Three blades with an Eastern design flair are zesty cutters
For many decades Asian knives, tools and swords languished in the cutlery industry, remembered most for blades brought back by U.S. service personnel who fought in the Pacific during World War II. Times have certainly changed, thanks in no small part to a highly accomplished custom knifemaker named Bob Lum.
Of Asian descent, Lum introduced the custom knife world to his “American” version of the Japanese tanto and leaf-shaped blades circa 1980. Through the balance of the ’80s, and later in the ’90s, Lum’s tanto design was rabidly embraced by a budding modern tactical knife crowd. The tanto has been a mainstay ever since. Other Asian blade styles, such as the bolo and kukri, have been embraced as well. My team and I look at three modern takes on the “Asian Equation” here and put these intriguing cutters through the paces.
CHAMP CHOPPER: Spyderco Lum Darn Dao
Designed by Lum before he passed away way too early in 2007, the Spyderco Lum Darn Dao is a full-tang Chinese dao-style knife. Overall length: 16.27 inches. The 10.63-inch blade is CPM 154 stainless steel with a flared tip and a swedge grind terminating at the clip on the spine. The 5.64-inch handle has a flared base and the black G-10 scales are ample, fully sculpted and highly polished. A handcrafted dark brown leather sheath with a thumb-break retention loop comes standard. Weight (minus the sheath): 17.89 ounces. MSRP: $649.95. This is a limited edition of one production run only.
The first thing we noticed about the Lum Darn Dao is that it’s not as cumbersome as it initially looks, and then we realized it’s just shy of 18 ounces, which is not that unwieldy as large knives go. The handle is an exercise in comfort—well sculpted all the way around.
One inch seemed to be the Darn Dao’s magic number. Employing a basic hammer grip, we used the blade to cut through 1-inch sisal rope like it was butter. When we challenged it on an old phone book (remember those?) with diagonal full-force chops, it repeatedly sunk in an inch deep. For long-term use we’d opt for a rougher finish or texture on the G-10 grip, but all in all the Darn Dao chopped like a champ.
Specs: SPYDERCO LUM DARN DAO
Blade length: 10.63 inches
Blade steel: CPM 154 stainless
Handle length: 5.64 inches
Handle material: Sculpted G-10
Sheath: Leather belt carry
Weight: 17.89 ounces
Overall length: 16.27 inches
Country of origin: Taiwan
SHORT, WIDE HYBRID: SOG’s Kiku XR Blackout
SOG’s Kiku XR Blackout is a mid-size folder 7.375 inches open and 4.3 inches closed. Designed by custom knifemaker Kiku Matsuda of Japan, the 3-inch black-coated blade of CTS-XHP stainless steel is a hybrid of the tanto style with some interesting twists. The main grind is recurved and there is a swedge grind on the spine that ends in a harpoon dip. The blade opens via a kidney-shaped hole in the blade or by an optional gimped flipper. The black handle has sculpted G-10 scales over black stainless steel liners, and SOG’s XR pull-down slide release unlocks the blade. On the rear is a blade-tip-up pocket clip. Weight: 5.19 ounces. MSRP: $189.95.
The Kiku XR Blackout’s blade is shorter and wider than the traditional tanto pattern. We tested it first on 1.5-inch-wide harness leather, executing straight cuts and pull-throughs. The modified edge cut very well, though we almost ran out of blade while pulling upward through the leather strip.
Rope was much easier. The recurve of the blade trapped the rope, and the secondary grind from the dividing line—or yokoke—to the tip finished the job. It should be noted not all tantos have a yokoke; some simply sweep through upward to the tip. The cuts on 3/8-inch rappelling rope were clean as a whistle, while the edge tended to shred thicker 1-inch sisal. The handle was plenty comfortable and added to our cutting pleasure.
SPECS: SOG KIKU XR BLACKOUT
Blade length: 3 inches
Blade steel: CTS XHP stainless
Blade type: Hybrid American tanto
Handle material: Sculpted G-10
Special features: Multiple blade grinds
Carry: Pocket clip, blade tip upWeight: 5.19 ounces
Closed length: 4.375 inches
Country of origin: Taiwan
2-HAND HOSS: The TOPS CUMA Kage
The TOPS CUMA Kage is a tour de force by martial arts guru Sijo Wayson Johnny Tsai. Overall length: 23.75 inches. The 15.5-inch blade of 1095 high carbon steel sports TOPS’ Black Traction Coating. The lengthy handle is 8.25 inches with Micarta scales sized for two-handed delivery. The blade is a hybrid straight sword pattern blended with 7 inches of kukri bulge at the tip to give it a bit of utility to go with its, ahem, badassery. It includes a full-length black Kydex sheath with a dangler/attachment ring. Weight: 31.5 ounces. MSRP: $360.
To test the CUMA Kage for its utility billing, we took it outside for brush-clearing duty. We’ve always admired the kukri and have cleared an acre or two over the years with one, so this long send-up of the chopper intrigued me. We found out quickly we could use the CUMA Kage with one hand or two, which gives it a big leg up on its smaller cousin. The Micarta handle is well filled out and plenty grippy. One-handed we were able to easily whack through half-inch-thick green hardwood stalks and branches. Two-handed we sliced through stalks three-quarter of an inch with ease, and 1 inch as long as we had clearance to pull back for a full stroke. Though not the CUMA Kage’s original intent, it does have formidable utility.
Specs: TOPS CUMA KAGE
Blade length: 15.5 inches
Blade material: 1095 carbon steel
Blade finish: Black Traction Coating
Handle length: 8.25 inches
Handle material: Micarta
Special features: Kukri blade tip
Sheath: Kydex w/leather dangler
Weight: 31.5 ounces
Overall length: 23.75 inches
Country of origin: USA
After testing the blades on a variety of fare, just for fun we took to the backyard to let them each have a go at a cantaloupe. Leading off with a reverse grip on the SOG Kiku XR, we stabbed the forlorn melon to the hilt. As stubby a version of the tanto as the Kiku XR’s blade may be, the cantaloupe’s pithy skin gave into the knife’s wishes quite easily.
Next up the TOPS CUMA Kage tried the task of halving the cantaloupe in one fell swoop, which we captured in burst mode on my neighbor’s IPhone. Mission accomplished. Finally, we used the Lum Darn Dao to “prepare the meal” by using the blade in quick, rapid-fire chops. The sword’s deep V-grind—not unlike that of a chef’s knife—performed admirably.
BEASTS of the EAST
While we often think of knives and swords of an Asian design in the context of combat and martial arts, it’s easy to forget that many Eastern blades were used for everyday utility as well. The tanto was an everyday carry by the Samurai class in Japan, and men and women alike carried a smaller version, the kaiken, aka kwaiken. The chisel grind was not typical on tantos as we see on some of them today, but on knives for culinary purposes. The Japanese kiridashi, which is rapidly gaining a toehold in the cutlery world, was also chisel ground and used for wood carving and marking.
The wicked Indian/Nepalese Kukri was employed in combat, but is primarily a tool for clearing land and is used widely for bush whacking today. Even the Indonesian karambit was considered a working knife by its users. If nothing else, the distinctiveness of Asian cutlery design has added richly to our knowledge base of cutlery and given us a plethora of modern-day knives to explore.