Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What's In My Pocket? #5: Kershaw Needs Work

Knives are as challenging to purchase for a true knife fanatic as books are to buy for an avid reader. Even if you know the person well, tastes are hard to predict and interpret. Plus, how do you know what the individual already owns?

That said, KJ knocked a home run when she picked up this little honey for my Christmas stocking.

The Kershaw Model 1820 — better known as the Needs Work — has proven to be a handy member of my everyday carry knife rotation over the past two months. With its three-inch blade, the Needs Work is probably the smallest knife I carry on a regular basis. Its size makes it perfect, however, for occasions when I want my knife to be as unobtrusive as possible, or when I'm wearing trousers whose pocket structure renders a larger knife cumbersome.

True to its name, the Needs Work loves to... well... work. I'm not usually a huge fan of the Wharncliffe blade profile, but this Ken Onion-designed utility knife serves wonderfully well as a routine letter-opener, package cutter, and paper slicer. As an example, one of the art pieces I picked up at WonderCon last weekend (come back on Friday for a review of all the new goodies) was a couple of inches too long to fit my portfolio. The Needs Work trimmed it smoothly to exact specifications in nothing flat.

The Needs Work's blade is fashioned from Kershaw's tough Sandvik 13C26 stainless steel, in which I've become a firm believer thanks to previous purchases. The handle material is a grippy polymer that delivers secure feel in the hand. (It's actually a little too grippy for easy deployment from the pocket, but that's a minor complaint.) Ken Onion's patented SpeedSafe assisted opening action snaps the blade into place with lightning speed, and like every Kershaw I've ever handled, this sucker is wicked sharp.

The ergonomics of this little knife rate aces with me. Because of my thick-fingered, chunky hands, I often find a smaller knife uncomfortable to hold and difficult to manipulate. The Needs Work fits my paw like it was custom-molded. The design of the handle is such that I could cut cardboard all afternoon and not suffer a cramp.

KJ, who knows precious little about pocketknives, got an excellent recommendation on this one, thanks to the guy at the local knife shop where she bought it. Good call, dude! (And thank you, KJ!)

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

What's In My Pocket? #4: Chris Reeve Sebenza

Knife collectors have a term: "safe queen."

A safe queen is a knife that you never use or carry, in order to maintain it in pristine condition. Typically, a safe queen holds particular value to the collector — usually monetary value that would be diminished with usage. It's a knife, to explain the metaphor, that you keep in a safe and treat like a queen. It's an investment, not a tool.

From my perspective, the concept of safe queens is silly. A knife is a tool, and a tool only has value if it's used for its intended purpose. Safe queens are like CGC-graded comic books, slabbed and sealed in plastic, never to be opened. Just as a comic whose contents can't be viewed is redundant in my opinion, I think a knife that can't at least slice open the daily mail is redundant, too.

Not that point of view prevented me from keeping at least one safe queen in my collection for the longest time.

Meet my Sebenza. (I hear The Knack in my head every time I say that.)

Made by Boise, Idaho-based Chris Reeve Knives (no relation, so far as I'm aware, to the late, lamented Superman star), the Sebenza is considered by many blade aficionados to be the finest production folder available. Its sturdy bead-blasted titanium handle houses a razor-sharp blade made of S30V stainless steel, one of the most durable American knife steels on the market today. The Sebbie's rock-solid lockup, butter-smooth action, brilliantly functional design, and flawless fit and finish are often imitated, but rarely equaled. (I know this from experience, as I also own a couple of decent Sebenza knockoffs. Quality knives, and well-used, but not in the same league.)

Chris Reeve's exacting specifications and personalized approach — although built from standardized components, each Sebenza is assembled by hand, and comes complete with its own "birth certificate" listing the manufacture date and salient details — has earned the Sebbie its lofty reputation. (Mine, by sheer coincidence, was "born" on my wife's birthday, four years ago.) The quality comes at a price, as a new Sebenza will set you back anywhere from $300 to several times that amount, depending upon the options ordered. No wonder, then, that many Sebbies never see the light of day, their owners content to lock them up in secure quarters and only occasionally take them out for careful admiration.

I used to be one of those owners. For the longest time, I kept my Sebenza (there goes Doug Fieger again!) tucked away in its box at the back of a desk drawer. Once a week or so, I would risk exposing the knife to air and sunlight so that I could marvel at its mirror-finished blade and its handsome inlays of reddish-brown cocobolo wood. Then, ever so gingerly, I would return my prize to its refuge until I once again hankered to fondle its titanium scales.

Then, one day, I realized how stupid that was.

It's a knife, for crying out loud, I told myself. Use the doggone thing.

My hands trembled when I ran my Sebenza's blade under the flap of its first envelope. I held back a tear the first time I clipped it into the rear pocket of my dress slacks. (You didn't really think I'd stick it in my crusty old jeans for its maiden voyage, did you?) I shuddered in horror as I tenderly wiped the first crumbs of Priority Mail cardboard from its rapier edge.

I got over it.

I make it a point to carry — and yes, use — my Sebenza often now. It's a regular participant in my everyday pocket rotation, and it's always the knife of choice when I'm wearing my Sunday-go-to-meeting duds. I keep it away from the heavier-duty cutting jobs, but it opens newly arriving packages like nobody's business.

Every once in a great while, I still stroke it lovingly and call it "my Precious."

Just kidding.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

What's In My Pocket? #3: Heckler & Koch HK34

When deciding which folding knife I'm going to shove into my pocket on a given day — and sometimes, at various times during the day — I have to consider several factors.

If I'm wearing close-fitting slacks (because, you know, the ladies are all about the booty), I'll choose a knife with a narrow profile, thus avoiding an unsightly bulge. (Ahem.) If it's a dressier occasion, I'll pick a knife that looks classy and professional — a "gentleman's knife," in cutlery parlance — should I need to use it in the presence of others. Often, I'll choose a blade profile based on anticipated tasks for the day (lots of mail or packages to open? cutting cardboard for shipping?). Sometimes, I just like the way a certain piece feels in my hand at the moment.

But when I want a knife that I can play with should I get bored — because my attention span is about as long as Nicole Richie's skirt, and as elusive as her appetite — I strap on my HK34.

Although it bears the logo and brand name of the German firearms giant Heckler & Koch, the HK34 is an all-American knife, manufactured in Oregon by Benchmade. Engineered by cutlery designer Mike Snody, the HK34 bears the stylistic hallmarks of its creator, including a drop point blade, a pronounced finger ridge, and a relatively beefy profile. It's built for heavy-duty use. Not that I beat it up much, given my customarily sedate activities, but my HK34 is probably one of the toughest knives I own. It's a masterfully constructed tool.

But that's not why it's so cool.

The HK34 incorporates Benchmade's exclusive AXIS locking mechanism. The blade pivots around a hefty steel axle, which braces and locks the blade into place when the knife is open. An AXIS lock is practically impossible to dislodge in the course of use — you could chip a hole into a brick wall with it, and not compromise the stability of the lock. (You'd trash the blade, of course, but at least the knife wouldn't fold up in your hand.) When locked, an AXIS-equipped Benchmade is the closest thing to a fixed blade that you can find in a folding knife.

When slid back into the open position, however, the AXIS lock allows the blade to pivot freely in a semi-circular motion, almost like the swing of a butterfly knife or balisong (the product that made Benchmade famous). With a little practice — and I've had ample practice — you can flip the blade open as quickly as you could trigger a mechanically assisted knife. (Which, as we all know, is illegal to carry in this jurisdiction if the blade is two inches or more in length. Just so we're clear on that.)

Its quick-draw quality, coupled with its bank-vault lock-up stability, is what makes the HK34 "fun to drive." It's a real workhorse, too — as durable as all get-out. Plus, it's sleek enough in appearance that I can use it almost anywhere without panicking the natives. It's not the most ergonomic knife I own — even with the rubberized scales, it feels ever so slightly less comfortable in hand than some of my other everyday-carry pieces — but its positives far outweigh this one minor quibble.

When in doubt, whip that HK34 out.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What's In My Pocket? #2: Spyderco Volpe

What qualities bring a new knife into my collection? Tough question. As is true of my comic art collection, I can't always explain the reasons why I'm drawn to a particular piece. But when I lay all of my knives out side by side — as I do on occasion, when that mood strikes me — certain themes emerge:
  • Most of my blades are fairly large. Of the pieces I'm likely to shove in my pocket on any given day, only one has a blade shorter than three inches. Most measure at least 3.5 inches. That's mostly because a smaller knife doesn't fit comfortably in my chubby little hand.

  • All of my blades are practical tools. I never buy a knife I can't actually cut stuff with. Because a knife is, above all else, a device for cutting stuff. That's a key reason why I don't own any tanto-style blades, whose only real purpose is defensive. I've lived a long time without ever needing a weapon. But I need a letter opener — or box cutter, or paper slicer — several times every day.

  • I like a little style with my sharpness. Aethetically, I want a knife with eye appeal. Not one that makes me look as though I've watched too many episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (I have, but that's not the point.) Just one that, when I flick open the blade and hold the piece in my hand, causes me to squee just a bit on the inside.
Because I'm such a dogged creature of habit, it sometimes takes me a while to work a new blade into my everyday carry rotation. Here's a knife that I owned for quite some time before I ever showed it the inside of my pocket. Then, for whatever reason, I selected it for Christmas present opening duty a month ago. It's probably the prettiest knife I own, so perhaps I just felt festive that day. I immediately fell in love with it. It's been a regular in the rotation ever since.

The Spyderco Model C99 — aka the Volpe — bears the brand name and insignia of one of America's finest makers of folding knives: Spyderco, based in Golden, Colorado. The knife itself, however, is manufactured in the sleepy hamlet of Maniago, Italy by Fox Cutlery, one of Europe's premier knifemakers. (Volpe means fox in Italian.) Although the Volpe incorporates Spyderco's trademark round hole opening effect, the rest of its details sprang from the imagination of Italian cutlers Gabriele Frati and Gianni Pauletta, known collectively as G&G Design. It is, to use a word that Signori Frati and Pauletta might approve, bellissimo.

The Volpe's drop point blade is crafted from N690Co stainless steel, an outstanding Austrian-made chromium steel notable primarily for its unique cobalt/vanadium alloy composition. (Vanadium is among the elements added to steel to increase its hardness and edge-holding capability; cobalt is far less commonly used.) Like every Spyderco blade I've owned, this bad boy arrived screaming sharp and has remained so. The round Spyderhole enables smooth one-handed opening (your thumb catches in the hole and slides the blade from the handle), even for a klutz like me. The indentation on the upper edge of the blade provides purchase for your index finger during a downward cutting stroke — a terrific control feature if you're making a long, straight cut.

G&G Design lent warmth and attractiveness to the Volpe by adding blonde olivewood inlays to the handle. (Mine have gorgeous butterscotch grain. I'd post a photo, but I can't find the camera today. So the stock shot above will have to suffice.) On the flip side, Spyderco's spider logo ("the bug," as they call it) is laser-cut into the frame.

And it's shiny. Really shiny. Chrome bumper on a '72 'Vette shiny.

Mmmm.... shiny.

All in all, the Volpe makes a stylish yet functional presentation. It's classy enough to carry on any occasion, much like a traditional gentlemen's folder. Its ergonomics are excellent, its fit and finish top-notch, its utility outstanding. And, after it's warmed in one's pocket for a while, the Volpe's olivewood inlays smell nice. I can't make that statement about any other knife I own.

I think I'll see if the mail's here.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

We built this City on rock and roll

It being our anniversary and all, KJ and I spent yesterday hanging out in The World's Coolest City. (You do know that's San Francisco, right? Who would go to Honolulu just for a day trip?) We cruised Pier 39, strolled Fisherman's Wharf, then headed downtown to see the new Westfield Centre and Union Square. As you can tell, unlike many locals, we've never been too snobbish to trek through all of the touristy stuff now and again, because, what the hey, we like the touristy stuff now and again.

So in case you're contemplating a visit to Baghdad by the Bay (it used to be a nifty nickname when the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen coined it decades ago, but of course Herb had no idea how that whole Baghdad thing would turn out) sometime in your immediate future — or you're a Bay Area resident who's amenable to climbing down off the old high horse once in a blue moon — herewith follow a few random notes on our little excursion.
  • Yesterday, Pier 39 celebrated the 17th anniversary of the unexpectedly permanent arrival of the sea lion pod that has inhabited the pier ever since. The sea lions appeared to be observing the auspicious occasion by napping in the sun. Which is, so far as I can determine, pretty much what the sea lions at Pier 39 do every day, tourist attraction or no.

  • We ate lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, whose San Francisco branch is virtually indistiguishable from any of the other branches of the chain. The Hard Rock relocated to Pier 39 a while ago from a truly miserable location on busy Van Ness Avenue, a spot far distant from most of The City's major tourist venues and parking-challenged to boot. Coolest memorabilia item at the SFHRC: the black fedora Michael Jackson wore in his "Smooth Criminal" video. Who knew then that the whole "smooth criminal" thing wasn't just a song title?

  • Pier 39 is home to a collectible cutlery shop humorously dubbed We Be Knives. This dingy, poorly lighted hole in the wall is home to a dazzling array of sharp steel objects capable of sending a connoisseur like myself into paroxysms of envy. I was surprised to see that the place sells balisongs (Filipino butterfly knives), given that such items are legal to own in California, but illegal to carry on one's person. I wonder whether a knowledgeable police officer could write you a ticket the moment you stepped out of the store after purchasing one.

  • Sad observation: The quality of the resident street performers at Pier 39 has either deteriorated over time, or we just happened to catch the comedy juggler on a bad day.

  • Delicious irony: The odd juxtaposition of chain restaurants Hooters and In-N-Out Burger on Fisherman's Wharf. Of course, just being able to write a sentence that contains both "Hooters" and "In-N-Out" is amusing in itself. But the irony derives from the fact that Hooters prides itself on being a testosterone-fueled bastion of lustful objectification, while In-N-Out is a family-owned outfit famed as much for its squeaky-clean image and the proselytizing of its devoutly religious owners as for the quality of its hamburgers. In-N-Out is the only chain restaurant of which I'm aware that prints Bible references on its packaging materials (sandwich wrappers, soft drink cups, etc.). You've gotta know that the In-N-Out people passed a kidney stone when they learned that a Hooters was moving in next door to one of their burger joints.

  • The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which oversees the preservation of Alcatraz Island, is apparently mounting a major fund-raising push to restore the long-decommissioned prison and current sightseeing location. I did my civic duty by purchasing an overpriced "Save the Rock" coffee mug. Al Capone and Robert Stroud thank me.

  • I also bought a new pair of sneakers at the Wharf's Payless Shoe Source. My feet thank me.

  • Given the eerily identical selections of merchandise in most of the souvenir shops along the Wharf, I would not be at all surprised to discover that the same guy owns all of them.

  • Westfield Centre, the new shopping mall on Market Street, lives up to its advance billing as one of the spiffiest commercial spaces on the planet. It's also one of the most confusing to navigate.

  • The men's rooms at the Westfield Bloomingdale's are much nicer than those at Macy's in Union Square. Just in case you happen to be downtown, and need a pit stop. In fact, I'm going to call the place Bathroomingdale's from now on. (I'd imagine that the facilities at Neiman Marcus are nicer than either Bloomie's or Macy's, but I didn't have to go while we were in there.)

  • From what I can tell, Mayor Gavin Newsom's highly touted efforts at getting the homeless folks off downtown streets are having zero effect.

  • We dined, as we usually do when we're in the neighborhood, at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant atop Macy's. The Jamaican black pepper shrimp was excellent, as was the vanilla bean cheesecake. You can ask for Amy's table, and tell her your Uncle Swan sent you.

  • Every time we eat at the Cheesecake Factory, I find myself at some point mesmerized by the neon sign of Harry Denton's Starlight Room nightclub across Union Square. I have no idea what the attraction is, but that darned thing commands my attention like a candle flame draws moths.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

What's In My Pocket? #1: Kershaw Storm II

A recent conversation on David W. Boles's thought-provoking blog, Urban Semiotic — which you should be reading daily, if you aren't already — reminded me that I haven't written much here about my blade obsession.

Let's remedy that omission, starting now.

As far back as I can remember, I've been fascinated — some might say morbidly fascinated — by sharp-bladed objects. (The Freudians among you can make of that what you will.) One of my few nostalgic possessions from my childhood is a wicked-looking hunting knife in a leather sheath — a relic of my Cub Scout days some 35 years ago. Being the consummate indoorsman that I am, I despised camping — not to mention pretty much everything else that went along with Scouting — but I loved having an excuse to pack around a big honking bowie knife.

Throughout most of my youth, I carried in my pocket a Swiss Army knife of one make or another. My knives were always of inexpensive manufacture, given that I was then as I am now, an inattentive sort prone to misplacing things. And it wasn't that I was handy or craftsmanlike in any way, shape, or form. I have little interest in carpentry or other tool-intensive vocations, plus I possess the manual dexterity of a punch-drunk fighter wearing boxing gloves. I just liked fiddling with the knife.

When I went off to college, I stopped toting a knife around for a couple of reasons: (1) a Swiss Army knife made an uncomfortable lump in the front pocket of the snug-fitting jeans we were wearing so fashionably in those halcyon times; and (2) my fellow dormitory residents displayed a shocking propensity for cutlery theft. (I can admit this now that the statute of limitations has elapsed: I lost to someone's pilfering fingers a couple of sweet switchblades that... well... someone smuggled across the border from Tijuana, in addition to my SAK.)

Having broken the pocket-carry habit, I meandered through my young adult years content to stash my Swiss in my briefcase. Only occasionally — on package-opening holidays, for instance — did I return it to its rightful place in my trousers. Over the years, I indulged my jones for steel more furtively, casting occasional longing glances into the window of the cutlery shop in the local shopping mall — whose proprietors surely wearied of wiping my nose prints off their glass.

Then, as serendipity would have it, I found myself one day browsing the sporting goods department of a certain discount megastore. Like an asteroid captured by the gravity of Jupiter, I was pulled inexorably toward the knife counter. I wiped drool from my chin as I stared slack-jawed and glassy-eyed at the photographs of the cutlery specimens available for sale. One knife in particular caught my eye — a sleek, curvaceous vision in stainless steel.

Summoning my courage, I asked the GED recipient behind the counter if I might see an example up close. After a prolonged period of fumbling with keys and burrowing through boxes, the clerk placed into my sweaty, trembling palm the object of my desire:

And that cold steel monkey climbed onto my back once again.

The blade that launched a dozen subsequent purchases is still one of my favorite EDC (everyday carry, in knife-speak) pieces. The Kershaw Model 1475ST — aka the Storm II (the just-plain-Storm looks identical, but is smaller) — is made in the good old U.S. of A. (Tualatin, Oregon, to be precise) by Kershaw Knives, an American subdivision of Kai Corporation, the well-respected Japanese cutlery manfacturer. The Storm's sweeping reverse-curve silhouette and sequential decorative holes reflect the signature styling of Hawaii-based Ken Onion, knifemaker to the stars (Onion has created custom blades for such celebrities as Nicolas Cage and Aaron Neville) and one of Kershaw's leading affiliated designers.

My Storm fits my chubby fist as though molded to my grip. Its razor-sharp blade (trust me on this!) is crafted from Sandvik 13C26 stainless steel, while its scales (the bilateral handle components) are hefty 410 stainless with sandpaper-like inlays for secure handling. It opens smoothly via either a thumb stud or index-finger flipper, locks its sturdy blade into place with a satisfying ka-chunk, and cuts like nobody's business. Thanks to its flat profile, it rides my pocket so inobtrusively that I can easily forget that I'm carrying it.

Plus, it shares its name with one of my favorite superheroines. How cool is that?

I'll share other items from my blade drawer in future "What's In My Pocket?" posts. Right now, I feel the need to cut something.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Knife Guy cometh

Channel-surfing late at night in Reno last weekend, KJ and I stumbled upon the Knife Guy. We hadn't seen him on TV in a couple of years, and thought perhaps he had taken ill. Or dealt himself a fatal blow with a tactical folder. Or maybe just ran out of paranoid survivalists willing to shell out $200 for a lifetime supply of samurai swords.

The Knife Guy, whose real name is Tom O'Dell, formerly hawked his wares on Shop At Home TV — a low-rent kissin' cousin of HSN and QVC that appears even more narrowly targeted at the trailer park demographic than its competitors. Into the wee hours any weekend night, you could spin past Shop At Home and find Tom bellowing — at the top of his tobacco-dessicated lungs — the virtues of various bowie knives, katanas, and other aggressively lethal-looking cutlery, in a raspy Tennessee drawl thicker than blackstrap molasses on Rocky Top in January.

Then, suddenly, the Knife Guy and his "big'uns" (as Tom likes to call the largest blades in his arsenal — the kind one might employ for sport hunting, say, woolly mammoths) disappeared from the Shop At Home cablewaves. Weekend nights lost their anticipatory luster. But like televangelists, I Love Lucy reruns, and Tony Robbins, the Knife Guy couldn't be kept off the air forever. Or so it appears.

The Knife Guy's current cutlery extravaganza lacks even the basic local-PBS-station-on-pledge-night production values of his Knife Collectors Show on Shop At Home. In fact, the show we caught on Saturday evening looked like it was shot in Aunt Em and Uncle Henry's Kansas storm cellar under a 40-watt incandescent bulb, and recorded on a 20-year-old Betamax. But there was Tom — no longer accompanied by Shaun, the towheaded younger fellow whose job it was to lend a soupçon of frat-boy sex appeal to the old program — still raving about the insanely discounted deal one could score on a boatload of combat tactical specials.

I was so happy to see him I almost called up and ordered a Scottish claymore or an O'Dell's Royal Flush Bowie Collection my own self.

But I refrained.

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