Friday, June 3, 2016

Fiddleback Forge Bushcrafter Review

I have carefully avoid many (though not all) of the pitfalls of fanboyhood.  I have remained unswayed by the waves of Emerson fans, the legion of Busse, and the herds of Hinderer enthusiasts.  As preferences in knives stray perilously close to titanic and gauche, I have maintained a preference for the small, useful, and unadorned Spyderco Dragonfly, with only the steel choice representing something trendy (ZDP-189 ain't 1095).  As folks went ga-ga for slipjoints, I tried (and probably failed) keep a sober perspective of the trend.  And has more and more people decide to backyard bushcraft, I have maintained a preference for different kinds of fixed blades, like the Ver Steeg Imp and the Jarosz JFS.

But at some point the hype train steams past my house and drops something off.  Once it dropped off the still awful stainless steel Kershaw Cryo and I tried to throw it back on when the train came around again.  It has also twice stopped to deliver a package containing a Spyderco flipper and, sadly, both packages contained something less than Spyderco's best work.  So when the cacophony rose to a fever pitch regarding Andy Roy's Fiddleback Forge I was wary.  All of the idiosyncrasies of the brand--the burlap handles, the faux heat treat scaling (called, humorously enough "spalted steel"; spalting, while beautiful, is a defect in wood caused by a fungal infection and it weakens the wood...), and the bullseye lanyard tube--make me cautious.  Then there is the price, the breathtaking, mind altering, insane price.  Custom (or more appropriately, handmade, according to my nomenclature) Fiddleback Forges start at around $300 and go up from there.  This for a knife that doesn't fold, doesn't lock, and runs O1 or on a particularly sophisticated model, hold your hat, A2.  And the money isn't found in the sheath--these are leather numbers produced by Bark River or the same company that makes Bark River's sheathes.  Toot, toot from the hype train, for sure.

All that said, sometimes the hype train drops off something sweet.  It did when it dropped off my first Paramilitary 2.  That is a gem.  So too with my beloved and still regularly used McGizmo Haiku.  And here is the reality--almost every material used on knives that is "exotic" or "expensive" isn't.  For Christ sake people both carbon fiber and Moku-ti are MANMADE, meaning we can make as much or as little as we want.  Invariably, unless you are setting gems or grinding gold like Van Barnett, labor is the truly expensive part of a handmade knife.  And so, even though the thing is made of burlap, glue, and a steel that was cutting edge in the 1890s (okay, maybe not...), $375 for my Bushcrafter isn't outrageous.  It's not because of the skill in making and designing this knife are obvious and of the highest order.  Simplicity is harder to do well than decoration and the Bushcrafter is a master class in superior execution of a simple idea.  Fiddleback Forges aren't great values, but they are great on for more as to why.

Here is the product page for the Bushcrafter.  Here is a written review.  Here is a video review.  You can purchase the knife through Knives Ship Free and the proceeds go to site by using this link:


Here is my review sample of the Fiddleback Forge Bushcrafter:


Twitter Review Summary: Well made collectible or fancy user?  Yes.

Is this a Custom?

Here is my article on the various terms relating to knife production.  Under that system I would classify the Bushcrafter as a single source, handmade knife, especially based on what is shown in this article.  To my knowledge Andy Roy cuts and processes all of the raw materials--the steel and handle materials--himself.  He spalts the steel and grinds it himself.  It also appears as though Andy designs each knife.  For more on the Fiddleback Forge creation process check out this link.  Also, beware--there are a line of "midtech" Fiddleback Forge knives where the knife blanks are pre-cut in batches.  They are about 2/3 the price of a regular Fiddleback Forge.  This particular Bushcrafter is fully handmade item.  

Design: 2

Simple is good.


There is no question that the Bushcrafter was designed for a niche audience--the steel, the emphasis on the handle shape, and the size/proportions are all something that the bushcraft community (aka those that enjoy crafting bush) values greatly.  But despite its narrow audience, the Bushcrafter is actually a great all-around knife.  I have used it and tested it like a camp knife--flexing from food prep chores to batonning--and it is has done well in any role.  Don't be taken in by the hype train--anyone and everyone could use and benefit from owning a knife like this.  And the reason why is simple--this is a very solid design with few frills and zero mistakes. 

But the issue isn't the basics, it's the things that make this knife a distinctive Fiddleback Forge design.  I love the burlap micarta--its vivid coloration, here a bright tangerine aka orange, and grip are great.  The tapered tang, though not a distinctive feature, is something usually only seen on high end knives and, as you will see below, it works.  The bullseye lanyard hole is not that big a deal either way, but it is nice.  Only the "spalted" steel doesn't check a box for me.  It's not awful, but it's designed to look like either heat treat scaling left on or forging marks.  Either way, it strikes me as a bit of faux ruggedness--the knife equivalent of "aged blue jeans."

I have one uncategorized minor ding--I wish the ricasso was better done.  Not a big deal, but just a missed opportunity and one that is worth mentioning when the price is as high as it is here.  

Overall, the design is very good--solid basics and nice distinctive touches.

Fit and Finish: 2

Flawless.  This fixed blade is simply flawless. This is only the second fixed blade I have had with a tapered tang and the first, an Arno Bernard, was so light already it was hard to tell if it actually made a difference.  Here, the knife is quite beefy and it clearly does make a difference.  Andy took a lot of time to get everything to balance out perfectly.  How perfectly?  Well, it doesn't get much easier to see perfect weight distribution than this:


Putting the balance point right THERE makes the knife super light in the hand, which contributes to an overall feeling that it is easy to use and control.  The rest of the knife is finished equally well.  There are no gaps in the handle.  The liners are completely smooth with each other.  The plunge lines are crisp and even from side to side.  The pins are flush.  In short, this thing is perfectly finished.

Handle Design: 2 

Fiddleback Forge fans, of which there are many online and especially on YouTube, will tell you that the state of the art part of Andy's knives are the handles, not the blade steel, something of a reverse of the traditional folder mentality.  My experience has been one that confirms this to be the case.  This is not hype, either.  


That simple shape belies a great deal of design complexity and iteration.  If you go through the Fiddelback Forge catalog you will see a number of subtlety different handles, all of which come from traditional sources.  All of this handle designing leads me to believe that this simple shape is arrived at only after a long process of mastering the craft of handle making.  After all, it's only after extreme mastery can a sculptor do something as simple sounding as making a lifelike statute from marble.  This isn't Michalangelo's David, but the same concept seems to apply--mastery allows complexity to hide in simple forms.  

The handle has a nice oval cross section and a good palm swell with a very slight parrot's beak at the end.  The index finger falls into a gently shaped groove.  In all, despite (or perhaps becomes of) the simple appearance, the handle sings in the hand.  As good as the Becker handle is, as good as the handles have been on the Bark River's I have held, this is better.  This is truly state of the art.  

How do I know?  Well, aside from normal camp knife duties, I decided to sit down one quiet weekend and debark a piece of maple I am planning on using as a walking stick.  The stick was cut and still green and it was about six feet long.  So, while managing a fire and two little boys, I slowly took off all of the bark, piece by piece until the stick looked like a piece of ivory (for more on making a good walking stick, see here).  During this process, which lasted six hours or so with a lot of interruptions (two little boys, remember), I used the Bushcrafter exclusively.  At the end of the process, while my hands ached from the detail work of cutting in around knots and the like, there were no hotspots, no places where I felt like the knife chafed, and not a single place where I wish the handle was shaped differently.  

This is truly a state of the art handle and the best I have ever handled.  If it didn't break the scale I'd give it a higher score.  

Steel: Ugh...2

I say "ugh" because this just shouldn't happen.  I am a self-acknowledged steel junkie.  I like steels--the harder and the more advanced, the better.  But the reality is, you can achieve great results with old steel and O1 is OLD.  It is the last surviving member of the "O" family of steels (which went from O1 to O7).  All but O1 are out of production and have been for decades.  

My issue with awarding old and supposedly out of date steels such a high score is that it doesn't match expectation and it seems to border on magical thinking, something I am distinctly opposed to in gear.  I am dismissive of things like "oh this guy is a master of X steel" or "this secret heat treat is better than everything else."  This sounds like snake oil salesmanship to me--vague talk about indecipherable performance benefits that cannot be measured.  In order to come to the conclusion that something like this has happened, such as with the Bos heat treat, I need A LOT of data to confirm this is true.  With a steel chemistry, if you know what to look for, you can see the elements listed and deduce good performance.  This is why being a steel junkie is, in many ways, a cop out--I don't have to wade through tons of steels to find good ones, I can just cherry pick based on recipe.  With heat treat and edge geometry that sort of thing is much harder to do.

But there are people that do have expertise in heat treats and edge geometry.  There are folks that know exactly how to harness every last bit of performance out a steel and leverage their superior knowledge against another steel's superior chemistry.  Paul Bos does it.  Al Mar Knives does it with their AUS-8.  And after a lot of use, I feel comfortable in saying that Andy Roy has it when it comes to O1.  After hours of use in hard, green, messy wood this thing killed it.  I could still shave after batonning with the knife, after peeling the bark off a 6 foot staff of maple, and after lots of food prep.  Its not magic, its skill, albeit skill that is hard to quantify.  To deny that it exists, especially in light of a mountain of experiential evidence, is as silly as believing the snake oil bullshit sight unseen.

Fiddleback Forge's O1 performs at an elite level.  Sorry if that doesn't jibe with your sense of how steels work.  It doesn't exactly work with my expectations either, but my eyes and hands tell me this is a great steel in this application.   

Blade Shape: 2

Oh a classic--a fat drop point with a tall blade.


Bob Loveless loved the drop point for a reason--it was an amazingly useful shape in a ton of applications and excelled in hunting uses.  I am not a hunter, but I can confirm the broad applicability of this blade shape.  It just does so much right.  The fact that this is a tall blade helps as well, as it gives the steel time to taper to a great edge...

Grind: 2

And the edge it does taper too is phenomenal--sharp and sturdy.  I wish this was a full convex grind like a Bark River, but the introduction of the cutting bevel doesn't really impact performance. I have just become used to seeing that clean continuous curve that Mike and company do so well that I sort of assumed it would be here.  

Sheath Carry: 1 

Sheathes, they is hard.


Seriously though, there are so few great production sheathes out there.  The one that comes with the Bushcrafter is well made, sturdy, and looks okay, but it sits too high for me.  I'd also like to see the two way belt attachment found on the American Knife Company sheath.  These are all coming from the same source, I think (Mike Stewart), so I am not sure why they can't all have the same great features.  Not a big deal, but definitely something that irked me carrying the knife.  

Sheath Accessibility: 2 

Leather sheathes usually poor accessibility--either way too tight or way too loose.  Here, we have neither problem.  This is the Goldilocks sheath, it's just right.  The basic test is simple: can I get the knife in and out of the sheath one handed?  Here the answer is yes and that is rare for a leather sheath.

Useability: 2

Thanks to a great handle, the tapered tang, and a very good steel, the Bushcrafter can be used for hours at a time with no real problem.  Though there is always some fatigue associated with using a knife, there are no knife-centric problems here.  No hotspots, no awkward hand placement, and no get-in-your-way parts.  I don't use a knife as part of my job, but if I did, I'd want to function like the Bushcrafter.

Durability: 2

When you think of a custom knife you rarely think of something that can and will take a beating.  After all, it just feels weird to pound the snot out of a nearly $400 knife.  But, thanks to good readers like you, folks that purchase through the affiliate links, I have no problem beating the snot out of a knife like the Bushcrafter.


I did quite a bit of batonning and prying with this knife and it is none the worse for wear.  In fact, if I had two copies, one unused and this one, you couldn't tell them apart sitting them side by side. I did take care to wipe the blade down after using it and I did oil it, but I think that is just good maintenance habits and not really babying the knife.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

This is a GREAT knife.  It is useful, unique, and well made. It is also an expensive knife.  But it has performed as well or better than any other fixed blade I have used.  The performance advantage is small, but as with all things, once you are at the very pinnacle of performance even small marginal increases cost a huge amount of money.  I have referenced this elsewhere, but I'll state it again.  It seems to me that rational purchasing conforms to the so-called 10/100 rule, whereby a purchase is irrational when a 10% performance increase costs 100% more money. I think the Bushcrafter sits right on the edge of this rule.  I couldn't argue with conviction against either position.  Regardless of the rationality of the purchase, I can say this--you will no be disappointed buying a custom Fiddleback Forge.  It may not blow you away sliding out of the box (if you are a FF collector it will), but go use it, really use it and I think you we will more than happy.  This is a fantastic user knife that happens to be an uber hot collectible.  


Let me be clear--in a world without Bark River or the brands it is an OEM for (like American Knife Company and Ambush Knives) the Fiddleback Forge custom would be insane--leagues better than any production fixed blade.  But this is not a world without Bark River.  And while Bark River blades aren't exactly a peer for the Fiddleback Forge, they aren't far behind.  Bark River represents the same price chokepoint that Chris Reeve represents in the folder market--they do so much for so little money that even custom guys have a hard time competing.

But this price first analysis, while important, isn't the whole story.  Really you buy a Fiddleback Forge for its completely unique look and feel.  The handle is state of the art.  The look is totally different than anything else.  I am not sure if, in 100 years, people will laugh at this thing or cherish it.  If performance is any indication, it will be the latter, but predicting future tastes is always an exercise in folly.  There is a reason to buy this knife over a Bark River or even a similarly price fixed blade like an Adventure Sworn--Andy Roy's style is so unique and the performance is so good there really is a bit of magic here.  It is a magic that is pure luxury, but even Bark Rivers are expensive in the mind of the average consumer.  I mentioned this on the podcast, but it bears repeating--I have every reason to think that this knife is going to be a tremendously popular collectible in the future.  It has all of the hallmarks of something people seek out--unique, limited, and high performance.  But lots of things fit that mold and fail to be collectible.  It could be, but we just don't know for sure.  


  1. Would love to see this weighed against LT Wrights work- they are slightly more 'production' but about half the price. Have you handled any of his knives? Very similar mood to them, as well as general size, materials and POU

  2. Excellent review, Tony. I totally agree about the value of Andy's work; as beautiful as the knives are, their real excellence doesn't become apparent until you actually use them (I know, I sound like one of the oft-derided fanboys). I actually prefer the Bushfinger model over the Bushcrafter because of the slightly more acute point, but that's just because of my personal usage preferences. I've had a marblewood and G-10 handled Bushfinger for a few years, and your overview prompted me to take it out in the yard a couple days ago and spend a few hours on general clean-up was an absolute delight to work with. After that session I was browsing the internet and found a dealer that had a burlap Micarta version with a "curly cue" in stock...not the most practical thing I suppose, but I couldn't help but order it.

  3. Very interesting and helpful. Thanks for the review. In light of your video review t's surprising that the rating here was so high, particularly for the steel. You seem to indicate in the video that the O2 would get it's butt kicked by super steels, yet this seems to perform as well as one might hope for. So would you say there's no real advantage to supersteels?

    1. The advantage of supersteels is that they are easy to get high performance out of and they can get uniform high performance more easily, especially across big batches.

    2. Thanks T. Incidentally, I saw an old BC Philo grad, Tedmund Chan, who was there when we were.