Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Last Gen Steels that Stink and Getting Some Perspective

Lots of folks will tell you that you only truly understand how a steel works when you sharpen it.  I think that is partially true.  With a strop and modern PM steels you can hold off full sharpening sessions basically forever.  I rarely break out my Sharpmaker these days, opting for my two strop, three grit set up instead.  But recently I had a chance to take a knife from dull to shaving sharp for the first time in a long time.  Doing so brought to light some of the hype around steels and why steel junkies need to be wary of jumping on the latest and greatest.

My Dad carries one of the Japanese SOGs, a SOG Mini Vulcan.

It is a very nice knife, especially compared to the recent rash (and I mean that in both senses) of SOG knives.  The grinds, as they are on all SOGs, are amazing.  But the knife has two features I dislike--the recurve and the blade steel.  Both conspire to make this a challenging knife to fully resharpen.  My Dad likes knives.  He carries them.  But the SOG is his working knife and so it's not something he babies nor is it something that he strops or sharpens.  He visited recently and brought the Vulcan with him and I gave it a full spa, to the extent I can do so.  I cleaned the blade and blew out the handle.  I retightened the pivot and I dropped two dabs of Nano Oil on the washers.  Finally, I took the edge from "can't cut paper" to hair popping sharp.

The steel, VG10, was a superstar ten or fifteen years ago.  It was THE choice for Spyderco and a lot of other companies, like SOG, using Japanese OEMs.  Developed as a steel for paring branches in industrial horticulture settings, VG10 is very corrosion resistant and takes a very keen edge.  With a HRc in the mid 50s and lacking the precision microstructure of a PM steel, VG10 is clearly last gen.  And it is a lesson for all of us--don't get caught up in the hype.  

Personally, I find that VG10 doesn't hold that keen edge all that long.  I have also found that it does not do great with stuff like cardboard, preferring kitchen duties to package processing chores.  I have also found that it is a true bitch to sharpen.  It took me a hour to get the edge back to sharp. I am not a great hand at the grinding stone.  I am not Andrew Gene, who can freehand sharpen an axe to the point where he can shave with it or hone a Murray Carter knife to the point where it can fillet paper.  No, not that good.  But I am decent.  And the Mini Vulcan really fought me.  

The hype was crazy high for VG10 and now, with some historical distance and a few dozen new "next gen" steels between its release and today, I think it is safe to say that VG10 was not that big of an improvement over something like AUS8.  It is a bit harder and gets a bit sharper, but it's increased difficulty in sharpening doesn't make up for the difference.  

Something similar can be stated about S30V.  This was the first "brand" steel, it was released with unheralded fanfare and basically kickstarted the steel junkie fever.  Sure there were people that loved steel before, but S30V had a team of celebrity designers and contributors including Chris Reeve himself. 

But I am not a huge fan of S30V either.  In addition to a similar challenge when sharpening, it is notoriously chip prone.  My ZT0350 got a bad chip when I was doing some fire prep and it was brutally hard to get out (though I did).

In the end, S30V has developed some very good heat treat protocols to ameliorate this problem, notably Reeve's own soft 57-58 HRc S30V.  Still, I think we can all admit that as great as it was claimed to be, S30V is unlikely to be a classic.  It won't have the historical significance of something like 1095.  Nor is it likely to have fans 50 years from now like D2.  It's good, especially when done right, but it is not great. 

Aside from bitching, the point I am trying to make here is that we need to be skeptical of new steels.  I think that I was taken in by Super Blue, which is an interesting and unique steel, but probably not worth the corrosion hassle compared to something like ZDP-189.  I am also a bit wary of XHP.  Makers like it because it is still perceived as a premium steel, its relatively inexpensive, and it is easy to grind and sharpen (relatively speaking).  It is also something custom makers can get to a mirror polish.  But I have never been really blown away.  It seems coarse, especially compared to something like M390.  I am also a fan of Elmax, which suffered the reverse problem--bad press out of the gate and has basically been abandoned.  Historical perspective would have helped there as well.

We need some time, generally speaking, to evaluate how good a steel really is.  Unless your a butcher or a ninja, your likely not using a premium steel knife enough in a few weeks to get a handle on its historical greatness, or lack thereof.  You can certainly get a feel for it and understand its merits compared to the competition, but it's hard to separate that from a sample size issue, a great heat treat or grind that really works.  I am helped in this regard by reviewing TONS of knives, but it is tough even in that situation.   

Maybe I am betraying my steel junkie heart, but I am fine with a CPM154 blade.  This is a steel I know really works.  Let's all get a bit of perspective.  After all, a few years ago we were told that ceramic would be the norm.  And we believed the marketeers until we dropped our ceramic knife and it shattered.  

Long story short--slow your roll when it comes to new steels.  They are more useful at selling you the same product twice than they are as an improvement over what you have.  Some new steels are great, some aren't.  Figuring that out takes time. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Why I Like Knives

For me, it started because I saw my grandpa carry one when I was kid.  If something needed fixing, he would pull out a mid-1920s Queen that was his dad's and fix it.  Whether it was fishing line or a tire on my bike or a piece of dry wall that was damaged, that knife and that man could get just about any task done.  And for me, that it is why I carry a knife--the hope that I too could get any task done with my trusty tool by my side.

Over the years, when I would get a new knife I would always bring it to him to show him, for his approval.  His system was much simpler than mine--if it was good, it was a knife that was "handy as a whistle on a plow".  If it was, um, not so good it was a knife that was "handy as a screen door on a submarine".  

He loved the multibladed traditionals a lot.  He had a nice collection of them, always sharp, always clean and lubed up, stored in a plastic Folger's can either under his bed or in a drawer in his dresser.  He had a few non-traditionals--a Gerber Gator that someone gave him that he wisely never used, a Kershaw Chive I gave him for Christmas that he thought was too gadgety, but carried because it was from me, and that mid-1920s Queen Congress from his Dad.  Eventually I got him a GEC knife with a good simple blade and a driver/cap lifter which better fit his style and was something he genuinely liked. 

But it wasn't about the knives themselves, for me.  It was about what he could do with them.  He could whittle and carve.  He could fix and repair.  And in the end, it seemed like the simpler the tool the more he could get it to do.  It was just amazing.  This country boy from poor and rural Ohio, whose dad made moonshine to get them through the Depression, could make and fix just about anything because, when he was little they had to.  Here was his childhood EDC:


He raised my mom and uncles and did a great job.  He was a faithful husband for more than sixty years.  And even in old age, he loved to go in to the woods with a knife in his pocket.  I can't think of something I'd rather do, especially with him.

But Wednesday morning, after a tenacious battle with dementia, he is gone.  Someday I hope I can be as good a man as he is, whether it was with his family, at work, or with a knife.  He was honest, kind, patient and ornery and I will miss him.  

Monday, August 22, 2016

July 2016 Carry

Phew, this July was one of the hottest we have had in a while and so my carry was greatly diminished in terms of size.  No trade paperback folders for me.

The beginning of the month was a great time, Fourth of July being my second favorite holiday.  My son and I went to see fireworks again and it was handy to have a bunch of reliable flashlights.  We saw fireworks in a small town that shot them off in the backwoods behind their high school and football field.  I carried this stuff:

DPx HEST Urban Sterile Edition from Kickstarter and the Surefire Titan Plus

My six year old son had the HDS Rotary, which he really likes.  He can use it perfectly and it fits his hands well.  Plus if he drops it, I feel bad for the ground.  

We went to the beach a few times and sand is so terrible for gear that I ended up dropping everything in a Otter Box.  Trying to find something that could go from fixing beach toys to popping open a brew to slicing an apple was tough.  Add on to that the fact that it had to be ultra-people friendly.  This meant that it HAD to be a SAK.  Fortunately I had just the knife for the occasion:

Surefire Titan Plus and the SAK Modder custom Pioneer

It's hard to beat the Pioneer when it comes to slim, versatile carry that people don't balk at.  In the end, I have carried this knife much more than even my favorite Leatherman, the Skeletool CX.  The pliers are great, but I just don't use them enough to carry the CX all of the time.  

We did a lot of hiking and some of the spots offered some really cool backgrounds.  Here is one I particularly like--wet granite:

Steve Karroll SES and Muyshondt Aeon Mk. III

I can't tell you, though I have tried, how much I love the Aeon.  It's just damn awesome.  Honestly if that light was all I had, I'd be perfectly fine on an EDC front.  I want more in case of a power outage, but for daily carry, it's all you need.  Not that this has ever been about strict necessities.

Towards the middle of the month, a treat came in from Scott Sawby's, an elite and semi-retired knife maker.  This is his Swift model, equipped with his Self Lock.  The wood is Koa.  Overall, this a damn fine set up, especially for office carry:

Scott Sawby Swift, Edison Pearlette in Indigo Flake, and the Muyshondt Aeon Mk. III

I got another treat after the Swift.  My Vanishing Point, which had been out on loan, returned home and I fell in love with it all over again, this time switch to the converter instead of using refills.

Pilot Vanishing Point, Chris Reeve Mnandi, MBI HF-R 

I love each piece here--all of them are small, innovative and amazing performers.  The HF-R has a unique UI, the Mnandi a unique deployment method, and the VP is one of only a few cap less fountain pens.  Great, high end stuff without being nuts.

I also got my M75 back from a tweak by Jesse.  It came together nicely with this all silver carry:

Tactile Turn Shaker, Jarosz M75, and Muyshondt Aeon Mk. III in Titanium

I am still impressed by the Shaker.  This is a great pen from Tactile Turn.  

Dear Mr. Hodges, 

Could you make a retractable fountain pen--a baby of the Shaker and the Gist?  


Your Biggest Fan.

One thing was notably absent--my 2G Battle Mistress.  The wait continues.  April has turned into May and then June, July, and now August.  Technically my twenty weeks are up September 14, 2016.  I don't really expect anything now or then.  I am okay with waiting, but the process has been less than user friendly.  August is half over as I write this and I have seen nothing...

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Darriel Caston Kadima Review

Let's just get this out of the way at the beginning of this review: this is not a "serious" knife.  It is not a knife that you take in the wilderness to fight off bears and survive for 63 days at high altitude.  It is not a knife that will help you fend off a pack of assailants.  It is not a knife that will baton wood.  

Are you okay with that?  The reality is most of us don't even do those things with the knives we own that are DESIGNED to do those things, so really, is there harm in having a knife that is a convenient cutter with a bit of yo-yo tossed in for those of us with a fidget affliction?  Put another way--think of this as a Torqbar that cuts stuff.  

The essence of the Kadima is some seriously sweet flipping actions.  The geared tang and the pivot disk put your fingers in the exact right place to grip and rip this baby open and the action is so satisfying that you will want to do it over and over and over again.  And, as a package opener, the Kadima is quite proficient.  Again, I wouldn't think of this as a replacement for a Paramilitary 2 or a 940-1, but it is perfectly capable in an EDC role.  And you have the side benefit of a super fun fidget-friendly flipper.  But if you only like "serious" knives that are tactical or survival oriented this ain't the knife for you.

A lot of product reviewing is about understanding what the product is trying to achieve.  It's not about having a universal approach to everything or demanding that everything be able to do a certain set of tasks.  If that was the case, people would poop on a Bugatti Veyron for its lack of trunk space.  Take products as they are and see if they carry our their promise well...that is what I try to do.  

Here is the Kickstarter campaign.  There were too many variations to keep track of, but base model, which I purchased, was $150.  Some of the fancy ones were around $500.  The Kadima was released via Kickstarter and there are about a dozen variations, including different blade shapes, blade materials, handle materials, and pivot disks.  I got the basic of basics--the black G10 Kadima.

Here is my review sample:


Twitter Review Summary: Fun as a Torqbar, useful as a knife.

The Process

So the Kadima was the second folder offered through Kickstarter after they changed their policy on knives.  Since then there has been an explosion of blades--Paul Balzano's knife, a D2 number that has made the rounds at the shill sites, and many more.  But the Kadima and the Urban came out around the same time but the Kadima was shipped to backers first despite what Darriel Caston said was a "huge" delay.  The reality is, nothing on Kickstarter ships when its creators think it will.  That's not exactly true, as the Anso Matrix card holder shipped BEFORE it was scheduled to, but the reality is, most stuff is delayed and here the delay wasn't even that big a deal.  A good, but not great job by Caston, with a legitimate reason for the delay and excellent communication.

Is this a Rip Off of the Serge Pachenko Dog Tag?

This comes up an awful lot on Instagram.  I was aware of Caston's stuff before the Kadima and he had been making squarish one handled knives for a long time.  Based on my own personal knowledge, I couldn't say who was first, but I knew Caston was making what he was making AT LEAST as early as I saw the first custom Pachenko Dog Tag folder.  

If we want to be clear--both designs are nothing more, really, than a variation on the original one-handled knife--the Ed Halligan KISS.  The reality is that almost all knife designs are, in some way, a rip off of another.  Well, except the KISS, that think was brilliant.  But even this argument is not fair.  The innovation here with the Kadima isn't the single handle scale design or the square shape, it's the flipper design.  Too me, that alone distinguishes this knife from the Dog Tag (that, and the lock).

But I wasn't about to settle for simple logical arguments.  I needed some facts.  In doing research I have found early design information that I think is 100% persuasive to show that Caston did not rip off Pachenko.  This is not public information and I do not have the ability to publish it, but I have seen it and it is clear.  

But here is the confirmation that I think seals the deal--Spyderco made both knives.  In my mind, Spyderco's ethical standards in terms of knife design intellectual property are above reproach.  They go out of their way to credit designers for new ideas.  In all of their official material, it's not a frame lock or "mono lock" (for shame Benchmade), but a "Reeve Integral Lock".  They actual pay Emerson for the use of the Wave even though, frankly, their design is significantly different and (yikes) better.  The list of examples of their ethical behavior with knife designs goes on and on--the Boye Dent, the Black Collins Bolt Lock.  No one in the knife business is as careful with IP as Spyderco, no one.  And they produce both the Squarehead from Caston and the Dog Tag from Pachenko.  If Caston's was a ripoff of Pachenko's that would NEVER happen.  

My own personal knowledge, the lineage of knife design in general, the information I was made privy to, and Spyderco's behavior tells me beyond a shadow of a doubt that Caston did not rip off Pachenko.  

Design: 2 

Ed Halligan's KISS was a huge innovation in knife design--the knife equivalent of the cantilever chair.  The variations on the KISS have all been interesting in some way, design tricks and iterations on the original single handle design.  But for my money the Kadima is the most interesting.  Making such a small knife with so few parts such a good flipper is quite impressive.  Add to that the fact that Caston's flipper tab isn't a tab at all, but gearing, and there is enough innovation here to have the Kadima stand out from the crowd, even among KISS-derived, single handle knives.


Toss on to this gee whiz design flair, the fact that the Kadima is actually a useful little EDC knife and you have something that is delightful to have in the pocket.  This isn't the most versatile knife--it can't cut an apple for example, something I like my EDC knives to do, but as a knife with a less than 2 inch blade, the Kadima is a good convenience EDC.  

The blade:handle is .61 (1 5/8: 2 5/8); the blade:weight is .94.  Because of the design these numbers don't tell us a lot.  The reality is this is a small knife of novel design and the performance ratios don't really capture the knife's size and proportions.  

Fit and Finish: 2 

So, what do you consider an inappropriate amount of maintenance when a knife comes from the factory?  If you are a person that demands a knife to fall from the box with a perfect edge and a perfect pivot, then give the Kadima a 1.  I am not such a person.  Coming to knives from woodworking, where maintenance is expected on high end edged tools like planes and chisels, the notion that I might have to tweak something doesn't bother me.  Here the pivot was a bit loose, so I dropped some Loc-tite in there (Blue 242 formulation is my favorite after much trial and much error).  Once that was done, the Kadima was downright awesome.  Take a look at the wonderful machining on the pivot disk:


The entire knife was like this--a reveling in the details that makes the Kadima a fun object to holding and operate.  The fillers were sharply cut enough to allow them to work as a one handed deployment method, the gearing on the tang was grippy without being shreddy.  And the jimping up top was perfect.  Overall, once I dropped some Loc-tite in, the Kadima was ready to go.  

I'd concede that in an ideal world things would arrive perfectly, but this is not the best of all possible worlds (much to Leibniz's chagrin), but there are hardly any knives I get that don't need a drop or two of lube, a run across a strop, or something of the like, even if it is just cleaning up production grease and swarf from the sharpening process.  BTW, I love the world "swarf".

Grip: 1

There is going to be some concession to the design's unique look and this is it--the grip is not the greatest.


When open the blade guard portion of the single scale creates a weird and awkward spot for your thumb.  It's tough to use the the knife for a long time because this spot usually creates a hotspot.  And there is really no fix for it.  If the knife truly laid flat on the scale, like the KISS, the flipper wouldn't work anywhere near as well.  If the blade guard was smaller, it might make the knife less safe.  This is just a compromise made necessary to get the overall design to work well. 

Carry: 2

If there is one thing about the Kadima, other than its gee whiz design, that just works it's the carry.  This knife, even without a clip (or perhaps because of its lack of a clip) is just a joy to carry.  It fits in coin pockets and that pocket in a pocket in dress pants so well.  It is very small and quite light.  Everything is rounded and all of the surfaces of the knife have a texture that hide scratches.  For as unconventional as this knife is, it does carry right because Caston brings good knife knowledge to the table in addition to his design chops.

Steel: 2 

Okay S30V is not my favorite steel.  In fact, I think that given the market, it is probably no longer an automatic 2.  It's just too difficult to sharpen compared to its performance to warrant an automatic 2.  There are some heat treats that are really dialed in that I like and there are some ways to get around its drawbacks that make it a 2, but absent those things, I am no longer auto scoring it a 2.

Here in the Kadima, Caston made some wise decisions to get the most out of the S30V steel (note that the upscale models had CTS-XHP and various forms of Damascus).  First, Caston made the edge small (1.4 inches) and the stock relatively thick, making chipping unlikely.  Second, he did not, on this model, introduce any elements that challenge the steel or the person sharpening it, like a recurve.  Third, he gave this knife a chisel grind, which means you have to sharpen it half as long as you would otherwise.  Given these three things, S30V really works where.  It's corrosion resistance is and always has been great, and if you treat it right (no pounding or smashing) the chipping issue is non-existent.  

Over the years I have come to realize that the choice of steel is not just "gimme the newest, most expensive stuff" (though that is fun), but a pairing of the purpose with properties and here Caston made a wise decision--every Kadima released in the Kickstarter campaign had a very good steel because in this application even S30V's weaknesses are accounted for and to a certain extent, covered over.  

Blade Shape: 2 

If you have only 1.4 inches to work with its wise to keep the blade shape as simple as possible and Caston did that with this base model:


The good ole wharncliffe blade shape--it is a utilitarian dream.  For all those boxes and packages you have a good sharp point and for those press cuts and slices (though, let's be serious, given the size slicing ain't something you will be doing a lot of) you have a nice straight portion.  Also, on a blade this size a wharncliffe makes for some easy sharpening.  Beware though there are Kadimas out there with crazy blade shapes, such as a hawk bill number.  That just seems like a self-inflicted wound to me.  How in the hell will you sharpen that thing?

Grind: 2 

I dislike chisel grinds that are ground the "Emerson way" (flat side on a right handed knife is to right of the spine when looking down on the spine) as they do not allow you to easily register cuts, but here, Caston overcomes the necessary but annoying Emerson style chisel grind, by eliminating the handle scale that impact cut registration.  It doesn't make it perfect, but he didn't have much of a choice given that the knife is a single handle design and does make things better.


It is also important to remember that given the knife's size and intended use (convenience EDC) it's unlikely that you will be doing a lot of super precision cutting that requires you to have perfect edge placement.  Debarking and whittling are a challenge even here, but it is better than on an Emerson thanks to the missing handle scale. 

Also, the grind is pretty darn clean--the back is as flat as I can detect and the front main bevel is even and the cutting bevel is quite nice and very consistent over the run of the edge.  Caston did a good job overcoming some of the limitations of this style of grind.

Deployment Method: 2 

Ah and we have arrived.  The Kadima Flipper is a good knife.  It has some limitations because of its size, but it is a good knife thanks to Darriel Caston's thoughtful design and consideration of materials.  But as a fidget thing, it is out of this world.  The flipping action is so satisfying that even if this didn't have an edge, it would be Torqbar level of fun.  

The geared tang flipper design is awesome and I would love to see it on other knives, giving you plenty of purchase.  It also allows the knife to look as clean as it would with a front flipper like the Shamwari, but still allows you to use the traditional flipper muscle memory to power the knife open.  It's a great and innovative design.

But it's the implementation that has me so stoked about the Kadima.  The use of a caged bearing system and the pivot disk make flipping a dream.  Once you overcome the detent, the knife pops open with a solid "thuck."  It's a very distinct noise, as distinct as the RJ Martin "Ping" (which is a glorious sound in and of itself, hear it once and it is like a siren's call).  I am not saying the Kadima is the equal of a Martin flipper.  It's not, but that noise, perhaps because of the single handle scale design, is just as different compared to other flippers.  

Ultimately it comes down to this--the Kadima's deployment method is superbly effective and insanely fun.  Auston said on the Modern Neanderthal podcast that a good flipper is like sex--people don't use it just because it is effective, they do it because it is really fun.  And here, the Kadima is really fun.

Retention Method: 2

This is a bite sized knife.  Adding a clip would ruin it.  There is just no way to get around the fact that sometimes knives just shouldn't have clips.  As it is, the knife is thin, flat, and fits well in the pocket.


It's best retention feature is its thinness and size.   Call it a cop out if you want, but with any design the first question should always be: do I need this to make the product as a whole work?  And here the answer is a definitive NO.

Lock: 1 

Is this the strongest lock in the world?  Nope.  Are you a moron?  If you answered yes, then skip this knife.  The Kadima's small and visible lock bar does move if you put a significant amount of pressure on the spine.  Maybe a lot of locks do this, but just can't be seen.  Or, maybe, this lock just wiggles a bit.  But, in all honesty, I have moved beyond lock strength a long time ago.  The lock works here.  Sure you could do things that are abusive to spring the lock if you wanted to, but you can do that with just about any lock.  


If the only way to get something to fail in a product review is by pushing beyond what it is supposed to do, it is hard to attribute that failure to the product. Here, in role, as a pure convenience cutter, the lock is strong enough.    

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

I really like the Kadima.  It is amazingly fun to play with.  It also happens to be a good little cutter.  It's not a knife I'd carry every day for the rest of my life, if I were forced to choose, but if you have a few knives already, it will make a nice addition to your rotation, especially if you have a long commute, a lot of time on the phone, or some other extended period of time when you can fidget to your fingers and heart is content.  

The Kadima is different, but Darriel Caston knows what he is doing.  He made a lot of smart, subtle decisions that take the Kadima out of the realm of novelty and make it something much, much cooler.  Drop it in your pocket and it will be a good companion.  If you are pining for a Torqbar (confession: me too), get a Kadima, it actually cuts stuff too.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Caston Kadima Overview

Boy, is this a tough booger to review.  After two previous review periods where I felt like I didn't "get" the knife, I am more confident know I understand what is going on here.  Review this weekend.  Until then, here is the overview of this strange and unique blade:

Friday, August 12, 2016

Quick Hits: Two Wallets, Two Knives, and a Pen

Let's blast through that backlog with a few quick hits.  

Slimfold Micro Softshell


Here is the product page.  SlimFold sent me this wallet for review and I will be giving it away.   

This is the slim wallet taken to one extreme (the other is a deconstruction of a wallet that leaves you with a plastic card and what is essentially a fancy rubber band).  The soft shell material that you probably have on your hoodie, as it turns out, makes for a great wallet material. 

The wallet looks great, very clean with a nice pop of color via contrast stitching. 


It also happens to be more durable than I expected.  I carried this wallet twice, for a month each time, over a four month period.  It held up reasonably well.  I think we all need to expect that these super thin fabrics, while tough, can't match leather's durability.  If you are okay with that, and with buying a new wallet every 5-6 years, then the SlimFold is a fine choice.

There are two drawbacks.  First, the card organizer portion of the wallet is really flimsy with ultra-tight tolerances making it very hard to put cards back in your wallet.  I am no Costanza, carrying no more than four cards, but even I had a tough time wedging them back in the SlimFold. I also dislike the height of the bill pocket.  It's too small and with more than two bills in it, they start to stick out making it obvious how much cash you have.  This makes the SlimFold something like a large capacity card holder and not really a true cash and card wallet, something that the Big Skinny can easily do.  Maybe this is too slim....

Score: 17 out of 20 (1 off for durability, materials, and accessibility)  

Liquid Essentialist Wallet


Here is the product page.  Liquid sent me the wallet to review.  After this review, I am sure they will never send me anything again.  

The Essentialist is a very neat idea.  The gadget fiend in me was super happy with this one.  The Essentialist is a hard side wallet made of aluminum and on the back side there are four posts.  You can put keys on these posts and or some of the device specific gadgets--a USB drive and a one piece multitool came with the review sample.  If the Essentialist worked out, it could be your wallet, your keys, and some essential gadgets all in one place.  

Alas, it is a fundamentally broken design. 

I am not sure who would actually like this wallet.  It was too big to be a minimalist wallet, but too small to hold any amount of stuff.  It's not really good at holding cards and stinks at holding cash.  You can't really use it for keys as putting them in the back side of the wallet makes it likely that stuff will fall out and gives you clearance issues around door knobs.  Good idea, but massive design fail. 

But more than just not having a market, it does a poor job of being a wallet.  Here is the problem with the wallet:


That is four cards, a twenty and a one.  At four cards tall, they start to slip over the lip around the card holder portion of the Essentialist.  I noticed this during the testing period when, at the post office, at the front of a large line, I pulled out my wallet and out came a bunch of cards, clattering to the floor and making a mess.  Not what is supposed to happen with a wallet. The well is too shallow and the fancy rubber band is not strong enough or grippy enough.  The problem is worse than that though.  There is no retention at all if you have only one card or some cash.  It looks like this is a wallet only if you have a maifoso wad of cash or exactly 2 or 3 cards.  If not, it just doesn't work.  

The gadgets are a nice idea too, but they are also a problem.  First, they are very hard to get out, even with the cut outs.  Second, like with the keys the lack of clearance around the device makes them hard to use.  I have an iMac at home and getting this thing around the back to the USB ports was a bitch.  Again, good idea, fundamentally broken implementation.  

Do not buy this product.  It doesn't work.

Score: 12 out of 20 (2 off for each of the following: design, carry, retention and accessibility) PRODUCT FAILURE

CRKT Jettison Compact

Here is the product page.

There are a class of knives, below the size of the Dragonfly, that include things like the Ladybug and the Manbug and this knife, that sit between novelty and tool.  Some of these knives are just too small to do real work (Al Mar Osprey, I am looking at you) while some of them are quite productive despite their uber tiny size.  I am happy to report that the Jettison Compact is in the second group.


Like a lot of these knives, there is no clip, they are just too small for a clip.  Instead, like the Osprey, the Jettison Compact has a bail.  It works okay.  Even de-cored paracord has a hard time fitting through this tiny opening.  The knife also has, almost by definition, a very, very small grip.  This is a two-fingers-and-a-thumb knife.  I am also less than pleased with the knife's edge as it came from the factory.  I normally don't bother mentioning this, but this knife was especially bad.   Also because of the small size, it was not all that easy to sharpen, but I did get it sharp.  One thing 8Cr13MoV is very good at doing is getting sharp.


Those are the negatives.  The positives are much more important.  The design here is really fabulous, as the blade and handle shape really encourage you to hold the knife and use it in a bunch of different ways.  You can hold it as I show above, or you can really choke up on the knife.  When you do that, you get a bunch more control, which is hard to image, as you have plenty in the traditional position given the size of the knife.  The flipper was another surprise.  Given the size of the knife, you would imagine that flipper just wouldn't work, as the blade lacks the heft to generate sufficient moment to carry itself open once the detent is broken.  But by some form of thaumaturgy CRKT got the Jettison Compact to flip open with ease. The handles were tiny but nicely finish.  Over all I like the Jettison Compact so much, I might track down its big brother.  

All of this greatness highlights one other point--the designer Robert Carter.  Carter is a third generation of knife makers, following in the footsteps of Mel and Joe Pardue.  This isn't just any lineage, the Pardues are some of the best knife makers out there and Carter, with this collaboration and some of his custom work, proves that he inherited his progenitors' talents.  It's officially time to keep an eye on Carter's production collabs.  His custom stuff has been amazing for a while, but it takes a next level talent to translate a great one-off into a line of knives capable of being produced en masse.

Score: 17 out of 20 (1 off for Grind, 1 off for Grip, 1 off for Retention Method)

Spyderco Vrango

Here is the product page.

I wanted this knife from the minute I saw it.  It looked like it was just the right size (blade length around 2.5 inches) and it was different enough that it would stand out even my uncomfortably large (for me) collection.  I just thought it was fate--I was destine to love the Vrango.

Lady Fate is a cruel temptress.  This knife stinks.

In many ways the Vrango reminds me of a house that has been lived in by a tinkerer.  You, the non-resident, non-tinkerer, look at all of the unusual features and think: "What the hell is this?"  But for the tinkerer, each of those different things represents just what he or she needed just at the right time.

Michel Henningson, the designer of the custom version of the Vrango, comes from a small island in the Gothenberg archipelago in Sweden.  It is a place that is tied to the ocean and to fishing.  And for him, in that setting, the bizarre recurve tanto makes a lot of sense.  The blade shape is ideal at cutting fishing line, I would imagine.  It is also, and this I have lots of practical experience with, slicing draw cuts. 


 That secondary point formed on a traditional tanto by the yokote (which is absent here; this is a tanto shape without the tanto grind) is exceedingly thin, so thin that it is something that concerns me about this knife.  If it were dinged or damaged I have no idea how it could be restored by a home sharper.  This is not a feature it is a liability.  But that is not the only sharpening problem.  When you combine S30V's unpleasantness at the grinding stone with a recurve, this knife is a nightmare to sharpen.  And its not like S30V is a permasharp (trademark, bitches...) steel, like M390 or ZDP-189.  You will sharpen this thing a lot.

Add to these two drawbacks an almost inaccessible liner for the lock, a tiny thumb hole, an ugly color scheme and very crude construction (this is just three slabs of poorly matched steel on my review sample) and you have a knife that is not worth your time and certainly not worth the $215 street price.  This is an expensive blade and in the end it just feels like a cheap ripoff of a Henningson custom.    

Score: 12 out of 20 (One point off for each of the follow: blade shape, steel, grind, and deployment; two points off for design and lock.)

Schaeffer Saragis

Here is the product page.

In a product category not known for its subtlety and understated the design, the Saragis stands out because it looks so normal.  No rainbow clip or snow cap, just a good looking, slender pen.  And it is not one of these modern minimalist designs either--this is a pen that looks like a pen not trying to show off.

And I like it.  The steel nib was pretty stiff, much stiffer than the the gold nib on my Vanishing Point, which is to be expected.  It is also significantly stiffer than the steel nib on my Edison.  Like the pen's appearance, the nib is a buttoned down affair.  But that doesn't mean it is a poor writer.  Far from it.  I found I actually liked the harder nib.  


I was also pleasantly surprised at how durable the Saragis was.  It ran with me for months through court after court after court of use and maybe abuse.  And it never grimaced or made a complaint.  I wouldn't say this is "tactical pen tough" but it is plenty hearty enough for repeated regular use.

One thing worth nothing--I love the cap.  I am not a fan of caps, hence my love for the Vanishing Point, but this cap, with its strong clean detent was awesome.  It snapped into place with authority.

In the end, this was a very good pen, though not an elite writer.  The nib lacked that addictive, lets-write-a-page-of-flourishes-while-talking-on-the-phone feel.  The only real ding (being not great is not really a ding) is the grip section.  It got duller and a bit tacky with use as it is just a hunk of resin.  You can do much, much worse than the Sagaris, especially for the price of around $60. 

Score: 17 out of 20 (1 off for writing performance and 2 off for grip)

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Brick and Mortar: LL Bean Flagship

Sometimes something lives up to the insane amount of hype that goes with it.  Chris Nolan's Batman Trilogy (especially the Dark Knight Rises...amazing), the 2016 Chicago Cubs (oh, was that premature?  I hope not...I am really rooting for Theo's second team), and the LL Bean Flagship store in Freeport Maine.

Over the years my feelings about LL Bean gear have undergone an evolution.  At first, I was thrilled that they made good stuff for cheap.  Then, having been introduced to TAD and the like, I found their "Dad Gear" approach to outdoor stuff a bit boring.  But now, actually being a Dad, I again appreciate the fact that they make good stuff that is affordable.  Over the years I have had a slew of LL Bean stuff and I have never been disappointed in it.  In particular, I really like my LL Bean Hiking Boots and my LL Bean Pathfinder Softshell Hoodie.  That hoodie is really great, like 90% of the performance of my TAD Stealth at 33% price with a whole lot less complicated pockets and zippers.  That hoodie has come to signify LL Bean in my mind--a bit staid but a reliable over performer and great value.  There are some stinkers, but their entire line is generally pretty darn good.

When I moved to New England and heard whispers of the awesome never-closed LL Bean Flagship store I was intrigued.  As my obsession with gear deepened, I knew I had to go.  My family vacations in Maine every summer and so we make a stop on the way at the Flagship store in Freeport.  It is a paradise.  My sons love the taxidermied animals and giant fish tank.  I delight in seeing in person a lot of the gear I own "browse" online.  The first half hour is spent with me picking up random things like a slow mo version of Supermarket Sweep.  This year I ended up with a flashlight, a portable charger/flashlight, some Astronaut Ice Cream, and a Swiss Army Knife.  Also of note--the awesome moose battle.  If you go, you'll know what I mean.  

There are five stores at the "campus," the main store, the hunting store (which is attached to the main store), the bikes and boats store, and an outlet.  In the middle there is a concert stage and around the town there are bunch of places to eat.  Freeport is also home to Thomas Moser, one of my favorite furniture makers, and Chiltons, a budget version of Moser.  There are a couple of decent restaurants, a knife store called Casco Bay Cutlery, which will get its own Brick and Mortar eventually, and plenty of places for non-knife folks to go shopping.  It is worth the trip and a ton of fun.  

Plus, if you don't like the stuff or it breaks, even 40 years from now, you can take it back.  

Jesse Jarosz M75 Review

I have been fascinated by Jesse Jarosz's knives for years.  They are, in many ways, trend bucking designs--liner locks, thumb studs--they aren't the standard TFF (titanium frame lock flipper) fair.  But beyond the unwillingness to get along just to get along, they are also really fundamentally sound designs--a basic drop point blade shape is paired with a sublimely crafted handle.  

But there is a twist.  As I mentioned in Breaking the Embargo, Part II I came across a Jarosz Tetrad on the secondary market.  I bought it and it arrived.  It was beefier than I thought it would be, but the things that checked the boxes for me were all there.  And so was a weird lock up issue.  Lock up was fine until I grabbed the handle to use the knife.  A collector, that tests lock stability in a vacuum might never stumble on this issue, but I am not a collector and so when I went to use the knife I squeezed the handle and the pad of my hand pushed the lock bar out of engagement and introduced some serious blade play--tactile, audible, and visual blade play.  Alas, it was too much for me, and I sent the knife back to the seller, who was 100% awesome about it.  God Bless the USN.  

Undeterred I looked for an opportunity to get a knife directly from Jesse.  The Tetrad I got was a very early model and either that, or the fact that it was from the secondary market, gave me a bit of skepticism that it represented the pinnacle of Jesse's work.  At the time, like many knife makers Jesse had a book that was filled.  Then, like others, he filled the back orders and got rid of his book.  He made knives exclusively to sell direct from his site (or Massdrop, good on you Jesse for finding other ways to get to market).  After a few swings and misses I finally scored one on a Sunday sale of Jesse's.  Five days later it arrived.  

I have been delighted ever since.  In my mind the M75 that I have is one of the reasons to brave the custom knife waters.  This is a really excellent design, with top shelf execution, and a feel like no other knife on the market.  After all my bitching in the past two weeks, this is the exception.  It is the exception that proves the rule, but that is another debate for another time.  

Here is the product page. There are no written reviews. Here is a video review from Auston.  Here is my review sample (bought with my my own money for me to keep):


Twitter Review Summary: Curves are always great--in knives, cars, and....

The Process

Jesse stopped using books a while ago.  It was a revelation.  Books are terrible for the creative process.  They take a task that is supposed to be inspired and make it into something that is an accounting chore.  Not good.  So Jesse posts knives in ones and twos on his site randomly and then every once in a while he has a big sale with ten or so folders.  I got this in one of those sales.  The process, other than availability (I wanted a micarta one), was great.  It arrived about 8 days after purchase.

Jesse's lock up is solid, but sometimes the lock bar scoots a bit.  The Tetrad did that a bunch and this knife did it a smidge.  I sent it back to him and he fixed it, cleaned the knife, and shipped it back, free of charge in about a month.  He told me it would be a bit when I emailed him, so the month wait was not an issue.  Now the lock is tuned just to my liking.

Both the sale and the refinishing went perfectly.  I'd rather not have to send the knife back, but this is right between being an issue and being a preference.  I scored the lock with this in mind.

Is this a "custom"?

I put the question to the man himself and this is what he wrote:

M75s are a majority hand work and a little bit of outsourced CNC. The profile work (the shapes of the blades and liners) are cut using Wire EDM. A very high precision machining method that holds extremely tight tolerances. Everything else is done by hand. Handles, grinds, sanded flats, finishing pocket clips, lock fitting, and all of the finish work is done in house on grinders, drill presses and with files and sandpaper.

Under my taxonomy of custom knives, the M75 would be a Handmade knife.  Because a few parts are outsourced, it is not a Single Source Handmade knife, but because the majority of the work is done by one person with basic tools (Jesse's work does not use CNC), I think it is still fair to call it a custom.  

Design: 2

Jim Nowka, of Knife Journal Podcast and American Knife Company fame (among other kinds of fame) talked about a concept that Bob Loveless used to discuss the aesthetics of a knife.  He used the term "visual tension."  The idea is there is some combination of curves and straight lines that emphasizes a balance between the components of the knife--the handle and the blade and the interplay between the two.  Jesse's knife, especially when open, displays that tension perfectly.  The blade itself is perhaps the Platonic idea of a drop point.  The handle, though not classically styled, is, frankly, on par with other great handle designs like the Becker fixed blade handle.  On paper, few knives match the kinetic grace of the M75.  Ironically, I would concede that closed it is not that pretty.  In fact, it seems pretty plain.  I don't know exactly how that works, but that's just my take.

The blade:handle (3.0625 by 4.125 inch) is .74; the blade:weight (3.74 ounces) is .82.  Neither are close to the record, but they are in the upper middle part of the range.  This is a solid, dense knife, not something you'd mistakenly leave in your pocket.

Fit and Finish: 2

Even if all of the parts aren't produced by Jesse himself, the end result is a symphony of precision.  Everything snaps together, the handles are meticulously curved, and the grind, oh...let's save that for later, because it is worth its own paragraph of praise.  

Grip: 2

This is the best handle on any folder I have ever used.  Its contoured in every way, sliding into your hands with comfort and ease.


There is a degree of mapping going on--nudges or light suggestions about where your fingers should go, but nothing bossy or overt.  It is more like dancing with a partner that knows the next step.  In a reverse grip, the handle works just as well.

Carry: 2 

For a dense hunk of steel and resin, the M75 is a positive joy to carry.  It is not something that you can carry distraction-free like the Dragonfly or Roadie, but it won't bang around like some of the bigger ZTs or other "custom tactical" knives.  The clip, deserving of special mention, is an aid in the M75's polite pocket presence. 

Steel: 2

AEB-L steel was developed for razor blades and it takes a very keen edge.  It is not a PM steel, but performs well.  It is very chemically similar to 13C27 and 14C28N, steels I find to be very good performers, among the best non-PM steels on the market.  In addition to its ability to take a keen edge it is also very stain resistant.  I have stropped it and it gets sharp quickly.  I imagine that this somewhere in the rankings above VG-10 and though not as complex as S30V, I like it better as it makes tradeoffs I'd prefer when balancing attributes.

But all of this ignores the crucial point of this knife--Jesse's grind.  If the three parts of good blade performance are geometry, chemistry, and heat treat, the AEB-L is a perfect choice for Jesse.  Geometry, by far, has the biggest impact on cutting performance and thus, when you have an outstanding grind you get outstanding performance even from steel that isn't the absolute latest and greatest. Jesse grinds his blades so incredibly thin and precise that it is hard to imagine a sharper edge.  In short, if you have the grinding abilities Jesse does, you will get the most out of a steel like AEB-L given its original application. 

Blade Shape: 2


Grind: 2 

I own two of Jesse's knives and I have handled a few others.  His grinds are phenomenal, insane, and eye catching.  With a symmetry that seems to be machine in origin, I have inspected the grinds here for months and I have found zero lacking.  The plunge line, in addition to being symmetrical, is quite crisp and the main bevel is a gleaming, mirror polished razor.  The decision to go stonewashed on the flats and grinder satin on the main bevel is striking and raises the eye-grabbing nature of Jesse's grinds to the next level.  I know there are makers that are known as grind masters--Mick Strider, Gus Cecchini, and a few others.  Having handled Strider and GTC customs, I can say without reservation that in terms of grind Jesse is at least as good.  This is the one thing that is truly superb on the M75, leagues better than average and probably the best I have ever reviewed.  

Deployment Method: 2

Nudge the thumb stud and you'll swear the knife is on bearings or uses an assist.  It is neither, just a well-tuned set of washers and a good detent.  The blade rockets open, deploying with a solid and ear-pleasing click.  It is addicting to do, as much so as a good flipper (you feelin' me XMachiavelli?).  The thumb studs are great, a good match for the knife and the deployment method.  Overall, I didn't buy the M75 because of its deployment, but it was a nice surprise.

Retention Method: 2

I thought I hated sculpted clips.  I actually hate bad clips, which, for reasons unclear to me, seem to occur at a higher than average frequency among sculpted clips.  This little unadorned booger happens to be just about the ideally clip when it comes to utility.  It's melted butter edges allow the clip to fall into the palm of your hand unnoticed, even during heavy cutting tasks.  I broke down some big boxes for the recycling bin after my son's birthday with this knife and it did very, very well.


This was the first generation of the Jarosz sculpted clip.  In the future, I'd like to see his logo on it.  That's the only thing I do differently and it is purely an aesthetic thing.  Great, great clip.

Lock: 1

Okay, so the Tetrad I had had a weird lock issue.  When I would squeeze it and the lock bar would scoot over.  The lock up geometry on Jesse's stuff is very precise and so with that smidge of scooting, the entire thing was thrown out of whack and the blade would actually click and had blade play in all directions.


On this model the lock up was much, much better.  Unfortunately, it too would scoot over a bit as well, never enough to induce blade play, but enough to make me uncomfortable.  It is probably fine to use the knife, but seems like something that I would worry about over time.  I sent it back to Jesse and the knife now locks up with vault-like precision.

In the end, I think it might have to do with how Jesse likes locks to work.  Talking to a few people, it seems like he follows the Terzuola model of lock construction, preferring a well engaged liner lock.  This, combined with a cutout to access the lock AND contouring around that cutout, means that it is possible that the pads of your palm could push the lock over just a bit.  It's hard to do on Jesse's new models, but it was easier on older stuff.  In the end, it's something like a preference.  I'd like something different, but I am sure there are Jarosz aficianados that like it just as it is.  

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

This is a great knife, a really amazing design and brilliantly executed.  As this review is coming out, Kabar released a slightly larger version of this knife as a production model, with a drop point and a tanto.  It is a Taiwanese made knife and it has AUS-8 steel with FRN handles, so it is not exactly the same, but it sure looks good.  Normally, I'd say buy that model, see if you like it and then hunt down the custom, but if you have the funds, just get this blade.  You won't be disappointed.  It's classic blade shape, amazing grinds, and superb handles are a great way to start in on custom knives.

The Competition

At this price point ($595) you are going to be very hard pressed to find a nicer custom knife.  I have played in this part of the market for a long time and there are some gems out there, but Jesse's handles and grind work in particular set this knife apart from similarly priced competition.  I like the Shamwari as much, it's a cleaner design, but neither trumps the other.  Lesser makers or newer makers have knives in this price range and they are generally much less refined, both in terms of design and execution.  This is a simple and simply excellent blade.

Jesse Jarosz M75 Overview

Jesse Jarosz is doing great work right now--his deal with Ka Bar has produced some good looking blades and after dumping the book system he has really been cranking on his custom stuff.  But its not just a quantity thing--his quality has improved substantially.  Fortunately he has kept his amazing grinds and an eye for simple and effective shapes.  Here is an overview of my new M75 folder, review to follow: