Deep Dive: The Water Collection

Those who hunt also fish. This isn't a rule, of course, but the Venn diagram between hunters and anglers overlaps quite a bit. The success of our HUNT Series showed that there was a huge appetite for premium knives in the outdoors.

In 2020, as the COVID pandemic caused massive shifts in our operations and drove a surge in demand for outdoor products, we saw an opportunity to fill a space in the market that was completely untapped by creating a brand-new category in our lineup. Over the course of four years, as we shook things up with new designers, engineers, and executives bringing in fresh ideas and perspectives, we set a course for the Water Collection.

That same year, we launched the Meatcrafter®, a hybridization of a boning knife and a fillet knife that we’d been developing for several years. The Meatcrafter's blade took many iterations to get just the right amount of flex, work that would serve as something of a warmup for the The Fishcrafter™ fillet knives.

The 15500-04 Meatcrafter and its orange sheath on top of a camouflage-pattern jacket.
The 15500-04 Meatcrafter®. Photo courtesy Brandon Labine @photoprobrando.

 

Having joined Benchmade in May of 2020 as the Vice President of Marketing, Joe Prebich got a front row seat to the reception of the Meatcrafter®, saying, "It really started signaling two different things: one was this awesome opportunity for cutlery, but the second one is like, hey, when are you gonna make a fillet knife?" 

We'd been asked this question many times over the years. One-off products like our folding fillet knife had come and gone, but following the successful debut of the HUNT Series, followed by the Meatcrafter® and then our custom cutlery line, the time for half-measures was over. We wanted to go big.

 

Crucible Industries and Dr. Larrin Thomas of Knife Steel Nerds announced CPM-MagnaCut to the world in early 2021, and we had some of it in our test lab. When asked how MagnaCut steel entered the conversation at Benchmade, Design Engineering Manager Jason France says, "it happened to dovetail perfectly into Water." CPM-MagnaCut has quickly become the go-to knife steel in the industry, with rabid enthusiasm and near-outlandish hype driving manufacturers of every size and category to integrate it into their products... and the hype is actually warranted.

A coupon of Magnacut steel being tested in saltwater
A sample of CPM-MagnaCut is exposed to saltwater for corrosion testing.

 

"It's the only steel that gives you an adequate degree of corrosion resistance to perform in a saltwater environment while truly optimizing for the edge retention that you're able to get," says Jason. "And you hear this feedback from all the field testing we did like, 'holy crap, I did 50 or 60 salmon!' You know, guides out there for charters and stuff, just ripping through fish and never having to touch the blades up, and they're used to having to do that constantly."

While MagnaCut is insanely popular, heat treatment and hardness have been a source of controversy, so we did extensive testing in consultation with the manufacturer to develop a heat treatment spec that balanced each quality of MagnaCut to get exactly what was needed: sufficient toughness to flex without deforming; strength to survive hard use; edge retention surpassing the likes of LC200N, Vanax, or H2; and corrosion resistance equal or superior to the competition. Too hard, and toughness begins to degrade. Too soft, and the edge loses stability, with corrosion resistance varying in either direction.

Following several rounds of testing with various heat treatment methods and hardness levels, we found the Goldilocks-zone to be 60-62 HRC.

Testing the properties of MagnaCut steel at different hardness levels.

This chart demonstrates just a fraction of the testing done to find the perfect balance of toughness, corrosion resistance, and edge retention.

 

Into The Wild Below

We assembled a small group of the very large team involved in making the Water Collection a reality for a roundtable discussion to provide just a glimpse at the effort that went into this project. The following has been edited for clarity and length.

How did the final approval to create the Water line come about? How did we land on a “collection”?

JOE: So that process goes through a full analysis… What is the market opportunity? What do we believe? And every department from finance to product to operations to brand essentially created the “why”. And then we got an approval to say, "let's go make it," but make sure that we do something unique and make sure that it feels like Benchmade.

AMY EICHNER, CATEGORY MANAGER: Yeah, even before I was involved, you know, I looked back at documentation from then, and it was looked at from every aspect… lots of analysis of what fisherman are doing, no matter if you're catch-and-release all the way to if your harvesting… and then we took it, you know, farther on our field test and research side.

JOE: And we didn't want to launch one SKU and then launch another SKU down the line. We wanted to come to market with the opportunity to say, "This is the Water Collection."

AMY: We're not making (just) a fishing knife... it's for those that live on, near or recreate around water. We knew we needed better tools, and we knew that was a huge opportunity, and I think it's a point of differentiation. Most people say, “fishing.” We say, “water.”

The Water Collection laying on a cutting board. Image courtesy of GearJunkie.
The Benchmade Water Collection. Photo courtesy of GearJunkie.

 

Once the business was full steam ahead on the Water Collection, what was the first step we took?

JASON FRANCE, DESIGN ENGINEERING MANAGER: So, you know, we looked at sales data...and we brought things in and did a whole bunch of different testing. How are these edges performing? How much flex do you get out of these different blade shapes and profiles and sort of cross-sectional surfaces and all that stuff? And then basically we try to construct a frame for us to try to quantify some things that are tough to quantify... you can't just go to an engineer and go, 'you need to do this' without knowing what that really feels like. And that gives us a good jumping-off point to try to establish where we're gonna go and where we think we can exceed what's already out there.

AUSTIN NELSON, INDUSTRIAL DESIGNER II: Yeah, I think the first thing that I worked on at Benchmade was trying to come up with really grippy textures.

[LAUGHTER]

JASON: Well, and then that sprint project that we did, you remember that?

AUSTIN: Yep, yeah.

JASON: It was like, "Yo, Austin, you have, like, twenty-four hours to design up your first fillet knife prototype...”

PATRICK SCRANTON, INDUSTRIAL DESIGN MANAGER: "... and then have fun on your honeymoon!"

[MORE LAUGHS]

JASON: I don’t think it was really twenty-four hours…

AUSTIN: I was heading out the next week and I got started on Thursday and so it was like, “Do as much as you can to design a fillet knife before you leave.” So, I came up with a couple of different ideas, and then I think Jimmy took hold of that and CAD’d it up and and…

JASON: It was like nineteen days from when the assignment was given till we basically had workable prototypes in hand, and they were, like, PIM handles that were all 3D printed. They had an over-mold process that we actually did in house, like in Mark's garage, so he… basically you take the knife contour that you want and you create a mold... And then you are pumping it with resin until it fills all in there and then you leave it, let it sit, and then pop it out twenty-four hours later or whatever it is… and you get a hard plastic substrate with a soft rubber over-mold on it. And yeah, we did that insanely fast. That was pretty cool.

The handle of the 7" Fishcrafter™, featuring weather and odor-resistant Santoprene®, a rubber-like material that provides excellent grip and comfort.
The handle of the 7" Fishcrafter™, featuring weather and odor-resistant Santoprene®, a rubber-like material that provides excellent grip and comfort.

 

AUSTIN: We have the second version of that which was from when Patrick came onboard, because I think the design and the handle changed a little bit.

PATRICK: Yeah. We had a different blade shape and got a little more detailed in some of the actual surfacing of it. And I think it's kind of a bummer because one of the cooler things I think that we did on this project was working with a vendor to develop a new texture. That process and getting that texture built into a mold, you know, all of the grip testing that we did internally and none of that made it anywhere, you know. We know a lot more about it for the future if we do it again, but we learned a lot of cool stuff that sits on the shelf.

JASON: Yeah, we did the texture thing. It was nothing like what we started with, but we did put that into the folders.

A diagram of the Grivory handle of the Adira.
The Grivory handle of the Adira™, the larger of the two folding knives in the Water Collection.

 

Speaking of the folders, what was your first contribution to the Water Collection, Patrick?

PATRICK: Austin had put a bunch of work into some of the initial thought process behind the design work... we knew we wanted two or maybe three fillet knives, two fixed blades, two folders, but the reason why behind those knives, I didn't feel was well-vetted at the time. We wanted to hit the guys on boats, guides on the ocean. Did we want to work towards jetty fishermen, shore fisherman, lakes, rivers? Are we dealing with drift-boaters, fly fishermen? Then we broke down what felt important, like fillet knives, you can't launch your water line without fillet knives, and then what felt like areas of opportunity, which is where things like the heavy bait knife came from, the problem-solver that is the Undercurrent, versus something like the Intersect, which was really focused on that sort of deep, backcountry sort of fly fishing where you might not need it for fish… but there's all the other tasks that need to go along with that, and you need something small and agile and robust for that. The folders we chose specifically to anchor on a more hard-use folder as a companion to sort of the heavy-use fixed blades.

What were some of the major turning points that occurred throughout the process? Was there anything that shifted drastically as we got further along?

AUSTIN: I will say that the fillet knives changed a ton, but a lot of the sort of functional elements and the design language carried over into the current product. The blades didn’t really change... we were trying to keep things consistent from design to design and then those sort of gill-like grooves in the bottom of the handle trickled into the other products.

PATRICK: Those angular features and those ribs definitely play in all the knives, and they were all designed to go with the original Fishcrafter handle, so when we pivoted to the Meatcrafter handle that we have currently, it was a pretty big hustle-and-prey kind of a moment where it's like, “Okay, let's make this thing work.” But there was a cool opportunity to take one element from the Meatcrafter handle, the exposed lanyard loop, and we were able to sort of… bring a little bit more design language from the Intersect.

A fisherman holds the 9" Fishcrafter over ice, seen from a low angle with the knife in the foreground.
While the handles changed throughout development, the blades of the fillet knives, seen here in the 9" Fishcrafter™, were derived from work done on the Meatcrafter®, and did not change drastically throughout the process.

 

So, moving onto some of the other knives in the line, Patrick mentioned the Undercurrent briefly. That handle has some interesting geometry…

JASON: This might be the most intentional approach we've ever taken to the ergonomics of a handle…

PATRICK: … I would agree…

JASON: … and Patrick and Austin just being anal-retentive to a level you'll never even understand until you've had to try to model this…

[EVERYONE LAUGHS]

JASON: It shows up in a in a big way that's different from a lot of what we've done in the past.

PATRICK: Well, there are a lot of transitions in there and part lines and how those grooves translate around the bottom of the product… we went through a lot of rounds of discussion and just asking for tweaks and changes because we didn't like the way that that surface was resolving.

JASON: I feel like it's worth noting, too, some of these handles, like the Intersect and the Undercurrent, there was a lot of… even outside of these CAD models, like, Patrick putting Bondo on models and like scraping away until they felt just right, and then translating that back into 3D and really honing how the thing felt. But the amount of research, the back-and-forth, all the iterations that got these to where they are… we prototyped and prototyped and prototyped and tested, and we got them in a bunch of people's hands and our hands, and said, “no, no, it's not this…” The attention to detail on these is truly remarkable.

The Undercurrent is used to prep bait fish. The unique handle geometry can be observed with complex curves and a concave shape.
Prepping bait fish with the Undercurrent and it's unique handle geometry, which provides excellent control and superior grip during hard-use.

 

The design elements that carry through, in the handles especially, feel a little different from past Benchmade knives…

PATRICK: Well, Benchmade, within six months basically, swapped out its design staff, and so you're gonna find vastly different ways of thinking when there's no transition period. Austin wasn't afraid to draw this because he hadn't had fifteen years of experience at Benchmade doing Benchmade things the Benchmade way.

AUSTIN (sarcastically): So, I didn't know what a knife was…

[BELLY LAUGHS ALL AROUND]

I'm definitely putting that in the blog.

[LAUGHS]

JASON: This is more intentional, and this is a bit of a departure from what we've done in the past and that's not a bad thing, right? And for my team, where I've got guys ranging from two years here to twenty-five, it shakes things up, and the learning curve was steep in some ways of, you know, Patrick and Austin and my team figuring out ways to convey these things to each other, because you see this in 2D without any dimensionality, and it looks very, very different from every angle… So, it was like a million cross-section reviews to try to communicate like, “oh, no it needs to dip and go up and then come back down this way…"

PATRICK: It was one of those moments where we're like, “Okay, we can spend another month on this, or we can just stop now, and we are 99.9% of the way there. Let's just stop right now…” because it was getting out of hand and I think everyone was just, like, getting frustrated over the smallest details.

JASON: And it's good, I'm glad we did it. We learned a lot from doing it, but man, yeah, this is not easy stuff. And there was a reason for it…

PATRICK: I believe it was, “looks siiick!”

[LAUGHS ALL AROUND]

A diagram of the Undercurrent™ and it's sheath.
The Undercurrent™ and it's sheath.

 

Let’s talk about sheaths…

JASON: There's a story with the sheaths… 18040 (Undercurrent) and 18050 (Intersect) sheaths were a lot of work, a lot of iteration to get those to work the way we want them to.

PATRICK: That took some work because it would lock up, because you have to have enough clearance to push the button to clear the jimping and then pull it out like it was… I remember he went a couple rounds on that to get that cleaned up.

JASON: But then (the Intersect), you know, having a sheath that's gonna go into your pocket and developing a clip that'll grip onto your pocket, and finding a way to mount it. The clip actually goes on the inside of it. That's unique… and then figuring out the straps and how this all was gonna work, and there's multiple mounting positions, you can have it on your belt or in your pocket or whatever. There’s a lot that went into this as well.

PATRICK: I lost a lot of sleep on that one.

[LAUGHTER]

A diagram of the Intersect which calls out each feature of the knife and its sheath.
The Intersect™ and it's versatile sheath with multiple mounting points.

 

The reception to the Water Collection has been positive, and we’re certainly seeing lots of comments and requests for new things already. So, what’s next for the Water Collection?

PATRICK: Well, we’re getting people asking us for a river knife now…

AMY: Or a spearfishing knife…

JOE: Let’s make a trident!

AMY: Oh I love it!

JOE: We’ll make one gold trident.

AUSTIN: Love it.

AMY: Gold Class trident… Jason, get the team on it!

JASON: Already on it.

 

1 comment

Interesting “fly-on-the-wall” POV for this discussion. I have a mini-Adira that’s quickly become a fav as an anytime, any place, anything, any weather EDC. The blade profile, Magnacut, and grivory are a great combination. I have a distinct preference for grivory-like scales over metal, G10 or CF on a work knife because of its toughness and impact resistance. Good job BM. I may even break a long-standing tradition of mine and get a backup.

Dale Fuller

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