The Lulu Fixed Blade: Making Hard Things Happen
I like hard things. I don't know why. Climb a mountain? Yes please. Wake up at 5 a.m. to go hiking? Camping? Sleep on the ground? Seven days in a hammock? All yes. This affinity for hard things extends to hobbies, my personal life with 4 kids, and it extends to my work. I’m probably a glutton for punishment, and I enjoy doing hard things. My latest knife has been a hard thing.
Let me explain: I've heard from a lot of Knafs customers that they want USA Made options in our line. I point to our knife poster. Printed in Utah! Not good enough. The people want knives made in the U.S. I won't bore you with all the challenges of U.S. manufacturing, but I'll tell you what: it's hard. White River Knives is the manufacturer for the Lulu, and they've been excellent to work with, but it's still challenging in new ways. We got it done, and I'm proud of this latest knife. It's 100% made in the USA, down to the corrugated box, label stickers, and the name. Let me walk you through the journey on this thing.
Inspiration and Design
I grew up in a family that went camping. Tents. Backpacking. RV. Pop-up trailer camping. You name it, we camped it.
Camping with my family and hermanos in 1993. Overalls hanging off one shoulder were all the rage, and I wore them like a barefoot champ.
I sliced my thumb on the first day of scout camp when I was 12. I whittled from the bottom to the top of King's Peak. (13.5K feet high. Walking and whittling is probably a bad idea in retrospect.)
Hiking King's Peak with the fam in 2003. Bonus points if you can identify me among my brothers.
As an adult, I've taken groups of Scouts all over the place on adventures and misadventures. Athena can tell you stories about family camping trips both awful and awesome we've done together. She's still traumatized from the Grand Canyon. Ask her about it sometime.
Athena and me backpacking the Grand Canyon. She hasn't gone backpacking with me since. ;)
Something about camping is inherently hard. No plumbing. No electricity. Critters. It's a bold invitation for Murphy's Law to pull up a chair at your campfire and char the proverbial marshmallow of your life. That said, I've always felt like camping is a reset that allows information to flow into the mind. Nature is a classroom. It's clarity. I don't know if all those nights spent outside make me an expert in designing a bushcraft-y camping knife, but surely they count for something? Spine damage from sleeping on rocks, at least? The reality is, I’ve spent a lot of time chasing adventures big and small outside. I've also spent a lot of time using other companies' fixed blade knives. It felt like time to design my own.
I wanted a knife that would do work around camp, yet also be small enough to use whittling for hours. I went and visited my friend Tyler White to get his take on his favorite camping and bushcraft knives. He’s a guy who used to carry massive chopper knives into the woods and then slowly evolved to smaller knives with more detail capacity. He recommended smaller. No need to convince me there. Love me a small knife. He was incredibly kind with his time, energy, and insights. He also encouraged a Scandi grind. New territory for me, but why not? *Insert foreboding foreshadowing music here.* I started sketching.
I originally intended to design a Lander fixed blade, but by the time I finished, it was a totally different knife. It wasn't a Lander at all. I’d created a new breed.
Here's a shot of my table during product development:
All the knives I referenced while designing. Fixed blades are fun!
Surely some folks might say I'm cheating by looking at others' work while designing. I disagree. There are pieces of each of these knives that I like or dislike. I'm learning, relearning, and iterating. The end result is a knife that is all my own. Referencing others' work during the design process is a game-changer. In particular, I was super inspired by traditional puukos like the Helle in the top left and Jason Tietz's Puuko (bottom middle) from White River Knives. Seeing what Jason and White River had done together was inspiring. When I understand what a manufacturer can do, it helps me create around their capabilities.
The process usually goes from cardboard to 3D print to prototype.
You'll notice the 3D printed Lulu mockups on the left of the picture above. It's a silly little thing, but I made those outlines in Fusion 360 myself, then 3D printed them. I was incredibly proud to be doing some of my own CAD work, despite it being incredibly hard for me. I did the sculpting with clay. Once I'd figured out what I wanted, I turned it into a tech pack that I sent to White River Knives:
This is the tech pack I sent off to White River.
From there, John Cammenga Jr. at White River made the thing real. He redid all my CAD-- a necessary step to make sure manufacturing actually works. Plus, it was my CAD, so it needed... attention.
John and I went back and forth for a month figuring out the sculpting in CAD.I ended up with the knife that I wanted to take on weekend getaways and days at scout camp. It’s the one I designed to follow Joe Flowers into the Amazon. It’s made to whittle spoons, start campfires, and hone marshmallow sticks. It’s a gateway to adventure.
The handle is neutral and doesn’t force the hand into any specific position. It’s a substantial contoured handle. I debated this extensively with myself: make it flat for less weight and easier carry, or make it rounded and more functional for long whittling sessions? I went with round function. The handle scales are open source, so if you think I got it wrong, fire away! Make your own. I went with micarta because I love how it looks after using it, plus it maintains its grippiness when it’s wet. There’s a red G10 underlay that accents nicely with green micarta— like an old Coleman stove. I love that stuff.
Here's a comparison of a brand new Lulu on the right and mine that I beat the tar out of in the Amazon. I love that sweet, sweet patina that comes with use:
The blade is a gentle drop point, 2.9” (74 mm) with a Scandi grind. I wanted to stay true to my intention: make a bushcraft camping knife, hence, the Scandi. I’ve learned a lot about Scandis on this project— they require a little more babying than a flat or hollow grind. In fact, I chipped out the first prototype and panicked. I’d put a TON of time into this project and the Scandi was crashing and burning. And in miraculous Magnacut! It was a super stressful day. I then started learning about microbevels. Dan Eastland of Dogwood Custom Knives was super helpful when we were in the Amazon jungle in teaching me about Scandi sharpening and maintenance. You see, a Scandi grind officially is a zero grind-- the edges disappear into nothingness. It slices beautifully. But it’s thin behind the edge and prone to chipping, particularly with 62 HRC Magnacut. The solution? A 17 degree microbevel on each side. This bevel still slices well, but it prevents chipping because there's more support behind the blade edge. We did a TON of internal testing with different microbevels, and we found the 17 degree worked the best. Problem solved. The Lulu ships with a microbevel.
I decided on a kydex sheath because of its versatility. The carry options are endless. It includes a simple belt loop, but it works brilliantly with Ulticlip and Tek-lok.
I also felt like a classic leather sheath for the Lulu would be a nice touch for fancy folks. My friends at Lazy 3 Leather in Southern Utah did amazing work on an aftermarket Lulu leather sheath. It's another USA made option that ain’t cheap.
Naming knives is hard. This one was supposed to be easy: just name it "Lander Fixed Blade" and move on. But then it turned out not to be a Lander. Wrong lines. Different feeling. Dang it. So I chewed on it for a week as we took our annual trip to Cooke City, Montana. Lakes. Sunrises. Adventures. Misadventures. Road signs with the name “Lulu Pass.” Easy. That pass is beautiful. It’s a gateway to a million adventures: mining, hiking, backpacking, hunting, fishing, motorcycling, horseback riding, peak bagging, mountain lake cold plunging, and the raw essence of America. It’s a place that I love dearly. Athena's grandfather was a miner there in his late teens. Her mother spent every summer there. It's a place where I've watched my family grow up. So, naming this knife "Lulu" felt like borrowing from an old friend. I snagged the name.
Turns out, Lulu is a great name. A “lulu” is something extraordinary or fantastic— a word with origins in the 1880s. Like dope. Sick. Lit. Bussin. Lulu. I also heard rumors that Lulu Pass may have been named after a local…eh… working woman. Cooke City was a hard core mining town, and there’s potential the miners named the Pass after their…er… friend. We tried to track down the official rumor on that one at the Cooke City Chamber of Commerce, but we couldn’t find a definitive answer. The mysterious ambiguity feels right.
USA or China?
Fun! Let's talk about it, starting with a recent 3-star customer review on a Lander Knife from Larry:
I've designed 8 knives over the last 4 years. Slow and steady. All of them are folding knives, and they're all made overseas in China. I love my friends in China. They're remarkable at their crafts. Along with excellent knife production skills, they work incredibly hard on the process side: communication, packaging, UPCs, follow up, everything. They are excellent at catching my mistakes. The collaborations I've done with WE, Civivi, QSP, and Kizer have been extremely good experiences. So, to be clear: the Lulu is NOT a chest pounding American-made knife that hates imported knives. Not at all. It's an experiment for me. It's a chance to try designing and making knives in the good 'ol Estados Unidos-- at home. It's an experiment in a making a knife over $200 in Magnacut steel-- a first for me. And frankly, that's hard for me to swallow. $229.99 feels like a lot of money. That's not Cheap Sucker territory; that's serious, hard-earned money. But I'm going to be really honest with you: I think this knife is worth it. I had my doubts, but after a week smashing this knife in the Amazon Jungle, I'm convinced it's worth the high price tag. Could I have made it cheaper in overseas? Absolutely. I know people. But that's a type of hard I've already done. This knife was about doing a new type of hard in America.
While we're talking about Made in USA, a quick note: I didn’t want to just make the knife in the USA. I wanted it end-to-end built here, including the packaging. I know of a few drum-beating USA-made companies that import their knife boxes from China. I’m of the opinion it’s disingenuous to poo-poo on overseas knives, then turn around and buy Chinese-made boxes for USA-made knives. Let me be clear: I have no issues with Chinese manufacturing. I have no issues with Chinese packaging. They're brilliant, and I do business there every day of the week. I do have an issue when USA-only-and-forever-drum-beating knife companies make their knife boxes (or other components!) in China. The incongruity is hard to swallow.
The Lulu knives and sheaths are made in Fremont, Michigan by White River Knife and Tool. The Lulu boxes are made in Woods Cross, Utah by Flexpak. The package inserts are printed in Price, Utah by Peczuh. The stickers are made in Longmont, Colorado by Sticker Giant. The UPC labels are made in Los Angeles by Apparel Star. I don’t have the same accountability as the U.S. government when it comes to USA-made (for instance, I don’t have notes on all of White River’s supply chain), but I pushed hard to make sure this knife was as USA-made as possible. The Lulu costs 5x what it would cost to make overseas. But this knife isn’t cost first. It’s an exercise in hard American manufacturing, end-to-end. There. I said it. Please excuse me while I stop throwing shade and go put my little soap box back in its cabinet… ;)
To wrap this up: I had huge doubts about this knife. New vendor. First fixed blade. First knife made in the USA. A lot of hard firsts for me on this one. Yet, hard firsts are how we humans learn. Initial struggle creates long-term competence. This was a hard project that made me grow. It was learning some CAD and understanding Scandi grinds and the delightful chaos of testing it in Colombia and Brazil. I'll write more about that trip soon, but know it was the most rigorous testing I've ever done on any knife I've designed. A full week of pounding and whittling in the Amazon jungle. And it held up beautifully.
An accidental Gopro shot with the Lulu. Seemed right to include, as I don't have other pictures of me sitting on that log whittling in my swimsuit for days, but that's what I did. So much whittling. I love it.
This knife was the stress of packaging and stickers and figuring out new vendors stateside. Growth is hard! And I love it. This Lulu project, along with a lifetime of camping trips, has taught me an important lesson: hard is my happy place.