Monday, February 15, 2016

Plato's Knife

This week's review will be the Boker Mini Kwaiken.  Before I get to the review, I want to take a minute to look at knives that have become styles.  Kyle Ver Steeg did a good job of articulating this notion on the Knife Journal podcast when they were talking about the Tom Brown Tracker knife.  Basically, he said that he thinks that some knives are so iconic and different that, over many, years they become a style of knife.  He points to the Bowie as the example--that original, long, lean blade with a dramatic clip point has gone from a single knife to an enduring kind of knife.

I want to make a distinction between the knife that has become a form, like the Bowie, and the knife pattern.  Generally, it is very hard to trace back the lineage of a knife pattern.  I have tried very hard with the Barlow pattern, but there doesn't seem to be ANY consensus on the origin of the knife.  In fact, about a half dozen different stories claim to be the origin story of the Barlow.  Similarly, the Peanut, the Texas Toothpick, and the Congress are all similarly difficult to trace back to their origination.

The original Kwaiken, spelled kaiken (as transliterated from the original Japanese) was the smallest of the three weapons of a samurai.  The largest and most famous was the katana.  They also carried an intermediate sized blade called a wakizashi.  Finally, they carried the kaiken.  It had two roles--one as an indoor weapon for use when space was too tight for the other blades, and, more famously, as the blade used in samurai ritual suicide.  The kaiken was also used by females in Japan during the time of the samurai.

The knife is characterized by two things, it's curved shape and the long slender blade that ends in a Japanese tanto, a blade shape significantly different from the blocky (and ugly, sorry Aaron) American tanto.  Lucas Burnley's version of this knife, in folding form, is, on a purely formal basis, one of the most beautiful knives I have ever seen.  Even Boker's drunken gnomes fit and finish (which, as you will see on Saturday, is getting better) can't take away from the splendor of this design.  It is so bare, so sparse, that it is KNIFE in its most Platonic form.  

This leads me back to Kyle's point about the Tracker.  At some point a knife design is so successful and so iconic, that the design, the exact design, gets made by others.  It transitions from a person's knife to a pattern.  We have already seen this to a certain extent.  Both Jack Hoback and Todd Begg make their own version of the kwaiken style, but I think this trend will go keep going.  I think, in twenty or thirty years, we will have a huge variety of kwaiken-style blades, including some that belong to people other than Boker and Lucas Burnley.  

In a way this will be sad, but I also think it is a good thing.  This is a design that rewards study, patience, and craftsmanship.  As built by Burnley and copied (with permission) by Boker, it is a knife that needs attentiveness to every line.  The tolerances are tight (in fact, probably too tight for Boker...I'd love to see a Chris Reeve Burnley Kwaiken), the design is challenging, and the pay off is one spectacular stick of a knife.  The blossoming knife modding cottage industry around the Kwaiken is further proof of the design's steadiness and appeal.  It is also a sign that conscientiousness is rewarded--the Dietz flipper mod is genius and in classic design fashion an improvement on the original by removing and not adding parts.  

In the end, there is simply no way around this fact--the Burnley Kwaiken is a design of sheer delight.  It is something that hits all of the points us knife folks look for in a knife.  It is a knife's knife, one of a few handful of blades that I think can rightly contest its place as the Platonic ideal of a knife.  Damn good job Mr. Burnley.      

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