The items we shove in our pockets every morning to get us through the day — keys, phone, and if you are like me, the occasional knife — are tools. They work for us, unlocking doors (and packages) and connecting us to the rest of the world. Some are basic, but others, however discreet, are instruments of precision. For example: a knife milled and measured to within a fraction of one-thousandth of an inch and executed with a fidelity that sets an almost superhuman standard. That’s a tool we can get behind, and a company in Idaho called Chris Reeve Knives makes it.
Chris Reeve Knives (or CRK, for short) has been machining precision blades out of its Boise shop for over 30 years. Its flagship product is unequivocally the Sebenza, a folding pocket knife that it first released in 1991. Zulu for “work,” it would be wrong to call it merely a tool (though Reeve wants you to use it as such). Milled to a tolerance acceptable by NASA and surgical theaters, it’s more instrument than knife.
Offered in both a small and large size (with respective overall lengths of 7″ and 8.4″), the Sebenza boasts a core of American sourced S35VN steel. It’s hard enough to withstand daily work but soft enough for the everyday user to sharpen easily without machinery. The razor-sharp blade slips between two scales of titanium, one of which snaps behind the butt of the blade to lock it in place. Reeve simplified the traditional side-spring, liner lock mechanism popularized by Michael Walker, leveraging the flex memory of the titanium to become an integrated lock that didn’t need an additional piece. Born was the Integral Lock, a design that has since become an industry standard.
As it opens and closes, the Sebenza’s steel pivots over a ceramic ball interface between the framelock and blade. This mechanism is robust, giving the knife an endless life and ensuring that you’re buying an item of heirloom quality, something to pass on to your kin.
“Back in 2002, we were awarded a contract to deliver 300 survival knives for the Green Berets. We delivered in half the time.”
The Sebenza’s slim profile, with two chamfered slabs of titanium bolted together, imbues brutalist simplicity. But its ceramic and brass pivot action is so near to mechanical perfection and so smooth, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it’s bank-vault tight. The design’s iconic simplicity and the brand’s unwavering commitment to quality have earned CRK mythical status among knife nerds.
Chris Reeve’s son Tim handles operations at CRK now, but the company harks back to 1978 when Chris began making knives in South Africa as a hobby. In 1984 Reeve’s side job and passion grew into a full-time occupation; he moved operations to Boise, Idaho, with Anne, his wife, heading up the business end in 1989. Continuing the family affair, Tim joined the family business in 2015. He is the future generation of CRK and my guide during a tour of the facility.
Work boots and stubble, capped in a MeatEater trucker hat, the tall and lanky younger Reeve steps into the Boise-based front office and greets me with a firm handshake and a smile. Behind Reeve sits a case of knives slung with ribbons and medals awarded from shows around the world. On the wall hangs a full tang military knife – the Yarborough – mounted to a plaque given to CRK by the Green Berets. “Back in 2002, we were awarded a contract to deliver 300 survival knives for the Green Berets,” he recalls. “I remember working with Mom and Dad, helping load up the boxed knives on crates for shipping. We delivered 300 knives in half the time.”
CRK is known for its exquisite folding knives, but, as the Green Beret contract hints, the company got its start producing full tang fixed blades. Reeve shares a story about when his father was deployed with the South African Army to the Angolan border and filed his first knife from a shank of scrap steel, a block of wood and silver wire inlay. The dry desert air split the wooden handle, and Chris made his first design insight. “Except for maybe the gimping on the thumb, I’ve never seen him put any of those design elements into a knife ever again,” the younger Reeve wryly observes.
Before knives, Chris Reeve journeyed as a tool and die maker for 13 years, plying a trade dedicated to repeatable precision — and became tenaciously obsessed with quality. It was his attention to detail that drew the consideration of the U.S. Special Forces and is precisely what inspires legions of devotees to drop what might amount to a full day’s salary on an unassuming folding pocket knife.
“Chris developed a school of thought … a standard for how to make a knife. Our job is to scale up production while maintaining quality systems to achieve his vision.”
These days, Tim admits that he spends the majority of his time chasing his father’s demanding vision of quality. We stroll into the back room to the hum and grind of CNC lathes milling blades, frames and scales. Shouting above the whirr of metal, Tim elaborates: “Chris developed a school of thought … a standard for how to make a knife. He knew how to make things right. Our job is to scale up production while maintaining quality systems to achieve his vision.”
The heir to this knife legacy seems to be doing just that quite well. Recently, at the annual Blade Show in Atlanta, the Sebenza garnered the prestigious Manufacturing Quality Award, a prize it has earned a staggering 17 times.
Walking through the manufacturing floor and into an adjacent office, I inquire about the future of CRK and what inspires innovation. In response, Tim pulls out a bright, clean pocket knife and lays it on the table. The Impinda doesn’t have the renowned Reeve framelock (in fact, it’s the first in CRK’s lineup without one). Instead, it borrows a slip joint developed by industry friend Bill Harsey, who’s been honing a differential joint that reduces the opening tension to one pound while increasing the closing resistance to a five-pound push. The result, in Tim’s words, is a knife that’s “easier to open than it is to close.”
“The Impinda solved a problem and found real innovation in a saturated corner of the knife market,” Tim raves. The design was one of the first pocket knives CRK produced after Chris retired in 2014, and it was the first knife Tim fully put his mark on. At the 2018 Blade Show, it took home the award for best American Made Knife of the Year.
Of course, it’s tough to follow in the footsteps of a master craftsman. As innovative and well received as the Impinda has been, hardcore fans are still quick to ask why it doesn’t feel like the Sebenza. “It’s a completely different knife, but it should have a ‘Sebenza level’ quality… that same level of fit and finish,” says Tim. Like every other knife maker in the industry, CRK, and Reeve, are measured against the best, even if it comes from their own collection. Unlike everyone else though, the young Reeve chases this obsession for precision in the factory his father built.
As for Chris Reeve? He’s been retired for over half a decade now but hasn’t stopped making things; jewelry, handmade pens, the occasional collector’s walking cane. But knives? He’s cut his ties with the blade. And who can blame him? Chasing a tenth of a thousandth of an inch is a young man’s game — a game Tim Reeve has readily picked up and is eager to play well into the future.