Knives of the New Old School
Tony Sculimbrene 03.02.15
There is a new breed of knife maker out there that just ten years ago would never have existed. In the folding knife world there are two camps, usually spanned by a wide chasm. On one side are the traditional knife folks. If it doesn’t have stag on it, well then it’s just a toy. Nail knicks, high carbon steel, and classic patterns are all they want. And for good reason. Traditional knives with their thin blades and pocketable shapes are excellent everyday carry tools.
On the other side are the modern guys, who think that knives without clips and locks are best suited for the old folks home. They love the bleeding edge steels and convenience of one handed deployment. And for a long time, that’s the way it was. There was no bridge between these camps.
Slowly things started to change. After many of the great American brands like Schrade died and were bought out by overseas producers, two companies, Great Eastern Cutlery and Canal Street Cutlery, rose out of the collapse.
These companies are now producing some of the finest knives available, regardless of design. They join Case and Queen in producing traditional knives that knife knuts know and love, but they also threw in some new things in the mix.
Canal Street, for example, uses 14-4 CrMo, a steel very close to 154CM. And then there is Northwoods Knives, a brand exclusive to KnivesShipFree. Derrick, owner of both the brand and the store, resurrects old patterns and alters them a bit. One knife series, the Indian River Jack, has been using top flight steels for a long time, steels that would normally be found only on modern blades–CPM154 and ATS-34, for example.
But this new brand of knife maker goes even further. Ever see a Lanny’s Clip pattern done in jigged titanium? What about a Barlow with carbon fiber and green G10 liners? These knives are out there, they are just hard to find. Two makers that seem to be pushing this idea the furthest are Joe Oeser and Enrique Pena. If you want to find the New Old School, look no further.
Oeser is a perfect representative of the New Old School. Calling on his real life job skills as a home builder, his knives are immaculately crafted with clean, gap free spines and wonderfully contoured handles. His knife designs are truly unique–a perfect blend of modern materials and old school patterns. These melded designs are the primary focus of his custom work. The knives are minimalist, striking, and built to use.
In particular, Oeser’s Barlow is a perfect symbol New Old School knives. When it was first made, the Barlow, among the earliest mass produced folding knives, needed the extra long steel bolster to keep the pivot from falling part. Now, with modern methods and materials, the bolster remains a decoration and marks the knife as a Barlow. But in some of Oeser’s renditions, the bolster is actually not metal, but a contrasting material–such as a main cover of canvas micarta with a smooth black G10 bolster.
The effect is visually stunning–a nod to the old pattern, with a completely fresh take. Oeser does this on a variety of patterns: shredded carbon fiber scales with orange liners on a swayback pattern or jet black G10 bolsters with wood scales on a lockback. Oeser takes the old school feel up a notch with a variety of different shaped inlayed shields, all of which look bright and clean.
Enrique Pena–not to be confused with the current President of Mexico, who is also named Enrique Pena–is a full-time knife maker from Laredo, Texas. Unlike many makers, he works in both styles. His Diesel Flipper is a large titanium frame lock flipper that compares well to a lot of customs out there. But his repertoire is broad. You can find all sorts of traditional patterns from Pena on the secondary market. He prefers some of the bolder patterns–Bulldogs, Hunters, and Sodbuster-type blades, anything large and striking. With jigged bone handles and file-worked spines, these traditional folders look great, but it’s the new old school stuff that first caught my attention.
Pena’s carbon fiber Sodbuster-type knife (note that “sodbuster” is a registered trademark of Case Knives. Apparently the USPTO was asleep when they approved this one. Sodbuster had been used for more than century by various brands, including Boker) and his jigged titanium Lanny’s Clip are really unique.
By combining the thin slicing blades and ultralight materials, Pena is truly merging the best of both worlds.
There are a quite a few modern style knives that pay homage to traditionals and a few traditionals that use modern materials. Case released a line of its most popular patterns with carbon fiber covers. Coming from the other direction, Spyderco released a slipjoint version of their Kiwi design with stag handles. Likewise there were quite a few different Spyderco Kopas that used traditional materials.
In addition to the two makers above and the companies referenced, other traditional makers are starting to mix things up a bit. Joel Chamblin, one of the more renowned custom traditional knife makers, released a few handmade blades through AG Russell that embody this New Old School mentality. The design, a single blade clip point with lightning strike carbon fiber covers, is quite striking and readily available (albeit at a custom knife price–$450).
Oeser and Pena have distinctive styles, and by using the best of traditional and modern designs they have created some of the most interesting customs out there. Both use great blade steels, CPM154 among others, and both have nothing in stock. Oeser is not a full time knife maker, but Pena is.
The best way to secure an Oeser is to sign up for his email list. Beware, you need to be a quick draw with the smartphone. His knives regularly sell out in under a minute, though he does release a knife probably once every two weeks. Pena’s knives are equally difficult to track down, though the secondary custom knife sites usually have a few for sale.