22 April 2009

EDC Knives: Slipjoint Folders I

Growing up, my father always had a pocketknife handy. For much of the 20th century, most men in America probably did. And most all of those millions of knives were humble slipjoint folders. Being such a fundamental tool and male accessory, these knives came in many different grades and styles from a large number of makers, such as Camco/Camillus, Imperial Schrade, Kutmaster and Utica. I own classic folders made by all those companies, purchased used. Most are in fact very well used and, alas, all of their makers gone, in fact if not in name.

The golden age of pocketknives was between the world wars. While most American knives were made in Ohio and New England, pocketknife collecting first started in Kentucky and Tennessee in the 1950s, states which still have a real love for these folders. As American knife manufacturing steadily declined into the 70s, collecting still continued to grow but shifted in focus to custom knives. However, vintage folders have steadily increased in demand and value, especially good examples, even knives that in real terms are nothing special.

But both declining demand for fine slipjoints and rising competition from Asian manufacturers have almost reduced the American slipjoint folder industry to a single large maker: W. R. Case. Case knives are now made for collectors more than consumers, deviating little from classic designs but with a constant stream of limited issues that vary in details (handle materials/colors, shields, blade etching, packaging, etc.). The Case Collector’s Club has almost 18,000 members. They are certainly fine knives and, in America, almost the last of their breed.

The new Tony Bose-designed limited edition Sway Back Jack from Case. While Case has had several collaborations with Bose, collaborations with a custom maker are rare for them, and only done with limited edition knifes. Equally rare is this (mild) departure from their traditional slipjoint patterns.

Most other “American” slipjoints are made in Asia by OEMs. Queen Cutlery is a notable exception, as is the newer firm Great Eastern Cutlery, both making all of their fine (and expensive) knives in Titusville, NY. There is also Canal Street Cutlery in Ellensville, NY. Likewise, Remington is again starting to sell American-made knives, and are even starting a collector's club for their blades (who their OEM maker is, I do not know). But most modern slipjoints from Remington, Winchester, and other old brands share no DNA whatsoever with the handmade knives bearing those names from the 1940s. A few models are made by US craftsmen, but all the rest by Chinese robots.

Next up: Slipjoints II - From Germany to Asia

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