Saturday, October 17, 2015

Angels on the Head of a Pin

Few things prompt me to groan more than the combination of the following words: knife plus Instagram plus controversy.  I feel like this is about as newsworthy or important as which celebrity with famously awesome abs is kissing another celebrity or what slutty former-ex-starlet crashed her car drunk or showed her snatch accidentally at some red carpet affair.  But this controversy is interesting because it illustrates where we are in the gear world right now.

Here is the nature of the row.  

Liong Mah contends that the Geoff Blauvelt produced a knife, the Switch, that is a copy of his knife, the Remedy.  For those that don't follow the knife community's characters, let me give you some background. 

Geoff Blauvelt, who was a guest on GGL, started out as a knife modifier and eventually made the switch to being a knife maker.  His first knife, the Tanic was a huge success, and still to this day, one of the more original looking knives.  Geoff's process involves design, production, and finish of batches of knives, models, produced to Geoff or the customer's liking.  Geofff does use some mass produced parts--screws and pivots--and he has some parts made for him--the handle scales and lockbars.  He has produced a few knives with mostly handmade parts, but by in large he is using off the shelf fastners and pivots combined with produced to spec parts with lots and lots of hand finishing and detail work.  Geoff earned an audience through his excellent YouTube videos that discussed his knife modifying and his opinions on the knife world.  Geoff's talents have allowed him to work as a full time knife maker for more than two years.  Since going full time, he has focused his media efforts on Instagram where he has a large following.  His knives routinely sell for more than $1,000 on the secondary market and he has been very good at following trends in materials like the use of mokuti, though he has not produced a large number of knives with exotic blade steel, opting for more tried and true steels like N690 (which he used on his Tanics).  Geoff's reputation is quite good.  His original customs had some issues with fit and finish, but he has both improved substantially and also taken good care of his customers that encountered problems.  He has one production collaboration thus far, a friction folder with Boker.  He has not produced a midtech as of yet.  I have found Geoff to be very generous with his time and very knowledgeable about knife design, making, and construction.    

Liong Mah is a bit more high profile (maybe not on Instagram...).  He is exclusively a knife designer.  He has produced collaborations with a vast number of custom makers and he has had many designs purchased and produced by production companies including CRKT and a number of high end Chinese makers.  His designs are very complex and in some cases eccentric.  Overall, the Eraser was my favorite Mah design.  The recent releases of the Remedy and other knives mark something of a departure for Mah, designing knives for production by a company that he sells directly.  All reports have been fantastic regarding the design and fit and finish on these knives, including the Remedy.  Personally, I have dealt with Mah via email and Instagram and he has been nothing but nice.  Reports within the industry indicate that he is creative, thorough, professional, and above all pleasant to deal with. 

Mah and Blauvelt have collaborated before and that design, the Ace, was especially nice.

Since then Blauvelt produced the Switch and Mah the Remedy.  

Here is the image comparing the two posted on Geoff's Instagram this week:

The top knife is the Remedy and the bottom knife is the Switch

They both look very similar, but I don't think this is necessarily theft or copying.  My opinion as to why has two parts.  

First, I think we are in a space where angels on the head of pin comes into play.  The trend, one that I feel is overdone, of titanium framelock flippers leaves very little room for experimentation, especially in the general purpose knife.  You can't REALLY vary the blade shape--karambits don't have mass appeal.  You can't do much with the handles other than cover them or anodize them.  There is just not that much variation possible.  And so, when there is superheated market and dozens if not hundreds of designers you are very likely to have two folks, independent of each other, design very similar knives.  Now, if there is some evidence of wrongdoing, that changes the whole thing, but to my knowledge there isn't.  More than anything, this incident points out just how overdone the titanium framelock flipper really is.  

Knife designers and makers here is the message: Enough already with the titanium framelocks.  If you keep making stuff to sell to people and their tastes are conditioned to like only one thing, eventually you will run out of customers.  If, instead of driving a trend into the ground, you innovative and persuade folks they want something different or something they haven't thought of (a la Steve Jobs and the iPad) maybe this kind of shit won't happen.  

Second, and let's just call this opinion part of a larger body of knife knowledge called Nowka Knows (imparted to me via emails, podcasts, and a guest spot on GGL from Jim Nowka), the idea of similar looking knives produced by different sources is a very old thing in the knife business.  It used to be that there were patterns--Barlows and Peanuts and Canoes and Congress--and the knife makers, Schrade, Case, Queen, and others, used to informally take turns producing them.  One year Case would drop its take on the Barlow and Queen would do a run next and so on.  The knives were the same in appearance, but the difference came in the choice of steels, handle materials, and fit and finish.  And the weird thing is that no one at the time thought it was copying because these patterns were essentially public domain, not some proprietary design.  And that system worked very well for a very long time, ending only when American labor became expensive compared to offshore labor.  

This has two parts--first, its only now in our hyper litigious age (let me take some responsibility for this as I am a lawyer--from me to society: I am sorry for all the dumb lawsuits filed by a-hole attorneys) that we conceive of knife designs as intellectual property.  And I think there is some merit to that, which is a topic I'll explore another time, but there is also merit to the other system, of shared resources.  Its not like these companies were friends.  They were vicious competitors that bought each other and put rivals out of business. But we all too often think our present age has the only possible answer and the truth is that the logic of capitalism encourages, but does not demand, our modern conception of intellectual property.  The shared system of the pattern era worked just as well within the logic of the same capitalist system.  

And secondly, also part of Nowka Knows, very little of what we think of as new designs or exclusive designs are either.  Knives have been made by people for millions of years and the formula isn't that complicated--sharp edge plus handle.  There are only so many ways to operate within that formula and have your knife be totally unique.  Michael Walker is often credited with inventing the liner lock, but he will be the first to tell you that someone else had the idea and registered it with government authorities in the 19th Century.  Walker tweaked the design and made it workable, but it was not a blank slate invention.  With such a simple task and so few parts, very few if any "new" knives are truly new.  

In the end, I don't think there was wrongdoing by anyone.  I think, instead, this incident points to the need for custom makers to vary their offerings and make things other than titanium framelock flippers.  I also think our belief that everything that is unfamiliar is new is silly.  Its been done before and a hundred years from now someone will do it again and claimed they invented it.  And it might be that they were unaware of the earlier model, but their lack of awareness doesn't mean it didn't exist. 

Bottom line: no evidence of theft, copying or stealing, neither are particularly new and goddamit we need some new custom designs besides titanium framelock flippers.


  1. Talking of which, did anything ever happen with the ridiculous Cold Steel lawsuit against CRKT? I know it's a different reason but no doubt the same underlying concept of making noise in public to gain publicity.

    1. They settled out of court. The agreement is confidential.

  2. A thoughtful posting as usual, though I actually disagree with the general notion that there isn't anything new in knife design. It may come via an inspiration outside of other tknives (as in Anso's designs) or an ancient form combined with a contemporary form (Hogback Kwaiken) or even just the possibilities of current manufacturing with a sic fi sensibility (Konygin's Deception), that creates something new within the basic form.
    As for this Mah/Blauvelt tempest in the teapot, they both look like Kizer's meh offerings i.e. pretty hackneyed so no wonder they look similar. Mah's handle is actually a dead ringer to the handle on a Southhard Avo- so Mah might want to be careful about who he is calling out!

  3. Good observation about the Southhard Avo.

    The Kershaw Dimension is a little different, but not much. More proof for the boring-ness of these designs.

  4. The Ace reminds me on Chad Los Banos' Böker Plus CLB Compliance.
    (Just like the pattern on the Liong Mah / Obenauf Ignitor's handle reminds me on several CLB designs...)