Much of the current conversation about folding knives revolves around materials, particularly the blade steel. That this is the case makes absolute sense, of course: a knife is a cutting tool, and the blade's ability to hold an edge, resist corrosion, and maintain general structural integrity are absolutely salient characteristics for it to continue performing as such.
That said, how well the knife can be integrated into the user's body mechanics and work task processes—what I call its "usability"—is just as important for the knife's functioning as an effective implement. The problem, of course, is that usability is very much an idiosyncratic and personal thing—what is usable for one person may not be so for another.
It might help to think of the usability of a knife in the same way as one considers the usability of a software app or operating system. An app or operating system may have a wealth of advanced features, but if those features are buried behind a clumsy, inscrutable user interface, then those features may as well not exist. By a similar token, the longest-wearing, most rustproof, and toughest blade steel in the world is wasted if it is implemented in a folding knife that is awkward to use.
This sounds like common sense (because it is!), but I occasionally lose sight of this principle, especially when the hype for the latest and greatest steel or an in vogue designer or even some new YouTube cutting test result is at a fever pitch.
I was recently reminded of the importance of usability when I visited a local military surplus store to look at, handle, and possibly buy, a non-Spyderco folding knife (potentially my first non-Spyderco folder purchase in over four years). I handled knives from a selection of popular brands, including a model that I was particularly keen on purchasing based on how it performed in an edge retention test on a well-regarded YouTube channel.
Holding it in my hand and manipulating it in a way that approximated how I would wield it were I using it at work, however, I realised that it just wasn't a good fit for me, and perhaps, for other people who do similar work with their knives. I ended up not buying it.
It wasn't just my unfamiliarity with the design. It was the accumulation of little things that were not flaws in and of themselves, but taken together resulted in a knife that—while I'm sure could cut very well in an isolated, stereotyped testing condition—would take me perhaps a second or two longer to draw from my pocket, a second or two longer to close safely one-handed (or alternatively, would require two hands to close safely), and a second or two longer to put back in my pocket in actual, real-world workplace practice.
A knife is my primary tool at work, and those seconds would all add up over the course of a shift that sees me draw, use, close, and re-pocket a folding knife one-handed, hundreds of times a day (I work in a high-throughput warehouse).
Just as the accumulation of inefficiencies of that particular knife model was not readily apparent without thoughtful, actual handling, so too are the assets of Spyderco's most successful designs.
Take the humble Delica 4, for example. A stalwart of Spyderco's product line for the last three decades, the Delica has been rendered somewhat unremarkable due to its sheer ubiquity (a "problem"—if it can be called that—other knife manufacturers would love to have).
While part of the Delica's sales success can be attributed to Spyderco's preexisting bulletproof reputation for quality, a model does not go into four iterative design generations and stay in constant production for thirty years on the strength of branding alone.
Everything in the bog-standard Delica 4, from the blade shape and grind, to the distance of the Trademark Opening Hole in relation to the pivot and the lockbar access cutout, to its weight and balance, to the texture and contours of the handle, to the location of and tension in the pocket clip, add up to a preeminently usable knife.
The Delica 4 is not a perfect knife by any means, and I know there are those for whom it isn't a particularly good fit. The Delica 4 isn't even my favourite Spyderco folder—it's currently a toss-up between the Li'l Temperance 3 and the Yojimbo 2. But what makes Spyderco's product catalogue so great is the depth and breadth of its design vocabulary: There is almost certainly a production Spyderco folder design that will meet the folding knife needs of just about anyone out there.
Perhaps the greatest praise I can give Spyderco in terms of the usability of their production designs is this: As someone who uses a knife as his primary work tool, accidental self-inflicted knife injuries are inevitable—it's just the law of averages. I have been more careful and luckier than most, but I've still had one knife injury that required that I work modified duties while I recuperated. I have never seriously cut myself with one of my Spyderco work knives, however (my Spyderco work knife rotation currently consists of the Yojimbo 2, Li'l Temperance 3, Delica 4 Wharncliffe, Native 5 Lightweight, Para Military 2, and most recently, the RockJumper).
When I use one of my work Spydercos, I always know where the edge and tip are in relation to my body and the environment because of various tactile design cues, and closing the knife one-handed is a safe, near-automatic, and swift process, regardless of the lock type.
In many ways, we are in what one might call a boom period for folding knives. We are spoiled for choice in blade steels: virtually rustproof steels, extremely tough steels, extremely long-wearing steels, affordable steels that can outperform the premium steels of 20 years ago; there is a steel for every need and desire, for every budget. Sprints, retailer exclusives, and fashionable boutique knife manufacturers abound, creating—for better and for worse—a speculation-driven micro-economy. And the stigma surrounding the everyday carry of folding knives in public has been somewhat mitigated by the intentional and incidental advocacy of various popular YouTube personalities (though much ground still has to be made in this regard).
I contend that this boom is due to a significant extent to the advances in usability that Spyderco pioneered over the years. Knives had to get into more people's hands and pockets before this could all happen. Warehouse, port, and construction workers had to realise that a properly-designed folding knife could work just as well as a utility boxcutter for their cutting tasks. Outdoors enthusiasts had to learn that a folding knife did not have to be a compromise solution in their efforts to shave weight in their gear loadouts. First responders and military personnel had to have confidence in the reliability of their folders when lives were on the line.
Wikipedia defines a tool as "an object used to extend the ability of an individual to modify features of the surrounding environment." The knife is one of humanity's oldest tools, a legacy from our ancient Paleolithic ancestors that unites us across geography and time. So much of today's knife hobbyist market, though, seems to be driven by prestige of ownership and materials exclusivity ("I have something other people don't") which, to me, is antithetical to the knife's foundational motivation of function and utility. Knives as "pocket jewelry" is nice and all, but I think we would be best served in the hobby if we stayed aware of our species' original relationship with the knife as a tool. Fashion comes and goes, but our need for effective "matter separators" (to borrow Sal Glesser's term) is constant.
John Steinbeck once wrote that "we value virtue, but do not discuss it." I've been very much heartened, however, by the recent (if somewhat belated) enthusiasm the online Spyderco community has greeted the release of the RockJumper. Usability is a virtue, and that a Seki City-made knife with a basic VG-10 blade, a standard mid-backlock mechanism, and plain old FRN handle scales would garner the level of interest it has largely on the merits of its ergonomics tells me that usability remains at the forefront of our forum's shared priorities.
Last edited by zuludelta
on Sat Nov 07, 2020 10:29 am, edited 2 times in total.