Sean McWilliams has made a career doing what many, including the American Bladesmith Society and others, do not recommend doing – forging stainless steel. Knifemaking legend Wayne Goddard says, “It isn’t worth the hassle”. Stainless has a very narrow temperature for forging. Too cool, and you develop cracks when you hammer it, too hot and you risk burning the carbon out of the steel. You can read more about it in this old BLADE Magazine article (Clicking here will download a .pdf: BladeMagJune98002 – this is pre-interweb stuff)
This didn’t deter Sean McWilliams who firmly believes that a properly-made forged-stainless blade is superior to one made with the stock-removal process. He talks about it some in his “5 from the Grinder” interview. At the bottom of this review I will include 3 single-page .pdf files of a 1988 Knives Illustrated article by Sean. In it he discusses the underlying metal structure and how to deal with the challenges of forging stainless steel.
He sent me the Model 1 quite a while ago, so I have had many months to put this blade through its paces. It has lived on the bandoleer strap of my fishing sling-pack for the entire 2017 guiding season – even if I had another test-knife on my belt. It has held up incredibly well. I only needed to sharpen it once, after it broke records in our cardboard-slicing test. There might be something to this forged-stainless thing after all.
Stats: (as measured by author)
- Overall Length: 8 1/8″
- Blade Length: 4 1/4″
- Usable Blade Length: 3 7/8″
- Maximum blade thickness: 1/8″
- Maximum Handle Thickness: 11/16″
- Handle Material: Micarta
- Steel: CPM S35VN (forged)
- Grind: 90% full (slight convex) with swedge.
- Sheath: Cordura with plastic liner
- MSRP: $390
I asked Sean about the grind for clarification on the grind because I was sure I was picking up a slight convex. Here is his response:
There’s a slight convexity for about 1/8″ from the edge, produced by slack belt grinding the edge before the finishing steps. Hold the blade horizontal, and a straight edge on the bevel, sight down the blade and you’ll be able to see the edge curving down from the straight edge. This the “Moran” edge.
Construction and Ergonomics:
The Sean McWilliams Model 1 looks to be delicate at first glance. However, its medium-sized blade is deceptively robust, measuring a respectable 1/8″ at the spine. The grind is mostly flat with maybe just a hint of convex. There is a significant choil, much larger than is necessary for sharpening, yet too small to be a true finger-choil. If I had my druthers, I would like to see the choil ground back further into the ricasso to allow for full finger placement. The front edge of the micarta handle scales is left at a pretty sharp edge as well. It could stand to be eased a touch. Otherwise, the “mustache” shaped handle is quite comfortable overall, and has developed a nice use patina as I have carried it over the summer. It is just barely large enough for my medium sized hand, so this would not be a great knife for use with gloves, and might be a bit small for those with bear-paws.There is no jimping, but I was able to maintain a firm grip in full grasp, thumb on spine, and index finger on spine – even when the knife was wet and coated in fish-slime. Sheath: The Sean McWilliams Model 1 comes with a very unique sheath. It is well constructed, but it does not have positive retention. There is a velcro flap that closes over the top of the sheath. The sheath comes with a tether, which while long enough to allow for unrestricted use, was a pain to stuff back inside the sheath to stay out of the way.
This tether is probably not necessary for belt use on dry land. The velcro flap is sufficient when combined with gravity to not worry about it falling out. However, Sean uses the Model 1 as his fishing knife, and unless one has absolute confidence in their sheath’s retention, a tether is advisable.
As I was mounting the Model 1 on the bandoleer strap of my sling pack, there were times when it is swung to an inverted posture as I access the bag. I did not want to lose the knife, but I didn’t like the fixed tether. I tried using a retractable fishing zinger but it broke.I finally settled on a large loop through the tubular pin on the handle, which could be snapped into a small carabiner I attached to the sheath.
The cordura itself is well constructed, but the plastic liner could slide out with use. It did serve to adequately protect the sheath from damage however.I would love to try a kydex sheath with good positive retention with the Model 1. If I were not concerned with losing the knife, I would be much happier with carrying it. It is such a light and non-obtrusive blade to carry, being able to forget about it would make carrying it a joy.
TTAK Testing Protocol:I am going to report this a little differently, because I was sending pictures and corresponding with Sean over twitter as I was carrying out the test. Sean swears by the edge-holding ability of a properly forged stainless knife, and while I cannot testify to the potential metallurgical advantages, from a practical point of view, the Model 1 held its edge through a record amount of cardboard.
The night I put the Sean McWilliams Model 1 through the TTAK Cardboard test, I texted Sean when I reached 65′ to give him an update. I figured I probably would take the knife out to 125 linear feet before calling off the test. Most knives experience a significant drop off in performance at that point. I consider 100′ to be a solid result for any knife.So I was a little surprised when at 130′ the knife was still zipping through cardboard, and could even still slice newsprint.
The knife continued to perform without significant drop off in performance up to 200′. At this point, even though my hand was getting tired, I wanted to see how far I could push it.
225′ and I was finally noticing diminishing performance. It was beginning to tear the cardboard, but it still could slice newsprint with careful technique.I finally called the test at 250 linear feet of cross-cut cardboard, but the knife’s edge was still sharp enough to not completely mangle a cherry tomato. For comparison, here is cherry tomato with a properly sharp Model 1:
I described rope cutting in my First Impression review. In short, the Model 1 exceeded my expectations for a 4″ plain-edged blade.Culinary:
Even after the cardboard, the Sean McWilliams Model 1 could passably slice a tomato. Fully sharp, the knife is a very solid kitchen tool. It is shaped like a paring knife, though the spine is considerably thicker than one you’d find in a block. It is just thin enough to slice, not wedge and apple, and the results in onion, pepper, and tomato were great when I used the knife for a batch of salsa.
Not beautiful, restaurant-quality dicing, but I was going for speed not looks. I was dicing 8 cups of tomatoes for a batch of salsa. Blame the operator, not the tool for the “rustic” dicing of the tomatoes.
A pineapple was no problem. the skin sliced away easily and the flesh cubed neatly.
The Sean McWilliams Model 1 makes a classy and effective steak knife.
Wood Processing:The Sean McWilliams Model 1 is too small and light to be a chopper, but yields perfectly acceptable results with proper batoning technique. My minimum requirement for a knife I will carry into the Smoky Mountain backcountry is that it is capable of cutting a handful of 2″ staves to make a shelter or travois. Since I can’t use the Model 1 as a chopper, I need to “baton-chop” around the outside of the sapling. I also used the baton to rough out the point of a tent stake – bracing the top of the stake against my stomach. The Model 1 sliced through twigs up to 3/4″ cleanly in a single pass.
As I mentioned, the Model 1 is Sean’s go-to fishing knife in Colorado. Having guided out west on the Snake River, I can understand how this is the case. Unlike in the Smokies, a wade fisherman does not need to clear a limb from a hole on the larger western rivers. If one is in a drift boat, a folding saw or ax of some sort is easily carried.
Because the Model 1 could start a fire and cut staves, it met my absolute requirement for a guide knife and it was a pleasure to use slicing rolls and tomatoes at lunch. It did a great job of slicing branches to free up flies. I just prefer something with more chopping “chops” in a Smoky Mountain guide knife.
The Model 1 did do an excellent job gutting a trout. The razor-sharp blade zipped through the belly, and the micarta handle remained grippy even when covered with fish slime.
Sean McWilliams Model 1: Conclusions
Ratings (out of 5 stars):
I love the look of this knife. The combination of the bead-blasted finish and micarta is elegant and classy. One thing about the stainless steel is that the knife is able to maintain this finish since corrosion is not an issue. I use the example of my Kim Breed Model 15 which came with a bead blasted finish. Over time the development of patina, and the need to buff out a but of surface rust has significantly altered the aesthetic. I still love it and cherish the use-developed patina, however it has a fundamentally different look than the knife that I bought.
The only patina on the Sean McWilliams Model 1 is on the micarta scales – which has given a bit of life to the look of the knife. Otherwise it looks as new as when Sean sent it to me.
I am still searching for that elusive 5-star blade. The McWilliams comes close. In a sense it is unfair because the knife is not intended for use as a chopper, but I wish it were even a little better at it. A Kephart for example is not a large or heavy blade, but I can use it to hack away at the point of a tent stake. I can’t do this with a Model 1.
That said, this blade has held an edge every bit as well as the Elmax and CPM CruWear knives I have tested. It is in an elite league in terms of edge-holding ability.
The geometry is excellent in a wide variety of wood and food preparation tasks.
There is nothing that this knife can’t handle that should be expected of a knife its size and weight.
I can’t say for sure without destructive testing whether it is superior to a non-forged CPM S35VN blade in terms of strength. However, the Model 1 stayed every bit as sharp as I could have wished for. I never needed to sharpen it before I attacked the edge with the cardboard.
As I mentioned in the Aesthetics section, the stainless steel adds to the overall durability rating. Corrosion just simply wasn’t a factor, even when bringing the knife home in a wet sheath.
Very solid feel in what is otherwise a smallish handle. The knife just felt natural in a wide variety of grips and uses and I never developed any hot spots throughout testing.
There is not much more that I can say about the Sean McWilliams Model 1 that I haven’t covered in the previous 2000 words. I like this knife a lot. I have, over the past year, gotten to know Mr. McWilliams, and I like him a lot as well. We share the same passion for “standing in a river, waving a stick”, as John Gierach would say.
In the interest of disclosure, Sean let me know that he was gifting me the knife. I appreciate it in the tangible sense but more for what it represents. It serves as a connection between two knife lovers and fishermen, who have never actually met, in two different regions of water, at different stages of our lives. I hope that I have adequately expressed the sentiment which I am attempting to convey.
Lest my review be consequentially viewed as biased, I refer you to Nick Leghorn’s review of the Sean McWilliams Ranger-4 CTX where Nick and I align on the more subjective details of the two knives. I also tried to maintain a narrative account of the cardboard test, as I was actually updating Sean in real-time. I was excited to share because I was excited with the results. And this review has the pictures to prove it (as we do with all of our testing).
So I will close by saying that while I cannot say with absolute certainty that forging stainless results in a superior knife, I can say that in the hands of one dedicated to the craft like Sean McWilliams, it produces an indisputably superlative one.
You can see more of Sean’s work at his website: www.seanmcwilliamsforge.com
As mentioned, here are the .pdfs of the Knives Illustrated article that Sean wrote in the 1988. They have been virus scanned, but be aware that clicking on them will download them to your computer.