There was a time when if you wanted a new knife, you would go to the hardware store downtown. If you were lucky, there might be a bait shop or sporting goods store in town to increase your choices. Looking for a true tactical knife, your only bet would be to head to the Army/Navy Store. Before you start to bemoan the fact that it’s still that way in your hometown, remember you now have mail order. Mail order used to mean Sears Roebuck and Fuller Brush, and that was it. I’m not talking about the 1800’s but just back in the 50’s and 60’s. My first knife that I can remember was a Cub Scout pocketknife purchased at a local department store. My first sheath knife (that was before the day we called them fixed blades) was ordered with Green Stamp premiums from the grocery store.
You may be wondering what has taken me down memory lane today. It’s simple, I’ve been “surfing the web.” Go back and say that in the 60’s and see what kind of look people give you. You’ve read the choices we had “back in my day.” (As a side note, if my grandfather had not already passed away, he would die laughing at the fact I even use that phrase!) In the current economy, we can shop and order from anywhere in the world. If there is a product made, we can look at it, review it and then purchase it without leaving our desk.
Surfing For Blades
This struck home with me a couple of months ago when I was looking at a knife made by a young maker in California. An “Internet friend,” a person I may never meet face-to-face but I chat with daily, had posted a picture of it on one of the websites. A few keystrokes later and I had the contact information for Ray Laconico of Visalia, CA. A few more keystrokes and I had set up a time to chat with Ray—the old fashioned way—by phone.
Ray Laconico is the epitome of the majority of custom knife makers. He is 34 years old, married, the father of one daughter and makes knives as a hobby. Like many makers, he is mainly self-taught and has the aim of making his hobby a full-time occupation. Since his start in 2001, he has averaged about one knife a week. In my eyes, any man capable of that turnout while juggling family obligations and another full-time job is working hard to improve. I asked that he send me a sample of his work so I could see for myself if the knife shown on the Internet was as nice as it looked.
It took a few weeks but, in time, three knives arrived at the studio. I snapped photographs of two and returned them quickly. For any custom maker, three knives is a major investment and the sooner you can get them to your buyers, the sooner you get paid! The third knife was similar to the one I saw posted on the forum and would be the one I would get to play with.
O1 Carbon Steel
All three knives were of 01 tool steel, Ray’s material of choice. In our conversation, I asked about folders and Ray’s reply was that he has made only one so far. He did it to prove that he could but prefers to craft fixed blades. I have not seen that one folder, but I will say he has fixed blades down pat. All three knives were as clean as any I’ve seen. The grinds were outstanding and the fit of bolsters and scales flawless. One had a wooden handle while the other two were fitted with Micarta. Ray voiced his choice for simple and durable materials to match his style of knives. These knives came with a leather sheath that matched the quality of the knives.
Trailside Camp Knife
The test knife is the model referred to as the “Trailside” camp knife. It is the pattern I would choose as an all-around utility knife for the woods. The flat ground blade is 4-½ inches long and 3/16-inch thick. At its widest point, it is 1-3/8 inches and has a full tang. The Micarta scales are mated perfectly to the tang. In talking to various makers and knife enthusiasts, I am often asked what makes the difference between a field knife and a tactical knife. The “Trailside” happens to be a good example for this topic. As I received it, the knife could fit into either category. It has a nicely done hand rubbed finish, but put a black coating on it and you would swear it was designed for the military. A tactical knife needs to be a no frills, well-built utility blade. That sounds like just the knife I would want in the field anytime I venture away from the city. Replace the Micarta with stag or ironwood and you would have a great hunting knife. The blade is long enough to be considered a last ditch weapon.
Any time I get a test sample in the studio, the hardest part of an assignment is waiting to get the photographs completed before trying out the knife. Once completed, I carried the knife to the small wood lot behind the studio. Simple trials on scrub brush endorsed Ray’s ability to apply an edge to a knife. Turning branches into slivers of kindling showed the advantages of a thin profile on a blade. This feature also proved useful in the kitchen. I missed my chance to use the knife while hunting by just a few weeks and I don’t think the North Carolina Wildlife Commission would take too kindly to me extending the season for a magazine article. But I have used blades of similar patterns and have no doubts about the abilities of the “Trailside” as a hunting knife. I did get lucky during deer season and later used the knife for what I consider a true test of cutting ability. I took the hindquarter of one deer and started turning it into ¼-inch strips of venison for drying into jerky. Try slicing fresh meat into chucks and any blade will work. Of course, the smaller the strip gets, the more your knife is put to the test.
The test knife has what I would consider a “neutral balance.” The knife is balanced right at the position of your forefinger, neither blade heavy or butt heavy. This assisted in making precise cuts and the knife had no problems in the kitchen. The following weekend found me in the foothills working on another project. I was building the framework of various types of survival shelters. I was in need of photographs of these shelters for an article and used the Laconico knife for the majority of the work. An axe, hatchet or machete may have completed the work quicker, but Ray’s knife performed well. He does all of his own heat-treating and by the way the knife performed, he knows how to do it. Overall, the “Trailside” proved to be a good match for the duties found in the brush.
Shortly after completing this review, I will return the knife to Ray. He can do a bit of clean up and the knife will be ready to sell. I never felt the need to re-sharpen the blade but I’m sure he will touch up the edge before making the sale. Ray really doesn’t take orders or deposits, but he will let you know when a knife is available. From the quality of the knives I’ve seen, his knives will go quickly. The next time you shop for a knife, don’t settle for what is available at the bait shop. Try clicking your way onto the ’net to find out what’s lurking in the surf!