Custom knives represent a broad spectrum of cutlery, even if IG results in a rather incestuous showing of the same knives over and over again from the same makers over and over again. The one thing I have learned is that while the IKC does generally focus on good stuff, there are things worthwhile beyond the normal cluster of makers. In particular, I find that makers from around the world have different takes on knives that are interesting and compelling. This is part of what led me to the Shamwari. That impulse, plus an almost stalker level of website monitoring over the course of EIGHT years, led me to this knife the Kevin Wilkins Leafstorm 9.
For those newer to the hobby, a few years ago Spyderco released a collab with Wilkins called the Leafstorm based on his Leafstorm 1 model. It was a very interesting but very flawed knife. You can find the review here. Getting a Wilkins custom is a challenge. For a while Wilkins had a dalliance with onlays and unusual materials that rendered his knives non-starters for me. Then there is also his work style—Wilkins puts out one custom at a time, no book, no list, and no batches. Knives come in models and variants within models. He also switches steel, handle materials, blade shapes, and grinds frequently. As a result having model, variant, steel, blade shape, and grind line up was a real challenge. Most of the time I got to the buy page too late when it was something I liked. Then, one day about a six months ago—bing, I hit the JACKPOT—Leafstorm 9, titanium, drop point, in S30V. TRIGGER PULLED. Eight years of watching and waiting and then, like magic, I had one on the way.
This is a quirky, interesting, fun, and gorgeous knife. Its not perfect—its a bit tall and could use a bit of pocketing to lighten the handle—but it is a poster child of everything that is cool in a knife, and especially a custom knife. The Leafstorm 9 is innovative, iterative, unique, and compelling. If you like knives, you will like the Leafstorm 9. Good luck ever finding one, but it was worth the wait and I waited 8 years. Sometimes I feel like all I do is unbox a knife, carry it for a month, photograph it a bunch, and slap up a review. Monotony is the enemy of creativity. And then something like the Leafstorm 9 (or the GEC Toothpick, review coming soon) pops up and I remember why I love gear.
There really isn’t a product page and because his folders are relatively rare, there are no video or written reviews. Here is his product gallery. When I checked for the link there was a Leafstorm 9 for sale and that happens—stuff just magically appears. Here is a good thread on BladeForum where Kevin lays out info about his process and his knives. Here is my Leafstorm 9 (bought after nearly a decade wait with my own money):
Twitter Review Summary: Proof why its worth venturing off the well-trodden path.
Custom Maker Notes
The process of ordering a knife, once one came up that I liked, was remarkably easy. Kevin has a system down pat and uses a German shipping company (Wilkins is out of Germany). Their shipment tracking website is nutty precise and makes our US shipment tracking stuff look sad by comparison. They had notes for hands offs, estimates for arrival at each node in the network (none of which were wrong throughout the knife’s entire journey), and a number of other features that made me cringe when the package “disappeared” into the US system where this data was not available. The knife arrived five days after I ordered it, which, of course, is exactly when the German shipping company estimated it would arrive. Dealing with Kevin was easy and quick. As far as custom makers go, he is an ideal seller.
As I explained before, his production system is a bit difficult to adjust to as there is no buying a knife on demand. He makes ‘em and you like ‘em you can order it. Otherwise, be prepared to wait. One tip I can provide is that both his Facebook and IG pages give a heads up when stuff is going to drop. I set a calendar appointment to snag my Leafstorm 9. The weird thing is sometimes stuff goes in five minutes and other times it is up for days. And this pattern does not follow what you’d expect because stuff like weirdo chisel grind knives or stuff with BRASS handles got snapped up, while the flame ano’d version has been up, unpurchased, for two days while I am writing this review. The availability black box makes things challenging if you want one specific version of a knife, but sometimes you just get it right away.
The original Leafstorm design, the one used as the basis of the Spyderco collab, was interesting—a compact knife with a relatively tall blade tucked into a handle unlike any other Spyderco. It was a really pretty design to look at, but the “beard” on the blade was a problem. The Spyderco collab was made worse by including a clip that seemed to be placed by a blindfolded child a la “pin the tail on the donkey.” Over the years the core of that design was modified and altered until, like one of those diagrams of the evolution of man, we arrive at the Leafstorm 9. The finger hungry beard is gone. The slightly cramped handle has been made less so. The framelock has been replaced by what Wilkins calls a “sliding bar lock” which is functionally (if not mechanically) identical to an Axis lock (remember the patent expired, more on this below). In total, the upgrades are numerous and the impact of them is tremendous. Wilkins could have pumped out versions of the original with Moku Ti inlays until the end of time and done a good business. Lots of custom makers do this. But he tinkered and tinkered and tinkered until he arrived at the Leafstorm 9, which is highly functional and much better version of that design from a decade ago.
This history recounts how we get to the Leafstorm 9, but it doesn’t make clear just how cool a knife this is. There are objects that just feel good in the hand, things that are well made, interesting, and functional. I think the McGizmo Haiku, which I still own, is one of those objects. I also think that a Zippo is one of those objects. There is a solidity to them, a confidence in the shape and lines, that comes through and connects with the person holding the object in a subconscious way. You get it. You like it. And the Leafstorm 9 has that in spades. If, however, you are concerned that I am straying into the dreaded magical thinking realm, here is proof that is not the case. A long time ago Bang and Olufsen, the Scandinavian audio company released a product with a remote. The remote was great—easy to use and intuitive. And it had a heft to it. B&O had dropped in a weight made of zinc to make the remote feel more substantial than it would have otherwise. When later versions of the device were released, the zinc weight was removed and customers howled about how cheap the entire product was. In fact, the only change in materials was the exclusion of that zinc weight. But without it the tactile experience was lessened and that feeling of cheapness carried over into the device itself even though people hardly ever touched said device. The moral to the story is that things that feel right have a real but hard to describe solidity to them. No magical thinking, just the always-fraught interface between design and expectation.
Because this is a custom, specs aren’t readily available so I feel obligated to provide them.
Weight: 4.4 ounces
OAL: 6.6 inches
Blade Length: 2.75 inches
Blade Height: 1.125 inches
Blade Thickness: .125 inches
Handle Length: 3.85 inches
Handle Height: 1.25 inches
Handle Thickness (excluding clip): .5 inches
Overall Thickness: .75 inches
Handle Material: orange peel finished Titanium
Blade Material: Dark stonewashed S30V
The performance ratios are okay. The B:H is .71. The B:W is .63. The B:H is actually pretty good, while the B:W is not. There is no way to hide that this is a chunky knife, a knife similar in proportion to the Techno but even fatter.
Fit and Finish: 2
If you can find a flaw on this knife, you are better QC person than I am (Grayson, don’t raise your hand). It is notable how precise and smooth the lock is compared to a production version of the Axis lock. The blade flies out of the handle with a quick snap of the thumb and travels the opening path with almost frictionless speed. The dimpling, one of the trademark Wilkins touches, is clean and works well. The orange peeling on my version’s handle is perfect and a tactile wonder.
For all its delights the Leafstorm 9 is not ergonomically perfect. The grip, even with the loss of the pokey beard, is still a little cramped. Its nothing terrible, but compared to some of the truly grand designs we are treated to these days, I can’t help but feel that the grip is runty. The golf ball machining and the orange peel pattern are not only exceptionally well done, but they do genuinely add to the grip of the knife. They also add to the very technical look and feel of the knife.
This is a pudgey bunny, clocking in well over the 4.0 ounce mark. It is also a bit tall as well, given the oval opening hole and the exposed rear tang. The Leafstorm is also thick. A tad bit of refinement, pocketing the titanium on the inside of the handle, for example, would be excellent.
S30V has entered that phase in its lifespan where heat treat can yield better results. No longer the Belle of the Ball chemically, treating it correctly can yield good results. This makes evaluating S30V difficult. Here I have found it quite excellent, but one knife with one grind is hard to judge given the exceptionally small sample size. In other iterations and in other knives, I have found S30V to be nothing other than a headache. And so, at least for the next couple of years, expect variation in the scores for S30V.
Blade Shape: 2
Getting rid of the beard on the Spyderco version has taken a good blade shape and made it excellent. The swedge provides a great deal of tip stability and the relatively tall blade allows for the edge to be quite keen. I also like the fact that the tip is brought up a bit from the Spyderco version. This makes the knife look less droopy and more confident.
I would call this grind complicated, but it is about as busy as I like before I write it off as a vanity project. Swedge, half height hollow grind, good plunge lines, and the true sharpening choil make this something other than than a simple FFG, but, the grind seems to really fit the knife.
Deployment Method: 2
With the elongated opening hole you can open the knife with both a thumb and an index finger flick. Thanks to the snappy, silken pivot both work thoughtlessly well. You have not handled an Axis lock this slick and that makes the deployment addictive.
Retention Method: 2
Clips do not and should not be complicated. This is a perfect example, carrying a lot of features that some of the better aftermarket clips (like a Lynch clip). It is a bit bouncy, not as tight as some stamped clips, but it does work well and I have had no issues with it being bent out of shape or coming loose.
Lock/Blade Safety: 2
I didn’t need a lot of convincing, but if I did, the Leafstorm is the final, compelling argument that when you dial in the fit and finish on an Axis lock the result is a great, great lock. Here the engagement and disengagement is quick and very positive. There is no mistaking the knife locking up or unlocking.
Fett Effect: Very High
With a orange peeled handle and a stonewashed blade, it doesn’t seem like this knife would gather cool, brag-worthy battle scars, but that has not been my experience. I truly love the way the knife looks after months of carry and I look forward to adding more such wear in the future.
Fidget Factor: Very High
With a snappy pivot, a finger friendly lock, and great deployment this is about as fidgety a knife as you can find. If this doesn’t cure your ADHD, you need a yo yo.
Calling a custom knife a good value is simply not possible. But as custom goes it is a decent value at around $600. Its like a cheap Ferrari—there are no such things just CHEAPER Ferrari. And that is what we have here.
Don’t think this is a perfect knife. Compared to the Shamwari, this is a bulky, quixotic, technical design. But that is the beauty of the custom market. This is a knife with a unique and appealing look and feel. The golf ball texture is something of a Wilkins trademark and it is both effective and visually distinctive. Its great to have as an object in hand. Its carries a bit awkwardly and the grind while well-executed is a bit busy. As a knife, all of these different elements combine well and the Leafstorm 9 really works. It handles and cuts with style and efficiency. Its weird, but good weird, and in the end, exploring the world through the knives of different makers is quite fun. Like a creature on an isolated island, the Leafstorm’s design, cordoned off from the main flow of the custom knife market in America, has evolved into something singular and different. That difference is a good thing.
Overall Score: 17 out of 20
This knife is so different than most customs…for Pete’s sake it doesn’t even have flipper tab (!), that it is a bit hard to compare. And compared to the Spyderco collab, well, as you can read above, this is vastly better.