Friday, May 20, 2016

Breaking the Embargo, Part II

In the first part of this article I mentioned the embargo on custom knives, why it exists, and why I have decided to break it.  Ultimately this comes down to you the reader--you want and need this information and this is information you should have.

But before I go through individual knives, let me put on this huge caveat--small sample sizes will always be a problem with custom knives.  They are too rare and too expensive for a normal person to get multiple copies.  Sure some whale collectors have five or ten Blount Arrestors, but the majority of people are lucky to get one.  In the comments section on my video review of the Kizer Gemini, found here, I had a good debate with Kris Kunisch about this issue.  The methods I use to evaluate CQ in productions, outlined here, is something I can't really do with customs.  

The only way to fix this problem is to reach out to the maker and see if they have issues with the knife. If they clear it, say that it is working exactly as intended, then I think you can fairly evaluate the CQ with only a single copy.  Other than that, you basically have to say "This is a lemon, but you might get a great copy."  

With that out of the way, here we go:

Dozier DK-FH


Remember in the 80s and 90s, the Celebrity Circus TV specials where celebrities did circus acts and almost every single one of them looked super uncomfortable and super out of their element?  This knife, a folder from a famous fixed blade maker, is just that. 

This was a very finely ground knife with excellent tolerances, but it was not something I enjoyed at all.  The jimping was not just rough or shreddy, it was capable of sawing material.  The thumb stud was similarly rough.  Other things I didn't like were the clip and the lockbar.  Honestly it looks like the lockbar was cut on a bandsaw.  It was crude and jagged, something you wouldn't expect from a custom, especially one from a maker as renowned as Bob Dozier.  I have handled multiple copies of the DK-FH, both framelock and linerlock versions and they all had these flaws.  This is a good knife, but not a fine knife, if that makes sense.  This is a pretty easy conclusion to reach--don't bother.  

Laconico Jasmine


I bought this on the second market.  It is one of the few customs I have bought on the secondary market and likely the last.  When I got rid of it, it was sold to a person that was aware of the blade play issues.  I have no other experience with Laconico's work and I did not follow up with him, mainly because the blade itself wasn't exciting enough for me to bother.  For that reason, this is the worst offender of the sample size problem.

The thing that attracted me to the Laconico, aside from this review by Aaron Shapiro, was the often-praised flipping action.  Here the knife deployed with kinetic grace.  I was pretty stoked about that.  I was not stoked by the secondary market price--around $800 or the fact that it was a D2 frame lock with very rudimentary milling on the handle.  But the flipping action was great.

After about fifteen minutes, I noticed that the reason the flipping action was so great was because the pivot was very loose.  There was horizontal and vertical blade play when the knife was locked.  More troubling was the fact that when the knife wasn't locked there was tremendous amount of slop in the pivot.  I could get rid of the horizontal blade play by tightening the pivot, but I couldn't get rid of the vertical play.  

Ultimately I sold the knife, disappointed in the blade steel and the handle milling and let down by the blade play.  I told the seller of my troubles and he was fine with it.  I sold it for what I paid for it (I do not resell knives for a profit, this is a hobby not a job and I don't really care to make a profit, I just don't want to take a loss).

Of course, this is one knife from a very well-established maker with a great reputation.  I would assume that I got a lemon, of course.  The sample size of one, especially from the secondary market, leads me to believe that you can deal with Ray without worrying.  Mine just stunk.  This, however, ignores the fact that even if you assume I got a perfect copy of the Jasmine it would still be no better than the Kizer Gemini I own.  And it would have cost me much less money.     

Jarosz Tetrad 75


I bought this on the secondary market and it was returned to the purchaser.  I have since purchased another Jarosz folder of the same basic size and built.  That second knife is sublime.  As such, a sample size of two, while still small, is significantly better than a sample size of one.

This was an early knife of Jesse's probably made one or two years before I received it, making it one of his earlier folders.  The knife itself was amazing.  The grind was great.  The blade shape was awesome.  Jesse's handles were and are among the best in the business.  The one curious thing was the lock up.  This was a liner lock and Jesse prefers what the market would call very late lock up.  I personally think the obsession with early lock up is silly (from a mechanical perspective, it seems like the most contact between the tang and the lock bar would produce the most stability), so this didn't bother me.  However, whenever I would grip the knife with some force, the locking liner would disengage slightly.  I think this had to do with the shape of the handle around the lock.  It allowed for the pad of my hand to slip into the channel that normally houses the blade and push the lock out of the engaged position.  This resulted in audible blade play.

I contacted Jesse and the seller and the seller was AMAZING.  He took the knife back with no problems before Jesse had a chance to respond.  I sent the knife back to the seller for a full refund.  I have since purchased another folder from Jesse and the handle geometry is a tweak different and the result is ZERO problems with unintentional lock disengagement.  It is ROCK solid.  Based on this, and how early a folder that other one was, I think it is safe to say that the problem has been fixed.  I also have a fixed blade from Jesse and it too is amazing, so, again, I feel pretty safe recommending Jesse's stuff.  The grinds, in particular, are stunning.  

Customblade Works Mini Explorer


(NOTE: The knife here is in an unfinished state...this is a WIP picture)

In this case, I confirmed with Mr. DeCoene that the knife was flawed.

This design is so difficult to pull off.  He has made full sized Explorers before but I think my mini was one of the very first he had tried to make.  The issue is that the design calls for an extremely small number of parts, and there is only one stand off.  Other knives do this, but not with the same design and same tiny parts list.  The maker sent the knife telling me that there might be issues and that I could try it out and send it back.  

When I got the knife it was beautiful, of course, and perfectly finished.  The Suminagshi steel was hypnotic.  But every once in a while the lock bar would pop out like a spring.  I am not sure what caused this.  It could be the geometry of the lock face.  It could also be the fact that with only one stand off, any force gripping the knife took stuff out of alignment.  I sent the knife back for a full refund. Philippe had also sent me a friction folder because my order had taken so long (that, folks, is real customer care).  He took the knife apart and concluded that it would be impossible to fix without changing the design.  He was willing to do that and I was willing to pay more, but ultimately he believed that he would need to buy a bearing pivot to stabilize the handle enough to eliminate the squeezing problems.  The only issue was none of the commercially available bearing pivots fit the design and so he scrapped it.  If he can find one that works, he will sell the knife back to me.  

This was the best experience I have had with a custom maker.  He was totally upfront, he knew his design was a real challenge (he told me it might not work from the beginning) but he tried anyway.  And when it failed he did the right thing immediately.  The friction folder was an amazing perk.  I have dealt with DeCoene before, and he is always great.  My previous knife from him was awesome, so have no fear--he is great. As one of the people pushing the boundaries of design as far as possible, he will occasionally fail, but you the customer are never left in the cold. 

Anso Ziggy


In the case of this knife, I have confirmed with Mr. Anso that the knife was working as he intended it to.  I feel, given that, my criticisms here are immune to the sample size complaint.  This is the most expensive knife I have ever purchased.  It also happened to be the first knife I have ever purchased directly from a top tier maker.  I also think it is fair to say that I am something of an Anso design fanboy.  All that said, I was distinctly not pleased with this knife.  Here is the email I sent Anso explaining what I didn't like about the knife:

"I hope you don't think this email is rude or arrogant but I wanted to give you some analysis of my particular Ziggy.  Take these for what they are—feedback from a fan of virtually all of your work.

Thanks for confirming that my Ziggy was in complete working order.  That helps sort out what the source of my issues were.  I wasn’t sure if it didn’t work or if it was a set of design choices, but now I know.  Additionally, I will be the first to acknowledge that I am very critical of knives, especially ones that costs as much as this knife did.  For that kind of money, I want something that is both well made and suits me perfectly.  The knife was by no means poorly made.  It was perfectly centered, the blade was beautiful, and the anodizing was flawless.  I don't think this is an issue with craftsmanship or fit and finish.  In the end I think it was an issue of design choices, preferences, and expectations.

The combination of a very strong detent and a rounded over flipper tab made it hard to open the knife consistently without PERFECT technique.  I am not much of a knife flipper, so I am not saying that it didn’t flip well when I repeatedly flipped it, that criticism is, in my opinion, a stupid one.  Instead, my problem was more basic—I just couldn’t reliably get the knife open without using two hand or a very hard wrist flick.  Comparing the flipping action to knives of an equal price/reputation, shows me that there is something flawed in the design.  I own one and have handled more Jon Graham flippers and he has a very strong detent as well, but the Ziggy's flipper tab shape and finish, while aesthetically pleasing, was not conducive to opening the knife easily.  With lots and lots of practice I might have been able to get the technique down just right, but none of my other custom knives require that level of focus and practice—they open with ease on a regular basis.  The Ziggy didn’t do that.  I also found the handle edges were too sharp, especially around the lockbar and the "landing strip" area for the flipper tab.  In some knives, like those made by John Gray and some Lionsteel production models, the handles are chamfered in those two areas to make it easier to disengage the lock and use the flipper tab.  Finally, I simply hate sculpted pocket clips.  On the Ziggy, it did not have enough flex to accommodate pocket carry.  I got the knife at work and I wear a suit everyday.  The clip was too stiff to fit over the lip of even dress pants.  It never worked on jeans.  For me, that's something of a deal breaker.  The other thing that was weird was the clip didn't actually touch the handle scales (probably to accommodate it's less flexible shape) and it gave knife a weird "tuning fork" feel.  If I opened the knife correctly, there was an odd vibration because of the clip.   If I made something like a chopping movement there was a consistent “ping” to the entire blade.  It was off putting during use.  All of those issues were design choices, not build quality.  You know more about knives and selling knives than I do, so I'd never ask you to change any of those things--it's your artwork so make it like you want it to be.  But, over the years I have developed strong preferences that don't mesh well with those design choices.

The only issue that might have been build quality was the pivot.  It was awfully stiff.  It took a surprising amount of effort to get the blade back in the handle.  It certainly did not glide closed like the blade on a Sebenza or a ZT or any number of customs I have.  That said, it could just be the knife needed a break in period.

I will also confess that I had exceedingly high expectations.  I have been following your work for years and the chance to own a knife you made was genuinely exciting.  I sold one of my favorite customs, a TAD Dauntless, to pay for the Ziggy.  I had hunted for that knife for two years and selling it was something I didn’t do lightly, but this was a chance own a real Anso, so I did it.  Your production collabs are among my favorite knives ever.  So the bar was set very high for the Ziggy.  In the end those expectations, the design choices I disagree with and the price made the knife a pretty disappointing.  I'll try again eventually.  You truly have a one of a kind style and that style really speaks to me.  Just not on this knife.

Thanks for the refund.  I thought about just flipping it on the secondary market, but I wasn’t sure if it was working correctly and didn’t want to deal the hassle of trying to sell it and then have the buyer complain.  Sending it back to you was much easier."

The Ziggy has not sold well since its release.  They can regularly be found in stock at dealers and they rarely come up on the forums and when they do they are sold below what you would expect from an Anso knife (and below what I paid for mine directly from Anso).  In the end, all of the criticisms above point to one thing--this is just a half baked design.  I expect and want weird stuff from Anso, but the Ziggy wasn't weird, it was one bad design choice after another. 

It's interesting to see the ZT0220, as that is basically a Ziggy edited by KAI and made into a production knife. If the lines and features of the custom were like the ZT0220 I'd probably still have it.  That looks like a superior blade. 

In the end, customs are a huge gamble, even from the best known makers.  They cost so much and they are so hard to get.  Jonathan talked a lot on GGL68 about buyers doing research, but there is so little information out there, it is hard to do that research.  Hopefully this will change as I and others put out more information on custom knives.  The embargo is over and that is a good thing for you the consumer. Hopefully other content creators will be willing to speak critically of custom stuff too.


  1. More people need to go to shows and buy with their hands and minds instead of online with their hearts and eyes.

  2. Wow, suprising and enlightening. This market seems like the polar opposite of the production market and I am only jusy beginning to get my head around it. It seems loads of the big makers have made missteps, and I guess the difference is that in the production world these fail blades dont make it past testing phase and they get ironed out, whereas in this very blue blooded custom economy, its probably going to end up out in the herd anyway, even if it stinks.

    Several things stop me from probably ever getting into the custom game as a customer: Foremost is simply every maker I see seems to be never making knives. A simple but major obstacle for most. Second is that the purchases arent simple and often involve doing a deal or providing upfront cash and then cash later. I was reading a ghastly thread on bladeforums about Dustin Turpin. He was actually one I was stalkig a bit a few months back hoping for a buy. The money involved makes articles like that mean instant blacklist. You can find it as the third result down when you google Dustin Turpin.

  3. You hit on one of the most important aspects of custom knife makers: communication before and after the sale. A small issue with my Karroll EDMW was dealt with professionally, promptly and gentlemany by Steve. Communication with Philip De Coene about his friction folder resulted in my purchase of a perfect knife. On the other hand, my experience with Gareth Bull has been exasperating. When my Shamwari didn't lock securely, he offered to do a "tune up." I sent it to him mid January. Since then, I have sent dozens of unsnswered messages. Now, four months later, I don't have the knife back, nor do I know if or when I shall ever get it. I should have paid more attention to the troubles others have described having with him in the past .

    1. Finally received the shamwari. Along with an invoice for $100. With which I will deal in the same timely manner as the repair.

  4. I notice that you don't readily include price in each breakdown. This may be a stupid question (I have little to no experience with customs) but is this because the expectation is that the reader should have some basic ballpark understanding, or is there another reason for not mentioning it as a consistent factor in your discussions?

    I am just nearing the point where I may look towards owning a custom in earnest, I appreciate tremendously what you are doing here with the "Breaking The Embargo" series.

    1. Adam I didn't include price because I have forgotten the exact prices. Here is my best guess:

      Jarosz Tetrad--$595
      Laconico Jasmine--$800
      De Coene Mini Explorer--$800
      Anso Ziggy--$995 or $1000

  5. I wonder how many of the well-known designers are much better at design than manufacturing, or vice-versa. For example, Anso seems like a designer through and through, and I have to wonder if his "manufacturing" prowess comes in a far second to that. This is exactly the reason why designers partnering with production companies is great for us.