News out of the knife world over the last two years has focused on a few different narratives. One big story, time and again, has been the emergence of former Chinese OEMs. It used to be that these companies made knives designed by other companies. They would get plans and designs from a US company and make it. The company saved money because labor costs were less and the OEM got work. Over time, these companies started making designs of their own. Kizer, Reate, and WE Knives, in that order, emerged as truly great production companies when they started making stuff of their own. They cut their teeth of machining designs of others and after years of developing production capacity and monitoring the market, they came out of the nameless haze that surrounds OEMs and became their own companies.
We typically think that only overseas companies can do that. We typically think that OEMs only work if they can take advantage of cheap labor overseas. But Three Rivers Manufacturing did and does OEM work right here in Massachusetts. They make parts compatible with Spyderco’s Mule series. And over the last five years they have come out with knives of their own design. They released a high end production knife based on Bob Terzuola’s design. They have a close relationship with RJ Martin and released a flipper he designed. And they have a few knives designed in-house. I reviewed one of their first knives, the Nomad, here. This review is of another slipjoint—the Viator. It is a non-locking, two-handed opening knife, making it less scary and offensive to jurisdictions with restrictive knife laws (if you need information about knife laws, consult a local lawyer).
Here is the product page for the Viator. This is the first written review. Here is a video review. You can buy the Viator at Blade HQ. Finally, here is the review sample (with my choice of colors—all high vis—blue scales and orange backspacer, which TRM pointed out, makes me a Mets fan—nope, I am not that big a glutton for punishment):
Twitter Review Summary: Elite slicing and broad design appeal in a modern slipjoint.
For all the differences in folding knife designs, there are a core set of features that make for great folders—give me a slicey blade, a gently curved relatively neutral handle, a simple, decent pocket clip. Beyond these core design elements, anything more is a potential distraction. I have learned over the years that even the deployment method doesn’t matter so much, so long as it works.
Boiled down that is exactly what the Viator gives you—a simple, sound folder. I can’t imagine something that better adheres to the vision of a folder. Time and again while using the Viator I was pleasantly surprised to find the knife doing just what I needed and nothing more. It sliced and cut with grace. It carried with ease. And it never wore out my hand. In all, this is a supremely solid, supremely simple design and we are all better off for it.
The performance ratios here are excellent. The blade:weight is 1.2. The blade:handle is .75 (the secret Golden Ratio for knives: a 3 inch blade in a 4 inch handle). These number convey what they should--this is a tight design with every dimension considered.
Fit and Finish: 2
One of the reasons OEMs make such good brands when they decide to step out into the marketplace is because they have honed their craft over years. All that experience means they get things right. When your first and primary customer is buying any entire run of something, the stakes are quite high. If they don’t like the products, they don’t send one or two back, they send them all back. And if that OEM is not overseas, accountability is even higher.
That logic it seems, provides a compelling hypothesis for why TRM’s stuff is so good. I have yet to handle a knife of theirs that is anything but killer. The blades are centered, the grinds are immaculate, the handles are well cut, materials are flush, and finishes as just as they should be.
In the end, I can’t find anything wrong these knives. They are just that good.
Cooks Illustrated, one of the models for review I am guided by, regularly recommends at $30 Victorinox kitchen knife over and above $300 models from other companies. Why? Because the handle of the Victorinox is so brilliantly simple and comfortable.
So too here. With only a few gentle curves and an overall pleasing-to-the-hand shape, the Viator is excellent when cutting. The medium texture on the G10 handles is wonderful—perfectly grippy, but not too shreddy.
Here is a size comparison between a AAA battery and the Viator:
As you can see this is an exceptionally slim knife. By now I am sure you know my preferences—there is simply no reason I can see to carry a big thick folder, aside from personal preference. I have had such knives in for review and after a few days carrying them is like forcing myself to eat something I don’t like (cauliflower, if you are wondering). You kinda hold your breath and just do it. Here, with a knife no wider than a AAA battery, carry is a pleasure.
I am big fan of the steel here. CPM154 has always been one of my favorites—a good all around powder steel based on one of the most well-known non-PM steels (the oft-confused 154CM). It seems to me that CPM154 sits in a perfect spot—pure thanks to new gee whiz tech but also well-known enough that makers can extract optimum performance without too much hassle. When I was having my Sawby Swift made, I chose CPM154 for this very reason. New, high end steels are awesome, but there is a lot of experimentation needed to get any steel to an optimum performance level and with CPM154, we know just how to do it. It also happens to be pretty affordable, which is a good thing for consumers.
Blade Shape: 2
Dead simple drop points go a long way for me. I don’t need any saw teeth on the spine or giant recurve, just give me a simple straightforward design and I am happy. That is what TRM did with this knife and it is better for it. It also happens to set the knife up perfectly to take advantage of...
The Inner Circle of Elite Cutters has a new entrant. Before it was just the La Percival and the Spyderco Chaparral, but the Viator is the equal to these two superior slicers. This thing cuts apples like a gamma knife. I feel like I could make cuts small enough and precise enough for eye surgery with this thing. You know the feeling of using an elite slicer—you have to check after you make a cut to see if you actually hit the target and when you do the target, visually, looks undisturbed. Its only when you move it do the pieces separate from each other. Amazingly thin, tapered flat grind on a tall knife—a simple recipe for success.
Deployment Method: 1
The only real ding I can hit this knife with comes in how it opens. This is the knife equivalent of the Norman Door, a door designed such that its appearance does not indicate whether it is to be pulled or pushed open, named after the author of Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman. Perhaps it is our shared and inherited understanding of knife designs or perhaps it is where the open hole is located. Whatever the reason, this deployment method causes instant confusion. The first comment I received on my first IG post of this knife was whether or not it opened one-handed. For the record, it does not. Also for the record, this question came from a very astute knife knut. This deployment method just looks like it should operate one-handed. And when you try you will quickly realize there is simply no way to pry the Viator’s blade open with just your thumb. It violates Norman's core principle--things should work as humans expect them to.
The hole is really just a pinch point for your pointer finger and thumb to pull the blade out of the handle while your other hand holds the handle itself. This visual confusion is immediate, instant, and almost perpetual. Even now, after a month with the knife, I will occasionally grab it and try to open it with one hand. Compare this design to the opener on the Spyderco Roadie, another thoroughly modern slipjoint. That design, with one small visual clue, tells you exactly how to open the knife. It is just brilliant and totally unlike any other slipjoint before it (which is remarkable, given how long we as a species have been making slipjoints).
Once you get the hang of the opener, it is not bad at all. It works quite well and it is reliable. I just wish it was as intuitively obvious as other methods.
Retention Method: 2
Clips are straightforward. They have one task, hold a knife in place. But over the years there have been many, many different designs and most are awful and almost every single one is too complicated. Not here. But as is almost always the case--simplest is best. It is also notable just how little of the knife shows when being carried. There is almost nothing there and this is not an over-the-top clip. TRM, as usual, gets the details right.
It is technically a slipjoint, but this is the strongest slipjoint I have ever seen. I never place faith in detents (or folder locks, to be completely honest) but this is a very stout and safe blade. It would take a true moron to get injured here. The mechanism is, of course, unusual, unique, I think to TRM (the Nomad had the same mechanism). There is a gentle half stop here, basically enough to let you know what your doing, but not really enough to slow you down all that much. I really like this knife and it comes close to the oxymoron--a hard use slipjoint. No slipjoint can ever be that but this is pretty solid.
Overall Score: 19 out of 20
This knife is a great slipjoint. It is a great knife for places with restrictions. It is a great slicer. Any one of those could be the knife's major selling point. It is also a delight in the pocket and the hand and festooned with great details. I really love the Viator for a bunch of different reasons. If you think you might like this knife, trust me, you will. And if you have looked through the Spyderco site and hovered over the UKPK, you absolutely must handle a Viator.
In addition to being a great knife, the Viator is confirmation that TRM is making some of the best knives around. As far as microbrew knife companies, they are certainly in the conversation, along with Millit, as one of the best. It is hard to stay up on every one of these brands and so when I circle back and see that they are making stuff like the Viator, it confirmed what the Nomad told me--this is one of the best knife companies in the US, new to consumers or otherwise. It might be time for me to get one of their locking blades.
If you live somewhere with restrictions, this is hands down one of the best knives for you. I like the Roadie a smidge more, but if you want something bigger, something that slices better, and something that fills the hand more, this is a stellar choice. I also like the Benchmade Proper a bit more, but it is for entirely subjective reasons. Performance-wise, design-wise, and steel-wise this knife is every bit the Proper's equal and that knife is one of my favorites to come out in the past two or three years. This is a damn fine blade. If you want more than a Roadie and less traditional than the Proper (or other traditionals) this is the knife.