The Sebenza. The knife that all folders have been compared to for decades. It has been, for all intents and purposes, the bar setting standard. For 31 years now, we have seen the Sebenza go through many iterations, including blade steel changes, packaging upgrades, and overall subtle design revisions.
Chris Reeve Knives, in absence of Chris himself, done enough to keep the overly simple 31 year old design exciting enough to keep from falling behind? Let’s take a very detailed look at the world’s most iconic folder, and see if we can answer these questions, and decide on whether or not the Sebenza can still hold it’s own, or if it has become antiquated and irrelevant in today’s market.
Key Specs: Chris Reeve Sebenza 31
The juxtaposition of “barely still good enough” S35VN blade steel, to the impressively designed and executed blade shape and grind, is hard to ignore. This steel is by no means a bad choice when deciding on a folding knife steel. It still has relatively good toughness for it’s application, but falls somewhat short in edge retention when comparing even to S30V. Many say they wish all knife manufacturers would “make the switch” to S35VN from S30V. I say let S30V be what it is. A great, well rounded steel that holds an edge well, and doesn’t have any glaring issues. I argue that it’s plenty tough enough for a daily use pocket knife, and Chris Reeve Knives agreed with that too, until circa 2012, when they changed their knives to S35VN from S30V.
CRK has also announced that they will be making a change in blade steel once again, this time to S45VN. Spyderco, in their infinite trials of knife designs and blade steels, went ahead and made a Paramiltary 2 in S45VN early this year. The reviews on the steel, from those who are sharpening gurus, say that it’s more along the lines of S30V in terms of feel in sharpening and edge apex sharpness, all while potentially keeping the toughness of S35VN.
This is great news, but why would Chris Reeve Knives make their next iteration of the Sebenza in the old steel to debut the knife? I’m sure they have their reasons, but it seems more logical to me to debut a new knife with the newly used steel simultaneously. So, now they’re going to have a handful of S35VN Sebenzas out in the wild, and later this year will start making all their knives in the new S45VN steel. This just creates another fracture in a the Sebenza decision making as a buyer.
Having said all that, the blade of the Sebenza is still one of the best there is. The well rounded nature of a blade with 3.6” of stonewashed steel, with a crowned spine and a deep hollow grind, is just bliss. The thickness of the grind increases near the tip of the blade, to give that last 1/2” of the blade some confidence from being snapped off in a light prying exercise. The hollow grind also still allows the edge to actually get thinner with subsequent sharpening sessions. There are still 21 jimping notches along the base of the blade’s spine, alluding to the company still dedicating itself to having incredible attention to detail.
But, back to the juxtaposition, the edge of the blade leaves the factory with a convex grind, that makes it slippery on cutting contact with many surfaces, and has an edge that’s polished, making it even more slippery. Pair that with the less-than-aggressive nature of S35VN, and you get an edge that just feels like it needs attention right out of the box. When I sharpen the initial factory edge out of any Chris Reeve knife, I’m immediately greeted with much more pleasurable use. Having a convex edge lends itself to being tougher in certain cutting situations, but I doubt many CRK users really get out and beat the edge of their $500 folders to have an appreciation for it.
Deployment / Lockup
On to the next elephant in the room, the Sebenza 31 lock rock, or locking arm flex. I want to first jump into this discussion, and will get into the deployment portion next, as this has been a very highly controversial topic with the 31. There is a long thread on Bladeforums.com about this topic. When I took my large Sebenza 31 out of the box, I opened and closed it a few times. Gave it a good look over, and tried to get some blade play to manifest. It was very easy to do. Side to side blade play in non-existent. I have no doubt that this is not, and will not be a problem with the Sebenza 31.
Next, I pushed the blade forward, to see if there was any blade movement in this direction. There most certainly is blade movement, in the direction of closing the knife, and this is where most people are finding themselves flabbergasted with their new $475 folder. Right there, dead smack in the middle of the Chris Reeve Knives Sebenza 31 website product page, it says, “Premium materials, paired with pristine finishes, and a bank-vault lock-up”. I personally don’t think CRK should be touting a product to have “bank vault lock-up” with a blade that very obviously has movement to it when locked open. In the bladeforums.com thread, the first post shows an email response from Chris Reeve Knives. The reply reads as follows –
“The “lock rock” you are experiencing on your 31s is normal. With the ceramic ball added to the lock arm, the blade will rock over the ceramic ball slightly. There was a lot of talk about this feature during the design process and it differs from the Inkosi model because the shape of the lock arm is slightly different and allows for the contact point between the blade and the ceramic ball to be “more fluid”.
After reading this statement from CRK themselves, I decided to call them myself and see what kind of response I would get about this topic. My demeanor was calm and friendly, just as it was from Cameron, who I talked to on the phone for about 30 minutes. We went over what was happening and why, and while he admitted to not being a designer or machinist, he was happy to discuss the topic with patience and detail. His conclusive opinion was that the statement issued and quoted above was true and correct, and there were no plans to change or improve the lockup of the 31, as there is no problem to fix. It’s a byproduct of design and implementation, and it will likely not change in the coming years of Sebenza production.
I can audibly hear the blade moving up and down on my knife. I can lay it on the table with the blade facing the tabletop, while holding the handle down, and visibly see the blade moving. I truly do not understand how a company who touts itself on having the highest possible machining tolerances, with text on the product page saying how solid the lockup is, makes a knife with a blade that visibly and audibly moves around when locked up. Now, I’ll be clear in my estimation that the blade will almost certainly not fail in terms of unlocking unintentionally. My phone call with CRK as well as my own brute force pushing on the blade, assured me that the blade will not close on the hand of the user. But I don’t think that’s the debate point. It’s that they’re demanding a higher price this year over last ($475 over last year’s $450) for a very similar knife with more blade play and the same build materials.
The deployment is still great, though. This is one point of manufacturing tolerances and precision machining that still holds to it’s legacy. The Sebenza still opens with the absolute most smooth, deliberate actions that can be had on a folding knife. I, along with many other users, still thing the single-sided thumb stud could use a revamp. Why not, at this point? We’re already replacing the flat lock interface with a ceramic ball lockup. There are other functional and cosmetic changes to the 31, why not make the thumb stud just a little more rounded? It’s very pointy, not to mention the anodizing rubs off in literally days of use. Many users and reviewers say the Sebenza isn’t a knife you flick open, but I disagree. Maybe it’s just a bit of practice and muscle memory, but I have no problem flicking this knife open just as fast as a PM2 or any other knife for that matter.
Features, Fit and Finish
As we discussed in the lockup section, one of the biggest changes to the features of the Sebenza 31 is the ceramic ball lockup. CRK has implemented their 97 HRC ceramic ball into their flagship model. I presume the main two reasons for this change is for streamlining manufacturing and warranty, to make all three of their large folding knives to have the same type of lockup and detent. It seems to me that this choice in detent ball also aids in an even smoother deployment than before, if you can believe that. The ceramic ball definitely has a feeling of less friction against the blade when the blade is in movement from the closed position, to the open position. But something about the placement of the ball seems to work against the new design, as we discussed in the lockup section. The ball seems to be placed perfectly in terms of a detent ball, but when it’s called upon to double it’s duty as the lockup interface, it seems to be placed less optimally.
Another “feature” of the Sebenza 31 is the lack of a locating hole on the presentation scale of the knife. In all previous generations of the Sebenza, in both large and small offerings, there was a small hole in the side of the handle. This has been well known for many years as a locating hole for machining purposes, but has since been removed on the 31, due to new manufacturing procedures. This is obviously subjective, but I am so used to seeing that hole, the 31 looks a little naked without it.
Taking the evolution of the titanium scaled wonder to the next change, we have the same pocket clip as the previous generation (as well as the same pocket clip as most of the CRK lineup), but with a small change in placement. Technically still in the same physical location, the pocket clip has been shifted to be angled deeper on the scale, more toward the back of the handle. There are a few reasons for this particular change. The first is in carry; the 31 seems to cant itself up against the pocket seam a little better than it’s predecessor. The second reason, is to get the clip off of the lock bar, and up onto the handle.
This helps the clip from having play when the knife is open, an issue the 21 had. On the 21, with the blade deployed and locked open, the pocket clip lost its spring pressure, because the surface it sat on with the knife closed was lost. This led to the clip moving around in the user’s hand a little more when using the knife. The tertiary reason for having the clip pushed over at an angle, is for ergonomics. I’ll say that it does make a difference in use; the clip seats deeper into the palm when gripping the knife tightly. But, once again reverting to a subjective opinion, the “clean lines” of the 21 are somewhat lost with this new clip position, because with the knife resting on a table, the parallel lines of the clip against the handle scales is lost.
Aside from the “lock rock” we’ve been discussing, there’s little to complain about in the way of fit and finish. The 31 continues it’s legacy of extremely high levels of fit and finish. The fan favorite pivot bushing is still being used under the hood, complementing the extremely smooth deployment, and providing rock solid side to side lockup. Everything is chamfered, smoothed, crowned, and fit with precision. Removing a handle scale is just as tight as it has been on previous generations. All the hardware used on the 31 is apparently the same as the 21, so no surprises here, it’s all great.
The chamfereing around the cutout for the lock bar on the show side scale has also been increased. The size of the cutout seems to be the same, but the angle at which the chamfer is cut has been enlarged. This gives the thumb even more room to grab the single-sided thumb stud for deployment. Another attribute of the fit and finish that’s new to the Sebenza 31 is the lanyard hole area of the handle. These are the kind of things that make CRK’s what they are, and show the company’s ability to give a damn about details (I just wish it was across the board in this iteration of the knife). What they’ve done is akin to the Inkosi; that is, to make an extra chamfered area at the very bottom of the scales that allows the lanyard to float more freely when it’s installed in the knife. Now I’ll admit lanyards bother me when carrying my knife, so I usually remove them. But since it came installed on the knife, I went ahead and carried it with the lanyard for about a week. And this small change seemed to make a difference with the lanyard, it definitely kept itself out of the way a little better in carrying the knife.
I always say my favorite part of getting a new knife is using it. That sounds like an obvious thing to say, but I think some users or collectors have an appreciation for a knife, without having really used it. That’s perfectly acceptable, but I think using a knife in particular mediums really gives another level of perspective to a knife that can’t be had from merely handling it.
And using the 31 is just a little frustrating to me. In cutting apples, it doesn’t bite into the skin as easily as I want it to. Yes, this is a very particular complaint, but when we’re looking at a nearly $500 knife, we’re going to use some scrutiny. I blame most of this particular complaint to the factory edge. My reason for that, is that with my previous CRK models, they all did this as well, until I went ahead and applied a standard V edge to the knife. Moving forward, cutting the apple slices left behind small cracks in some of the slices. This is a little perplexing to me, since the knife has such a deep hollow grind, you’d imagine it to slice the apple like a kitchen knife. I attribute most of this issue to the blade stock thickness (0.12”) being just a touch thick for regular kitchen use. It’ll work, sure, but it’s not optimized.
The next task I like to throw at my new knives is cardboard cutting. Yes, we went over this as well in our last Sebenza review, but it was a small variant, and was an insingo blade. The drop point, large 31 is great for cutting up sheets of cardboard, using the first 1/3 of the blade. Getting out toward the tip, with the grind thickening, it’s really not as conducive to piercing a box or opening a package with the tip of the blade. Coupled with the slick factory edge, I noticed putting a lot more pressure on the knife than I normally would just to zip open another small flat rate USPS box. This drives me crazy. The blade slipped out of the material more than once, just trying to make a shallow cut in the box. I understand that a drop point will not always be the best blade shape for package opening, and why I prefer the insingo for this type of work. But it should be noted, nonetheless.
And, finally, onto the 2×4 wood cutting. To me, this really puts the knife in your hand, in a way that tests ergonomics like a tabletop review cannot. I found some issues with the 31 that are particular to this model, even when referencing the 21. One of my biggest issues with the 31, after going through this test, is the area where the lock bar cutout sits. So, with the implementation of the ceramic ball interface, the locking arm of the lock scale pushes itself over closer to the show side scale. The actual lockup is still around 40%, so it’s not an issue of late lockup. But the problem it creates, is at the index finger grip area, the two scales nearly touch. This leaves a skinnier grip area at the point where I want the most grip area on my handle. In turn, this allows the knife to leverage itself into the pinky even more. Which, in turn, causes the double cut lock bar relief area to feel even sharper than on the 21. another point against the 31, in my book.
All these knives available at BladeHQ.Naturally, CRK’s other large folders compare quite adequately with the Sebenza 31. The large Inkosi, and Umnumzaan, are both priced the same as the 31, have the same build materials, the same titanium handle scales, and are basically the same size and weight. The Inkosi and Umnumzaan are both a little thicker than the Sebenza, so that’s one consideration when looking at the 3 big CRK knives.
And, like our last Sebenza review, the more commonly compared knives to the Sebenza are the Hinderer XM18, which comes in either a 3” or 3.5” blade, and has many blade options and compositions, and the Strider SnG, which are a little more difficult to come by, but compare admirably to the CRK’s 31.
So, for conversation’s sake, let’s take a look at another interesting knife in this price range, from a maker who Tim Reeve says he’s conversed with about possibly making a collaboration with one day. The Koenig Arius. It’s a titanium flipper, with blue accent hardware, and comes in just a tick over $500. The action is a completely different style than that of the Sebenza, with bearings allowing the 3.5” blade to be flipped open via the flipper tab. And the steel is arguably more premium, composed of CTS-XHP.
This knife looks even more sleek and refined than the Sebenza, runs on much more modern steel, is much more fidget friendly with its bearing system and flipper tab, and has a very similar price tag. It would be very, very interesting, albeit very controversial, to see a collaboration between Bill Koenig’s factory and the CRK powerhouse. A flipper Chris Reeve? Blasphemy! But, in a recent interview with BladeHQ, Tim Reeve did allude to the possibility of getting into this particular collaboration some day, given the ability to find the time to work out the kinks with Bill and his crew.
It’s hard for me not to recommend buying a Sebenza. But I’m going to do it. I truly believe that, at this point in 2020, your money is better spent on one of Hinderer’s knives, or even an Umnumzaan or Inkosi. This knife has a feel that something was left out. The 21 was a great knife, and still is. The Umnumzaan has a cool factor, with it’s G&G Hawk inspired thumb stud dampening system, edgy looks, and even deeper ground blade. The Inkosi is thicker, has the ability to be tuned in terms of the pivot system for maximum “flickablilty”, and feels like it could handle the apocalypse just a little better. I don’t think CRK offers overpriced knives; I think the other 2 large offerings they provide are great knives for the money. And the 31 is close behind. But with a 31 year old legacy to a maker who will never be forgetten, the new iteration of the Sebenza feels undercooked.
- Smooth deployment, great blade, iconic design
- Questionable lockup, over-polished factory edge, “upgrades” are subjective