24 April 2009

EDC Knives: Slipjoint Folders II

Outside of America, the old swordmaking town of Solingen, Germany, is the historical center of premium knife making for the rest of the world. German brands and companies such as Böker, Hen & Rooster (Bertram), J. A. Henckels, Kissing Crane and Puma long produced the highest quality folding knives. Those brands are still around, in one form or another, and many of the old firms still make some fine (and fairly expensive) slipjoint knives.

But most of them do not make most their knives in Germany, if any. Many of their designs are German, and sometimes the steel, but manufacturing has moved to cheaper labor centers in the EU, like the Balkan states, or to Asia. Germany has loose country of origin laws, so provenance can be impossible to determine—a “Germany” tang-stamp means nothing. Collectors know this and look for older, “real” German knives. The makers still producing lines in Germany talk that point up.

Böker "Tree Brand" canoe-pattern knife, a high-quality German folder. The blade tang is stamped Solingen, Germany, and all Böker Solingen knives are indeed still made there. A very fine knife.

As I’ve said, country of origin means not so much to me. When companies like Frost started importing Japanese knives in the 70s, enthusiasts proclaimed them junk next to American blades. Now Japanese knives are praised as premium and Chinese knives are declared junk. Not necessarily true. It is a fact that China and Taiwan are now the centers of knife production, but this really is a great time for traditional pocketknife lovers.

When I started collecting 8 or 9 years ago, your basic choice (it seemed) was to either pay a premium for a jigged bone-handled Case or German blade, or buy a cheap and ugly pakawood- or burnt bone-handled “user,” often made in Pakistan. Even a plastic- or nylon-handled Uncle Henry or Old Timer was priced not much lower than a Case (though still made in America, until 2004).

But now, inexpensive folders of good quality and traditional materials are pouring out of Asia. I discovered this first in the new brand Rough Rider, but even established brands are now appearing in this value segment.

I have in front of me two “Texas toothpick” slipjoints, one made in China by Kissing Crane ($12) and the other in the USA by Case ($40). The Case has bone handles and the Kissing Crane has genuine ram’s horn. The Case uses better materials and came beautifully polished, but my Chinese knife, while just one-quarter the cost, is perhaps three-quarters the quality.

More importantly, due to its cost, the Case stays in my knife roll while the Kissing Crane goes in my pocket. Whatever its current provenance, I still admire its German heritage and its craftsmanship, and apparently some others feel the same. And it cost me less than a nice lunch. In the past few months I’ve purchased several Chinese folders, all for $7-10 each. Quality is a little uneven, but even at such startlingly low prices, I’ve been very pleased with all but one.

The good old days are not gone. Entirely the opposite. Traditional pocket knife lovers have never had it so good.

Another canoe-pattern knife, of the Kissing Crane brand, an old German marque but certainly not made in Germany. HallMark Cutlery (Knoxville, TN) founder Jacob Hall once interned in Solingen and has now acquired the marque, but manufactures at least his entry-level knives in China.

Next up: Tactical Knife Materials & Conctruction

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