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With expected consistency, all knife enthusiasts see articles, videos and postings that talk about the level of quality in a variety of knives. Certainly, we've all heard people proclaim that certain knives have the “best quality”. Just as often, we've heard other people espouse an opinion on that same knife...that is contrary to what the other person claimed. So all this hubbub got me to thinking; Quality...what is it? Frankly, that's a BIG question. It's a subject matter of massive proportions whose very essence can be quite controversial.

In this blog posting, I'll attempt to articulate my own thoughts on the subject. Undoubtedly, the reasoning that I put forth may make "good sense" to some people...while only serving to make the issue "more confusing" for others. Before we get started, I should let you know that this initial posting is only a "starting point" and that I'll be adding to it over time. As I indicate in the first paragraph, this is a very large subject and I just don't have enough time to dedicate to a single, thorough, pontifical projection. Onward...

I've owned and used knives for well over 30 years. In that time, I've handled knives that cost, quite literally, next to "nothing" and knives whose price tag eclipsed the $1,000.00 mark. I've used blades whose "junkiness" was so horrific that it made me wonder, "Why did anyone bother to make this?" I've also used knives that were so incredibly impressive that the phrase "mind blowing" doesn't even do the experience justice. Frankly, I have had (and still do) knives in my collection whose purchase price was sub $50...but their practical quality was nothing short of inspiring. I've also had $200 knives whose quality was quite a let down (which isn't to say that those knives are "junk"; they just weren't what I felt they should have been). Above the $200 mark, I've never bought a knife that failed to impress me. This would seem to imply that there is a correlation between purchase price and CONSISTENCY of quality. I can say that as I’ve experienced knives whose price tags grew incrementally, there certainly are definable “levels” that can be reached when it comes to quality.

I've given an awful lot of thought to the subject of "quality" and have decided (mostly) that there are two key components to it; DESIGN and EXECUTION. For the purposes of this discussion, I'll put these two words into context:

* Design: The design of the knife, it's shape/form, features, ergonomic sense, aesthetics and material selection.

* Execution: How the knife is engineered, manufactured and the overall fit and finish of the product.

I've focused on these two words because, conceivably, we can have an expensive knife manufactured with superb execution...and relatively poor design. We can also find inexpensive blades with good design and terrible execution. Ideally, a "quality" knife has exceptional Design and Execution; indeed, this is what makes certain knives stand out from the proverbial crowd.

To continue down this road, we probably need to start with the “design” aspect. I’ll preface what I say past this point by acknowledging that, at least to a large extent, what defines “good design” or “bad design” has a significant amount of subjectivity to it…which is to say that just because I like a design, you may not. In the interests of making this as productive a discussion as possible, the concepts that I’ll refer to are generally established as being defining standards within the industry.

We might as well tackle the most contentious facet right away. Beauty is “skin deep”, right? Wrong. Appearances are skin deep; beauty can run right to the bone. Hence, we can see a knife whose outward appearance is quite appealing…but it’s execution is horrific. This idea can carry over to designs whose aesthetics are “ugly” but their execution and usability “rock”. More often than not, a knife that uses conflicting shapes and lines ends up being visually abhorrent. There are, of course, exceptions to this…but they are typically few and far in-between. To be sure, aesthetics are a visual experience and while certain finite elements of “beauty” can affect each person a little differently, it’s fair and reasonable to say that most experienced knife collectors have a consistent opinion about what looks “good”. To avoid argument, suffice it to say that “good aesthetics” provide a well though-out blending of shapes, lines and contrasting materials in ways that are visually appealing to most people.

 

To some degree, ergonomics and aesthetics are related. The shapes and lines of a knife readily affect ergonomics and nobody wants a knife that looks “great” but feels terrible in their hand. Though every person’s hands have unique character to them, the overall shape and functionality of the human hand is the same for all of us. With this in mind, it’s indisputable that “great” aesthetics MUST take a back seat to “great” ergonomics. Intellectually, we have to recognize this fact of life. To reinforce this idea, I can’t tell you how many knives that I have in my collection whose aesthetics are “so-so” or even “ugly”, but their functionality is magnificently beautiful. These ugly pieces of steel fit my hands wonderfully, mitigating fatigue while enhancing performance. When evaluating a blade’s ergonomics, I look for the following things:

 

  • Is the knife “balanced”? Is it tip-heavy? Is it handle-heavy? Contrary to popular opinion, a knife doesn’t have to have a one-to-one (blade-to-handle) ratio in order to be balanced. Oddly, I tend to prefer folding knives that are more weighted towards the handle…and just the opposite is true when I use a fixed-blade.
  • Does the shape of the handle recognize the natural curve of the palm of my hand?
  • Does the shape of the handle allow for multiple thumb positions? Some cutting tasks require the user to grip the handle like they would a baseball bat. Other tasks are better controlled by positioning the thumb so that it “points” towards the tip of the blade. In this case, some handles provide a thumb-ramp…which I welcome.
  • Is the handle too thin? Depending upon the size and general task-intent of the blade, I prefer a little thicker handles than most people. Thin handles require me to use more of a “squeeze” grip in order to hang on to the knife. This fatigues my paw over extended usage. If it’s a simple light-duty EDC knife (such as Spyderco’s superbly-designed Delica 4), a thin handle is welcome because it reduces weight and occupies less space within my pocket.
  • Will the blade’s grind enhance its progress through media or will it increase resistance? Generally, blades sporting full-flat grinds offer less resistance than blades with other grind shapes. I said “generally” because I have a variety of hollow-ground blades that perform flawlessly.
  • Does the knife offer a large front-finger choil? I like this feature in both fixed-blade and folding knives. Obviously, being able to “choke up” on the blade provides the user with more control for smaller cutting tasks. Spyderco’s Manix 2 platform is a magnificent example of what I’m talking about.
  • If it’s a folding knife, can it be operated, easily, with one hand? Deploying and closing the blade, locking and unlocking it…should all be able to be done with a single hand. For slip-joint fans, Spyderco’s UK Pen Knife series brings the non-locking blade into the modern era and it does so excellently. Though I’ve cited a trio of Spyderco knives in this section of the posting, Benchmade is certainly just as prolific when it comes to production folding knives.

 

Features can have some affect upon aesthetics but really are more directly connected to ergonomics. To the uninitiated, the topic of “features” might seem overtly simple (blade and handle…what else is there to a knife?). In reality, the modern knife industry…with it’s technological advancements…has ushered in a host of amazing features that are so integral to the product’s usability that it’s as difficult to imagine their absence as it is to conceive of buying a car without air-conditioning and a stereo. Of course, these features vary some when referring to a fixed-blade knife (versus a folding-knife). Examples of “standard” features; spine jimping, finger choils, locking mechanisms, thumb-studs, pocket-clips, blade detents, phosphor bronze washers, pivot bushings, blade stops, handle liners, pocket clips, traction handle material…to name a few of the more common ones.

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Tags: Knives, knife, quality

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Comment by Jerry Moores on January 5, 2012 at 5:04

Awesome perspective Chris! Very thought - provoking! I have found as many thoughts, feelings and ideas on the quality of a knives as I have people... It's kinda like art - what may appeal to me might not appeal to you OR anyone else... So, from the collectors and knife makers that I have met there is a wide range in opinion of quality. You article gives collectors a wonderful guideline to, perhaps look at components of the knife more completely! All of the points are valid and I applaud you for this valuable collecting aid! Excellent!

Comment by Billy Oneale on January 4, 2012 at 22:28

Great discussion, Chris. I Agree with Steve and J.J.. I like the way you have broken it down. I have some higher end knives that don't function as well as some of my cheaper knives. I also have some cheaper knives that really look great, but they would be worthless as an EDC user for very long. They just would not last.

Comment by Jan Carter on January 4, 2012 at 19:48

I agree with JJ

Comment by J.J. Smith III on January 4, 2012 at 8:54

I agree with Steve.  Form should follow function.

If both are exicuted well, then you've got a winner.

Comment by Alexander Noot on January 4, 2012 at 2:41

We often talk about quality as if that's one thing. You clearly understand that it's not. It can be broken up into all kinds of facets. I quite like yours.

White River Knives

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