When can a handmade knife be considered a good value? For most people, they just aren’t. Prices often begin at half a grand and go up from there. In many cases the final product is not a bespoke item, but rather a minor variation of an established design. The knifemakers that expect or allow a truly custom approach are few and far in between. Even when you run into one, their prices are higher than the already astronomical prices of batched knives.
Enter Mr. Willem O’Kelly, also known as K’roo on the USN. I had seen some of his work on the forums, and on a whim asked what his normal rates were. At first I wasn’t really serious; I assumed his prices would start at Sebenza levels and go up from there. The actual rates he sent me were much more modest, and before I (or my wallet) knew it I was asking for a spot on his books. Because he lives in South Africa, his rates fluctuate quite a bit depending on the exchange rate between the rand and the dollar. When I sent the final payment in February 2015, this knife cost me $175.00 (after shipping). I do recommend upgrading your shipping...this knife took a month to arrive, and for a friend of mine it took at least twice as long.
The end result is the subject of this review. As far as I know, there are no other knives just like mine (though many are similar), so there are no other reviews available, written or otherwise, nor is there a product page I can direct you to. The best way to get in contact with the maker is through the USN or his email address (email@example.com), but be aware it may take some time before you hear a reply. He lives in a fairly remote area and often experiences power outages, but his reputation is otherwise stellar.
Twitter Review Summary: Imperfect, but just what I asked for.
Writing about the design chops of this knife is difficult, as it’s a handmade product built to my specifications. At the same time, the design language clearly belongs to Mr. O’Kelly. Personally, I think that’s all the more credit to the maker, as he took my list of bullet points and made a knife that is undeniably a K’roo knife. The minimalist, yet organic aesthetic his knives possess makes them both eye-catching and non-threatening. I’ve never had someone make a disparaging remark about this knife, even on university campus.
Overall the process was pretty simple. K’roo emailed me somewhere around a hundred photos of his work, and essentially told me I could mix, match, and alter to my heart’s content. Through an email exchange we hashed out the details, including the offset pivot which hides the tang. You can request just about any combination of materials, provided you’re willing to pony up the extra cash. The majority of materials shouldn’t require a significant premium. Bonus points for accessibility here – though expensive, I don’t know of any other makers that offer the same level of customization at this price.
Willem’s iteration of a slipjoint boasts some pretty solid performance ratios.
The blade length measures 2.5 inches (with a cutting edge of 2 inches), and the handle is 3.25 inches long. Weighing in at 2 ounces, the knife with no name’s blade::weight ratio is 1.25 (or 1.0 if you measure by cutting edge) and the blade::handle ratio is .77 – all solid numbers.
Fit and Finish: 1
As much as I love this knife, there are flaws. The micarta cracked when the lanyard hole was installed, and there is some leftover steel from the press on the interior of the knife. Were they on a production knife I would have sent it back to the manufacturer to be addressed. As it stands, Mr. O’Kelly lives on the other side of the planet. I’d rather not deal with shipping times that exceed three months, so unless the crack spreads I’m not going to worry about it. This doesn’t seem to be a common occurrence: neither my friend’s K’roo knife (nor the copious knives examined online) had any such flaws. I’ve been carrying this knife for nearly a year now, and the flaws haven’t proved to be anything more than cosmetic.
There is no jimping here, nor is there much in the way of a “traction plan.” However, the ivory micarta scales are nicely contoured, and handle bears quite a bit of resemblance to the classic Barlow teardrop. With the lanyard taken into account, the grip on this knife is comfortable in a number of different grips.
As an aside, this knife really captures the “warmth” that handmade knives are frequently credited with. All of the hard edges are rounded over, every surface has been buffed, and the result is a knife that feels like a river rock in your hand. I have the unfortunate tendency to fidget with my knives, to the point of driving friends and family insane. Slip joints don’t really have that kind of fidget factor, but here the ivory micarta has been polished to such a level that there’s a joy to just palming it.
This is one of the few knives I can carry that lacks a sheath, a pocket clip, or a slip case of some kind. Most slip joints are too long for that sort of carry: in the main pocket, they’ll settle at the bottom and generate some discomfort; in the coin pocket, they’ll ride too high and dig into my hips when sitting down (I drive 140 miles per workday, so I spend quite a bit of time sitting). However, this knife is short enough when closed that neither concern bears out. The robust materials also safeguard against damage from keys or other pocket clutter, and the offset pivot keeps the tang of the blade from snagging on anything.
The steel I chose for this knife is N690co. Some folks don’t like it; I happen to like it quite a bit. It sharpens easily, is very rust resistant, and holds its edge for a reasonable amount of time. I’m a big fan of “working steels” like N690co, 154cm, and BD1: all perform very well and are brought back to life without much effort. Last I heard K’roo was offering some higher end tool steels, but I don’t know if that came to fruition.
Blade Shape: 2
This iteration of the sheepsfoot blade shape is really quite nice.
There’s hardly any belly, but the tasks I use the K’roo for don’t really warrant it. The uses I have for a knife at work are wildly different from those I have at school, and the K’roo is definitely a knife I picked up with the latter in mind. This really wasn’t intended to be used for food prep, but it excels at opening packages and breaking down cardboard boxes. If you’d rather opt into a blade shape that has more belly, Mr. O’Kelly can accommodate you.
Functionally, there’s nothing wrong with the grind. It takes a thick stock and thins it out as much as possible. It isn’t quite capable of passing the apple test, but it’s performed admirably otherwise. Why the score of 1? If I’m nitpicking (and I am), the grind is a bit uneven. On a cheaper knife it wouldn’t be much of a fault, but at just under $200 you’re not wrong to want something better.
Deployment Method: 0
The most common remark I hear concerning this knife is how difficult it is to open, and that’s an irrefutable charge. The backspring is fairly stiff, and there is no nail nick (or similar aid) for deploying the knife. Personally, it’s never been an issue for me. Bear in mind that K’roo asked if I wanted a nail nick, but he and I agreed that the lines were too clean to ruin like that.
Retention Method: 2
If you haven’t guessed from the pictures, there’s no pocket clip. There is a very handy lanyard, which I use to fish this out of my pocket and get a bit of a firmer grip on the knife. You could certainly carry this in a slip case, but the micarta handles pocket wear well enough that I’ve never felt the need.
Blade Safety: 2
While the high tension of the backspring makes this knife a bear to open, it also leaves me feeling pretty secure about my digits. The half-stop is also a welcome addition. Like most good slipjoints, exercise a little care and there shouldn’t be any cause for worry.
Overall Score: 16 out of 20
This knife is odd. If I had ordered it from a catalog, I would probably have been disappointed by some aspects of the fit and finish. I’ve got a bit of reputation for nitpicking, and by rights the flaws here should bother me more than they do. But part of the charm of a custom, handmade knife is the collaborative nature: knowing that I had an actual hand in the process (and not just the finishing touches) gives the knife a great deal of charm.
The competition in the production world is surprisingly stiff. Great Eastern Cutlery makes some of the nicest traditional knives available; the same applies to Canal Street Cutlery, though unfortunately they’re in the process of closing shop. To drive the point home, their knives often come in at half the price of most knives by K’roo (check the exchange rate just in case).
However, I don’t know of many competitors to K’roo in the handmade knife world. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of talented slipjoint makers out – there are – but none that operate in this price bracket. That opinion could be borne of ignorance, though. Feel free to enlighten me below.