershaw Crown.

    That sort of tacky little quality shortfall hurts pride of ownership. It is Kryptonite when your brand identity is supposed to be "high quality made in USA, expensive but worth it" like Benchmade's.

    As another lone data point, it might be relevant that Tony's first 940-1 (a $250something knife) had atrocious F&F issues; see his review. The second one was immaculate.

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