One of the things I’ve learned over time carrying and reviewing knives is that something that looks great in pictures isn’t always going to work for you in person. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad knife, or that it’s poorly made, it’s just… not for you. It’s not like you got catfished on a dating website, more like you just have incompatible personalities.
Kizer. The Feist is easily a top three knife for me, both the original and all the new versions. The Guru lineup is incredibly smooth. The Tangram line are all useful and affordable well-made budget knives. They make great stuff, and I find myself recommending Kizers and Tangrams to a lot of friends. That being said, the Kizer Theta was a swing and a miss for me, and I’ll go into depth on why that is here.
Key Specs: Kizer Theta
First, a little basic information. Like a lot of the other Kizer products I’ve reviewed, the Theta is from Kizer’s Bladesmith line which are design collaborations with well-known makers rendered in high end materials. It’s a full-titanium handled knife with wharncliffe blade that measures 3.1” long and 7.4” overall, loaded with all the modern high end features you expect – bearings, milled titanium clip, lockbar stabilizer, etc. It weighs 3.9 ounces and costs $180 at time of writing (from BladeHQ and Amazon.) Like all Kizers, it’s made in China.
The Theta might be the most normal-looking knife Elijah Isham has ever laid down on a piece of paper. His approach to knives is less “how can I break down boxes more easily” and more “what would it look like if I drew a Pelican while I was on LSD.” For more art-deco Isham designs, peep the WE Eschaton or the Brous Raven.
The Theta is the first of Isham’s self-designated “Simple Series” knives, but that doesn’t mean it’s a normal knife. The blade is a dramatic wharncliffe shape, with a totally straight sharpened edge and a spine that drops dramatically towards the tip. The blade has a high flat grind that transitions into a diagonal plunge line that intersects the edge well behind the sharpened portion leaving no “beard” at the end of the sharpened edge. The blade incorporates both a flipper tab and a large thumb hole for opening.
The blade measures 3.1” long and is cut from pretty chunky 0.14” blade stock from Crucible CPM-S35VN powdered metal stainless steel. This is the steel that Kizer uses for most of their high end models, and it strikes a a very good balance between performance (edge retention, toughness) and reliability (corrosion resistance, sharpenability). It’s become the standard premium steel for most mid-market knives, and as a steel that was designed explicitly for use in cutlery with input from Chris Reeve Knives, understandably so. The Theta has a stonewash finish on the primary bevel and a satin finish on the flats.
Deployment and Lockup
This is where the Theta starts to fall down for me. It has all the ingredients you’d want: ceramic ball bearings (which run on steel washers on the outside to prevent chewing up the titanium scales), a flipper and a thumb hole opener, a titanium framelock that incorporates a bolt-in steel interface, and a stout external stop pin. But it just doesn’t flip well.
The flipper tab is unusual, looking like a front flipper at first glance, but in function it’s not. It points forward, parallel with the spine, but it’s too far back relative to the pivot to work as a front flipper unless you use a pronounced wrist flick. The design is intentional: Isham calls it “Edge Below Tab” and it leaves the flipper tab concealed in the open position so that it doesn’t interfere with what you’re cutting even at low angles.
As a standard flipper, the Theta doesn’t have nearly enough detent strength to work well, requiring a sharp wrist flick to get the blade open reliably. The large thumb hole is awkward to use from the top side – because of the natural placement of your fingers on the lock bar – but it works very well for the middle finger flick a la Spyderco. I’d also note that the forward pointing flipper tab is pretty uncomfortable to use repeatedly compared to something more conventional.
I think that Kizer went with a lighter detent on purpose so that you could use both the flipper and the thumb hole effectively – too stiff of a detent yields a good flipper action but impossible thumb hole action, and a softer detent makes the thumb hole work better but the flipper less so. That’s the issue – when you’ve got two different opening methods, the detent strength is going to be a compromise between both of them and neither are going to work perfectly. I noticed this same thing with the BRS Evolve Minuteman I reviewed, that it was designed to be middle finger flicked open and actually using your thumb on the thumb hole was quite difficult.
I also noticed some grittiness in the pivot. I’ve taken the Theta apart multiple times and cleaned the bearings, bearing races, pivot and detent path with parts cleaner and compressed air – and reapplied new oil – and the grittiness goes away temporarily, only to return a few days of carry later. This probably has to do with the nature of bearings and the open construction of the knife.
There are no issues with lockup, though. The steel lockbar insert prevents lock stick effectively, and the Theta locks up around 30% with a solid finger flick. No blade play – horizontal, vertical, or lock rock – was noted at any point. This is a well dialed-in frame lock.
Features, Fit & Finish
This is where the Theta shines – in features, looks, and build quality. It must be said that it is a beautiful knife, the modern-art looks wowing everyone that looked at it while I carried it. The titanium handles are beautifully machined, and this is in many ways a knife designed to treat the eye. There’s a gentle arc to the flat surface of the handle and an opposite arc to the curved portions, giving it a flowing organic appearance, and the flat’s border stretches around the decorative oversized pivot and down onto the radiused edges.
Those radiused edges themselves are intricately done, transitioning planes as they turn corners seamlessly. Kizer’s made a signature out of micro-textured surfaces – normally seen on the portion of the lock bar that your thumb contacts, here it’s also seen on the leading edge of the handles as well.
Construction is very minimalistic, with just a single body screw on each side in addition to the pivot screw securing the handles together. They hold a polished stainless standoff that press fits into the handles for stability at the very end of the handle, leaving the rest of the handles unadorned – it’s very Nordic in appearance. The pocket clip is also a piece of art – of course machined from a chunk of titanium, it mimics the geometric lines of the handles in miniature. It’s held in place with two screws and is configure for right hand tip up carry only.
Of course the Theta has all the trappings of a modern high-end knife: premium steel, titanium construction, ceramic ball bearing pivot, a bolt-in stainless lockbar insert that also serves as an internal overtravel stop (to prevent fatiguing the lock bar), and impressive packaging that includes a box AND a pouch, as well as a cleaning cloth for removing finger prints. Most amusing is a small “Theta” rubber patch. “Billboarding” is minimal – “Kizer” and the logo along with a model number and steel type on the show side, and “Theta” and Isham’s logo on the lock side. It sounds like a lot but the font is quite small so it’s hardly noticeable or overbearing.
Other than the issues mentioned in the Deployment and Lockup section, build quality on the Theta is typical for Kizer- that is to say, excellent. The tip of the blade is centered with the standoff when closed, even after repeated disassembly. That’s normally where fit & finish go out the window – after you’ve taken it apart, how well it goes back together is an indicator of the real quality of the product.
The Theta has the classic problem of being good to look at and not really satisfying to use. It’s imbalanced – the blade is quite heavy (thanks to the thick blade stock and the tall blade profile) but the handle is skinny and light, being titanium. Ergonomically it feels like holding a pencil with a grapefruit stuck on the end – it just makes actually using it awkward. There’s not enough palm swell in the handle to fill your hand up, and it lacks most of the basic enhancements that EDC knives utilize to give you a more solid grip: a thumb ramp, a finger choil, any jimping, that sort of thing. The flipper tab is positioned such that when open it’s hidden in the handle, which eliminates any finger guard functionality of the flipper tab. The leading edge of the pocket clip also presents a hot spot after using the knife for a few minutes.
Add on to that the rather thick blade stock with a flat grind and it doesn’t… cut particularly well, either. I think wharncliffes are better in my head than in use, necessitating an awkward angle when slicing most things and offering a very stout tip that’s not particularly adept at piercing things.
The Theta isn’t very heavy – just under 4 ounces for a 7.4” knife – but the machined titanium pocket clip is fairly bulky, and the odd shape of the knife takes up a good bit of pocket real estate. I’m not bothered with the single position clip as I carry right hand tip up, but it could be an annoyance for others. It does ride fairly low in the pocket considering the machined clip, but tension on the clip is very high making it difficult to slide into place. Of particular concern is how close the sharpened edge is to the spine when the knife is closed – you can easily poke it with your finger and it could be potentially hazardous when it’s in your pocket.
On the upside, the wharncliffe shape makes it very easy to sharpen the blade – the edge is entirely straight without any recurve, there’s no “beard” at the end, and there’s plenty of real estate to clamp a sharpener onto. Maintenance is quite easy, other than needing two torx bits to hold the pivot while you loosen the screw since Kizer doesn’t key the pivot tube to the frame on this model. Only having to remove two screws to take the whole knife apart is a nice touch, and allows you to easily clean out the bearings and the cutout for the stop pin on the blade.
All these knives available at BladeHQ.As I mentioned earlier in this review, the Theta reminded me a good bit of the form-over-function BRS Evolve Minuteman I reviewed last year. The Kizer is the same price as the Minuteman – $180 retail – and has similar dimensions and materials – a 3.25” wharncliffe blade in S35VN, titanium framelock, 7.75” overall. The Kizer is much better made than the BRS, although the BRS’s deployment with the middle finger flick technique is more satisfying, but neither are particularly great EDC blades – even if they are great to look at.
What’s a surprisingly more practical competitor to the Theta is the even wilder-looking but much more useful Kizer Isham Minitherium. I have a review upcoming on this knife as well. I was originally thinking that the Theta would be the useful everyday knife and the Minitherium would be the Instagram star, but it turns out the opposite is true: while the Minitherium is strange looking, it carries and cuts and flips much better than the Theta. It’s lighter, too: under 3 ounces with a 3” blade, it makes a decent case for itself as an EDC blade for days when you’re feeling funky.
Isham is fond of the wharncliffe blades and futuristic designs – check out his Pleroma design for WE Knives, a fantastic looking Jetsons-era swayback with a semi-integral design mixing carbon fiber and titanium with an M390 blade. It’s much more expensive at $299 retail, though – but that floating thumb stud sure is fascinating to behold.
Speaking of bizarre wharncliffe knives, the Spyderco Yojimbo 2 might be more up your alley if you like the weird looks but are more focused on usage. It’s cheaper at $140, and it has a dramatic modified wharncliffe blade in S30V along with textured G10 scales and Spyderco’s excellent compression lock.
And for another dose of weird, there’s the strange looking but excellently built Hogue X-5 wharncliffe flipper, designed by Allen Elishewitz. This compound-ground blade uses CPM-154 steel, and its unique calling card is the flipper mechanism: it uses a detent ball on a separate spring plate to give the knife some kick since button locks don’t typically provide much.
I wanted to love the Theta on looks alone – it’s a piece of modern art that folds up and slides into your pocket. And indeed there is plenty to like about this relatively restrained design from Elijah Isham – but mostly aesthetic characteristics rather than how it actually works. It’s a beautiful knife, designed by a very talented artist, but in real world use it’s a little frustrating. It’s like having a really beautiful car with a hand-build race motor and a set of space saver donut spares on the back – all looks and no action.
We’re getting to the point in the knife world now where the market is oversaturated with high end titanium framelocks and they’re going to vary wildly in function and looks. Not everything has to be a simplistic user-oriented drop point (in fact, Kizer would be happy to sell you a Gemini) but at the same time I still place an emphasis on simplicity and function over looks, and there are too many ergonomic and functional faux-pas in the Theta for it’s good looks to compensate for. This one’s just not for me.
- Beautifully designed and made, a real conversation piece, worry-free lockup, easy to maintain
- Weak detent, gritty pivot, imbalanced ergonomics, not a great cutter, sharpened edge alarmingly close to spine when closed, form over function
Words and Photos: James Mackintosh