When Blade Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame© member Ron Lake devised the interframe design and gave the world of knives another standard of innovation and excellence, he continued to look for ways to improve the operation of a standard lockback mechanism. He was not satisfied with pushing a bar to release the lock, particularly with one hand occupied or involved in some type of activity that demanded his full attention.
The solution was fairly simple and came along in the early 1970s, just a few months after the historic debut of the interframe. Ron added a small steel tab at the end of the knife, offering the user a quicker and safer alternative to depressing a bar.
“The tab lock is really not a lock mechanism,” Lake explained. “It is just a tab on the end of a lockback that offers a mechanical advantage. If it isn’t there, I just have a bar to release the lock, and depressing that bar can be hard to do when the hands are soft, cold or wet. The tab gives you a larger surface to push on.”
Ron admits that the tab lock was something of an afterthought, trailing along behind the notion of the interframe. Sometimes the good idea can indeed be made better. As a young knifemaker, he continued to mull over the prospects for a better release.
“I had only been making knives for six years,” he laughed. “I didn’t even know another knifemaker and didn’t know what knives were supposed to look like. I came up with the interframe design and then thought about where I could put a release mechanism. I still make interframes and that’s about all I do make, and they are with the tab.”
While it may look like a simple endeavor, the fashioning of the tab lock is not for the knifemaker who wants to take a shortcut or go down the path of least resistance. Of course, the tab-lock style is not seen in great numbers among today’s knives, and Ron says there is a straightforward explanation for that. It just is not the easiest thing to do.
“I can make them now with less effort than it took back then,” he advised, “but first of all I have to machine a piece of metal that goes on the end. Then I have to silver solder it on, and it’s a rough piece of metal with everything large on it. Then I remove the silver solder so you can see a nice radius, machine the sides to the right dimension and radius the corners.
“From there, I hand sand the surfaces and polish them up. So, it takes several more hours of work than a standard knife, and about 15-to-20 percent of my time goes into that part of the knife. I also have to take the whole knife apart and put it together again two more times, which I don’t have to do on some other models. For a few years, A.G. Russell just thought I butted it up against the end of the lock and soldered it on, but that could get knocked off easily. Later, I explained the process to him, and I can tell you the tab is on there pretty tight, pressed on and silver soldered.”
Some years ago when Ron, along with Wayne Clay and Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Frank Centofante, co-wrote How To Make Folding Knives, he discussed the geometry of the lockback knife. He remembers visiting Sakai Cutlery in Seki City, Japan, and sitting in the company’s offices, which incidentally included a log cabin from Montana that had been dismantled and reconstructed. The men from Sakai had eight lockback knives laid out in the office, and the geometry between the pivot and the lock was different on each one.
“I asked them who had designed those knives,” Lake smiled, “and they said, ‘We did.’ I asked them why the geometry was different on every one of them, and they told me it was because the toolmaker had made them the way he wanted to do it. To my knowledge nobody had put the geometry of the lockback down on paper until I did. Innovation comes from one-man shops.”
That innovation carried over to the construction of the tab lock, which Ron more aptly describes as a “tab release.” The tab lock actually does lock like any other lockback. The secret to its operation is in the release.
Long-time friend and fellow knifemaking legend and Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Michael Walker says he agrees that the idea seems simple enough and makes a great impact on the user when it comes to ease of release. “I can say that the tab lock addresses a big problem with the lockback design by adding length, which in turn adds leverage,” he explained, “and the tabs let you unlock without the problem of pushing on a narrow piece of metal. It also eliminates the cutout [in the handle spine], which could restrict use for someone with larger hands. It’s much more functional than the traditional construction, hence he was awarded a patent.”
Lake says he believes his patent was awarded about 1973 and expired around 1994. It not only included the tab, but also extended to the interframe and the bushing inside the handle that spaced the blade away from the frame. Indeed, the tab was part of a larger patent and an afterthought that developed into a novel approach when his inventive mind pondered the question of an efficient and effective release.
“I decided that having the tab at the back of the knife would have a mechanical advantage,” Ron reasoned. “You can close it not only with the thumb but anything else that could be used to press the release. It doesn’t make any difference how long the lever is. It could be in the middle of the handle with the tab on it.”
As for the patent, Ron says he doesn’t worry too much about it. “Centofante put [the tab lock] on his knives, and we were friends,” he remembered. “Some other folks have used it, too. Centofante put his tab on one side of the lock, and the patent specified at the end of the lock lever.” Along with Clay’s lockback, Lake’s and Centofante’s versions of the tab lock both appear on the cover of How To Make Folding Knives.
Over time, Ron says the patent has become even less meaningful to him. The drawings or blueprints are long forgotten—probably shoved into a drawer somewhere in his shop. The concept of trade dress is enough for him. A form of intellectual property, trade dress refers to the look or characteristics of an artist’s work that provide the work’s instant recognition to the consumer.
“After you do something for so long, it does establish trade dress,” Lake commented. “For example, if you saw a lockback lying on a table with a tab on it, would you know who made it? Yes, you would know that knife is mine. That is trade dress.”
Of course, the tab lock made an impression 40 years ago when a young Ron Lake showed it off to a who’s who from the golden age of custom knifemaking. Among those present when the tab lock debuted were Corbet Sigman, Chubby Hueske, Cutlery Hall-Of-Famers Frank Centofante, A.G. Russell, B.R. Hughes and Bob Loveless, and a number of others. Since then, the tab lock has been a quiet trademark of Lake’s knifemaking skill, standing the test of time.—By Mike Haskew
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Blade Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame© member Ron Lake and one of his tab-lock interframe folders in a stag handle and leaf-and-hands engraving—some in gold—on the blade bolsters and even the tab itself by Barry Lee Hands. (SharpByCoop.com photo)