For a knife company with automatics at their forefront, Pro-Tech has sure outdone themselves with a new, manual flipper knife; the Pro-Tech Malibu. It’s not their first go at the springless variant of folding knife, as they’ve had a few others released in recent history. But none of them has pulled the extreme allure from quarantined knife nuts like the Malibu. It’s got the style, the features, and the execution to justify itself in a “top knife of the year” category in every big-name reviewer out there. And it’s won that moniker almost unanimously amongst some of the most trusted names.
USA made backing, the Malibu is hard to pass by without a double take. It’s not flashy, but still has great aesthetics. It’s modest, but maintains a respectable level of usability. It’s not too big, not too small, and not too heavy. Is this 2020’s Goldilocks of the folder world? Or, is this just another over-hyped knife from big-name YouTube reviewers? I’ll give you my “Pro” opinions on the “Tech”-nical aspects of the Malibu. And, I promise, no more puns…. For now.
Key Specs: Pro-Tech Malibu
The Malibu starts it’s list of tech specs with a 3.25” blade, with an elemental recipe producing CPM-20CV, one of the most well-balanced steel compositions on the block. This is where the justification for naming this knife a shining example of what an EDC folder should be. A stainless steel blade, with respectable toughness, extremely resistant to corrosion, with very high wear resistance. There are two blade shapes for the Malibu; reverse tanto, and wharncliffe. Our test unit is the much more popular reverse tanto, but almost all specs are identical between the two offerings. The grind of the reverse tanto is a full flat with a high saber spine, with a very clean, simple stonewash finish. This blade is very subdued, simple, and works well.
Keeping on track with it’s theme of modesty, the blade is nearly void of any text or logos. The brand “Pro-Tech” is laser etched on the spine of the blade, in a simple, yet tasteful font. On the flipper tab, when the blade is open, “CPM-20CV” is visible, denoting the blade’s steel composition. Swooping away from that flipper tab is the blade’s belly, which is very gently curved out all the way to the tip. This is, again, a very simple feature, but it all adds to the sum of a very thoroughly engineered knife. The spine is .125” thick, giving the blade just enough girth to inspire confidence in use, without sacrificing for a heavy blade or bad performance.
Deployment / Lockup
And now, for the feature attraction. What is the reason, the allure, the excitement all about, with the Pro-Tech Malibu? It’s the plunge lock, manual flipper moniker that everyone is flocking to. An automatic knife, which Pro-Tech is typically associated with, is fast to deploy, but has two potential downfalls; difficulty to close, and reliability with springs. These two aspects (along with my state’s affinity to make anything fun illegal, including automatic knives) are what many of us knife nerds tend to shy away from with autos. But with the Malibu, you’re getting all the speed of an auto with the deployment, and the unlocking and closing of the blade is just as fast and smooth as opening it. So, does that mean this knife is just a sharp, expensive fidget toy? No, not at all. It’s a great tool as well, which you can read all about in the field test section ahead.
The flipper tab is plain and simply done right. It’s got some very mild jimping, but doesn’t bite back on the index finger in use. And it does something else that many other flipper knives don’t – it doesn’t suck to use the knife with the blade open. Looking at the Hinderer XM-18, the hook-shaped flipper tab turns into an ergonomic travesty with the blade open. The Malibu is quite the opposite, it’s basically invisible in terms of ergos when using the knife. Chock up another point to the execution of a very well engineered knife. Once the flipper tab is pushed, the blade swiftly and quietly comes open to it’s locked position. As a point of reference, I’m a huge detent snob. It’s a pet peeve of mine, for a knife to have a weak or sloppy detent. The Malibu has the most well balanced detent I’ve handled in a flipper. The blade can’t be shaken out inadvertently, but doesn’t require much of any thought to get the blade open. It acts just like you want it to, and doesn’t have any special requirements like specific hand positioning or finger gymnastics.
I mentioned above that the blade quietly opens. To elaborate on that statement, the blade does have a normal audible snap when it gets to the locked open position. But it’s in-between locked and closed that it’s quiet. This lack of gritty sound in a knife with a bearing-based pivot is typically saved for much higher end knives. Even the recently reviewed Vero Impulse Mini I had was louder and had more friction in opening and closing than the Malibu. I was unable to determine the material the bearings are made from, but I heavily suspect that they’re ceramic. This high level of action and quietness is very surprising to me in a knife with a sub-$200 price tag. But it’s a welcome addition to the knife’s overall performance.
Lockup on the Malibu is also a sign of high tolerance machining. Usually with a knife that has this smooth an action, the lockup has some level of detectable blade play when it’s open. But not with the Malibu. It’s solid, and I mean left to right, up and down, no way to manipulate even a smidge of movement type of solid. I’ll digress a little, and admit that there is a very faint level of button lock stick from time to time, when unlocking the blade. But it’s almost unnoticeable, and certainly worth the solidity in the lockup. The button for the plunge lock is recessed into the handle scale just enough, that it’s not an issue in using the knife, but still has clear access to disengage. They really thought of everything. That is, with the exception of making enough of them…
Features, Fit, and Finish
The Malibu is a very simple, modest knife, but still has some great top-of-the-line features. Aluminum handle scales don’t sound high end, but they’re used on tons of mid-range knives from Pro-Tech, Microtech, Strider, and other production knife companies with no issues. Back to the bearings in the knife, I’d argue that the ceramic material they’re made from is preferable to steel any day of the week. The 20CV blade steel is known to be one of the most desirable compositions for EDC use, in even the most high-end folders. And the pocket clip is done impeccably. For a knife to “disappear” in the pocket, it needs to have certain attributes. Light weight (this knife is 2.99 ounces, so we’re on track so far), a small profile (check), and a pocket clip that looks more like it belongs on a pen than a knife. And I mean that in a good way.
The Benchmade Bugout reigns king of the “disappearing knife in the pocket” award in my book, and the Malibu’s clip is very similar to that. It’s small, has great retention, and does something it seems only Pro-Tech (and now the WE Knives Banter) has thought of; recessing the screw heads. Now that may seem like a very small attribute, to a very small part of the knife as a whole. And that’s true. But the list of small things that are great, are still adding up here in the review, to a summation of greatness. What this feature does for the user, is allows the knife to slide into the pocket with incredible ease, especially considering the aluminum handle scales. It’s just greatness in a small package here.
The handle scales are finished very well. They fit together tightly, with no issues in fitment, and all edges and surfaces are chamfered well. The scales also have subtle finger grooves, which seem to fit most hands very well. I do appreciate a plain handle on a folder, but these finger grooves are heavily chamfered, and seem to be cut in just the right spot. Back to the Goldilocks analogy… And, another feature that seems to be left void in any other mention by other reviewers, is the thickness of the handles. For a somewhat small knife, a nearly ½” thick handle seems a bit extreme. But it’s not. If the scales were thinner to begin with, once Pro-Tech cut the finger grooves in, the scales wouldn’t be comfortable in use. But with enough girth left in machining, along with a very minimal backspacer (yes, they thought of that, too), this knife is very comfortable in the hand.
Looking at the “hard use, heavy tactical folder” made by Microtech, the Socom Elite, we can find a similarity between the Malibu and the polar opposite Socom. It’s not one you might imagine, but it’s the body screws that are very similar between the two. T6 screw heads are very, very small, especially on a knife as huge and overbuilt as the Socom. It’s an aspect I regarded as a small negative in my review of that knife, and I’ll continue that thought here on the Malibu. My biggest gripe with T6 screw heads is their propensity to strip out without warning. For reference, Spyderco uses T8 on most of their body screws, Strider uses T10, but the T6 is just an odd choice.
Pro-Tech does well with their screws in terms of countersinking them into the scales, but that may prove to be a problem for anyone taking their knife apart who isn’t careful with it. And with a knife using a bearing pivot, I’d argue it’s only a matter of time before some pocket dirt needs to be cleaned out from the action. Again, I realize the small nitpick with the screw heads, but it’s an aspect that should be mentioned.
At the bottom of the handle, is a very small cutout, which I assume to be the lanyard hole. It’s not going to be able to accommodate 550 paracord, or even flat leather, but it’ll do in a pinch for someone who’s a die-hard lanyard user. And back up at the top of the knife again, the pivot uses a steel washer between the handle scale and the bearing on each side of the knife. This is quite an important feature, because without the steel washer, the bearings would undoubtedly wear into the aluminum handle scales rather quickly, causing all sorts of problems. It seems they thought of everything before they produced this knife, doesn’t it?
Using a knife in the manner it was intended is important to me in a field test for a folder. I’m not going to baton a Spyderco Delica through a 2×4, but I will try to chop a 2×4 in half (and I did) with the Cold Steel AD20. So, for the Pro-Tech Malibu, I tried it on some common EDC materials and mediums, and I was quite impressed.
The thickness behind the edge of the blade on a knife typically lends an idea of the cutting performance to the user even before cutting anything. The Malibu doesn’t feel particularly thin behind the edge, but somehow still did a great job cutting anything I needed to. Full disclosure, I did give this knife a full sharpening (which was pleasurable with this steel), but it cut well both before and after the sharpening.
The reverse tanto blade shape is great for EDC use. It swoops up near the tip just enough that you’re not rounding off the tip with pull cuts along a work bench when cutting rope. Sisal rope is something I plan on never using unless I have to, but it’s a good medium to test out a knife on. There are many knives I’ve had (Chris Reeve Knives, I’m looking at you, yet again) that have a “slippery sharp” edge from the factory. To me, this is the opposite of what I’m looking for when I’m actually using my knife and not just checking the sharpness printer paper or shaving arm hair. The Sebenza (and all the Chris Reeve Knives for that matter) almost can’t cut this rope at all without tons of force and sawing motion. The Malibu had no problem slicing it without much resistance, even after 20-30 cuts, and still had the same perfect edge on it from the sharpening. It seems that Pro-Tech has done a great job with the heat treat here.
Cutting some long slices in cardboard with the Malibu was no problem. It initiated the cut easily, didn’t bind up, and held it’s aggressive edge after quite a few boxes. The ergonomics again proved to be done well, with no major hot spots or complaints in the hand. Taking the knife into the kitchen to cut up a few simple foods, like apples, carrots, and steak, the Malibu faired decently, but not superbly. The blade isn’t all that tall, and it does have a moderate thickness. Coupled with the light stonewashing, I did have times when the blade would bind up quite heavily on the apples, forcing the slices to crack when they fell away from the core. I know this isn’t the Spydiechef from Spyderco, but it did feel like the grind of the knife had a slight aversion to slicing in the kitchen compared to many others I’ve used with the same philosophy of use as the Malibu.
All these knives available at BladeHQ.There are few knives with the same great manual action as the Malibu, but we’ll throw out some alternatives that’ll suffice if you’re looking for some comparable folders. And we’ll start with the classic, timeless, EDC champ, the Benchmade 940. Using yesteryear’s supersteel, S30V in most of the available variants of the knife, the 940 comes in aluminum handle scales in it’s stock form, a 3.4” reverse tanto blade, and is 2.9 ounces. It’s almost exactly the same size in every dimension, same weight, and same aluminum handle scales. The Axis lock is quite different from a button / plunge lock like the Malibu uses, but both of these fidget friendly knives are the same price as well, coming in just under $200 for each.
And Spyderco has seemingly tried to answer the call to the fidgety-flipper world many times, most recently with their Smock. The Spydero Smock, a collaboration between Spyderco and custom maker Kevin Smock, is a top flipper, button compression lock folder. Yet another S30V, reverse tanto blade, the Smock is 3.4” long, but uses a hollow ground blade instead of the flat ground found on the Malibu and 940. The Smock does have a small advantage over the other two in cutting performance, but is otherwise quite similar. It’s retail price is $175, a solid $25 less than the other two options here, and has carbon fiber laminate scales with a G10 base, and uses full liners. It’s built a little differently, and the action isn’t as smooth as the Malibu, but it gives all the usability and flidgetability as the Malibu, albeit with pretty terrible ergonomics.
The hype is real, and it’s justified. The Malibu delivers as much as the internet hype has built. It’s a joy to carry, flip, use, and sharpen. It’s built with good materials, finished well, and comes from the good ol’ USA. It’s priced fairly for the sum of it’s materials, and execution in design. It could be argued that it’s a boring knife, and that’s true in my eyes. But that’s not a bad thing. A pocket knife in a city dwelling situation, probably isn’t something that should be flashy and attract unnecessary attention. If you want a knife that will hold up to tons of fidgeting, carry well, cut well, and serve your EDC needs, the Malibu is a great choice.
But, that’s if you can find one. I don’t have the numbers from Pro-Tech to provide information on how many units they’ve made, but this knife is quite difficult to obtain here in early 2021, and that has been the ongoing situation for the last few months. Once the hype dies down, and they make a few more batches, I’m sure anyone looking to get one will be able to do so. The good news is that they are still making more, and they’re doing everything they can to make them as quickly as possible. But it creates an unwarranted demand for this knife that makes it feel overhyped. Yes, it’s a Goldilocks in many ways; it does almost everything well, it’s executed with precision, and is engineered without fault. Just be patient in the search for this knife, and it’ll be worth the wait.
- Extremely fidget friendly, great materials, fair price, great user.
- Difficult to obtain, hardware could be more substantial, modest appearance.