Monday, October 12, 2015

The Difference between Acceptable and Good

As we move into the second wave of the Golden Age of Gear (boy did I get it wrong...have you seen Northwood Knives' Everyday Barlow?  Go through the link to the right, please!) the issue of acceptable gear becomes more important than ever.  The EDB is a perfect case in point.  In 1095 this was acceptable.  With CPM-154, well, holy moley.  And look how gorgeous the EDB is:


If you had an infinite amount of money you wouldn't need to read reviews--you could just buy whatever you wanted or just have something made to your specifications.  Likewise, if you have no money, you have no need for reviews because you can't afford anything.  But if you are in the middle, especially if you are on the far end from wealthy like me (curse you daycare!), then reviews matter.  And it matters how you spend your money.

After reviewing the Helle Didi Gigalu I began thinking about why that knife seems so bad.  The reality is that it is not a bad knife.  In fact, its far above acceptable.  Its just not competitive.  And that's a big deal.  As we are treated to ever more amazing delights in the Gear World, competitive moves further and further away from acceptable. 

This is all a long winded way of saying this--we could get by with a lot of things, things that us gear snobs look down on.  We could, for instance, probably get by with any Case knife found at a Big Box or farm supply store.  Unlike Gerber, which is equally widely available, Case has a much better track record in terms of recalls.  Gerber, as a whole, is probably below what I would consider acceptable.  Case, on the other hand, isn't.  Case knives are quite acceptable.  They are thin, sharp, sturdy, and if you take care of them, will last a long time.

But for the same price as a Case you get can something much better than just acceptable.  Would you rather have a Case Copperlock or a Dragonfly II in VG-10?  Set aside the aesthetic issue associated with traditional and modern knives, and just look at the steel.  What if Case sold the exact same knife, one with Tru Sharp and one with VG-10, which would you choose?  That's not a tough call and I, for one, don't like VG-10 all that much.   

And so it is elsewhere.  You can get a nice steel nib like on my Scheaffer Sagaris, but really the gold nib on the Vanishing Point is almost incomparably better.


That's an issue of price, but frankly, the gold nibbed Vanishing Point is probably five or six times better even though its just twice the price.  Its even worse in the flashlight world.  I didn't give the S1 a perfect score largely because I disliked the lack of a Hi CRI emitter.  I know it sacrifices a few lumens, but the difference at 500 lumens is barely perceptible.  The bigger problem is this--the D25AAA has a Hi CRI emitter and runs $30.  For a $50 light not to offer it as an option is just silly.

And so we arrive at a place where I think it makes sense to complain about (or more pointedly, to critique) acceptable stuff.  I thought the Gigalu came up short in comparison to something like the American Knife Company Forest Knife.


It was not really all that close, even though the Gigalu is definitely acceptable.  Its why I feel like it is okay to say something like "The BK9 should really run 3V."  I know Ethan Becker's position on steel is correct, metallurgically speaking (there are lots of good steels and fewer good heat treats), but this is not a question of acceptable steels, but whether something is worth my money.  This is not an issue of what works out in the woods--both work fine, but what is the best way to spend my money.  Put another way--why settle for 1095 in an hard use application when 3V is available for an insignificant increase in price?  1095 is definitely fine in a chopper, but 3V is simply better and the price increase is small compared to the increase in performance.

There are instances in which newer is definitely not better, and that is a different argument than the one I am making here.  For example, I much prefer the grinds of traditional knives over the vast majority of the grinds of modern knives (the Dragonfly II notwithstanding).  Instead I am merely pointing out that it is not mere snobbery that we reject things like Tru-Sharp steel and insist on Hi CRI emitters.  This is the sign of progression and healthy development in the gear world.  After all, we don't TECHNICALLY need power steering but no car company of a significant size makes a car without it.  Its not laziness or snobbery--its the result of a thriving and competitive marketplace.

So when some crusty booger at a knife show scoffs at you because you "need" some fancy powder steel in your knife, don't feel bad.  Its not irrational or bandwagonning a trend.  Its about being reasonable with the money you spend.  Why settle for less when more is available at the same or slightly higher price?  Acceptable is just that, good is more, and right now goodness abounds.


  1. Makes a lot of sense. Although I only carry traditional knives and have a Northwoods in 1095 (snap purchase since regretted), I still fail to understand why in this day and age, anyone would want non stainless? All the arguments are horrifically out dated. There just doesn't seem to be any good reasons any more which justify all the down sides. Especially now given the fact that a knife like this, with a (older) super steel, is selling for less than 1095 steel from the same company.

    1. It's just easier to process carbon steels in a way that yields good performance, compared to stainless steels.

      Hence Case CV is noticeably better than Tru-Sharp at most of the aspects of steel performance other than corrosion resistance, yet the CV knives don't cost any more.

      Not really any other reason. (Although when you develop a nice gray patina on a carbon steel knife it is legitimately cool.)

    2. Case is one thing, my Sodbuster Jr in Stainless is incredibly easy to get sharp but doesn't stay sharp for too long but then it's a cheap knife. With the higher end, such as Northwoods, I don't get the idea of the consumer dictating carbon and paying premium prices for it given what is possible at the same price as seen with this blade.

  2. Case CV is fun. A stainless with the same properties would be a very desirable user steel.

    I'd offer the Small Texas Jack (#077) as a Case that's better than acceptable, especially price considered. Slim, narrow, good grinds, great semi-wharnie secondary blade, closed blades don't protrude much, no Tru-Sharp. Mine's in my back pocket today.

    Re: being reasonable with the money you spend, it was $41 from BHQ, 1/3 the price of the Everyday Barlow whose arrival I'm awaiting.

  3. "In fact, its far above acceptable. Its just not competitive. And that's a big deal." As a regular reader of your blogs, I wonder why "it's" always is "its" in your writing.

    1. Since I can't upvote your comment I'll reply to say I agree.

  4. I completely agree with your sentiments in regard to everything. I am a review junkie and hate spending money only to realize that I could have had something better for the same cost or slightly higher. It makes me crazy when that happens! I am too lazy to scour this blog to find it, but do you have any metal comparasin posts or links? I am not familiar with most of what you are speaking on. Thanks for any help and keep up the great reviewing!

  5. Isn't saying everything-is-incrementally-better-for-a-price argument sort of specious, aren't you just accepting that a gear passion is an inevitable slippery slope?

    When I started putting together an EDC in earnest about 3 years ago I was satisfied with various $30 knives, then handled a Spyderco Delica and realized how much more was possible out of manufacturing. Now I only a dozen or so $80-$200 knives. My satisfaction comes from discovering the small intricacies in each product instead of just being so wowed by the new-ness of new knives.

    1. Absolutely a slippery slope. If you are reading this site you probably have already started the long painful slide to a draw full of custom knives and flashlights.

      Seriously though, the point I was trying to make isn't necessarily that more expensive stuff is better, but that there are things that are priced so much more competitively than similar products. The ZDP-189 Dragonfly is one. Compare it steel and design-wise to anything in the Benchmade line up and you realize it is so much a better value. The Valet is a similar knife at more than twice the price.

      The point is to find gear that "breaks" the price/performance propositions of a given product class. More and more stuff is just amazing for the money, so much so that stuff like the Gigalu aren't very price competitive.

  6. The engineering a-hole in me feels compelled to point out that putting a high cri emitter in the s1 baton costs more than "a few lumens." Both the medium and high modes would have to change significantly to keep similar runtimes, to the point where it would be a different product altogether.

    Also, I wonder if the golden age of gear is really just beginning? 3d printing hasn't even really factored in yet and things like cnc are getting smaller and cheaper everyday.

    1. For me, I don't need that many lumens for EDC. I'd rather have a 200-300 lumen high and a 50-75 medium and a Nichia 219. More importantly, I'd rather have the option, and there's not one. Other makers have multiple emitter options, often including the Nichia, and the emitter isn't prohibitively expensive. I just don't know why they couldn't offer it for those that would want it.

    2. First, it's unlikely that you would get a 200-300 lumen high. Nichias are progressively less efficient the higher you go on the brightness curve, so 150 is probably what you would get.

      I'm not saying you're wrong to want that in an edc. I'm just trying to say it doesn't make any sense to say, "I really like the delica, but I wish spyderco would give me the option to have a version with a framelock and the blade from the techno." I'm sure spyderco could make that knife, but you wouldn't call it a delica with options - it would be an entirely different knife.

    3. I was actually looking around on that, and according to the testing I link below the newer 219c 83 CRI LED is putting out right at the same output as the latest XP-G2, with warmer tint and higher CRI and more efficiency. If the 90+ CRI version is anywhere near as good, then there will literally be no excuse not to offer it. For that matter, I'd love for them to offer the 83 CRI in the mean time, because the lumens vs CRI tradeoff is barely even present anymore in CREE vs Nichia.

    4. Ameer, my understanding is that Nichia coats the emitter in phosphors that alter the tint and that they cost you about 15% of the output. If that is the case, a 15% reduction, I am not sure you could see the difference at 500 lumens, given the way brain perceives light. You'd need something like a loss of 30-40%. I am not sure about the method of producing HI CRI, but the journal papers I read said the lumens cost was 15%.

    5. 85% would be 425, and I for one would go down further than that for a high-CRI SR1, preferably the 93-CRI Nichia.

    6. Well, I know just enough about LEDs to make myself look stupid. So, if I say something totally incorrect here, hopefully someone will call me out. But here goes:

      I believe the ~15% you are quoting is going from cool to neutral on a given LED. It does not mean anything when comparing two completely different emitters (ie Nichia 219 vs Cree XM-L2). I believe going from cool to warm high-cri is more like a 50% loss in lumens (again, on a given LED). A nichia has a different design and efficiency profile than a Cree, so they can't really be compared directly in that way. And I believe the Nichias tend to be pretty inefficient in the higher lumen range compared to crees.

      Now, I guess you could argue that you would like a high-cri variant of the XM-L2 in the S1 Baton. I don't know which XM-L2 is currently in there, but I'm guessing it is already a neutral variant vs. a cool variant just based on what you said in your review. I don't even know if Cree makes a "warm high cri" variant of the XM-L2, but, unless things have changed, I don't think a 10-15% loss (vs. cool) would be accurate. I suspect 40% or so would be right. And, as I said before, putting a Nichia in that light would be creating a completely different product - you would have to change the circuit to make sure you were using the Nichia in a useful/reasonable way. And the result, I think, would be a totally different product.

      All that said, I certainly am not arguing that you NEED a 500 lumen light. I'm just trying to improve the discussion about emitters. I don't really care if the S1 gets a perfect score or not as I've never even held one, but to say "this light would be perfect if it had a high-cri emitter option" is a little too simplistic and kind of misses the point of that light.

  7. Got my EDB. It is a very good knife; in most respects a wonderful one.

    The secondary grind, however, is not good, and this is too common with both Queen and GEC products.

    It has one of those very skinny (to the eye) edge bevels that I call a "collector grind," and they are awful and should be purged. Nice and even, pretty to the eye, but just too obtuse. On the part of the edge aft of the swedge, the apex won't engage the Sharpmaker stones unless you tilt the knife a bit, so I'm thinking the secondary has to be over 20 dps there. No reason for that on a pocket knife. The primary grind on the EDB is glorious -- thin, even, built to cut. Magnificent. The secondary grind drops the ball.

    Out of the box it tore copy paper. After fairly extensive work it cuts enough to be barely carryable. I just used it to open an envelope. It did the job, but not cleanly and not in one stroke.

    I've had GECs that were far worse. One spear point Tidioute was basically a non-knife as shipped until I paid TheApostleP to do a radical reprofile. That geometry was asinine if anyone at GEC expected that knife to be used.

    Derrick Bohn seems to get better than usual geometries for his Northwoods orders, as you'd predict, but IME the problems don't fully disappear. One of my IRJs came with good edge geometry, the other was mediocre.

    You shouldn't have to reprofile a $120 slipjoint knife (in a hard, modern powder steel!) to get it cut eagerly. I think the "high end' traditional companies deserve to be rapped on the nose about this. Doing so would be consistent with your focus that knives are tools that are meant to be used.

    (Gotta be annoying to have other people tell you how you should use the soapbox you've earned. I apologize.)

    Case, in my experience, does not do "collector edges." They do real edges. The apex itself might ship a little burry but it is a cinch to clean up. The secondary grind is occasionally wavy (not often), but Case nails the angles, while GEC and Queen too often do not.

    I might have a hard time convincing someone outside the community that my $120 EDB is a "good" knife while my $41 Texas Jack is merely "acceptable," when she sees me struggle at length to improve the EDB so it will cut okay -- then spend 3 min touching up the Case and casually lop arcs of paper with it like a scalpel.

    Thanks for reading this rant.

    1. I love the term "collector grind." You have hit on a serious peeve of mine. Of the knives I've owned: a dragonfly II ZDP-189, benchmade mini grip, crkt swindle, spyderco techno, and spydrco pm2, ONLY the pm2's edge would register on a 20deg sharpmaker stone out of the box. Every other one was more obtuse than 20deg per side.

      The techno in particular bothered me. The grind on that knife LOOKED immaculate, but it was just stupidly obtuse. I re-profiled it with my terrible sharpening skills. Now it looks like shit, but it cuts like a razor and it's easy to touch up on the sharpmaker. But when a knife is that price (especially a knife manufactured by the same company that sells the sharpmaker...), I really hate having to ugly up a nice-looking grind just to make it perform.

  8. In flashlights, the archetype "acceptable" maker would be Streamlight.

    Right? No one talks about them. Selfbuilt has never reviewed one of their lights.

    Even so, none of y'all can shake my conviction that the Streamlight Microstream is a great little guy for $15. That light has 1,399 Amazon reviews with an average rating of 4.7 out of 5.

    Current edition delivers a floody 35 lumens. If you thought the original Fenix E05 at 27 lumens made sense as a dead-simple mini light, I don't see where you can dismiss the Microstream. It, paired with a Kershaw Crown, is my $25 light+saber pick.

    The 2-way clip that attaches to the bill of your cap is simple and awesome for close-up tasks like repairs or outdoor cooking. Worth throwing in a trunk bag just for the hands-free use.

    If the "enthusiast" torch companies would produce more well set-up, SIMPLE lights (= 2 or 3 modes, not 7), with good forward (= not reverse) clickies, I would agree we can all write off Streamlight. But they mostly don't.

    Streamlight delivers a UI that a lot of people covet as much as people on CPF and here covet selector ring doohickies.