Griptilian Upgrade | Benchmade Folding Knife Review

American expatriate Kevin Wilkins turns the ubiquitous Benchmade folding knife into a true work of art.

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One of the benefits of writing for Tactical Knives is that I have had the opportunity to meet a lot of genuine knife experts. In what can at times be a fractious culture, one thing that everyone seems to agree about is that the Benchmade Griptilian is one of their favorite utility folders. I’m not sure that even Benchmade or Griptilian designer Mel Pardue knew when they introduced it years ago that their reasonably priced utility folder would hit such a sweet spot with the public. Everyone seems to like it; it was the base model for survival guru Doug Ritter’s RSK Mk1, and closer to home, it’s the knife I’m most likely to have with me on duty when I’m not evaluating a knife for an article.

_mg_5957.gifIn an interesting twist on the custom collaboration model, Berlin-based American ex-pat Kevin Wilkins makes and installs a Griptilian handle upgrade. The upgrade consists of replacement scales and a back spacer, and he calls the finished product Griptilikins. All the rest of the Griptilian hardware—the blade, Axis-Lock, pivot mechanism, and so on—remains the same. The upgrade is available for Benchmade’s model 550, 550HG, 551 and 552 without any modifi cation to the original knife (they will not fit the model 553 with tanto-shaped blades). The standard Griptilikins grips are machined from glass fi ber plastic laminates. The black, ranger green, cyan blue and orange versions are made from G-10, while the pale green and swimming pool green are made from the stronger, harder GFK laminate G-11. All Griptilikins grips include a spacer machined from AlMgSi1 6082 T6 aluminum alloy with a hard anodized surface. Kevin used to make grips from the AlMgSi1 6082 alloy, but has discontinued them (what’s left in stock is it). Of course, as a full-time maker, he has and can make grips from other materials on a custom basis. In case you’re wondering, the knife isn’t altered in any way, and the original scales can go back on at any time. As Kevin says, “I did not want to modify or alter the mechanics of the Benchmade knife in any way. Reasons for this were simple: The Griptilian is a superbly engineered and manufactured product. I can’t make it mechanically better than it already is. I also did not want to do anything that would prohibit the original grips from being re-installed.”

How It Started
Kevin got into the replacement Griptilian handle business because of customer requests. In his words, “Several Griptilian owners here in Germany really liked the original knives but wanted a higher-quality handle. A couple of guys contacted me about making some replacement grips without knowing what a complicated task that actually was. I at first refused, but then kind of got into the idea and decided to take it on as a design and machining challenge.”

At this point you may be asking: So what’s the point? I admit, I asked myself that question, too—before the knives arrived. I had been wondering what the point of the replacement handle was, except to make the knife prettier. Handling the “Griptilikins” immediately answered my question. The Griptilikins are slightly heavier than the standard Griptilians, with a more natural balance point (the originals are blade-heavy). The dimples in the Griptilikins are more aggressive than the texturing in the originals, and the glass fiber laminates simply have a better feel to the hand than the original FRN handles. Also, you can see in the photos that the Griptilikins handle shape is differently shaped—a little less neutral and more defined. They feature a slight finger choil, discreet thumb guides to the opening mechanism, and an understated pinky catch. The Griptilikins handles are flatter than the original and fill the hand a little more. The overall feel is that of a heavier, more substantial, slightly larger knife. While the original Griptilian is impressive as a functional work knife, the Griptilikins is a remarkable piece of workmanship. As Kevin said, the mechanical design of the knife is superb: the through-handle Axis lock is very strong, allows for an almost tension-free opening, can’t be accidentally released as you use the knife, and lets the knife be carried in the preferred tip-up position. The opening arc is ergonomic, and the blade is a real performer. That’s why everyone already loves the Griptilian!

Of course, the aesthetics of the modified knife are impressive and worthwhile, too! 

The original two-piece scale/handle completely filled the spine. The replacement Griptilikins handle has an open back with an attractive color-contrasting aluminum back spacer. In short, the original Griptilian looks like what it is: a reasonably priced, factory-made, quality utility knife. The Griptilikins, by contrast, looks like a well-made custom knife.

Several Options
The Griptilian blade has itself been modified slightly by Benchmade over the years. Currently, there are two basic models: a slightly upswept, hollow-ground, thumb-opening model and a spear-point, stud-opening, flat-ground model. Both are made with 154CM steel and both blades are 3.4 inches long. Not surprisingly, they come extremely sharp from the factory. With the factory edge, they sliced ribbons of free-hanging office paper easily. Both blade versions turned in “A” to “A+” performance on nylon rope, carpet, cardboard, soft wood and hard wood. Both required a few sawing passes on thick manila rope, but even that went easily. Since I had essentially custom knives here that had to be returned to the maker, I didn’t re-sharpen the edges to an equally sharp but somewhat toothier edge. If I had, I know from experience that they would have cut the ¾-inch manila rope in one or two passes. What surprised me was not the superlative performance of the two basic models, but how little the two blade geometries varied on each medium! I’m not sure what to make of that other than to say 1) Mel Pardue and Benchmade sure know their business, and 2) performance on real mediums will sometimes surprise the theorists.

How to Buy
Griptilikins grips are available in the USA and Canada exclusively from Gary Moore at Moore Cutlery. Buyers from the rest of the world should contact Kevin Wilkins directly.

Regardless of your location, there are three ways to purchase a Griptilikins:
1) Send Kevin or Gary your Griptilian knife and they will install the conversion and return your knife. This is good for buyers who have no idea how to take apart a Griptilian. There is no extra charge for installing the grips on your knife. The original grip scales and screws will be returned and the knife will not be permanently modified. The original Griptilian grips may be re-installed at any time. 
2) You may also order the Griptilikins grip set alone from Moore Cutlery or Kevin Wilkins—depending on your location—and install it yourself. If you can not only take your knife apart but put it back together, this is the way to go. The price in the USA is about $125 for a set of basic Griptilikins grips.
3) You may purchase a new Griptilian from Moore Cutlery or Kevin Wilkins with the Griptilikins grips pre-installed. The original grip scales and screws will be returned and the knife will not be permanently modified. The original Griptilian grips may be re-installed at any time.

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