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Designing The Pocket Knife

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DESIGNING THE POCKET KNIFE

When you have the Grovemade Pocket Knife in your hand, you are holding the end result of a long journey. Everything we create begins with the passion of our team, then transforms step-by-step into something you can enjoy for a lifetime. Here is that story.

Our fascination with knives started when we were little kids creating makeshift weapons for imaginary battles. Even in adulthood, our design team of Ken, Sean, and Kevin loves knives and each of us carries one on a daily basis. As we began designing our own pocket knife, we started by emptying our pockets of our own personal collections of cutters. We inspected every last detail, disassembling them to understand exactly how they worked.

Immediately we noticed how busy many of the knives were. They were constructed by layering materials and attaching the two sides around a blade using screws and pins. The blade and handle were connected with all sorts of geometries designed to guide and stop the blade as it opened. And there were a variety of locking and fastening methods to keep the knives open and closed.

KEVIN DO: The knives we brought in were all very complicated in form. I couldn’t help but think of cleaning up the lines.

To kick off our design process, Kevin and Sean created a huge inspiration board for the project. This ideation phase drives the visual and functional design of the product. At the top, we started with some of our existing products, keeping an eye on our established design principles. Next, we added found images of anything that inspired us: products, places, and things that show a specific function or feeling we want to evoke. Details, shapes, angles, lines, and material transitions were called out, everything from details on knives we like to seemingly unrelated products. Post-it notes peppered the board: yellow for ideas or thoughts; red for action items and things we want to explore further; blue for commitments or constraints.

We then raided online knife forums for more information and reached out to experts in the field. Lucky for us, Portland is a hotbed for knife companies. We talked to the very helpful owner of a local machine shop that specializes in making knife components. We also started meeting with Dave, a friend and manufacturing engineer at a large local knife company. We found a bottomless pit of knowledge to be gained about knife design. Even learning the most basic terminology was tough.

KEN TOMITA: Getting help and learning from others is a core part of our process at Grovemade.

Through our learning process we discovered that 99% of knives are constructed using a sandwich method where the parts are stacked and secured together. In most cases the user of the knife is able to see every layer. Think of a swiss army knife.

Was this sandwich construction method the best way to create a knife? Or simply the easiest? At Grovemade we pursue the best with equal parts fresh-eyes and naivety. We were fully prepared to buck conventional norms. Kevin and Sean began sketching and pinning up ideas, quickly moving between drawings and paper prototypes.

Simultaneously, we dug deep into the purpose of our first knife. How does it contribute to the world? What problem does it solve? First, we looked inward.

KEN TOMITA: I realized that I only use one of the eight knives I own on a day to day basis because the others are too “tactical.” They’re inappropriately intimidating, and just too bulky in my pocket.

We zeroed in on making a knife for a design conscious individual. It would be for everyday use; i.e. going to work or hanging out with friends on the weekend, not for hunting or camping. Common uses would be opening a package and maybe occasionally slicing an apple.

Inspiration came to us in the Japanese Higonokami knife. Also known as a peasant knife or friction folder, it does not have a locking mechanism. It is held closed by the friction of the pivot and handle against the blade, and held open using this same friction in addition to placing one’s thumb on the end of the tang. It’s also a much more simple form than most Western knives; the handle is a single bent sheet of brass.

SEAN KELLY: I love the remarkable simplicity of the Higonokami knife. It’s a true design classic still relevant over a century after its creation.

We decided to do our own interpretation, creating a friction folder that refined the knife down to its true essentials. We focused on simplifying the basic construction, going away from the typical sandwich style toward using a single-piece metal handle for the core. We dubbed this the “monobody”. The monobody had to do many things. It needed to be flexible where the blade attached so that our pivot could be tightened and pinch the handle enough to keep the blade closed. It also had to be easily and securely cladded with wood.

Of course, there is a logical reason that most knives are built in the sandwich style. Designing this monobody to be practically machinable was challenging and we had to draw from our experience in CNC machining to push the limits of what could actually be done with the tools at our disposal. We moved to the computer, continuing the exploration in 3D design software Rhino, and then making dozens of physical models out of crude materials.

Much of the visual feel would be determined by the relationship between our signature materials of wood and metal. After many iterations, we had our handle design.

Next, our focus shifted to the blade. We looked at a lot of different types of blades early on and created many iterations that we thought would fit well with our handle. We settled on a drop point design that looked good on the screen and in the models we had created.

Now we needed to find someone to make our knife blade, but for Portland being a city unofficially dubbed “Knife Town” we were unable to find a vendor who would work with us. We began looking outside of Portland and eventually outside of Oregon before settling on a manufacturer on the East Coast. After a couple months of back and forth communication, our first batch of sample blades arrived... and they were terrible. After some digging, we discovered that they had outsourced the blades to another country. Feeling deceived and not getting the quality we desired, we decided to fire the vendor and start over.

On the upside, we now had some blades that resembled the shape of our design. We invited Dave back in for a critique, and his feedback about blade length and other details opened our eyes to what was reasonable within the limitations of the tools and processes used by big blade manufacturers.

SEAN KELLY: What we had seen on the screen and in our models just didn’t work in real life. The blade was way too short and stubby, and didn’t flow with the handle form. Coupled with our disappointment with our vendor, it made us determined to find a better way.

We started over on the blade design. After numerous iterations, we extended it to the maximum length it could be, and made it more angular to fit the body.

Lastly, we made final refinements to our details to best match our existing products. Our process has evolved over the years as we have built up a distinct design language and material pallet. With so many existing products, we tie new ones together with cues from the past. In particular, with our Everyday Carry Collection, we wanted the key ring, wallet, and watch to have strong visual continuity with the pocket knife; little cues like the wood and stainless steel combination with our signature “jog”; the rectilinear lines and radiused corners; and the angle of the body which it shares with our key ring.

Product design and product engineering must go hand in hand, but oftentimes they’re in direct conflict with one another. Designers want beauty, engineers want practicality. In fact, practical manufacturing constraints drive much of the products you see everyday. But sometimes, Grovemade rebels because we just can’t help it. We’re designers first and foremost and sculpting form to become exactly what we want often trumps what might be easier to make. With our pocket knife, we decided to go directly against the suggestions of an industry expert and create a blade that fit flush with the handle when open or closed, and allowed no gap between the blade and the surround, all of which would require perfect alignment. These decisions would undoubtedly make the knife much more difficult to manufacture, but are we here to make something easy or to make something beautiful? We pressed on.

As we pushed and pushed on the design, refining it down to the cleanest of lines, the manufacturing requirements were going way beyond what is traditionally feasible. The large domestic manufacturers we talked with wouldn’t even consider making our design. And because a project like this requires tight control and small batch sizes, overseas manufacturers were out as well. We looked to our machinist friends in town who share our passion for making amazing products.

In the end, our design constraints led us to making the knife close to home, 100% in the Pacific Northwest. But that’s another story...

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