In 1952 two friends, both engineers, Colin Chapman and Colin Dare, decided to start a car company initially to make production cars but they were also nursing along the idea of producing race cars. Two years later they launched their race car division. In both their production cars and their race cars, Chapman and Dare focused on superb handling and meticulous craftsmanship with an eye towards minizing a car’s weight. While they always utilized exceptionally nice engines, their power blocks were never the firebreathing monsters other companies used. As engineers, they approached their conundrum analytically—they couldn’t develop their cars the same way larger or wealthier companies did—from scratch with tons of horsepower from a bespoke, in-house engine. Instead, they could grab a nice “off-the-shelf” engine, tune it, and then hold the weight down.
While horsepower, or brake horsepower, is often the single spec people look at on cars to see how fast they are, there is something more important—power to weight ratio. Chapman and Dare, the founders of Lotus, understood this. Its what made their comparatively inexpensive road javelins hang with cars ten times as powerful and five times as expensive. Instead of pouring all of their money into an arms race over engines, they took a different approach and it has made them both competitive and famous. It was only when the big boys starting heeding the weigh shedding philosophy did they permanently distance themselves from the plucky English start up. Even to this day, though, many car guys cherish the driving experience of a Lotus. It is a perfect example of tech not winning the day.
In the knife world there is a similar competition. In the fixed blade world, its not uncommon for really well regarded knives at all price points to run “old steel.” From KaBars to Fiddleback Forges, good fixed blades are equipped with “old fart” steel. In part this is because knives, unlike high end performance cars, have a bit of nostalgia and value always factored in, but it is also because these steels, 1095, O1, and A2, when heat treated correctly and used in the right designs, yield impressive performance.
As my gear addiction has entered its fourth decade I realize that while steel is important, you can get by with a lesser steel if it has a superior grind. In preparing the review for the Klotzli ACC-01, I am reminded of the Lotus approach. Klotzli is one of a few companies that have really dug into the craftsman side of knifemaking with great results. Al Mar is another company that has decided to value technique over tech and the end results are knives with humble materials and exalted finishes. They are regularly some of my favorite blades. Perceval is similarly oriented, producing wonderful knives with wood and old razor blade steel. GEC and the on-again-off-again Canal Street Cutlery are, of course, an example of craft over tech. Hard as it is to realize, the same can be said, in many ways, of Chris Reeve Knives. The days of S35VN being cutting edge are long gone and in an era of CNC scuplted handles, Moku Ti and carboquartz, slab-constructed titanium is quaint. But time and again, folks come back to Reeve’s stuff because it is beautifully, wonderfully, elegantly made.
The problem that the tension between tech and technique raises is one of price. These lavishly made knives may use subpar materials, but time and not materials is usually the driving factor in the price of knives, custom or production. And so you get a situation where a Klotzli is made of ATS-34, carbon fiber, and teflon washers and it is the same price as some gee whiz design from Lionsteel with intricately machined handles and M390. The grind on the Lionsteel is error free, but it is also comparatively insight-free—while no edge is wobbly and everything is beautifully symmetric it cuts just slightly better than rolling pin when stacked up against the ACC-01. On the other hand, the Klotzli parts paper with the grace of a prima ballerina, curving through the material peeling off big, beautiful curls with ease. You pay for this. But on a spec sheet full of bullet points, its hard to sell “expertly designed and finished blade grind” as it sounds like marketing hyperbole (and it usually is, just not on a Klotzli).
So before you read my glowing review of the ACC-01, think about your knives. Are they good users? If you have a knife made by one of the technique-focused companies the answer is always yes. You may have to strop your blade a bit more and it will lack some gee whiz machining, but these knives always, always perform. If you have one made by a company that markets their CNC prowess, brags about bearing pivots, or revels in Moku Ti accents, the question, unfortunately, is always answered the same way: maybe.
The most apt comparison to demonstrate the difference between the two are two knives I have had in for review recently—the ACC-01 and the Reate Baby Machine. I liked both, to be sure, but I preferred the ACC-01. They are both expensive. One is clearly the technique knife and the other the tech knife. And while the Baby Machine is infinitely more fun to fidget with than the ACC-01, its no where near as good a user. It just didn’t do all that well cutting-wise. Sure, it was beautifully made, but its beefy blade stock and blunty cutting bevel left much to be desired. Be clear—this is not some argument about soul—I’ll leave that spiritualized magical thinking to doofuses that insist on handwinding their watches—this argument is all about performance. The ACC-01, like a Lotus, hangs with the best in terms of performance because of its maker’s mastery of the art and craft of knifemaking. It may sound odd for an avowed steel junkie to write this but: I’d always take technique over tech.
Hopefully we get lucky and get treated to companies that do both, like Bark River and TRM, but if placed in a forced-choice scenario, technique wins every time for me. The reality is, while we live in a Golden Age of Gear, the number of companies that have mastered both tech and technique is still exceedingly rare. Machining prowess and giant CNCs are one thing, insights into true knife performance are something else entirely. One is about money, time, and work. The other, unfortunately, is about talent. And talent, even in a golden age, is still as rare as, well, gold.