Saturday, November 14, 2015

Kershaw Manifold Review by RD

I’m not 100% on board with the supersteel arms race. I’m a mediocre sharpener who likes sharpness and doesn’t have a lot of time. So VG-10 was once my most carried steel (so sad they disco’d that knife). Lately it’s probably AUS-8. Someday soon it might be BD-1. Among supersteels, the one I’ve appreciated the most is ZDP-189, which readers know is a Japanese material oriented to high sharpness.

Maybe you are similarly open-minded about mid-tier steels (got to throw in some love for 14C28N). If so, here’s a question: How low are you willing to go?

My bar is definitely low enough to enjoy some knives with 8Cr13MoV, the ubiquitous Chinese stainless found on a zillion modestly priced blades, such as the $15 Kershaw Crown that I praised here a few weeks ago. In this review, the second of the pair, I’m going a step further to look at the Kershaw Manifold, a budget knife that features 3Cr13, a lower-carbon steel than we typically find from the better US folding knife brands.

Manifold clip side establishing shot

The Manifold is a tactically styled budget EDC knife. It was introduced in 2014 as part of KAI USA’s “Starter Series,” a group of larger knives that retail for less than $20 street price. These knives – the Starter, Manifold, and the confusingly named Lifter and Filter--share many features. They have automotive-themed names, flippers, Speedsafe assisted opening, all-steel handle construction, a tumbled gray “Blackwash” oxide finish on all components, and blades made of 3Cr13 rather than the 8Cr13MoV traditionally found on Chinese Kershaws.

From a steel chemistry standpoint, 3Cr13 is basically a Chinese analog of 420J2 in a relatively high carbon rendition of the latter steel. Critics snark that 420J2 is “a liner steel not a blade steel.” While companies like Benchmade and CRKT have used 420J2 to make liners, there have been knives from Buck, CRKT, and others that employ it as a blade material. It is popular for dive knives because of very high corrosion resistance.

There has been forum drama about Kershaw’s use of 3Cr13. Some wonder if the Starter series could be the start of a larger migration toward lower-carbon steels in the overseas Kershaws. If you’ve been to the knife aisle in a big box store lately, you might have noticed what I see at my local Academy: the clamshell packs for most of Kershaw’s Chinese knives currently do not disclose the blade steel used. They just say “stainless steel,” even when they are 8Cr13MoV.

That’s an interesting stance. Buck always tells you the blade steel right on the front of their clam packs, including their overseas 420J2 knives. Even Gerber – not most people’s idea of a den of steel obsession – deems the humble 7Cr17MoV worth telling the customer about on the package.

One of KAI USA’s execs (whose online demeanor, full disclosure, I’ve criticized in the comments section here) appeared on Tony’s podcast (start around 1:39) and commented that Chinese steelmaking and processing are not yet sophisticated enough to really exploit the differences among different steels, so there is barely a difference between 8Cr and 3Cr. And there are other knowledgeable voices who report that 3Cr13 can give excellent cutting performance if it is well processed and ground with acute edge angles and a coarse grit finish. The desire to sort out these perspectives helped draw my interest to the Starter series.

The designers’ apparent goal was to deliver a sizable knife with button-pushing features and interesting visuals at the challenging sub-$20 price point. It turns out some significant compromises had to be made to get there.

Twitter Review Summary: Even under $20, busy visuals and a flipper don’t make up for a heavy knife that struggles to get sharp.

I purchased the Kershaw Manifold for $17.81 online. Here is the product page. Here is an initial video review. Here is a followup by the same YouTube user a few weeks later reporting problems with his torsion bar and detent.

My road to the review Manifold was circuitous:

Starter & two Manifolds

First I bought the line’s namesake, top, the Kershaw Starter. I soon decided that the Starter, though a well assembled knife, was flawed enough that it wouldn’t make for a worthwhile review. (It was terribly bulky and heavy for its 3.4” blade, and the blade grind was obtuse enough that it wouldn’t cut well.) So I turned to the Manifold, which is lighter than the Starter and has a longer blade. The first Manifold I acquired (middle) had an excellent, thin grind, but it also had a mechanical problem that you’ll read about below. So I bought a second Manifold, seen at bottom, and that is the review blade. I EDC’d it frequently for over a month, often pairing it with the Crown from the earlier review as a big knife / small(er) knife pair.

Design: 1

The silhouette of this knife is encouraging: a sensible utility profile with a lot of mild jimping and a familiar blade shape.

Manifold clip side establishing shot

The arcing pattern on the handles recalls the Kershaw Knockout , a handsome US-built design embraced by enthusiasts. Overall the Manifold is kind of like an all-steel Thermite with Knockout scales, viewed through a fog bank. I prefer its looks to the Lifter with its hyperactive blade grind (tanto! recurve! cutout!) or the Starter, whose handle recalls a skin-on fish filet.

Problems come in with the surfaces and materials. The aesthetic behind most of the knives in this series could be summed up as “Gray, Chunky, and Busy.” The tumbled “Blackwash” finish over all the components produces a uniform, worn-gadget appearance that’s vaguely steampunk. There is lots of machined detail, but the overall effect is monotonous. These guys could use some contrast. A satin blade finish like the large CRKT Drifter would have set off the Manifold’s gray handles well. I was surprised to find that the gray blade finish is subject to discoloration if used for food prep. The staining was not permanent but sometimes required multiple washings to remove.

All-steel construction makes the Manifold heavy. The Manifold is listed at 5.6 ounces, but it measured 6 ounces on my kitchen scale. A 3.5” blade equals a very poor blade:weight ratio of 0.58. The Manifold does better in blade to handle, with a 4.5” handle yielding a B:H of 0.78, not too bad.

Fit & Finish: 1

The detailing and jimping is clean and consistent, impressive for a budget knife. Blade centering is pretty good. However, there are a couple of issues. The non-locking liner doesn’t mesh up well with the steel handle “scale” that covers it, and you can occasionally feel the scale shift in your hand, especially after work. The pivot also tends to get loose with work, to the point that the pivot screw had to be given more than a half turn to re-tighten it. This introduces a moderate amount of side to side blade play, with the pivot area wiggling visibly. Together these flaws combine to cost the knife a point. There was no lock rock: the lock remained engaged and did not slip on the tang.

Blade Shape: 2

This robust, spanto-ish drop point is familiar territory. You could say it shows a Hinderer influence via the Thermite, but honestly, nowadays we read this blade shape as a KAI profile as much as anything else. It’s a fine compromise of toughness and utility.

Blade closeup pic - Manifold

There’s a bit of recurve at the base of the edge, but I didn’t find it affected sharpening … maybe because sharpening was a pain for other reasons.

Steel: 0

The $15 Crown’s blade is 8Cr13MoV. It can be made very sharp with ease. The $18 Manifold’s 3Cr13 blade – at least in my hands – struggled to do that. We are used to affordable steels readily taking a keen edge, but sacrificing edge retention. The three Starter series knives I tried also had a problem, to varying degrees, with edge acquisition.

Multiple sessions with the Sharpmaker failed to bring the test Manifold’s edge to crisp, high sharpness. I tried different stones and angles. In particular, I learned to sharpen the two sides of the blade at distinct angles to the stone to compensate for the off-kilter bevel grind. Even so the edge felt unresponsive. After sharpening these 3Cr13 blades would drag a bit cutting cardboard, requiring more effort than my 8Cr Kershaws. The test knife also struggled to slice pork chops precisely, leaving a couple of ragged bits at the edge of a slice.

Maybe my undistinguished sharpening skills are to blame. I will just say this: I often carry knives with non-super steels, so I have experience sharpening moderate-carbon stainlesses with my Sharpmaker and “redneck strop” (a box edge). I can put respectably good edges, smoothly push cutting paper, on blades made of Buck’s 420HC, Ontario’s AUS-8, Case’s Tru-Sharp (usually) and Kershaw’s 8Cr13MoV. I had a hard time doing that with either Manifold.

My favorite solution was to use the Sharpmaker diamond stone and then the medium stone, giving the Manifold a coarse, fairly sharp edge that would hang in there. For non-precise tasks like breaking down cardboard boxes this was okay. If you are a more advanced user you could certainly reprofile this thing down to 11 degrees per side or something and would likely see big improvement. A delicate sharpening hand might also be able to coax a better apex than I got. But then I would question whether a series of entry level knives called the “Starter” series should require diamond stones and/or lots of finesse before the user can access real high-sharpness behavior. Don’t say that’s an unrealistic demand for a budget blade: many existing 8Cr knives offer high sharpness to the novice right out of the gate.

The test Manifold is not useless. It will cut things. But it did not do as well, on purely cutting tasks, as the Crown or a lot of other 8Cr13MoV knives I’ve used. While the grind is some of the problem, I believe some of it is also the steel.

Respectfully, I did not find this 3Cr to be barely different from 8Cr. I found the difference noticeable. I am not willing to go this low.

My favorite solution was to use the Sharpmaker diamond stone and then the medium stone, giving the Manifold a coarse, fairly sharp edge that would hang in there. For non-precise tasks like breaking down cardboard boxes this was okay. If you are a more advanced user you could certainly reprofile this thing down to 11 degrees per side or something and would likely see big improvement. A delicate sharpening hand might also be able to coax a better apex than I got. But then I would question whether a series of entry level knives called the “Starter” series should require diamond stones and/or lots of finesse before the user can access real high-sharpness behavior. Don’t say that’s an unrealistic demand for a budget blade: many existing 8Cr knives offer high sharpness to the novice right out of the gate.

The test Manifold is not useless. It will cut things. But it did not do as well, on purely cutting tasks, as the Crown or a lot of other 8Cr13MoV knives I’ve used. While the grind is some of the problem, I believe some of it is also the steel.

Respectfully, I did not find this 3Cr to be barely different from 8Cr. I found the difference noticeable. I am not willing to go this low.

Grind: 1

The test Manifold’s grind looks great at first, with a deep secondary bevel, but it is somewhat asymmetrical and thick behind the edge. This detracts from cutting ability, which is bad news in a knife whose cutting acumen is already being limited (in my judgment) by the blade steel. If Kershaw is really going to make this 3Cr13 into a thing, then it’s going to be vital to nail a thin grind every time. (The first Manifold I bought had a well executed, thin grind and this helped its cutting power.)

Lock: 2

Steel-on-steel frame locks like the Manifold’s can be a sensible budget choice. This one locks up fine, with good tension and a consistent 75% engagement. It held firm under moderate hand torqueing and spine whacking. It was easy to disengage. I used the Manifold to uproot saplings in the garden, a task where cutting shades into light prying. Despite some resultant lateral blade play that I penalized under F&F, it did well at this work.

Grip: 1

The Manifold looks comfortable. Kershaw did a lot of things right. The handle profile has light contouring but doesn’t go crazy with affordance-limiting finger grooves. There’s a rakish shelf for the thumb on the blade spine. Grip security is enhanced with lots of large but controlled jimping all over the top and bottom of the handles. The corners are eased.

Manifold spine view

In practice, the knife is okay in the hand. The handle is kind of skinny in both width and depth. The sides are flat, with no palm swells, so the knife fails to fill the hand and does not feel especially natural in a hard grip. There is also a slight hot spot against the index finger where the lock bar meets the frame. This only crops up in fairly hard cutting; but again, tasks that the Crown could sail through required harder cutting with the Manifold.

Carry: 1

My view of the Manifold’s carry is shaped by the fact that I am a medium-sized man who carried it clipped to my rear pants pocket, as I always do with larger knives. My front pockets are taken up by keys and other stuff like this and this that for varying reasons has to be highly accessible. I’ve never embraced the front pocket seam knife carry that seems to be the norm in US gear culture. With back pocket carry, bulk is still bad but you can let things slide a bit on weight.

So yeah, the Manifold is heavy. The review knife weighed 6 oz on my scale, a third of an ounce over the published weight. But it only occasionally bothered me in practice, because this is a relatively flat, thin knife with a long centerline clip that distributes its weight well across the back of your haunch. You front pocket folks will probably dislike it. I give it a (real, pre-grade inflation) C+.

Deployment Method: 1

Cheap assisted opening knives, especially large ones, should probably have liner locks. It seems to be challenging to get the detent and release tension right when using an assist with a steel frame lock on a big knife at this paltry price point.

My first Manifold had a very light detent and no “takeup” before it fired: the cam point of the torsion bar was almost identical to the point where the blade started moving. The result was a hair-trigger assisted opener that I did not want to carry. Most users know that some AOs will occasionally deploy accidentally when dropped from waist height onto a hard surface. The first Manifold would deploy around 90% of the time when dropped from waist height onto carpet, and maybe 30% of the time when dropped from knee height onto carpet. In my view that rises to the level of a manufacturing defect, and I believe that KAI would replace that knife under warranty if I asked.

The review Manifold also had a fairly poor deployment out of box, only in the opposite direction. The detent was hard to overcome, variable, and combined with the spine jimping that extends aft of the flipper tab to make your finger hurt by about the third deployment.

Slowly it broke in, to the point where today it is fine. (I still wish the spine jimping ended at the flipper tab.) It requires a firm press, but is much more consistent. It might do well de-assisted. I like AO flipper trigger weights to be a 7 or 8 out of 10 for safety reasons; this one settled in at 8.

The Manifold also has “thumbstuds.” Quote marks are mandatory because the ones on the review knife are useless. You cannot use them to deploy the blade, and they are not blade stops. Think of this score as an 0.75 rounded up.

(One last note: When I handled the Starter – the only liner lock in the gray 3Cr13 series – it had an excellent assisted deployment, comfortable to use and with good blade retention, an easy 2 points.)

Retention Method: 2

At last a category where the Manifold excels the Crown. The Manifold uses an elongated variant of KAI’s basic deep-carry clip. It’s nonpositionable, tip down right hand, yet it works fine off the left hand too. I am not a huge fan of the holes drilled into the clip – mere visual clutter – but the truth is that this clip works well, extracting smoothly yet retaining the knife.

Total Score: 12 out of 20

Some sub-$20 blades earn a fan base among knife people. This isn’t likely to be one of them. If a buddy new to knives wanted to try a largish utility folder and expressed interest in the Manifold, I would try hard to persuade him or her to step up to a $28 Ontario RAT-1. If money was tight, I’d consider (if appropriate) offering to give or loan the $10 difference, because there is no comparison. The Taiwan-made RAT-1 is a simple, unadorned knife, kind of hefty at 5 oz – I dubbed mine “Rice Cake” in a nod to Dan’s review [http://bladereviews.com/ontario-rat-1-review/] – but it is a far more purposeful, enjoyable, and fully realized tool than the Manifold. That holds true from the hand-filling handle, to the blade grind, to the crisp responsiveness of the AUS-8 edge against the Sharpmaker stones. Picking up the RAT and using it after time with the Manifold was like downing a shot of iced coffee: I felt more awake.

If we stick to the sub-$20 price point, then I would ask whether a big blade was necessary; could something a bit smaller, like the Crown (in reality a better work knife than the Manifold) fill the job? After that, I might suggest the Kershaw Freefall, a plain but ergonomic work knife that can be had around $18 in clampack.

Freefall and Manifold

It weighs 25% less than the Manifold and feels good in hand. It has a simple liner lock, so the assist deploys well. The Freefall’s 8Cr13MoV blade works better than the Manifold’s 3Cr13. (You might want to file down the spine jimping and sand under the clip.)

A few years ago many gear reviewers complained that too many Kershaws looked alike: black synthetic handles, bead-blast or stonewash blade, yawn. Since then KAI has done an impressive job of bringing imaginative and distinctive designs to us at the affordable $25-$40 tier. But the Manifold suggests that it is proving harder for them to deliver a larger modern folder with eye-catching visuals and decent construction that comes in under that magic, psychological $20 mark. That to cram in those features at that price they have ended up trimming bone and muscle, not just fat; sacrificing performance as seen here with the Manifold’s dispiriting blade steel.

I’m somewhat sympathetic, but if the argument is that KAI cannot deliver budget big knives except by dropping down to 3Cr13, then fairly or not, a lot of people are going to rejoin that Schrade manages to offer a ton of sub-$20 modern folders with 3.25”+ blades that run 9Cr18MoV.

While the Manifold has little to offer, we knife folks should still keep an eye on this category. When a maker does manage to thread the needle and deliver a well thought out user for a tiny price, we may want to look over from our modded $280 S110V sprint runs and reward them.

10 comments:

  1. 3cr13 is chinese multitool steel. Its what the components of the Gerber Dime are made from. Schrade uses it in axes and bolos to decent effect. But once the spotlight is on edge retenton, its flaws would be hard to unsee.

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  2. I agree with the idea that if I had a friend who wanted to get into knives, there are plenty of superior offerings even from Kershaw for which I'd make up the price difference for them. Even my $20 Oso Sweet beater knife in 8cr13mov would be a better idea, if not a bit too small to compare to this knife.

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    1. I've had two Oso Sweets and the weak little pocket clip bent on the first one and broke when I bent it back, and on the second the screws worked their way completely out and the clip fell off, so I won't be buying any more Kershaws with that particular clip. :-)

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  3. BTW the link under "VG-10" in the first paragraph should have gone to the Spyderco product page for the G10 Caly 3.5, which they discontinued (!!) effective 2015.

    I lament this. Brilliant EDC blade. The G10 scales feel much better in the hand than the slippery CF found on the ZDP-189 Calys.

    Spyderco's VG-10 offerings may not be long for this world.

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  4. i'd have a hard time steering people away from some other knives in this "approximate" price range, like the Esee Zancudo/Avispa, the Kershaw Needs Work (are they still this cheap?) and the Byrd Cara Cara2, which just pretty much kills everything else around $20. Sorry about the amazon link, but these things are $18 freaking dollars: (http://www.amazon.com/Spyderco-Cara2-Black-PlainEdge-Knife/dp/B0049AYJP4/ref=sr_1_1?s=sporting-goods&ie=UTF8&qid=1447630674&sr=1-1&keywords=byrd+cara+cara)

    Spyderco has the Tenacious line of 8cr13 liner locks sold under their brand; the rest of their Chinese knives are Byrds. Quality is remarkably good; i had a G10 handled Cara Cara (original) years ago and was blown away. It's the import equivalent of the Endura. Approximately the same size, shape, and lock type but with 8Cr31Mov. FRN is $18, and the G10 version is $31 - like you, i'd give them the extra $11 for the G10 in hopes that they'd become a knife enthusiasts because it's not hard to see that at $31 for this knife. The next step would be a Delica... then probably a Native 5... then well you know.

    (that's sort of how it happened to me, but I started with cheap Kershaws first... and moved to Spydercos!)

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    1. I remember watching a review of the G10 Cara Cara 2 a few years back and thinking, that is going to step on some Endura sales.

      Tony argued recently that the knife companies have decided "real" knives begin at 40 bucks, but I see $25 to $30 as the inflection point. The $28 RAT-1 and the $25 CS Tuff Lite (full sized) are among my inner circle of 7 or 8 most carried primary blades.

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  5. Has everyone moved on from SanRenMu for sub-$20 knives?

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  6. Question, are any of the competitors mentioned available at Wal-Mart? Long forgotten models from a cheaper era like the Crown don't count. I think the clampack freefall is 3cr, not 8.

    I am not a fan of the Starter series. I think it dilutes the Kershaw name. I know Wal-Mart dictated that price point but I don't know how much there was to gain.

    90% of knives sold are shitty gas station knives though so I guess you can't blame someone for a bite of that pie.

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    1. In 2013 there was a version of the Freefall with a black blade coating that was 3Cr (and non-assisted). It was sold as part of a limited holiday gift pack with a 3Cr, manual Swerve and a super cheap flashlight. (Insert bgm clip from Eazy-E's "Merry M**** F*****n' Christmas.")

      That's what you're thinking of.

      But the pictured Freefall is 8Cr. I bought it in a (solo) clampack at Wal-Mart for $18 earlier this year.

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    2. Musical reference obv b/c it was a box full of possibly semi-dystopian stuff. Use Spinal Tap's Xmas song if you prefer.

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